I didn’t think I’d ever been so anxious in my life. Brooks was meeting my mom for the first time, in person, and I was worried she was going to scare him off. I had no doubt that she’d love him to death, but… that was the problem. She was crazy, and I was about to expose my boyfriend to a nut-fest.
He was going to kill me later.
Brooks’ chuckle pulled me out of my head, and I glanced over at him before refocusing on the road. With a frown, I asked, “What?”
His chuckle grew for a few seconds before he answered, “If you squeeze that steering wheel any harder, you’re going to pull it off, and then you’ll owe the rental company money.”
Right now, it was just me and Brooks going over to see my mom, but Rory and Thad had driven to Boston with us in Miss Daisy Dreamcloud. The guys were exploring the city at the moment and were going to meet us for dinner with my mom later. Originally, I’d been planning on making the trip myself with Brooks in tow, but my mom wanted to meet all of them, and it seemed like Rory and Thad wanted to meet her too. Why? I had no idea—seriously, why expose yourself to the crazy if you didn’t have to? I guess she’d made an impression on them, though, so we all planned a trip together and found a haunted park nearby to investigate, too.
I shot him a glare but slowly eased my death grip. He was right of course, I was holding on so tight it looked like I thought I’d get blown away if I let go.
He reached over and gave my thigh a squeeze, then left his hand there. “It’s going to be fine.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do.”
I rolled my eyes. “Seriously, Brooks, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s planned a huge party in your honor and invited every single person she’s ever met to it.”
He snorted. “Even if that happens—and I really don’t think it will—it’ll still be fine.”
He patted my leg. “You worry too much.”
“She’s going to smother you in love.”
“Oh, the horror.”
I snorted and reached over to flick his shoulder without looking. “Just wait and see, Superman.”
He gave my leg another squeeze, and I tried to breathe and relax—it didn’t work very well.
As I pulled into the driveway of my childhood home, a strange mix of grief and happiness filled me in equal measure. I had so many memories of Alex here—one of the reasons I’d transferred to a college far away—and it made me sad thinking about how he’d never again get to help me put up Christmas decorations or get roped into washing my mom’s car or any of the other millions of things we’d done together here. So many of those memories were happy ones, which were beginning to be easier to think about, but they still made me sad, too.
I was so happy with where my life was now—so happy with Brooks, so in love with him—but I knew I’d always miss Alex. He’d taken a piece of my heart with him the day he’d passed away, but Brooks was helping to heal that wound. It would never be the same, there would always be a piece missing, but it was okay, good even, to carry those scars. To remember. My broken heart was mending thanks to the amazing man sitting beside me.
In addition to the memories here in this home, I reluctantly admitted to myself that I’d missed my mom, too. But I sure as hell wasn’t telling her that or she’d think I was asking if I could move back in with her. God, no.
As if sensing my grief and confusing feelings, Brooks quietly said, “Hey, sweetheart, you okay?”
“There’s a lot of… Alex here,” I said just as quietly. It was probably a weird thing to say to my current boyfriend, but Brooks was beyond wonderful about everything Alex. He encouraged me to talk about him, to share him, and honor his memory.
“If you don’t want to be here, I’m sure we could meet your mom somewhere else.”
I shook my head even as warmth filled my chest. He was seriously the sweetest. “No, I’ll be okay.” I hesitated, then decided to go with the truth and added, “With you here.” I cleared my throat. “I’ll be okay because I have you with me.”
His gaze softened, and he reached over to cup my cheek before pulling me in for a gentle kiss. Against my lips, he whispered, “I love you, and I’m here for whatever you need.”
I kissed him a little harder, then mumbled, “I love you, too. Thank you, babe.”
He smiled, gave me one last lingering kiss, then pulled away and reached for his door handle. With nods to each other, we opened the doors and headed into the unknown.
With my key, I unlocked the front door, walked inside with Brooks behind me, and yelled, “Mom! We’re here!”
There was a loud noise in the kitchen that sounded like pots crashing before my mother popped her head around the kitchen doorway with a huge grin on her face. “You’re here!”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
Mom came rushing down the hall, her dark curly hair tied up in a bun with a few curls coming out. One of which flew into her eye, so she quickly swatted it away and tucked it behind her ear. Those green eyes—moss green like mine—looked me up and down for a moment before her smile grew impossibly larger. As she rushed over to me and pulled me into a tight hug—she was strong for how tiny she was—I closed my eyes and took a deep, calming breath. Her tiny frame was familiar and sturdy. She was a rock I could lean on, so I knew I’d be okay, even with pictures of Alex, along with memories in my mind’s eye, all over the place in this house.
“It’s so good to see you, sweetie.” She released me and kissed my cheek before cupping my face. “You look so happy.”
I grinned. “I am happy.” Something I never thought I’d be again.
To my surprise, tears formed in her eyes. I was shocked and worried for a moment until she managed to choke out, “I didn’t think I’d see you smile like that again.”
“Mom…” I pulled her back into a hug, holding her while she got herself under control. Over her shoulder, I met Brooks’ eye, and he sent me a wink, making my chest warm further.
When Mom patted my back and pulled away, she sent me a shaky smile, then turned to Brooks and exclaimed, “You’re even more adorable in person!”
My boyfriend’s panicked eyes met mine as I held in a giggle—the poor guy didn’t know how to handle that kind of compliment coming from her—but before he could worry about how to respond, my mom continued. “I’m Pam, by the way, and it’s so good to finally meet you, Brooks. Sorry about”—she waved over her shoulder, indicating her mini-meltdown—“all that.”
“It’s really alright, ma’am. I understand, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.” With the way he was speaking, I half expected him to give her a little bow. He was such a dork, but apparently, I had a thing for dorks because I thought he was fucking adorable.
“Why don’t you come into the kitchen? I baked some cookies and a cake. I thought about making pie, but after Dane blamed me for the missing pie incident, he and I decided that we have a firm no-pie rule in this household.” She glanced at me, and I rolled my eyes. I’d told her that I knew Alex was the real pie thief, and she informed me that I was still not allowed to have pie here. So mean. I love pie.
Mom looped her arm through Brooks’ elbow and led the way into the kitchen.
“That’s too bad,” Brooks said. “Pie is my absolute favorite dessert. I was kind of hoping for some.”
My mom froze and glanced up at him. I bit my lip to hold in my smile since I knew Brooks didn’t care one bit about pie. After a few seconds, my mom burst out laughing and patted his hand. “I think you’ll fit right in here.”
Brooks said, “Thank you, and cookies sound amazing, but you really didn’t have to go to all the trouble.”
“Psh.” After she deposited Brooks into a chair, she met my eyes again. “You did good, kid. I like him.”
On her way to the counter, she stopped in front of me and reached up to pat my head a few times. Even though she was several inches shorter than me, she still managed to make me feel like I was only six years old.
With an eye-roll, I snuck by her, grabbed the plate of cookies, and dodged her arm smack as I moved to the table to sit beside Brooks. When I lifted the plastic wrap to snag a chocolate chip cookie, my mom’s hand shot out of nowhere—damn, she moved quick—snatched up the plate and shoved it in front of Brooks instead.
Mom said, “That’s what happens when you’re rude to your mother.” She sent Brooks a smile. “Besides, guests first.”
Brooks sent her an affectionate smile as he pulled a cookie off the plate. “Thank you, ma’am.”
Mom put her hand on her chest. “Be still, my beating heart. Dane brought home a boy with manners.” Brooks chuckled, and Mom turned to me, saying, “Maybe he’ll have more luck teaching you some.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re so mean to me.”
She held the plate out to me, and as I took a cookie from it, she said dryly, “Yes, I’m so very mean. I also made your favorite meal for dinner tonight.”
She rolled her eyes, set the plate on the table between us, and walked over to the stove.
With her back turned to us, I pressed my leg to Brooks’ and sent him a fond smile. “You okay?”
He smiled back. “I’m great. You?”
“I’m great, too,” I said, and I meant it. I should’ve known everything would be okay coming back here with Brooks. He had a way of settling me. His warmth and compassion was something I’d been starved of for a long time, but he gave it so freely I couldn’t help but soak in some of that happiness.
Checking that my mom wasn’t looking, I leaned over and pressed a quick peck to Brooks’ lips and whispered, “Thank you for coming with me.”
That soft grin was on his face again. “Anytime, Dane.”
I grinned, then leaned in like I was going to kiss him, but at the last second, I turned my head and took a huge bite of his cookie.
“Hey!” he yelled with a laugh.
After chewing and swallowing my bite, I said, “No homemade cookie is safe around me, especially my mom’s. She makes the best.”
“They are really good,” Brooks said with a nod before grabbing the entire plate of cookies and turning away from me with it.
“No!” I yelled before practically climbing on top of him to reach the plate. “Not the cookies!”
He cracked up laughing, and after a few seconds, he handed the plate back over. I glared at him and I held it tight. “My precious.”
He shot me an amused expression.
My eyes traveled over to the stove, and I noticed that my mom was leaning against the counter, watching us with that huge grin on her face again. When she saw me giving her the stop-being-a-weirdo look, she just lifted a shoulder like she didn’t care how weird and creepy she was being.
I rolled my eyes, then ignored her and very graciously offered Brooks another one of my cookies.
He chuckled. “Thanks.”
“You better be nice to me or that’s the last one you’re getting.”
“Pretty sure I could take you in a fight.”
I hummed. We both knew that was true, but I wasn’t about to admit it.
Brooks took my hand, lifted it to his mouth, and gave me a kiss.
My heart fluttered in my chest. This guy, I swear. He was trying to kill me with kindness.
I squeezed his hand and could only hope he knew how much I cared about him.
Dane’s mom was even more incredible than she’d seemed when we video chatted with her. I hadn’t told Dane, because I knew he would’ve been embarrassed and yelled at her, but she’d also started sending me emails asking about the equipment and all kinds of other questions about my job with RIPP, as well as my regular day job. It had freaked me out at first, and I’d been scared I’d say the wrong thing, but she’d made it easy, guiding our conversations and never asking anything too intrusive.
“Brooks, would you like something else to drink? More water or I can make a pot of coffee if you’re interested?” she asked, already standing from the table where she’d been cracking me up with stories about Dane as a baby.
“Oh”—I checked the time on my cell phone—“Rory and Thad should actually be here any minute, so if you don’t mind making coffee, I’d love a cup, and my brother never turns down a hot cup of the good stuff.”
Dane snickered. “Your brother wouldn’t say no to coffee if it was cold and tasted like tar.”
“Dane!” His mom snagged a kitchen towel from where it was hanging on the oven, walked over, and flicked him with it playfully. “Don’t you be rude when you’re talking about your new friend.”
“Hey!” he complained.
Their antics were too cute, but no matter how much they picked on each other, the strength of their bond was clearly visible. “Don’t worry, ma’am. Rory knows it’s true. He’d complain and tell us what’s wrong with it, but he’d still drink it.”
She clucked her tongue as she opened the freezer door. “Doesn’t mean my son should be mean.” As she moved over to the coffee pot, she glanced in my direction. “And, you, young man, know my name is Pam. As much as I appreciate your manners, I don’t want you standing in formality with me. Dane is the most important person in my world, and you’re important to him, so I’m really hoping that we can get to know each other and be good friends.”
“Yes, Pam.” It pleased me that she felt that way. I hadn’t admitted it to Dane, but I’d been nervous that she wouldn’t have room in her life for me. I knew that when his boyfriend Alex had died, it had devastated her, too. He’d already been another son to her, and with the depth of Dane and Alex’s love, they’d all expected him to be a forever part of their family. In their hearts, he still would be.
At the knock on the front door, Dane jumped up. “That’s probably the guys. I’ll go let them in while you finish up, Mom.”
“Okay.” She finished pouring water into the tank of the coffee pot and was just shutting the lid as I heard my brother talking loud and fast.
“… see him before? Come on. Let’s get out there. Maybe your mom will want to see.”
“See what?” Pam asked with a big smile for my brother and Thad.
Rory went right to her, stopped and bent down to give the tiny woman a hug, while I smothered a laugh. I’d have to ask him later how it felt to finally find someone smaller than him.
He stood up, grabbing her hand and dragging her to the sink, where he pointed out the kitchen window. “You have a ghost in your backyard under the tree. We need to go check it out.”
Pam threw her head back and laughed. “You mean old Harry?” She patted Rory’s cheek. “He doesn’t cause anyone any harm. He just stands back there against that tree watching the world go round.” She moved away from him, holding out her arms to Thad, who obediently leaned down—way down—and wrapped his arms around her.
Dane had crossed over to stand where she’d been next to Rory and stared outside. “Holy shit. Look at that. Where did he come from?”
“Language, young man,” Pam said as she let go of Thad and proceeded to tap him lightly on the cheek before spinning around to face her son. “And to answer your question. He’s been hanging out under that tree for as long as I can remember. Don’t forget, I had an aunt who lived in this neighborhood when I was growing up, and we passed this house all the time on the way to her house. That’s one of the reasons I knew to look for a house over here. Anyway, old Harry used to lean against that very tree even back when I was a girl.”
“You never told me that,” her son said, narrowing his eyes at her.
“Well, you never asked,” she shot right back.
Thad shook his head, chuckling. “That’s why you were so excited about Dane helping us with our show; you see dead people.”
Pam waggled her eyebrows. “I have for as long as I can remember.”
“What?” Dane cried, sounding outraged.
Deciding it was time for me to intervene, I stood up and tucked my boyfriend into my side, kissing the top of his head. This seemed to be his favorite position. It didn’t matter what he was stressed about or how sad he grew at those times where the loss of Alex weighed heavily on his heart, all I had to do was pull him in close, and the tension in his body drained away. “So, Pam, do you see them all the time or only sometimes?”
She tilted her head in thought. “I imagine I only see certain entities because I can’t imagine Harry is the only spirit in this old neighborhood.” She shrugged. “I haven’t really given it too much thought. If I see one, I do.”
Rory’s hazel eyes sparkled. “You’re so cool. Will you adopt me?”
We all burst out laughing, and even Dane chilled out. As soon as the sound of coffee dripping into the pot stopped, Pam poured us each a cup, and we sat back down at the table. I was surprised when she said, “You know, I’m not really sure why old Harry is still out there. It’s not like I’ve ever tried to talk to him, but I did keep the kids from hanging out over by that tree and disrupting his peace.”
Dane tensed next to me. “Holy crap, you did. You told me there was a hornet’s nest out in that tree, and no matter what you did, it came back every year.”
She winked at me, while smiling mischievously at her son. “Well, what did you expect me to say? It isn’t like you would’ve believed me, anyway. But that isn’t the point. You boys know I’m the biggest fan RIPP has, and I watched all of the episodes for Coldburgh Train Station multiple times. Did anyone else notice that the spirit’s voice taunting the ghost on the platform seemed to be the same as the murder-ghost you had to vanquish from inside the station?”
“Yes!” Rory exploded, jumping halfway to his feet before Thad shot his arm out and forced him back down into his chair. Rory grabbed a napkin from the center of the table and dabbed at the coffee that had sloshed out of the side of his cup with his quick movement. “Sorry. I got excited. We haven’t really said anything yet because we wondered how many viewers would catch it on their own. That’s awesome that you did, but I guess I should’ve known. Since we didn’t get a chance to listen to what the EVP recorders picked up until after we got home, we didn’t even know it when we sent that murderous as-uh-jerk away.”
Leave it to my brother to really simplify what had happened after we cleared the train station of its spirits. We’d had a sleepover that night, and then the next morning, Rory and Dane had kicked Thad and me out of the apartment so they could make a huge breakfast while we hit the gym. Thad had spent an abnormal amount of time tanning, but it had seemed to do him as much good as the long swim had done me, and we went home in a much better mood than when we’d left. Once there, we’d stuffed our faces while talking about anything and everything other than the day before.
Instead of jumping right in and looking at the footage like Rory and Thad normally would’ve, my brother had suggested we get out of the house and go for a nice, long walk. That had been the first time any of us had seen anything other at our neighborhood park, and once we’d all admitted to each other that we were seeing beyond the grave, we gave in and headed home to deal with whatever the equipment had picked up. It hadn’t taken long to realize that our speculations had been correct, and the man on the platform who had died after the blizzard massacre, had been pushed to his death by the spirit of the man who had slain those people and cut out their eyeballs.
“Hmm…” Pam hummed. “I don’t suppose you boys brought any of those EVP recorders with you?”
Rory’s arm shot up to show his wrist. “Right here. Don’t leave home without it anymore.”
Thad snickered, and Dane leaned into me, grabbing my hand to press a kiss to it. They both knew Rory was driving me batty. With his new resolve to be prepared at a moment’s notice to catch at least the sound of the entities that inhabited this plane with us, he’d taken to having equipment on him at all times, which meant I was forever charging something or changing batteries.
Pam beamed at him. “Good. You know, I’ve never known what keeps old Harry here, locked to that tree. You think you can go ask him some questions? Maybe that wristwatch of yours will pick up some answers, and you can help him go on to his great reward. It seems like he’d be awfully lonely just sitting out there.”
“That’s a great idea, Mom,” Dane said.
“Yeah it is. Let’s all go out now.” Rory drained his mug, set it down gently, and stood up.
“I already have everything we need to send him on,” Thad said, lifting up the backpack that had been draped over one of his shoulders when they’d first walked in.
Dane rubbed his hands together gleefully. “You ready for this, Mom? You can be a part of it.”
She shook her head with a wistful smile. “No, I think I’ll watch from the window. After all these years, I think it would be hard for me to be standing there when he says goodbye.”
“He may not want to leave,” Dane pointed out.
His mom shooed him away with her hands. “Well, you won’t find out until you go out there, will ya? Brooks, I don’t suppose you want to keep me company?”
Dane’s eyes widened in panic, making me chuckle. “I’d love to.”
“I’ll stay inside then, too,” he said.
I stepped right into his space and bent down, brushing my lips softly across his. Whispering, I said, “Give me a little time alone with her, sweetheart. It’ll be fine.”
He seemed dubious at best, but he allowed Thad and Rory to each grab an arm and drag him toward the back door Pam pointed out. As we watched them cross the yard to old Harry, she said, “Thank you, Brooks.”
“For what?” I asked, glancing down at her.
She leaned her head into my bicep, wrapping her arm around my waist. “Waking my son up, and keeping him from living his life like he was already dead. You’ll never know how much I appreciate it. Alex didn’t want that for him, either. Wherever we are, it’ll make us both sleep easier from now on.”
Her wording seemed odd. She didn’t say Alex wouldn’t have wanted that for him either, just that he didn’t. And wherever we are? Did she mean that Alex had waited to go on to his great sleep until after he knew Dane was okay? Had Alex somehow helped Dane find RIPP, find me? I wanted to ask her more questions, but I had a feeling that the sweet woman wouldn’t be telling me anything that I’d have to keep from Dane. Hell, she hadn’t ever even told him that she could see ghosts.
And maybe… maybe Dane and I didn’t need to know. My guy’s heart had finally reached a place of healing where he could remember his time with Alex fondly, instead of hiding from the memories, and he’d opened his heart to me. Maybe that was all we needed to know for now.
We watched Dane, Rory, and Thad outside with old Harry, talking and listening to the recorder. As Thad laid a salt circle down around the three of them—because, honestly, we were still a little leery to go chanting any spells we didn’t quite understand without making sure that we were safe from possibly taking a ghostly trip while repeating them—Pam said to me, “Now that you guys can see the spirits, you really should go on back to the columbarium. It’s a shame to leave all of those ghosts just hanging around out there.”
Dane’s-ghost-seeing-mama, say what?