Bridge of Souls – Victoria Schwab

I can think of so many nice ways to wake up. There’s the smell of pancakes in summer, or the first cool breeze of fall. The lazy comfort of a snow day, the world buried beneath blankets. When waking feels easy and peaceful, a slow transition from dreaming to daylight. And then there’s this: The jolt of curtains thrown open onto glaring sun, and the sudden weight of a very large cat landing on my chest. I groan and drag my eyes open, and see Grim staring down at me, one black paw hovering over my face. “Off,” I mutter, rolling until the cat flops sideways onto the sheets. He shoots me a sour look, lets out a soft cat sigh, and sinks deeper into the bed. “Rise and shine!” says Mom in a voice that’s way too chipper, considering we just got in last night and my body has no idea what time it is. There’s a dull thud in my head, and I don’t know if it’s jet lag or ghosts. I pull the sheets back up, shivering at the false cold of the hotel’s air-conditioning, which has been humming all night. Mom opens the window, but instead of a breeze, a wall of warmth pushes in. The air is sticky with summer heat. Down on the street, someone is singing off-key, and the low sound of a trombone wanders up to meet it. A voice howls with laughter.

Someone drops something and it rings like an empty pot. Even at ten a.m., New Orleans is full of noise. I sit up, my hair a nest of tangled curls, and look around, groggy with sleep. Huh. When we got in last night, I didn’t do much more than wash my face and fall into bed. But now that I’m awake, I realize our hotel room isn’t exactly normal. Not that anywhere we’ve stayed on our travels has been “normal,” but the Hotel Kardec is particularly odd. My bed is nestled in one corner, raised on a little platform.

There’s a sitting area between my perch and the massive four-poster bed my parents have claimed on the other side of the room. That’s not the strange part. No, the strange part is that the whole room is decorated in rich purples and dark blues with gold accents, and silk and velvet are draped over everything, like the inside of a fortuneteller’s tent. The drawer handles and wall hooks are shaped like hands: fingers clasped or palms up, reaching. We left our suitcases in a pile on the polished wood floor, clothes spilling out in our eagerness to change and crash post-flight. And there in the center of the chaos, between my mom’s toiletry case and my camera bag, sits Jacob Ellis Hale, best friend and resident ghost. Jacob’s been haunting me since last summer, when I fell in a river and he saved my life. Together, we’ve faced spirits in Scotland, poltergeists in Paris, graveyards and Catacombs, and more. He sits cross-legged, elbows resting on his knees, a comic open on the floor in front of him. As I watch, the pages turn.

It could be a breeze, but my mom has already closed the window. And the pages only turn one way, at roughly the pace of a boy reading a book. We both know he shouldn’t be able to do that. A week ago he couldn’t, and now— “Come on, Cass,” says Mom. “Chop-chop.” We’re not filming until tonight, so I’m about to protest, when Dad adds, “We’re meeting our guide at Café du Monde.” I perk up, curious. Every place we travel for my parents’ show, we get a new guide. Someone who really knows the city—and its secrets. I wonder what our guide here will be like.

If they’ll be a skeptic, or a believer. Across the room, my parents bustle around, getting ready. Mom wipes a streak of shaving cream from Dad’s jaw. He helps Mom with the clasp of her bracelet. Right now, they’re still my parents: clumsy, and nerdy, and sweet. But tonight, when the cameras go on, they’ll become something more: the Inspecters, world-traveling, ghost-hunting paranormal investigators, larger than life. “Your life is pretty large,” says Jacob without looking up. “Or at least, pretty strange. I’ve never really understood how a life changes size …” Jacob Ellis Hale, best friend, resident ghost, and constant eavesdropper. He holds up his hands.

“It’s not my fault you think so loud.” As far as I can tell, his ability to read my mind has something to do with the fact that he pulled me back from the land of the dead, and I pulled him into the land of the living, and we got kind of stuck together. Like hair and chewing gum. Jacob frowns. “Am I the gum?” I roll my eyes. The thing is, I should be able to read his mind, too. “Maybe my thoughts are just quiet,” he says. Maybe your head is just empty, I think, sticking out my tongue. He scowls. I snort.

My parents turn and look at me. “Sorry.” I shrug. “Just Jacob.” Mom smiles, but Dad raises a brow. Mom’s the believer, though I’m not really sure she believes in Jacob-the-ghost or Jacob-the-imaginary-friend-and-convenient-excuse-for-why-her-daughter-getsinto-so-much-trouble. Dad is definitely not a believer, and he thinks I’m getting too old for imaginary friends. I agree. But Jacob is hardly imaginary, just invisible, and it’s not my fault my parents can’t see him. Yet.

I think the word as quietly as possible, but Jacob still hears. He doesn’t seem to catch the dread in it, though, because he stands up and smiles. “You know,” he says, exhaling against the window, “maybe I could …” He brings his index finger to the fog and frowns, concentrating, as he draws a J. To my surprise —and horror—the letter shows up on the glass. I lunge out of bed and wipe it away before my parents can see. “Killjoy,” he mutters, but the last thing I need is Mom and Dad realizing Jacob is real, or that I almost died, or that I’ve been spending every second of free time hunting down ghosts. Somehow, I don’t think they’d approve. Sit, stay, I order as I slip into the bathroom to get dressed. I pull my hair up into a messy bun and try not to think about the fact that my best friend is absolutely, undeniably, getting stronger. I free my necklace from under my shirt collar and study the dangling mirror pendant.

A mirror, to show the truth. A mirror, to remind the spirits that they’re dead. A mirror, to hold them still, so I can break the thread, and send them on. My reflection stares back at me, uncertain, and I try not to think about the Veil, or the reason ghosts are meant to stay on the other side. I try not to think about what happens to spirits who become real enough to touch our world. I try not to think about my friend Lara Chowdhury, who told me it was my job to send Jacob on before he becomes too dangerous, before, before. I try not to think about the dreams I’ve had, where Jacob’s eyes go red, and the world breaks apart around him, and he doesn’t remember who I am, doesn’t remember who he is, and I have to choose between saving my best friend and saving everything else. I try not to think about any of it. Instead, I finish getting dressed, and when I come back out, Jacob is sprawled on the floor in front of Grim, engaged in what looks like a staring contest. I remind myself that Jacob is Jacob.

He’s not an ordinary ghost. He’s my best friend. Jacob breaks his gaze, glancing toward me, and I know he can hear my thoughts so instead I focus on Grim. The cat’s black tail flicks lazily from side to side, and I wonder, not for the first time, if cats— even totally useless bread-loaf cats—can see more than meets the eye, if they can sense the Veil, and the ghosts beyond, the way I can. I grab my camera from the floor, loop the purple strap over my head, and load a fresh roll of film. My parents have asked me to document their show behind the scenes. As if I don’t have enough on my plate, keeping malicious ghosts from creating chaos. But hey, everybody needs a hobby. “I recommend video games,” says Jacob. I peer at him through the viewfinder, sliding the camera’s focus in and out.

But even when the room blurs, Jacob doesn’t. He’s always crisp and clear. This camera, like everything else in my life, is a little strange. I had it with me when I almost drowned, and ever since, it has a way of seeing more. Like me. My parents, Jacob, and I head down the hall, which is decorated like our room: rich blues and purples, and wall sconces shaped like hands. Most of them are holding up lights. But here and there, a few of the hands are empty. “Ghost five,” says Jacob, smacking one of the open palms. It rocks a little, threatening to fall, and I shoot him a withering look.

He flashes me a sheepish smile. To get downstairs, we bypass the ominous wrought-iron elevator that’s only large enough for one and opt for the sweeping wooden staircase instead. The lobby ceiling’s been painted to show a table and empty chairs, as if I’m overhead, looking down—a dizzying effect. I feel like I’m being watched, and turn to see a man in an alcove, peering out from around a curtain. Only as I get closer, I realize it’s not a man but a bust: a copper sculpture of a head and chest. He has a goatee and sideburns, and he’s staring intently at me. The sign on the marble base tells me this is Mr. Allan Kardec. Jacob leans against it. “Looks grumpy,” he says, but I disagree.

Mr. Kardec is frowning, but it’s the kind of frown Dad wears sometimes when he’s thinking really hard. Mom calls it his clockwork face, because she says she can see the cogs turning behind his eyes. But there’s also something eerie in the statue’s gaze. The eyes aren’t made of copper, I realize, but glass: dark marbles threaded with wisps of gray. Mom calls for me, and I turn to see her and Dad waiting by the hotel’s exit. Jacob and I back away from the statue’s ghostly stare. “Ready?” asks Dad, pushing open the door. And with that, we step out into the sun. * * * The heat hits me like a ball of lead.

In upstate New York, where we usually live, the summer sun gets hot, but the shade stays cool. Here, the sun is liquid heat, even in the shade, and the air is like soup. I swing my arm through it, and feel moisture clinging to my skin. But the heat isn’t the only thing I notice. A horse-drawn carriage rumbles past us. A hearse goes the other way. And I’m not even in the Veil. This is the living, breathing version of New Orleans. We’re staying in the French Quarter, where the streets have names like Bourbon and Royal, where the blocks are short and squat, and wrought-iron balconies run like ivy along the front of every building. It’s a collision of color, and style, and sound.

Cobblestones and concrete, twisting trees and Spanish moss. I have never been somewhere so full of contradictions. Edinburgh, the first city we went to for the show, was damp and gray, a city of old stones and hidden paths, its history right on the surface. Paris was bright and clean, gold filigree and wide avenues, its secrets buried underground. New Orleans is—something else. It’s not the kind of place you can capture in a photo. It’s loud, and crowded, and full of things that don’t fit, the clop of horse hooves at odds with the honk of a sedan and a saxophone. There are plenty of restaurants, and tattoo shops, and clothing stores, but in between are windows filled with candles and stones, and pictures of saints, and neon signs with upturned palms, and crystal balls. I can’t tell how much of it is a show put on for tourists, and how much of it is real. And on top of it all—or rather, behind it all—there’s the Veil, full of ghosts, wanting to be heard and seen.

Spirits sometimes get stuck there, caught in a kind of loop of their last moments, and it’s my job to send them on. “Debatable,” says Jacob, who would rather pretend that it’s totally normal for a girl to hear the knock-knock-knock of ghosts and feel the constant pressure of the other side trying to pull her through. “I’m just saying, when has sending ghosts on made your life easier?” I get his point, but it’s not about doing what’s easy. It’s about doing what’s right. Even if, now and then, I wish I could mute the other side. A carriage goes by, decked out in red feather plumes and gold tassels, and I follow behind it, trying to get a good photo. “Hey, Cass, watch out,” says Jacob, right before I run straight into someone. I stagger back, blinking away the darkness. I’m already halfway through saying “Sorry” when I look up and see a skeleton in a pitch-black suit. And just like that, the world slams to a stop.

All the air rushes out of my lungs, and New Orleans drops away, and I’m back on the train platform in Paris, the day we left, staring at the stranger on the other side of the tracks, wondering why no one else has noticed the smooth white skull beneath the wide-brimmed hat. I’m trapped in my skin, unable to breathe, unable to think, unable to do anything but stare into those empty eyes as the stranger reaches up and pulls away the mask, and there’s nothing but darkness beneath. And I’m falling, through those empty eyes, and back into New Orleans, as the skeleton here steps straight toward me, reaching out a bony hand. And this time, I scream.

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