New Paltz, New York
Aubrey Ellis was five the first time life turned upside over, like a somersault in deep seas. Her parents were dead and she was sent to live with her grandmother—Charlotte Antonia Pickford Ellis Heinz Bodette, carnival mistress deluxe. The woman’s hodgepodge troupe and a traveling life were Charley’s soul, though Aubrey quickly became her heart. Despite the odds, or odd environment, the certainty of falling asleep in Piscataway only to wake in Poughkeepsie, the loneliness that lingered in carnival crowds, Aubrey prevailed. She had to. Life’s other demand required all her wit and will, because Aubrey’s second somersault was the inexplicable ability to speak to the dead.
At twenty-one, Aubrey’s childhood was never far from her thoughts—a freakish yet fascinating phenomenon. To her surprise, it was Zeke Dublin who had managed to soothe the most calamitous memories, peppering Aubrey’s life with security and happiness. In the heat of the current summer, those emotions had become Aubrey’s focus, perhaps a driving force, and she didn’t want the feelings to end. She’d imagined Zeke would want the same. How could he not? But as fantasies so often do, reality had muscled its way into the evening.
She was alone now, in a camper nicknamed Mule, stretched across rumpled sheets and a mattress that was the entire bedroom. Nearly an hour had passed since Zeke had abruptly exited. Beside her lay a thin gold chain. She picked it up, watching metal and moonbeams twine in a hypnotic sway. Aubrey blinked and dropped the bauble—a gift from Zeke.
Expectation hadn’t been without cause. Zeke had filled the voids in Aubrey’s life, first with friendship, then with a deeper sense of family. And now, for better or worse—a love story. The chain tangled around her fingers again and laughter sputtered from her throat. She swiped at the tear running from her cheek to her ear. Zeke didn’t do “See you next season…” presents.
Common sense demanded she focus on facts: Tomorrow, carnival season would come to a close. Aubrey would return to the University of New Mexico. Like every other year, Zeke would head somewhere else. She sat upright and peered through a curtain of gauzy gold fabric. A campfire burned like a small sun. At its edge sat Zeke. One hand gripped the neck of a Coors light bottle, in his other a cigarette smoldered defiantly. Because she’d asked him to quit, Zeke had done just that back on opening day. Aubrey glanced at the unlikely gift, the necklace, and snickered. “He probably didn’t even buy the damn thing. He probably won it in a craps game at the Renaissance fair three counties over.”
She simpered at rings of smoke, which did not move like a halo over Zeke’s head. He downed another mouthful of beer, perhaps drowning the prickly words he and Aubrey had exchanged. He was backlit by distant carnival lights, twinkling round globes that decorated the setting but were there for safety. The grounds were vacant; shut down and cleanup had long passed. It had to be after two a.m. The Heinz-Bodette Carnival was doing the thing it did least—sleeping.
Aubrey scooted off the end of the mattress and placed the necklace on a shelf. Tugging a pair of denim shorts over her long legs, she slipped a UNM Lobo Wolf T-shirt over her head. Exiting the tiny bedroom, she inched through the dark narrow interior. In the narrow forward bunk, where Nora usually slept, Aubrey reached between the wall and mattress and came up with a spare pack of Camels. Hidden contraband—it was the smallest act of loyalty Zeke’s sister would demonstrate, even if it did end up killing him. The camper door squeaked open and nothing moved but cool September air. Aubrey wrapped her arms around herself. “Coming back in?” she asked. Zeke shook his head, his frown evident even when lit by a small sun. She pivoted on the camper’s steps.
“Fire’s warm if you want to sit.” She turned toward his voice and came down the creaky metal steps. He snuffed out the cigarette and tugged a low beach chair closer. She knew he couldn’t do it, go back inside. The tension between them made the confines of the camper too tight, too real for Zeke, who’d run away from life so long ago.
Tentatively, she circled the ring of fire. While the flames were warmer, the air was not and goosebumps rose as she lowered herself into a chair. They even rose over the deep scars on Aubrey’s arm—an unpleasant keepsake from seventeen, a physical ghost gift she did not want. Zeke’s gaze moved from her face to her arm. Most people would see the scars; Zeke saw that she was cold. He shrugged off a worn green flannel shirt. “Here. Just put it on.” She accepted the peace offering, such as it was. The garment was laced with the scent of Zeke—a lusty combination of wandering and lure. She buttoned a few buttons, her fingers gripping into the arms of the soft fabric. Zeke’s dark gaze settled on her face and he reached out, grazing his thumb over the scar on her chin. “Guess we all have things we don’t like to talk about. Talk that could set off an argument.”
“True. But mine won’t keep us apart.”
Zeke picked up his beer and drew it to his mouth, lowering it before taking a sip. “Hell, Aubrey. You’re twenty-one. Anything could happen by the time you graduate next May.” He snorted a laugh. “For one, you might find the right guy.” Aubrey replied with folded arms and narrowed eyes. “We agreed. I might be your other half, but I’m not that half.” He’d traded the beer bottle for a small branch, snapped a piece off and tossed it onto the fire. “Not a forever half.” She didn’t argue; it wasn’t about romantic ideals, or ideal romance. “That guy…he’s out there.” Like a wand, Zeke pointed the remaining stick toward the future. “He just doesn’t know it yet. I’d like to meet him someday.” He raised a dark eyebrow. “‘Course that’s not to say I won’t hate the son of a bitch. But I’d still like to get a good look.”
“When I find him, I’ll be sure to tell him all about you on our first date.”
Zeke dropped the slip of wood, the game having turned on him. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Why? Because our relationship doesn’t fit into your off season?”
“No. Because I’ll never fit into Aubrey Ellis’s life. Not really. Be realistic. There’s a kind of guy who wins the girl. He isn’t me.” Zeke grinned. “Damn. He might even be better looking too.”
Aubrey bit down on a smile. Physically, you couldn’t define Zeke at a glance; he required the double take. Dark locks of hair, the kind never meant for scissors, outlined salient bone structure, all of him complemented by a sinewy frame. Above his left eye was a zigzag scar, a flaw that Aubrey guessed was also scored to his soul.
“Ah, hell, forget the other guy.” He drank the beer. “You might skip over him altogether and find a life in Los Angeles or Paris. Last I checked, carnivals weren’t much for stops in Paris.”
“I know. Future addresses. It’s what started the argument. Remember?” She sighed. “I’m not coming back, Zeke. I love my grandmother. You know how much Charley means to me.” Her blue-gray gaze took in a small army of RVs and more distant tractor-trailers, the permanent fixtures in ever-changing scenery. “I love a lot of the people in this place. Some days I even love the place, but…” Aubrey was absolute in her decision. “I’m done. I don’t want this.”
“Right. I got it. Your entire life turned out to be nothing but a summer job.”
“That’s not fair. I never chose this and I’m ready to move on. Earlier, I was only suggesting—”
“I heard you. You were suggesting that wherever you land, I could come hover, like some flesh and blood ghost.”
“Not funny,” Aubrey said, though the imagery was. Zeke was one of a few people who viewed Aubrey and her ethereal gift as… seamless. “And my suggestion includes Nora. You know that, right? This honestly can’t be what you want for your sister.”
“Wow. Wouldn’t your grandmother love to hear that?” His Adam’s apple bobbed with a longer swig of beer. “Imagine Charlotte’s reaction.”
“She gets it, Zeke. This is her life—not mine. I’m grateful for everything she’s done. The roofs over my head, a life where ghosts aren’t the most curious thing I encounter in a day.” The scar above Zeke’s eye vanished into a deep groove. “Even so…” She slammed herself into the chair. “I didn’t think wanting one zip code, instead of a dozen post office boxes, was so crazy.”
“Can’t speak for Nora, but I don’t need any zip code. The last one we had didn’t work out so good. I don’t know what you want my response to be.”
“That you’ll think about it. That you realize how smart you are, that surviving shouldn’t be your life.”
He looked toward shadowy traveling carnival props, the most stationary things in his life. Envy fluttered; Aubrey wanted to be the stationary thing. “Look, if Nora wants to go to college or ends up with a two-car garage life…” He pointed to the small Heinz-Bodette camper. “Hell, she’d like that, more than bunkin’ in a tin can or under a bridge.” He hesitated. “So would our parents.”
It startled Aubrey. Zeke so seldom spoke of his dead parents. Years before, when he and Nora first turned up in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the siblings were hungry and dirty and pickpocketing thieves. Nora’s gaunt appearance drew concerned citizens as she feigned a spot-on fainting spell. Why not? The sun was hot, the crowds thick. Adults had rushed to Nora’s aid, leaving backpacks and purses abandoned. It was elementary pilfering for Zeke, until Carmine nabbed him by the shirt-collar. Charley intended to call the police. Zeke’s stomach had stopped her. It growled so loudly Aubrey heard it from the alcove of the Winnebago where she hid, eavesdropping. As a teenage Zeke awaited his fate, the lilt of a brogue seeped into Aubrey’s head. “Ailish…” she’d whispered. Present among them was a woman, her spirit cloaked in motherly light. She belonged to the hungry boy. Despite her presence, Aubrey forced her diviner senses onto the physical scene before her.
It wasn’t that difficult.
Zeke was a shrewd talker—a skill that might have been effective on a social worker, law enforcement, even a judge. But with Heinz-Bodette’s seasoned carnival owner it was useless subterfuge. Charley had paused her inquisition to tempt the gangly teenager with her lunch. Zeke pounced on a cold grilled cheese sandwich. In between massive bites, the boy explained that the Heinz-Bodette troupe had thwarted honest means of obtaining a meal. Workers had emptied trash bins of discarded funnel cakes and half-eaten hotdogs before he could scavenge through. Zeke proudly admitted to tracking the carnival through six stops before they’d been caught.
Charley immediately wanted to know about the “they.” One boy might be a lone drifter; two were most likely trouble. She’d suggested Zeke’s partner in crime might be in greater peril if she were to call the police. A younger Zeke had swiped his dirty sleeve across his mouth, reassessing.
He went on to talk about his life the way you might let a suspenseful story seep out, each morsel detailing an existence that made carnival life sound mundane. His tale of rootlessness wove on, peaking as Zeke admitted to his grandest act of thievery: stealing his sister from foster home number four. When Charley had asked why, Zeke was clear: “We’d done okay until then. But on the last placement, we got separated.” The gusto with which he’d eaten the sandwich petered out to no appetite. “The home where Nora got put, there was an older boy…” Zeke was quiet and discomfort settled over the room. “We couldn’t do any worse after what happened to Nora—or what happened to land us in foster care in the first place.”
Aubrey had been surprised Charley didn’t ask about Zeke and Nora’s parents. They were apparent to her—the mother, Ailish, and equally Irish father who had also passed. She stifled a gasp. A violent passing, she’d surmised, hearing a gun fire over and over. Red… a flood of red… The startling taste of blood swamped her mouth, overtaking the Sour Patch candy she’d eaten. The parents had hovered distantly, and this told Aubrey something—they wanted Zeke and Nora where they were.
From her hiding spot, Aubrey recalled something else. A few days earlier, Charley had been in an ill-tempered mood. A vivid dream had woken her; it involved a double-talking teenage boy and a wispy girl close to Aubrey’s age. It was one of countless curiosities associated with Aubrey’s psychic gift. Often, her grandmother would dream of a live person connected to the dead soul Aubrey would soon encounter.
That day, Zeke’s story was all Charley needed to hear; it was all Aubrey remembered, except for the fact that when the Heinz-Bodette Troupe left Yellow Springs, Ohio they had two new hands with them. Aubrey finished out the season thinking the brother and sister would blend like she had—one of a few permanent fixtures in a traveling life.
It wasn’t to be.
That summer, on the morning of their last stop, Zeke and Nora had vanished. No explanation, no note. Charley, who understood itinerants, took the news far better than Aubrey. Not unlike her own parents’ abrupt abandonment, Zeke and Nora’s desertion haunted her. Maybe this was the reason Aubrey felt something lost had been found when Zeke and Nora turned up in Boonsboro, Maryland the following year. A number of seasons would come and go before her friendship with Zeke blossomed, bursting like a bright flower on a winding waiting vine.
The current summer had grown intense with Aubrey entertaining fantasies about changing the wandering parts of Zeke. Earlier, she’d tested the theory; the conversation hadn’t gone well. The two of them stared into the campfire now, one of hundreds they’d shared. Zeke nudged her arm with the beer bottle. She took it, finishing the beer in a truce-like gesture. “You’re right,” she said. “After I graduate… after next May, that’s a long way off. Who knows what I’ll want? Maybe I will take a job in Paris. Such an old city, imagine the spirit population lying in wait.”
Zeke stole a glance. “Don’t reverse psychology me, Miss Magda Cum… whatever sash UNM hangs around you. Like Marie Antoinette’s ghost would interest you.”
“I won’t deny that it’s a rare and interesting thing when a well-known spirit shows up. I still swear it was Edgar Allan Poe in Havre de Grace last summer.”
“And I still say that’s what I get for teaching you to drink.” Zeke pulled his lanky frame out of his chair and straddled Aubrey in hers; his knees sank into the sandy surround of the fire pit. “And so you know. If you did go to Paris, I might turn up.” He kissed her and Aubrey felt warmer than the fire in front of them. “Let it go,” he said. “Just pretend it’s any other year. Nora and me, we’ve stayed longer than usual. Can’t it be enough? Wear the necklace and think of me. Leave it like that—just the way it’s been.”
Aubrey put down the beer bottle and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “On one condition.”
“Tell me where you’ll go this off season.”
“Can’t tell you what I don’t know.” He smiled; she softened.
“A hint,” she asked. He kissed her again, his hands sliding beneath the green flannel. “A direction at least, north… south?”
“Sorry, sweetheart. Depends on the wind. We’ll find a way to make a buck and not get ourselves labeled grifters.” He stood, pulling Aubrey to her feet. “Let’s go back inside. You can write down the directions to the Desert Southwest. Maybe come Christmas we’ll show up, surprise you.”
And that was the thing about Zeke Dublin—you never knew when or where he might turn up.
Zeke stood in front of Charlotte’s desk, his belongings packed in a duffel bag beside him. He waited for her to initiate conversation.
“That was a first,” Charlotte said. “Aubrey leaving before you and Nora.”
“If she’s smart as I think she is, she’ll keep going. She won’t come back because of me.”
“Nor me.” Charlotte leaned back and looked out the window of the Winnebago as if she might catch of glimpse of her granddaughter, who’d boarded a flight over an hour ago. “But of course we’re both old carnie liars,” she said. “Of course we both want her to.”
Zeke grinned, a charm that he knew had greater effect on Aubrey than her grandmother. “I just want her to be happy. We both do.”
Charlotte tapped red painted fingernails on the ledger in front of her. “And you’re positive that equation doesn’t include you?”
“Only to the extent that I’ll be there should she ever need me.” He hesitated, taking his own glance out the window. “Come on, Charlotte. Nobody needs a grifter in their life—not permanently.”
She didn’t argue, jowls bobbing in what looked like agreement. “So where are you and Nora headed? As always, you’re welcome to visit New Mexico, maybe for the holidays?”
It was a good offer. A few times, for Nora’s sake, he’d considered it. He couldn’t do it; Zeke couldn’t call anyplace home. Not after the horrifying one he’d left behind. “We didn’t do so bad with Indian gaming venues last year, picked up some work. New Orleans riverboat before that.”
“I gathered as much when the two of you showed up in a car this season, not desperate for a meal or a paycheck.”
“Right. Anyway, not sure where this winter will take us. Not just yet…” He spoke while trying not to eye the safe behind her. The door was closed. But the lever pointed to three o’clock, indicating it wasn’t locked—this wasn’t Zeke’s first carnival. “Whatever direction, we really need to get moving.”
“Of course. Carmine made the bank run this morning. Cash isn’t how I’d like to make payroll, but it’s what carnies prefer.”
“True enough.” Zeke cocked his chin toward the safe, which seemed appropriate considering the conversation. The fuzzy buzz of a walkie-talkie cut in, Joe’s voice crackling through.
“Hey Charlotte, you busy?”
“Just settling the books with Zeke. What’s going on?”
“I got no idea how this happened, but it looks like some hooligan dumped a liter of Coke into the motor of the Whip.”
“Wish I were. We did have a rowdy band of teenage boys roll through here right before closing. Do you want to call the cops?”
Charlotte sighed, shaking her head at Zeke. “This is why people have jobs in the real world.”
“So they don’t have to put up with stuff like that?”
“No. So they can take a vacation and visit a carnival.” She clicked on the talk button. “Let me come take a look.” She guffawed at Zeke while talking to Joe. “I’m not sure if it’s worth the bother. I can’t remember the last time local law enforcement was inclined to take our side on vandalism. ‘Not in our town…’” she said mockingly. Charlotte talked and Zeke drew a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket. He dropped them on the desk as she made the cumbersome rise. Zeke rose too and darted ahead, holding open the door of the Winnebago. “Be back shortly,” Charlotte said. “And don’t smoke in here!”
“Yes ma’am.” He waited, not ducking back inside until Charlotte rounded the corner near the skeet ball and other games of chance. The Whip was located on the far side of the carnival setup; she’d be gone at least twenty minutes. He was sorry about the liter of Coke; the repair would be costly. He’d leave a few extra hundred dollars behind. Zeke moved through the air-conditioned motor home, the space dedicated to the business side of the Heinz-Bodette carnival. Passing by the desk, he absently grabbed the pack of Camels and tucked them in his shirt pocket, his line of vision zoned in on the Heinz-Bodette safe.
Seconds later, he knelt before the cool metal box like it was an altar. Zeke wiggled his fingers and hesitated. Then he gripped the iron handle and pulled. His heart hammered as if the Holy Grail was stored inside. “It’s not stealing…” he assured himself. “Not that kind anyway.” Zeke plunged his hand into the heavy Hamilton safe, past money he could smell. Stored behind the cash was the thing for which he had come.
Locked inside Charlotte’s safe was a leather-clad box. Inside the box were her son’s—Peter Ellis’s ghost gifts—just bits of paper, really. But unlike Aubrey’s ghost gifts, which were more like mementoes that connected to the past, these ghost gifts were all about the future, or so Zeke had learned.
Without them, last winter would have been a survivor’s challenge. And it wasn’t as if Zeke was taking them for himself. Hell, he could get by on a park bench as long he picked a warm enough climate. He was doing this for Nora. Nora who didn’t have her brother’s survival instincts, who shouldn’t spend any nights on a bench or under a bridge. Nora, who’d already spent nights in worse places.
By the time Zeke pumped the pep talk through his head, he was sitting at Charlotte’s desk. In front of him was the rectangular box. It was an odd thing that attracted the eye and had a cover like a book. But the interior was hollow; the perfect place to store scraps of paper. So many that no one would ever notice if a few were missing. The box’s odd double knot told him Charlotte hadn’t opened it either, not since Zeke hunted through its contents last September.
He undid the leather tie, pausing to rub clammy hands on denim-covered thighs. “Quit being such a fucking pussy. It’s not like Peter Ellis is gonna haunt you for swiping a few of his ghost gifts.” At least he didn’t think so, and he boldly flipped open the cover. He stared at the papers, which came in every shape, color and purpose. Anything you could think of to write on: napkins, business cards, the corner of a menu, ticket stubs, letterhead, matchbooks, construction paper, sheets ripped out pages of notebooks and legal pads. Each piece of paper, no matter its format, contained a prediction.
Zeke glanced out the window before refocusing on the box and his quest for a slice of guaranteed future: places, names, dates—there were hundreds, maybe a thousand. Many made no sense. Most read like an omen. His hand hovered over a business card, print side up. He remembered the red lettering from last year. Watt’s Fertilizer. We Spread Miracles. Noble, Oklahoma.
It was the kind of card nobody but a farmer, maybe a crop duster would look at twice. Zeke turned it over and forced a wad of spit down his throat. On the back, Peter Ellis had written the word Murrah. The next words he read aloud: “April massacre…” Recent facts slammed into his head. The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. A horrific bomb blast crystalized, one where hundreds of people had perished and a tragedy Peter Ellis had predicted. It proved the depth and validity of his ghost gifts. It had to, the man died years before the terrorist act occurred.
An ill feeling wove through Zeke and he dropped the card back in the box like it was on fire. It was too much prophecy, the kind no person would want to be responsible for. In the icebox hollow of the Winnie, Zeke wiped a bead of sweat from his lip. Less ill-omened writings passed through his fingers, clearer predictions that had long passed. They included World Series winners and prizefight champions. On plain white paper was a sketch of an apple, the words “LISA project.” He didn’t know what it meant. Zeke stared at the contents, which also included numerous predictions that only bore numbers—maybe twenty or thirty of them. He shrugged, unable to put rhyme or reason to those predictions either.
Finally, Zeke found what he was looking for, information he could use. These scraps of paper were similar to the ones he’d taken last summer. They’d read: “Thunder Gulch… Derby winner… longshot…” along with the year and “Tyson, knockout, eighty-nine seconds…” Both prophecies had turned into big paydays—enough to feed him and Nora and to buy a car to bring them back to the carnival this summer. It sure as hell beat dishwashing and hitchhiking.
Now Zeke dealt himself of fresh hand of ghost gifts. As he closed the lid, a paper bearing a crayon-drawn cowboy hat and three large X’s caught his eye. The exhilaration of future pay dirt pumped through him, sure how the Dallas Cowboys would fare in Super Bowl XXX. He added it to the papers he’d already taken. Hell, horse racing was legal and so were Vegas wagers. Zeke glanced back at the safe. It wasn’t like taking piles of money that didn’t belong to him. These were random scraps of paper that no one was using for anything. How much harm could it do, guaranteeing what was to come? What was so wrong, Zeke thought, in helping himself and Nora to a little bit of a future?