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Chapter 9. “So,” Gerard coughed, fiddling with his scalpel nervously as he gathered his courage
“So,” Gerard coughed, fiddling with his scalpel nervously as he gathered his courage. Ray glanced up from his tray of frog and fish bits. They were supposed to be doing comparative anatomy or something, but the organs had gotten a bit… mixed during the dissection process, and he and Ray were basically winging it now. “So, uh. Do you remember that guy you were talking about at lunch? The one who went missing?”
“Yeah,” Ray said slowly, abandoning the monstrous frog-salamander-abomination-with-gills he was constructing and peering at Gerard through his goggles. “Frank. Why?” Ray abruptly looked concerned. “Oh, Gerard, are those fuckers giving you a hard time again? I thought they’d backed off.”
“Huh?” Gerard asked, leaving off prodding what might be a swim bladder with his pencil. Ted was still doing the ‘oh, look, a Gerard-shaped hole in the fabric of reality’ schtick and Isaac had stopped staring at him quite so often, probably because midterm exams were coming up and he couldn’t afford to miss that much of lectures anymore. “Oh, no, they’re still backed off, mostly.”
Noltes had gone back to shoving Gerard into walls with his massive shoulders, actually. Gerard couldn’t decide if this was because he had the memory of a goldfish, or if he’d decided that Gerard couldn’t pull any creepy supernatural shit on the school grounds. Either way, it wasn’t a huge deal.
Ray moved like he was going to put a hand on Gerard’s shoulder and Gerard reeled away, horrified. Taking his fish-covered hand back, looking slightly abashed, Ray said, “We won’t let them disappear you. Don’t worry, Gee.” He looked ridiculous, big earnest eyes and giant goggles and hair up in two pom pom ponytail holders, and if they weren’t both holding sharp implements and covered in dead things, Gerard would have totally hugged him.
“Thanks, man,” he said quietly, and then tried to gear himself up for another go at the ghost-talk. “But, uh, that’s… not exactly why I brought it up. I just, um. Well. Remember that shit you said, about seeing Frankie’s ghost?”
“Oh, that,” Ray said, sounding a bit embarrassed. He went back to poking the mass of entrails. “I didn’t exactly see his ghost, man. It was just… you know, smoke. Coldness. It was weird. I dunno, maybe I imagined it.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Gerard said in a hushed voice, biting his lip. “I… you didn’t. I’ve been going into the forest, and I’m telling you, you didn’t imagine it. It was Frank.”
“Look, don’t fuck around,” Ray said, and Gerard grabbed his hand, ignoring the cough of ‘faggot’ from the lab table behind them and the really disgusting squelch of formaldehyde and worse things between the latex of their gloves.
“I’m not!” Gerard said, trying to sound as serious as possible. “It’s the truth, and I can prove it, I can. Just, trust me. I didn’t want to tell you before, because I thought… well, it sounds crazy, right? But I’ve got to get back to the woods this afternoon. I just… I have to. And I thought, well. Since you guys are so gung-ho on following me everywhere, you could come too. If you want.” Gerard cringed and tried to smile hopefully at the same time, and probably just wound up looking demented.
Ray, to his credit, didn’t shake Gerard off. He did look at Gerard consideringly, though, like maybe he was about to call a mental health professional and obtain Gerard a nice pretty white straightjacket.
It was probably for the best Gerard hadn’t brought up the ‘also, I want to date your dead friend’ thing yet.
“Look, Gee, I…” Ray started, sounding doubtfully, but Gerard cut him off.
“Just come out there with me, just once,” Gerard said, with his best smile and biggest, most pleading eyes. “Just, you know, if I’m crazy, I’m crazy. And if I’m not, well… what’s the worst that could happen, right?”
“You’re fucking crazy,” Bob said two hours later, stomping his feet in the puddles of mud and dead leaves, scowling at the empty path. “There’s no one out here, Way. Now can we go back to Ray’s? I’m starving.”
“He always shows up,” Gerard replied absently, wringing his hands and peering through the pale columns of tree trunks, sunlight streaming between them and casting sharp shadows everywhere. Frank didn’t appear from any of them. “He always does, eventually. He’ll be here in a second.” Maybe Frank was freaked out by Bob and Ray being there, but Bob wouldn’t be left behind once Ray’d clued him in to what was going on. Or… Frank had said sometimes he just lost time, like he stopped existing, went somewhere else. Just stopped. Sally’s ghost was fading away, what if Frank had faded too? What if he was gone forever? Fuck, Gerard should have just skipped school and submitted more detention. It’d have been worth it—worse things would be worth it. If Frank had faded... fuck, Gerard couldn’t even think about it.
“Frank?” he called again, cupping his hands around his mouth and fighting back what felt a lot like tears. Ray and Bob were staring at him, he could see them out of the corner of his eyes, and he didn’t care, because fuck. Fuck, Frankie. “Frankie, c’mon, man.” His voice cracked miserably and his shoulders slumped, and then Ray let out what sounded a lot like a shriek and Gerard was engulfed in freezing cold and falling down on his ass in the mud.
“You came back,” Frank said into his neck, and Gerard breathed in an aching lungful of air. “You came back.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Gerard said finally, voice thick. “Of course I did. Where were you?”
“Where was I?” Frank snorted, leaning back finally. He looked like he always did, same ragged t-shirt and jeans and curl of tattoos peeking out around his neck and arms, and he was the best thing Gerard had ever seen. “Where were you? It’s been… it’s been a couple days, right?”
“Yeah,” Gerard said, smiling helplessly as Frank leaned into him, running his hands over Gerard’s arms like he might disappear, like he wanted to soak Gerard in. Probably he’d just missed Gerard’s body heat, but still. It was really fucking nice. “Yeah, I’m sorry, Frankie, I didn’t mean to. Shit got kind of intense at school.” Fucking detention. “And,” he coughed a bit nervously, because Frank seemed not to have noticed yet, but it was only a matter of time and it was probably better to bite the bullet or whatever. “Uh, I brought some people with me?”
“Hmm?” Frank said, and started patting Gerard’s pockets, making a face. “C’mon, man, I know you’ve got smokes. Hand ‘em the fuck over.”
“Holy shit,” Ray said in an even higher voice than usual, and Frank’s head shot up.
“So,” Gerard said hopefully into the ensuing silence. Ray was backed up against a maple tree and was staring at Frank, like—okay, like he was a ghost. Fair enough, but it wasn’t as though Frank was pulling any Poltergeist shit. He was just shaking Gerard down for cigarettes, like usual. Bob was just watching him with narrowed eyes and his arms crossed over his chest. “Uh, can you guys see him too, then?”
“Well,” Bob said, eyes somehow going even narrowed-er. “I see some dude crawling all over you. Doesn’t look like a ghost to me.”
“I don’t, huh,” Frank said, grinning sharply and rocking back on his heels. Gerard abruptly got a bit worried, and, okay, maybe he wasn’t really used to not being the entire focus of Frank’s attention. But that was the point, right? Gerard didn’t want to be the be-all, end-all of Frank’s social circle. Frank deserved to have more than just one crazy dude stalking him in a forest. But Frank had a really weird look on his face, like maybe he was going to go all ninja-translucent and push Bob in a puddle, and that would be really, really bad and definitely put a crimp in Gerard’s plan to for them to all be best friends forever.
“Frank?” Ray squeaked finally, edging closer, eyes huge. “I don’t—is that you?”
“Toro,” Frank said warily, waving a hand, and Ray edged a step closer. “Wow, you weren’t joking about the hair,” he said to Gerard out of the corner of his mouth.
“But I don’t—it doesn’t look like you,” Ray said weakly, voice wobbling alarmingly. Whatever he saw had to be really damned out there, because he was white as a sheet of printer paper, eyes all dark pupil.
Frank shrugged laconically, but Gerard could see the tension in the lines of his mouth and shoulders. “Yeah, well. It’s still me.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and offered a wan smirk. “How you been? Heard you still play guitar.”
“Oh my god, it’s really him,” Ray gushed, and rushed forward and then came to a stop again, wrapping his arms around himself and looking conflicted. “Fuck, Frankie, we all thought you were—well, I guess you are dead. This is so weird.”
“Tell me about it,” Frank offered, smile genuine now, if still a little sad. “Sorry about last time you were out here, dude. I don’t mean to come off all terrifying and shit.” He paused, considering. “Well, not most of the time.”
Ray looked sort of sheepish, to be honest, and then turned to gauge Bob’s response. Bob was staring at all of them like they’d gone insane. “So… you can see him? How is that fair?”
“I can see him,” Bob said, long-suffering and annoyed. He eyed Frank suspiciously. “He looks like a normal dude.”
“Hey now,” Frank laughed, and wiggled his tattooed hands. “Normal? Don’t insult me. Normal ain’t what I was going for, man.”
“Oh,” Ray said, gnawing at his thumb and regarding Gerard and Frank with wide eyes. “I kind of… I see mostly smoke, still. Like, in the outline of a person.” He sketched a vague shape in the air with his other hand. “And maybe, uh, a skull? It’s pretty fucked up, dude.”
“Really?” Gerard piped up, interested. “That’s so cool! I wonder why Bob and I can see Frank and you can’t. Have you ever seen any other dead people, Bob?”
“Why is my life suddenly a Shyamalan film?” Bob grumbled to himself, and glared at them all.
“No, I mean, okay, our sample size is currently three, fine, but two of us can see Frank perfectly well, and one of us sees a freaky Metallica skullbeast thing,” Gerard pointed out, and Frank sighed and went to fetch him his notebook. Gerard took it absently and started scribbling. “There has to be some commonality, right? What makes Bob and me different? Maybe it’s something in the water in Glen Fell. Bob and me are both outsiders, right?”
“Well, maybe, but maybe it’s genetic?” Ray looked fascinated, edging closer. “I mean, fuck, it could be anything.”
“Okay, guys, this is fun and all, but he’s not a ghost,” Bob said firmly. “Look at him, he’s just a guy.”
“Frank, don’t ghost out on Bob yet,” Gerard proclaimed imperiously, clutching Ray’s palm and trying to will ghost-feelings through their skin. “I want to see if we can get Ray to see you.” He darted forward and took Ray’s hand. “Maybe you can see him if I, like, share my ghost-vision with you?”
“And how would you do that?” Frank said dryly, coming up behind them and looming, making ogre-like faces at Ray.
Gerard would have chided him—Ray was totally on the verge of flipping out, Gerard could tell—but he was busy concentrating. He gritted his teeth and felt a muscle in his jaw jumping.
A moment passed, during which Bob muttered direly about their sanity.
“Nope. Still just a freaky smoke beast,” Ray said, staring at Frank.
“Well, maybe you should let go of him and let me try, brainiac,” Frank pointed out, tugging at Gerard’s arm.
“Or, uh, we could both try at once, maybe?” Gerard suggested. “I mean, it’s easy for you to go solid around me, right? So maybe if you concentrate on me, and I concentrate on him, that’ll help.”
Frank sighed and slid his hand over Gerard’s, grabbing Ray’s wrist, and then Gerard got the weirdest sensation, like… he’d never had an IV, thank fucking God, but Mikey had, and he’d said it’d felt weird, a chill that tingled and spread through his veins. That’s sort of what it felt like, Frank’s hand on his wrist bleeding out cold and shivery in lines along Gerard’s wrist, throbbing.
“I can sort of…” Frank trailed off, then blinked. “Huh. It’s like—finding the right chord. Weird.” He shook himself, like he’d been doused in cold water, and there was a strange thrumming sensation.
“Holy shit,” Ray said, jerking upright, and Gerard was a little concerned his eyes were actually going to pop out of his skull. “It’s… it’s really you, you’re. Fuck, Frank!”
“It worked?” Frank said, and then “Whoa!” Ray was hugging him and maybe there was the tiniest incredulous smile creeping onto Frank’s face. “Holy fuck, that actually—wow. Um, hi.”
“I didn’t remember you being so fucking short,” Ray said, wiping at his face and beaming. “Dude, you have no idea, I was so fucking worried about you. And you’ve been here the whole time!”
“Can you still see him even though I’ve let go?” Gerard wanted to know, flipping to a new page in his notebook. Maybe he hadn’t needed to be in physical contact with Ray at all. Maybe Frank had just needed to concentrate more. Shit, they should check that out later. Maybe when they introduced Mikey, except maybe since Gerard had been able to see Frank, Mikey would too. Maybe they shared a ghost-sensing gene.
Bob had left off grumbling and was now actively looming, regarding Frank and Ray’s closeness with obvious misgiving. “I still think you’re all fucking crazy,” he said darkly. “Way, did you slip Toro something in Bio?”
“So who’s this fucker, anyway?” Frank asked interestedly, peering over Ray’s shoulder with a worryingly evil smile.
“This is Bob Bryar,” Gerard said nervously, wondering if it was too soon to drag Frank off Ray. It wasn’t like Frank belonged to Gerard or anything, but still. They’d just met for the first time in years, they should probably take it slow. That was all. Gerard didn’t think he was overreacting—Bob clearly felt the same way, even if it was because he thought everyone was having a psychotic episode. “He’s good people.”
“Gosh, thanks.” Bob raised an eyebrow and shot Gerard a grin. “Rousing endorsement.”
“The best people,” Gerard amended, grinning back, and then blinked when Frank stalked forward. “You’ve, uh, you’ve heard me talk about him before?” he continued hesitantly. “Bob drives me places and defends me from evil. Um.”
“And he doesn’t believe in me, huh?” Frank purred, still smiling, and Bob eyed him warily.
“It’s not that he doesn’t believe in you,” Gerard clarified hastily, sharing a worried look with Ray. “It’s, uh, I mean. You know, even Ididn’t think you were a ghost for ages.”
“Well, let me help clarify,” Frank said cheerfully, and then shoved his hand through Bob’s chest.
“Whoa,” Ray said, impressed, and Gerard was simultaneously a little jealous—Frank had only ever dipped his fingers through part of Gerard’s wrist, what the hell—and afraid Bob was going to herniate something. Was it safe to do that? Wouldn’t it chill the blood and lower the body temperature, give someone hypothermia or whatever?
“Bob, are you okay?” he asked worriedly, hovering uselessly next to the two of them. He shot Frank a dark look. “Dude, is this necessary?”
Bob made an unintelligible noise that Gerard translated as some version of ‘what the motherloving fuck’ and then gritted out slowly, “I believe you. Get your fucking hand out of my body.”
“Aw, but it’s fun!” Frank said, and then when Gerard’s mouth fell open in dismay, he relented and pulled his hand free, patting Bob’s head for a moment. “There there, no harm done.”
Bob coughed a couple times, spitting out what looked like ice crystals onto the ground.
“Okay, so you’re dead and also a dick,” he said after a moment, frighteningly mild. “Glad we’ve got that established.”
“Or you could be on mind-altering drugs,” Frank pointed out, still smiling and looking altogether more evil than Gerard was used to. “Maybe you’re hallucinating. Maybe this is some fucked up dream. Or, ooh, a nightmare, would we call it a nightmare? I don’t know, you seemed like you liked it.”
“Frank!” Gerard said, exasperated.
“Gerard!” Frank mocked, and then sighed and slouched over and leaned against Gerard’s shoulder. “Can I have a smoke now? Are we done proving my undead credentials?”
“Do you always go around shoving your fist into random people?” Bob inquired, edging in front of Ray and smiling benignly at Frank. It was sort of terrifying.
“That’s how I roll,” Frank agreed, smirking back at Bob and wrapping an arm around Gerard’s waist. “Don’t worry, I’m clean. Disease-free, that’s me.”
Gerard shoved the pack of cigarettes at Frank and fumbled for a lighter. Maybe once Frank had some nicotine, he’d calm down a bit and stop goading Bob to commit some sort of ghost-murder or whatever.
“Okay!” Gerard said, twisting his hair in his fingers, watching Frank suck on a cigarette. “Okay, so, now you’ve all met, and you guys can stop freaking out when I go run off into the forest every now and then, right? Because I—”
Ray cut him off. “I don’t think you should run off anywhere, especially not alone,” he said, worried and rumpled with it, frowning. “Those assholes could still catch you coming out or going into the forest, you know.”
“No, I know,” Gerard replied impatiently, flapping a dismissive hand. “But that’s not—”
“What assholes?” Frank said, attention caught, the cigarette forgotten and glowing between his fingers. Gerard sighed and stole the cigarette back. Apparently they were talking about this. He’d really rather just not. “Who are we talking about?”
“These fuckers from school keep giving Gerard a hard time,” Bob said, eyeing Frank. “Don’t know if you noticed, but he’s kind of banged up.”
Gerard felt the moment Frank got it, when he went still and tense. He shot Frank a sideways look, nervous for some reason.
“The guys from the field,” he bit off, staring at Gerard. Gerard’s jaw was still sore, and he knew his face still had some pretty spectacular bruising going on, but he’d been so fucking busy this week he hadn’t really had time to worry about looking pretty or whatever. Now that Frank was staring at him, though, he flushed uneasily. “They’re still bothering you?”
“It’s not a big deal,” he started and Frank shook his head furiously.
“No, Ray and the unbeliever are right. It’s a big fucking deal.”
Gerard huffed out a frustrated breath. “His name is Bob,” he pointed out, and Frank rolled his eyes.
“I don’t care if his name’s Beelzebub.” Bob laughed, and Frank stuck out his tongue before continuing, face serious once more. “They followed you once, they could again. They were waiting for you last time, waiting for you to leave. It could happen again.”
“You saw it happen?” Ray asked slowly, and Frank nodded.
“Stuck in this goddamned forest and couldn’t help.”
“You helped!” Gerard protested, but Frank shook his head.
“Not enough. And if they’d just been a little bit further away when they jumped you, I couldn’t have helped you at all. You could have died, and I couldn’t have—I’d rather not see you, and know you’re okay. Don’t come out here alone.”
Gerard flung his hands in the air, exasperated. “They just wanted to knock me around. They’re assholes, Frank, but they’re not completely evil. And they’ve backed off lately anyway!”
“Sometimes people lose control,” Frank said quietly, and Gerard blanched.
“Well, we’ll just come with you, then,” Ray said into the ensuing silence. “They probably won’t bother three of us, right? We can do camping trips and shit, it’ll be great. I mean, I’d say invite Patrick and Worm too, but they might kind of freak out. I don’t know. The fewer that know about Frank, the better, maybe. I like you a lot, Gerard, but I totally thought you’d finally huffed too much bleach during detention and lost it.”
“You want to come back?” Frank asked, sounding startled, and Ray rolled his eyes and made a duh expression.
“Well, so long as you promise to keep your hands to yourself,” Bob grumbled. “But there’s really no way around it. Way’s been pining for you all week, and if we don’t come back, he’ll just sneak around at night by himself like a lunatic.”
“I would not!” Gerard protested shiftily. Dammit.
“At least now we know why he kept staring out the window and sighing,” Bob continued, ignoring Gerard’s outburst. “I thought maybe he’d fallen for Tanya after all.”
“Who’s Tanya?” Frank asked, eyes narrowed, and Gerard gestured a giant ‘No no no ABORT, DELETE, SAY NO MORE’ with his hands, but Bob got a look of unholy glee on his face. And then Frank said, “Oh, that girl. Ted’s girlfriend.”
And Gerard was doomed. Bob wound up retelling the epic story of Tanya’s unrequited love, with Frank listening raptly and Ray giggling behind his hand. Gerard groaned and sullenly took a drag off the cigarette. It had been a giant mistake to introduce these two.
“Gerard, you heartbreaker,” Frank said, fluttering his eyelashes at Gerard. Gerard blew a puff of smoke at Frank and scowled. “I had no idea you had such oral prowess.”
“Are we done dissecting the reasons my life sucks?” Gerard asked pointedly, flushing. He actually didn’t know if he had any oral prowess at all, which he really, really didn’t want to bring up at the moment. “I had something to say earlier.”
“Oh, by all means,” Bob said politely. “We’re done now.”
“Thanks,” Gerard said, glaring. He was going to put salt in Bob’s coffee tomorrow morning. But no, fuck, he could never desecrate coffee that way. He’d have to think of something else. “Anyway, like I was trying to say earlier, we need to start thinking long term.” He could see they weren’t following him. He ground out the cigarette butt and waved his hand around, gesturing at the surrounding woods. “I mean, this? This isn’t going to work. I’m glad we’re all getting along and planning camping trips and shit, but that doesn’t help Frank forever. We have to think about forever.”
They still didn’t seem to be following him, but now Frank was staring at him, and Gerard could feel himself flushing.
“Go on,” Bob said.
“Well, what we really need to do is get Frank out of the forest, right?” For a number of reasons. Not least of which was that it figured in Gerard’s campaign to have Frank actually kiss him again, instead of just looking at him like he really, really wanted to. Because that was eventually going to drive Gerard crazy. He shook himself. Focus, Gerard.
“Now, I have a couple of ideas.” He gestured them all to sit down on the stone wall and whipped out his notebook from his pocket.
An hour later, Frank had vetoed animal sacrifices—which, fine, Gerard hadn’t especially wanted to mess with killing anything anyway, and Bob had flat-out refused to do any ritual of any sort.
“If ghosts are real, who knows what the fuck else is,” he said firmly. “I’m not calling down any dark demonic powers or crazy gods. And no one else is either. No fucking spells. Write that down in your notes.”
Gerard made a meaningless scribble in the margins and sighed mournfully. Bob was probably right, Frank’d come back as like a zombie or something. But it still was so cool it seemed like sort of a shame not to try it.
“Ugh, fine,” he grumbled, flinging up his hands and accidentally sending his pen winging off through the air. Frank sighed and got up to fetch it again. “So what have we got?”
“The wheelbarrow plan, the tree plan,” Ray ticked off on his fingers. “The moving Frank’s body out of the forest plan, and the creepy blood talisman plan, which I still think should be avoided.”
“Well, we don’t have to use your blood,” Gerard pointed out. “We can just try with mine.”
“No blood!” Frank shouted from the bushes, voice muffled and strange, and then he re-emerged with Gerard’s pen in his teeth.
“I’m not even going to ask,” Bob said gravely.
“Okay, let’s try taking home some saplings tonight,” Gerard said, taking his pen out of Frank’s mouth and tapping it against the page. “And we’ll come back with a wheelbarrow later this week. I’m… it’ll be tricky getting Frank’s body, so let’s do the easier stuff first, yeah?”
“I like the wheelbarrow idea,” Frank said brightly, looking over Gerard’s shoulder at the notebook. “I’m serious, man, cross out anything that involves blood. That shit’s not okay.”
“Pen’s out of ink,” Gerard said shiftily, and shoved the pen in his pocket, making a mental note to remove it later so he didn’t cause an epic disaster when they eventually got washed. “Anyway, I’m gonna ask Mikey to start thinking of ideas too, so we might have other stuff to try later. But this stuff’ll do for now.”
“Well, we should probably get going, then,” Ray said, standing up and brushing twigs out of his hair. “Mom’ll worry, and we have a quiz on Dickens tomorrow, and I haven’t even started it yet.”
“He’s a quick read,” Gerard told him, shrugging. “I’ll catch you up in the morning, if you want.”
“I do like your summaries,” Bob said thoughtfully. “But we really should get going. I want to get some extra practice in tonight.”
“Drumming is serious business,” Ray teased, and Bob nodded. “Indubitably.”
“Go, go. Get on with you,” Frank said sadly. “Leave me to my eternal torment and nightly solitude.”
“Oh, shut up,” Gerard said fondly, and then bit his lip and shuffled his feet. Somehow it felt kind of odd asking if Frank would mind giving him a good-bye kiss with Bob and Ray watching. Getting rejected in front of people was kind of worse than getting rejected in private. And, well. It was weird. What if Frank said yes and Gerard got overexcited and mauled him? Bob and Ray would be traumatized. They might accept ghostly friends, but even they probably weren’t down with necrophilia. Spectrophilia. Whatever. “Um.”
“Night, dude,” Frank said, eyes twinkling, and Gerard waved awkwardly.
“See you tomorrow,” he replied weakly, and Frank heaved a giant sigh and then flung himself on Gerard, tackling him back into the mud.
“Ack! Frank! No!” Gerard spluttered, laughing and groaning at the same time, trying not to get too hot and bothered. Which wasn’t too hard, considering he was lying in a giant puddle. “It’s cold, you fucker!”
Frank blew a raspberry on his cheek and Gerard squawked indignantly, and then in the midst of Ray and Bob laughing and the wind blowing and Frank pretending to help Gerard back up, somehow Frank snuck a kiss just below Gerard’s ear. His lip ring was a bright touch of icy cold, and his lips were soft, and Gerard sucked in a startled breath and choked on it, coughing wildly.
“Thanks, Gee,” Frank said, smiling slightly and shoving him at Bob, who pounded Gerard helpfully on the back and then grimaced and wiped his muddy hand off on a tree. “I didn’t think—but you were right. I’m glad you told them.”
“You should trust me more,” Gerard said, heart tight, and Frank huffed out a laugh.
“Suppose so,” he said, and then flapped a hand at them. “Go on. I’ll see you later.”
Unfortunately, the sapling plan seemed to be a bust. They’d uprooted three tiny tree-shrub-things and carried them out of the forest in the hopes that that would tweak Frank’s boundaries somewhat, but so far, no luck.
Gerard talked hopefully at his for a while, but Frank failed to manifest before him, and there weren’t any signs of other paranormal activity afoot – no cold spots, unexplained gusts of wind, or magnetic twitches to compasses. But Gerard decided to carry around his little uprooted bush for a while longer just in case, dumping it into a coffee cup with some soil. Maybe Frank just needed some time to get acclimated to his new plant conduit, right?
His mom raised an eyebrow when he took Ferdinand in the car with him to go see Mikey, but subsided when he said, “Art project.”
“Oh, obviously,” she said dryly, and then settled down to a good session of cross-examination about school and whether those kids were still bullying him and how he’d done on his history test and whether he was eating enough. It was uncanny. Gerard had no idea how she’d even known he’d had a history test. Maybe she was bugging his room.
“Mom powers,” was all she said when he inquired suspiciously, and he wrinkled his nose at her.
“You’re in a good mood,” he commented, and she smiled.
“Dr. Costa says Mikey’s doing much better,” she told him, and Gerard immediately brightened.
“The beta keratins are working?” he asked hopefully. “Is his FEV up? Can he come home soon?”
“We’ll see, but his lung capacity’s increased. It’s good news.”
It was good news. Mikey looked better, color in his cheeks, and he wasn’t waiting for them in his room when they got there. He sitting by the window of the main entrance, and he pulled out his earbuds when he saw them, standing up and shoving his hands in his pockets.
“Hey,” he said when Gerard reached him. “Did you bring me flowers, Gee? You shouldn’t have.”
“Look at you!” Gerard beamed, and let his mom flutter over Mikey for a while before she went off to pester Dr. Costa some more.
“So. This is Ferdinand.” He shoved Ferdinand in Mikey’s arms, then thought better of it – potential allergens, after all – and took the coffee-mug-cum-flower-pot back. “And he’s not flowers. He’s an experiment.”
Mikey raised an eyebrow. “Cool.”
Gerard waited, but he didn’t say anything else. “Mikey,” he whined, and held out a moment longer before folding. “Aren’t you the littlest bit curious?” Gerard wheedled, and Mikey shrugged and then started fiddling with his iPod like a big faker. He was totally curious as hell, and Gerard knew it.
“You suck,” Gerard said severely, and Mikey smiled, tiny and smug and familiar, and Gerard folded. “Ugh, fineOkay, here’s the idea: maybe taking some of the woods out of the woods will let Frank float about all over the place, right? Like, expand his range of forest all the way out here.”
“I dunno,” Mikey said, poking Ferdinand with an insultingly dubious expression on his face. It was autumn, okay, none of the plants in the woods looked especially healthy at the moment, although Gerard admitted maybe Ferdinand looked especially tattered right now. As Mikey prodded it, a leaf drifted off the tiny sapling and landed on the floor with a sad air of finality. Maybe it just needed to be watered with something that wasn’t diluted coffee.
“It hasn’t worked yet,” Gerard admitted. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t work eventually. Maybe Frank just needs to learn to pick up the frequency. Maybe it’ll help if we keep talking to it, you know?”
“So it’s like, what, a short-wave shrub?” Mikey asked doubtfully, and Gerard nodded, excited.
“Yeah! Exactly. Or, like, a transporter beam frequency, and he just has to lock onto the pattern. I mean, it’d be cool if we could use the plant to communicate, but it’d be cooler if he could use it to beam place to place.”
“Hmm. Do ghosts and Star Trek really mix?” Mikey mused, and Gerard pursed his lips thoughtfully.
“Well,” he said. “There was that one Next Generation episode, but the ghost turned out to be an anaphasic alien, and it kind of sucked anyway. So that doesn’t really apply, I guess. I don’t know. The plant hasn’t said anything. Maybe it’s a dumb idea.”
“Nah,” Mikey said, and picked up the pot again. “Tell Frank I said hi,” he told the wilting stem, face very solemn, and Gerard sort of thought maybe he was making fun of him, but it was hard to tell with Mikey sometimes. Then they had to go eat dinner in the cafeteria with Mom and Dr. Costa, who spent the entire time discussing Mikey’s breath capacity and the reduced percentage of trapped air in his lungs on an exhale, and very obliquely whether or not he’d go back to school that year.
Gerard tried not listen, sneaking bits of french fry and green bean into Ferdinand’s pot. A bit of extra nutrients couldn’t hurt, Gerard hypothesized, and Mikey nodded and widened his eyes earnestly. Which definitely meant Gerard was being mocked, but he didn’t mind too much, especially since the wind started to pick up outside halfway through their whispered conversation about who would be the best artist to do graphic novel adaptations of each of the Star Trek series.
“I bet that’s Frank,” Gerard whispered, pleased, as the branches outside the cafeteria windows lashed about in the wind. Mikey didn’t even bother to raise an eyebrow. “It could be!” Gerard said defensively. “I mean, I feel colder, too. Do you feel colder?”
“Maybe a bit,” Mikey allowed, and then he got a kind of evil look and Gerard clutched Ferdinand warily.
“So,” Mikey said, shooting the adults a look before leaning in towards the plant conspiratorially. “Does Frank know about how you draw super-detailed comics of him fighting zombies all day long?” The window panes rattled, which was a total coincidence, Gerard was sure of it.
“Mikey!” he hissed, and Mikey grinned.
“Shirtless zombie fighting,” Mikey continued, because he was a bastard. “And he doodles your name in his notebook too. Mr. Gerard Arthur Way-Iero. With hearts everywhere. I’ve seen it.”
“I hate you,” Gerard said mournfully. “Shut the fuck up.”
“Language, Gerard,” his mom said, shooting him a dirty look, like she hadn’t spent the entire car ride there cussing him out about his history grade, which she didn’t even know yet. Apparently she thought she could convince the doctor they were fine upstanding young gentlemen or some shit. She was toying with her hair and Gerard belatedly realized she had make-up on. Huh. Gerard decided to ignore the implications of that for a while—he had enough to worry about without thinking about his mom’s love life, thanks.
The wind moaned around the hospital for the rest of the night, and tossed dead leaves across the beams of their headlights as Gerard and his mom headed home. Gerard couldn’t decide if he wanted that to mean Frank had heard them or not.
Aw, hell, Gerard thought, scowling, when the next day Frank met them at the edge of the woods, grinning uncontrollably. Gerard had nearly forgotten about the conversation he’d had with Mikey entirely—that day he and Bob had talked during History, and Bob had haltingly admitted he had seen a ghost once before. He’d been in the hospital room with his Nana when she’d died, after a long torturous struggle that Gerard only gleaned was torturous because of how Bob’s silences were a lot quieter and smaller than usual.
Gerard was now almost completely positive that being around death had something to do with being able to see ghosts. He’d been there when Mikey died, too—well, technically. That’s what the paramedics had said, anyway. He’d stopped breathing and Gerard couldn’t get him to start again, not even with his inhaler, and in the spaces between his own heartbeats, he’d felt something in that stairwell, before the ambulance came and everything got loud and bright and busy.
Something had happened, and he didn’t want to think or talk about it too much, which Bob seemed to understand.
But he had to wonder what it meant—if being there when someone died altered you in an indefinable, small way, brushed you with the void, took some insubstantial cover off of your eyes. He was shuffling along with Bob and Ray after band practice, ignoring the prickling in his eyes, and then Frank hit him in a wave of dead leaves and smugness, and the solemn mood was knocked right out of Gerard, and he couldn’t even mind. Even being humiliated and awkward and completely, utterly, embarrassed was better than looking at his own memories.
“Gerard Arthur Way, is it?” Frank said innocently, and then cackled in delight. Gerard buried his face in his hands. He almost wished the stupid plant plan hadn’t worked at all. Goddammit. “No, wait, I’m remembering it wrong, it’s Mr. Gerard Arthur Way-I—”
“Oh my god, shut up, Mikey is such a liar, okay!” Gerard snapped, aware that he was flushing bright red and that Bob and Ray were looking at each other and raising their eyebrows. Fuckers. Except he couldn’t be too mad, because Frank was grinning at him, bright-eyed, and he looked… well, happy. Not annoyed, not freaked out by Gerard’s crushing. Happy. Gerard didn’t know what to do with that.
He decided to focus on the practical aspects of the whole embarrassing debacle. “Hey, so you could hear us, then, right?” he exclaimed, and fuck, that was one step closer to getting Frank out of the forest, right? He punched the air, stupidly overcome for a moment. “I knew it! Fucking awesome!”
“Yeah,” Frank said, smile crazy-wide. “Tell Mikey I said hi back. I mean, I couldn’t hear fucking much, but it was sort of clearer if you guys were talking to me, or at me. At Fernando, whatever.”
“Ferdinand,” Ray piped up. “Mine’s Fernando. Gerard’s is Ferdinand.”
“Oh, sorry, my mistake,” Frank drawled, rolling his eyes. “What’s Bob’s weed called?”
“Alpha Specimen Sample Three,” Bob said dryly, and Frank giggled.
“But you couldn’t talk back,” Gerard noted sadly, the rush of success fading. “And you definitely couldn’t materialize.”
“I was lucky to hear you at all,” Frank replied, shrugging. “And I definitely couldn’t hear Ray. I could pick up Bob a bit, when he was drumming.”
“Huh,” Bob said, eyeing Frank. “You know, I don’t know that I like the idea of you spying in on us in our houses.”
“Why not?” Frank grinned. “You get up to some crazy shit, Bob Bryar? What did I miss out on? Was it porn? Fuck, you guys, I really miss porn. If it was porn you gotta move those plant things closer.”
“I’m not exposing Alpha Specimen Sample Three to your depraved necrophiliac tastes, fucker,” Bob protested. “She’s young and innocent.”
“Hey, it’s not necrophilia if I’m the dead party in question,” Frank grinned, and Gerard decided he wanted to nip that conversation in the bud if at all possible.
“Okay, so, anyway, it’s time to start the Beta Experiment, right?” he said hastily.
Five hours later, Beta Experiment: Operation Wheelbarrow Full of Dirt was declared a disaster. Gerard’s arms ached from shoveling and everyone was caked in mud. Every time they’d tried to push Frank across the forest boundary, he’d gone springing backwards, exploding dirt everywhere and disappearing for a couple moments before re-materializing in a flurry of dead leaves and curses.
“Fucking ow,” Frank said glumly, breaking the silence that had fallen over the four of them. He was rubbing his arms like he was trying to warm up, and he looked like he’d been drawn in pale, shaky chalk, dusty and scraped. Gerard was having to work hard at not running over and flinging his arms around him, holding him together.
“No kidding,” Ray said, scrubbing at his eyes; he’d gotten a faceful of dirt and gravel earlier, and now he looked kind of like the Swamp Thing, dead leaves straggling from his hair. Pretty cool, except Gerard suspected he was rocking a similar look, which, while being awesome, wasn’t especially attractive. Frank was sitting there with his head on his knees, smudged but still gorgeous and pristine, and Gerard was a hideous mud-monster. Great.
“Okay, so, now what?” Bob asked, kicking aside the wreckage of the wheelbarrow, and then he pointed a finger warningly at Gerard. “Don’t even try to say anything involving the word blood, Way.”
“I wasn’t going to!” Gerard protested, which he wasn’t. Everyone had raised a ginormous fuss when all he’d wanted to do was make a really tiny cut on his palm and rub it on a twig. Apparently that’d be enough to call down Satan or the dread lord Cthulthu or hordes of zombies. Whatever.
“No bodily fluids,” Frank agreed tiredly. “But I’m guessing the next experiment involves me.”
“They all involved you,” Ray said, frowning, and then his face went blank. “Oh.”
An awkward silence fell. Gerard lay in his pile of mulch and sticks and god knew what else, staring up at the gray, distant sky.
“Frank,” Ray started, sounding tentative, and Frank looked up from his knees, eyes narrowed.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“So we’re gonna need a way to get down the cliff to the body,” Gerard interrupted, closing his eyes.
“You never said anything about a cliff,” Bob pointed out, disgruntled, and Gerard sighed. He’d thought that might be a stumbling block.
“It’s more of a gorge, actually,” Frank pointed out, from closer than Gerard had thought he’d been. There was a rustling noise, and then the sensation of someone sitting next to him, snuggling down in the forest detritus.
“A gorge, right. My mistake,” Gerard replied gravely, and opened his eyes. From the corner of them he could see Frank, sitting with his knees drawn to his chest, pale and far-away. Gerard moved his arm slightly, so that it came in contact with Frank’s ankle, and heard a quiet sigh. “So,” he said after a moment. “We’ll need either some way to get down, with, um, climbing gear or something, which, I dunno, sounds kind of like a bad idea.”
“Glad I didn’t have to say it,” Bob muttered.
“Or,” Gerard continued doggedly. “We need a harness or a net on a really long pole, maybe? To bring some of the bones up to us.”
“Does it matter which, uh, pieces we get?” Ray sounded kind of ill. Gerard understood; he was a little nauseous himself, which was why he was still lying down despite the fact there were probably leeches or something crawling through his hair by now.
He pondered for a moment; he hadn’t really considered whether specific bones might be more effective. “You know, I’m not sure. Let’s just… go with small stuff for now. We don’t want anything that might, um. Attract attention.”
“Are we going to be messing up a crime scene?” Ray wondered, and Gerard could feel Frank bristling next to him. “Maybe we should just call the police, if we know where the body is.”
“It’s been over a decade,” Frank said, dry and chill. Gerard breathed carefully and wondered if he was imagining the sky getting darker. “It’s not a crime scene. It’s my body.”
Except Frank had implied he’d been killed. That his body had been dumped somewhere, which meant that he hadn’t died in some hiking accident. Someone had thrown him in the river, like garbage. Maybe Ray was right. Maybe they should call the police. The FBI, something. But now didn’t seem a good time to bring it up.
Then Frank said, shrugging, offhanded and darkly sardonic, “Besides, no one cares anymore. Don’t bother anyone. Why waste the man-hours, right?”
And Gerard’s throat physically hurt with all the things caught in it, the things he wanted to say and didn’t know how to articulate. That it didn’t matter about anyone else, that Frank cared and that was enough, that he shouldn’t have to be alone out here, forgotten. That Gerard cared, cared so much, and that there had to be people with questions, holes in their lives—Frank’s friends, his family. Even just people like Ray, the people whose lives Frank had touched, who would always wonder and worry about what happened to Frank Iero, the kid who wrote the book on cool, the kid with his whole life ahead of him.
But it all lodged behind his teeth, tight like a trapped sob, and shit, he really couldn’t stand all these damned mood swings in his day. It couldn’t be healthy.
After a moment, he gathered himself. “Okay. Okay, Frankie,” Gerard said quietly, and Ray and Bob didn’t say anything at all. “We’ll figure something out.”
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