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to such a gentle mind

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Here are what’s clear for Tessa Virtue:

First, that in her nearly 19 years on Earth, she has never had a friend outside of her siblings and her mother. She was homeschooled, her meals are picked and examined carefully by her mom, and she and her sister only talk twice a day in person. All the other times, they do online.

Second, about just a month ago, she suffered a head injury doing… something. She couldn’t remember what it was that she was doing, it was probably something about windows and drainpipes, like she was trying to escape her room. Vague memories of her falling to her doom plague her dreams every now and then, but it’s nothing terrifying. She thinks it’s not out of character for her to try and get a breath of fresh air – even if it could theoretically kill her. That’s part of the effects of her fall, the amnesia. There are gaps in her memories like holes in cheese.

Third, and just about the most bizarre of all that is clear for Tessa Virtue, is that she can see ghosts. Not that she’s ever seen more than the two in her house who frequents her room because she has never been outside, but she’s pretty sure they’re ghosts.

They don’t harm anybody, they’re just… sad, she supposes.

One is this old lady who just wants to have her letter delivered, and the other is a teenaged boy with a red scarf who just wants to find Amelia – whoever that is.

Tessa figured they’re just lost souls who need to do this one final thing before crossing into the afterlife, and she would help them, she really would, if she could just… get out of her room. Because it seems like she’s the only one who can see them, thus putting on her the responsibility of helping them.

And then just as she thought the two ghosts in her house were the biggest mystery in her life, a month into her amnesia, in the middle of October, she finds a boy standing in her room in the middle of the night.

She could scream, she thinks, as the shadowed figure freezes in place, a hand weirdly stretched out as if to touch her. But she couldn’t imagine anything worthy of robbing in her room, it’s just a bunch of boyband posters and her computer. He can take that, she figures. And listen, if a burglar is too scared to steal in the presence of a witness, then he’s not much of a burglar.

There’s nothing but crickets chirping as the silence blankets over the two of them and – oh God, is that how crickets sound with her windows open? The breeze is chilly, but it touches her skin and makes her shiver and it’s glorious.

“There’s not much to steal,” she tells the boy instead, trying to cover the goosebumps on her arms.

The boy, who is not even wearing a mask, steps out of the shadows and into where the moon shines and for the first time, Tessa gets a good look at his face.

“Steal?” he asks, and if she’s ever seen another boy in her life other than her siblings and her boybands, she would probably call this one cute. Aside from the ghastly paleness of his skin and the wide, fear-stricken eyes, he’s handsome.

Tessa nods at his question. “You broke into my room, I assume it’s because you want to steal something. Go take the computer, I won’t scream. Just… don’t hurt me.”

The boy gasps as if she had slapped him, and oh, what would that feel like? To slap someone? Maybe she can try on him and tell him it’s self-defense –

“I won’t hurt you, I promise,” he tells her, and the sincerity in his voice pierces Tessa’s heart like a fast arrow. “I… you… I’ll just go back down.”

He’s one leg out of her window when she decides to be impulsive and get out of her bed to grab at his sleeve, and the look on his face when she touches him, when his head whipped around to look at her, startled beyond his wits, his eyes big and brown and kind of confused, just solidifies her decision. Her grip tightens and she smiles, or tries to smile.

“I’ve – I’ve never had a visitor,” she tells him. “Do you live around here?”

He nods, one leg still out the window. He looks petrified, keeps staring at the hand she has around his bicep and then back at her face like he can’t believe she’s touching him. “Just over there,” he says, pointing at the house just around the rotunda, the one with the Canadian flag on its front porch. “You’ve… never had visitors?”

Tessa shakes her head and looks down, fingers unconsciously playing with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “No. You’re the first.” She looks up at him and lets go, before stepping back and gesturing around her. “Do you want to come in? I promise I won’t tell my mom.”

Reluctantly, slowly, he pulls his leg from outside and shuts the window, awkwardly shivering just by her study desk, like a caged animal. Tessa shouldn’t find it adorable, but he’s chewing on his lip and looking at her with wide eyes and Tessa imagines this would be how a puppy would look if he was caught gnawing at his human’s shoe.

“My name is Tessa, what’s yours?”

“Scott,” he croaks out, still stiff.

“And you’re what? Just weirdly patriotic?” she asks, tilts her head at him.

Scott blinks and frowns, and then he gets it. “The flag? My brother is an ice dancer and he’s going to be an Olympian in less than half a year. Of course, we’re patriotic.” There’s a tone of pride in his voice and a slight smile on his lips, and if that’s not cute that he is so proud of his brother. “And you’re not?”

She giggles. “I am. It’s just – that’s a big flag.”

He purses his lips and kicks at her carpeted floor. “Yeah, my mom couldn’t be talked down into a smaller one.”

Tessa nods and plops down on her bed, staring awkwardly at this boy – Scott, who’s just fiddling with the hem of his sweatshirt and gazing at her from a distance. Somehow, it being midnight and cold and lonely, she does what a normal person who has just had a stranger climb up her window in the middle of the night should never do.

She invites him to sit on her bed to talk.

“To talk? Don’t you talk to your sister?” he asks, but he’s making her way towards her bed. He toes off his sneakers and she snorts because she would have told him to do that anyway. And then –

“How did you know I have a sister?”

He coughs. “I see her all the time. We’re neighbors, remember?”

Tessa nods.

“What do you want to talk about?” Scott asks, and there’s genuine curiosity in his voice.

Tessa looks at her door as if someone could walk in any moment and ostracize her for what she’s about to tell this practical stranger. But she genuinely thinks he can help her with her mission.

“So,” she starts. “I have never told this to anybody, but I see dead people.”

There.

And she couldn’t help it, she had to bring Sixth Sense into this.

She has expected any of the following from Scott just because when she thinks about it, it’s so ridiculous it warrants any of these responses: that he will hysterically laugh at her, effectively waking her entire family up; that he will run for the window and never return again; that he will call her crazy and chalk it up to her sickness.

He is doing none of those things, but instead is looking at her like she’s just given him all the answers in the universe. “Ghosts?” he asks weakly.

Tessa doesn’t know what to do with this reaction. “Y-yes, there’s two in this house.”

Scott takes a deep breath and heaves a huge sigh, brows furrowing in thought. When he looks up at her again, he nods as if in understanding.

“You’re not weirded out by this?” she asks incredulously.

He shakes his head. “I’ve seen strange things too. Just. It’s not hard for me to believe in ghosts.”

“What strange things?” Tessa asks, her bed creaking as she scoots closer. If she’s not the only one who can see ghosts, that would be a relief.

Scott frowns at her comforter and brings a hand through his hair, conflict in his eyes, and it makes her regret ever asking, she just doesn’t know why.

“I’m not… I don’t wanna talk about it yet, sorry,” he says, flinching up at her.

“That’s okay, Scott,” she smiles, reaching out for his hand out of instinct. Instinct that she doesn’t know the origins of – she stops mid-reach and withdraws her hand.

Scott notices and just looks at her with sad eyes.

“So,” he starts, and now there’s a smile on his face like the beginning of a friendship. Tessa likes that smile. “You see ghosts? That’s interesting. Do you talk to them? Do they talk to you?”

“Well, technically, they don’t.” She relaxes and smiles back at him. “There’s this old lady. She shows up at around one in the morning, tries handing me a letter but I couldn’t take it because… well, it’s ghostly. And this boy with a red scarf who just says one name and nothing else.”

“What name?”

“Amelia, just Amelia.”

“Just Amelia?”

Tessa nods. “Yes.” She sighs. “I think they’re trying to ask me for favors to get to the afterlife.”

Scott tilts her head at her like a confused puppy. “How do you know that?”

She shrugs, feels it in her heart that whatever it is that they need her to do, it’s to get to the other side. There’s a strong need in her to help them. “I just do.”

Scott falls silent in front of her, just sitting there at the edge of her bed, deep in thought. She thinks he’d opt to leave, decide that she’s too crazy to deal with, and she’d become just another cuckoo story he tells his outside-world friends. Her chest constricts at the picture in her head.

“Okay,” he says. “How do you think we can help them?”

Tessa’s eyes widen in surprise. “We will?”

“Yeah, I mean there’s a reason only you can see them, right? Must be because you’re meant to help them.”

“That’s what I thought, too,” she says, trying not to squeal with excitement. She can’t be this lucky, that the first friend she finds decides to help her out even if they hadn’t known each other for more than five minutes. “Are you sure you’re down to help?”

Scott smiles and nods. “Of course.” And then he clamps his mouth shut as if he’d just said something embarrassing. It’s weird, but he shakes his head and smiles again up at her. “It’s the least I can do in return for climbing the wrong window and freaking you out.”

“Oh.”

*

They meet at nights, just at nights.

Tessa sleeps during the day (she chalks it up to another side effect of amnesia), wakes up at nine, and expects him to climb through her window by ten.

The second night he sneaks into her room, he’s wearing a Canada hoodie and a red tuque she’s sure has CANADA written on it that’s too dark to read, with a shit-eating grin bright enough to illuminate her whole room.

“Patriotic enough for you?”

She cackles, loud and ugly and she’s about to put a hand over her mouth to cover up the hideous sound when she hears him laugh, too.

He plops down on the bed and toes off his red sneakers, pulls off his red toque, and turns to her with a huge grin. “I have good news,” he tells her, and her heart jumps in her chest. “I think I figured out who Amelia is.”

“Scott! That’s awesome!” she exclaims. “How did you find out?”

He gives her a humble shrug (so full of shit). “I went to the library and did my research. Technically, it wasn’t allowed, but the librarian’s son goes to my aunt’s rink for lessons, and she has access to this huge digitalized town record that she says I can discreetly look into for my school project.”

“You’re so –"

“ – smart –"

“ – evil –”

Tessa buries her giggles into her hand and looks up at Scott, sees the twinkle in his eyes as he watches her get giddy with excitement. She’s only read about adventures like this in books and for one to be happening right now with her as one of the characters feels like a dream come true.

“So,” he clears his throat and tries to restrain his amusement. “I found six Amelia’s in the area. Four of them are not babies, and I got their contact information. We can start by sending them e-mails? I don’t know what we’ll tell them but we gotta let them know about the boy with the red scarf.”

Tessa frowns. “We don’t even know why he’s looking for Amelia.”

“Well, I thought about it,” he says, going to her computer and opening it. “Amelia could be a sister or a niece, a relative who was close to the boy with the red scarf.” He looks at her and points at her computer, “do you mind if I use my account?”

She nods and walks over to look over his shoulder as he types the e-mail. “You can say it’s because you found the scarf.”

He snaps his head up to look at her, brows furrowed. “Do you have it? I thought you couldn’t touch ghost stuff?”

“He gave it to me. I didn’t know what to do with it so I hid it in my closet. But yeah, I have it.”

Scott sighs. “Well that’s a relief, at least we have a motive now.”

It seemed like a really easy solve, Tessa had thought, when Scott found the names in the library. But it turns out that the e-mails reaped nothing when all they got a couple of days later were four “no, what are you even talking about” responses.

Scott frowns at all of them, staring hard at her computer screen that she thinks he’d break it if he stared any longer.

“We can go to them personally and show them the scarf?” she suggests, and he turns on her chair to listen. “Maybe they’re just suspicious. Maybe if we show them, they’ll drop their guards and recognize it.”

Scott chews on his bottom lip, deep in thought. “I don’t know, Tess. They seemed really uninterested. Do you think we should try to e-mail the babies?”

Tessa rolls her eyes and tries not to smile at him but dang it, his humor wins again. “You’re ridiculous.”

He puts his hands up in smug surrender. “Hey, if it makes a pretty girl smile, eh?”

That shuts Tessa up rather quickly and abruptly. No one has ever said she’s pretty, and she wants to ask him about it, to ask if he thinks that’s true or if it’s just something he always says, but he catches the doubt in her eyes and turns sincere and serious.

“Tess, you’re pretty. I wish you’d have more people tell you that so that you’d believe it. But for now, it’s just me, and I’m telling the truth.”

The way he says it, like it’s always the truth, like he’s known her since the beginning of time and he’s thought about it from the start, makes Tessa want to hide her face in embarrassment.

She clears her throat, ignoring the flutter in her chest, and says, “Thank you”, like she hears it every day.

Scott bites his lip and nods, and suddenly, there’s a huge blackhole of silence between them. The mission, as she has fondly called it, is now at a standstill, her computer screen reflecting the e-mail from one Amelia Sherwood just three blocks from this house. She doesn’t think she’s ever had to walk three blocks, if the pacing she’s done in her room doesn’t count.

What would three blocks away from here look like?

It would probably look like Amelia Sherwood’s house. Some more trees, maybe a different kind than the one she has by her bedroom window. And –

Oh my god.

“Oh my god,” she whisper-yells. There is no rationalization to that, but she felt like whisper-yelling and so, Scott, ever the empath, matches her tone.

“What?!” he exclaims.

Tessa clears her throat once more and speaks at a normal volume. “We’re looking in the wrong places!”

“Tess?”

“We’re looking in the wrong places, Scott,” she reiterates and her heart is beating too fast for her body, so she has to pace. “Amelia Sherwood is three blocks east away from this house. The other Amelia’s are closer but not close enough. We have to look closer!”

Scott shoots up from his seat and grabs at her shoulders, winning smile on his face. “This house! We need to look in here.”

“Makes sense,” she says. “This must be where the boy died. But when we bought this place, there was nothing in it. Just a plot of land.”

Scott drops her shoulders and sighs. “The library. I can go in there again, but I doubt whatever they have on this house past the last couple of decades are digitized yet.”

“Then I’ll go with you.”

He raises his gaze to her, grave. “Are you sure?”

Tessa thinks it’s time she’s done some rebelling of her own. “Yeah. Dead sure.”

*

Scott must have thought she was talking about them doing the mission in the morning, so he was most definitely surprised when she started rummaging around her closet for a coat that’s both heavy and dark enough to be apt for the occasion (like in the movies, when the main character goes undercover). She’s thrown it over her nightgown and thought, “eh”, not really thinking about whatever warmth it was going to provide for her.

“We’re really going now?” he hisses now as she dangles her leg down from her window.

She is too giddy and excited to even be mad at him for touching her butt, and partly because she knows he’s just thinking about her safety, but when she finally makes the jump and lands on the ground, his arms catching her fall easily, she feels her body slide down against his and suddenly, there’s fireworks behind her eyelids.

She doesn’t know how long they stayed in that loose embrace, or how long she stared at his wide hazel eyes, but he shakes his head and gives her a blushing smile before letting her go.

“Come on now, it should be easy to break into,” he tells her as they run past her driveway. He takes her hand in his as if on instinct and she lets him. It feels good to have her hand held and she’s not about to protest that.

“Scott Moir,” she mock-gasps. “You’re a delinquent.”

The smirk he gives her makes her insides melt.

*

It turns out he was right, the library really was an easy break-in.

They couldn’t open any of the lights outside in case the guard on duty decided to wake up from his deep slumber and find them out. Luckily, the old archives are downstairs in the basement with a heavy, creaky door that’s loud enough to signal if anyone’s entering.

Scott sighs beside her, looking at the rows of shelves with dusty boxes and hastily strewn folders. “This is going to take all night.”

Tessa breathes in deep, just like she always does when faced with a math problem. “I believe we can do it,” she tells him, and when she turns to look at him, he’s grinning at her.

Scott stays by the door near the light switch, rummaging through a couple of boxes, chewing on his nails as he reads document after document. He looks like a puppy, Tessa thinks distractedly, as she skims through her own stack. He glances at her and smiles before going back to his own thing, and Tessa’s heart skips a couple of beats.

He is cute.

An hour and maybe a half later, she catches him frowning at something he’s reading. “Hey Tess,” he calls out, brows furrowed. “Did you know that in 1890, there was a huge fire in your block?”

“Uh, no I didn’t.”

He looks up at her and gestures to the small shelf next to him. She abandons her work and sits on the shelf beside him, looking over his shoulder as he reads from a yellowed newspaper article.

“It took the lives of two people, destroyed three houses, and took nearly five hours to put out,” he continues. “The fire came from a neglected gaslight.”

“Who died?” she asks, and he turns his head to look at her and – oh god, he’s too close. She can feel his breath on her cheeks and can practically count his eye lashes. She tries to breathe through the weird feeling in her limbs and he looks to be doing the same.

“Atticus Helms and George Findley, residents of the other houses. None from the family whose house started the fire. Your house.”

“How?”

Scott’s eyes skim the page, and then the next, and he makes this pleased noise at the back of his throat. “Their dog saved them.”

She finds herself making the same noise. “Do you have any information on the family who lived in my house?”

“Yeah,” he says, absent-mindedly. “The Morrow’s – here.”

He hands her the article, a black and white picture of a mother, a father, and a boy. This one has no red scarf, but he looks exactly the same as the ghost boy, down to the white overalls and the black shoes. It must be him. Jack Morrow.

“This is him.” Tessa points at the boy in the picture. Scott shifts closer. “It’s him, I’m sure. He just… doesn’t have a sister or… wait. You said they were saved by the dog.”

“Yeah,” he breathes, lost in his thoughts.

She tosses the folder to him, crouches and dives into the box where it came from and fishes out a couple more folders. “This one has the headline ‘Hero Dog Saves Sick Boy from Fire’. April 1890, the Morrow family escaped death by just a hair when their family dog, a golden retriever, woke them up just as the smoke and fire became suffocating. The dog’s name…”

“Amelia. Look,” he says, skimming a finger over a small photo of a smiling dog with a red scarf around her neck. “That’s the red scarf. Jack wants to find Amelia.”

A huge grin overtakes his face, so close to her own that she is momentarily blinded by its brightness. She forgets about the mission, about Amelia and Jack and the fire, and just… she just stares at this boy who looks so proud of her.

“You did it, T,” he says, unabashed joy emanating from him. The nickname feels familiar, it slips out of his mouth like a well-worn term. And then suddenly, his arms are around her, an embrace so warm and so tight that she wants to never let go. He buries his face in her neck and oh god, he smells so good –

“Hello?”

Tessa hears Scott mutter something crass under his breath before his other hand is skimming the wall to his left. There is an audible click before darkness engulfs the whole room, and there is nothing but their pressed hearts beating so loudly that she thinks it echoes against the walls.

“Relax,” he whispers in her ear and. Just. How?

The door creaks open to her left and she tenses even more in his embrace, hiding her face into the crook of his neck. He presses them even further into the wall and they freeze.

Did she put the boxes right where they once were? Maybe she left something on the floor – or maybe she put the wrong box in the wrong place. Oh god, she’s old enough to go to adult court. She can be jailed, oh god –

Scott’s hand skims down her arm, reaching for her fingers, intertwining them between his own, and her pounding heart relaxes a bit.

Right. He’s here, he won’t let anything happen to her.

There’s another couple of minutes of tension, the flashlight beaming through the doorway as if erratically. Tessa holds her breath, shakes in Scott’s arms, but stays quiet. And then –

“Damn ghosts.” The guard mutters under his breath as he jangles his keys.

The door creaks closed and Tessa gulps in a huge breath of air as Scott releases her. He’s breathing hard, too, she notes, and he looks a little flushed but they’re okay.

They take a quick picture of the article and escape the way they came in. She runs along the pavement with a different kind of purpose. She feels alive, she feels well, better than before, and Scott is there running ahead, looking back from time to time to check on her and she can’t help but smile every time he does.

They are laughing as they both collapse on her bed, adrenaline pumping through their veins in a race to their hearts and Tessa has never felt so good.

“We just did that,” she says in an exhale, and Scott laughs breathlessly.

“Yeah, we did. You were so brave.”

Her chest is heaving with deep breaths as she tries to calm down, just as he is doing the same, and if their hands find each other again, well. They just did something illegal and they didn’t get caught. How wonderful is that?

Tessa is pondering on the possibility of Scott kissing her back if she made the first move when the ghost boy materializes through her closet.

Jack Morrow – he wears the same forlorn expression, the same white overalls, the same black shoes. In his hand is a red scarf, outstretched towards her.

“Scott,” she says, squeezing his hand. “He’s here. Jack is here.”

Scott sits up and looks around as if he could see the ghost if he tried. She can tell that he couldn’t when he sighs and looks at her.

Jack the Ghost Boy walks towards her, and then gazes at Scott. “Amelia?” he asks, and even though that’s the only thing he can say, Tessa understands.

“We haven’t found Amelia yet, but we know what happened to you and your family.” She spares a brief glance to Scott. Maybe he finds her talking to a ghost weird, maybe he finds it crazy. But he just stares attentively at her and the space in front of her. He’s trying, Tessa thinks. “You were in a fire and Amelia saved you. Months later, you died from your illness. Amelia lived on, didn’t she?”

“Amelia,” Jack replies, sadder and sadder. He shakes the scarf in front of her and she takes it. It becomes solid in her hands and Scott’s eyes widen.

“I thought you had that in your closet,” he stutters nervously.

She looks to him. “I think he wants us to give this to Amelia.”

“How?”

“There’s a pet cemetery not far from here. Maybe she was buried there.”

Scott purses his lips, contemplating. He fiddles with her comforter. “Are you sure? It’s almost midnight.”

She tilts her head at him in confusion. “I don’t know what you’re worried about, Scott. We’ll make it there and back okay. Besides, I have you.”

That seems to placate him.

As they sprint towards the pet cemetery, he takes her hand in his again just like all those times before, and she lets herself fall into the feeling.

*

It’s past midnight when they find the tiny epitaph.

Amelia, a hero, a friend, it says.

When she lays the red scarf on the stone, she hears Scott let out a soft sigh to her left, and she finds herself thinking about him. Not for the first time.

His gaze has turned soft and melancholy, and it makes her wonder if anyone has ever told him that he has the most expressive eyes. Or that he has the biggest heart, and that the sleeves he wears it on are made of gold. That by choosing to spend his nights with a lonely girl to solve ghost mysteries is quite possibly the biggest manifestation of his compassion.

“What’s on your mind?” she asks, and he gives her a tiny smile.

“I don’t wanna sound grim, we just accomplished something great, maybe helped a suffering soul pass onto the afterlife, but,” he replies, takes a deep breath, and drops his shoulders in calm defeat, “I keep thinking we’d all end up here anyway. What if in the last seconds, I find that I also have some unfinished business and it’s too late? What if no one comes to help me like you did for them?”

She bites her lip because she really doesn’t have an answer for that. She has never died before, so she wouldn’t know.

“Sorry, that was too… sad.”

“Hey,” she says, wrapping her fingers around the hand he has tucked inside the pocket of his hoodie. “You’re not going to die. You’re going to live forever.”

A heart like yours, she doesn’t say, will be remembered for a long time.

He shakes his head and smiles anyway, even when the sadness wraps around them like a warm blanket. It’s sort of a comforting embrace in the middle of a moonlit graveyard, like it’s supposed to be this way.

“I don’t know about that,” he replies, and then he clears his throat. “I know a 24-hour diner just a block away from here. We can get some milkshakes to go and then make it back to your house by 1:30?”

Tessa raises an incredulous eyebrow. “In this weather?”

The mischief on his lips returns with bravado. “Just say yes, Tess.”

She’s helpless. “Okay, yes.”

*

The milkshake makes her shiver all the way back to her house, but he just gives her his hoodie, wraps her up in her “undercover” coat, and then drapes an arm around her shoulders, his warmth seeping through the layers so steadily that she thinks he’s never been cold his entire life.

“Why are you so warm?” she asks just as she slurps at the bottom of her cup.

He smiles down at her, smug. “My aunt owns a rink, practically grew up in it. Built a superb endurance to the cold.”

“Glad it didn’t make your head fly,” she deadpans.

“What?”

“All that hot air?”

He snorts. “Oh. Ha-ha-ha.” His arm tightens around her just as they round a corner and into her driveway.

When he goes to say good night, he’s dangling by her window, his feet firmly on a branch, his arms perched still on her sill. He’s smiling at her, drunk on adrenaline and an amazing night, just like she is.

“Good night,” he says quietly, meekly. He tries containing his smile, but it shows. Tessa is warm with it.

“Good night,” she replies a little breathlessly.

He leans over, the branch creaks ominously under his shifting weight, but still. He plants a brief kiss to her cheek, just a quick one, just a peck. And then he pulls away, climbs down, down, down the tree expertly. When he reaches the ground, he gives her a final wave good bye, and then he’s gone in the night.

*

Jack the Ghost Boy is nowhere to be found the next night. Nor the nights after that.

Tessa can only hope that he’d actually gone into the light like Scott had said.

“Relax, T,” he says, nose now buried in one of her Baby-Sitters Club books on her futon. It’s the third night in a row that they hadn’t done anything but hang out. Tessa likes it, she really likes it, perhaps more than what is allowed because Scott is funny and curious, and he’s been raiding her book stash since three nights ago, asking her about all the books she has, and it’s endearing. “I’m sure he’s okay now.”

He seems to be enjoying the Phantom Phone Calls thoroughly, his feet – dangling at the bottom – swinging distractedly. He’s being cute right now, but –

“I thought you were here to discuss the plans for the last mission?” she asks, and when he doesn’t look up, she chucks one of her pillows at him.

It hits him squarely on the head and he yelps, picking the pillow up from the floor. “What’s in this? Concrete?”

“You’re stalling,” she notes, and then gives him a look. “Why are you even in my book stash?”

He raises an eyebrow. “Can’t a guy like reading?”

“Yes, he can – but don’t you have reading materials at home?”

“My brothers only have car magazines, and my mom won’t let me touch her novels, so yeah. You can say I have been deprived.” He sits up and closes the book firmly, putting it on her desk with a resigned sigh. “This old ghost lady, what’s her deal?”

“She has a letter,” Tessa prefaces, and then frowns. “But she doesn’t speak. So, I wouldn’t know what to do about it other than guess that she wants it delivered?”

“Did it also materialize out of thin air when you took it from her?”

Tessa giggles. “You’re still spooked by that, aren’t you?”

Scott frowns. “Tessa, that’s basically just magic. In front of my eyes.”

She shakes her head and smiles. She’s come to accept that there are things that cannot be explained. Like how she can now see ghosts after hitting her head pretty hard, or like how out of all the windows to climb wrongly, Scott chose hers. Or how she hasn’t died yet from exposure to the outside world. Or like how after asking the old lady where the letter was, she pointed at a loose floorboard in her bedroom and there it was – yellowing, almost water-stained beyond coherency. But there it was.

It’s basically just magic, as Scott had put it.

She keeps it in a small box by her bed, hasn’t opened it in fear that it just might disintegrate the moment she unravels it, but there’s an address written on it in impressive cursive. When she shows Scott, he takes it in his hands as gingerly as she had when she found it.

“This looks super old,” he murmurs, as if speaking any louder would turn it into dust. He turns it over to read the inscription. “14 Coral Drive, Hamilton – Tess, this address is an hour’s drive away.”

She knew he’d say that, that’s why she has her brother’s keys under her pillow. Casey hasn’t been home for days, away on a business trip outside the country. When he left his car keys with her, it’s because he was confident that she wouldn’t use it.

Because she doesn’t know how to drive.

But she’s willing to bet everything that Scott does.

Twenty minutes later (after watching for the door to the garage with bated breath, praying that the car starting wouldn’t wake her mom up) they’re pulling into the 403 with the heating on blast and a country music station in low volume. Scott keeps stealing glances over to her, smiling when he gets caught, and then averting his eyes shyly.

(Like every male lead to every coming-of-age movie that Tessa’s ever seen. She tries not to feel anything about it.)

He’s murmuring under his breath and it takes Tessa another minute to figure out that he’s singing along to the old country songs on the radio.

The box is on her lap, firm in her grip, with her thoughts running. It’s 10:40 PM, they will probably reach Hamilton by 11 if Scott keeps with the speed he’s currently at. How likely will this household still be awake at that time? What if they come all the way from London to Hamilton and they still fail?

She chews her bottom lip and looks out the window, seeing distant city lights pass by in a blur. It doesn’t look new, nor does it look familiar – just stuck between the feeling of having seen it before but not remembering ever seeing it. For the first time, she wonders if she will ever get to see the outside world for more than a few hours at a time at night. Not for the first time, she wonders if she could see the outside world more with this boy still by her side, showing her the ropes, making her feel included.

She starts when a hand lands on the one she has on top of the box. She looks at Scott’s hand, and then to his face. He’s looking ahead, dutifully watching the road, but his palm is warm around the back of hers and it’s comfort that’s unspoken. He doesn’t know what’s going on in her mind, but he somehow knew she needed this.

“Hey,” he tells her in a soft voice. “We’re gonna get that letter where it needs to go. Whatever it takes.”

She nods, and out of a sudden urge, she turns her hand over and slips her fingers between his. They stay like that for the rest of the drive.

*

There is a light on in the living room of the bungalow, faint and seemingly coming from the glow of a TV screen. Tessa hesitates by the front porch until Scott takes her by the elbow and leads her to the door.

She wouldn’t call this house shabby, she doesn’t think she’s ever seen a shabby house to know what it would look like, but there are chips in the paint job and a few cracking wooden panels around the awning. The porch gives a rattling creak when they both stepped on it, and the door looks like it had lived through two world wars.

She looks at Scott and he shrugs.

She takes a deep breath, clutches the box tightly in one hand, the other lifting to knock when the door opens a fraction to reveal half a face and half a squinted eye –

Scott startles. “Shit,” he mutters under his breath, spooked.

The face, obscured by the door, is of a middle-aged man well into his late fifties, gray hair and beard and lots of deep lines all around. He’s frowning, annoyed, Tessa can tell.

“Get lost,” the old man croaks.

He moves to slam the door to their faces when Scott slips a hand past the jamb, effectively blocking it. Scott flinches, curses again this time louder, but he doesn’t let go.

“What the heck are you doing?” the old man asks gruffly, opening the door wider. Still not an invitation nor a warm welcome but at least he’s listening.

Tessa grips Scott’s injured arm and says, “We’re here to deliver a letter.”

The man scoffs and rolls his eyes. “If you’re here to scam me, young lady, I have nothing to give.”

Tessa, fueled by determination and a little bit of anger, thrusts the box to the old man’s face and watches as he flinches a step back.

“I ain’t openin’ that, missy,” he says.

Tessa does it for him, and when he sees what’s in it, he freezes. Tessa and Scott share a quiet look before watching the man fish the letter out of the box with care. He inspects the back, reads the words carefully, and then looks back at the two of them.

“Where did you find this?” he asks, none of the vitriol in his voice like before.

Tessa holds onto Scott’s hand. “Under the floorboards of my house.”

The man squints his eyes again. “Impossible, the house was demolished when my mother died.”

She shrugs. She doesn’t really think the man would appreciate her telling him that the ghost of his dead mother told her to deliver the letter to him.

There’s a whole minute of them just staring at each other, and Tessa really thinks he’s going to open the door and let them in, explain what the letter is all about, maybe tell them a little about the old ghost lady –

Until the man rips the letter in two – four pieces, not even bothering with the litter it makes on his front porch. He gives them both a severe frown and slams the door to their faces.

They stand there, stunned.

They also sit in the car on the drive home, stunned.

It isn’t until they’re both sitting on her bed that she shakes her head and says, “That can’t be it.”

He does the same, disbelief still written all over his face. “He just ripped the letter to shreds.” He has his head in his hands, running his finger through his hair. “We didn’t even get to know what’s in it.”

Tessa’s really lucky that she’s smart. When she produces the ripped letter from her coat pocket, his face transforms from wonder to glee, so bright that she really, really wants to know how it tastes. Preferably from a kiss.

“I thought if he didn’t want it, we might as well know what it’s about,” she tells him as she gets the clear tape from her drawer.

They try their hardest to piece the jagged edges together, coherent enough to be read. And when they do, she holds it up to the moonlight.

She feels Scott’s warmth by her shoulder, his proximity making butterflies erupt in her stomach. He’s reading over her shoulder, fingers skimming lightly at her waist, seemingly distractedly and Tessa couldn’t find it in her to tell him to stop because she really likes it.

“It’s an apology letter from Dahlia, his mom,” Scott says, breath so close to her ear. “She’s asking for forgiveness from his son Shannon because of… love? You should be able to love who you want to love, what does that mean – oh.”

He looks down at her, brows furrowed. “Maybe we don’t have to give this a second time. Maybe the old ghost lady is gone now.”

The old ghost lady gives her a little wave from the corner of the room. “Nope, she’s still here.”

Scott slumps behind her, his chin resting on the crook of her neck, and she can tell, she can just hear the sad frown on his face when he says, “We don’t have to go back to Hamilton for this, right? I mean we did everything we could.”

She tries to turn her head to look him in the eye but he’s far too close and comfortable there that she loathes to disturb him, instead she leans on his cheek and sighs with him. “You really don’t want to go back there, huh?”

“The old man – Shannon – spooked me.”

“We might have to.”

“Te-ess,” he whines.

“We can’t finish the mission this way, Scott.”

He mumbles something that she can’t hear, even with how close his mouth is to her ear.

“What’s that?” she asks and he burrows further into her neck.

“I said maybe I don’t want this to end yet,” he replies.

And this time, she turns around in his arms and takes his face in her hands. “Hey, look at me.” He lifts his eyes to hers, and she’s struck by the sadness in them, the sadness in the pet cemetery, the sadness when that same night, he ordered her some kind of milkshake she didn’t know she liked. She wants to ask him what he’s so sad about, she wants to ask if she can make it better, but her heart feels too heavy for that.

Maybe sometime later.

“After this, I’m going to get better. We’re finally going to be able to meet in the mornings, and the afternoons, I promise.” She strokes his cheeks with her thumbs and he smiles, still not reaching his eyes, but it’s a start. “For now, you’re just gonna have to climb my window every night. Or maybe I can climb yours –“

He starts, hands going up her arms to grasp at her, rather tightly. “No, don’t do that, please.”

“Why? I can climb my own window, how difficult can yours be?”

If anything, his eyes turn even more desperate. “You – don’t have to. My mom… placed sensors. Around the house. There’s going to be a lot of questions if you get caught.”

Tessa laughs. “Okay, jesus.” He smiles in relief. “But when I get better, you’re going to take me to your house and we’ll climb up your stairs. Not your window.”

She watches him blush for a whole second until what she just said sinks in. She just invited herself to his room. Like a come on. She clears her throat, and suddenly, she feels everything.

The skin under her fingers, the breath on her cheeks, the weight of his stare. His parted lips. The inhales of his chest. His hands on her waist.

His lashes flutter in realization.

“Sure,” he says, voice rough.

She doesn’t even debate anything in her head when she goes on her toes and kisses his cheek, lingering for a fraction of a second. It feels like more than that, but she doesn’t mind at all. When she pulls away to say good night, his eyes are glazed over with something heated.

“See you tomorrow night?” she asks, and he leans in another inch, eyes trained on her lips.

He licks his own and nods. “Yeah. Tomorrow night.”

He leaves and doesn’t kiss her on the mouth unlike the alternate ending in her head, but she can always do it tomorrow night. Or the night after that.

*

Tomorrow night finds them in her brother’s car again, going somewhere a little over the speed limit, with a nervous energy between them.

When Scott got up her window at exactly 10 in the evening, he took her hand and told her to get her brother’s keys, the letter, and her “undercover” coat. She asked why, he said, “I’ve got an idea, but you gotta commit to it.”

He meant that they’re going to reveal to Shannon that she sees his mother’s ghost and tell him everything.

“I don’t know, Scott,” she tells him for the twentieth time as they exit the highway. “This feels too… crazy.”

He looks at her, all sincerity and determination. “No, it’s the truth. We’re going to convince him to read his mother’s last message, and if he still doesn’t forgive her, we can’t force that. We just… we have to try.”

Three knocks and a near kick to the door, Shannon opens it as cautiously as the night before. The first thing he says to them is, “I’m going to call the police.”

“No, wait!” Scott calls, stepping forward ever closer to the door. “Just give us a chance, we promise we’re not here to do anything bad. I’m Scott, this is Tessa. It’s just… your mother –“

“She’s dead.”

“Yes,” Scott presses on. “And she talked to us. To her, specifically.”

Tessa feels like it’s time to step into the man’s line of sight and take it from here. “Your mother’s name was Dahlia, she lived right where I live right now, and her last wish before she died was to give you this letter.” She takes a deep calming breath, Scott’s hand finding hers immediately to ground her. “She sits in my room, crying every night for me to deliver the letter. We believe if you just give her the chance, read it, she’s going to be content and… go into the light.”

Shannon eyes the two of them for such a long time that Tessa honestly thinks they were going to spend the whole of the night doing just that.

But he must have seen something because he rolls his eyes and opens the door wide enough to gesture for them to come in. Tessa’s heart leaps in her chest and she pulls Scott into the threshold of the quaint home.

There’s not much in the living room, she notes. Just a couple of couches, a center table, a small TV, and a fireplace right at the corner. The kitchen is just a few steps away, clean and dark. Shannon turns the lights on and lets them sit on one of the couches.

He tells them to wait before disappearing into a room in the hallway, and they sit in silence until he returns with a box of his own. A shoebox, much larger than Tessa’s. He takes the seat in front of them, plopping the box down on the table without much care.

“Fifteen years, a hundred letters – well, a hundred and one,” he says, face hard with reining in emotion. “She sent them to me every so often, ever since she kicked me out of the house. Do you kids know how it was like to live on your own at sixteen?”

They shake their heads.

He grimaces. “It was hard. I had nowhere to go to, my friends let me into their homes, but they eventually had to kick me out too because I couldn’t keep a job. Because I’m gay.”

Shannon opens the shoebox and shows them the letters, all unopened. Except for one. He takes it out to unravel in front of them.

“This was the first letter she ever sent me. It says:

Dear Shannon,

Please come back home. We can talk to a doctor about your condition. I miss you.

He scoffs so bitterly that Tessa can feel it in her heart. “My condition. I still – I didn’t believe it. I was healthy, sound, and I love like others do. I wasn’t sick. I never opened any of the letters she sent me anymore, I moved on with my life, got a job, a steady paycheck, and got the hell out of London.

“And then you kids barge in here in the middle of the night to disturb my peaceful life to remind me of that godawful woman. What gave you the right?”

Silence.

There’s nothing to say, really.

Instead, she stares at the letters, trying to figure out how to break it to the old ghost lady that her son would never forgive her. What happens to her soul then? Will she just stay on earth forever? Do some souls just… never get their peace?

“You kept the letters,” Scott says, voice small in the midst of the heaviness of the atmosphere.

“What?” Shannon says, fixing him with a hard stare.

“You could have burned them or thrown them away,” Scott continues. He doesn’t seem to be pressing on strongly, more like laying out his own heart. “But you kept them. You said you don’t wanna be reminded of her but here she is, in a shoebox in your room.”

“You’re wrong to assume anything, boy,” Shannon tells him. “You don’t know me.”

Scott chews his bottom lip but looks at the older man with steel in his eyes. “No, I don’t. And I can’t ever know what it feels like to be treated the way you were treated. I’m also not going to tell you to forgive her if you don’t want to. But… you kept your mom’s letters. There must be some place in your heart that wants to know what she was trying to tell you.

“Even if it doesn’t change your mind about her, why don’t you give it a chance? If not for her, then for your heart?”

Tessa stares at the boy beside her, her heart fluttering wildly in her chest. There’s so much compassion in him that she doesn’t know what to do with it if it’s ever directed at her. Does he know that? Does he know that he’s the most kind-hearted person she’s ever known?

Scott picks up a letter, the date says it was sent eighteen years ago. He hands it to the man. “Try this one.”

To her (and quite possibly, his) surprise, Shannon takes it from him and carefully rips at the flap. He’s slow to unfold the letter, slow to read, his eyes going over every line maybe twice, thrice, and by the end, after perhaps five minutes or so, he folds it back and sets it aside.

He doesn’t speak as he lifts another letter, this time skimming the words faster. And then he takes another. And then another.

By the fifth letter, he has tears in his eyes. Scott is gripping her hand so tightly, and she’s gripping back just as tight.

And then suddenly, the hallway lights turn on and a voice speaks from the room. “Shannon, honey?”

They both look up to see a man, perhaps the same age as Shannon, sleepy still, eyes squinted at them. Shannon doesn’t even look up when the man approaches him from behind, arms going around his shaking shoulders.

“Hey guys, who might you two be?” the other man asks.

Shannon takes the hand on his shoulder with affection that makes Tessa feel like she’s seeing love for the first time all over again. “These are Tessa and Scott. They delivered my mother’s last letter. Kids, this is my husband, Daley.”

“Nice to meet you two,” Daley nods at them. “And thank you for doing this. Are you sure your parents know where you two are?”

Scott makes an indignant frown. “I’m an adult, sir.”

Daley laughs, not unkindly. “Could have fooled me, son.”

It’s true, he doesn’t look his age at all.

Daley takes the space beside Shannon, hands clutching the other man’s as he trembles with the current letter he’s on.

“He’s only ever opened this box on desperate days,” Daley tells them quietly. Shannon lets him, and there is something about a person knowing your heart so well that strikes something deep in Tessa. “This is the first time in a long while.”

Shannon sniffs and wipes his tears with his sleeve before meeting their gazes. “This is not forgiveness. There’s a lot of other things to sort out. But… thank you.”

And then, for the first time ever since last night, he gives them a small smile.

They stay for the tea that Daley makes as Shannon reads some more letters, finding little trinkets inside some of the envelopes, smiling at some, tearing up at some.

When they finish their cups of tea, they bid the couple goodbye and get into the car. The minute the doors are closed, Scott gathers Tessa in a hug so tight and so warm, it sets her heart racing.

“We did it, T,” he says into her hair softly, delicately. She wants to look at him, to thank him, or maybe kiss him, but he pulls her closer still. “Not yet, please.”

She doesn’t complain.

*

It’s close to sunrise when they pull up at her driveway and all of a sudden, he’s pulling her out of her seat and into the garage.

There’s something different with the way he’s holding her, so fragile, like she’s going to disappear any minute. She catches a glimpse of the hazel of his eyes and finds there fear and regret – but why?

“Scott?”

He hangs his head and breathes in deep. “I don’t ever want to lose you,” he blurts out, a bit too loud for the time. She worries that her family would hear, but her heart’s louder in her ears. She doesn’t feel good, like she wants to vomit, but she pushes the feelings aside. “I’m sorry, Tess.”

“What are you saying?” she asks, the cavity of her chest feeling like a sinkhole. “These past nights have been the greatest nights of my life, Scott. I won’t ever give that up for anything. You’re not losing me.” And then, because it’s true, she says: “It’s all I could ever ask for.”

His eyes widen, tears brimming, and he shakes his head heavily. “Don’t say that, please.”

“You’re… you’re scaring me, what’s happening, Scott?”

He takes another deep breath and holds her by her arms, and she feels the sinkhole in her chest widen a huge margin. “Do you remember ever sleeping? Do you even remember ever having to take a meal? Taking a shower? Do you remember doing anything that should happen in the day?”

Her voice is small and weak when she answers. “No.”

“It’s – it’s my fault, Tess, I’m so sorry.”

“What are you talking about?!”

“That night – the first night I climbed into your window, it’s a week after you fell from my window. You fell from my window, Tessa. We were just… we were sneaking around at night like kids, and then you… you fell and hit your head.

“I didn’t expect to see you in your bedroom when just that morning, I called your mom and she told me you’re still in a coma. But when I did, I just. I wanted to make everything right. You were there and I – you looked so real, you’re still so real, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“When I climbed up there, I was just there to, I don’t know. Apologize. You know me, I’m a sentimental asshole. I couldn’t visit you, I couldn’t bring myself to visit you because I know it’s all my fault. My best friend is in a coma, and she might lose all the memories of us, and I couldn’t gather common decency to just. Visit. I’m sorry.”

Tessa stands there, stunned, feeling like someone just grabbed her feet and dragged her all around the muddied ground. She feels terrible, the nausea coming back full force. “I don’t understand,” she tells him, or the rising sun, or the cool breeze, or the sinkhole the size of a small country in her heart. She doesn’t know.

“You’re not really here, Tess.” He cups her cheek with his palm and makes her look at him. “Every morning, I watch you disappear from your bedroom. You’re in the hospital. You’re asleep.”

“Is this a dream?”

He gives her a sad smile. “I hope not. It’s been the best nights of my life, too.”

“Can I do something then?” she asks, and even if she doesn’t feel well, she wants to do it. She wants to kiss him.

“Anything, Tess.”

So she does.

She stands on her toes and kisses him, softly on the lips, like a feather. He grasps at her undercover coat, slipping a hand into it, bunching her night gown with a hand, the other in her hair. It’s brief, but she feels warm all around, and for a second, she feels alive.

“Please don’t say this is good bye,” he murmurs against her lips, his own glistening and a little bit swollen.

The last thing she sees is his tear-stained cheeks, and his sad gaze, before white light floods around her.

*

Scott Moir watches from behind the Virtue’s driveway’s bush as Kate Virtue’s car lights up and skids down and into the street, four in the morning on the dot.

His heart breaks into a million pieces.

If that was good bye, he just hopes it’s what she had hoped it would be.

*

He gets maybe a couple hours of shallow sleep before his phone rings. It’s buried under his duvet, falls out and onto the ground as he was shifting around to look for it.

“Hello?”

“Get here, Scott. I called your mom, she’s awake already, she’ll take you here.”

It’s Jordan, Tessa’s sister. He couldn’t read her tone, or maybe he’s just too heartbroken to even decipher her, but he gets dressed and gets into the car with his mother.

The drive to the hospital is silent, his heart in his throat. Maybe this really is good bye.

Even when his mom tells him it’s going to be alright, he couldn’t put his heart into the smile he answers her with.

Jordan is there to greet them when they arrive, but instead of the gloom that he was expecting, she’s smiling. Like there’s good news. As if –

“She’s awake, Scott.” Jordan takes him by the wrist. “She’s been asking for you.”

*

“The doctors all said she’s going to lose some of her memories,” Kate Virtue tells him as he stands by the door. “It just… she seems like she hadn’t lost any.”

Scott just nods, still shocked to the core. His legs feel like jelly and his mind is all foggy, throbbing with a diluted headache, chanting Tessa’s name over and over again.

She’s okay.

She’s awake.

She’s asking for you.

The moment he enters the room, they’re left to their own devices. Tessa is sitting up on her bed, hair tumbling down her shoulders like she had just woken up from her beauty sleep – gorgeous in the morning light streaming through the half-closed blinds, and god. He just kissed her. It felt so real.

She smiles at him and all is right in the world once again.

She beckons him with a nod and he’s helpless, feet taking him to her bedside. And just like all the other times before, she pulls him in for an embrace so warm and so real – it’s real. He hopes to god that she remembers everything.

“Did we just go on adventures for nights on end?” she asks in his arms and he laughs, he couldn’t help it. He feels so relieved, so goddamn blessed.

“We did,” he replies. “We snuck into the library. We drove from London to Hamilton. We did all that, T.”

“And I kissed you,” she says, pulling away. Her green eyes sparkle alive in the natural light and his heart skips maybe a couple beats.

He smiles. “I’m glad you remembered.”

She shakes her head and matches his smile with a grin. “I could never forget, Scott.”

And god, he’s making a lot of promises in his head right now. In his heart. But for the rest of their lives, if the universe allows, he’ll spend every waking hour fulfilling them. He’s never letting her go again.

He’s going to make every day an adventure until the end of their days.