Clayton, New York
It was the third of September, one of those cloudless, perfect days nestled between the heat of summer and the approaching winter chill. The sky was so blue that Sweeney, getting out of her car in the supermarket parking lot, went stock-still and gawked upward at that amazing blue bowl as if she had never seen sky before. She hadn’t—not like this.
If there was one thing in life she knew, it was colors, and she had never before seen that particular shade of blue. It was incredible, deeper and darker, richer than any sky had the right to be. Just for today, this perfect day, the haze of atmosphere between heaven and earth had thinned, and she stood closer to the edge of the universe than she ever had before, so close that she felt almost as if she might be sucked into that blue, right away from earth.
Could she reproduce it? Mentally she mixed the pigments, automatically discarding some as her internal eye judged the results. No, that touch of white would make the shade too babyish. This wasn’t a wimpy blue—it was the most kick-ass blue she had ever seen. This was pure and dramatic, pulling her in and overwhelming her with the richness of its beauty. She stood with her face upturned, errand forgotten, and felt exalted by color, filled to overflowing, her heart swollen and aching with ecstasy.
When she finally remembered to drag her gaze back to earth, her eyes were dazzled. She saw a flash of . . . something, and though she hadn’t been looking at the sun, she thought the sky must be brighter than she’d thought, because her eyes needed to adjust. She blinked, then squinted. It was something solid, and yet not quite. ... It was a child, oddly two-dimensional.
She looked at the child, blinked, then looked again. Shock hit her like a sledgehammer, congealing her blood, numbing her fingertips.
The child was dead. She had attended his funeral a month before. But on this perfect day, while performing a perfectly ordinary errand, she saw a dead child walking across the parking lot.
Speechless, Sweeney darted her gaze to the woman the boy was following: his mother. Sue Beresford was carrying a bag of groceries in one arm, her other hand clutching the little paw of her rambunctious four-year-old, Corbin. Her face was drawn, her eyes shadowed with the sharp grief of a mother who had lost her older son to leukemia only a month before.
But there was little Sam, dead a month, following along behind her.
Sweeney’s feet were frozen to the pavement, her entire body numb and incapable of movement as she watched the little boy desperately trailing behind his mother, trying to get her attention. “Mom,” ten-year-old Samuel Beresford kept saying, his voice thin with anxiety. “Mom!” But Sue didn’t respond, just kept walking, towing little Corbin behind her. Sam tried to catch her shirt, but the fabric slipped through his insubstantial grasp. He looked at Sweeney and she plainly saw his frustration, his bewilderment and fear. “She can’t hear me,” he said, the words wavering as if she heard them through an imperfect sound system. He hurried to catch up, his thin legs flashing under the loud plaid of his baggy shorts.
Sweeney swayed with shock and put her hand on the hood of the car to brace herself. The sun-warmed metal felt slightly gritty under her fingers. The blue bowl of the sky pressed down as if it would swallow her, and she stared mutely after the dead child.
The thin figure clambered into the backseat beside Corbin, moving quickly before his mother could shut the door. Sue got behind the steering wheel and drove out of the parking lot. Sam’s pale, translucent face shone briefly in the rear window as he looked back at Sweeney; his hand lifted in a forlorn little wave. Automatically she waved back.
Her mind formed one word:
New York CityOne Year Later
It was one thing to believe in ghosts, another to actually see them. Sweeney had discovered, though, that the kicker was whether or not she knew the ghost. In the small village of Clayton, New York, where she had lived until almost a year ago, she’d had at least a nodding acquaintance with most of the inhabitants, including the dead ones. In New York City, she didn’t know any of them, so she could look past the translucent faces in the crowd and pretend not to see them. Back in Clayton, after she had seen the ghost of Sam Beresford, she had never known when another ghost would stop and speak, and she had never been sharp enough to play it cool and pretend nothing had happened. No, she’d just had to react, and before long people were giving her those looks that said they suspected she was losing her marbles. She had packed up and moved before they began pointing at her on the street.
Yeah, the city was better. Warmer, too. About the time she began seeing the ghosts, her internal heat regulator seemed to go on the fritz, too. She always felt chilled these days, had for the past year. Maybe the cold had started even before she saw little Sam Beresford; she couldn’t remember, because who paid attention to things like that? It wasn’t exactly something anyone would mark on their calendars: August 29: Felt cold. Yeah, sure.
Sweeney didn’t know what had brought the ghosts to mind this bright September morning, but they were the first things she thought of when she woke. That, and the cold, which seemed worse. She got out of bed, hurriedly changed her pajamas for sweats, and went into the kitchen to get that first cup of coffee, thanking God for automatic timers as she went. It was so nice to have the coffee waiting for her when she got up, because she thought she’d probably freeze to death if she had to wait for it to brew.
The first sip warmed her insides on the way down, and she sighed with relief. She actually tasted the second sip, and was going back for the third when the phone rang.