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Crystal loved her best friend Bone, but sometimes she wished Bone was just a little bit deader.
Like right now, when Bone was trying to ride shotgun on a pesky cash register. And that hunky guy with the stack of DVD’s was staring at her. And that gooey black hole in the wall was full of Lurken, Spooge, and Underlings.
“Mash three,” Bone whispered.
“Do what?” Crystal Aldridge had been working at the Tan Banana & Movie Emporium for six weeks, but she was still struggling to master the register. The problem was the sticky keys on the computer terminal.
But she didn’t want to think about why the keys were sticky. Fatback Bob, who owned the combo video rental and tanning salon, liked to eat fried chicken during his shifts, and the smudges on the numeric keypad were most likely due to fryer oil.
“Mash three,” Bone said, soft and girlish and a little impatient for someone who had forever.
“Three it is,” Crystal said, poking the stubborn key.
“Who are you talking to?” said the hunk on the other side of the counter.
“Nobody,” she answered. Which was almost true.
The register sprang open, releasing the inky, sweaty smell of loose bills. She took the membership card from the customer and swiped it, noting his name.
Dempsey Van Heusen. Ain’t from around here, are you?
Three-name people were few and far between in the North Carolina mountain town of Parson’s Ford, unless they were Billy Bob, Bobby Wayne, or Fatback Bob. There was probably even a Bacon Bob around somewhere. But “Dempsey Van Heusen” sounded exotic, like an Internet clothes company or a yacht.
“You got a late fee.” Crystal gave Dempsey a glance and a quick smile. She’d checked him out plenty in the rounded security mirrors that adorned each corner of the store, but the mirrors had distorted him into an Oompah Loompah.
Up close, though, he was meat candy, lean and dark, his hair as thick as if it had been dipped in cooling asphalt. His black leather jacket was scuffed at the elbows, and he had a few chains dangling from the pockets. Robert Pattinson eyebrows with Brad Pitt lips. A little older than her, maybe 18.
The only flaw in his man-crushness was the tufts of hair that sprang from each nostril.
Don’t they have tweezers where you’re from?
“How much?” he asked.
“Seven-fifty,” she said. “That was for ‘The Church That Bled’ and ‘The Screaming.’”
“Well, they were worth it.” Dempsey pushed a bill across the counter.
“Chain Boy likes his cheese,” Bone whispered, even though Dempsey—or any other living person—couldn’t hear her.
“Stuff it,” Crystal said, making change.
“You keep talking to yourself.” Dempsey scratched at his ear. He wore a large silver ring on his middle finger that bore a grinning skull’s face. It might as well have been singing “Bad Boy.”
“Sorry. It’s just the voices in my head.”
“I have those, too,” Dempsey said, crushing the change into his jeans pocket without counting it. “With me, though, people think I’m psycho. Because of my movies.”
“What’s so psycho about your movies?” she asked. She hadn’t paid attention when she’d scanned them, and she couldn’t read the upside-down titles. However, the lettering was in a garish red font and the art dark and brooding, with imagery that suggested graveyards and dead trees and probably vampire sex.
“I’m a horror freak. Mom’s preacher said I’m dancing with the devil.”
A chuckle arose from somewhere, or it could have been the October draft skirling under the front door. Crystal threw a scowl beside her and picked up one of the DVD’s.
“‘The Kiss of the Undead,’” she said, noting the subliminal image of a vampire’s glistening incisors protruding over a collagen-swollen lower lip. The actors’ names were set in smaller print over the title. Didn’t ring any bells.
“A black comedy that pumps a welcome transfusion into the bloodsucker oeuvre,” Dempsey said, as if reading the marketing material.
People in Parson’s Ford didn’t use words like oeuvre. Even though the town boasted a community college, the use of foreign words was limited to Tres Amigos Beans & Bowling, the local Mexican restaurant and bowling alley. Maybe there was more to Dempsey than a black leather jacket and what Fatback Bob called a “frequent flyer card,” the punch-out discount coupon that offered a free rental with every ten.
“You like scary movies?” she said, sounding lame even to herself. Some hottie hits you with a word like oeuvre, you wanted to come back with milieu or something. But the only French she could think of at the moment was “fries.”
“Yeah,” Dempsey said. “Monsters, ghosts, serial killers, splat pack, torture porn, you name it. The Asians are cranking out some great stuff, too.”
Fatback Bob had built a tower of horror movies near the front of the store, since Halloween was less than a week away. Dempsey pointed at it and said, “Seen most of these.”
A mousy-haired old woman who might have been a school teacher playing hooky was the only other customer. Crystal had nicknamed her “Madame Fingers” because of her shoplifting habit. Madame Fingers looked up from her browsing of the comedy films and flared her nostrils as if smelling dog crap or the latest Adam Sandler vehicle.
“I don’t watch much horror,” Crystal said. An invisible elbow dug into her ribs.
Talk about your horror. Dead friends sure can be annoying.
Dempsey took his rentals from her. “That’s cool,” he said, with so much cool he oozed disdain. “What do you watch?”
Snort. “Chick flicks.”
“I watch the classics, too.”
“Shirley Temple doesn’t count.”
“I’ve heard of what’s-his-name. You know, the ‘Citizen Kane’ guy.”
“Touché.” He tapped the vampire art on the DVD cover. “I make these.”
“Movies. I’m an auteur.”
“Wow.” She felt stupid.
“A director. And I write my own scripts. Package deal.”
The chuckle came again, and Crystal just knew what Bone was thinking: Heh, heh, he said “package.”
“Cool beans and ice rice.” Crystal was annoyed by her need to impress Dempsey. After all, she and Pettigrew had been dating for a couple of years, and he had been there for her through the funeral, the school drop-out, and the long bout of depression.
But maybe this wasn’t about Dempsey. After all, she had her own personal audience, an invisible friend with a ringside seat to her foibles, flirts, farts, and flat-on-her-buns falls from grace.
“I do horror,” he said. “I’ll bring you one in and let you check it out.”
“I can’t wait.” Her lips felt like cotton candy.
He smirked. “If you can handle it.”
“What a jerk,” said the dead girl beside them, but Dempsey couldn’t hear. Only Crystal.
Lucky me. I wish she’d go solid, so Dempsey can see I’m the better-looking one.
He scraped the movies off the counter and headed for the exit, the silver chains on his jacket jingling with a mixture of menace and mirth.
He was halfway to the front door when the Orifice opened wider. It appeared first as a black dot of jelly on the wall beneath a Warner Brothers poster. Spreading outward, it soon covered an area the size of a basketball. Gurgling, belching noises issued from inside. It grew deeper and wider, glistening with oily dew.
Dempsey crinkled his nose and walked past the yawning cavern. Inside it, green slime dripped from stalactites that hung like demon teeth. The cavern seemed to breathe, exhaling a putrid wind that rivaled Fatback Bob’s chili farts. A shadowy form stirred in the depths, swaying like a sea anemone.
“Want popcorn with that?” she called after Dempsey, pimping Fatback Bob’s five-gallon bags of stale, buttery popcorn that were stacked like sandbags by the counter, blocking out the rows of Goobers, Good-n-Plenty, and licorice twists.
Dempsey gave one last backward glance at Crystal, grinning as if he’d won over another fan. “I like my horror raw.”
Then he shoved open the front door and escaped into the sunlight.
“Loser,” Bone said, flickering beside Crystal. It wasn’t a full materialization, more like a game of existential peek-a-boo probably designed to annoy Crystal and remind her that Tweeners could do things that Breathers could only dream about.
Crystal was appropriately annoyed. “Don’t do that.”
“That’s my job. You were giving him the eye and I’m supposed to keep an eye on you.”
“No, I meant don’t just go solid while other people are around.” Crystal checked the store’s lone customer. Madame Fingers was muttering and fidgeting with her oversize handbag, too obsessed with her shoplifting to notice a little thing like a ghost.
“Hey, we’re cool. She can’t see me.”
“Good, because your hair’s a wreck.”
“Wreck” was a bad choice of words, since it had been a UPS truck that had killed Bone, but it fit because her hair hung in oily red tangles. She was a permanent sixteen, pale freckled skin with rosy cheeks, figure filling out but still carrying a little baby fat. As usual, she wore the dress she’d once said she’d never be caught dead in, a chambray ruffle knit with a shoulder-hugging lace top.
“And so’s your outfit,” Crystal couldn’t resist adding.
“Family,” Bone said. “They’ll just bury you any old way.”
Crystal pointed to the wall. “Umm. Did that follow you here?”
“Haven’t you noticed?”
“It’s how I get here.”
“I know, but it’s always on the wall in my room, where I can keep an eye on it. Now it’s showing up here.”
“Yeah, but who cares? It’s just some hole thingy, a little tunnel to Darkmeet and back.”
“If Fatback Bob finds out, I’m toast. And I need this job.”
“You’re just here to meet hunks. I saw you checking out Chain Boy.”
“I’m happy with Pettigrew.”
“Pettigrew’s okay if you like that sort of thing.”
“Hey. He’s loyal, and tall, and kind of cute.”
“He drives a tow truck. You’re going to grow old in Parson’s Ford trying to beat a lump of coal into a diamond.”
“At least I get to grow old.” The cheap shot gave Crystal a rush, but it quickly faded to guilt when Bone gave a sad, wistful smile.
“You get old, but I get to be young forever,” Bone said, fading just for spite.
“Come back here.”
Crystal cast a glance at Madame Fingers, who appeared to slide a DVD into her purse. If Fatback Bob weren’t such a smelly old pervert, Crystal might care a little more about inventory control.
Bone knocked over a few DVD’s in the Foreign Films, causing the old lady to jerk erect and sniff the air like a rodent checking for danger. Bone drifted back to the counter and went solid again.
“How do I close that hole?” Crystal asked her.
“Like, how would I know? Ask your Momma.”
“And get the lecture? About how all the other Aldridges could cast closing spells by the time they were twelve?”
“Either that, or just ignore it. Works for me.”
“Something’s moving in there.”
The thing that looked like a swollen tonsil throbbed in the recessed shadows of the Orifice. Crystal had never seen anything move in the Orifice on her bedroom wall, except Bone plopping through like an overgrown fetus with an attitude, so maybe this one was different. And if there were two gateways to Darkmeet, that meant twice as much trouble on the way.
“That’s a Lurken, the afterlife’s version of a peeping tom,” Bone said. “They just like to watch.”
“Lurken? Should I recommend a movie?”
“Maybe you can give it one of Dempsey’s.”
“Drop the Dempsey stuff already.”
“He speaks French.”
“I don’t do subtitles.”
Crystal cast a sideways glance at the Lurken, which now appeared to be about six feet away from the mouth of the Orifice, though distances were difficult to judge, what with all the undulating stalactites and pulsating walls. Splotchy, wet noises spilled forth and a few trickles of dark goo made trails down the wall.
“Get a load of this,” Bone said, going solid by the door.
“Get over here,” Crystal said. “You’re supposed to stay close, remember?”
“What, are we joined at the hip now?”
“As soon as I get my magic down, you’re dead meat.”
“I’m not holding my breath.”
The Lurken let loose with a rattling belch, though that may have been the Orifice. Crystal wasn’t sure about the rules of Darkmeet, and Bone was either just as ignorant or else reluctant to share. Every time Crystal asked her dead best friend about the other side, Bone developed a convenient case of laryngitis and amnesia.
Madame Fingers, who was now over at the Disney section ripping off Mickey, said, “Excuse you,” in that accusatory tone reserved for old bags who lived alone with a dozen cats.
“Excuse me what?” Crystal said.
The Lurken expelled another oily burp. Crystal, who smiled through the whole thing, said, “Can I help you find anything?”
“I changed my mind,” the old woman said, shouldering her handbag, which appeared to be bulging with hot merchandise. She walked past the counter, nose tilted indignantly in the air. “I think I’ll try someplace where the clerks mind their manners.”
“Want me to trip her?” Bone asked.
The woman stopped and squinted at a spot beside the door, where the glass was grimed with handprints. Maybe she’d heard a faint whisper or echo. Bone sometimes had that effect on people.
“Special this week,” Crystal called out. “Steal three and get one free.”
“Hmmph,” the old woman said.
“Come back and see us,” Crystal said, waiting for the electronic alarm to buzz as the woman left. Two panels by the door should have detected the microchips in the DVD’s. Paying customers had their chips demagnetized. Thieves got the old “woop woop woop.”
But she passed right between the panels with barely a stir.
“She’s getting away,” Bone said. “You can’t just let her walk out.”
“I don’t stick my neck out for nobody,” Crystal said.
The woman turned, one hand on the door. Technically, if she stepped outside the store, she was a lawbreaker. “It’s not polite to mutter,” she said.
Crystal wasn’t sure of the next sequence of the events. Perhaps they occurred simultaneously, or in two worlds at once.
Parson’s Ford was weird that way.
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