Ghosts in My Soul
by Jane Grace
Emma Qualyes survived a tragic event that no one should endure. She’s become a hermit living with her older brother, talented at a craft few young people do, quilting. Now her brother, Ben, a world-famous epidemiologist, and his fellow doctor, Wayne Meeks, are leaving for a long trip and Emma’s getting a baby-sitter, even though she’s seventeen.
Dylan Meeks survived not only the death of his mother and disabling injuries, but estrangement from his father. He’s gone through post-traumatic stress disorder to post-traumatic growth, established a new normal. He lives his life to the fullest without being careless of the gift he’s been given. Yet now he is spending the summer in Arizona with a stranger—a girl no less, who is his babysitter.
No sooner do Emma and Dylan meet than danger looms in the form of a phone call that threatens Ben, Wayne and even Emma’s life. Who’s after them? Why? Can the desert save them when man and nature attempt to kill them?
BUY THE BOOK
I watch my brother’s SUV approach the house with mixed feelings of trepidation and anger. Half of those emotions are for Ben. The other half is for the stranger sitting in the passenger side of the aging Range Rover.
I expected the guy in the back seat—Wayne Meeks, Ben’s best friend and fellow epidemiologist. It’s the person in the front seat that worries me.
Ben and Wayne are heading for the adventure of a lifetime—an opportunity most researchers don’t get. As the world’s top epidemiologists, they’re involved in all kinds of projects. Now, the Amazon calls. Hoorah for them. While I’m seventeen, totally comfortable and safe in our home, with friends in Phoenix, for some inexplicable reason Ben thinks I need a babysitter. Hence the stranger in the Rover. Hence the anger. While part of my fear for Ben’s trip to the Amazon involves mysterious diseases and poisonous snakes—a hundred things that can kill the only family I have left—the anger is because of that guy getting out of the car...Wait! Guy?
Ben never said anything about a guy spending three months here. What the hell is going on? He doesn’t trust me to live by myself for months, but he sticks a guy here? I mean, does that make sense to anyone?
The guy—a kid, really, probably not much older than me if that—gets out of the Rover gingerly as if his legs have cramped up. He holds the door for a few seconds and kicks out his legs, steadying himself in the sand where Ben parked. While Arizona has sand—and there’s lots here—our property is rocky with shifting sand between. Just outside Phoenix, the desert blends with the foothills. Makes for challenging runs when you alternate between hitting sand and rock.
When he’s finally done working out the kinks, he grabs a huge duffle bag from the back seat. Surely that’s not all he brought? Wait, maybe he’s only staying for a little while.
Nope, no such luck. Ben’s lugging two suitcases, and Wayne has a shipping box. Rolling suitcases would be useless over this kind of ground. Looks like the guy is here to stay for a while.
Wayne has a backpack slung over his shoulder to balance out the box he’s carrying. He and Ben are leaving tomorrow, so it’s probably a change of clothes and a toothbrush.
As the three approach, I step back into the cool shadows of the living room away from the bright afternoon sunlight coming through the double doors. They come up the steps and through the door, then all three freeze. I’m invisible for a few more seconds. A sigh of resignation escapes. Ben’s not changing his mind. My babysitter has arrived for the duration of his trip. I have to be polite, but I don’t have to like the situation. As far as I’m concerned, my home has been invaded.
* * *
The drive to Ben’s house is boring and uneventful. The flight from Albuquerque with Wayne from our house was short, but my legs were already cramped up. I watch the landscape pass by with little interest. This sand is nothing new; New Mexico is full of it. Doesn’t make walking any easier.
Wayne and Ben talked during the drive from the airport. I sat silently, only responding when necessary. Anger still sits hard on my shoulders. I’m coming here to stay with a babysitter. Like I need one. Damn! I’m almost eighteen, for God’s sake. But this time Wayne wouldn’t take no for an answer. Since spending the three months that he’s off in the Amazon with Ben with the only other relative I have isn’t an option, then spending time here was Wayne’s only choice. Frankly, I’d have been happy at home with my studies and music.
Wayne overruled any suggestion I made.
So here I stand in a stranger’s dark living room—well, to be honest, my eyes are adjusting. Whoa!
Prisms of light dance across the walls, floor and ceiling. What the heck is going on? I’ve never seen anything like this. Reds, greens, blues, even violets glow in muted colors. It’s like being stuck inside a firecracker.
A subtle movement near the back wall catches my attention. Is that my keeper? Again, the anger bursts forward, but I’ve been through worse—much worse. Three months—I mean, how long is that compared to...? My breath calms, and my heart slows its pounding. Amid the flickering colors, I focus on the shape that’s finally coming alive across the room.
Wait! A girl? A girl’s in charge of me? She’s my babysitter? No way! I’m no saint, but a guy’s got a limit to how far he’ll go before making out with a girl. Is Wayne—or Ben, for that matter—insane? Who puts a boy and girl together for three months and expects them to not try something? Wayne’s got lots to answer for this time, no matter how good he is to me.
My eyes have adjusted to the dim light in the windowless room. I concentrate on the form that approaches slowly, hands stuck into pockets on a jacket that blends easily with the fading colors. A quick glance over my shoulder through the entrance shows the sun finally sinking behind distant mountains. As the colors vanish, this girl approaches, nods to Wayne, shoots a hot glare at Ben then turns to me, hands still in her pockets.
* * *
I come out of the corner where I was hiding to meet this new babysitter guy. “I’m Emma, Ben’s sister.” No way am I shaking hands with him. Nodding is about as much as I’m willing to do and still appear gracious. Ben can stuff it if he wants me to be all Miss Chamber of Commerce and welcome this stranger with open arms.
“Hey, Sis. Lots of traffic for a Friday afternoon. Sorry we’re late. Dinner ready? We’re starving.”
I shoot Ben another hot glare. While I don’t act all that warm, Ben has forgotten something essential—an introduction.
“And we are?” My emphasis on the one word does not escape the guy or Wayne. Ben seems oblivious. Guess he forgets that while I know Wayne I don’t know the other guy. Wayne steps forward.
“Hi, Emma. This is my cousin Dylan.” He nods over his shoulder, and the babysitter steps forward.
A rather ordinary looking guy—probably my age, maybe a bit older. Straight brown hair, dark eyes. About my height, certainly not near six feet tall. I have to give him one thing though—he has the sharpest squarest chin I’ve ever seen.
Unconsciously, I declare him Mr. Nobody. Humm, I wonder if he really is as non-descript as he appears?
“Would that be Dylan like Dylan Thomas or Dylan Kleberg?” I ask.
Not a good sign. I roll my eyes, even though Ben’s now frowning at me.
“Are you a creative genius or like that nut who followed Eric Harris at Columbine?”
“Honestly?” Dylan asks.
“A bit of both.”
“Oh, now that’s reassuring.” I add a touch of sarcasm to the sentence just to see what he says. A cocked eyebrow and a frosted stare should about do it.
“Aren’t you the cool one, Miss Emma,” Dylan says as he waggles his fingers at me. He adjusts his backpack on his shoulder and gives me the cockiest smile I’ve seen in a long time.
“Cooler than you,” I shoot back as I march out of the room.
“Well, that went well,” I hear Wayne say as Ben follows me into the kitchen.
“Emma, what was that? I mean, seriously!” Ben hisses at me.
“You invited him here, remember? I’m perfectly okay on my own.” My heart can’t help begging for pity even as he shakes his head.
“No can do, Sis. Dylan’s here ‘til Wayne and I get back. Dylan’s not here to rule your life. He’s just here so neither of you will be at home alone while we’re gone.”
“Misery loves company, huh,” I toss at him, while I get the meal together. I sat the table as soon as he left for the airport.
“I heard that, Miss Emma. I’m not miserable, thank you.” Dylan enters the kitchen, walking with a slight list to one side as if he moved too fast after sitting a long time.
“Eavesdropping already, huh?”
“Can’t help it. I can hear you all the way into the living room. By the way, that was a pretty awesome display of colors there.” Dylan leans back against the center counter with both arms crossed over his chest.
“Emma will give you the ten-cent tour tomorrow after we leave,” Ben says as he moves a bowl of chili to the table. Wayne, who came in behind Dylan, picks up the salad bowl and follows.
“Oh joy,” I mutter under my breath, then gasp as Dylan whisks the two containers of salad dressing out from in front of me.
“Ever the good guest, no matter whether Thomas or Kleberg,” he says over his shoulder as he makes his way to the table.
As the three guys stand by their chairs, I heave a disgusted sigh—an ordinary joker I seem to have on my hands now. “Oh joy,” I repeat and join the trio.
Wayne and Ben keep conversation going around the table. Dylan compliments the chili, my best recipe. I nod to acknowledge his words.
“Emma can drive us to the airport, then she and Dylan can come back here. I’d be happier if you two stayed close to home.” Ben punctuates his suggestion with the tip end of his spoon.
“I’ll take your suggestion under consideration, Ben. But I’m not hibernating three months in here. I do have a few things to do.”
“I know that, Em. I’d just feel better if you’re not out running the roads…things like that.”
“Are you kidding me?” I want to reach over and feel Ben’s forehead to see if he has a fever. Me? Run the road? Not in this lifetime!
Ben drops his glance to his plate. Avoids my questioning frown. What’s with him?
It takes a solid minute before I finally get the idea. Ben’s trying to make me look normal. He wants Dylan—and maybe Wayne?—to think I would do such a thing as go shopping all day long, run around with friends for hours, come home late or even go to a sleep-over now and then while Dylan’s on watch.
That might work for most people. But I’m not most people. The very idea of shopping or spending all day with strangers in a mall or spending the night away from the safety of my home appalls me. Ben knows that. The other two don’t. Ben wants me to look like an average teenage girl to Dylan.
Oh well, that ain’t going to work out so good.
* * *
I keep a close eye on Emma after what Ben said. If she’s the kind who likes spending days in a mall, then I’m screwed. I’ve got a life of my own that doesn’t include tagging along with her and a bunch of girls running in and out of shops, trying on clothes they have no intentions of buying.
My class schedule is full for the summer. I can’t be traipsing all over God-knows-where, then try to cram in studying. And this song’s been bugging me for a few days now, so I want to get out the keyboard and my guitar and get the melody in the computer before I lose the tune.
Emma sits at one end of the table, and Ben sits at the other. Wayne and I sit across from each other. Our meal is family style, passing plates and bowls, condiments and the like. Chili’s not bad, probably the best I’ve ever eaten. I tell Emma it’s good, but I’m not going overboard. No sense in giving her power over me. That’s the advantage a babysitter has—they have all the power to run a person’s life.
Ben’s a good guy. He’s been to our house a number of times. Wayne’s been here. But this is the first time I’ve come, and I’d just as soon have passed on the pleasure.
Ben’s features show the dark hair and eyes of their Hispanic ancestors, as he told Wayne one time, but that’s about it. His skin is tanned, but that could be from being outside so much. He and Wayne might be research scientists, but they often travel to areas where disease might be. Wayne once said an epidemiologist is a scientist that puts his life on the line to make sure others stay healthy. I figure Ben and Wayne spend lots of time outside in their job.
Emma Qualyes got the Hispanic genes in the family, it looks like. She’s got the straight dark hair and piercing dark eyes that Ben’s always talking about. Piercing—yes, sir. Seen that already. She’s not any happier about this job than I am. Wonder what Ben promised her if she’d take care of me all summer. She’s a bit overweight. Not fat. Just sort of plump in places, though the pink, green and blue jogging outfit she’s wearing looks okay on her. She’s clearly a girly-girl with her flashing eyes and pink tennis shoes.
“I need to bring in the rest of Dylan’s things, so you guys finish your dinner, and I’ll be right back.” Wayne gets up, and I start to stand, but he waves me back to my seat. “Long trip, Dyl. I got this.” Never one to pity me or make me feel less, still Wayne is one of the most considerate men I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot.
I wave him on as Emma takes up plates from the table.
“What’s for dessert, Em?” Ben asks, his voice carefully neutral.
“Wow, you haven’t made those in a long time. You ever tasted these, Dylan?”
* * *
My brother gets excited over silly things, like a good dessert. I swallow hard, my back to the table. He’s going to be gone a long time, and I’m stuck with a stranger. I’m not good with strangers. Especially a boy. In my home. What’s Ben thinking, dumping a guy in here? What if Dylan wants to get all cozy and mushy. What if he…? I absolutely refuse to think about sex.
Uncomfortable with my own thoughts, I tune back into the conversation at the table.
“I’ve had them. If they’re as good as the chili, then I can’t wait,” Dylan admits.
Humm, I expected some smart remark about tamales filled with chocolate, but then again, he is from New Mexico. Guess they have this dessert there, too.
I bring two plates, each with a tamaletopped with vanilla ice cream to the table for Ben and Dylan, then I return for two more for me and Wayne just as the front door opens, and Wayne drags in…a wheelchair? With a guitar case in the seat?
I’m sure my face must show my panic. Why does Dylan need a wheelchair? Is he sick? Will he...die?
The minute the word hits my brain, my hands let go of the plates. As they shatter against the terracotta floor, Wayne stops and sends Ben a frown.
“Ben? A wheelchair? Is someone…?” My mouth refuses to go further.
“Uh, Sis…” Ben begins, but Wayne and Dylan jump in on him.
“Ben, you didn’t—?”
“You didn’t tell her, did you? She has no idea about me?” Dylan interrupts, sounding as upset as I feel.
“What’s going on, Ben?” I turn on him. For the first time since this all came up, I let my anger show in both words and actions. My fingers curl into tight fists, and my teeth clench so hard, I can feel pressure building behind my eyes.
“Let me tell her, you two.” Dylan says, freeing Ben as well as his cousin who’s offered no explanation as to why a wheelchair is now sitting in our living room. Dylan eases his chair back and stands with one hand on the table. Wayne still stands in the living room, while Ben remains seated, one hand opening and closing on the red tablecloth, his version of fidgeting.
“I was in an accident years ago,” Dylan begins. He straightens and moves toward me, his gait measured as if he expects me to run away or lash out at him. “I lost both legs below the knee. The wheelchair is for those times when I’m tired or my legs hurt. I can remove my prosthetics and get around that way.” He waves toward the chair, a patient expression on his face. If I didn’t know better, I’d say a pitying expression. But why pity me?
“You...” I’m having trouble fitting all this together. Ben brings in a babysitter that is crippled? Someone to make me feel safe? Handicapped and protection just don’t go together.
I’m scared, embarrassed and angry all over again. Faced with three guys who should have told me, faced with things beyond my control, I run.