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Shift

By Jeri Smith-Ready

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I held my breath as it began, the last verse of the last song. Logan’s last playlist.

He’d left behind four years’ worth of musical messages. Like the ballad mix, Missing the Shit out of You, the punk/hip-hop compilation, Songs for Breaking Stuff, and the geek-rock study aid, How to Not Hate Calculus.

Some lived in the CDs stacked on my bookshelf, blue plastic jewel cases perfectly aligned. Others lived in the MP3 player crooning softly on my nightstand.

The one Logan created after he died, Sucks to Be a Ghost (Sometimes), was ending now, with a hushed acoustic tune. One voice, one guitar, the way he’d played for me so many times. The song was a bonus track—an afterthought for the artist, but a thread of hope for us.

I’d played all of Logan’s mixes, one each night for the last ten weeks. Waiting here at my open window, I’d listened to every note. Called his name. Watched my breath turn to steam in the bitter winter air.

They said he’d never come back. Once a soul transforms from a bright violet ghost—with all the thoughts and hopes of a living person—into a dark, raging shade, it’s over.

No hanging out with humans, except to make them sick and dizzy.

No settling scores or righting wrongs.

No passing on and finding peace. Ever.

Shading is a one-way trip to hell.

But what “they” didn’t know was this: Logan had already made that round-trip—from ghost to shade and back to ghost—right there in my front yard.

If he’d done it once, he could do it again. I just had to believe. And wait.

It was easy at first, when he’d been gone a day, a week, a month. I held on to the memories of his ghostly light: Logan in the confession booth, telling me how it felt to die. Logan on the witness stand, saying all he’d ever wanted was me. Logan in my bed, his violet glow illuminating my bare skin.

But as the icy winter slouched toward a slushy spring, the nightmarish memories took over. Logan sulking over my friendship with Zachary. Logan raving when I broke up with him. Logan turning shade when he tried to pass on to eternal peace.

My chest ached even now, remembering that night in the Green Derby pub. He’d said good-bye to those he loved—first with words, and then with music, singing “The Parting Glass” while his brother and sister played guitar and fiddle. The perfect finale before leaving this world forever.

But just as the golden-white light of peace pulsed within him, something went wrong. Darkness devoured Logan’s form, turning him into a shade before our eyes. He fled in shame and sorrow. No one had seen him since.

I tightened my grip on the windowsill as the singer whispered his last plea, striking a final soft chord. The silence was filled by the sounds of Baltimore at midnight—the hiss of a flickering streetlight, the rustle of a breeze in the trees, the wail of a distant siren.

I had no more music to lure him. Only words.

“Logan, where are you?” I ran my thumb over the spot under the sill where he’d carved our initials. It gave me the strength to steady my voice. “I know you don’t want to be like this. I know you want to come back. So please come back.”

Doubt and fear began to choke me. What if he didn’t want to come back, not even for me? I had to know for sure, no matter how much it hurt.

“Are you happy this way? Do you want to stay a shade? If you want me to give up on you, just say so. Show me a sign.” I closed my eyes, ready to wait one last time.

A soul-shredding shriek filled my brain. I wanted to cover my ears, but couldn’t pull my hands off the windowsill. I needed an anchor to keep from falling, keep my body and mind from flying apart in the face of Logan’s desperate wrath.

He surged through my window—surged through me—in a burst of black energy that stole my strength. I collapsed on the floor, quaking and retching.

“AURA!! I TOLD YOU NOT TO WAIT!!”

“I don’t—listen—to shades.” I forced out the words while I could still remember how to speak.

He screamed again, turning my world into a runaway roller coaster hurtling off its tracks. I clung to the edge of my bedroom rug, fighting to stay conscious.

As Logan keened, my mind seized on an image of him as he was five months ago, performing with his band hours before he died: his bleached-blond hair glowing in the stage lights, his sky blue eyes full of fire. My shooting star.

“You can’t fool me,” I spat through gritted teeth. “You burn too bright for this.”

Silence fell, as if a shroud had been dropped over the entire world.

He was gone.

I squeezed my eyes shut tighter, dreading the sight of my empty room. The whirl of vertigo and the weight of sorrow pinned me to the floor. I wanted to stay there forever.

But then a glow appeared, so bright I could see it through my lids. I gasped and opened my eyes.

“Wow.”

Logan’s soft whisper halted my heart. I looked up, past his high-top Vans, gleaming violet in the dark.

Up past his shirt, hanging open like on the night he died.

Up into his astonished face.

“Aura, it worked!” Logan examined his violet arm like he’d never seen it before, then looked down at me. “Oh my God, are you okay?” He dropped to his knees, then reached for me the way he had a hundred times, in and after life. “Did I hurt you? Did you hit your head? Should I get help?”

I shook my head and sat up, fighting the fading dizziness. My mouth opened, but tears thickened my throat so that I couldn’t say his name.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that.” Logan caressed my cheek with a hand only my heart could feel. “You know I hate to see you cry.”

My eyes raked his ghostly form. He was back the way I remembered him—the voice, the smile, the shimmer that seemed brighter than any other ghost’s.

It was really, really Logan.

My breath burst out, mixing a sob with a laugh. “I thought I’d never see you again.”

“You didn’t think that for a second. You believed in me.” He spoke in a soft, awed whisper. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” I wiped the tears soaking my face, even as new ones flowed.

“I can’t believe I’m here. Let me look at you.” Logan’s hands shook as they carved out the space around me, as if making sure I was here, too. When his gaze returned to my face, his forehead crinkled in concern. “Aura, have you been sleeping enough?”

I rubbed my eyes, aware of the dark circles underneath. “I’ve been so worried.” I whispered so I wouldn’t wake Aunt Gina in the next room. “What happened to you?”

He let out a groan and dragged his palms over his temples. “I don’t even know where to start. My head still feels like a hurricane.”

“Take your time.” I patted the floor, for some reason fearing that if he didn’t stay put, he’d disappear again. “Start at the beginning. Why did you turn shade?”

He sat cross-legged in front of me, shoulders sagging as if from exhaustion. “I was going to pass on that night after the trial. That was the whole point of it, right?”

“Supposedly.” My aunt’s law firm specializes in wrongful death cases, on the “peace through justice” theory that winning a lawsuit helps a ghost leave this world, content and satisfied.

“I felt phenomenal after we won.” Logan smoothed the legs of his cargo shorts. “At peace, you know? Like I’d said everything I needed to say.” He clenched the pocket seams. “But by the time we were at the Green Derby for our farewell concert, I wasn’t so sure.”

“Dylan told me you felt tainted.” I cringed at the memory of the guilt on Logan’s younger brother’s face. “He blames himself for letting you try to pass on.”

“No! It was my fault. I was tainted, from that other time I shaded, even though it was just for a few seconds. And from all the crazy shit I was still feeling—about dying, about my family’s court case putting you through all that pain.” He looked away. “About losing you.”

I twisted a lock of my dark, wavy hair around my finger, fighting that familiar guilt. “But you seemed so happy when we said good-bye.”

“I wanted to be happy. I wanted to let go of you and my whole life here. I guess I wasn’t ready.”

It hurt that he had been able to share his doubts with Dylan and not with me. Logan must have known how much I wanted to move on myself.

“If you weren’t ready, why not wait?”

“I couldn’t let everyone down. That huge crowd had come out to watch me find peace. And my family—I’d hurt them so bad by dying. Passing on was the only way to make it better.” He put his face in his hands, fingertips creasing his cheeks. “Instead I made it worse.”

I felt sick watching him relive those moments. But I had to know. “What happened?”

Logan dropped his hands and seared me with his mournful gaze. “I was almost there, Aura. I could see heaven. The door was open, the light was on, there was music so gorgeous you’d die just to hear it. And then—bam!” He punched a soundless fist into his palm. “The door slammed in my face. Having that light ripped away from me was like dying a hundred times in one second.” He ran both hands through his hair, gripping the pale spikes. “I freaked. Ricocheted into shading, I guess. I’m so sorry.”

“You’re a ghost again now, that’s all that matters.” I fidgeted with the bottom button of my purple silk nightshirt, longing to soothe his agony with a touch. But that was still impossible. “What happened after you turned shade? Where were you all this time?”

“All what time?” He jerked his head to look around my room. “What day is it?”

“March twentieth.” I checked the clock on my nightstand, which glowed 12:08 in pale blue digits. “March twenty-first.”

“Holy shit, almost three months.” He took a moment to absorb this. “I couldn’t see day or night. All I knew was I had to stay away from the living.” He pulled his bare knees to his chest, folding in on himself. “I didn’t want to cause any more pain.”

Logan had shown more restraint than most shades. The mere presence of those bitter spirits can debilitate anyone who sees ghosts, which includes me and everyone younger.

Even though shades were still rare—I’d seen four in my life, including Logan—they were becoming more common. And after three kids died a few years ago from a shade-induced fall from a balcony, the Department of Metaphysical Purity created a special forces unit—the Obsidian Corps. While the rest of the DMP focuses on research and technology (supposedly), the Obsidians have one mission: eradicating shades.

But since shades can’t be captured or contained, the Obsidians try to prevent them by detaining “at-risk” ghosts who seem on the verge of shading. Unfortunately, detainment involves a one-way trip inside a little black box lined with obsidian to prevent the ghost’s escape. A lot of innocent ghosts get captured in the process—ghosts who need help, not punishment. Not a fate I wanted for Logan.

“How did you turn back into a ghost?”

“You called me, I came,” he said as if it were obvious. “You made it happen, Aura.”

I squinted at him, confused. “But I’ve been calling you every night since you shaded.”

“I couldn’t hear you until a few minutes ago. There was so much noise.” He put his hands to his ears. “It sounded like feedback from a million amps.”

“God, it must have been torture.”

“It was.” His voice shook. “Hell is real, Aura. I was there, and I’m never going back.”

“I won’t let you.” I swept my hand through his, wishing again that I could hold him close and keep him with me in this world. But he couldn’t stay forever. “Can you pass on now?”

“I don’t think so, not yet.” He massaged the hollow of his throat. “Too many shady vibes. I’ve gotta make some changes. I spent my whole two and a half months as a ghost either feeling sorry for myself or trying to get attention.”

“News flash—all ghosts are like that. And no wonder. You can’t go anywhere you never went when you were alive. You can’t even see other dead people.” The extreme suckage of being a ghost is why most of them pass on right away, unless they have something—or someone—to stick around for. “So what else could you do?”

“I can do lots of things. Get this.” Logan dropped his knees into a cross-legged position again, scooting closer in excitement. “When I was a shade, I held on to three hopes to keep my soul from ripping apart.” He extended his thumb. “Number one. Remember when I said I wanted to make a difference? I can make the hugest difference, now that I’ve turned from a shade back to a ghost. This has never happened before, right?”

“As far as people know.”

“Tons of witnesses saw me shade out at the Green Derby that night. If the world finds out it’s not permanent, maybe the Obsidians will stop locking up shady ghosts and find some way to help them.” He gestured between us with his thumb. “Maybe together we can figure out how.”

“Sure.” My stomach fluttered at the thought of another media circus. But it was time to stop forgetting the world—and time to start changing it. “By the way, they don’t call them ‘shady’ ghosts anymore. They call them at-risk ghosts. ARGs for short.”

“Since when?”

“Since you. The press totally skewered those Obsidian agents who tried to capture you.”

“Good. Especially after the way they roughed up you and Dylan. Were you hurt?”

“Just some bruises.” I rubbed my wrist, which had already been sprained before I’d hurled myself at the agent.

Logan cocked his head. “So I’m famous now?”

He looked way too pleased with himself, so I changed the subject. “What was your second hope?”

Logan’s face lit up, literally glowing brighter. “I want to make music again.”

“But Mickey and Siobhan are too old to hear ghosts.” His brother and sister were eighteen—twins, in fact—born before the Shift.

“I’ll sing with post-Shifters. It’ll be easier to rehearse if I can communicate with my bandmates.”

“What about the audience?”

“You’ll hear me, and so will everyone younger than you.” He grinned. “Prime market, right? We’ll be the first band that was made for you guys. The labels’ll be lining up to sign us.”

I stared at him in disbelief. The promise of a recording label contract was what got Logan killed in the first place. To woo him into signing, the A and R rep from Warrant Records had given him cocaine, which, mixed with copious amounts of alcohol, had stopped his heart forever.

The old Logan was back, and only a little wiser. I hoped a little was enough.

“I’ve been writing more songs in my head,” he said, “about being a ghost and a shade.” His face turned smooth and solemn. “How I’d die all over again just to touch you.”

He swept his ethereal hand over my solid one, and I thought I felt the motion of air against my skin. But it was just my imagination, juiced up by wishful thinking.

“Aura, you were my third reason. The only one that matters.”

My lungs tightened. Logan had come back for me, but was I still in the same place? The night he shaded, I’d pressed the pause button on my life.

But with the spring thaw, I’d lurched into slow-mo: a night out clubbing with my best friend, Megan, a shopping trip with Aunt Gina. An afternoon at Zachary’s intramural soccer game (I hated watching soccer, but I liked watching him, more than I wanted to admit).

Now that Logan was here again, I could hit the play button, move at the speed of life. But in which direction?

“I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Do what?” He kept smiling, but his voice cracked a little.

“Be with you that way.” The words seemed to shred my throat on their way out. “Like before.”

His smile vanished. His lips parted, then closed, then parted again. “Aura, I—” Logan stood up fast, radiating nervous energy. “I came back for you.”

“Not just for me. You had to save yourself.”

“You saved me.” He pointed at me. “You had the power.”

“We don’t know that. Besides, you told me not to wait for you, remember?”

“Well—yeah. But that was when I was a shade. And now I’m not.”

“We said good-bye before you ever shaded.”

“And all this time you’ve been trying to get me back.” He lifted his palms. “Doesn’t that mean something?”

“I didn’t call for you so you could be my boyfriend. I did it because you were suffering. I did it because I love you.”

“But if you love me—” He took a step back, then another. “Is there someone else now? Are you with that Scottish guy?”

“I’m not with anyone. But yeah, I care about Zachary.” I noticed I looked away when I said his name, just as I had once been unable to meet Zachary’s eyes when I spoke the word “Logan.”

“‘Care about’? You care about music, you care about football, you care about freaking awesome cookies.” Logan quieted. “What does that mean when it comes to him?”

“We’re friends.” A cold breeze swept my bare arms. My window was still open.

“And?”

“And we’re going out tomorrow night.” I rose on shaky legs and went to the window. “There’s an ancient-astronomy exhibit opening at the Maryland Science Center.”

“So it’s for school,” he said with relief. “That paper you’re doing?”

“Our adviser got us into this special preview reception. It’s kind of a big deal.” I slid the window shut, my fingers almost slipping. “We’re going out to dinner first.”

“With your adviser.”

I fastened the latch. “No.”

Behind me, Logan fell so silent, I would’ve thought he’d disappeared if it weren’t for his violet reflection in the window.

“Who’s taking you to the prom?” he said finally.

“No one’s asked.” No one I liked, at least.

“I asked you the day after Homecoming, remember?” He came to stand beside me. “Let’s go together.”

The idea should’ve made me laugh, but instead I wanted to cry at the memory of Homecoming. We thought we had all the time in the world together. Less than a week later, he was dead.

“Ghosts can’t get into my school.” I turned to face him. “Ridgewood is totally BlackBoxed.”

“Then we’ll dance together outside. It’ll be warm enough by May. Everyone’ll join us, and it’ll be a big—”

“Logan, you’re dead.”

He jerked back as if I’d slapped him. Then his face twisted into jagged lines. “You didn’t mind before. You didn’t mind me lying in your bed every night. You didn’t mind me whispering in your ear while you touched yourself.”

My breath froze in my lungs. Logan slowly covered his mouth, his eyes turning round and wide.

He staggered back. “Oh God. Aura, I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I said that.”

I covered my burning face with my hands. The old Logan would’ve never been so harsh. What had shading done to him? “That was as much for you as it was for me.”

“I know, and I loved it. I loved you. I still love you so much.” He stepped forward, his glow shining through the cracks between my fingers. “I know we can’t have the future we wanted, but we can have now, right?”

“I can’t do this anymore.” My hands muffled my words. “Promise me we’ll just be friends, or leave me forever.”

“Fine. Friends. Whatever you want.” His voice shook with fear. “You know I mean it. Ghosts can’t lie. Aura, look at me.”

I lowered my hands. Logan was leaning over, eyes level with mine. With his shirt fallen open, I could see the planes of his violet chest—and my name tattooed over his heart. It would be there forever.

“Promise me,” I said.

“Better yet.” He lifted his left hand, palm down, fingers spread. “Spider-swear.”

I finally laughed. We’d invented the secret handshake, as serious as a blood oath, when we were six years old. Spider-swear had never been broken.

I spread my own fingers and slid them between his. We folded our palms down, extended our thumbs for the spider’s antennas, and wiggled our fingers for the eight legs.

“Spider-swear,” we said together, eyes locked, as solemnly as when we were kids.

A sudden heat gripped my hand. I ripped my gaze from his face, to the place where we had joined.

Logan’s whisper cut the shocked silence. “Whoa.”

My mouth opened but no sound came out. Impossible.

I could feel him.

A warm palm pressed against mine, the webbing of our fingers locked together. It couldn’t be real.

“Don’t move,” he breathed, softer than ever. Logan slowly wrapped his fingers around my hand.

Tears spilled down my cheeks as I realized it had to be a dream. Logan hadn’t come back to me. He was still a shade, roaming the world alone, poisoning post-Shifters with his bitterness.

He was still in hell.

I closed my eyes. “I don’t want to wake up. Please, God, don’t make me wake up.”

A gentle hand touched my face. I flinched away, expecting Aunt Gina, who would shake me out of sleep and offer comfort food.

The hand touched my cheek again. It wasn’t soft and cool like Gina’s. It was warm, with calloused fingertips like those of. . .

. . . a guitar player.

“Aura,” Logan whispered, “it’s not a dream.”

I opened my eyes. He was touching my face.

Logan. Touching.

My other hand brushed aside the edge of his soft cotton shirt and met the smooth flesh of his chest. Flesh that was no longer violet, but instead looked as it had when he was alive.

My heart pounded when its counterpart thumped beneath his skin. “How?”

“I don’t care,” he said, and kissed me.

© 2011 Jeri Smith-Ready

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