TIME WILL TELL

EPISODE #1

 

 

 

~Prologue~

Lydia Deetz was not tired of loneliness. On the contrary, the pensive, dark-eyed sixth grader welcomed it. What complaints can be made of a companion that makes itself neither seen nor heard, yet can be felt everywhere at once? Lydia sighed, patiently clearing her round table of her stepmother’s latest attempt to reform her bedroom’s "abysmal" decor. Lydia watched it fall two stories, grinning in satisfaction as it landed in the dew-sodden grass far below her open window. She had always thought that doilies looked far too much like snowflakes, anyway, so endowing this one with the gift of flight hardly seemed a crime. Come morning, Delia would find it sodden by night damp and blow a typical redheaded fuse. Come morning, Lydia would be two miles away, peddling down a country road with the autumn wind in her sleek black hair and a Polaroid camera swinging about her neck.

Lydia dragged the table to the side of her bed, careful not to upset the antique oil lamp parched upon it. That lamp, though most of the time unlit, meant more to her than any other worldly possession. In Lydia’s mind, its phantom flame burned in memory of the woman who had died while giving her life. Her grief-stricken father, Charles, in fear of raising her alone with his condition of chronic paranoia, had been quick to remarry. Delia was the only mother that Lydia had ever known.

For the longest time, it had been all the beleaguered Charles could do to allay his precocious, inquisitive young daughter’s questions: Why don’t I look like you? Why don’t I look like Mom? Why won’t you show me what’s in the picture frame you keep locked in your top drawer? Why do you cry when you look at it? And can you show me how to make a picture?

Delia encouraged Charles to give in to the four year-old’s insistent demands, after his second breakdown. His work had begun to suffer, and Delia’s interior design enterprise would soon follow if she did nothing to heal her husband’s newly opened emotional scar. Lydia was shown the mystery portrait. She was taken to the cemetery just outside the town limits of Peaceful Pines, and Charles’ old Polaroid was placed in her hands. The first photograph that Lydia ever snapped now sat side by side on her dresser with the once-locked-away frame. The resolution proved profitable but alienating for them all. Delia went about her artistic endeavors unhindered by a completely psychotic husband, and Charles moved his drafting business into their own home, adopting a soothing hobby (bird watching) at the encouragement of his therapist. And from that day forward, Lydia chose a path so seldom traveled that it ensured the family’s distinctly unified separation once and for all.

As she grew, Lydia took to reading the darkly beautiful verses of the poet whose words her father had lovingly included in her mother’s epitaph. Delia’s wariness of her preference to keep company with the gothic texts of Poe rather than girls her own age only intensified Lydia’s belief that all things bright and... well, "Delia" went against the proper order of things. Black was definitely her color. And why watch television when the world outside was so full of moving things to be captured in suspended animation, marvels of dynamic shadow and light to be kept safe and beautiful and immortal for all time?

Lydia glanced over her shoulder at the pictures as she scooted the table into position. A raven-haired woman with milk-white skin and arresting, delicate features smiled wanly back, oblivious to the glossy snapshot of a granite tombstone perched in a smaller frame beside her. Lydia knew the fuzzily captured inscription by heart:

IN MEMORIAM

?

Helen Lydia DEETZ

b. 4th of May, 1952

d. 25th of August, 1976

Beloved daughter of Elaine and Myron Kent

Cherished wife of Charles ~ Mother of Lydia Eve

?

"And though I venture through the unknown,

Those that I love shall never be alone"

Lydia recited it reverently under her breath, reaching under her pillow with a trembling hand to retrieve the matchbook she’d stolen from the kitchen earlier. She repeated herself until the words nearly lost their meaning. She was suddenly afraid, suddenly wondering why she had decided to do what she’d been anticipating all day. Lydia could not help but feel like a traitor, leaving her father out of such a momentous decision. But the truth was, she knew it would have seemed absurd to him. He simply didn’t believe in things like that the way she did- in fact, he skirted around them with a nervous smile and a hastily murmured, "Whatever makes you happy, Pumpkin!"

And quite simply confessed, Lydia had never tried it before. She lit the oil lamp with care, trying desperately to convince herself that the tears coming to her eyes were induced by the smoke rather than her newfound need to commune with a force she didn’t completely understand. Lydia had tried for so long to accept that fate had marked her for life in the moment of her mother’s death, that she was fated to find beauty in all things generally regarded by the world as arcane, bizarre, and intangible. The advent of Lydia’s twelfth birthday had wrought a change that she was ashamed of: an increased self-awareness, a vague longing to fit in. Delia’s disapproval of her antisocial habits was beginning to hurt. Her father’s subtly implied worry hurt even more.

What hurt the most was the knowledge that neither of them could possibly understand the depth of her reverent melancholy- how could they, when she did not even understand it herself? Lydia gritted her teeth and bravely fought off tears, for she was about to consult the only person who possibly could. She knelt resolutely beside her bed, pulling a flat, dusty box from beneath. Wouldn’t Delia be humiliated to know what she’d found in the attic among her old art projects, Lydia thought as she slid the Ouija board out of its box. She placed it on the table squarely before the oil lamp, taking a seat on the edge of her bed. She cast the box aside, nervously turning the planchette over and over in her hands. With one last glance at the photograph of her mother, Lydia placed the heart-shaped pointer upon the board.

Lydia rested her fingers lightly upon the planchette, taking a deep breath. She closed her eyes, fully expecting to be engulfed in a warm, comforting glow. Her mother would come. She had to. If no one living could show Lydia the way, surely someone Beyond would. And not just any someone, Lydia hoped.

Confused, Lydia blinked, shifting her fingers timidly. She felt nothing. The arc of bold letters and numbers seemed to glare at her in annoyance. Had she truly expected it would be that easy? Had she truly expected it to work?

Lydia stared at the board in desperation, beginning to slide the planchette directionlessly this way and that. Her anger was as swift and inexplicable as her urge to use the Ouija board upon its accidental discovery in the first place. Frustrated, she slammed a fist hard upon the unresponsive pointer.

"You mean to tell me that no one’s there?" Lydia demanded harshly. "No one at all? And to think I believed--"

The board leapt from the table with such force that both her hand and the planchette were flung off. Lydia jumped backward with a yelp, watching the board settle back onto the table as if it had never budged. The planchette, which she was certain had landed on the floor, sat obediently upon the board. Steeling herself, Lydia resumed her seat- and shivered. The planchette had not landed at random. Encased in the plastic window of the pointed was the word, NO.

Breathing shallowly, Lydia placed her fingers tentatively upon the planchette. "Deadly-vu!" she murmured, awestruck. The plastic was no longer cool, as it had been to her touch mere moments ago. It was warm enough to have spent at least two minutes sitting beneath her radiator. She licked her lips, finding that words had all but escaped her.

"Do you mean n-no as in... as in no one’s there? I mean, that would hardly make sense, but-- AAAH!"

The planchette raced three inches to the side beneath her feather-light touch and slid just as emphatically back to NO.

"O-Okay," Lydia stammered, reminding herself to breathe. "Then someone’s there?"

The planchette zigzagged so frantically beneath her fingers that she could barely keep up with it.

WHADDAYA THINK? it spelled out brusquely.

Lydia scowled, emboldened by the unseen mover’s curt demeanor. "Is this some kind of prank? Are you my mother?"

The planchette vibrated eerily for a few moments before flying into a similarly sarcastic reply.

YOU TELL ME, BABES, ’CAUSE I DIDN’T START THIS ONE. AND I SURE HOPE NOT! THAT’S ONE HECK OF AN IDENTITY CRISIS.

Lydia shook her head in disbelief, having gotten the distinct impression that whoever it was on the other end was laughing at her. "This isn’t funny!" Lydia hissed. "Darn right you didn’t start this-- I did! And I want to speak to my mother! Where is she?"

LIKE I’D KNOW THAT. SHE COULD BE IN SANDWORM LAND BY NOW, the planchette replied, trembling violently on the last letter of "sandworm."

"I don’t have time for this nonsense," Lydia countered furiously. "You want to hear something? I didn’t do this for kicks. My mother’s been dead for years, and all I wanted was a few words with her. And what do I get? A jerk like you... whoever you are! Just answer me! Is she there or not?

The planchette seemed to freeze for a few seconds, caught in tangible hesitation.

LOOK... OKOKOKOK. SO I DON’T EXACTLY KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. THE NEITHERWORLD’S A BIG PLACE. NOT TO INSULT YOU, BABES, BUT USING ONE OF THOSE CONTRAPTIONS ISN’T THE SMARTEST WAY TO GO. KINDA RANDOM. YOU NEVER KNOW WHO’LL BE PASSING BY WHEN YOU CAUSE A DISTURBANCE. JUST SO HAPPENS YOU GOT A GUY WHO CAN’T RESIST PULLING SOME STUPID MORTAL’S LEG, IF YOU KNOW WHAT I--

Lydia angrily pinned the planchette to the board. "Stupid? Are you implying that simply because I thought I could contact my mother I’m-"

HEY HEY HEY, it spelled out jerkily, sliding free of her grasp and moving more smoothly of its own accord. Lydia pulled her hands away as if she’d been burned. I WASN’T FINISHED. STOP PUTTING WORDS IN MY MOUTH.

And to Lydia’s horror, the planchette metamorphosed into a pair of white plastic jaws with glassy teeth. It promptly swallowed the whole of the letters on the board.

"Who are you?" she demanded fearfully, backing up onto her bed. "What are you? And do you know--"

NO, BABES, FORGET IT, the mouth cut in, spitting one letter at a time to form the arrangement in clear sentence form on the board’s newly blank surface. I DON’T KNOW HER, CAN’T HELP YOU, END OF STORY.

"You’re cruel," Lydia whispered, the tears returning. "Why are you mocking me?"

The mouth exploded in a flurry of agitated black letters, each one dancing to its rightful spot on the board. Melting into its normal shape, the planchette slid hesitantly between YES and NO before reluctantly spelling out, LOOK, I’M... SORRY. I GUESS YOU REALLY ARE SERIOUS.

"Brilliant deduction, Brainless," she muttered. "Are all ghosts as shallow as you are?"

HEY, WHOA, the planchette challenged. IF YOU WEREN’T INSULTING ME, KID, I’D SAY THAT I LIKE YOUR STYLE. AND IF YOU INSIST ON USING B-WORDS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, USE THE RIGHT ONE.

"I don’t follow," Lydia said cautiously. "Although I should be telling you the same thing."

WHAT?

"You heard me."

AWWW, COME ON! the planchette begged. TELL ME, TELL ME!

"Why do you keep calling me that?" Lydia asked, finding her lips drawn into a faint smile.

CALLING YOU WHAT, BABES?

"Bingo," Lydia replied wryly.

HEY, YOU ARE GOOD AT THIS, I’ll GIVE YOU THAT MUCH. WELL, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO CALL YOU? YOU HAVEN’T TOLD ME YOUR NAME OR ANYTHING, YOU KNOW.

"You first," Lydia offered.

NOW YOU’RE TALKING! the planchette spelled out smoothly, carried by a fresh, devious enthusiasm. Lydia was amazed at the personality it was capable of transmitting.

BEETLEJUICE, it continued, sweeping unhurriedly between to each letter with a grand showman’s flair.

Lydia giggled in spite of herself. "That’s nonsense!" she laughed. "I asked for your name."

OH, SO FIRST YOU CALL ME STUPID RIGHT BACK AND THEN YOU MAKE FUN OF MY NAME. SWELL.

"That... That’s your name?" Lydia asked contritely.

YEAH, YEAH, SUCKS TO BE ME. JUST SAY IT ALREADY.

"Don’t you want to know mine?"

WOULDN’T YOU RATHER TELL ME IN PERSON?

Lydia blinked. "Well, isn’t that what I’d be doing anyway?"

SAY IT.

"Why?" Lydia asked suspiciously.

WELL, the planchette spelled weakly, faltering in a stricken change of pace, I... I DIDN’T WANT IT TO COME OFF AS FLATTERY OR ANYTHING... BUT, WELL, I KINDA LIKE YOU... NOT TOO MANY PEOPLE GIVE A CARE, YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN? IT’S LONELY DOWN HERE... DARK... EMPTY...

"Empty?" Lydia asked, her voice breaking with sympathy in spite of her previous wariness. That was something she knew all too well. Confusion, emptiness... and yes, she could finally admit it: loneliness. She, Lydia Deetz, was lonely.

"I’m sorry to hear that, Beetlejuice," she said softly. "But it’s not much better up here, either."

The planchette jumped excitedly. THAT’S ONCE!

"What?"

OH... YOU KNOW, IT’S ONCE-- INCREDIBLE! NO ONE’S SAID MY NAME IN AGES, BABES... YOU DON’T KNOW HOW GOOD IT IS TO HEAR A HUMAN VOICE--

"You mean a stupid mortal voice... Beetlejuice?" she teased gently.

AWWW, STOP. I SAID I WAS SORRY ABOUT THAT.

"I guess you’re right. We’re even now, Beetlejuice."

"EEEEEYYYYYYAAAAAAAAHAAAAAAHAAAAAHAAA!"

Lydia’s scream was drowned out by the peal of hysterical, blood-curdling laughter that erupted from all sides of her room. The shutters were torn open by a forceful gust of wind, and the oil lamp’s feeble orange glow was snuffed out. Lydia cowered on the bed, bathed in semidarkness, for the evening had faded to night. She stared at the Ouija board upon her round table, now lifeless and inanimate. Shaking from head to foot, she inched forward, extending a finger to touch the abandoned planchette.

"B-Beetlejuice?" she asked uncertainly.

"Ah, ah, ah! That’s my name, and that’ll do!" warned a gravelly voice from close behind her.

Lydia whirled around to find herself facing a pair of yellow-rimmed, glowing green eyes. She opened her mouth to scream, but found that her tongue was-- literally, positively-- knotted perfectly at the middle. She gaped soundlessly at the specter that stood on the opposite side of her bed. His wild blond hair fell in a wicked halo about his bluish-white face, his devilish but oddly mischievous grin triumphant. His crooked teeth were- well, in that she couldn’t tell-- but were they really green? Lydia mumbled frantically.

"Now, babes, this is no time to get tongue-tied. Aren’t you going to tell me your name?" Beetlejuice asked, snapping his fingers imperiously.

Lydia’s tongue promptly untwisted itself. She gasped for breath, too shocked to speak. She stared the ghost up and down, wondering if the latest horror novel had gone to her head. One thing for certain: Lydia had never seen a more ridiculous outfit. He wore a purple shirt and black tie beneath a gaudy black and white striped suit. The pointed heels of his leather boots only added to the undeniable goofiness of his appearance. For a moment, Lydia forgot why she had wanted to scream in the first place. A ghost in pinstripes named Beetlejuice. With green teeth, no less. Why not?

"Well?" the ghost prompted, tapping his foot and raising an eyebrow. But he didn’t scowl, as she had expected he would. Instead, he smiled and offered her his red-nailed hand.

"I’m Lydia," she said, extending her own delicate fingers. And, for the first time in a very long while, she laughed.

 

~Part One~

 

 

August 23, 1996

7:32 PM

I can tell you something about the Mystic seacoast that no Connecticut guide book ever could. Can you keep a secret? Well, I’ll have to trust you: This beach is more beautiful at dusk than it ever will be at noonday. Don’t be shocked. The moon’s far wiser than the sun, if you think about it. Daylight often gleams so harsh and white on the sand that it’s painful to behold. On the other hand, when evening falls, the sky turns to soothing indigo and the stars’ pale glow heals the day’s burning. But regardless the time of day, I have always loved the shore.

I sharpen the focus of my lens upon a stretch of waves tinged with rich, delicate shades of rose and violet. Snap. Another perfect photograph, another perfect sunset. I wish it were that simple. A facade of pretty words is harder to maintain than a facade of pretty pictures.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Delia doesn’t believe my reason for coming here. Never mind the phenomenon that my parents tend to think I’m lying when I’m truthful and that my lies are professions of honesty. I frequently wonder how I’ve managed to cover for so much for so long. And despite all that, I’ve always thought myself a pathetic liar. My knees go weak; my heart flutters. I’m literally sick to the stomach when I’m forced to make something up on the spot. Funny, though, because I’ve been doing it for so long that I hardly notice anymore. So maybe my fabrication skills are just adequate-- either that or my parents truly are blind. Only now that I recognize my tendency toward self-contradiction do I realize why I’m in trouble: I’m not even sure that I believe myself this time.

Not so unusual, that I was itching to get out of the house after dinner. Not even a year of art school has changed that. Home is still home... and Delia is still Delia. I started calling her by her first name when I was about sixteen. Thankfully, the feeling was mutual. Even though Delia raised me, she’s always been more of a friend than a nurturer. BJ thought the whole farce was the best thing since sandworm repellent, if only such a thing existed. He did imitations of me calling her by her first name for a week. He still does it now and then, mostly when I’m mad and he’s heard me explode at her ("De-lia!") Those impressions never change. Simply impeccable. I doubt I could imitate my own inflection so well. I can hear him even now.

But that’s far from my concern with today. I’d be feeling considerably better if Delia hadn’t made her own rendition of sweet and sour chicken for dinner. Just like almost everything else she touches, the sweet part of the sauce ended up sickeningly so. An eerily similar thing happened during the middle of my senior year when college negotiations had begun. I ended up pitting my wish to attend the Lyme Academy of the Fine Arts as a costume design major against her opinion that I’d be far better off as a photography major at Albertus Magnus College over some especially saccharine crème brulée she’d made. I had rather bitingly pointed out that my photographs were selling at an impressive rate at local fairs and getting promising exhibition reviews-- why study for something that I had already mastered? I could easily freelance. What I wanted was a degree in something else I showed promise in and needed to work on. Delia’s following arguments proceeded to be weak and self-serving, and I clinched my victory by revealing what had come in the mail that day: an acceptance letter from Lyme stating I’d received the highest scholarship they offer. I had stormed up the stairs in bitter triumph, with Dad and Delia trailing behind with feeble offerings of congratulation ("Dear, that’s wonderful! I didn’t even realize you’d submitted your sketch portfolio! But... have you heard from Albertus yet?") My answer to Delia had been a curt "Yes. They accept, but I don’t!" and my bedroom door slammed in her face. I cried on BJ’s shoulder that evening, and when I was finally sick with what I’d eaten for dessert, it was he who steadied me with trembling hands, a weak joke, and an increasingly more nervous smile.

I suppose I’d noticed it by then. And I suppose that you, too, realize I’m not telling the truth here. There’s something really bothering me, and chances are it’s the very thing I want you to believe it’s not.

So, earlier this evening... after the chicken had been cleared away, I left the table with a hasty, "I’m going to the beach for a while."

"So soon?" Delia asked brightly. "Won’t you stay and tell your father and I what you’d like to do for your birthday?"

I almost dropped the last few dishes I’d been carrying. My stomach beginning to churn, I mumbled, "Later. I have some film to use up and some sketching to do. I’m going to the Seaport." Oh, Lord, I thought. They just had to ask.

Dad put the iced tea back in the refrigerator and embraced me from behind. "You’ll be twenty in two days, Pumpkin. Imagine that!"

"Our little girl, all grown up," Delia cooed, taking the dishes away from me. She leaned close, as if concerned. "You look pale, dear. Are you sure the night air’s good for you?"

Frustrated, I turned away from them and brushed my hair over my shoulders. "Positive. I’ll be fine. Dad, is your car out of the way? I need to get my bike out of the garage."

"Sorry, but mine’s blocking," Delia said. "Do you want me to drive you?"

I stifled an annoyed sigh and thought for a few moments. "Why not," I said blandly, heading for the stairs. "I’ll be down in ten minutes."

As I climbed the stairs, I heard Dad say, "Delia, she’s been awfully quiet this week."

I paused for a moment, straining over the banister to hear Delia’s reply. "She’s been quiet all summer, Charles," she said levelly, but could not mask the hint of worry in her tone. "I remember what my first year of college did to me. Summers at home seemed like prison."

"But she never leaves the house, unless it’s to go biking or on one of her creative ventures. She’s always alone, honey. I worry. And if she considered this place no better than prison, she could have chosen a school much farther away. She came home every weekend last semester. No one’s forcing her."

I did not remain to hear if Delia gave an answer. With every step toward my room, my heart beat more jarringly and my stomach ached more fiercely. Already I was planning to pull one of the biggest evasions in the history of Deetz parent-offspring relations, and strangely enough my only qualm in that instant was wondering if choosing Lyme over Albertus Magnus had given them reason to think I was insecure about being farther from home. I had chosen my college with honest intent; Lyme had the program I wanted, and the scholarship offering was incredible. But the fact remains, Albertus is over nearly three hours from here, and Lyme is just under an hour and a half.

As I gathered my sketchbook and camera equipment from the corner of my room that had come to be known as Studio Two (our spare dining room is Studio One, or Delia’s Hall of Horrors), I tried desperately to clear my mind of agitation. Which only made things worse, because I ended up wondering about how Melinda was spending her last week of summer. We’d achieved a rare level of intimacy for roommates who prefer to maintain a certain level of privacy. It’s our practice to ask each other’s advice in complex matters, but not in specific terms. We rarely disclose the details of our grief, yet our care and understanding somehow transcends superficial empathy. I shook my head, wishing she had been home when I called the other night. Of course, then, I had not had the problem I now face. Not in its entirety.

I dragged my feet down the stairs, weighed down with my tripod over one shoulder and this unwieldy sketchbook in the other. I’d only made things worse by trying to distract myself. The sleeve of my gown would have ripped on the banister if Dad hadn’t spotted me coming down the stairs and noticed it was caught.

"Are you sure that’s the best thing to wear to the beach, Pumpkin? You could ruin it."

"I’ll be fine, Dad," I insisted, passing by where he sat reading the paper. "I didn’t make this dress just to leave it hanging in my closet. It’s for everyday wear."

"Your idea of everyday wear is most people’s idea of theatrical garb, Pumpkin," he reminded me affectionately, as he was so often wont to do. I took comfort in knowing he was not opposed to my evening outing.

I heard Delia’s car start. I kissed Dad on top of the head. "I’ll see you later. Don’t have a heart attack if I’m back late, do you hear me? Because I’ll probably walk home."

"W-Walk?"

"Dad, good night."

"Lydi-aaaaa?" Delia called, peeking in the front door. "Are you ready?"

"Never more so," I replied, handing her my tripod. "Just put that in the back."

The first five minutes of the ride passed in amiable silence, but I couldn’t help that notice that the closer we were to reaching the shore, the more attempts at pointing interesting things by the wayside Delia made.

"Do you see, that one?" she asked eagerly, pointing to a tall hedge sculpted into an elaborate twist. "I think I’ll aim for that in the Berkman project. Delicate yet eye-catching, with-"

"Delia, what’s wrong?" I asked, almost exasperated.

She cast me a nervous sidelong glance. "What do you mean, dear? It’s just that this sculpting commission’s different than most, and I wanted to hear-"

"You never want to hear my opinion."

Delia’s eyes flashed with hurt defensiveness as we came to a halting stop at the last intersection. She turned to me slowly, battling an incredulous look that she knew full well I would find irksome.

"Lydia," she said carefully, "I really should be the one asking you that question."

"What do you mean by that?" I shot back, staring in the opposite direction.

"I mean exactly what you asked me. What’s wrong?"

I opened my mouth to say "Nothing!" and ended up saying nothing. I sighed wearily, my stomach churning again.

"You know I’m tolerant. Lydia, most people couldn’t coexist with you if they weren’t tolerant," she said in a tone that was meant to be gentle but only came off as patronizing. "But frankly, this summer, your father and I have about reached our limit."

I stared at her in shock as we continued down the parkway. "Your limit for what?" I demanded, knowing full well I’d only let loose another shrieking wraith of a skeleton in someone’s Neither-closet.

Someone’s....

"-- can’t expect us to let you vanish like that and not wonder where you are, if you insist upon spending your summers at home. Why, we--" Delia cut herself off, nudging my shoulder in exasperation. "Lydia? Are you listening to me?"

I snapped back dazedly. "Yes! For God’s sake, yes.... Vanish like what?" I choked, realizing what she’d said.

Delia tried to hide a furtive look. "Well, those evenings when you go out biking or walking. When you say you’re going out biking or walking..."

"Are you calling me a liar?" I cried, my spine tingling cold.

"Lydia... I... I’ve come out looking for you at your usual spots, these past few times... and you’re--" Delia hesitated, as if the confession genuinely pained her-- "you’re usually not there."

"Usually?" I sputtered, too infuriated by the idea that my parents had tried to spy on me to realize what it meant.

Delia offered a tiny smile. "I’d like to believe we can still trust you, dear. Can I trust you tonight? Just please, please... if you have a place you’re disappearing to, at least tell us. Where are you going, once I leave you off?"

My insides fell to the floor. "Nowhere," I whispered numbly. Which was, for once, the truth.

"Lydia, do you mean that?" Delia asked searchingly as she pulled up alongside the beach parking area.

I gave her a hard look, determined not to cry. "I do."

"Good," she said brightly, sighing as if relieved to be her usual perky, oblivious self once more. As I gathered my equipment from the back, she asked, "What time should I come back for you?"

I wanted to scream, but how could I? How could I tell her I wanted to walk, when she’d confessed her deepest treachery to me voluntarily? I sighed heavily, using the last of my willpower not to slam the car door. Telling her that I really wanted to walk home would be out of the question, now that her suspicion was out in the open.

"Ten. Come for me at ten-- no, wait. Will you send Dad?"

What had been a proud smile melted into a frown upon her painted features. "If he’s not too tired... yes, dear, I suppose. Have a--"

I had already turned and begun to walk away, but I knew what superficial words I would have borne. For once, despite my lies, I did not feel compelled to listen.

And so I sit here, dating pages and filling them with words instead of pictures. I’ve taken barely half a roll of photographs. My mind turns invariably to where I have been on all those times Delia has followed me and not found me: Delectably odd picnics in the Neitherwoods, Thursday night airborne dancing competitions at Kneecap’s, cruising the New Yuck City skyline with Doomie on the brink of a transformation because of that traffic jam back on Clodway after the show (which I swear BJ liked, as much as he insists he only went because I so wanted to see Sir Wills himself cameo in a "A Midsummer Night’s Scream"....)

I can’t believe it.

I can’t believe Delia has confronted me after all this time over something that’s been there all along. I’ve been vanishing right from under their noses for the better part of seven years!

No, wait. I’m not telling the truth again. It hasn’t been there all along.

And God forgive me, but I’ll say it: I’m afraid to admit what that is even though I know. No wonder Delia doesn’t believe me. She’ll never believe me again. And--

I don’t want her to.

Because if that’s the case, then in some perverse way I’ll for the first time be telling the truth. And because I can’t say it aloud, I tell it here, pacing on the sand, feeling the waves wash over my feet. This is probably the only time you’ll see me admit that what Delia’s implying is absolutely right. The trouble with this whole situation is such a simple thing. It’s strange, how you can live through changes in yourself and others and not realize they’re working upon you. Others notice what’s happening, or at least have an inkling, and you deny it vehemently. I’m guilty of that. As guilty, in fact, as BJ. And only now, looking back, do I truly see.

I never understood Delia’s discomfort over my lack of romantic interests. It just seemed silly to me. I halfheartedly saw a few guys I’d met through Bertha and Prudence during the end of my senior year, but none of them had the streak of eccentricity it would take to bind me. Mark thought I was pretty, but that was about all. That got him the boot after three dates, when he discovered I definitely did not like the suggestion of modeling for his introductory art project (and we’d barely gotten past a goodnight kiss!) Jamison was a paranoid catastrophe; after about two weeks of mildly flinching when I’d touch him and nervously eyeing my clothing he finally burst out, "If you’re a witch, for crying out loud, just tell me!" And need I mention that Zachary was a bit too into my moody fashion sense? He started dressing in black and said one night at dinner, "You’d be dazzling as Zachenstein’s bride, one day!" Goodbye to the pretender! He started dressing in khakis and blazers again the morning after I tossed him back into the water.

What I really, honestly wanted was someone who would think me completely normal, who could love me without making an issue of my unusual preoccupations. Who could look at me as if I wore jeans and a tee-shirt and had the most normal rosy complexion on earth, but know that I am simply me. And, for God’s sake, could make me laugh.

I dig my toes into the sand, fighting off tears. I know. I know that you know. But please, let me tell you. It will ease my pain for a while.

I can admit I noticed the difference in Beetlejuice starting around then. He didn’t show up for three days after my first date with Mark, but after a while, he came all the more frequently and was quick to laugh off the absence. I think he could stand to linger for the simple fact that I’d lie there sprawled on my bed and tell him my every grief about these young men-- what bothered me, what I hoped for, what I never got. He’d listen, all right, but never had any spectacular insights. I didn’t expect that of him; it just wouldn’t have struck me as in character. But, how his eyes did change, from that time on....

I honestly took it into consideration on my art final that same year. It was an odd assignment: Your Best Friend, in any medium. Any interpretation, anything. It was so open-ended that I paced for a week before I decided how on earth I’d pull it off. My best friend was a ghost. My best friend would scare the living daylights out of most people. I couldn’t lie, not on this assignment. It wouldn’t ring true, not in the one thing I did best above all others. I called Beetlejuice then, to give him fair warning. I remember his reply.

"You wanna what? Paint me? They’re going to think you’ve lost your head for sure this time, Babes."

And while BJ retrieved his head from the floor, I nearly fell off the bed laughing. "Beej, trust me. If I do you in abstract, they’ll never know what hit them."

Beetlejuice glared dubiously. "Sure, Lyds, cut off my ear and pull a Picasso on my face! Oh, yeah, like they’ll believe your best friend is some mess of rearranged features in pinstripes!"

"No, they’ll just remember the time I dressed my father like you for Halloween and think I mean my father," I reassured him. "They still believe I designed that outfit. So does Dad. And--" I stopped, realizing what Beetlejuice had said. "Cut off your ear and pull a Picasso? Beej?" I was looking at him with barely contained excitement.

He lowered his eyes and kind of shuffled at my carpet. "Yeah, well... y’know, I couldn’t stay away from the art museum for that long, considering the great stuff you’ve said about it and all...."

"You mean you read the history plaque that says--"

"That Van Gogh guy or whatever, cut his ear off, yeah.... I like these dead artists of yours more already. In fact, I--" Beetlejuice hesitated, staring at my floor again.

"Yes?" I asked, slipping off the bed to stand nearer. In that moment, I don’t think I could have stayed away.

"Is that Zach creep gone?-- I, uh!-- I mean--"

I looked at him with faintly amused shock.

"-- I mean, are you going anywhere this weekend?"

"He’s gone," I said affirmatively, feeling no ill will toward Beetlejuice’s candid display of opinion on the matter. "I’ll tell you about it later," I added with a shudder. "Why, what’s this weekend?"

Beetlejuice looked both chagrined and so relieved he might break into a victory calypso. "Uh... there’s this art show at the Louvre Deux that Jacques kind of mentioned...."

"And?" I breathed, grasping both of his hands before I even realized what I was doing.

He stared at my hands as if I’d placed his fingers in an electric socket. "And it’s Matisse’s new exhibition or something like that.... One of those French guys.... You know I can’t keep ’em straight!"

We attended the exhibition, and "Beetle Eater" not only earned me the highest grade possible, but also won a divisional award at the high school all-state exhibition.

I’d never seen BJ so flustered as he was then in my life. But I was so excited that I hugged him and didn’t give it a second thought. Until now.

Since then, we haven’t done the same things that we did when I was younger. Since then, the humor’s become calmer, almost an echo of its former hilarity. I never wanted to grow up, and I knew BJ never really had. But who would have guessed that we’d eventually grow into each other?

Delia would die if she knew I’ve technically been dating for the past year and a half. I’m dying as I realize it just now. How he offered his arm awkwardly that evening after the first dance competition at the beginning of my freshman year at Lyme. How we’ve been arm in arm... nervously eye-searching, caught in brief, daring-to-hope embraces... ever since.

Which brings me to yesterday and today, and to the next lie that I must tell. Beetlejuice asked me last night what I wanted to do for my birthday. Never mind the cost, never mind the distance. Just tell him, for crying out loud. Because....

Well, he didn’t say why. But before seeing him off through the mirror with our newest Boo Ribbon from Kneecap’s, did he really hold me just a moment longer, and look terrified before he vanished?

I think I looked terrified, when I checked my own reflection. And it’s the kind of terrified you need a lonely, pensive evening on the beach to work out. Oh, this coast is so beautiful at night. I will never cease to believe this has been a place of so many unknown miracles after sunset.

I pause for a moment. The moon is high overhead, full. I wonder how much time I have spent, and what secrets of mine the wind has carried with it to far corners of creation. My heart begins to ache for my parents. They asked me too late. I have obligation to another promise, first. But what am I to tell them about my birthday? What now, when Delia has caught me?

I gaze out across the water, both fearful and certain. I will not break my promise to BJ, not for anyone. But I will not upset my parents, either. I’ll tell them that I want to go to dinner, a late evening affair at Garda’s, perhaps. They’ve my favorite Italian dishes there.

I reach for the moon, closing my fingers about the distant orb so that I can no longer see its shape. Only the pale glow it leaves about my trembling hand remains. The rest of that day, my birthday....

I will spend it here with my best friend in the world.

Please. Let me say that and not say more. I need the benefit of the doubt. I need these two days to become rational again. I need these two days to believe, to be sure.

....O Stars, how I long to be sure!

 

 

* * *

 

Beetlejuice turned the tattered strip of blue silk over and over in his hands. How many had they won, he wondered? Dozens? After a while, he’d simply lost track. To tell the truth, he’d even lost track of some of the ribbons. But Lydia would sigh in momentary annoyance and find them again, the next time she came. She always knew where to look. Even if the roadhouse were to be ripped shingle from siding to the ground by a twister from Sandwormland, Lydia would still know.

Beetlejuice winced, remembering she’d taken it upon herself to make him organize his closet last week. She hadn’t been happy with the two new skeletons, but she had laughed to know they were only minor offenses against Jacques. Only. Had she really said that? Beetlejuice placed the ribbon back on his bedside table and continued pacing, pondering her unusually permissive comment. Any other day, it seemed, he would have gotten the sharper edge of Lydia’s tongue for having slighted his well-meaning housemate.

Beetlejuice strode into the living room, finding himself alone. Ginger had taken a hint that morning and quickly gone shopping after he’d tripped on one of her low-lying webs and nearly sent a decisive bolt in her direction. He was actually grateful that he would not have to explain to Jacques why their roommate was plastered to the floor by all eight of her tap-dancing feet. Beetlejuice tried his best to brush aside his slight disappointment that Jacques was not there. He didn’t feel like himself, almost wishing someone was present to validate his restlessness.

Someone....

But, no. Beetlejuice snapped his fingers, remembering this was one night her parents expected her to show for family dinner. He thought of the night before with pained clarity, wondering why it affected him so. It was not the most extraordinary of times that they had spent recently. The crowd at Kneecap’s had come to bitterly expect their regular victories, yet they still came back not so much to compete as they came to watch. Lydia was the reason they had learned and perfected some classics: the tango, the waltz, the foxtrot. He remembered being vaguely offended when she said they couldn’t calypso forever, but then, that was over a year ago. Since then, dancing had become an entirely new frontier for him to conquer with his usual egotistical flair. And with her by his side. Beetlejuice sank onto the couch, thinking once again of the night before. They’d executed a two-step in cut time, and as she had swung back from a dip so low that her hair had grazed the floor which their feet could not touch, she’d said-- and he could still hear her say, out of breath but clear as a bell, whispered low in his ear--

"I think I finally know why so many people dislike you."

He had been shocked, but did not miss a beat, twirling her into the next set of steps.

"Why’s that, Babes?"

After a brief, uncharacteristic shy pause, she had replied, "Because... just look at you. There’s too much not to like in some wonderfully guilty, amused way. No matter how many pranks you pull, no matter how many insults you hurl. It’s so easy they feel it a sin."

And they had both been so affected by the revelation that no more words passed between them for the remainder of the winning round. When the night was over, when Doomie was safely stowed away after his usual, cheery goodnight honk, they had stood on the welcome mat of the roadhouse awkwardly as if they had never been faced with parting before.

Hoping she’d remember, Beetlejuice had cleared his throat and asked uncertainly, "And you don’t feel like it is? I mean, seriously?"

"What?"

"You know. What you said back at the club, Lyds. You don’t feel like it’s a sin?"

Her eyes had gone misty, almost troubled, but she sighed, offered a tremulous smile. "If I did, Beetlejuice, I would have been gone by now. You know that."

"Yeah... and you know I-- wouldn’t have it any other way, Babes. Hey, I was wonderin’...."

He found himself picturing how her tiny hands had folded upon themselves over and over as she’d murmured, "Yes?"

"What you want for your birthday," he had managed to blurt without stammering. "Since it’s your 20th and all... just name it."

Her eyes had gone wide, luminous. "Beetlejuice, you know I’ve told you over and over that you don’t have to--"

He’d hastily put a finger to her lips, causing her eyes to go even wider. "Yes, I do," he said firmly, finding once and again that she was the only one who could move him to such candor. "I want you to remember this birthday, Babes, and I don’t care what it costs."

The last image to float before his eyes was her brief start, a blink, a breath, almost reluctant and anticipating in the same split second. "All right, Beetlejuice... Good night!"

She’d said his name the third time without meaning to, before she had the chance to reach and embrace him. She vanished with her arms outstretched, her eyes saddened by her own foolishness.

"When will you let me know?" he had called frantically through the void.

"I’ll come back in a couple of days! Tomorrow’s you-know-what... Delia’s idea of family bonding," she had responded, a faint echo from beyond the mirror.

Beetlejuice leaned heavily against the beaten backing of the couch, his eyes closed tightly, his fists clenched on the cushions at his sides. The unprecedented assault of his own thoughts was almost too much to bear.

What did you expect her to say, huh? That she’d be back first thing in the morning, with bells on? Who’re you kidding! She’s not thinking about birthday presents right now; why should she be? She’s got college again in less than a week, and you know that artsy business is her life. And it’s gonna be even more as time passes, buddy, just you watch. You’d be better off asking a sandworm what it wants for Lyds’ birthday....

"YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGH! WHO AM I KIDDING?!" Beetlejuice wailed, hunching over his knees hopelessly. He didn’t notice the that the front door had swung cautiously open.

"You’re unhappy to see me already?" Ginger pouted, the sound of shopping bags apparent above the skitter of her nervous feet.

Beetlejuice sat bolt upright, scowling in furious embarrassment. He straightened his tie brusquely, adopting as indifferent an expression as possible in three seconds flat. He had the sinking feeling that he hadn’t succeeded.

"Awww. What on earth would make you say that, Ginger?" he asked condescendingly, his tone not half as dripping with sarcasm as he would have liked it.

Ginger glared at him for a few moments before turning mischievously thoughtful. She pointed at him with one of her free legs and said, "I don’t know what that was all about, but I guarantee the person you’re foolin’s not me!"

Beetlejuice struggled to find a suitable comeback, but for the first time ended up staring in indignant silence as the spider shuffled away. Defeated and taken aback by his own incompetence, he stared bleakly at the floor.

"I’m sure it’s not you either, Ging," he sighed weakly, scuffing at the floorboards with the heel of his boot.

One more night. She said a couple’a days.... Just one more night....

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

11:25 PM

Dad didn’t say a word on the way home. He just drove up to where I waited, smiling as usual. He helped me stow the camera in the backseat, but when he casually tried to take this book from my hands and place it with the rest of my things, I resisted.

"Sure you don’t want to leave it back here, Pumpkin? It’ll just take up space in your lap."

"Which is what I prefer," I said tersely, holding out one hand. "Let me drive home, Dad. You look tired."

"Are you sure, Pumpkin? You look kind of beat to me, too. Are you feeling all right? You should at least have worn--"

"Dad, the keys. Please."

He looked at me in slight confusion. "I thought you wanted to hold onto your book. You can’t do that and drive at the same time. Here, let me take it, then--"

"No, that’s all right!" I said, hastily tossing it into the back on top of my camera. "Let’s go. It’s getting chilly."

Dad sighed, his eyes warily empty as he took his place in the front passenger’s seat. As I fastened my own seat belt, he said, "Are you sure there’s nothing you’d like to tell me? Delia getting on your case again? She just worries for you. She doesn’t like to think you’re lonely, and neither do I."

"No, it’s... okay," I said quietly, starting up the car. My stomach tied itself in knots the whole way home, fraught with a knowledge that only hurt tenfold more than Delia’s spying: My father had no clue what his own wife had confronted me about. He had no idea that I’d been vanishing right under their noses. Delia-- and Delia alone-- was responsible for the snooping. My blood boiled until I pulled the keys out of the ignition in our own driveway.

Dad emerged from the car looking somewhat dizzy. "Just for future reference, Pumpkin... don’t drive quite so fast. Delia will have my neck."

Why, when she already has mine? I wanted to ask bitterly, but said nothing. I gathered my things from the back seat, adamantly refusing help. For the first time, I’m feeling what must be part of my heartache.

I am two days off twenty years old.

And my parents will treat me like I’m ten for as long as I let them.

Delia glanced up briefly from her sculpting as I passed sullenly through the living room with Dad two steps behind. "Did you have a nice time, dear? Any novel photographs?"

Barely pausing at the foot of the stairs, I replied coolly, "If you consider an evening sky afire with a sunburst the color of amethyst and garnet merely novel, then, yes, a few." I smiled weakly at my father. "Good night, Dad," I said softly, turning to walk up the stairs. "Love you."

I had not gone so far that I didn’t hear him say in reply, "Love you too, Pumpkin. Sweet dreams." And I had not turned so swiftly that I had not seen Delia’s faintly pained expression.

I moved sluggishly as I put my equipment away, my eyes stinging with tears at the forceful resurgence of every emotion I’d trodden upon during my moonlight walk. As queasy as it had left me, my mind was made up. BJ would have rights to the day with me, and my parents no more than the evening. First come, first served. I could not let guilt interfere. Besides, I was angry enough at Delia that it frankly should not have mattered at all whether I saw her on my birthday or not.

I drifted over to my mirror, absently running a brush through my hair. It had gotten quite long since my years in junior high, but somehow I wondered if it wouldn’t be best short again. I studied my wan reflection restlessly, trying to pinpoint what it was I missed about that schoolgirl pageboy. Something in the way it looked--

Something in the way he looked--

On me.... At me. I felt my cheeks burn as I playfully experimented with turning the ends under. Supposing I were to have it cut, perhaps to my shoulders or thereabouts--

What would he think?

I dropped my hair, startled-- and yet not-- by my own subconscious question. I knew why I was really standing there, dallying like a fool. I wouldn’t make him wait another night. I couldn’t. I opened my mouth to speak, but the words died in a frantic rush. The surface of the mirror had begun to ripple.

"B-Beej?" I asked, touching the unquiet glass with the tips of my fingers.

A quivering but familiar set touched my own. "Yeah, in the... lack of flesh," he responded awkwardly. I found myself staring into a pair of luminescent green eyes that seemed twice as sunken as usual.

I couldn’t stifle a small giggle. "That was funny, BJ," I offered, more to dispel my own unease than to cajole him into the antics that I so loved. "Please don’t tell me you’re afraid to laugh at your own jokes. I wouldn’t think you any more vain if you had."

Tapping the rim of my mirror with his free hand, he smiled, but it seemed labored somehow. Beetlejuice replied, "Ah, you know me. Just testin’ what I’ve got saved up for a rainy day, so to speak."

The surface of the mirror was briefly engulfed in storm clouds complete with raindrops and heat lightning. I fanned them away urgently with my hand, agitated by the brief obstruction of his face from my view. I laced my fingers with his carefully and asked, "Are you all right? Because I was just about--"

"To go to bed?" Beetlejuice blurted in a hastily apologetic tone. "Sorry, Babes, I’ll just--"

"No!" I exclaimed, taken aback. "You didn’t let me finish. I was just about to come over, actually," I admitted, suddenly finding speech as difficult as he had. "I’ve decided what I want for my birthday, and I figured you’d want to know as soon as possible-- I mean, if I’m not the one who’ll end up keeping you up...."

"Nah! You’re talking to a regular night owl, Lyds," Beetlejuice scoffed blandly, taking on the semblance of a barn owl with crooked feathery stripes. He turned back with an agitated fizzle, reaching for my hand and missing. "C’mon, then... tell me!"

I placed my hand in his firmly, taking a deep breath. "I’d like to spend the day with you on the shore near Mystic Seaport. You know, where I like to walk. Just a picnic, just the two of us. More than anything, Beej. I... would love it," I faltered, managing to meet his wide-eyed stare.

Beetlejuice didn’t say anything for a moment. I could see the progression of thoughts march through his head as clearly as the time I’d been transported there: Sand and sunburn, Lyds? Are you sure you’re not the one who’s lost your head this time? His expression changed with a markedly relieved, hopeful sigh that I took for assent. I leaned forward.

"You... don’t mind the beach, then? If you don’t want to be in the sun for that long, I completely under--"

"Lyds, you’re forgetting whose day it is," he said hastily, smiling as if he’d won the biggest joke-off of his life but had somehow forgotten how to properly accept the prize. "I was thinking the same thing about you. That fair skin of yours and all, y’know...."

"I’m sure one trip to the Grossery Store will take care of that, Beetlejuice," I said wryly, leaning perceptibly closer though I was not aware of it. "You know you have more to worry about than I do. You’re so pale you’re a shade of blue, need I remind you?"

He swallowed, flexing his hand as if he could not decide to let go of mine or only hold it tighter. "Uh... yeah," he swallowed. "I’m sure they’re never outta Drac’s at this time of the year... breeding sandworms make sunbathing here kind of dangerous. Ugggh." Beetlejuice shuddered involuntarily. Without thinking about it, I slipped my arms around him protectively.

"There aren’t any sandworms along the Atlantic. I promise you that," I said, resting my chin on his shoulder. He’d gone tense and just as indecisively relaxed into my embrace, his chin barely resting on top of my head.

"Yeah... I kinda figured-- I mean--"

I looked at him in concern, realizing with slight embarrassment that I, too, was at a loss for anything else clever to say. "Are you okay?" I asked hesitantly. "I mean... with this. It’s...?"

"Fine, fine," Beetlejuice murmured, letting go of me awkwardly. "Thanks for letting me know so soon. Now I’ll have the time...."

"The time for--"

"I gotta run, Babes," Beetlejuice said quickly, giving my hand one last uncertain clasp. "Lots to--"

"But it’s evening and it doesn’t look like Jacques is around. Don’t you want me to--"

"Come over, still? Nah, the place is a mess!"

I gave him a blank look. "It’s always a mess, Beetlejuice."

"Well... it’s... worse than usual! C’mon, Lyds, I know you don’t like it... just let me... and really, you look like you need... rest," he gasped feebly, as if every moment he lingered past a minute more doomed him to some unspeakable folly.

My heart sank. "If you insist. I’m sure Jacques will appreciate you helping out for once," I said in a small voice. I’d never been shrugged off before. Not by Beetlejuice. Ever.

"I guess," he sighed, sounding only mildly relieved. "I’ll see ya sometime on Sunday... Babes?" he asked with almost pitiful remorse.

"I should hope!" I said with a forced smile. "That is the big day."

"R-Right!" he stammered. "Just call me that morning or whenever you’re ready...."

I cast him a slightly crestfallen glance in spite of myself. "You... don’t want to stop by tomorrow, or anything?"

"I told ya, Lyds... I have things to do.... Good night, though. Get some sleep, huh?" he said softly, reaching forward in a half-formed gesture that never quite made it where my heart fluttered at the thought that it might have been intended--

"Good night," I whispered. And he was gone.

I lie and write this nearly half an hour later, and I feel no better. What did I do? What did I say? Why on earth would he care if the roadhouse was in shambles? I’d seen it worse than a shambles on more occasions than I could count!

But at least he did not say no. He’ll brave the beach for me, and so, I am content.

For now.

 

 

* * *

 

Beetlejuice throttled his head until every last bat had been evicted. Was he out of his mind, refusing Lydia access to the roadhouse as if he had something to hide? He sat miserably on the edge of his armchair, resisting the impulse to zap a ragged gash through one of the window curtains. He did have something to hide. God forbid that the day had come, but it had. He could not, for the death of him, admit to Lydia that he was terrified of parading in a swimsuit. Drac’s Sunblock? No problem, he’d buy it in an instant. But... swim trunks? He didn’t even own a pair. And that was the least of his troubles. He had, basically, blown Lydia off in favor of dealing with an embarrassment that would never have been an issue with her only a few years ago.

"Swell," he muttered, smacking his forehead. "I swore I’d never stoop any lower than six feet under, but I have noooo choice!"

Beetlejuice vanished with a pop and appeared seconds later in Jacques’ room on the second floor. The skeleton looked up from packing his gym bag in surprise. Beetlejuice hovered uncertainly over Jacques’ neatly-kept waterbed. He had no idea where to begin.

"Be-atlejuice?" Jacques asked warily. "Is there some-sing I should know? Because when it comes to news, I am always ze last to know. And I am al-ways ’earing it from you, malheureusement!"

Beetlejuice scowled indignantly. "Oh, yeah.... Just because I show up out of nowhere hovering over your bed means I’ve pulled another swift one!" Beetlejuice retorted, folding his arms across his chest in his best attempt at feigning nonchalance. It didn’t work. He lost his composure and plummeted onto Jacques’ jelly-like mattress with a thwack.

"Be-atlejuice? Is zis some kind of--"

"Joke?" Beetlejuice wailed, scrambling to his knees in an attitude of pleading. "I wish! C’mon, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal, you’ve gotta help me.... Lydia wants me to take her to the beach for her birthday! The beach! Do you realize what an idiot I’m gonna look like?!"

Jacques’ toothy smile turned sly. "I could say some-sing in response to zat, but I will not. Mon ami, what in ze world has gotten into you? Lydia should have no problem with ’ow you are, non?"

Beetlejuice grabbed Jacques by the collar of his gym tee-shirt and jerked him forward so that they were eye to eye. "I don’t care how early you have to leave for this fitness-schmitness convention tomorrow. You’re gonna help me find the right swimsuit if it’s the last thing you do, comprende?"

"Unfortunately, oui," Jacques replied shakily, disengaging himself from his distraught friend’s grasp, "je comprends."

"Whatever!" Beetlejuice growled, grabbing Jacques’ wrist and snapping his fingers in agitation. They were both transported instantly to the garage. Doomie beeped expectantly, blinking his headlights excitedly. Beetlejuice was about to hop into the driver’s seat when Jacques placed a timid but restraining set of phalanges on his shoulder.

"I will do ze driving, ça va?"

The Shocking Mall yielded little success. Jacques didn’t know if he could take many more of his companion’s frustrated outbursts at the stores’ lack of suitable swimwear. Jacques sat edgily watching an overhead television set as Beetlejuice stormed angrily out of a fitting room for what must have been the tenth time. He shoved half a rackful of sleek spandex sport suits at Jacques.

"These may be your speed, but if you think you’re gonna get me into one of these, then you must really have some loose cartilage in your brain cavity, buster! Is this the best you can do?"

Jacques grabbed the handful of hangers, rounding on Beetlejuice in annoyance. "If you think zat you can do bet-tair, zen you shop for one yourself!" he hissed just as a burst of upbeat music from the television set caught both of their attention.

Barry-Me-Not was whisked onto the screen by a gigantic wave, one moment astride a loudly colored surf board and the next washed up on a foul beach littered with fish bones and menacing eight-legged starfish. Without missing a beat, he jogged the water from his ears and launched into an insidious sales pitch.

"Feeling all washed up? Has an unexpected invitation to a pool party left you high and dry? Fear no more, you wanna-be beach bums! Grab a noose and hang ten at Board Stiff Surf Shop. Choose from a full selection of equipment and swimwear guaranteed to prevent any wipeout. So, throw back those guppies and reel in a keeper!"

Beetlejuice cast a wry sidelong glance at Jacques and nudged the handful of rejected swimsuits. "You heard the man, M’sieur le Chauffeur! Let’s get board, already!"

An hour later, Jacques stood with his foreskull pressed against the wall of yet another dressing room. He could not even enjoy browsing Board Stiff in the down time between changes. Jacques wanted to scream. Just then, Beetlejuice did. Again.

"How am I supposed to choose just one?" Beetlejuice howled from behind the latched partition. Suddenly, the door burst open. Beetlejuice marched out clad in a pair of navy blue swim trunks covered in an electric yellow cobweb pattern. Slung over his right arm was a white pair splattered with genuine bloodstains, and over his left hung a bright purple pair printed with iridescent Japanese beetles.

"But, Be-atlejuice... is zis not what you wanted? Selection?" Jacques protested incredulously.

"Yeah, but for a guy like me, let’s face it. This is too much selection. And all I can think is, will she--" Beetlejuice cut himself off abruptly when he saw Jacques’ expression of impatience transform into a sly grin.

"Be-atlejuice," he said slowly, tauntingly. "Don’t you think that you are... hmm, shall we say, a lit-tel too worried about what Lydia will think, eh?"

Beetlejuice fumed, flinging the untried swim trunks in Jacques’ face. "Suppose it was you, bone breath-- suppose it was you! Quit being so marrow-minded! I’ll bet you’d be taking twice as much time and nibbling those knobby joints of yours right down to the knuckles! Are you gonna help me here, or what? Which ones?!"

Jacques was tempted to pursue his friend’s abnormal defensiveness, but sighed and said nothing. He felt a surge of genuine pity, wishing it weren’t always that way. At least Jacques could admit to himself that, despite what he was made of, he was downright soft. He picked up the discarded swimsuits and appraised them carefully, eyeing the one Beetlejuice presently modeled.

"I think zat you are trying too ’ard, mon ami," Jacques concluded thoughtfully, waving Beetlejuice back into the dressing room with a wink. "Go take zat off and wait a minute."

Jacques put the two suits back on the rack and thumbed through what stock remained to be examined. He frowned about halfway toward the end of the row, beginning to doubt that he’d find what he was looking for. Which he did not, and heaved a frustrated sigh.

"Hey, I haven’t got all weekend, ya know!" Beetlejuice called irritably from within. "Hurry up a bit. It’s getting cold in here!"

Jacques exhaled in frustration, scanning the swimwear section frantically. "I am try-ing, Be-atlejuice! Tais-toi!"

"Yeah, yeah, taste yourself," Beetlejuice muttered, his pacing, red-toenailed feet visible beneath the partition.

Just when Jacques thought his ribs were about to crack, his eye fell upon a circular rack labeled with a promisingly tacky sign. "Sale," it read in untidy, hastily-scrawled lettering. He didn’t even have to go through it item by item. His eye was so accustomed to the pattern that identifying it in the most chaotic of surroundings was second nature. Jacques snatched the offending garment up excitedly, dashing back to the dressing room and tossing it over the top of the partition.

"Call me bone breath, do you?" Jacques challenged proudly in response to Beetlejuice’s delighted cry.

There was a brief shuffling sound from beyond, and suddenly Beetlejuice floated overtop of the latched door, grinning wickedly. He awarded Jacques with a sharp but nonetheless affectionate crack over the beret.

"Me," Beetlejuice cackled in satisfaction. "You know I love it!"

"And you know Lydia will, too, because it is you," Jacques said pointedly, donning an air of knowing mischief.

"What?" Beetlejuice exclaimed, dropping so swiftly that he landed at Jacques’ feet, backside first. "OW! I mean.... Do you think so?"

"Absolument, mon ami," Jacques reassured him, rubbing his skull. "Absolument!"

In a vibrant puff of smoke, Beetlejuice vanished and reappeared fully clothed, holding the pair of black and white striped swim trunks primly over one arm as if they had been tailored to suit royalty. "Check, please!" he called in the general direction of the disgruntled cashier. And in panicked side-tones to an even more disgruntled Jacques, "Hey, can I borrow a few bucks?"

 

 

* * *

 

 

August 24

4:53 PM

I never thought I’d admit to it, but I’m almost relieved at Beetlejuice’s odd behavior yesterday. This may sound ridiculous, but I woke up this morning with the stark realization that I haven’t the faintest idea of what I should wear tomorrow. I’ve never been so nervous about such a decision in my life. And I’m not about to mention what kind of a nightmare triggered my anxiety, not even here. At least... not yet. Because a part of me is quietly certain that it was perhaps more dream than nightmare. Why is it that we have the capacity to shock ourselves so?

I wandered downstairs to find Dad tapping away at his computer in the back room and learned from him that Delia had gone to a decorating consultation. As I lingered in the doorway, nodding, he smiled, unaware of the turbulent thoughts racing behind my eyes.

"Just you and me this morning, Pumpkin," he said cheerfully. "Do you want to go out for breakfast?"

My heart froze in hesitation. I tugged at the sleeves of my oversized nightshirt as if deliberating, but I was actually in a panic. Spending time with Dad would invariably lead to a repeated inquiry of what I want to do for my birthday. It would also mean that I’d have less time to rummage my drawers and decide on what bathing suit would even be half adequate. Strange, but I could have sworn it would never have been a big deal even a year or so ago....

"Lydia? Breakfast?" Dad repeated, gently touching my arm.

"Ahhhm, yes," I mumbled, my thoughts suddenly settling into a precise, hopeful pattern. I could turn this outing to my advantage. Deliciously so, in more ways than one!

"Great! Go get dressed and we’ll be off."

"Sure thing, Dad!" I exclaimed, relieved and elated by my own ingenuity. I took the stairs two at a time, not minding that I’d slept in until eleven and would have no time to get freshened up in earnest. Everything couldn’t have fallen more fittingly into place.

I shed my nightshirt and shrugged into a burgundy tunic with poet sleeves and Bohemian stitching at the collar. I stumbled into a pair of black capri leggings as I dashed across the room in search of my hairbrush, finally halting in front of my mirror and sweeping my hair up into a loose bun. "Sorry, BJ," I murmured, realizing I hadn’t had time to grab the spider brooch just as I slipped my feet into some sandals on the way out the door.

Dad was waiting at the foot of the stairs, shuffling through his wallet. "Have any idea where you want to go, Pumpkin?"

I shrugged and said sweetly, "We haven’t been to Dean’s Diner in a while, have we?"

"You mean by the Plaza?" he asked.

"Sure. I wouldn’t mind stopping there afterward, either. You and I haven’t done something like that in a little while."

"Might even find you a pre-birthday present, mightn’t we, Pumpkin?" he asked affectionately, putting an arm around my shoulders as we stepped into the morning sunshine.

I feigned innocent embarrassment and laughed, "Oh, Dad! I don’t know-- maybe."

As much as I detested living up to my continued status as a grown child in their eyes, today the role would serve me to a fault. I let him drive, which was actually the first time I had done so in quite some time. As I had predicted, halfway through our mushroom and cheese omelets, Dad asked, "Have you decided what you want to do tomorrow? I think Delia would really like to get us out of the house."

"Yes, actually," I said earnestly, masking my caution beneath a casual veneer. "Why don’t we go to Garda’s tomorrow evening? We all like Italian, and I can’t think of a better place to spend my birthday with a two of you."

"What about during the day, Pumpkin?" Dad pressed. "Surely you--"

"Would like to make something of my birthday by giving a gift rather than expecting so much," I said kindly. "Why don’t you and Delia sleep in, or get a hotel or something? You two have been working so hard. That’s what I’d like for my birthday, really... for you and Delia to get some well-deserved rest before being so concerned about me." I bit my lip, twisting my fingers tightly together in my lap. I could only hope to trust what my ears told me-- that I at least sounded honest.

Dad reached across the table and brushed my cheek affectionately. "Come on, now, don’t tell me you don’t miss outings to the museum or trips into the city! That’s thoughtful, Pumpkin, but really, be serious. Don’t be afraid, just ask!"

I put my drink down shakily, willing the knot in my stomach to subside. I took a deep breath and said, "Dad, I am. I’m serious, and I’m asking you to listen. I suppose I’m not only asking for a day that you and Delia can spend at your leisure.... The truth is, I’m also asking for one that I can spend at mine. Twenty years, Dad. It’s just hit me. I’d really like some time to myself to reflect as much as I want to spend the evening with the two of you," I sighed, wondering if the addition of a half-truth would move him to acquiescence. "Didn’t you feel that way, once? Even remotely?" I pried as unobtrusively as I could.

Dad sighed, smiling sadly. "You really have grown up. You’re right. I can’t lie, actually... my parents drove me nuts when I was your age. In fact, you want to hear a funny story?"

"Sure."

"Your grandparents got it into their heads to throw me a party for my nineteenth birthday. The trouble is, they didn’t tell me. It was meant to be a surprise. So there I was, free as a bird, believing that for once my parents weren’t going to chain me into any family celebration of my turning the big one-nine. Not so! As it turns out, I ended up driving to the shore with a bunch of friends that day instead, and only after I returned home after dark did I realize that I’d left them waiting in a decorated house full of relatives for hours."

Dad was chuckling somewhat nostalgically, but it was all I could do to keep from choking on my orange juice. I nearly dropped the glass, staring at him incredulously.

"You what?"

"I know, Pumpkin. It’s sad, in a sense. But what I’m saying is, I understand how you feel, and I certainly won’t duplicate the same misunderstanding where my own child’s concerned. Just don’t brood yourself into oblivion tomorrow, wherever you go, okay? I’ll handle Delia. I know she’s been on your case. She doesn’t quite understand what it is to be you, I think," Dad said sympathetically, leaning across the table to kiss my forehead.

I could only nod dumbly, forcing my paralyzed lips into a giddy smile. I was speechless. It was too good to be true. Simply too good. I kissed him back.

"Thanks, Dad. It really means a lot to me. How about I make a reservation at Garda’s for six o’clock? That’ll give me plenty of time. As I said, it’s not much... just some thinking I know I have to do. And maybe I’ll uphold the Deetz tradition and stop by Bertha’s and Prudence’s," I said, grinning at him. "I haven’t forgotten my friends here, either. We’re all just busy."

"Too busy nowadays, you young people," Dad mused, accepting the check from our waitress. "Now, if I’m not mistaken, we have some shopping to do. Right, darlin’?"

"You got it, Dad," I said with a satisfied grin. With luck like that, I couldn’t go wrong. All the better, that he’d never know what hit him.

"Here," I said, pulling Dad by the wrist into Sun & Sand Boutique. "You got me thinking. I need a new bathing suit something terrible. I wore my old one out swimming laps for exercise last year. And if you get me anything for my birthday on top of this, I swear I’ll kill you," I said, grinning affectionately.

"You don’t need any film or anything?" Dad asked, hovering in the store entrance near a rack of sunglasses. "You know you’re worth a whole lot more to me than just a swimsuit, Pumpkin."

"Well, then, we’ll see if I know it, too!" I laughed, hugging him and making a beeline for the racks of remaining summer stock. "You’re not going to get off the hook without giving me your opinion."

Dad sank down on a bench, sighing indulgently. Soon, I’d shut out everything but an awareness of cut and color. Nothing seemed right. I felt as if I were pursuing an objective that refused to transpose itself from thought into watercolors upon my canvas. I pushed aside a dozen different prints. Bright red leopard print, cutout sides? Too gaudy. White with gold swirls and pale blue trim, no straps? Too art deco. Blue and white Hawaiian print two piece? Too unoriginal. Solid mauve with v-neckline and subtle symmetrical stitch? Too... Delia. I finally selected a conservative black one-piece and a navy blue tie-neck with cut low in the back. I held them up dismally to Dad, who nodded and said, "Lovely! Go try them on, dear."

I liked the effect of neither, and I had no idea why. Dark colors had never done me wrong, and despite the fact that I somehow knew both looked fine, I disappointedly settled on neither. I emerged from the dressing room looking considerably less enthusiastic about the venture than I had been.

"What’s the matter, Pumpkin?" Dad asked.

"I don’t know.... They just don’t feel right," I said, shrugging dismally.

"Not even the black one?"

"Especially not the black one, for some reason."

Dad got up and looked around, beginning to wander the rows as I did, searching the racks thoughtfully. I smiled inwardly, touched that he was trying to make me feel better by helping despite his stunted sense of the aesthetically pleasing. I halfheartedly selected another three plain suits and returned to the dressing room.

"Hand it over if you find anything!" I called to Dad encouragingly, fully expecting that he would not.

None of the three met my expectations. I was disappointed with the store and baffled at myself. Since when had swimsuits become so artistically difficult to select, and since when had I become so picky over a garment that would only end up wet and covered in sand? I had just donned my shirt and was about to exit the dressing room when an insubstantial object sailed over the top and landed in my hair.

"Try that, Pumpkin!" Dad called expectantly.

I pulled the suit off my head, not quite believing in what I held up to the light. The silken garment shimmered a bold, dark sapphire blue in the bright store lights. It was printed with a delicate yellow pattern of moons and stars. It also fell off the hanger in two separate, streamlined pieces. A bikini?

"Dad, what is--"

"Just try it. Consider it an experiment."

Shaking my head in disbelief, I disrobed one last time and slid into the suit. I’d never owned anything like it, unless you counted a disaster of a frilly two piece that Delia convinced me was charming two summers ago. Standing with my back to the mirror, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to turn and look. I had the distinct feeling that the reflection awaiting me was much different than the first half a dozen. And it frightened me to know why.

"Is that the right size, Pumpkin?" Dad asked.

"I... think so," I replied.

"How do you like it?"

"I’m not sure."

"Would you think call me silly if I asked to see it?"

"No," I said with a tense shrug, "not at all." I had promised I’d use his opinion. I’d humor him and let him give it. I stepped into the partitioned hall so he could see from the main room.

I’d never seen him look so haunted in my life. For a moment his eyes widened as if bent upon holding every last tear his ducts could muster, but they just as quickly relaxed into a dreamlike approval. He gave me an adamant thumbs up.

"You look great, kiddo!"

I felt my cheeks go slightly warm. "Do you really think so?"

"You have it on good authority," he said quietly, his eyes fading to glassy once more. "You’ll be the envy of open swim hour, for sure."

"Dad, are you all right?" I asked, stepping forward.

"Sure, Pumpkin! Don’t worry about me, you change and we’ll get you all checked out."

"But Dad, those are tears--"

"I know," he said quietly, turning away to wipe his eyes. "I know."

I leaned against the dressing room door, struck by the sudden realization. I felt my own head lighten. "I look like her, don’t I?" I heard myself say. "Like this.... You remember...."

"Of course I do," Dad said quietly, smiling despite the fact that his eyes had only begun to stream more freely. "And I’d like you to remember, too. She lives in you... in so many miraculous ways."

I felt my own eyes begin to sting, but I smiled proudly. "Then this one it shall be," I said with contentment, turning to change back. "I’ll be there in a minute, Dad."

I locked the door and collapsed against it, succumbing to an onslaught of tears that I knew would only have fueled his own all the more. Strange, how few and far in between the glimpses had become, beyond the pictures on my dresser and the oil lamp. And fitting, that I had come to this at such a time. I straightened and stood tall, letting my arms fall to my sides. Knowing that the floor would swim before my gaze until the tears faded, I opened my eyes at last.

Yes, I knew the woman in the mirror. I also knew the time and place, and that the season was right. As if of their own accord, my hands let down my hair and calmly arranged it a few times before drawing it up to just above my shoulders again and again, in sharp contrast to its present mid-back length.

So, for better or for worse, I was to change. And uncertainty would not alter my decision.

Wordlessly, I dressed and folded the bikini carefully over one arm. I was grateful that my eyes had always been swift to recover from brief emotional incidents. I found Dad standing with his back to the dressing rooms, leaning against a display counter. I touched his shoulder.

"I’m ready," I said gently, giving him my brightest smile.

"I know you are, Pumpkin," Dad said, putting an arm around my shoulder and steering me up to the cashier’s counter. He added as he drew out his wallet, "Anywhere else the birthday girl would like to stop?"

"Actually, yes," I said tentatively. "Designs by Angeline."

"The hair place?" he asked in surprise.

"The hair place," I confirmed with a nod of somber satisfaction.

Handing the young man behind the counter his credit card, Dad teased, "Why didn’t you just come out and say that what you really want is a new look for school this fall?"

"You know I’ve always been circuitous about getting what I want," I replied, feeling for the first time in two days that everything was going to be all right despite Delia’s meddling and BJ’s anxiety. Despite my own anxiety, for that matter....

And so I sit and wait, writing when I should be sketching, thinking when I could be biking. Beetlejuice hasn’t shown at all, but then, I hardly expect that. He said he has things to do. I believe him, but...

I scan the layout on my bed, praying that I have truly done well by my mother: the bikini, a new pair of tinted sunglasses, flip-flops, and my old straw hat, newly embellished with my spider brooch. My eyes rest listlessly upon the priceless bauble.

But the believing is hard when I wish he were here!

Tomorrow morning, I tell myself, and my heartbeat is calm, if only for a few moments. Tomorrow you will call him, and tomorrow you will know.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Tomorrow, Beetlejuice thought. She said she’d call first thing tomorrow.

He wandered the Grossery Store’s aisles aimlessly, having completely forgotten where the sunblock might be, as troubled as he was. Jacques had departed for the convention that morning and would not return for a week. Shopping-- and alone, at that-- was not Beetlejuice’s idea of how to spend a Saturday afternoon. He had spent every Saturday afternoon that he could remember with Lydia for the last--

Beetlejuice stopped dead in his tracks, staring at the cracking tile floor of aisle three. They had celebrated the first anniversary of their meeting in September of her seventh grade year. The seven year mark was less than two weeks away, and he had not realized it. What on earth was he supposed to get her in order to mark that occasion? Seven years!

Beetlejuice chipped a few new slivers out of the tile before moving on, too preoccupied to even consider making a snack of the pill bugs that scurried out. He couldn’t dwell on their anniversary, not then. Not when her birthday was the more pressing matter. That delicate skin of hers would not fry, and it was his responsibility to prevent it. In the Upperworld, they just hadn’t made provision in the sunblock department for creatures as pale as they. Strange, that she had been born in it, living and breathing, and yet so dark of mind and heart!

In frustration, Beetlejuice eventually snared the nearest shelf stalker with a conjured-up giant tentacle and demanded to know where on earth they’d hidden the Drac’s. The terrified but otherwise unharmed young werewolf pointed in the direction of aisle ten.

"Right... I knew that!" Beetlejuice grumbled, releasing the juvenile employee.

"That’s three fifty," the said the cashier as Beetlejuice plunked the bottle of sunblock onto the conveyor belt. He rummaged in one pocket for the right change, grateful that he’d remembered to bring some cash. His money problems weren’t so much a complete lack of it, but simply that he was so absent-minded. So he preferred to think. It made things less complicated, less worthy of guilt. Beetlejuice couldn’t stand being guilty, as often as he tended to be. Because, most often, it ended up hurting Lydia.

Beetlejuice passed a dismal walk home, noticing as he passed that the courthouse clock proclaimed that it was nearly five o’clock. His thoughts turned invariably to the cause of his turmoil again and again. What was she up to? Was she angry with him for not admitting why he hadn’t wanted her to come that day? For crying out loud, he’d ended up getting the swimsuit issue out of the way the night before! But he supposed he was getting what he deserved-- a day of penance for panicking, for pushing her aside unnecessarily. And he would see her in the morning, have her for the entire day, after all....

He made no move to mask his entrance upon returning to the roadhouse, letting the door slam roughly. If Ginger was about, she would be wise to stay out of his way. It was only fair of him to warn her that he’d come back. Not that it did any good.

"Beetlejuice, you ruined my spinning!" her shrill voice called from overhead. Beetlejuice glared upward to see Ginger hanging askance from what must have been an impressive cobweb banner that read, in glistening gossamer threads, "Congratulations, Jacques!"

"How was I supposed to know that doing a good turn for once would destroy your precious dust collector? And what the hell is that for? He just left today, for crying out loud, and here you go, off your spinnerets as if he’d one the top prize for lifting barbells with his pinkie already--"

"Beetlejuice, what’s wrong with you?" Ginger railed. "I don’t care if he’s not comin’ back for a week! He’s my friend an’ I know he’ll be the best, so what’s the trouble with gettin’ an early start? I was even gonna put little--"

"I’m sorry. So, there," Beetlejuice choked, gripped by such sudden remorse that he made a dash for his corner of the room.

Ginger was left hanging alone, staring wide-eyed at the curtain as it was yanked violently closed. She blinked a few times and whispered after him, "What was that, Beetlejuice?"

But there came no reply, and Ginger’s shock was company enough for the moment. She retraced her acrobatics with a heavy sigh, patching the gaping hole left in her badly-shaken project.

Beetlejuice blindly tossed the Drac’s onto the armchair where his new swim trunks and old, unused round sunglasses sat, collapsing in his coffin, a trembling wreck. How much more remorse did the universe think could he take, on top of feeling foolish over his dismissal of Lydia? And shouldn’t the fact that he’d said he was sorry without stuttering make him feel immeasurably better? It certainly didn’t seem like it. He lay with one arm flung over his eyes for the longest time. To what twist of fate did he owe such unwarranted sensitivity? It contradicted every impulse he’d ever possessed, except...

Except where Lydia was concerned.

He sat up shakily some time later, uncertain of whether he had slept or merely gone into that catatonic state not unknown to the dead when activity simply did not suit them. He straightened his jacket, squinting at the rickety clock just visible through the slit in the curtains. Eight o’clock. Yes, he must have slept. And dreamed, for his thoughts of her were more intense than ever. It was worse than the time he’d played one too many pranks on her parents, the last of which involved spaghetti, and for which Lydia had been blamed. That incident was the first but certainly not the last occasion upon which she’d driven him to tears in private. He ran his fingers over the patch of his tattered silken pillow where his cheek had rested. Damp.

"That does it. I swear," he murmured under his breath, leaping out of bed. He would see her. He had to. But why was a much more difficult question to answer.

Beetlejuice stood before his dusty full-length gargoyle mirror, tapping the surface impatiently. He ran his fingers in small circles across the surface, watching the quality of the glass shimmer and deepen, ripple and change. The image reflected was no longer himself and the room behind him, but Lydia’s familiar canopy bed with its spider web throw and the small table beside set with her mother’s oil lamp. The room was half-shadowed, empty, except for a small sliver of light sneaking through the cracked door from the hallway. Beetlejuice squinted. He could make out flat, vague shapes lain at the foot of the bed. Suddenly, the door swung inward. He swayed backwards as if he’d been hit by the door itself.

A slender figure stepped noiselessly into the darkened bedroom, swathed from collarbone to mid-thigh in a dark cotton towel. Her skin gleamed like moonstone in the semidarkness, and as one delicate arm extended, her fingers barely brushing the switch on the wall--

He could imagine that feather-like touch--

Beetlejuice staggered away from the mirror, sending a quivering bolt at its surface that returned its reflection to normal. He sank down on the chair, folding his arms tightly across his chest.

He knew what he had to do, if she was doing so for him. But what he had just seen would not make it any easier, as determined as it made him. Facing water in order to face water seemed to go against the proper order of things. Yet, there she’d been, her hair doubtless still dripping....

"Mmmmmh," Beetlejuice moaned through gritted teeth. He only hoped he’d survive the suds with that image imprinted firmly in his mind. All sense and reason said that he should, but the fact was, where that musing was bound to take him was something he’d avoided for as long as he could.

"Look what you’ve done to me, Babes," he murmured hoarsely, rising to seek Jacques’ towels from where he guessed they’d be-- buried under miles of jogging suits and muscle shirts in his well-kept closet. If Ginger suspected Beetlejuice was up to no good in heading for Jacques’ upstairs apartment, she was too busy to hazard a guess. Nor did she notice the fevered look in his eyes, or how dazedly he mounted the stairs.

No, the banner would be perfect-- early or not!

Ginger did not even hear the water start to run, nor the lamentations and strained utterances well-muffled beneath it.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Lydia leapt at the sound of her alarm. In truth, part of her had been awake the whole night long, anticipating eleven o’clock. She rubbed her eyes, slowly becoming aware of a second sound-- softer, fainter... more ominous. She scrambled out of bed, rushing to the window even as her heart sank in subconscious realization. She stared at the raindrops hitting her windowpane and felt her eyes sting with drops equally as fretful and twice as hot. She pressed her forehead against the glass, pounding the sill with both fists.

"Delia put you up to this, didn’t she?" Lydia seethed at the fretful gray sky. As if in affirmative reply, thunder sounded in the distance. Lydia stifled a soft cry of anguish deep in her throat. She succumbed to tears for only a few moments before glaring determinedly at the malicious clouds. Rain had never been an obstacle before, and it was not about to become one. She found herself recalling how often she and Beetlejuice had lingered on her balcony on damp evenings, savoring the wind’s gift of a myriad cool droplets swept from overhead.

"Beetlejuice," Lydia whispered, realizing only moments later that she had done so. She pressed one hand to her lips, lest she breathe it again. She was not ready yet.

As she stood in front of the mirror brushing out her pillow-flattened hair, she couldn’t help but recall the odd angle at which the light had reflected off her mirror the night before. She had just come from taking a shower, and just as she’d turned the lights on, a shaft of blinding white had traversed its surface and just as quickly vanished. For a moment, she had hoped... but then, she had taken into consideration how she was dressed, and she was glad it had only been a reflection. Of course, a part of her had still ached in disappointment, even so....

Finished, Lydia carefully set the brush aside and ran her fingers through her hair, critically watching how it fell, how it swung at her slightest move. She frowned slightly, wondering if even a vestige of her former self remained. She did pine for her childhood, now and then, despite her new resolve to avoid remaining a youth in her parents’ eyes forever. Things were simpler, then. Much simpler, she thought, moving slowly back toward her bed. She shed her nightshirt slowly, pausing to remember where she’d put the careful layout from the afternoon before.

Lydia retrieved the bikini and straw hat from the top shelf of her closet, appraising them uncertainly. It would be chillier, considering the rain, and she knew that Beetlejuice, predictably, would worry. She slipped into the two-piece quickly, almost guiltily, in the shadow of her closet door. She felt both altered and changeless, vulnerable and yet more certain of herself than she had ever been. She donned the straw hat for lack of a better place to put it, fishing through her closet for an adequate wraparound. She finally settled on a black bell-sleeved knee-length robe that her Aunt Zapora had given her a year ago. "It just screamed your name, Lydia. I never wear it anymore, besides!" she’d exclaimed giddily. Lydia had never known anyone so fond of giving things away. At least a third of her eccentric wardrobe could be accredited to birthday presents or hand-me-downs from Zapora. From an outside perspective, she would never have imagined what a blessing her stepmother’s sister would turn out to be.

From the instant she tied the sash of the robe about her waist, time seemed to move in slow motion. Her hands were leaden as she clipped the sunglasses to the band of her hat, and her eyes turned to ineffectual blurred sensors as she searched vainly for the sandals she’d worn only the day before. And, without fail-- her stomach palpitations had begun. Only this time, dared she notice, they were of a different sort entirely. She discovered the sandals just under the skirt of her bed. She thrust her feet into them agitatedly, hastily pulling the covers up to make her room half presentable. And why had she insisted upon getting up so early? It had only taken her a fraction of the time that she had estimated she’d need

to prepare. She glanced nervously at the clock. Nine thirty. Was it too early? Would he still be asleep? Lydia glanced outside, marking that the rain had only lessened in intensity somewhat. Fret with what she could easily identify as ludicrous concerns, she sat on the edge of her bed, folding her hands in her lap. She breathed deeply. Just a few moments to breathe, and then--

"Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice," Lydia faltered, her eyes wandering sideways toward the mirror despite her resolve to stare straight ahead. The glass flashed more softly than usual, almost hesitantly-- that is, if she had not imagined it. The room remained oddly silent. Empty.

"Beej?" she asked, startled, her voice rising a startled half step. She sprung to her feet, approaching the mirror on self-propelled foot soles that barely touched the carpet. "Beej?" she repeated uncertainly, her eyes stinging once again. "Beetlejuice, where are-- YAGH!"

A pair of familiar hands had caught her by the elbows from behind, so lightly that a tremor of abstract recognition raced down her spine-- of brushing a light switch, of white lightning reflected off silver. She turned around and barely stifled her sob of relief behind a badly trembling hand. The two of them stared at each other for a few tense moments before either dared move or speak. Lydia threw her arms around him, half laughing and half crying.

"I thought maybe you’d overslept," she admitted pitifully, biting her lip, resting her chin on his shoulder. "I hope you’ll forgive my doubt!"

Beetlejuice could scarcely breathe. His arms rose slowly when he failed to give any direct command that they do so, instinctively comforting her as he’d done so many times that it was second nature.

"Water under the bridge," he heard himself say, his voice somehow rising above the cacophony within him. He tightened his arms about her slight shoulders, closing his eyes against the pain. Would she know how agonizing a night he’d spent, from the sheer strain of his touch? And would she know what sacrifice he’d made for her? As if in reply, she raised her head slightly, those elfin fingers of hers rising to brush at his hair. Her eyes were luminous with either an urgent question or sheer disbelief. She pressed her face against the side of his neck unexpectedly, nearly knocking him over with the unknowing intensity of the gesture. Beetlejuice swayed only for a moment. He would never forgive himself for not keeping to his feet. Not after the day before.

"Did you... did you...?" she began incredulously, running her fingers through an errant strand of his hair again. She was smiling so timidly he couldn’t help but reply with the ease of every other conversation they’d ever known.

"Yeah, and don’t go dying on me," Beetlejuice warned with mock sternness, brushing her cheek with his hand as he’d so often done to cheer her when she was younger. "If I can survive a bath, then you sure can survive the shock, Babes."

She laughed, then, her old laugh, and he knew everything would be all right, at least for the moment. He stepped back from her, suddenly aware that he’d soon be faced with the embarrassment of the night before at mere arms’ length. His eyes lit upon the robe’s length, how it fell not much further than the towel had. He cleared his throat and forced himself to focus on her face, her peaked, delicate features framed so quaintly by the straw hat.

"You, uh... look great, Lyds," he said with difficulty. Oh, yeah, way to make an impression!

Lydia simply smiled, amazing him once more with her sheer blindness to the faults he found so glaringly obvious in himself, when in her presence. She studied him from head to foot almost as reticently as he had studied her, and the elusive reticence in her own eyes gave him a distinct chill that faded to a warm rush. What was it, that something in her stare?

Lydia fingered his garish Hawaiian shirt and weighed it against the familiar theme of his swim trunks. She pulled the sunglasses down the bridge of his nose, peering as if to make sure he was still the same ghost that she had always known. She was still so relieved that he had come that she could scarcely breathe.

"And you look like yourself," Lydia said earnestly, straightening his collar. "I mean that as the highest compliment. I... couldn’t imagine you any other way," she added, feeling as if her words were inadequate fillers for some unreachable observation that she really ought to have made. She felt her cheeks flush, and she stared quickly down at her feet. "Did you bring the Drac’s?" she asked weakly.

Beetlejuice tapped the pocket of his shirt. "You know me, Babes. Always prepared, just like a good Happy Face Girl--"

"Oh, don’t you start!" Lydia gasped in mock consternation, reaching for the spider web throw at the foot of her bed and flinging it at him. "I barely escaped with my life, need I remind you? I swear that’s where Delia’s perkiness comes from. She sapped us of our energy by boring us to death and used it for her own malignant designs."

Beetlejuice managed to untangle himself from the throw, tossing it back onto the bed in an unkempt heap. "If you want a gag-free birthday, Babes, that’s fine with me, but you should have written it into the contract," he said half-seriously, searching her eyes for a sign of-- whatever it had been.

Lydia blinked in disbelief, shaking her head. "You know that’s the last thing I’d want," she said, perplexed.

"Great, Babes. Then let’s get on with giving you the first," Beetlejuice announced, allaying his nervousness the only way he knew how. He took her hand and said, "Hang onto your hat, and do I ever mean literally!"

"But Beej, let me--" Lydia began, but her words were lost in a rush as the room went black and the space around them grew wide and windswept. The sky lightened to pale gray, the rain clouds receding. They were standing on the very stretch of sand along which she had walked. Lydia exhaled and finished, "-- grab my towel and get the picnic basket from the kitchen."

Beetlejuice turned red stared at the ground, sifting the sand between his toes. "Sorry, Lyds.... Here," he mumbled, making an agitated gesture with one hand. A dark purple beach towel with carefully frayed edges materialized on the sand, and the picnic basket landed beside it a few seconds later with a muted thump.

Remorsefully, Lydia swallowed her reproach, tugging on Beetlejuice’s sleeve when he failed to look up at her. "I should have known it didn’t make a difference," she offered apologetically. "You’ve always risen to the occasion."

Beetlejuice grinned sheepishly. "In that case, did you forget anything else?"

Lydia tilted her head thoughtfully, struck by the picturesque, vulnerable quality of his unguarded pose-- so rare, that....

"Yes!" she exclaimed. "My camera."

Beetlejuice rubbed his hands together and replied, "One Polaroid, comin’ right--"

"Oh, no!" Lydia said, stopping him. "I meant my tripod."

He stared at her, perplexed, his hands falling to his sides. "You mean you’re not gonna just snap quick ones of the ocean or whatever so we can get on with...?" He stopped himself short, biting his tongue. What was he saying? He had no right to be impatient. Better not forget whose day this is, genius! he warned himself. But it was so difficult....

"Well, I can’t exactly rig the Polaroid to take snapshots of us with no one behind the camera, can I?" Lydia responded, laughing.

"P-Pictures of us?" Beetlejuice echoed, gripped a panic similar to the one of two nights before. "Like this?"

"How else?" Lydia asked, shrugging, a distinct shyness suddenly apparent in her manner. "I wouldn’t want to forget this day for the life of me... and it’s barely begun."

"Yeah... sure..." Beetlejuice faltered, fingering the collar of his shirt but finding it murderously difficult to even consider undoing another button. A picture of me, dressed like this? Damn you, Jacques, where was that diet when I needed it?!

"Ah, great idea!" Lydia exclaimed, her hands flying to the belt of her robe, only to hesitate as pronouncedly as Beetlejuice’s own. "The rain’s cleared, and it’s not so cold anymore... maybe we should swim first, so there’s time... to dry before lunchtime," she said slowly, her voice lowering almost to a whisper as she forced her fingers to work the knot free. She muttered, "Argh, I must have tied--"

"It too tight?" Beetlejuice cut in before he could stop himself, sending a small bolt in her direction. Lydia jumped as the knot jerkily undid itself.

"Th-anks!" she exclaimed in surprise, her eyelids lowering perceptibly. Beetlejuice turned away, still trying to find purchase with his own buttons-- without much success. Lydia slowly pulled her belt free from its remaining twist, letting her robe fall open. She approached him from behind. She touched his shoulder lightly, her quickened breath barely detectable. He jumped.

"One good turn deserves another...?" she proposed timidly, spinning him to face her. "Here...."

Beetlejuice could not bring himself to look. He wondered what she must have thought of how tightly his eyes remained shut, as he felt the slight pull and press of her hands working the buttons of his shirt one by one. He fought the urge to turn away again, when he felt the closure fall away, the morning breeze on his chest.

"There... not so hard," Lydia said almost playfully, but her voice was oddly strained, almost fearful. He could bear it no longer.

For a few moments they just stared at each other, as if each one had expected the other to find in themselves some horrendously blinding alteration. And though the moment lasted a heartbeat, how long it seemed. Beetlejuice thought his heart might stop-- if only he had a heartbeat. Yes, being faced with a glimpse first made on accident and from a distance....

"N-No," he said, his voice a rasping whisper as his eyes scanned the vision before him from head to delicate toes. "Lyds... nice," was all he managed to form, speech eluding him. Nice? NICE?! Nice color, nice pattern, nice... Lyds, oh, Lyds... I--!

"So... so do you," she replied, with the same kind of wondering distance in her voice, only it was more from what she must have seen in his eyes, he realized.

"What?" Beetlejuice asked, shaking his head, quickly shrugging out of the shirt before it became apparent how affected he was by the awkwardness of it.

"Look nice," Lydia said, her voice an empty echo. She swept off her straw hat just as quickly, letting the robe drop about her ankles. And they could hide no more, stood as equals.

"Yes, that," Beetlejuice said more firmly, disgusted with himself for having lost his composure so spectacularly. He forced a laugh, spinning on one heel toward the water, and the moment was broken. "Last one in’s a rotten beetle!"

"I’m sure you wouldn’t mind that, would you?" Lydia shot back, apparently just as relieved by the change of pace, breaking into a run after him. In the end, her long pale legs won the advantage-- or so it seemed. Just as she reached the approaching tide, victorious, her feet were swept out from under her. She hung suspended in midair for a few shocked moments while a tremendous splash and deviously triumphant laughter rang out from below.

"A winged beetle, no less!" Beetlejuice called, waving at her from waist deep in the water.

"BJ, put me down!" Lydia cried, half laughing and half scolding. She struggled against the unseen force holding her aloft, but only bobbed more serenely in place, floating unhurriedly out over the water, gradually higher, as if she were being pulled. She locked gazes with Beetlejuice for a moment, suddenly incredulous.

"You wouldn’t dare!" she cried, meaning to sound indignant but finding that she could not keep herself from grinning at him like a fool.

"Wouldn’t I?" Beetlejuice taunted, scratching his chin, pretending to give the matter deep consideration. "Nah, I think not!" he cackled. "Happy 20th, Babes! Consider yourself lucky, you don’t even wanna know what treatment we give ghouls like you on your thirtieth!"

Lydia shrieked in delighted terror as, suddenly, her supernatural buoyancy gave way. She plummeted ten feet, but a familiar pair of arms caught her just before she hit the water.

"Didn’t think I’d let you take the plunge alone, did you?" Beetlejuice asked, hovering with her just above the surface of the waves. "Could be sharks in there.... Hey, let’s find out! Anchors aweigh, Babes!"

A split second was all the time Lydia had to realize that she was suddenly clinging to a giant black and white striped anchor. They fell with exhilarating speed, their cries lost in a rush of wind and waves.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEJ!"

"SUUUURRRRRRRRF’S UP! WAAAHOOOOOO!"

They were flung apart on impact, the water closing over them in a biting swell. Lydia remained submerged for a few moments, finding her footing after a few moments of scrambling. Rubbing her eyes and spitting out a mouthful of salt water, she stood shakily, the breakers rising almost to her shoulders. She stared about in bewilderment, her eyes bleary but quickly adjusting. In that stretch of gently rocking sea, she was alone.

"Beetlejuice?" she called, fighting the current in order to turn a full circle. "Beej? Oh, come on, don’t--"

There was a faint splash immediately behind her. She turned and found herself level with a familiarly patterned submarine periscope, a familiar green eye filling the lens.

"Target spotted!" burbled a voice from underwater. Lydia felt a pair of hands grasp her ankles just as the periscope vanished in a puff of smoke mingled with sea spray.

"Aaagh!" she cried, drawing in a barely-sufficient breath before she was once more dragged under.

She fought halfheartedly, and her captor let go sooner than she had expected. But a heartbeat before, she managed to catch his wrists, dragging him to the surface. Just as they rose, an unexpectedly powerful swell caught them from behind, knocking Lydia off-balance and directly into Beetlejuice. Dragged back under by a second wave, they rolled for a few moments, clinging to each other in apprehension. They were left in shallow water, buoyed by an innocent lapping that moments before had been a veritable tidal wave. Lydia gasped and coughed, winding her arms more tightly around Beetlejuice’s shoulders.

"What... was... that for?" she gasped, falling backward until she lay where the water receded, scarcely aware of how close Beetlejuice leaned over her as a result. She let go of him to rub her eyes with one hand, half-smiling but visibly startled.

Beetlejuice could not move. He had only meant well in toying with her-- when had he not? For the first time, he felt genuinely foolish for having done so. How could he forget that, unlike for himself, breathing was a priority for her? And how could he forget, ever, looking down on her in concern and agony-- her hair spread in an arc on the sand, her arms holding him just a breath away?

Beetlejuice’s head swam. He shook it, accidentally spraying Lydia with a fresh deluge of salt. She shielded her eyes, groaning in slight annoyance. And she opened her eyes wide, as if she had not seen for a very long while.

"Beej, are--... are you okay?" she asked, rising on one elbow, suddenly aware of that unprecedented closeness. She equated his expression with her own and quickly rolled sideways, evading as quickly as she could what their landing had so accidentally perpetuated. As the tide washed back in around them, however, she was not sure if she had wanted to. They sat side by side, both folding their arms quickly, staring at the glassy effect that sunshine on shallow water produced as it glinted off the sand beneath. Beetlejuice glanced up, feeling as if it would mean sure banishment.

"Are you?" Lydia repeated more urgently, her hand flying to his shoulder. They both trembled at the touch.

"Wh-Whaddaya think? I should be asking y-you that question," he stammered, timorously reaching for her other hand, as if he feared he surely would vanish on contact. I don’t deserve this. And I so seldom believe that nothing is my due!

Lydia smiled-- that constant, eternally patient smile. "I’m fine. But... I do think that-- that we’ve had enough of the water for a while," she laughed feebly. "How about getting my camera?"

"How about getting you some Drac’s?" Beetlejuice blurted, staring at the gradually brightening sun overhead. "Look who asked, and look who’s forgetting," he teased halfheartedly. Anything to keep my mind off of... for cryin’ out loud, anything! But, but, does she...

Lydia went as red as Beetlejuice feared she would end up in less than two hours’ time. "I guess you’re right. But I’m not letting you off the hook either, believe me!"

"I hope you never do," he said as she rose to fetch the bottle from his pocket, so softly that she didn’t seem to hear even as he followed a pace behind. They settled on the towel for a few moments, basking in an awkward silence. Lydia rubbed the white lotion on her arms as if completely absorbed in the task--

Does he know that I’m not? she wondered. She glanced sideways, but Beetlejuice was intent upon piling the sand at his feet into the semblance of an anthill. But he moved agitatedly, she noticed-- and hoped...

"Here," she said, handing him the bottle after she had finished off her legs. She noticed, too, that he had been trying even harder to look away, and his cheeks looked as if he were faintly sunburned already.

"Thanks," he mumbled, almost dropping the bottle. Ironically, Lydia found herself as ill at ease as he had been as she administered the Drac’s upon herself. The silence was crushing. Her fingers traveled anxiously along the frayed edge of the towel, as if they could not stand having nothing to grasp, no reason to reassure. She heard herself say abruptly, "I can get your shoulders, if you want. They’re hard to reach, I know...."

This time, Beetlejuice actually dropped the bottle. He stared at her with a mixture of emotions she could not separate, but somehow, in the fusing, comprehension was implied on an unadmissable level. Nodding, he said tersely, "I guess so."

"Here..."

Beetlejuice watched the flash of her hand as she retrieved the bottle, as if in slow motion. And moments later, her wisp of a touch turned to a soothing massage on his upper back. He almost pulled away. How could such gentleness communicate so much? Beetlejuice dug his fingernails into the sand.

Lydia felt the muscles around his shoulder blades contract. Puzzled, she massaged more insistently, willing the tension away. Only after the lotion had been well rubbed in did she realize her endeavors were producing the opposite effect. Gripped by that still, silent panic that was all at once fearful and wishing, she eased her hands away.

"There, you’re set," she said as calmly as she could, but her words issued forth in a pained sigh.

"I... sure... am," Beetlejuice breathed raggedly, gritting his teeth in attempt to stave off the even greater agony that washed over him in the absence of her delicate fingers. "How about... I get your camera, huh?" he suggested, cursing himself for not finding the breath to voice what feverish thoughts clamored to be free. But, how could he, when she had stolen it away, left him breathless without saying a word-- or even looking at him?

Lydia sat back, running her fingers absently through her hair. "We’re a mess now, though."

Beetlejuice turned with an effort, looking her tremulously in the eyes. "Do you think that matters to me?" he said so meaningfully that even the breeze seemed to still in acknowledgement.

He watched a faint blush creep up her cheeks. "I suppose it doesn’t," she murmured, staring at her hands. "I shouldn’t even have to ask. I’m sor--"

"And since when did you have to apologize, Babes, huh? You didn’t drag anyone headlong into freezing water today," he muttered, snapping his fingers twice before managing to produce the effect that was usually second nature. Her tripod and equipment appeared beside the picnic basket. Her hairbrush materialized in her lap.

At her glance of surprise, Beetlejuice hastily added, "Well, you were messin’ with your hair, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt, if you think..."

Her blush deepened as her eyes fell to her lap once more. "Thoughtful of you," she said distantly, picking the brush up and hastily running it through her hair as if it were of less consequence than she had made it sound. "Well... I could catch us on film now, or...."

Just then, Beetlejuice’s stomach growled. He could not laugh it off as he always had in the past, and the thought of grabbing the nearest insect while in her presence almost sickened-- sickened!-- him.

Lydia giggled freely for the first time in what seemed like ages. "Or we could just eat now!"

Beetlejuice scowled good-naturedly, taking courage in the fact that she, too, felt the need to restore breathing space. Breaking into a grin, he muttered, "Yeah, well... I hope you brought something edible!"

Lydia frowned and said, "If you mean insects, I’m afraid that’s just dessert." She pulled a tin of chocolate covered ants from beneath a jumble of sandwiches, apples, and napkins. "I wasn’t sure what you’d want to try... I... well, there’s chicken salad, ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly.... I didn’t know--"

"Babes, whatever you think’s best is fine with me!" Beetlejuice exclaimed, touched by her thoughtfulness. "I trust your judgment more than my own, anyhow. I should’ve listened that once, when you said strawberry eye scream’s better than... than..."

"Than the pistachio you had," Lydia said, smiling. "I remember. Do you realize how long that means we’ve had Doomie?"

"Seven years," Beetlejuice heard himself say in a half-whisper, accepting whatever sandwich it was that Lydia offered. She froze before withdrawing her hand, her eyes fixed unblinking and pensive upon his.

"That’s right," she murmured, her tone fret with a mixture of awe and that hushed, almost troubled anticipation. "It’ll be a week away, come Wednesday. May... May I be so bold as to ask you what you want to do, this time?"

"For our anniversary? Lyds, you know--"

"Think about it," she said softly, breaking into a wistful smile as she took a bite of her chicken salad sandwich.

Beetlejuice concentrated on his own, a bit discomfited, discovering it to be ham and cheese and not bad at all. Quite good, in fact. If only he didn’t feel as if some indeterminable chasm would have to be breached before the mundane yearly celebration of their first meeting.

They ate in companionable silence punctuated by knowing glances and the occasional remark on passing fancies, as if it would keep the pall lingering over them at bay. Not until they had finished their sandwiches did the mood shift. Beetlejuice had eaten only a few of the chocolates that he would normally be quick to devour when Lydia finally picked up one of the apples, studying it carefully. Her attention to color and shape had always been something of a secret admiration to Beetlejuice-- after all, what other soul-- living or dead-- could look at his choice of wardrobe without wincing or getting dizzy? Just something in the way the dimming afternoon light hit her, though... the curve of her cheek, the fleeting glint of it off the apple’s skin as she raised it to her lips....

"Let me take your picture," Beetlejuice said suddenly. "I promise I won’t break it or anything, I’ve been--"

Lydia sighed, lowering the apple. "Practicing?" she asked, mildly scolding. "So that’s why my things have been out of place a few times during these last couple of months," she mused. Beetlejuice was simply relieved she had spared him any reproach. He would have detested feeling guilty about meddling with her possessions, as many times as he had done it before.

"That’s beside the point. Just let me. I want to remember... that," Beetlejuice said as she lifted the apple once more, preparing to take a bite. Lydia blinked at him, a wondering look suddenly frosting her clear, dark eyes. Like wood smoke, he thought as the breeze blew up suddenly and ruffled her hair about her shoulders.

"Don’t move," Beetlejuice said, sending a hasty bolt at her photography equipment. The camera assembled itself and sailed into his outstretched hands, leaving the tripod behind. Lydia remained still, her eyes full of light and shadow, hauntingly focused. Her fingers held the apple with perfect poise. Only her eyes shone their betrayal: She was positively restless inside.

Beetlejuice could scarcely breathe as he raised the lens to his right eye. He snapped a few shots in rapid succession, fascinated by the varying weaves of the wind in her hair. He’d scarcely taken the fourth when the shifted, parting her lips and raising one hand as if to speak. He lowered the camera, spellbound.

"Give it to me, here," Lydia said, reaching for it. "I’m going to rig it up now. I want some of both of us."

Beetlejuice didn’t say a word as she took one bite of the apple and set it aside, quickly fetching the rest of her equipment. Several moments later, the camera was perched on its tripod and Lydia’s hand hovered on its automatic mechanism.

"Get over there," she said, pointing to the stretch of sand just beyond their picnic setup. Beetlejuice wandered over uncertainly, shifting from one foot to another. He sighed just as Lydia was about to set the timer and race to his side.

"Just a minute. I don’t care how stupid you think this is," Beetlejuice asserted, dashing for his Hawaiian shirt and shrugging into it on the way back. "For posterity or whatever... I have to maintain my image, don’t I?" he asked, struggling for a passable excuse and realizing how awkward it sounded.

"That’s fine," Lydia murmured, setting the switch and joining him hurriedly. They fell into a kind of unresolved tableau moments before the flash went off-- side by side, almost touching, with Lydia turned in slightly, her arm barely grazed by Beetlejuice’s barely flexed fingers, reaching but not quite touching. They relaxed a heartbeat later.

"We can do better than that," Lydia said determinedly, the artist in her taking over. She stalked over to the camera, quickly resetting it. "Put your arms around me from behind this time, and put on your sunglasses...."

The next series passed in a whimsical whirl, one after another-- Lydia in her straw hat, in her sunglasses... the two of them touching or back to back; embracing or not at all. At long last, Lydia said, "That’s it. I have to save some space on this roll for Tuesday."

"Tuesday?" Beetlejuice echoed as the packed her equipment away.

Lydia stuck her tongue out casually. "Yeah. First day of classes."

"I knew that."

Lydia finished stowing the camera safely in its sack. "I know you do," she said softly, stepping toward him. "You’ve never forgotten anything, when it really matters."

Beetlejuice rolled his eyes. "Lyds, I know I can think of plenty--"

She stepped startlingly close, placing a finger over his lips exactly as he had done to her mere days ago. "Walk with me, now," she said, half-smiling. "That’s an order. If nothing else, I want you to help me find some shells. I’ve been trying to find an Atlantic conch for ages, hard as they are to come by this far north."

"And will that be enough to satisfy the birthday girl?" Beetlejuice asked, threading her arm tentatively through the crook of his own. Somehow, the impending evening had emboldened him, even if only slightly.

"We’ll see," Lydia murmured, fixing him with another cryptically entrancing look before urging him forward. "Come on, low tide’s beginning!"

They strolled arm in arm until Lydia’s eye was inevitably caught by a strand some yards away that was strewn with enticing riffraff. She gave Beetlejuice an impishly apologetic look, almost as if asking permission to let go.

He shrugged. "It’s not like we’re handcuffed or anything, Babes." No sooner had he spoken than their adjacent wrists were paralyzed by a blinding flash.

"Oops."

"Oh, Beetlejuice," Lydia groaned good-naturedly, tugging at the set of huge scale-linked lobster claws that chained them together. "Can your jokes get any fishier?"

Wide-eyed, he said with feigned innocence, "What? Are you tellin’ me that you think I did this on por--"

"NO! Don’t you dare say porpoise! The last thing that we need to worry about is a beached aquatic mammal!"

"Yeah, you’re right," Beetlejuice conceded wryly. The lobster claw handcuffs vanished.

Lydia shook her head, laughing, still caught between amusement and alarm. "Glad you agree. Now, let’s see what’s here...."

Beetlejuice followed a few steps behind as she moved from item to washed-up item, turning them over gently with one foot, only to leave them. She’d murmur over a shell now and then, "I already have one," or, "That one’s still living." Watching her move, so languid and absorbed in her quest, had the effect of slow, dizzying hypnosis. At length, Beetlejuice paused, unable to move another step for fear of swaying and sinking helplessly onto the sand. The sun had fallen just enough to cast a faintly orange glow over everything in sight, filtered through some returning dusky clouds. The sight of her there, long-limbed and raven-haired, awash in a luminescence that her palette had only ever dreamed of, bent over some larger shape in the sand--

"Beej, look!" she called, rising, only heightening the tableau’s chaotic poignancy. The shape that she held up was five-armed and unmistakable. Beetlejuice focused on it with glazed eyes as she picked her way back to him.

Lydia stood before him, offering her find at arms’ length. "Have you ever seen this kind of starfish?" she asked breathlessly, turning it over and over in her hands when he failed to take it in his own. "It’s as rare here as the shell I had hoped to find."

Beetlejuice let his eyes rise slowly from the starfish to Lydia’s ecstatic grin. He could barely breathe. Her beatific smile, her untimely wizened eyes, the contrast of her childlike wonder at something as simple as a sea creature--

Now or never! For if he did not say it then, surely, it would mean second death.

Just pause. Take a breath, and then--

"It couldn’t be as rare as you."

Lydia’s eyebrows knit in confusion even as her eyes went as smoky and unguarded as before. She tilted her head sideways, drawing in a short, disbelieving breath. The starfish landed at her feet, forgotten.

"What did you say?" she whispered, her arms falling limp at her sides as she leaned a fraction nearer, her eyes miraculously stilled for one moment of their constant illumination .

Beetlejuice swallowed, terrified that not just his knees would threaten to give out this time. His eyes darted nervously sideways. Now I’ve done it. Scared her with the one and only thing in the world that ever could! I never, NEVER should have--

"Oh, I, uh... no, I’ve never seen one that rare, is what I--"

"Did you mean it?" she begged so intensely that her entire frame was taken in a tremor. "Did you?"

Beetlejuice coughed, pressing a hand to his mouth. "Lyds, calm down... I don’t know what you thought I said, but--"

"I know what you said!" she cried, her tone bursting with unexpected anger. "If you meant it, Beej... say it again."

He blinked at her dazedly, as if it were some dream designed to end upon reaching its ultimate resolution. He stared at the ocean beyond her, no longer really seeing, prepared to awaken alone in the familiar solitude of his coffin. He could scarce move his lips.

"It couldn’t be as rare as you. Actually, I... this... my... argh! Eternity would really be worthless without you... Lydia."

The wind blew, then, and the sky remained unchanged. The waves did not vanish from before his sight, and he did not wake. A trembling hand touched his cheek, guided him back from across so many fathomless miles of despair. He looked into her eyes for the first time that day without feeling the need to look the other way in recompense.

"That’s once," she murmured tremulously, her eyes misting as with hesitation she bit her lip.

"O-Once?" Beetlejuice echoed, feeling the usually irksome burning gather beneath his own eyelids.

"Say it again."

His breath escaped in a rush, that rare choked remembrance. He recalled saying the very same thing to a lost young girl by way of a fortuitously misbegotten game piece.

"Lydia," Beetlejuice repeated.

"That’s twice!"

"Lydia... I--"

"The only difference is," she breathed, a tear at last sliding unchecked down her cheek, "I will never vanish when you call. Ever."

"Not even if--" Beetlejuice began, uncertain of what his last words would have been.

But what happened was reply enough.

He could not have said which one of them leaned forward first, or why. Their arms did not even meet, did not even brush in the passing about slender hips or the encircling of Hawaiian-patterned shoulders-- until the embrace was complete, a perfect yet skewed unison of pale flesh and even paler denial. In fact, there was no denial left to speak of.

And only when they drew apart did they realize that their lips had met also, and how deeply they had kissed.

All speech was rendered impossible, all thought brought to a standstill. They simply stared at each other, their arms tensing in a desperate reflex to preserve the embrace before shock set in. Fleetingly, Beetlejuice raised one hand and brushed Lydia’s hair back over her shoulder, at once both mesmerized and miserable as the last few strands slid from his grasp. He was terrified. Had it been enough, let alone good enough?

Say something, you idiot!

"Why’d you cut your hair, Lyds?" Beetlejuice choked almost inaudibly, all rational thought escaping him. Swell, that’ll bring her back for seconds! You dolt, what kind of a compliment is that?!

He was absolutely stunned to hear her say in reply, "Because you’ve told me time and time again that’s how you like it best." And though she reached for his hand, looking for all the world as if she wanted to lean close to him again, imploring, he had already turned away for fear he might wake. If I turn back, Beetlejuice thought feverishly, and she is still there--

"Beej," Lydia said, her hand grasping his urgently, "have I... Have we...?"

Gone too far? Lydia thought, wondering if she’d been foolish to assume she would transcend whatever expectations might have come between them. She watched him turn hesitantly, his countenance suddenly so riddled with torment and questions that she herself could no longer bear to look. They held hands for the longest time, staring at the sand like the lost souls they were.

When the wind blew, Lydia shivered. Impulsively, Beetlejuice held her, sheltering as he had on so many prior occasions. But this time was different-- positively electric, in light of what moments ago had transpired. Drawn on helplessly, their lips came near to touching a second time. And would have done so, if Lydia had not broken the moment with a cry of horror.

"Dinner!" she cried. "I forgot!"

"What?" Beetlejuice cried, his heart left pierced and dangling on a thread that, for the moment, would never know completion.

"I told Dad I’d be back in time to accompany them to Garda’s at six!" Lydia groaned, staggering as if she’d been dealt a wound far worse than his. "Oh, where did I leave my watch...!"

Reluctantly, Beetlejuice produced it out of thin air, handing it to her despite the pang of loss that he felt. How could he have hoped to compete with her family, after all?

"I’m sorry, Babes," he muttered, when what he so longed to do was simply make her forget any other tiresome obligations she might have had on that evening. But then, he realized, that would have been selfish. Something she had scarcely been for a day in her life.

Lydia stared at the watch, her eyes closing in pained self-reproach. "No, Beej... I’m sorry. That this happened, which it shouldn’t have-- wait, no, don’t take it like that! What I meant was, I should never have told--"

"No sweat," Beetlejuice said hastily, ignoring with great difficulty the emotional chasm lain mercilessly bare before them. He pointed in the direction whence they had come, and lightning briefly charged the restless air.

"Your stuff’s all back where it belongs, Babes. And now, let’s get you back where you belong before Ol’ Chuck has a fit."

Before Lydia could open her mouth to protest or make herself more clear, Beetlejuice had swept her close with one arm and engulfed them once again in familiar, ever-rushing darkness. They reappeared standing beside Lydia’s bed as if they had never departed from that very spot so many hours ago.

Beetlejuice embraced her quickly, almost with reluctance, even as she tried in vain to recapture what joy they had discovered so nearly by chance. He pulled away before she could set her arms fast about his neck.

"You’d better change. I’d hate to see you get in trouble on my account," Beetlejuice said earnestly, stepping forward as if he wished to elaborate upon the touch he’d so hastily ended but then thinking better of it. Lydia stepped forward even as he retreated, hurt and puzzled.

"Happy birthday, Lyds," Beetlejuice murmured, his expression so haunted that she could not stop the tears from flowing. He began to fade even before she could discern what unexpressed sentiments his eyes so desperately tried to convey.

"Good night, Beej," she replied, and her cheeks were bathed in salt more hot and stinging than any carelessly-flung seawater.

She stood for several moments thus, too distraught to move. Six fifteen, her clock said. For all she knew, she was in the house alone, her father waiting and worried in the restaurant parking lot, Delia tight-lipped and suspicious. She closed her eyes a fresh deluge of tears.

"What have I done?"

Lydia could have sworn that she had only thought the despairing phrase, but there was a sudden commotion outside her door. It swung open, revealing her thoroughly confounded father and Delia a few steps behind him, both of them wearing ominously strained expressions that were ill-suited to their dress clothes.

"Get a little carried away at the beach, Pumpkin?" Charles asked as casually as he could, but failing entirely to mask his alarm at his daughter’s windblown hair and reddened eyes.

"We didn’t hear you come in," Delia added somewhat flatly, her eyes narrowing in spite of her calm demeanor.

Lydia glanced wildly about the room, desperate for recovery. "Oh, you know how it is... we lost track of time. Bertha dropped me off. I climbed the tree and came in from the balcony, for old times’ sake. Birthdays... God knows, they make you nostalgic," she lied glibly, rubbing her eyes and sniffling for effect. "I can’t believe it’s been so long," she continued, adding a falsely whimsical smile for effect. "The years just fly, really. I finally understand what you two mean when you say that."

Charles’ expression relaxed somewhat, indulgently, but Lydia was sure that Delia remained staunchly unconvinced.

Delia sighed heavily and said, "We’re glad you had fun, dear, but you really ought to get cleaned up and change. I’ll call and set our reservation back an hour."

"Thanks," Lydia sniffled as if she had no idea what Delia’s silent wariness pertained to. "I’ll be down soon!"

But once she was left alone, the only action that Lydia could bring herself to execute was to collapse on her bed and cry.

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

10:01 PM

 

I’ve never been ill after eating Italian food in my life, but of course tonight was born to be an exception. I can thoroughly blame a strident dash of Delia, however. I have yet to meet a living soul who can stomach the seasoning of her personality. Oh, Lord... was turning twenty worth so much grief?

I’d barely dragged myself in and out of the shower when Delia popped back into my room and started asking ridiculous questions about what I was going to wear-- but not after scolding me for tossing my swimsuit on the floor and tracking sand everywhere.

"You’re not going to wear black, are you, dear? Tonight’s a special occasion. You’ve got to lighten up."

I had been standing in front of my closet, still wrapped in a towel and absently flipping through dresses, unable to focus for the simple fact that my mind replayed that kiss until I could no longer remember what I was looking for in the first place. Furious and shocked by her intrusion, I had grabbed the nearest black garment in sight, whirling around.

"I’ve already decided on this," I snapped. "B--Dad says I look great in it," I faltered, realizing how near my slip had been. I put one hand over my eyes, so strongly recalling his embrace that I nearly felt it all over again. I stumbled against the door, dropping the black velvet dress in favor of catching the doorknob in order to steady myself. I heard Delia give a faint cry of alarm.

"Lydia, are you quite all right? Please don’t tell me you forgot your sunglasses and--"

"And I did, so now I have a headache from overexposure to UV rays! I’m old enough to handle my own stupidity, honest. Please, just let me get dressed!"

Delia nodded in bewilderment, almost tripping over her own heels in hasty backward retreat. I retrieved the dress from the floor and thrust it back in the closet. How could I wear it, when that was what I had worn dancing last? In every fold of the skirts I could feel a dance step, the off-rhythm of velvet brushing my partner’s ridiculous lavender slacks. I pulled a navy blue sundress from the very back of the closet, praying that some overwhelming memory would not rise from it as well--

New Yuck City, standing at the stage door, Beetlejuice and I arm in arm as I looked on in disbelief.... Shakespeare himself signed the playbill with a quill tightly clutched in his skeletal hand.... "Lydia, to thine own self be true ~ Fondest regards, Will".... BJ’s faintly jealous mutter, my quick squeeze of reassurance upon his wrist....

Needless to say, I battled more tears as I dressed. I was not about to choose something else, not a second time-- how could I, when every item in my closet would only make me think of him regardless? I removed the spider brooch from the brim of my hat hastily, perching it on one strap of my gown. Delia would have a fit. Perfect.

I will not record every line of dialogue that passed between the three of us during the course of the meal. I really don’t think I could relive it without spending the rest of the night camped out on the bathroom floor. Dad was his usual concerned, endearing self until the meals arrived. I could have killed Delia for indirectly stabbing at subjects that elicited flashes of his paranoia. By the time I’d finished half of my chicken cacciatore, I severely needed an antacid and had refused dessert. It was all I could do to keep from exploding at Delia that the purpose of this dinner was to celebrate my birthday-- not to highlight the recent oddities in my behavior or ask an inordinate volume of questions about what classes might hang me up this semester if I don’t get my "head out of the clouds, and fast, young lady!"

I believe I said a total of two words on the way home, both in response to my father. By then I’d just taken to blithely ignoring Delia, that or kind of grunting a noncommittal "mm-hmm" if she happened to say something relevant to me. Which occurred a total of once, at least according to me. I received a brief snap about paying attention as we walked in the door.

By then, my father had slipped into his habit of ignoring Delia’s heightened fractiousness as best he could. I kicked off my shoes at the door and kissed him goodnight, giving Delia a hasty pat across the shoulders in lieu of a hug. I mumbled something about how tired I was, how I just needed to sleep, and made a beeline for the stairs. I was halted by the sound of my father’s voice.

"But Pumpkin, wouldn’t you like to open your gift?"

I stumbled on the bottom stair, clinging to the banister unsteadily. I sorely needed the rest of the night to myself. So many emotions coursed through my veins-- anger for Delia, aching for Dad, longing for...

"Sure," I said emptily, too drained to point out that he’d already gotten me one.

I drifted to the couch and sat down a few feet from Delia, whose strained smile I regarded with stinging annoyance. Dad returned from the dining room with two brightly wrapped boxes. I could tell instantly that the paper was another of Delia’s flighty creations. I accepted them with a wan, tight-lipped, "Thanks."

I opened the smaller of the two first, believing it to be Delia’s. Much to my consternation, I’d judged wrongly-- it was from my father, and I had so wanted to save his for last. My eyes misted as the gold triple-chained choker and matching earrings set with turquoise slid from within the folds of tissue paper.

"They’re beautiful, Dad! They--"

"Were your mother’s," he said quietly, his hands restless in his lap. "It’s high time they were yours, Pumpkin. And this way, I won’t have to worry about you chiding me for spending more money on you."

"This is worth so much more than... Dad--!"

I leaned on his shoulder for a long while, stricken with the very tears I’d tried so hard to keep at bay. The significance of his gift completely disarmed me. It was several moments before I had sufficiently regained my composure. I pulled at the ribbon of Delia’s box with leaden fingers.

"It’s... lovely," I said slowly, hoping my disappointment did not show, holding up the nightdress. It was very different from the long, bell-sleeved dark ones I’d preferred all my life. Cap-sleeved and form-fitting, the pale green silk garment would fall to my knees and flare delicately.

Delia shrugged. "The least I can do is phase a few colors into your wardrobe, and I’ve got to start somewhere. It’s something useful, besides. You’re going off to school in two days. I hardly expect you to wear those drab old robes of yours forever. Happy birthday, dear."

I just stared at her, wavering between loathing and annoyed pity. I embraced Dad one more time, rising with the nightdress slung carelessly over one arm and my mother’s priceless gems in the other.

"Good night. I love you," I said to him, clutching the carefully-wrapped jewelry to my chest. I cast a tired look at Delia and murmured, "G’night."

And so, here I’ve lain for forty-five minutes, curled up miserably on my bed,

wrapped in one of my drab old robes. I run my fingers over smooth stones and well-loved gold, the turquoise paled so exquisitely by time that I barely mind its lingering brightness.

If this ink runs in places, then know it is because my tears still run afresh even after so many hours. I drop the bright earrings and neckpiece onto my pillow, stretching full-length on the bed. As if guided by some unseen force, my free hand wanders to my tear-streaked lips.

And with all my heart, I remember.

Mother... was your first true love also your last? How dazzling, these beautiful stones, and how dazzled you must have been when Dad placed them in your ears and upon your throat--

I turn my face into the pillow, grasping it until my knuckles whiten. I dare not look up, lest my mirror mock me with its silence. But stubbornly my thoughts seek him, ache for him, wondering....

And you, my love... do you lie as barely-breathing as I, in pained remembrance

of my mouth upon yours for the very first time?

O God, how could I ever forget the way you dazzled me tonight?

 

 

* * *

 

 

Babes, you look beautiful, you know that?

"AAAAAAAGH!"

Lyds-- no, Lydia... you’re breathtaking-- well, that’s if that made any sense coming from me, but the point is, I-- I--

"What on earth was I thinking? ‘Lyds, why’d you cut your hair?’ Argh! I wasn’t thinking at all!"

"When did’ya ever?" Ginger interjected from the adjoining room, still hard at work on her skillfully repaired banner. "Beetlejuice, would you keep it down in there? What’s gotten into you? An’ what’s all this about Lydia?"

"None of your business, Fly Face!" Beetlejuice roared, kicking the side wall of his coffin fretfully.

He glared at the crack-riddled ceiling of his bedroom, only to close his eyes once more in anguish. Night had long since fallen, and ever since his hasty return from Lydia’s room, he’d replayed their day on the shore without rest or heed for the elemental tumult each viewing set rolling inside him. Line after line, he thought of what words should have escaped his lips upon drawing away from hers-- but he had failed, and with such magnificence. For once, it was a travesty to know he’d exceeded his habit of expecting less of himself.

"If you weren’t tryin’ to beg for pity like the pathetic whiner you are, then why don’cha keep it to yourself, hmmm?" Ginger shouted back, but her annoyed tone was slowly fading to one of recognizable concern.

"Consider it done!" Beetlejuice retorted. "But don’t you dare try telling me you’ve never done it yourself. Jacques would back me up on that one, no bones about it!"

Beetlejuice heard the spider heave a distinct, impatient sigh before she murmured as if she half hoped he wouldn’t hear, "Yeah, I guess you’re right.... An’ I guess... if there’s anything you need to say, might as well...."

Beetlejuice shook with sardonic laughter. "I’d sooner see a witch doctor! No thanks, Ging, I think I’ll pass. Can’t accuse me of not using my noggin on that one!"

"Oooh, why, you--!" Ginger sputtered, but Beetlejuice had already sent his door sailing to a violent close.

The images washed over him once more, all at once as calm as low tide and as merciless as the wave that had dashed them upon the shore. He wondered if she, too, was caught in this painful limbo. He wondered if he really had frightened her beyond hope of salvation. But then, the movement she’d made toward him, the movement that had sent him fleeing, lest he crush her in his arms and never let go--

"Lyds, I’m gonna go insane!" he wailed into his pillow so that Ginger would not hear.

Perhaps she’d call him the next day. She has to. Classes start on Tuesday....

Or perhaps he’d go to her. And subsisting on those thoughts alone, just barely calmed by them-- he begged sleep find him, and soon.

But if the dreams that came to him were meant as comfort, they fell pitiably short. They were only torment; they simply were not her. He tossed and turned until dawn, his insides wound up like a spring. He sat up bleary-eyed at dawn, berating his cowardice and fighting his habitual irresolution. He had to, without question, see her. But one look in the mirror sent him quaking back to indecision. He had not even changed out of his swimsuit and Hawaiian shirt.

But he remembered how she’d leaned against his neck the morning before, brushed at his combed hair in surprise with those tenebrous fingers....

Luckily, Ginger was still asleep when he trooped dismally up to the bathroom once more, towel slung over one arm and the only clean set of clothes in his closet over the other.

And if she had known where he was going after that with a bulging sack slung over one shoulder and his pockets jingling with what change he could scrounge from in his drawers and forgotten corners of the roadhouse, she surely would have laughed him out.

Never before would he have given weight to the supposition that love changes everything. Nor would he have believed it capable of making cowards of all-- of those already cowardly, at that!

Under any other circumstances, Beetlejuice would have considered patronizing Grubs ’N Suds Laundromat the most demeaning experience of his afterlife.

 

 

* * *

 

 

August 26

3:30 PM

 

Today illustrates the only way in which I’ve ever conformed to mainstream stereotypes: I detest Mondays, and packing the car with Delia in preparation for my journey back to school tomorrow has done nothing to boost my opinion of them. Nor has folding the laundry, from which I am currently taking an adamant break.

But I’m much worse off sitting here writing, to tell you the truth. Now I have absolutely nothing to take my mind off the fact that Beetlejuice has not shown so much as even one glimmering stripe in my mirror. I barely slept a wink, and once more, I shall not confess my dreams. I am confused and stricken with them. Why do I feel no guilt about something which my skeptical side insists I surely must?

And yet, I am certain, if I were to see him face to face, I would fall to pieces in sheer panic that I could never do justice to the things my fevered heart created within my mind’s eye as I slept....

Melinda called at lunchtime, ever the last minute planner. She babbled for half an hour about her two week vacation in Arizona with her parents and her younger brother before she even touched upon the subject of who was bringing what necessities for our dorm. Hearing her voice somewhat lightened my heart, as it usually does.

I am still amazed at how different we are, and not only in interests. While the two of us are of a fairly even height and the same slight build, the similarities end there. Her honey-blonde hair is as curly as mine is straight, and her eyes are as pale as blue light shone through an icicle. Her skin is caught in a perpetual state of Mediterranean tan, for the fact that her father is half Greek. Her paintings are some of the wildest, most dreamlike that I have ever seen. Her knack for surrealism is phenomenal. And somehow, through all of our collective quirks, we coexist remarkably well.

"I’m sorry to have talked your ear off," Melinda apologized, after relating her brother’s new ambition to be the first to bungee jump the Grand Canyon. "You’re so patient that way. I swear I could never put up with a nonsensical rambler like myself!"

"Trust me," I replied with a troubled sigh. "I have lots of experience."

"Oh, yeah, with that stepmother of yours and all! You’re a saint, really--"

"Actually, I--" I began, cutting myself off before my tongue could do any damage. What was I thinking? Was I so far gone that I could not even speak to my roommate and think of nothing but him?

"You what?" Melinda asked apologetically. "Sorry I cut you off."

"Mel, I was the one who cut you off."

"You sound funny," she replied after a few moments’ silence. "Is there something up with Delia again?"

"Something like that," I said evasively, closing my eyes and rubbing my forehead. "I don’t really want to get into it now. She could walk in the door any minute. She’s so puffed up over this new commission of hers that she might just burst through the door without bothering to open it."

"Ugh, what a diva," Melinda laughed sourly. "You can come live with me if it ever gets intolerable. Though I’d say that by now it’s reached beyond intolerable. I don’t know how you do it. I’d have blown the joint long ago."

"I’d never leave Dad," I said defensively.

"God bless you, O Guardian of Spineless Husbands!" Melinda intoned piously. "Lord, Father Saylor would have my rosary for that--"

"And I’ll have your head for it if you weren’t joking," I snapped.

"Whoa, Lydia, just calm down. You know I didn’t mean it that way. Your Dad’s cool! Geez, Delia must have really thrown you for a loop this time. Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?"

"Bringing your microwave and VCR will suffice," I said curtly, stung by her careless jest in spite of its affectionate delivery. "I have to go. There’s so much to do."

Melinda hesitated for a few seconds before answering, "Sure, I understand. But, listen... you sound so out of sorts. Take care, my sweet Princess Sorrow. I’ll die if you come back in pastels, you know that?"

"Same to you, Bubbles," I retorted, a faint smile returning to my lips. How long had we called each other by those ridiculous nicknames in private? Her bafflement at my dark raiment was as intense as mine at her boundless, undaunted energy. "See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, ciao, hon! Lighten up, will you?"

I hung up and whispered, "If only I could."

I am surprised that Delia has not yet returned, as my conversation with Melinda transpired over two hours ago. Surprised, but relieved. If she had not been in such a rush to leave for the Berkmans’ estate after we’d finished loading the car, then she would have noticed that my moody streak has definitely not abated. Which would have resulted in a nightmare I am not afraid to record here, regrettably. But it’s all the better that I’ve no need to write about that, either.

My heartbeat grows shallow and fretful once more as I place the last of Dad’s newly-folded socks in the laundry basket. Never before have I dealt with such ignoble cowardice within myself. Never before have I shied from a confrontation simply on the grounds of nighttime misgivings.

And it is perhaps because I shy away at that very fact that I freeze in shamed introspection. That dubious part of me whispers, You are undeserving.

I start up the stairs, laundry basket balanced sullenly on one hip. Surely he’ll come before I drown in this folly.

Surely, for once, he’ll be braver!

 

 

* * *

 

 

By Tuesday afternoon, Ginger found it impossible to ignore the fact that the entire roadhouse was slowly being turned upside down. There was, however, a calculated order to the chaos, which made it twice as disturbing (and thrice as likely to make excellent gossip.)

"Hey, watch it!" she cried, narrowly escaping a striped suit jacket thrown carelessly in the vicinity of where she’d been practicing a tap combination.

Beetlejuice did not even bother to turn from rummaging in his wardrobe, but rather glared into its welcome semidarkness, continuing his restless search. "If I had eyes on the back of my head, then maybe I would!" he snapped.

Ginger halted, waiting for the inevitable. But a pair of demonic, glowering green orbs did not appear against the backdrop of the ghost’s yellow hair. She uttered a perplexed "Hmmm!" before she could stop herself.

"Your puns don’t seem to like you anymore, Beetlejuice!" Ginger exclaimed in surprise. This time, he rounded on her furiously, a purple shirt that looked as of it had been ironed dangling from one hand.

"Maybe it’s the other way around! I wouldn’t be half surprised. That’s what’cha get for not minding your own business!" he roared.

"But Beetlejuice... you changed twice last night, an’ now you’re lookin’ for somethin’ else even though you just got--"

"How’m I supposed to know what she’ll like best, huh?" he demanded, disgustedly tossing the shirt on the floor.

"What? What do you mean by ‘what she’...? But they’re all the same, for cryin’ out loud! An’ I’m tryin’ to practice!"

"Fat lot of good that ever did," Beetlejuice retorted.

Ginger bristled. "Ooooh, why, I should say exactly the same thing about all those beetles you snack on between meals, Flubbo! At least I have restraint enough for one fly a day!"

"You leave him outta this!" Beetlejuice muttered, just before he realized exactly why she’d used the name of his ill-begotten, spectacled acquaintance. He dropped the pair of slacks he had just pulled from a hanger, staring at his dim reflection in the mirror in the wardrobe’s shadowed depths. And did not say another word.

He had been thoroughly resolved to return to her, that day. But how could he, when the same paranoia surrounding the swimsuit situation resurfaced of its own malignant accord? And twice as crippling as ever? He winced and slammed the wardrobe door, not bothering to pick up the few strewn garments. Had he scared her-- if at all, if at all-- with more than just the kiss?

Well, he’d barely eaten anything that day. Suppose he were to keep up that trend, sort of like one of those crash fixes that Jacques’ ridiculously fit colleagues were addicted to....

If he but had a few more days, if she didn’t get it into her mind to call him before then. He recalled with great unrest that she had returned to her studies at Lyme that very afternoon. She’d be home Friday night, at the earliest....

Beetlejuice kicked the side of the wardrobe, groaning, sending Ginger nervously side-stepping into the other room. If he could survive a few more days!

Maybe Ginger was right, for once. Since when was a creature even roughly in mortal form meant to be eating insects, anyway? At least not on such a regular basis....

Vaguely, miserably, he wondered where he’d stashed that box full of human delicacies Lydia had given him in retribution for his lighthearted slipping of a beetle into her soup earlier that year. He’d saved certain items for last-- the scant few he earnestly liked, which happened to be pasta-- and never would they come more in handy.

 

 

* * *

 

 

August 28

Wednesday, 7 PM

I can now legitimately ask the weariest of all clichéd questions: What is the world coming to? I’m in design class right now, the one evening item on my schedule. And I am-- are you ready for this?-- writing. Yes, writing when I should be using the last half an hour of class to start on an assignment that will be due on Monday next week.

Quite literally, I could not be more beside myself even if Beetlejuice happened to make that supposition come true!

If he were even here....

Melinda and I have barely had the chance to move in. Our beds are made and the appliances are set up, but as for our other personal effects, they lie carelessly about the room half dangling from boxes and toppling from hastily-placed piles on bookshelves still thick with summer dust. The only class that we have together this semester, Fundamentals of Art History II, does not meet until Friday. We’ve been unable to talk in earnest, and though not in detail, there are some things I sorely long to let her remove from my burdened shoulders. Delia’s markedly wary, disappointed goodbye before she and Dad left me here yesterday, for example. I am maddened enough by certain other factors, let alone her hinting at the fact that she no longer savors the thought of me unsupervised on this campus!

I would have spoken to Melinda last night, but she did not give me the chance-- not necessarily on purpose. I was simply not surprised that she chose to spend the night at Ray’s apartment instead. She’s been dating him since the end of the first semester of our freshman year. So, I had the dorm to myself, which was not entirely unpleasant. It was just... lonely. And loneliness atop loneliness is the worst that I have yet had to bear.

On the page opposite from this entry, I pause every now and then to sketch at hazy outlines in miniature. I must turn in a rough portfolio of principal characters’ costumes for the music department’s fall production of Sweeney Todd. All will be graded, and a composite of costumes chosen from the class. I never thought I’d live to see the day when morbid would disinterest me so. I cannot complete a single figure without making it look, in some miraculous, oblique fashion, reminiscent of a prison inmate in erroneously-placed stripes.

What is my world coming to? Fain, I’d not ask, and yet-- I know the answer.

And I must give it soon.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"So, let me get this straight," Melinda sighed, staring at her roommate over the rim of her canvas. "Delia thinks you’re juvenile and untrustworthy. Lydia, I hate to break it to you, but welcome to the remaining three years of your college life! Hell, she’ll think that even when you’re in graduate school. I’m not off the hook, either. They don’t even know just how serious things between me and Ray have gotten. And I know you would never say anything to change that, right?"

"Mel!" Lydia gasped indignantly. "I see your parents barely long enough to say hello! Of course I wouldn’t. For God’s sake, this isn’t about blame! I just asked you for advice."

Melinda slowed her paintbrush’s frenetic pace. Above the sound of slow, deliberate strokes, she sighed, "I’d be a lot more helpful if you would give me details. Besides, I really don’t think this is about Delia anymore. I know you too well. She was never more than an annoyance to you-- when did you ever care what she thinks?"

"Intruding on business that isn’t hers is a lot more serious than--"

"Something tells me the issue is this ‘business,’" Melinda said bluntly. "Forgive me for being frank, but those hollow eyes of yours are deeper than the Marianas Trench. And maybe I’m just paranoid, but it looks like you’ve lost a few pounds over the summer... which you definitely don’t need!"

"About as much as you do, salad freak," Lydia muttered.

Melinda ceased painting and fixed Lydia a look of pointed concern. "Hey, hon, listen," she said earnestly, putting the paintbrush down on the easel and throwing up her hands. "I won’t hide it from you like we’ve done with so many things for so long.... I’m worried about you. Quite worried. I want you to know that from now on I won’t pry, but that I’d like to think you’d trust me with your woes. I’m here for you."

"And yet you believe I’d expose your love life to your parents?" Lydia challenged dubiously.

Melinda groaned, "Lydia, have a care! You know I didn’t mean it. Aren’t we all paranoid when it comes to that kind of thing?"

Lydia flopped down on her bed, staring hard at the floor. Melinda took cautious note of her abrupt silence, taken with a chill of faint recognition. She took a seat beside Lydia, suddenly trying very hard not to smile.

"I’ll take that as a yes," Melinda whispered with a wink, slipping an arm around Lydia. "It’ll all work out, you’ll see."

"What’ll work out? Didn’t we just decide there’s nothing in my family life that needs working out?" Lydia asked, eager to conceal the glimpse of truth she’d given via her sullen refusal to reply.

"I think you know what I mean, and you’ll come around sooner or later," Melinda continued reassuringly, kissing the top of Lydia’s head.

Lydia frowned briefly in response to her friend’s knowing smile. "Whatever you say," she sighed, praying that Melinda would take her response as noncommittal.

"You’re such a trip sometimes, Princess, you know that?" Melinda jibed affectionately, lightly punching Lydia’s shoulder.

Lydia laughed softly, unable to resist such guileless cajoling. "And sometimes I really wish I could pop you, Bubbles, in order to find out what’s going on inside that head of yours!"

Melinda just hugged her. "You haven’t been sleeping well, have you? I know, those party animals on the third floor make a horrible racket. Are you going home this weekend?"

"Yes. Friday evening, Dad’s coming for me."

"Wow, that’s tomorrow already. I suggest you sleep to your heart’s content and come back on Monday feeling better. That’s an order!"

"Before I know it, you’ll be double majoring in pre-med," Lydia teased. "And that’s more likely to make me lose sleep than anything else!"

Melinda just picked up Lydia's pillow and gave a good hard swing. Lydia dodged the blow and scrambled across the room, swiping Melinda’s pillow to use in self defense. Lydia could not remember the last time she’d been in a pillow fight-- maybe at Bertha’s birthday party in 8th grade-- but never had she known it could be so therapeutic. For once, it was she and Melinda who gave the revelers on the third floor a run for their money.

 

 

* * *

 

 

August 31

Saturday ~ Nightfall

No matter how long I stare at the clock across the room, it will not give me an answer. The decision lies with me, wound with my trembling fingers into the sheets freshly-changed by Delia this morning. It’s barely nine-thirty p.m. I never go to bed this early. I never light candles before I go to sleep. I watch the reflection of the flame lit beside my mother’s picture flicker in the face of the clock, and my heart aches. My mirror has never been so quiet.

I will the clock’s faint ticking to drown out my tortured heartbeat, if only for an instant. I wind my arms about a pillow just as the tears begin to come. I sob into its suffocating whiteness, remembering the hurt on my father’s face. How cheerful he’d been, so positively calm for once, as he drove me home from Lyme yesterday. Melinda had been right about my needing sleep, but I shall not have it, not yet. At last, I have the courage to reach for what I need most.

"Pumpkin, Delia and I thought we’d celebrate your completing the first week of the semester. Why don’t all three of us drive down to New York right now and make an overnight of it?"

That was early this morning. A fair fancy for a Saturday, true. I shudder to think how I must have looked, standing there hollow-eyed and quiet. They’re already bitter that I had not returned as promised on the evening of my birthday. I remember taking a small breath; I remember not needing to think. My reply composed itself.

"You two go ahead. Don’t let me spoil your fun by having my nose stuck in a sketchbook the whole time. I have a portfolio due on Monday, and I should really get some work done. Have a good time, Dad."

And I smiled and kissed his cheek. I left the room with Delia glancing up from her sculpting in shock and my father’s inevitable tears still upon my lips.

Rolling onto my back, I tighten my arms around the pillow. I feel bent and broken, as if in reaching for what I most desire I have lost sight of what it is, only to crash to the floor and shatter into a dozen longing fragments. BJ once said that I’m fragile enough to break. He said it lightly, trying to cheer me. I was so very ill with measles, then, and young, but he nursed me back while Delia worried over a client....

Oh, why is my mirror so silent?

They’re gone now. I watched them drive away scarcely two hours after I turned them down. Delia gave me an empty, vaguely worried look and a cool kiss goodbye. Dad smiled and hugged me. He said he was so proud of my dedication. Sketch ’em to death, Pumpkin!

My heart tumbled down the front steps after him and cracked. Twelve perfect slivers for twelve perfect hours. Twelve perfect hours of Hell.

And BJ has been gone from me for five times that. I imagine that my clock murmurs what my mirror does not. My soul knows better than I know myself. My ears will never learn.

I throw off the covers and sit on the edge of the bed, hunched over the pillow in pain. Newly-cut to shoulder length, my hair falls about my cheeks with a sigh. It has no trouble remembering how the sea air caressed it. How his fingers trembled as its smooth length spilled through them.

"Why’d you cut your hair, Lyds?" he murmured in the tense silence as we drew apart, our lips barely a breath away from touching once more. I felt a tremor in his arms about my waist, and releasing me, he turned away quickly.

I found myself numbly remembering my lonely walk of two nights before then, when at last I realized my heart would no longer settle for detachment. My hair had been long then, a dark, flowing banner free to taunt the stars as the wind carried it out to sea, never quite reaching. I touched his hand again.

"Because you’ve told me time and time again that’s how you like it best," I answered, touching his hand, imploring. I wanted to hear him say over and over what he’d said out of the blue. I wanted to believe against all belief, as if what we’d shared in one instant had not been enough.

How can a love newly-confessed scatter like sand before its keepers? How can a hushed breath and the union of dead-pale hands bar the joined from each other? How can a first kiss shared at eventide be such a sin?

Yes, BJ. My answer is yes. I know. My heart aches not out of regret for that sweet moment, but because every moment since has become a wordless absence. That night when we parted, you vanished before my eyes with your own full of fear and pain.

"Happy birthday, Lyds," you said. You moved forward and then stepped back. And I leaned and stopped where you began.

"Good night, Beej," I whispered. You did not wait for me to call your name. I can scarce remember another time when without reluctance you left of your own accord.

And I fell on my knees as I have fallen even now, for I realize that the fear and pain I saw in your gaze was merely reflected there from my own. Like the candle flame in the face of my clock, I wait, whispering nothings in the darkness and flickering with guilt. I have not dared to call you back, nor have you dared to come.

I know why my mirror is silent.

I lift my tearstained face from the pillow, smoothing the damp cover before placing it back on the bed. I stare at the clock once again, but this time I am standing. If it cannot give me the answer, then I will find it. As if in reply, the candle’s reflection briefly illuminates my mother’s face, and just as briefly shines upon her grave.

"And though I venture through the unknown,

Those that I love shall never be alone"

I am driven once more to my sketchbook and word-weary pencil. I write this here and now, by candlelight, so that my resolve might have meaning. I was wrong to believe that I was ever alone, wrong to think that no one would ever dare to cherish the dark side of my heart. But I had been right in wistfully thinking that it would be no soul living!

In a few moments, I will put aside these frail tools of the artist’s trade. I shall be true to my mother’s posthumous promise. Dear God, how I shall try! I glance at the clock one last time. In the silence, I am amazed. The clock speaks no more. It has stopped.

And reflected upon a fragile plane just above its unmoving hands, the candle burns on more brightly than ever. Yes, I feel fear. Perhaps I even feel regret. The room is warm, but still, I shiver. I feel the mirror’s cool surface with my eyes as plainly as if I had lain my fingertips upon it.

I remember an identical touch, cool and timid and tremulous upon my cheek... upon my bared waist and upon my sun-warmed shoulders, but ah, for so brief an instant....

And since the clock speaks no longer, my voice will fill the silence. I can barely part my lips, and yet the words come.

"Beetlejuice..."

Though I know I should be wary--

"Beetlejuice?"

Still I venture someplace scary--

"Beetlejuice!"

 

 

* * *

 

"Zis place looks terribail! Be-atlejuice!"

Jacques picked his way from the front door through the living room, sidestepping miscellaneous pieces of telltale striped clothing interspersed with items in varying shades of purple. Every now and then, he kicked up an empty glass or carton that had once held, amazingly, something edible. Jacques was more than accustomed to his unruly housemate’s clutter, but never in such volume or irregularity. There were no half-finished exoskeletons of unfortunate insects. And the clothes were clean. Jacques stood before Beetlejuice’s wardrobe. The doors and drawers hung wide open, empty of their contents. By then, he was more puzzled than angry.

"Be-atlejuice?" he asked, timidly approaching the door at the far end of the room that concealed friend’s sleeping quarters. Jacques opened the door and jumped.

Beetlejuice was sprawled in the beaten armchair beside his coffin, fixing at the intruder with an annoyed scowl. His jacket and tie lay rumpled on the floor, his boots kicked carelessly to opposing corners of the bedchamber.

"How was the convention, Numbskull?" Beetlejuice inquired flatly. "Worth your week of pumping iron and kissing tailbone?"

Jacques bristled, forgetting the pity he’d felt a few moments before. "For your information, Be-atlejuice, oui! I now hold ze title Neitherworld record for ze most thumbless pull-ups in half an ’ou-air! How dair you insult my months of practice?"

The meanness in Beetlejuice’s demeanor faded as quickly as it had come, replaced by a startling weariness. "Forget I asked," he sighed, staring at the floor.

Jacques weakened and frowned. He couldn’t stand to see anyone in a slump, not even Neither-Public Enemy Number One. They were, after all, roommates and afterlife-long friends. Beetlejuice simply sighed, leaning his head back and closing his eyes as if they were strained.

"Be-atlejuice, zere is something quite wrong. Are you sick, mon ami? You are not eating ze right things... for you," Jacques said, bending to pick up an empty can. He read the label suspiciously. "Since when are you eating zis... zis spa-ghette?"

Beetlejuice leapt up defensively, snatching the can away. "Spaghetti," he corrected Jacques brusquely. "Since when do you care what’s on my menu? That diet you put me on last century was a flop anyway."

The spaghetti can took a nosedive from Jacques’ hand and vanished with a splash into a pool of illusory water. Jacques pointed a finger at Beetlejuice.

"Apparently, ze one you ’ave put yourself on is not!" Jacques observed, studying his friend approvingly.

Beetlejuice scowled again. "What d’you mean?" he shot back defensively.

"Nos-sing!" Jacques exclaimed, throwing up both hands. "But still... I think you are coming down with some-sing!"

"Oh, yeah," Beetlejuice muttered. "The last thing I feel like doing right now’s singing. Nice try, buddy, but no bones about it. You couldn’t cheer up the Grim Reaper on a day like this."

Jacques blinked in confusion. "But Be-atlejuice, zis is a normal day! I ’ave made you smile on worse!"

"Like I’d ever admit to that."

"Good enough for me," Jacques sighed, his smile short-lived. "But I say you are coming down with some-sing, and I shall find out what! I am not ze ’ealth nut in zis ’ouse for nos-sing!"

Beetlejuice stared at Jacques dismally. "I hate to break it to you, but we’re dead. Like it’s gonna make a difference!"

Jacques put one foot down hard, taken aback by Beetlejuice’s outburst. "You are ’aving mood swings, mon Dieu! What else ’ave you eaten? May-be zis spa-ghette is no--"

"IT’S FINE!" Beetlejuice exploded, sailing a few feet forward, nearly knocking Jacques over.

"At least you can still fly," Jacques said weakly, staggering into the curtain. "But insist to know, what is in zis? And where do you get it? Zere could be a lack of--"

"It’s Lydia’s favorite," Beetlejuice cut him off quietly. "It’s fine."

Jacques said nothing for quite some time. Beetlejuice stared vaguely at the floor, looking distinctly embarrassed.

"Be-atlejuice," Jacques began tentatively, "I hate to be ze one to pry, but understand, I am worrying. I think I understand now. Are you fighting with her?"

Beetlejuice turned a dozen shades of red. "With Ginger? Don’t be stupid, nah... but you know, those shoes she leaves all over the place kinda get to--"

"Beetlejuice, if you’re gonna talk about me I suggest you do it when I’m around!" piped a whiny voice from the ceiling. Beetlejuice slapped his forehead, groaning as Ginger dangled between the two of them.

"I knew spyin’ on you would come in handy sooner or later!" Ginger said vindictively, jabbing a spindly high-heeled leg at Beetlejuice’s nose. "I got so much dirt on you this week it isn’t even funny."

Beetlejuice let down his guard long enough to look severely alarmed. "Like what?" he blurted, but was quick to stop himself. "I mean... so what!"

Jacques shook his head, mildly chiding. "Be-atlejuice, I think zere is some-sing you are not telling me."

"You bet your bones!" Ginger cried. "There’s a bunch of stuff! His new idea of a prank’s washin’ his clothes and then lettin’ them lie around when he decides that’s not what he wants to wear. As if he cares about that! And he sits in that chair and stares just to bug me. I swear he knew I was here the whole time and just didn’t say anything so I’d feel miserable. Well, it worked!" Ginger huffed.

Beetlejuice looked as if he were somewhere between hysterical laughter and hopeless tears. He finally settled for glaring strangely at the petulant spider. "Ginger, let me ask you one question. Do you think I enjoy your company? If I’d known you were up there, I’d have juiced you out of here quicker than you can say--"

"Be-atlejuice," Jacques interrupted nervously, steering his disturbed friend away from Ginger by the shoulders, "I think you need to sit down." Beetlejuice permitted himself to be urged back into the armchair. He was too angry not to let the spider off the hook, but at the same time, he was too shocked by Jacques’ sincere intervention to speak.

Jacques eyed Ginger warningly. "Cherie, if you don’t mind, I think you should go."

Ginger pouted, "At least someone in this house can tell me to leave an’ be gentlemanly about it!"

Beetlejuice began acidly, "Oh, go spin yourself into a--"

"Be-atlejuice, zat is enough!" Jacques cried, rapping his friend’s shoulder sharply with his long fingers.

"Ow!" Beetlejuice yelled. "I’d say you’re the one who needs some major adjustments! Go get those ends filed so you don’t poke the water boy’s eyes out at the next-"

"B-eatlejuice, zis is not funny! You are not normal!"

Beetlejuice jibed feebly, "Normal. You know I hate it--"

"Enough!" Jacques said sternly. "You are going to tell me what it is zat you and Lydia are arguing about."

Beetlejuice’s expression went fixed on the floor again, as it had earlier during the spaghetti discussion. He did not reply.

Jacques resorted to a cross between gentle coaxing and outright pleading. "It must be terribail, mon ami. You do not have to say any-sing if you don’t want to, but I will be beside myself with--"

"Oh, good grief!" Beetlejuice muttered. "We’re not fighting about anything. Stop blubbering already."

"Ah," said Jacques, his eyes narrowing cleverly, "but she is still ze cause of zis, no?"

Beetlejuice set his jaw stiffly, rising to leave the room. Jacques caught him by one untucked shirttail and begged, "Be-atlejuice, zis must be serious!"

Beetlejuice rounded on Jacques, bearing down upon him with eyes that glowed livid, menacing yellow. Jacques rattled uncontrollably.

"This is none of your business!" Beetlejuice hissed, releasing Jacques’ arm so abruptly it twisted off at the elbow. Jacques snatched his limb back, cracking it in place with annoyance.

"If zat is how you insist on being, zen, fine!" Jacques warned. "But what-evair is bothering you is très serieuse! If e-vair you decide to say some-sing, I am ’ere to ’ear ze confession."

Beetlejuice gave Jacques a sullenly contrite frown and muttered, "Well, if it’s confessions you’re looking for, I have used a couple of your--"

Poof!

"You nev-air know when to cease ze joking, Be-atlejuice!" Jacques ranted at the empty spot in front of him where his friend had been standing seconds before. But before they vanished, Jacques could have sworn that the errant bat, staring eyeball, and tin can left in Beetlejuice’s wake were, for once, not laughing at him.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

Poof!

"-- towels," Beetlejuice finished, only to find himself answered by a split second of darkness that swiftly engulfed him before expanding unhurriedly into a familiar space lit softly with candles and silence. And in a heartbeat, as once again his feet touched solid ground, the silence was broken.

"Towels?" Lydia echoed, her voice a diminished remnant of its former self, full of dismay and exhaustion. She blinked repeatedly, as if she could not believe that the words she uttered had, in fact, worked.

Never before had the collision of their worlds shaken them so violently. Words dissolved in the half-light as comprehension turned to dust. The carpet seemed to crumble beneath their unsteady feet. But this time it was Lydia who staggered, and Beetlejuice who leaned forward blindly to break her fall. Even then, if he had not, he surely would have stumbled himself. They swayed with their hands locked about each others’ elbows, barely regaining collective balance, so deep ran their disbelief.

Beetlejuice had lost command of his tongue. He could only stare at the vision clinging to him as if her very life depended on it: A white-skinned wraith in seafoam silk whose sorrow-darkened eyes alone were his salvation. Helplessly, he murmured something, but his thoughts could find no form by way of his mouth.

Lydia’s eyelids ceased their fluttering as the dream faded about them, leaving raw actuality in its stead. She felt her palms dampen his long sleeves as she continued to clasp his arms. She felt her breath return in shallow, dizzying gasps.

"You... you said something about towels," Lydia whispered, hearing her own voice as if it echoed from across some interminable distance. But somehow, he heard her perfectly.

"Yeah," Beetlejuice croaked, as if he had forgotten speech entirely. "I... used some of ’em."

"I see," Lydia faltered, mentally groping for control of the situation. How on earth had it managed to spin so wildly out of bounds, driven to hushed irrationality by the mere element of presence?

Strange, for it was his presence that I so longed for, and now--

"And now you’re here," Lydia said in a clear but tremulous tone, finding her voice at last.

"Yeah," Beetlejuice slurred, slower to come to terms, "but a minute ago I... was talking to Jacques, which... explains..."

It was his turn to blink dazedly, realizing that there was no need for explanation at all.

Closing his eyes against the dazzling pain of full vision and understanding, he added simply, "And so are you--"

Too lovely to look upon! I never--!

"What?" Lydia asked gently, drawing the quaver in her voice down to a tolerable level. She loosened her hold on him, realizing that her arms had begun to tingle.

"And you’re here too, Lyds," Beetlejuice rasped, quickly disengaging his arms from hers. "And I... And I..."

Disbelieving that he had let go of her, hurt and confusion swelled in Lydia’s chest and spilled hotly down her cheeks. "And you what?" she demanded, her voice breaking. "For the love of God! For once in your eternal existence, say it!"

"And I’m a fool, Babes! For you, all for you!" Beetlejuice sobbed in a barely intelligible rush. And his repression was no more, but how dearly he paid for it.

"I swear I don’t deserve any of this.... Not anything you ever gave me, not one minute of your time, not one single smile!.... Lyds, you know about me. I don’t have to tell you, really.... That’s just the thing.... Just the thing! You always knew! You read me like an open book from day one, and I swear I never once came close. Just look what I’ve done to you this week.... Just look--"

"At what I’ve done to you!" Lydia cried, pressing a hand in shame to her lips.

"No, please, Babes, you don’t under--"

"I understand everything! This week’s been living Hell for you! It’s been living Hell for me!"

They stared at one another with bleary eyes, mutually shocked into silence. For one endless, spectacularly charged instant, looking was all that their folly permitted. And before long, they not only looked, but saw.

Beetlejuice took her in once more, wondering when in the world a color so light had ever decided to become her so well. He was stricken anew with every facet from the curve of her cheek to the subtle shifting of her stance. He knew that he could not take much more. His eyes fell to her feet and moved slowly upward, caught and tormented by the revelation of far less skin than on days previous, halting just at her chin, marveling, yet terrified that perhaps--

"Why did you call me?" Beetlejuice whispered before he even realized he meant to say something.

"Why did you stay away?" Lydia asked, her voice equally as hushed in timid reply. Her eyes widened simultaneously, as if his query had only just hit her. And briefly, in that languid way of hers, as if she were a sleepwalker, she reached with one fragile hand to brush his cheek.

The gesture did not last more than an instant, for an instant was all it took. They fell in each other’s arms, hers wound as desperately around his neck as his about her hips. With a lack of space left between them came a lack of all places and reasons to hide.

"I was hoping that answers your question," Lydia breathed, giving herself over to insistent dizziness. Her lips brushed his cheek just barely, but a breath later-- more lingeringly. She felt a familiar tension grip his entire frame as she moved slowly, kiss by light kiss down his jaw line, until his nose brushed her forehead. Lydia raised her head, halting just inches from his lips, for they had begun to move. With stilted patience, she waited.

"Because," Beetlejuice murmured numbly, one arm agitatedly traversing the length of her back, "I love you."

"Say... it again," she breathed, resting her profile against his. Oh, let this not be a dream! And let me not make a fool of myself! Her entire body had begun to tremble.

But before he had the chance to, she cried, "I didn’t mean that! Don’t listen to me, I’m just... I heard you, oh, did I ever hear you... I mean that I do, too, I... love you! It’s just that I made this all so difficult... and I’m ashamed."

"No, no. Don’t you say that," Beetlejuice insisted, his voice low, on the verge of breaking. "Lydia, you’re... you’re... just everything. And I... I won’t let you forget it, Babes. You know that?"

"Then neither will I," Lydia whispered, fully overcome with certainty at last. She leaned closer and repeated, "Neither will I!"

"Babes... what do you m-- mmmmmhhh!"

Lydia silenced him with the fiercest kiss that he had ever known. And no force on earth or below could have stopped him from returning her fervor. He was dimly aware that her fingers had crept to his collar even as he lost his own in the shadows of her hair. Both unwilling and unable to break the heated contact, Lydia backpedaled a few unsteady paces until she collided with the edge of her bed, drawing Beetlejuice inexorably forward. The impact nearly sent them sprawling backwards. Gasping, Beetlejuice ended the kiss, resting his head on her shoulder.

"Lyds, this is crazy. Your parents are right up the hall... and... and how could I ever expect... ever ask you to--?!"

"Yes, it is-- no, they’re not-- and I’m the one asking," Lydia murmured, her breath draining at the near-shock of his weight bearing her downward. She wished that it had.

"You... you want..."

"Do you think you scared me last Sunday?" Lydia asked, her tone feverishly apologetic. "I’m sorry, because that... that couldn’t be farther from the truth," she whispered, working at his top buttons with sure but quivering fingers.

"Yes," Beetlejuice managed to croak, hiding his face in the curve of her neck, lest he swoon with the heat lightning that swept through him. And if not that, surely sheer disbelief would have been enough to render him senseless.

"Then... let’s scare each other," Lydia intoned softly, undoing the last few buttons, slipping her arms inside his shirt. She stifled a cry in the back of her throat. How is it that he’s so warm? she marveled, trailing her slips impulsively along his collarbone, pausing just above his heart.

"Babes," Beetlejuice groaned softly, finding her mouth’s timid exploration almost intolerable. "You don’t know what you’re getting-- ohhhhh for cryin’ out loud, Lyds!"

She had slipped his shirt down over his shoulders without missing a beat, carelessly letting it fall. The mere sensation of her silken hair brushing against his flesh was electrifying. Her eyes were half closed as she looked up at him, but so alive with pleading, newly awakened hunger that he could protest no more.

"That’s just the thing," she breathed. "I don’t know, but I want to."

For a tortured moment longer, Beetlejuice said nothing, his fingers winding urgently into the fabric at the small of her back. I vowed once I’d never do anything to hurt you... at least if I could help it... but, oh, Lyds, this time I don’t think I can!

Lydia took his face in her hands, kissing his forehead slowly. "Let me love you," she pleaded gently, "and please, love me in return. I never expected perfection of you. Not even in this, Beej, but the truth is... because it’s you, I couldn’t ask for more."

"And you’re more than I ever deserved," Beetlejuice murmured, bestowing upon her an uncertain kiss that seemed positively awkward in comparison to their first. But in seconds, it was the least of his concerns, for her delicate arms had wrapped him in an embrace stronger than all mortal comprehension, and as she sank down onto the mattress, his only choice-- his only wish-- was to follow.

In truth, it was he who finally pressed her to lie full-length upon the sheets, as if he had never known any fear of rejection. Which boldness, even through the kiss continued and through several unhindered caresses, did not last for long. When at last all garments and propriety were removed and hastily cast on the floor, the whole farce began afresh.

"L-Lydia, just-- just-- just tell me if-- I... if I’m crushing you," he gasped, every inch of him still aching with wonder at the full contact of her skin. They clung to one another breathlessly, tense with apprehension but too filled with yearning to care. They lay side by side, caught in a fairly tangled predicament. Lydia tried desperately to sway his full weight in her direction, but out of frightened stubbornness, Beetlejuice pinned them determinedly where they were.

"You’re being silly," Lydia murmured against his neck, her voice still unsteady even as her arms were wondrously certain around him, her hands deft and sure. She heaved him in her direction with all her might. "I told you not... to be afraid, just... ah, just let it go!"

Try as he might, somehow, for that angel in his arms-- he did. Somewhere between hesitation and realization, they found their way, slowly but sure, willing in devotion to surrender. And when, hours later, they cradled each other still, having reached the point of pain and beyond, whence ecstasy at last is glimpsed and defined-- the qualms and barriers that they’d constructed of sheer foolishness were banished indefinitely.

"Beetlejuice," Lydia whispered, stroking back his disarrayed hair. "Beeeeejaaaaay... are you dozing off on me?" Supporting herself on one elbow, she gazed down at him with a weary smile, still running her fingers through his hair.

Beetlejuice widened his half-closed eyes, catching her by the shoulders and pulling her close once more. "Looks to me like you’re a bit worn out yourself, Babes," he replied, rocking her contently.

For a long while neither said a word, simply basking in the ever-dimming darkness. All of the candles had burned out save the few on the far side of the room. Lydia glimpsed the pale reflection in the face of her clock through drooping eyelids. She turned her head sideways and kissed her lover’s shoulder.

"You’re exhausted. You probably haven’t slept well in days. I swear I’ll confine you to bed till noon," she promised drowsily, yawning.

"Oh, look who’s talking," Beetlejuice retorted, tickling her sides until she shook with laughter. "I’ll just have to keep you here with me. What a pity.... eeeyaaaaahahahaaaa!"

Lydia elbowed him in the ribs with startled delight. "I haven’t heard that in over a week!" she cried.

"Heard what?" Beetlejuice asked, his brow knitting in suspicious confusion. She only grinned enigmatically in reply. "What? What?!"

"Your laugh, Beej!"

He sighed with relief, settling them both more snugly under the covers. His only response was an unhurried kiss that left Lydia content to close her eyes and dream.

"You know I love it-- nah, wait. You know I love you. Get some sleep, Babes. I’m not goin’ anywhere, that’s for sure."

"And I’ll be right here," Lydia murmured, pushing off all impending thoughts of the morrow and relaxing in their newfound peace. "Good night, Bee--j. That would have made twice," she giggled as the last few candles waned. "Aren’t you proud of me for holding my tongue as well as I did?"

Lydia dozed off with the sound of his laughter still fresh in her ears. Beetlejuice, however, lay awake for a short time longer, treasuring the miracle he held in his arms.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"How positively macabre," Delia exclaimed in an enthusiastic murmur as she barged their way through the milling crowd to the Plymouth Theatre exit. "Such a dark thrill! I really didn’t think I’d like it. Well chosen, Charles. Who’d have ever thought you have a nose for bargain theater tickets?"

Charles simply clung to her arm, making no response until his wife had haphazardly navigated them up the bustling sidewalk. Delia pulled them onto the curb, looking both ways only to find an oncoming rush of taxis and other transportation coming from both directions. She tapped her foot impatiently, only then realizing that Charles had not answered her question.

"Well?" she prompted.

"I... uh, I mean, I don’t know. It’s just looked good, is all, I guess...."

Delia laughed shortly. "Dear, Jekyll and Hyde is the last show that I’d have expected you to choose. I’m surprised you weren’t sick barely halfway into the first act. But nonetheless, well chosen. Shall we go back to the hotel, or would you rather find some cozy restaurant, first?"

Charles replied quickly, markedly paler than usual, "I’ll take a rain check on the restaurant, thanks."

By then, the traffic had cleared and Delia had dragged him forward without warning. Once they reached the opposite curb, she said, "Oh, really, Charles, why such a spoilsport? And after stomaching such a spectacular bit of horror?"

"That’s exactly why," he muttered, for once taking the lead, urging her on. "I’d be downing an entire roll of Tums if you’d force-fed me some half-baked tiramisu at that swanky trattoria on the other end of Broadway."

"Charles, don’t be ridiculous," Delia cooed, easily brushing off his agitation. "Tiramisu isn’t exactly baked, besides," she added absently, her eyes narrowing with sudden mischief. "My, my... if I’m not mistaken, Mr. Jekyll’s rubbed off on my Charles’ hide, hasn’t he?" Delia murmured, running her fingers over his arm suggestively as he attempted to hail a taxi.

Charles shook her off distractedly. When the third heedless cab in a row sped by, Charles turned to find Delia fixing him with an icy stare. "What?" he demanded weakly. "Would you like to get back to the hotel faster or not? What you did just a few seconds ago would suggest that the answer is yes."

"Don’t you give me sarcasm!" Delia snapped. "I don’t understand you and your daughter. Really, must your erratic moods always coincide?"

Charles gave in to an uncharacteristic scowl, matching her glare for glare. "Oh, so you mean you’re the only one who has the right to inconsistency around here?"

In response to his accompanying gesture of frustration, a taxi pulled up in front of them. Delia had no chance to make a snide remark in retaliation. Charles, taken aback by the result that a random wave of his arm had produced, yanked the cab door open and hustled his wife inside.

Delia glared at Charles sourly as their transport crawled into the line of traffic. "You can be so bitter," she sighed.

"Nor do I have the right to wish my daughter were here, I see," Charles responded bleakly.

Delia burst into sardonic laughter. "My, but you certainly did all in your power to convince her to come!"

Charles grimaced. "Delia, don’t remind me. I know. I’m a complete pushover. I can’t deny her anything! She needed to stay home and work... so I let her."

"And as a result, you’re thinking miserably of her the entire time! I should have known why you chose the show that you did."

"You didn’t even give me the chance to pick up a shirt for her," Charles murmured, misty-eyed.

"No loss," Delia mused. "The last thing Lydia’s wardrobe needs is another dark and bloodstained--"

"Enough!" Charles snapped, satisfied that he’d dealt her a reasonable shock. "What are you so concerned about? You know she’s not lonely," he added, more for his own reassurance. "Lydia always did know how to fend for herself. She finds her own amusement."

"That’s what I’m afraid of," Delia muttered softly.

"What?" Charles demanded.

Delia sighed heavily, her seldom-exercised remorse seeping unbidden into her conscience. "I said, we have nothing to be afraid of. You’re... right. Even though Lydia’s secretive, she’s level-headed and a hard worker. It’s just that... well... forget I said anything."

Charles leaned back stiffly, staring past her and out the window. "You make it rather difficult," he replied, scarcely believing that she had surrendered just as his will to oppose her ran dry.

Her mood swinging as unpredictably as ever, Delia leaned close, murmuring, "Let’s see if I can’t fix that."

Leaning aside to evade her impishly smiling lips, Charles protested, "Delia, we’re in a cab!"

Slightly irritated, Delia settled for resting her head on his shoulder. "We’ll see how much complaining you do half an hour from now, dear," she murmured slyly.

"If I’m still awake half an hour from now."

 

* * *

 

 

Lydia awakened slowly, her senses opening long before her eyes to embrace the form that clasped her own so comfortably close. She ran her fingers up the length of his spine, pausing only to wind them into the tangle of his hair. Lydia buried her face in the crook of his neck, smiling in remembrance of what had lulled them to sleep. At the slightest affectionate brush of her lips against his ear, he stirred.

"I didn’t know you were such a light sleeper," Lydia murmured against his cheek. "I’m sorry, love," she apologized, trailing her mouth gently until she found his.

Beetlejuice mumbled something sleepily into the kiss. "What?" Lydia laughed softly, drawing away.

"If this’s what I get to wake up to," he replied with a lazy grin, "then do it as often as you want."

Lydia combed ineffectually at his tousled hair. "If only I could," she whispered. "Dad and Delia will be back from New York sometime this afternoon. They have to take me back to school this evening... ugh. Beej, I don’t even want to think about it," she groaned, resting her head fretfully on his shoulder.

"Then don’t, Lyds," Beetlejuice comforted her, even though he sounded fairly worried himself. "It must be, what, nine o’clock or somethin’? We’ve got a few hours," he said, rubbing her back soothingly. "Right? Aw, c’mon... don’t make me tickle you again!"

"I wish you would," she replied with feeling. "I could hold you all day-- oh, God, Beej, I swear-- just so long as we’re touching. I can’t believe this," she whispered, kissing his forehead. "I needed you so much. Do you realize how wonderfully impossible we are?"

Beetlejuice was somber for a moment, thinking it over, but for a moment and no longer. He promptly tickled her sides until it was utterly impossible for her to express the slightest bit of concern.

"BEEE-EEEEEEEEJ! STOP THAT! Haaaaaaaahah!-- okay... okay.... AAAHAAAHA! I said, cut it out!"

"No you didn’t!"

"Well, now I did!--- Wahahaha, please!..."

"You’re no fun."

"Really?" Lydia gasped, recovering from her tears of mirth. "If I were you, I wouldn’t say that-- HA!"

"Babes! No!"

"Oh, why not?" she pouted, slowing the playful onslaught of her fingers at his neck. "One good turn deserves another!"

"BWAHAHAHAHA! Okokokokokokokokokyouwinjuststop!"

"None too soon," Lydia said with satisfaction, collapsing back on the sheets, grinning. "I swear we’d have been in bed sooner if I knew you were this much fun here, too," she teased slyly, winding her arms around his midsection.

Beetlejuice’s eyes widened for a moment, simply too overwhelmed to take it in. And rather than returning her liveliness, he sighed, folding her possessively in his arms.

"You’re quiet all of a sudden," Lydia murmured. "Why?"

"We were impossible from the start, if you think about it, Babes," he said pensively.

Lydia fell into his reverie. "You called me that from our very first encounter. I called you brainless," Lydia mused remorsefully. "And a jerk, if I recall rightly."

"I am," Beetlejuice said earnestly, hiding his face in her hair.

"Not when it matters, you’re not," Lydia said gently, turning her head so that he no longer could conceal himself. "Not the ghost who cared enough to make amends in his own roundabout way after our first fight. Not the one who forgets he’s a coward when my life is at stake," she asserted meaningfully. "Not the man who made love to me last night."

Overcome, Beetlejuice pressed one of her hands shakily to his forehead. "You’re gonna have to ease me into this deep stuff, whew... it’s contagious already, Babes. But-- did you say-- the--"

"Yes," she whispered.

And neither of them knew any better way to reaffirm what they had uttered other than to act.

"Am I still no fun?" Lydia asked a considerable time later, kissing his forehead before slipping out of bed to retrieve her sketchbook from the floor. The air of the room seemed cold and foreign to her. She shivered.

"I didn’t think you’d know that was possible," Beetlejuice murmured, still lying faint with amazement. He grabbed her hand, as if to prevent her from venturing even a few feet.

She turned back to him with an impishly shy smile. "Aren’t you glad I read too much?"

"Nevermore-so!" Beetlejuice sighed, letting releasing her hand. He watched her bend and rise with the sketchbook, mesmerized. "I swear I’d be just as happy watchin’ you from a distance. Ahhh, you have no idea...."

Lydia flopped down on her stomach beside him, opening the book before her. "On the contrary, you give me a fairly good one," she reassured him, leaning over to brush his hair back. "You know," she commented, unsure of how to say it, biting the end of her pencil briefly, "you clean up quite nicely... that is... thanks."

Beetlejuice rolled over, putting an arm snugly around her. "Try telling me it wasn’t worth it! Talk about making the best of a bad thing... you might get me in the tub more often than you think."

"Mmhmm!" Lydia laughed. "I think I’ll hold you to that!"

Beetlejuice glanced over her shoulder at the half-finished costume sketches. "Those are wild, Babes. What’re they for?"

"Sweeney Todd. Lyme’s drama department is trolling my design class for its new costume designer. I have to turn this in tomorrow for a grade and judging. Double threat."

"A barber who slices and dices... I’ll say!" Beetlejuice said with ghoulish delight. "But really, darling, I should have known you would go into some aspect of the theatre," he added in a ridiculous, staid British accent.

Lydia shaded Sweeney’s nouveau-gothic tailcoat in short, erratic strokes, giving it the appearance of an intricately sinister weave. "I don’t know what’ll come of it," she said noncommittally. "There are some clever new freshmen. I may have been the star last year, but who’s to say Halley’s Comet’s not due for an appearance?"

"Me," Beetlejuice insisted aggressively. "Nobody outdoes you as long as I’m--"

"Thanks, but no thanks, Beej," Lydia said firmly. "I don’t need to hear about any of my colleagues’ sculptures blowing up in the kiln or their sketches ending up in the toilet." "I was only joking," he muttered, nosing her shoulder in slight embarrassment. "It’s just, you know you’re the best, Lydia, and so do I. What else was I supposed to say to bring out your fighting spirit?"

Lydia turned to look at him. "I love it when you say that, you know."

"Say what?"

"My name. My honest to goodness name."

"Lydia."

"I wish yours wasn’t so fickle," she sighed. "It must be strange, depending on such a charm for your very presence here or beyond... but then again, you’re used to it. I just might have to get used to it all over again."

"I think you’re speaking for both of us," Beetlejuice agreed with conviction.

Lydia nodded in agreement, willing to be drawn briefly from her work into a strangely heart-stopping moment. She found herself rolled over backwards onto the sketchbook, her hair washing like raven gossamer over her exacting designs. On impulse, Lydia reached up, delicately twirling a strand of Beetlejuice’s hair around her pencil, leaving it there.

"Hey, I was just thinking," he mused, unusually thoughtful, "about Wednesday. It’s not just seven years anymore. It’s today and yesterday, too."

Lydia lifted her chin and kissed him lightly, whisking the pencil away. "I know. So, does that mean you’ve decided what you’d like to do?"

"Yeah, actually... and on that note... I’m asking for the permission to surprise you completely. You did get to pick the beach, after all, and you did all the work making sandwiches and whatnot.... What I’m saying is, leave Wednesday night to me."

Lydia closed her eyes, basking in the offer. How could she refuse?

"Sounds like a plan, BJ. Just promise me one thing-- no beetle sandwiches. Not for me."

"This ain’t no picnic, Babes," Beetlejuice promised, bearing down upon her until their profiles touched. "Just you wai--"

Rrrring!

"What the--?" Lydia exclaimed, startled, sitting bolt upright in annoyance.

Rrrring!

"Your phone has great timing," Beetlejuice muttered.

Lydia scrambled to reach over him, almost knocking the phone off the table as she grappled with it.

"Hello?" she queried into the mouthpiece, somewhat out of breath.

"Lydia, what have I told you about answering the phone? The proper answer is, ‘Hello, Deetz Residence--’"

"Delia, I know. I just-- you-- you woke me up. Give me a break."

At Lydia’s use of her stepmother’s name, Beetlejuice went a shade paler. Lydia nodded grimly against the receiver, biting her lip.

"Lydia," Delia continued, "are you still there? Dear, I’m sorry."

"What? Oh, I..."

"Your father just wanted me to let you know we’re about fifteen minutes from home. If you get up and around now, we can get an early start back to Lyme. Your father’s very tired from this long drive yesterday and today, and I’d really not like to be driving you after dark tonight."

"That’s... fine," Lydia hear herself say.

"We’ll see you soon, dear."

"Yes...."

Click.

"Whoever invented cellular phones ought to either be shot or given a medal," Lydia groaned as she plunked the phone back into its cradle. "Delia says we have fifteen minutes to get decent."

Beetlejuice was visibly stricken. "Well, that means we have fifteen minutes. I can be outta here in the blink of an eye."

Lydia slipped into his lap, embracing him fiercely. "There’s no reason for them to rush me back to campus!" she lamented. "Of course Delia’d be the one to ruin my day. She and Dad could have slept another hour and not been rushed-- ohhh, I’ll bet you she woke him, that thoughtless--"

Beetlejuice silenced her as efficiently as she had silenced him the night before. Lydia settled against him, helplessly savoring the moment. No need to existed to voice what they both knew. Parting had never been so difficult. And that realization plunged them as deeply into a fit of passion as before. One kiss more-- then another, and another--

When the faint spin of a tire in the driveway reached Lydia’s ears, neither one of them had disengaged from the other. She pulled away from him abruptly, panic-stricken.

"Fifteen minutes?" she cried. "That wasn’t-- Beej-- they’re here!"

Beetlejuice’s arms locked around her in startled confusion. "Now?!"

"Yes, now! They took the River Road detour!" she cried, leaping out of bed, frantically searching for his things. "Beej, they can’t find us like this! You have to go--" she whispered, her voice dropping a saddened octave. "Now..."

Wordlessly, Beetlejuice followed suit and retrieved the nearest item that was his. At the same moment, they reached for his shirt. Their eyes locked painfully.

"Don’t worry," Lydia faltered. "About Wednesday... you know... there are a myriad reflective surfaces on campus. You know where to find me. You’ve done it before, even if not that often."

"I know," Beetlejuice said, sounding for all the world as if she’d dealt him a blow.

Lydia’s eyes stung with a familiar but heightened rue. As if on cue, they clasped each other possessively, crushing his clothes in the process.

"I promise, Babes," he whispered. "First chance I get tomorrow, I’ll--

"I’ll be all right-- they’re probably just unloading-- I know, we’ll--"

With a half-sob nearly in unison, they gripped each other with double the unwillingness to let go. As if determined to rip them asunder, the soft click of a key in the front door issued with remarkable clarity from downstairs.

Their last kiss was furtive, almost guilty. "It’s only tonight," Lydia murmured, determined not to give in to tears. "You know that."

"Lyds," Beetlejuice sighed, almost frightened, "what do we know? You said yourself... we’re..."

"Just impossible enough to work," Lydia insisted with vehemence. "Don’t doubt on me-- don’t ever! Not now... shhh, quick, go! Beetlejuice... I love you."

"That’s once," he said numbly, kissing her hastily.

"Beetlejuice... tomorrow..."

"Lydia, I love you, too."

She hung on a heartbeat longer before stepping away. The separation left them both miserably speechless.

"Beetlejuice," Lydia choked behind her hand, watching him fade even as his eyes not for an instant left hers.

Footsteps on the stairs accompanied by a distinctly dragging suitcase spurred Lydia into action. She leapt onto the bed, knocking her sketchbook onto the floor as she pulled the covers tightly about herself. She feared her heartbeat would be audible from the opposite end of the hall. Lydia closed her eyes tightly, praying to be left in peace.

But as she had expected, her doorknob turned moments later.

"Lydia, dear, are you--"

"Delia, quiet! She might have gone back to sleep."

"Too late," Lydia moaned groggily, as if they had awakened her. She burrowed nervously under the covers at the sound of her door being opened.

"Oh, Lydia, I’m sorry," came Delia’s hasty apology. "Are you--"

Lydia held her breath. Whatever Delia had seen had caused her to fall silent.

"Pumpkin, I’ll see you once you’re up and about," came her father’s uncertain voice from the hall. She heard him retreat in the general direction of the master bedroom with their suitcase. Delia’s footsteps, on the other hand, advanced.

"Lydia, dear, are you feeling all right?" Delia asked, genuinely concerned, tugging gently at the covers. "Dear, if I can’t see you, how can I--"

"I’m fine," Lydia grated, throwing the covers back just enough, hoping that her cheeks would not burn with embarrassment.

Delia’s eyes swept briefly over her bare shoulders, making the connection with the discarded nightgown on the floor. Instead of suspicion, however, the worried slant of her brow only increased. Her hand fell on Lydia’s forehead.

"Strange, you don’t have a fever, but that would explain why you felt hot," Delia cooed consolingly. "But I’m glad to see you liked it," she bubbled, waving at the pale silken heap on the floor.

"Um, yes," Lydia mumbled, shaking her head dazedly. "I just... felt like..."

Delia had already spotted the sketch book. With a sly smile, she said, "I know-- whatever lets the creativity flow, dear! Why, you know, sometimes even I--"

"That’s great," Lydia cut in hastily, looking away. "I hope your trip was fine. Just... give me the chance to wake up, will you?"

"I’ll have something waiting for your breakfast, then!"

No sooner had Delia exited the room than Lydia rolled over and buried her face in the pillow, trembling in disbelief. Not even the shock of a narrow escape could compare with the longing to cry fourth time the name that rose in her throat unbidden.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Beetlejuice barely had the presence of mind to direct his re-entry into the realm he’d departed most unexpectedly the night before, but somehow he landed safely in his own room, in the very place he’d been standing while arguing with Jacques. He was grateful the skeleton was long since gone. Beetlejuice stared at the wrinkled garments still clutched in his right hand, thinking better of dropping them on the floor. He raised the shirt to his slips slowly, pressing his face to the shoulder.

Yes, she had rested her head in that very place, before disrobing him. The faint scent of some herb from her hair lingered. Surely it hadn’t been a dream. But no, her fingers still burned on his flesh and her eyes still widened in pain for a moment before closing in complete surrender before the mirror of his mind. He collapsed in the coffin, stupefied-- and for the first time he could truly admit it--

Completely happy.

It went against all reason for her not to be there with him still. He couldn’t think of how nearly they’d been discovered, couldn’t fathom how severe the consequence.

And quite frankly, he didn’t care. How was he to pass an evening without her now, in light of this revelation? Beetlejuice had never before given an exceptional care for anyone, nor how they might fare with or without him. And now that the need was his, the sensation was more foreign than ever. He pulled the covers over his head and desperately clung to the last of her essence on his own garment. He smiled and neared devastation by turns, wondering if love were always so adverse in its complexity. And simple, despite it. He knew he would need to rise eventually-- but rising just then was unthinkable.

Of course, he hadn’t taken into account the possibility of eavesdroppers with an unfair advantage. Something skittered down the outside of his bedroom door and gave an ominous, tiny rap.

"’Bout time you got up, Beetlejuice, if you’re even there," came Ginger’s nagging reveille. "Jacques is pretty miffed about you running out on him last night. You’d better apologize. I don’t think I can put up with two sulkers, and frankly, I know the one that’s gonna stay that way’ll be you. Might as well salvage the one who knows how to behave."

Beetlejuice pushed the covers off and stared sidelong at the door, only half hearing the spider’s jeer. He barely took into account that he felt no urge to flatten her.

"Tell him I’ll talk to him on my own time, not yours, will ya, Ging?" was all Beetlejuice murmured, turning over, clutching his extra pillow. He closed his eyes tightly, his breath still caught on a poignant recollection. To waste it on anything but her in that moment, even in her absence, was also unthinkable.

A few moments of shocked silence ensued from the opposite side of the door. "S-Sure, I guess," Ginger blurted at length, scuttling away as fast as her legs could carry her. She’d known silence or apathy from Beetlejuice to be more dangerous than an outright attack, on certain occasions. But the lack of fury in his voice was enough to disconcert her in and of itself. Also, she was merely guiltily glad to be off the hook that she consistently prepared for herself when provoking him.

Beetlejuice sat up after a few moments, willing his mind to focus on the present. Ginger was right, in a sense. He did owe Jacques an explanation on this one. His friend would be sure to understand he had no control over Lydia’s summons.

"Good grief. Since when did I care," he muttered, slipping out of bed and snapping his fingers distractedly. In seconds, he was garbed as ever in stripes.

Since it involved me, Beej, he imagined he heard her say.

"Oh, Babes," he breathed tensely, turning the doorknob. "You have no idea."

Beetlejuice peered into the living room. The music he’d heard issuing from the television was the product of an exercise video. Jacques stood lunging and flexing in front of the screen, lost in some rigorous aerobics. Beetlejuice couldn’t refrain from rolling his eyes, so much a reflex it had become. He approached casually from behind, his hands in his pockets.

"Erm.... Hey-- Jacques?"

No response. Jacques continued his regimen with concentration unbroken.

"Buddy, have you finally jogged yourself deaf as well as earless? Jacques?" he repeated, more loudly and with faint concern.

The skeleton completed an impressive series of kicks and turned unhurriedly to face his friend, glowering. "I ’eard you ze first time, Be-atlejuice," he said coldly.

"Could’ve fooled me," Beetlejuice muttered, quickly changing his demeanor when he saw the increase in Jacques’ already inflamed disposition. "Hey! Okay, okay, chill! Did you hear any threat in that? Just give me a minute. I didn’t mean to cut out on you last night. Lyds called."

"I am not sure if I believe zis," Jacques sighed ponderously, fetching the remote control and clicking the video off. "Be-atlejuice, you are not good for listening to any-sing I try telling you. Nos-sing at all. I am concerned with you, mon Dieu, and you are disappearing on me like zat? Donc, why should I even give you ze time of day?"

"I told you," Beetlejuice repeated, raising his voice, but levelly. "Lydia called me! It’s not like I can anticipate that. How’d you like it if every time someone called your name three times while you were in the middle of something else you wouldn’t have the chance to explain it at all? Not that I care excessively in this case, being it’s Lyds and she comes first-- well, not to berate you!-- but..."

Jacques’ grimace metamorphosed with deliberate, surprised patience into a smile. "Aha, Be-atlejuice! So you ’ave made amends with her! Zis is good, I am thinking, oui? Why did you not say zis in ze first place?"

Beetlejuice stammered, taken aback as always by his friend’s fickle methods of coming to a conclusion. "I-- uh-- well, we weren’t exactly fighting... but I guess... yeah. Sure. Sorry, won’t let it happen again."

Jacques’ eyebrows narrowed momentarily. "Be-atlejuice, I like zis patience she gives you. You should be fighting and making up more often," Jacques jibed wistfully. "I am... sorry I ’ave been..."

"Don’t mention it," Beetlejuice cut him off reassuringly. "Yeah... so’m I... you know."

"Ze two of you must have talked all night," Jacques commented offhand, distracted by the remote control once more.

"Yeah... we made some progress."

"Good for you, zen... Un... deux... trois..."

Beetlejuice walked away as silently as he’d come, leaving Jacques to a renewed burst of activity. He wondered why apologies had never been quite so easy as that. It made him wonder why they couldn’t be more often.

It made him wonder why Lydia hadn’t dropped him flat for lack of the very virtue it had taken him so long to even remotely understand. Patience.

And never before had anything been so worth the wait.

 

 

* * *

 

 

September 1

4:02 PM

 

I am not rational. I am nowhere near it. I listen to the radio as Delia and I race silently along the interstate, finding that the words echo the rush of blood in my veins that shall never rest again:

 

The daylight's fading slowly;
The time with you is standing still.
I'm waiting for you only--
The slightest touch and I feel weak--

So weak, in fact, that I lean against the seat in a half-trance, letting Delia believe that I am starved for sleep because I spent have the night in a creative frenzy over the costume portfolio. And in the nude, no less. Well, let her believe it. Her delusions, for once, are better than the truth for all concerned. I can scarce hold onto the pencil. My mind retraces every step taken on a midnight path newly discovered. I am lost to him, heart and soul. A loss I find no regret in giving. If anything... I have never been so inwardly content, and yet so turbulent in my peace. I hardly care that I didn’t finish the sketches, that I will be up until some ungodly hour tonight while Melinda complains at me for not turning off my desk lamp. I ache for him.

 

I cannot lie:
From you I cannot hide!
And I'm losing the will to try,
Can't hide it--
Can't fight it--

Which I cannot. I lift my head briefly, staring at the radio dial as if to implore the unseen singer’s eyes. How could she know-- could she possibly? That my lover is a world away, but in being so may be summoned in three simple words? That I’m harboring the most potentially dangerous secret of my life at the expense of... what?

So go on, go on, come on-- leave me breathless!
Tempt me, tease me-- until I can't deny this
Lovin' feeling!

Make me long for your kiss;
Go on, go on...

And let me bleed, let me feel. I’ll be feeling until once more I see him again. It’s a sad day indeed when the device of language-- the crowning achievement of the human race-- fails to convey the deepest of all mortal sensation and cognition. Perhaps it’s because I never imagined adequately what it would be like in three dimensions. Perhaps this is what it’s like when naiveté storms out the door at the entry of coming of age.

And, why not-- the entry of love. Love that’s been under your nose and so close for so long that you never had the sense to unlock the door because it had a key all along. But the catch is-- and how strange-- to think using the key was what it most feared!

Delia murmurs something pleasantly, but I do not hear her. I am listening to something else entirely:

And if there's no tomorrow,
And all we have is here and now,
I'm happy just to have you--
You're all the love I need somehow.

It's like a dream,
Although I'm not asleep,
And I never want to wake up--

"Lydia, dear, wake up. Did you hear a word I just said?"

Wouldn’t Delia laugh to know I’m recording her shallow query! "No," I answer, feigning a yawn. "Come again? I’m sorry."

"I said, is there anything you need before we get too far to turn off at the exit where there’s a shopping plaza?"

Need?

"No," I say absently, smiling distantly at the sun beginning to ride low in the sky. "Nothing at all. I’m fine."

Living for the moment’s so much better, after all. I wonder why I didn’t take that lesson from him sooner.

"You’re sure, Lydia?" Delia asks again.

"I’m absolutely all right."

And so help me, God-- for now, in this moment-- that’s the truth.

So go on, go on, come on-- leave me breathless!

Another lesson, surely-- what’s breathing, anyway?

"Oh, maybe there is something... Delia, do you know who does this song? I’d like the CD, if I can find it."

"There’s always something, dear," Delia laughs with mild reproach. "We’ll take a stop and see if we can’t find it for you. Late birthday addition, on me."

I lean back and begin to laugh harder than I ever have in my life. And somehow, that fleeting brightness in the rearview mirror tells me that he’s listening.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Lydia?" Melinda repeated, fighting the urge to snatch the sketchbook out from under her roommate’s deftly creative hand.

Lydia’s eyes flew up distractedly, her hand flattening protectively against her work to prevent imminent theft. "Yes?" she blurted, her eyes focusing sharply on Melinda’s bewildered expression. Lydia could not hold back a guilty half-smile.

Melinda pressed the back of one paint-smudged hand to Lydia’s forehead. "You look feverish. I just asked you for the third time whether you’re up for getting something to eat or not. And knowing you, you probably didn’t eat all weekend," Melinda chided, tucking Lydia’s hair behind her ear. "Just look at you-- what’s that silly grin about? Do you think being a workaholic’s something to be proud of? People like you run themselves ill that way!"

"I’m... not really so hungry," Lydia admitted, taking Melinda’s hand in firm, grateful recognition, "but thanks for asking. I need to finish this. I took more of a procrastinator’s weekend than I had anticipated." Lydia added with a laugh, "Just look at you-- wrapping up your take-home Pointillism quiz on a Sunday night, tsk tsk tsk--"

"I don’t know what it is," Melinda broke in thoughtfully, unaffected, "but you’re just different today. Ye gods, could it be that you listened to me for once? I’ll praise your procrastination rather than condemn it. You needed a rest."

"But a rest at the expense of work?" Lydia mused, knowing full well that the conversation still had a serious undercurrent despite its playful tone. Melinda worked in clever ways.

"Oh, come on!" Melinda groaned, pulling the pencil out of Lydia’s hand and leaping away when Lydia pursued with a yelp. "I’m not giving it back till you say you’ll come with me," Melinda taunted, struggling to hold the writing utensil high in the air and away from Lydia’s grasping fingers. "Those designs look great, and you only have half of Sweeney’s trousers to finish in those infernal fabric details of yours anyway. You’re coming even if I have to drag you out, Your Highness."

Lydia groaned, throwing her hands up in surrender. "Fine, fine, I’ll come! Just give that back, will you? It’s one of my new Staedtlers, you know they aren’t cheap!"

Melinda regarded the pencil whimsically, twirling it like a baton betwixt her fingers. She fixed Lydia with a mischievously piercing look. Lydia reached for the pencil impatiently.

"Mel, please."

Melinda’s eyebrows rose in delicate amusement. "My, but doesn’t the wind change quickly? You know I won’t use it to stir my paint or anything," she assured Lydia, handing the pencil back.

"You did that once," Lydia murmured, smiling indulgently. "I remember."

"Yes... and the difference was, you didn’t seem to care. You’ve grown as possessive as you have carefree, Princess. What a lovely contradiction in terms."

"I’m a bundle of walking ones anyway. So what?" Lydia asked amiably, tucking the pencil quickly into the spiral of her sketchbook. She took Melinda’s hand invitingly, somewhat to make amends for her lack of good sportsmanship over such a trivial tease. "Let’s go. I bet Karin and Ashland can hear your stomach growling from down the hall!"

Melinda grew still for a few seconds more, probing Lydia for an answer too undefined for comfort. Lydia turned away as casually as she could and said, "Let me get something to throw on over this, it looks a bit chilly."

"As you will," Melinda replied with a shrug, her eyes still puzzled as she slipped into her shoes. She watched Lydia pull a dark gray cardigan embroidered in black dragons down the sleeves.

"I’ve never seen that before," Melinda observed. "Where on earth did you get it?"

Lydia had moved to her desk once more as she slipped into it, her eyes moving to her sketchbook almost furtively. "I don’t remember where I bought it, but I did the embroidery myself."

"I knew that looked like your sketching for some reason. Whew," Melinda applauded, standing half in the room and half out. "Ready?"

Lydia’s eyes flickered hesitantly between the door and her desk. "Yes... go on out... I need my shoes, and I’ll get the lights."

Melinda nodded, but once in the hall, she flattened herself against the wall, peering at Lydia discreetly. Before fetching her own shoes, she lingered by the desk a moment longer. With a touch almost reverent, she pulled the pencil from the spiral, and fleetingly passed it over her lips with a sigh that visibly rooted itself more deeply than one born of weariness. Dismayed, Melinda ceased her spying, leaning with closed eyes against the wall. Moments later she heard their door close. Lydia stood with her keys and wallet in hand, smiling without guile or knowledge of any such witness.

"We’re off to see the Wizard?"

"If the Wizard works at the Outback Café," Melinda answered, knowing Lydia would guess the implication.

"Oh, I should have known you wanted to see Ray! Are you sure you want me along? I mean, if you’re staying till the end of his shift, you two will probably want--"

"Lydia, this is a girls’ night regardless of whether we’re being waited on by my boyfriend or not, so don’t even think about escaping."

Lydia gave her a sympathetic look. "Are you staying over, then, later? I know you haven’t seen--"

"Him in two whole days. Yeah. But Lydia, I can live. I’ll give him tomorrow evening. No, I’m staying here tonight with my paintbrush and my deranged seamstress, as much as I’ll miss him. Fear not, you’ll understand someday."

Had Melinda bothered to look back as she led the way out, she might have noticed Lydia’s longingly ironic expression. She might also have noticed an unusual blue-white glint framed by brighter gold in the doorknob as Lydia’s hand gently passed over it.

 

 

* * *

 

 

September 2

Mon. ~ 10 PM

 

It never occurred to me that one day I would be recording such days as this to validate them for my own belief. Is this a sign that I’ve become more cynical as I’ve gotten older, or just more cautious? Probably the latter-- the likes of Clare Brewster have been calling me cynical since grade school. And to have made a friend such as Beetlejuice so early, what more could I have been than a bit cynical already?

One sure thing is that today had nothing to do with my being cynical. If anything, I’ve never felt less so in my life. I’m writing because I feel more alive than I ever have, which frankly before wasn’t often. You know, to be a ghost among men had been my constant wish until that day I laid my hands upon a Ouija board. From then on out, I’d been shown how truly difficult a task that is. And being a mortal among ghosts is an experience in and of itself. I suppose I deserved getting both sides of the coin for all of my ignorant gold-lust.

And, despite these thoughts that rise in me, I am completely at peace in thinking them, that such a marvelous accident as myself in this world has grown into an even grander and more marvelous accident. On waking this morning, also accompanying these musings were brief reflections on the night before. Seeing Melinda and Ray together had never seemed more right to me-- for once their smallest indecipherable glances and looks-of-a-thousand-words were not such mysteries any more. To think that I have infinitely greater reasons than they to keep silent only added to the intrinsic hilarity of the entire situation. I’d eaten my quesadilla in silence, content merely to watch them.

And no, I hadn’t been seeing things when the light hit the napkin dispenser at a seemingly bizarre angle. I knew as surely as I’d known the previous two instances that day. He was in every step I took, caught in the same after-awe as I, simply glorying in silence, permitting a night of introspection for us both as if it were a time-honored tradition. And it was not as if he could just out and speak to me as if it were a casual chat from my mirror at home. I would never hear the end of explaining things to Melinda.

On waking, I hit my alarm particularly hard. I was thinking of a certain irritant phone call rather than the necessity of going to class. Delia’s intrusion had upset me quite thoroughly-- but what could be done? If it was some deep-seated warning to the effect that I am playing with fire, I dismissed it as quickly as it came back to me. I glanced across the room at Melinda’s soundly sleeping form. She never rises until the threat of being late for class grudgingly forces her.

As I groped for my towel in the semidarkness, I found that I had not shaken off the emptiness of my night’s rest. It had been appallingly wrong to fall asleep unheld and unattended. It had been unthinkable, not having someone to reassure, All through this night, I will be here! Wrong, wrong, wrong-- to wake up embraced only by solitude and a sad dorm-size comforter. I whisked my towel off the wall hook and slipped into the hall.

I found the shower unoccupied as usual; being the early bird has clearly defined advantages. My thoughts churned these impressions around and around as the water spilling over my tentative hand rose sharply in temperature. Dad’s forever complaining of my habit: "Sweetheart, don’t you think that’s hot enough? You’ll boil yourself alive!" I guarantee you that any eccentric habit of mine has been with me since earliest childhood, so even as mundane a ritual as parents bathing me had (for them) some discomfiting quality.

I stepped into the hot spray gratefully, pulling the door closed behind me. I’d scarce seen to it that my hair was soaked through when my eyes beheld in the soap dish a very good reason to be wide awake. The curved oval of stainless steel bolted to the tile wall usually minded its own business, but not this morning. My heart skipped a beat in welcome.

"Under any other circumstances, Beej, I would call this the best prank you’ve ever played," I dotingly told his wide, reverent eyes, which filled the entire bowl-like space. "You’re such a handful!"

In response, Beetlejuice cackled, secure in the relieved knowledge that playfulness was not necessarily out-of-place first thing in the morning. "Well, y’know, Lyds-- you’re an eyeful, yourself!"

"Your shamelessness won’t go unpunished, you know," I said with ominous benevolence, a thought so wickedly absurd crossing my conscience that I had no choice but to act on it. "Isn’t it too early for you to be up, anyway?"

The eyes in the soap dish went luminous green. "Wait, Babes-- are you gonna--"

"Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!"

I heard a distant, muted shriek of surprise. In a puff of steam, Beetlejuice appeared opposite me in the stall, the space giving barely enough excuse for even an arm’s length between us. He seemed torn between reflexively backing away from the water and stepping closer to me. I solved that problem for him, giggling at his half-soaked beetle pajamas as I embraced him.

"I wonder why I didn’t think of this a long time ago. Would’ve been so easy to booby trap you into a shower!"

"Apt term for it," was all Beetlejuice murmured smugly but joyously, clasping me in return. I’d never been so oddly thrilled by a kiss. Almost slipping, we staggered more fully into the water’s umbrage.

"I’m sorry," I laughed when at last I was at liberty to. "I really couldn’t resist."

"Do you think I could?"

"Get out of those wet things before you catch cold."

"You’re an even better remedy than vitamin C," Beetlejuice quipped, his vestments vanishing.

I could have said something else quite absurdly suggestive, but rather I let the heated water and the silence soothe. For a few moments, he seemed simply entranced with my hair in its soaked state. I leaned on him, sighing. Indeed, how impossible!

"Ma would die again if she could see what you’ve reduced me to, Lyds," he mused, curiously picking up my bottle of shampoo and sniffing its contents. He breathed in and murmured in thoughtful contrast, "Yeah, that’s you all right."

"It could be you, too," I suggested with wicked amusement, grabbing the bottle from him and turning it directly upside down above his head.

"Yeeeaaagh! I’m melting... melting!..."

"Shhh! For God’s sake, Beetlejuice! Quiet!" I scolded as he melodramatically reduced himself to a pale blob that came near to slithering down the drain. "Funny that you should allude to the very same film that I did less than twenty-four hours ago, though."

Beetlejuice reassembled himself, sitting cross-legged at my feet, trying vainly to brush the shampoo from his drenched hair. He only succeeded in producing copious suds.

"Well, I was there, you know," he informed me loftily, pulling me down beside him. "I wondered if you’d catch that."

"I knew that was no ordinary reflection in the doorknob," I reassured him, sidling up from behind and trying to work my fingers through his hair.

"Mel’s about as big a flake as your step-mom," Beetlejuice remarked candidly, leaning against me as I worked.

"No, that’s not true," I contradicted with slight defensiveness. "You haven’t seen enough of her. She’s a clever soul beneath all that flippancy. She’ll pull the confession to end all confessions out of me one of these days, if I’m not careful. She’s so... roundabout in her interrogations. You’d never know what hit you."

"Eh, maybe she’s an okay gal after all. Deviousness-- you know I love it!"

"What?" I demanded with mock hurt. "I’m not sly enough for you?"

"Babes, if you weren’t sly enough for me, would you be washing my hair right now? Huh?"

I laughed, pulling him back under the main torrent of the water in order to wash the suds away. I smoothed the remnants away from his forehead and confided, "You’ve heard this from me a million times, but I mean it as much now as I meant it then. Never change."

Beetlejuice rotated his head the full 180 degrees backwards to stare at me endearingly upside-down. "Not even for our big outing Wednesday night, Lyds?"

I gasped, wondering if he knew he’d given away the concept of what he had hoped to keep a surprise. "Well... I... Who am I to say anything? Wear whatever you want as long as it’s appropriate, and Lord knows what that means, in this case."

Beetlejuice snapped his head back into place, an accordion-like tremor briefly possessing his neck. How could I not giggle at that? Not even love could alter the humor I’ve found in him since girlhood.

"Since somebody’s been giving you clues," he huffed, unconvincingly feigning indignance, "then I suppose I’ll have to confide that I expect you to be ready at... uh... lessee... er, five o’clock on Wednesday... Yeah, five."

"Most certainly I’m sorry for letting the leak get through, and most certainly I will be," I promised, allowing myself to be so languorously drawn into his lap once more. The heated droplets pelting down upon us, the fine mist that permeated even what air remained-- it was an irrevocable trance of sorts, a wonder.

"I’ll dazzle you," I whispered.

"You do that anyway," he sighed, finding my right shoulder a worthy recipient of a dozen tiny kisses.

I dimly realized how long I’d been in the shower, but an instant later, it hardly mattered. I leaned into a flame concealed from the rest of the sleeping corridor by water and blurred glass, rendered quite breathless indeed.

"What’s your... day like?"

"Hectic at be-st... yes..."

"Lyds!"

"-- Shh!--"

"R-Right..."

"I’ve... classes, some things..."

"Let me know if Mel... goes-- out... you know..."

"Ah-- ah-- I will!"

"Never too early... t’wake for-- thisssssshuh?!--"

"Lydia?" a dimly-heard voice called from beyond the heavy door that separated us from the hallway. "You almost done in there?"

"Yes!" I cried hesitantly, my voice still as thoroughly displaced as my partner’s. "Yes... wait..."

After several moments of uncertain but heated conclusion, we scrambled clumsily to our feet, knocking each other gracelessly into the shower walls. My legs might have given out on me if Beetlejuice hadn’t maintained such a firm hold about my waist.

"That wasn’t smart, was it?" Beetlejuice asked guiltily.

"Not really. But... who cares?"

Beetlejuice looked at me as if I were the one to disengage my skull in order to release some ill-begotten denizens. I merely grinned back, coyly offering a parting kiss.

"Love, I’ll find you," I murmured in his ear. "Promise you’ll be good till then," I couldn’t resist adding.

"Lyds, anything is better than what we just-- you could have been-- I mean, we--"

"Caught?" I asked mischievously. "That’s half the fun, actually."

Beetlejuice cackled softly as he held me, slowly beginning to fade. "You’re sly enough, all right! Hold ya later, Babes!"

I washed my hair in record time, stumbling out of the shower some five minutes later. Wrapped with hasty sheepishness in my towel, I slipped into the hall and found myself face to face with an impatient Melinda.

"Twenty-seven minutes," she informed me, glancing perfunctorily at the clock on the adjoining lounge wall. "A new record, and set by Miss Lydia Deetz, no less. What is the world coming to?"

"Sorry," I mumbled, unable to stifle a guilty smile even though I kept my eyes fastened on the floor. "I kind of zoned out in there. The steam’s just so relaxing. Don’t try to tell me you never do that."

Melinda sighed with sleepy defeat, flicking playfully at my dripping hair as I passed by. "Oh, I suppose you deserved it, Majesty. At least you’re smiling again. Good grief, whatever makes you happy, I say! I may change your name to Princess Rainbow yet."

"Don’t you dare," I shot back with vehemence before closing the door to our room emphatically behind me.

"Gotcha!" she snickered, disappearing likewise into the bathroom.

I sat on the edge of my bed for a few moments, trying honestly to gather my thoughts back without much success. My head still swam with the dizziness of rushed passion and hot water. I wondered why I’d said such a thing-- that the risk of being discovered is half the fun. With somewhat amused shock, I realized that I had meant it. When one’s lover can vanish into thin air or turn invisible at a moment’s notice, what does one have to fear but frequent close calls? Still, I chided myself, breathing deeply, you should be more careful from now on! Even Beetlejuice was aware of the danger, and he had quite concernedly addressed it.

Once more sufficiently in touch to make wardrobe calls, I wandered my half the room, pulling garments from drawers and closet. My thoughts, inevitably, had organized and set themselves to work on a more pressing matter: Wednesday. Ready by five-- that would not be an issue. Would not be, that is, if I could only classify something I owned as worthy of such an occasion. And if I but had an anniversary gift in readiness! Love called for more than friendship, and somehow the Weird Al Yankovic box set I’d purchased for Beetlejuice didn’t seem sufficient any more. The thought was about as absurd as I must have looked traipsing the room in my undergarments trying to find a certain pair of black-on-gray spider web-printed tights I’d misplaced.

I pulled them on hastily once my desk drawer decided to yield them up (and for some reason I think I know how they’d gotten there, considering the trend BJ started last year when he consistently planted my oil pastels every place but where they should have been), following with a knee-length black velvet skirt and matching wraparound long-sleeved shirt. I stood in front of the mirror for the longest time, a furious brainstorm preventing me from doing anything productive with my hair. In the end, I swept it back with a clip as hesitantly as I decided I’d have to take an unplanned shopping trip that afternoon. Adding BJ’s spider brooch at the point of my v-neck did a little to lighten my purpose. I simply hated having to do things last minute, but who was I to complain when last minute is the only tactic my beloved and best friend had ever used?

By then, Melinda had wandered in looking much as I had fifteen minutes before. She sneaked up behind me at the mirror, contorting her features into an exaggerated thoughtful expression.

"You look as if you’ve forgotten to do the most important assignment since finals last semester!" she exclaimed, causing me to jump. "Lydia, really, you’re wound up like a spring."

"Then I’ll be bouncing off now," I said, somewhat irritated. "I’m going to use the supplies room for a while before class starts."

"For what? Lydia, you finished those sketches. They look fine. I swear if you add one more finger ring or one more carved button, those designs will rebel on grounds of cruel and unusual detail!"

The suggestion was so absurd that my mind automatically conjectured as to how it would look if conducted under BJ’s inimitably mayhem-prone care. I doubled over in a fit of laughter as I bent to fetch my canvas case and slid my sketchbook into it.

"Mel, oh, whew! That’s funny, can you imagine? My sketches leaping to life and holding you hostage lest I promise to un-truss their doublets and remove the excess lace... Mel, that’s rich."

She smiled, too, but was taken with inquisitive scrutiny. "Sure, I guess it is. Knock yourself out, kiddo."

"You’re an artist, too. Don’t deny it," was all I offered in lighthearted reply as I finished lacing up my knee-high boots and walked out the door.

On my way to the art building, I could think of nothing but the excited notion that had popped into my mind somewhere between Melinda walking in from the shower and me finding my boots, which had also been importunately hidden. I passed a few acquaintances at the entrance, but between nursing a cigarette and bidding an overly-focused classmate good morning, the first took precedence. They barely glanced my way as I passed through the entrance.

I hurried down the vacant hall, grateful that I’d left myself half an hour before classes were due to start. I flipped the supply room light switch, propping my things carefully against the wall. I headed straight for the fabrics cabinets. Perhaps I did not own anything spectacular enough to wear for my anniversary-- perhaps not spectacular enough as it was. But with a needle and thread, I could change that with only a few hours’ work. By evening the next day, I hoped, my floor-length black exhibition dress would be transformed. Very specifically transformed....

I sifted through the cabinets’ contents to no avail. Not one leftover bolt would serve my purposes, not even among the yards and yards of unusual lace. I crouched on the floor in disappointment, resting my head against the wooden panel. I should have known better than to think Lyme’s art department scraps would suit my brand of whimsy. I closed my eyes in frustration, wondering where on earth I would be able to find such a thing as I needed, let alone a grand enough gift for Beetlejuice.

And at the very thought of him, I was carried into a reverie of the hour before, remembering with a fond smile how he’d melted when I turned my shampoo on him, how he’d--

How he’d said something that contained the very answer I sought!

I gathered my things with contained excitement, moving with a swift and sure step toward my first class. Turning in my Sweeney Todd portfolio would be my only satisfaction-- from there on out, it was sheer torture. I glanced at the clock with frequency, halfheartedly taking notes on the newest stage design assignment and how Professor Arken required that we go about it.

Sitting through my second class of the morning was no simple task, either, considering Melinda was there to notice my impatient distraction. While Professor Gladstone droned the virtues and origins of Neo-Plasticism, I covertly sketched my black gown in miniature, taking secret satisfaction in how pleasing my planned transformation looked on paper.

From three desks over, Melinda shot me curious, bewildered glances. I stuck my tongue out at her mentally, wondering if she wanted me to pay attention so that my notes would be available to supplement her usually vague, halfhearted ones.

Fifteen minutes before class ended, an elaborately folded piece of paper skidded across the tile floor and hit the toe of my boot. I shot Melinda a warning glance. She grinned weakly and mouthed, "Just open it!"

I lowered an arm discreetly and fetched the note. I opened it quietly in my lap and read, in Melinda’s neat-to-a-fault penmanship, "Have you got a rendezvous with the clock or what? Relax!" I soon realized that the words were not meant to be the main focus of the missive, for Melinda had adorned the margin of the scrap paper with cleverly comic sketches of miniature costume designs leaping off a sketchbook and chasing a figure that bore startling resemblance to me. I clapped a hand to my mouth, unsuccessfully stifling my own choked laughter.

Professor Gladstone turned away from the timeline he’d been constructing on the blackboard, staring pointedly in my direction. "Have I amused you, Miss Deetz?" he queried sternly.

"No," I replied smoothly, regaining my composure, "but Miss Garrison has. Our apologies."

Melinda stared at her desk, red-faced. Professor Gladstone raised his eyebrows at her expectantly. "Yes, we’re sorry," she muttered.

The remainder of class passed without incident, but I smiled the entire time. Upon dismissal, I caught up with Melinda in the hall, who was trying her best to avoid both me and the professor. I spun her around by the shoulder.

"Mel, hey," I said apologetically, "I didn’t mean to shoot daggers at you in class like that. I just wanted to avoid what happened."

"Sure seems like you did," Melinda replied sarcastically.

"Well, that’s a different matter. Since it did happen, I had it in mind to return the favor. I thought you’d find it funny since you had the nerve to do something like that in Gladstone’s class... which, frankly, most of us don’t have," I said with gentle envy.

Melinda giggled helplessly, unable to stay upset for long. "I am rather proud that we got away without extra reading," she smirked. "Who else could misbehave and pull that off?"

"None, save the most conscientious of us."

"Yeah, thanks, Lydia," she said with a wink. "Now I know that if I want to goof off in class without getting in trouble, I just have to make sure I have you as my accomplice. No one dares burn the talented Miss Deetz. She might just hex her sketching pencil and zap us all with it."

"Mel, stop," I begged, realizing a few random sets of eyes were watching us with interest.

"Allll right," she chimed with a sigh, putting an arm around my shoulder and steering me out of the building as if she were my bodyguard. "Let’s eat."

"Actually, I can’t," I said hesitantly, biting my lip. "I have some shopping to do. It’s my-- parents’ anniversary."

"Oh, wow!" Melinda exclaimed. "Congrats to Charles and the Deel-meister! How many years?"

"Er... nineteen, or something like that. I was only about one when he married her."

"I’ll come with you! I have an excellent nose for--"

"I’m afraid I have to turn you down," I said, trying not to revealing how alarmingly elaborate my lie really was. "I... well... get done more quickly if I’m alone. No offense, Mel."

She nodded with reluctant acceptance, masking her hurt. "You always did, kiddo," she said quietly, tapping my backside with her books. "Oh, go on-- you’ll miss the shuttle if you don’t run along now!"

I hugged her gratefully, pointing across the courtyard. "There’s Karin. Go eat with her instead and find out what the latest gossip is. You know I’ll only listen if I hear it from you, because you don’t elaborate. You knock it down to the bare bones truth, and it’s funny as hell."

"You’re such a funny girl, you know that? Aaah, stop making me feel all mushy inside, get going!" Melinda protested.

I backed a few steps away from her, cringing. "I made you feel all mushy? Then take back about ninety percent of what I just said! What’s wrong with me today, huh? Ewww."

We parted ways, each able to hear the other’s laughter for some distance. I reached the oak tree behind the cafeteria and ducked behind it momentarily to make sure Melinda had joined Karin. Once she was out of following range, I dashed down an alternate route to the dorms. I found it funny that she’d been worried about me missing the shuttle when, in fact, my journey would not require a shuttle at all.

Once inside our room, I locked the door and stashed my art supplies under my desk. No sooner had I done this than a tapping from an errant piece of tinfoil escaping from Melinda’s trash can caught my attention. My heart leapt and landed painfully hard. As much as I wanted to see Beetlejuice, the last thing I needed was to have him hanging around when what I needed to do was slip away unnoticed.

"Hey, Babes, I’m feeling a little discarded right now, y’know what I mean?" he quipped, causing the tinfoil to flex of its own accord. "Why don’ch’a get me out of this mess? Hey, though, Melinda scores more points in my book-- what a slob!"

"Beej," I sighed, "why do I have the sinking feeling you have something up your sleeve?"

"Probably because you’re standing in some quicksand," he said casually.

I yelped, jumping. The floor beneath me had briefly begun to cave in. Beetlejuice looked suddenly penitent, even desperate. I was intrigued. I picked up the piece of tinfoil.

"BJ, the only thing keeping me from calling you here is that Mel will be back in half an hour or so," I said, praying he wouldn’t see straight through me. "You were right about the risk... two brushes with being caught isn’t to be taken lightly... I’m sorry I made it seem as if it is."

"Lydia," he said softly. "I would really appreciate it if you’d get me outta here. Please."

The new backing to his tone touched and intrigued me for a reason I couldn’t put my finger on. I breathed his name thrice softly, warmed to see that his smile was free of the prankery I’d suspected. In the wake of his appearance, a slight updraft whisked the tinfoil from my hand, lifeless once more. Beetlejuice swung me up in his arms effortlessly, making as much fuss as if parodying some classic moment from the annals of film history, but earnestly.

"Miss me? Huh?" he murmured, kissing my neck.

"God forbid I should perish after two and a half hours of your absence!" I giggled.

"That wouldn’t be such a bad deal after all, would it?"

"Serves me right for asking a ghost."

"With the most, Babes, and don’t you forget it," Beetlejuice added, hefting me critically in his arms before returning me to the floor. "You need to stop that," he said somewhat worriedly.

"Stop what?"

"Getting skinnier than you already are!"

"You and Melinda are both cra--"

"Well, you know I’m crazy, but since Melinda said somethin’ too, hear me out, okay? You’d blow away as it is. You gotta remember to eat, honestly."

"Is it really that bad?" I asked self-consciously, realizing that over the summer I’d taken in the waistlines of three or four of my favorite skirts. I simply had not given it a thought.

"Kinda hard not to notice, considering how close we’ve been, if you know what I mean," Beetlejuice admitted, clasping me about the waist. "Don’t get me wrong, you’re... well, wow, Lyds, I really can’t find the words for how gorgeous you are, but still..." Beetlejuice bit his lip, as if he felt he’d said too much.

I leaned my head against his chest, horrified that I’d managed to alarm two of the souls I held dearest. "I’ll... be more careful, then. Really, I just didn’t... think. Work does strange things to me, Beej... but for your sake, I know I can manage to--"

"Lyds, not for mine, for yours, got it?" he asked. "I remember pretty well-- when you get sick, you get sick. You don’t have enough to ya, so no wonder you can’t fight it. Here, maybe I should give you some of me."

And with that, jokingly, he caused my outfit to inflate like an inner tube around me. I stepped backwards, unsure of whether to laugh or cry at his overwhelming concern, noticing for the first time that something was distinctly awry with his attire.

"Beetlejuice, okay, I feel like a balloon!" I laughed, brushing an errant tear from the corner of one eye. "But while you’re at deflating me, do tell what’s with the outfit?"

He zapped my clothes, and they promptly returned to normal. He looked himself up and down with slight alarm, as if I’d caught him about some contraband caper. "What about my outfit?" he asked innocently.

"You’re in jeans," I exclaimed, hiding a wide smile behind my hand. That in combination with his usual loud collared shirt (minus the tie and jacket, even!) was enough to render me speechless.

"Oh, so a guy can’t get bored with stripes now and then?" he asked sarcastically, grinning as he pulled me close again. "I can see you’re gonna spend a lot of your time pretty surprised, Babes, because I’m not as dull as you think I am."

I was thoroughly enjoying the banter, but I felt more desperately than ever the need to complete my errand. I slipped my arms around his neck, kissed him, and said, "I can’t wait. Beej, I really don’t mean to shoo you away so soon, but I promised Melinda I’d have lunch with her and then help her study for a math quiz," I fibbed. "You ought to get out of here before she comes back."

"Great, I’ll just take a stroll around town!" Beetlejuice announced with what sounded like relief, producing a straw hat and pair of sunglasses out of nowhere. "No one’ll ever recognize me."

I giggled. "BJ, who would in the first place?"

"Oh, yeah," he agreed with a shrug, but donned the hat and glasses nonetheless.

"We have to work on your casual fashion sense a little bit, I think," I told him. "Just, please, please stay out of a jam if you can help it. I love you too much to think about getting you out of a catastrophe right now."

Momentarily I was lecturing a giant jar of pinkish-purple jam that grinned innocently from its label. Beetlejuice changed back and said, "Look, you couldn’t pay me to get in trouble-- nah, wait... maybe you could, but--"

"Beetlejuice--"

"AAAH! Ok, ok... you couldn’t pay me to get in trouble today," he swore. "Just for you, sweetheart."

"Do you know how irresistible you are when you’re a brat?"

"Don’t mention it or I may never get outta here," he murmured into my hair, leaving his own token of parting on top of my head. "Eat."

And, with that, he vanished. Briefly, I wondered what in God’s name I had released into the unsuspecting town. Deciding that I owed him trust in his oath, I pushed the matter from my mind. I could not hesitate a moment longer. I slung a small purse over one shoulder, slipping my wallet inside.

Quietly, I said the incantation I’d known by heart ever since the day I learned it as a child from my newfound, ghoulish best friend. The room darkened and spun, melted around me. Moments later, I stood in a narrow side street that had a murky cast even in daylight. As surely as Beetlejuice wandered abroad in my realm, I now stood in the middle of his.

I rounded a corner, searching for a street sign-- provided it had not torn itself up and crawled elsewhere. The maintenance of public edifices has always been a distinct problem in the Neitherworld, for everything must either be kept in a constant state of disrepair or has a life of its own. I passed a row of crumbling storefronts that boasted a grave plot realtor, a disobedience school for dogs, and a weed supplier (for all your gardening needs, and more.) I was definitely in the wrong section of town.

I found myself remembering Mrs. Juice’s carefully-given tutorial from a day Beetlejuice and I had spent with her nearly six months ago. We’d been invited to watch her bridge club bowl against the lady skeletons’ league, and Beetlejuice had whined for hours prior to the engagement, because Donny was sure to be there, boring soul and bowling fan that he is. But somewhere during the course of the tournament, above Beetlejuice’s escalating irritated replies to Donny’s ever-kind advances, the conversation had turned inevitably to shopping, and Bee thought it high time I knew what was what in Neitherworld merchandise. I needed to locate Ricketts Street, because only there did the establishments remotely gain a vestige of mediocre class. Her cronies had thoroughly, even if somewhat deafly, agreed.

Thinking of her invariably reminded me of that morning’s first concern-- and it also made me realize that she could provide some insight where the second was concerned. Forgetting Ricketts Street, I found a shady-looking bus stop on the corner of Elm and Agony. After twenty minutes, I realized that I’d failed to read the posted schedule (undoubtedly because it lay rusting and face-down in the dust, and I discovered it only because I had chanced to step on it). The next bus was not due for half an hour yet.

I glanced at the buildings immediately behind me, wondering if any of the shops would at least have ideas to offer. I quickly ruled out Scribbler & Sons Stationery, and Ed’s Used Cutlery even more quickly. I pondered a sign reading "Vile Viola’s Strings n’ Things," but decided that Beetlejuice didn’t take his rickety violin seriously enough to consider an investment in a new one. The last shop, Frankenstein’s Bride, boasted a surprisingly well-kept façade, considering the company it kept. For a lack of something better to do, I wandered inside.

"Good day, Mademoiselle," said a softly accented voice to my right. I stared, my breath catching apprehensively in my throat. An elegant vampiress in violet satin regarded me with cool welcome. I gulped, hoping that she’d already fed for the afternoon.

She raised her finely sculpted dark eyebrows. "May I help you?"

"Oh, n-no, I--"

My breath died on my lips as my eyes took in the shop’s interior for the first time. Headless mannequins in graceful but macabre tableaus modeled gowns that ranged from the height of Scaris fashion to downright racy. One half of the establishment was devoted entirely to bridal garb, and the corner occupied by fitting rooms was flanked by racks that were unquestionably lingerie. Still awed and slightly embarrassed, I found my tongue again.

"I’m just looking, I mean."

"Look to your heart’s content," the vampiress articulated genteelly, her arm sweeping in a graceful arc as if to offer me everything under her roof.

I tore my eyes away from her reluctantly, focusing on the nearest display. I was greatly relieved that she had not eyed me as a perspective victim, mortal-among-immortals that I was. I moved tensely from aisle to aisle, ever on my guard. The vampiress remained rooted on the spot, watching me with the same dignified calm. More for the sake of maintaining distance than to peruse its contents, I eventually made my way to the corner near the fitting rooms. I felt my cheeks burn slightly as I flipped through hanger after hanger of Neitherworld variations on what Delia might have debated over before choosing my birthday present. I looked up, caught by a sudden movement. The vampiress was standing beside me, her head bent in fascination as my arm moved to push hangers this way and that. I nearly jumped out of my skin when her cool, marble-like hand touched my own.

"Forgive me for asking, but I cannot resist," she said smoothly but with distinct curiosity. "Did you freeze or drown? You have such an exquisite pallor."

I blinked at her in confusion, once more lowering my eyes. "I’m afraid I don’t-- I-- neither," I whispered, barely able to catch a breath.

The vampiress nodded, a faint, knowing smile playing upon her orchid lips. "Well spoken, Ma’amselle. A lady never reveals her true C.O.D."

Her sudden slurring of a once well-defined word added all the more charm to her diluted but crisp accent. "C.O.D.?" I asked numbly.

"Cause of death," she replied matter-of-factly. "My, but they don’t come as innocent as you so often anymore!"

It hit me with all the force of a bullet. She assumed I was dead.

"I... suppose not," I murmured with a shrug, offering a thin smile. I’d play the game and see where it led me.

"But I do not believe you are not here for a reason. Curiosity’s enough reason in and of itself, ma chère."

Even her French had a relaxed, domesticated lilt to it. She had probably been gone from her native land for ages. I nodded in agreement, feeling my smile broaden of its own accord. My eyes must have spoken more forcefully than my silence, for the vampiress’ own lit with coy joviality as rich, unexpected laughter issued from her flawless mouth.

"You are not so innocent as I assume," she said. It was a statement, not a question.

By then, I knew I was blushing. "No, I’m not."

"You’re not the kind who tries to impress, however. You do not need to reassure me of that. I see enough mischief in you, though, that perhaps you are game enough to try?"

I took her meaning well enough, and she knew it. I waved at the bits of tattered lace and tailored crepery before us. "This isn’t really me," I confessed. "But it’s very fine, regardless. Do... Do you design it?" I asked somewhat hesitantly, realizing what a faux-pas it would be to follow a possible insult with such an envious question.

"Some," she said with a whimsical nod. "Others, though, I get from elsewhere. What intrigues me now is, what is ‘you?’"

I could not believe I’d been asked such a searching question by such an exotic stranger. I thought for a moment, mulling the possibility that there might be a temptress in me over and over. I would almost feel terrible leaving without a purchase, as intriguing and hospitable as she had been.

"He must be one of a kind," the vampiress suggested with another velvet laugh.

I looked at her with heartfelt amazement. "Oh, he is. He is."

"But we were talking about you, were we not? What are you?"

My automatic answer would have been "strange and unusual," but somehow, outside my own sphere of existence in the world above, it was no longer quite applicable. I was among beings that would be considered far stranger than myself. I answered uncertainly, "I’m nothing extraordinary."

"Ah, but I think you are."

"I’m... living."

Her eyebrows leapt ceilingward in surprise. "Really?"

"Yes. Who would’ve guessed, right?"

"Certainly not I. Yes, you are quite remarkable indeed. Remarkable that you somehow managed to get here with a pulse."

"I--" I bit my tongue before I could say, "I’ve been coming here for years."

"You hesitate. Well, you’re here and nothing can change that. I assume you know your way back. But you present an interesting challenge for me, artistically. I will not accept that nothing I have done is not you, you being such an extraordinary individual, chèrie."

I couldn’t find a suitable response. I gaped for a few minutes before stammering, "I wish my stepmother were a bit more like you."

"Fancy herself creative, does she, but doesn’t quite connect with that innate sense it requires?"

"She downright doesn’t have that innate sense it requires," I grumbled, watching with interest as the vampiress strolled up and down rows, flipping as noncommittally through hangers as I had.

"Oh, now surely that’s a bit harsh. I believe everyone has something, but unfortunately many never do grasp it."

"You’re something extraordinary," I heard myself say.

"No, I have just been around for far too long and seen far too much. Aha," she breathed abruptly, pulling a hanger from a rack. She returned to the place I had not left since her initial approach. "Try this, ma vivante, and see then how much more you look the part."

I looked at it, ran the fabric trailingly through my fingers. I was morbidly, genuinely impressed. I doubted I would even need to try it on. I realized that I would miss the buss if I lingered a moment more.

"I’ll take it," I said without hesitation.

It was the vampiress’ turn to look impressed. "Such faith in strangers, child-- is it wise?"

"Faith in a kindred spirit never did me wrong."

"Wisely spoken. You have somewhere to go."

"How did you--"

"I watch."

"I see."

She led me to the checkout counter, carefully taking the garment from me. She did not speak as she rung it up, removing the tags with a pair of antique silver scissors. When she named the total, I realized how significant a discount she had given.

"You didn’t have to--"

"Oh, but I did. You would have bargained, petite artiste."

I went crimson. "If I had not gotten to know how you are, that is true, I would have."

"Then we are even. Go your way with care. You are mortal, after all."

"I know a few things," I said self-assuredly.

The vampiress smiled, stapling her card to my bag and handing it to me. "You know much more than you will tell."

"You ought to be a soothsayer," I laughed. "That’s very true, too, but perhaps one day I shall tell. Good day!"

She did not wave, only nodded graciously. I dashed outside just in time to see the bus coming from a block away. I trooped on with a few other miscellaneous passengers, noticing that the vampiress stood watching from her window. As the bus pulled away, I waved from my seat. Until then, it had not even occurred to me to ask her name. I glanced down at the card affixed to my purchase and read:

Frankenstein’s Bride

bridal ~ burial ~ boudoir

Open Daily or By Appt.

Anne-HéLène Sanguin, proprietress

Designs upon Request

By the time I looked up again, the storefront was out of sight. The bus deposited us eventually on the outskirts of town. I walked the remaining few blocks to the Juice residence without hindrance of memory.

As I approached the front gate, I spotted Beetlejuice’s father, Gnat, hunkered over his wife’s herb garden with a watering can. I unlatched the waist-high white picket enclosure, calling out, "Good afternoon, Mr. Juice! No wonder those plants thrive."

Gnat turned around long enough for me to see his look of slight surprise. He mumbled what sounded like my name and an attached brief pleasantry before turning back to his work. I climbed the front steps, trying to recall how long it had been since I’d set foot in their modest little home. I knocked on the door. It was several minutes before an industrious, shuffling set of footsteps approached from within. The door swung open.

"Good gracious!" Bee piped delightedly, peering up at me from behind dainty round spectacles. "Gnat, why didn’t you tell me Miss Neitherworld’s on our doormat?"

I blushed, and Gnat only said, "She knocked, didn’t she?"

Bee took my hands, almost knocking my bag from my grasp. "Lydia, I haven’t seen you in half a year. What on earth has that son of mine been up to? Hiding you away? Come in, come in!"

"Have you spoken to him recently?" I asked curiously, allowing myself to be seated at her beautifully-carved kitchen table. Bee hustled to the refrigerator with a sigh, pulling out some milk and a few unmarked plastic storage containers.

"If you count a phone call about a month ago. He does it out of guilt, I think, once in a while. But he knows I don’t hold it against him. How can you, when your boys are men and have lives of their own? And are as different as night and day? Ah, I’m sure you’ll find that out one day. Kids are a miracle and a mystery."

"I can imagine," I murmured, watching her methodically set the containers before me, adding a loaf of bread from the counter. She opened each, revealing some kind of lunchmeat or cheese or other miscellaneous filling.

"This was meant for Gnat," she confided in a doting whisper, "but the old codger up and went to lunch with the other farm boys at some tavern without telling me. So you eat up and show him who knows how to appreciate home cooking."

I was about to say I couldn’t possibly, but Beetlejuice’s parting command echoed insistently in my thoughts: "Eat!" I sighed and thought, Like mother, like son. I smiled thankfully and placed my bag against the leg of my chair. I wasted no time in constructing a sandwich of what had been set before me.

"That’s a good girl. You always were, Lydia. I think you’re good for our Junior. How’s he been, assuming you still see more of him than we do?"

"He’s fine," I replied, swallowing a mouthful of lettuce and tomato. "Better than ever. You’d never guess... he doesn’t mind baths quite so much as he used to!" I couldn’t resist adding.

"Well, I can imagine watching his best friend grow to become such a fine young lady’s done a lot to change his opinion. If anything you were always the perfect example. I really ought to’ve thanked you sooner. He never really gave in to his guilt much, before you came along."

"That wouldn’t surprise me, somehow," I laughed, taking another bite.

Bee was quiet for a moment. Her eyes had taken on a thoughtful stillness, but only briefly. Only once she had turned back to the refrigerator did I realize they had briefly rested upon the parcel propped near my feet. Instinctively, I shoved it to the other side of the chair with my foot while Bee deliberated on what drinks to offer me.

"We have iced tea and apple cider if you’d rather that than milk, dear," she chimed brightly.

"Iced tea would be wonderful, Mrs. Juice."

"My, my, I certainly hope your manners rub off on my boy, in time!" Bee praised, bringing me a tall glass of the amber liquid. I stared at the light passing through it for a moment, struck by the irony of the situation. Her son’s ties to me were more meaningful than ever, and she knew not the possibility in what she said.

"I think that’s plausible," was all I said in response, taking a long drink.

Bee sighed as if content with so vague an answer, taking a seat opposite me. She fussed with the flower arrangement centerpiece for a few minutes before musing, "Tell me, Lydia, did you come just because-- or because you have something to ask me?"

I looked up, startled and mortified. Had I really come off as a beggar, even in silence? When I spoke, the words came in a rush.

"Oh-- I didn’t mean to-- it’s both, in a way... See, I have something I can’t find-- well, and that in and of itself’s because I need to--"

"Why don’t you calm down, dear, and try that again?" Bee asked gently, touching my arm.

"All right... it’s like this. Beetlejuice and I are celebrating our seventh anniversary on Wednesday, and I have an outfit I’d really like to alter for the occasion. But I don’t have any fabric that suits what I’d like to do it. I know this is a tall order, but do you have anything resembling a spider web? I mean a real web, black. Not something printed with one."

Bee regarded me thoughtfully, eyes shining. "Young lady, I swear you do have a sixth sense about things. Come here."

I left my glass on the table and followed Bee up a narrow set of steps to the second floor. She opened a linen closet on the wall to our left, lifting what looked to be piles of sheets and tablecloths. She pulled a pillowcase from the very back. It appeared to be full of something-- more material, I guessed. Bee reached inside, feeling her way with expert fingers until they found what they sought.

"I never wear these," she said simply, handing me the shawl. "You’ll put it to better use than I ever could."

I held the treasure in disbelief, running its delicate but connected threads over and over my fingers. I felt my eyes sting, and helplessly I whispered, "Thank you. Oh, thank you."

"Give yourself more credit, Lydia. You’re an excellent judge of what skeletons we’ve all got in our closets."

"This is hardly a skeleton. This is a blessing."

"You’re going to take pictures, you know!" Bee said with a wink.

"I wouldn’t dream of hiding from you what I make of this!" I cried, hugging her impulsively.

"A talent like yours should be encouraged, not stifled," Bee said matter-of-factly, patting my back and heading me back down the stairs. "Is there anything else my antiquated wardrobe can supply you with."

"No, but perhaps your insight can... is there anything Beetlejuice has wanted for ages that no one’s ever gotten him?"

Bee stared straight ahead somewhat blankly, as if nothing struck a chord. Her features changed suddenly, as if she couldn’t express what concept had resurfaced in her mind.

"Lydia, I don’t think it’s anything tangible. I believe you’ve given all you have to give-- acceptance."

"Oh, I believe I--" Once again I found myself staving off what words fought constantly for validation. "I believe... that’s true enough, but... you can’t think of anything?"

"Well, if you want to appeal to his materialistic dreamer side, he always did want a good violin but just never had the nerve to ask because he believed he wasn’t good enough."

My jaw dropped. "Th-Thanks," I stammered. "I’ll remember that."

"Any time, dear," Bee murmured politely, leading us back into the kitchen. "Are you finished with your tea?"

"No, I’ll have the rest-- thanks!"

I found it necessary to resume my seat, lest the compound shock of one revelation after another render me as weak in the knees as their very subject had that morning. Bee remained on her feet, efficiently clearing away the food on the table. I drank the last of my tea, handing her the glass when she reached for it.

"I’m afraid I have to go... I know where I need to go, now. Thanks for everything, Bee. I guarantee you you’ll hear about Wednesday. If not from Beetlejuice, then from me."

I rose, cautiously picking up my bag and keeping the printed side turned discreetly against my skirt.

Bee embraced me, urging me to bend so she could kiss my cheek. "Thank you, dear. And you tell that vagabond son of mine I send my regards."

"I will, Mrs. Juice. I will."

Gnat waved as I left the way I’d come, quietly re-latching the gate behind me. Bee stood on the porch watching until I’d rounded a corner, erasing her from view. My wait at the bus stop was blessedly brief. I was alone, this time. The mummy in uniform behind the steering wheel asked, "Anywhere specific, Miss?"

"Do you know a music shop called Vile Viola’s?"

"Sure do. Have a seat."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Okay, buster. Now it’s really time to ask who the hell you’re kidding. Whaddaya mean, "What do you mean?!" Just listen to yourself for one second before you have to resist ol’ Prankenstein’s clamoring again at the sight of some other gullible pedestrian-yeah, honestly, you’d better forget about convincing that guy’s hubcaps to detach themselves. Okay, for starters-since when does the Neitherworld’s Most Wanted shop for merchandise that isn’t gag supplies? And for cryin’ out loud, since when does he troop around out of uniform? That’s right, Mr. Beetleman. Next time you pass a window, try starin’ at your reflection instead of stuff you know she wouldn’t like anyway. Good luck, sucker! Face it. You’d have been better off in stripes at the Shocking Mall.

Beetlejuice groaned inwardly, pausing dejectedly beneath the awning of what seemed like the hundredth curiosity shop. As he slid his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose, his heart sank, stung by the rising of his myriad doubts. The eyes peering from beneath the reflected hat’s brim glowed a raw, defeated jade. Only in the sight of his own pathetic incredibility could he admit that he had no idea what to get Lydia for their anniversary, even after two hours of prowling the highways and byways of a bustling college town. Beetlejuice quickly staved off the urge to declare wits’ end aloud. He knew the resulting visual would only steep him in the trouble that his beloved had so firmly beseeched him to avoid. He conjured up thoughts of her instead.

Beetlejuice imagined where she must be at the moment, seated by a nondescript colleague in an even less distinct room, both girls’ heads bent over a textbook in which he might only vainly-if at all-show interest. Lydia’s eyes, however, so inkily indigo that they contented to pass for luminous black, imparted a passionate sentiment that her companion’s did not: comprehension. Thus he imagined her tutoring session, supposing desolately that she would finish soon and return to her room and find him still gone.

How strange, these new thoughts in him; in truth, how strange the very basis of their love. He, among the few who knew that the bluish shadow that shone in her hair was the same that haunted her eyes, alone knew of the fierce but fragile miracle that was her body and soul. To think of her was a madness for which the only cure was to hold her. Beetlejuice resumed his hat with a sigh, leaning his forehead against the glass.

But when he opened his eyes, that face, striking and ethereal, did not vanish. Wordless recognition told him what he saw beyond the glass and beyond his own insecurities was the answer. For an instant, he had believed it only to be the reflection of his still-brooding eyes.

Moments later, the shopkeeper within found herself engaged in a sly exchange with a most engagingly blunt new customer.

 

 

* * *

 

 

-- I’ve been tempted to drift off to sleep during previous entries, but believe me, this is the first time I’ve ever been blissfully exhausted enough to give in. If you will excuse my sudden concern with setting an entire day full of extreme particulars into writing, I’ll continue. Sad, perhaps, that I use "you" when I know that I am speaking solely to myself.

Twenty minutes at Vile Viola’s was all that I needed. On leaving, I thanked the stars for Anne-Hélène’s discount and for the fact that Neitherworld merchants in general seemed much more predisposed to bargaining than mortal ones. I crossed the street with my newest purchase tucked securely under one arm, from there turning a few corners and locating as nearly as I could the grave plot realtor’s once more. I backed into the shadows against the building, murmuring until the murky daylight dissolved and I could no longer feel the bricks behind me.

I stood in the middle of my room seconds later, struck first with relief that Beetlejuice had not yet returned and second by the realization that Melinda had been there and back. I stepped nearer to the dry-erase board on our wall in order to read the message she’d scrawled:

Missed you at lunch-quit working so hard! Went to Ray’s, see you sometime tomorrow.

I smiled with even greater relief, fortunately realizing that the message was also incriminating. I wiped away the first sentence, gladly leaving the second for Beetlejuice’s perusal.

I pushed both of my purchases as far back on the top shelf of my closet as I possibly could. I slipped Bee’s shawl on the same hanger as my dress. I would have to wait until tomorrow to make the alteration. My instincts told me Beetlejuice would be staying longer, considering Melinda’s absence.

I pulled off my boots and set myself to mundane tasks: checking the phone messages, feeding Melinda’s often neglected Betta, and finally settling on my own bed to sketch a rough stage proscenium. Barely half an hour had passed when I felt I could no longer keep my eyes open. Even though I had begun to wonder where on earth Beetlejuice had gotten to, sleep prevailed. I leaned back against the pillow, aware only that my Staedtler slipped from my grasp and rolled neatly behind the bed.

I woke slowly to the sensation of an arm about my shoulders and the rise and fall of a familiar chest beneath my head. I sighed, rolling over so that I could slip my arms around his waist and breathe lazily against his tie. Beetlejuice had donned his stripes once again.

"You always did study too much," he chided, freeing my hair from its clip. "Babes, you’ve gotta stop that. You’ve been out for about forty-five minutes, an’ that’s only since I got back here."

"Really?" I asked, glancing up at him sideways. "Have you really been here that long? Good grief. How you managed to replace my pillow without waking me, I’ll never know. But," I added fondly, "I’m much more comfortable than I was." I noticed that he’d set my sketchbook aside on the dresser, beside which sat an object that definitely had not been there before.

"Beej, you didn’t have to!" I exclaimed, sitting up in order to reach out and touch the single velvet-black rose. Of course, the gesture did earn him an immediate kiss.

"Yeah, I did," he pointed out mischievously. "See what it got me? Not bad at all. Besides," he added under his breath, "it was a steal."

That, I chose to ignore. I laughed quietly, leaning over to align our profiles as I have found I so love to do. "So, you’ve discovered the floral market on Tanner Street. Anything else of interest in this town?"

Beetlejuice shrugged, briefly averting his eyes. "Oh, y’know, besides you, not really. This place’s about as dull as Peaceful Pines."

"Give the college more credit than that," I pointed out. "Without it, this place would be absolutely dead."

"Yeah," Beetlejuice reflected, "and the perfect place for you-know-who!" He cackled gleefully at the thought.

I joined him. "Delia would lose her mind… even though I’m half convinced she did a long time ago. Ah, speaking of which… she isn’t exactly here to ruin quality time, and neither is Mel. Why don’t you stay?"

"You couldn’t pay me to stay away. And considering who that’s comin’ from, Babes, you know he means business."

"I just hope the girls up the hall mind their own," I said with mild concern. "Sometimes a locked door isn’t adequate insurance against Karin wanting to use our microwave or stop by for a chat."

Beetlejuice, too, seemed ruffled by the mention of another potential interruption, but only for an instant. He snapped his fingers, an illusory light bulb appearing above his head for a moment before fizzling into nothingness.

"Hey, I know. Ever make it clear to ’em that you want quiet or to be left alone, or whatever? I mean, ahead of time?"

"Usually on nights before history exams so we can study…. Why?"

"Then, no problemo," Beetlejuice said, extending one arm nonchalantly, sending a streak of lightning at the doorknob. I heard the clink of a fine chain on brass and the thud of wood on wood as something struck the outside of the door.

"What was that?"

"Your new ‘Do Not Disturb!’ sign, of course."

I grabbed the pillow from the foot of the bed and thwacked him playfully. "You’re horrible!" I laughed.

Beetlejuice buffed his fingertips on his lapel, blowing on them with a touch of arrogance. "Tell me more, Babes."

"No," I replied, turning my back on him and folding my arms. I barely succeeded in keeping a straight face.

As usual, Beetlejuice resorted to an irresistible tone of remorse. "Aw, Lyds, I didn’t mean to-"

I rounded on him, grabbing his tie. "I think I’d rather show you."

Beetlejuice’s head, which had promptly spun and spouted fireworks at my suggestion, came to a tottering halt when my stomach uttered a rather ill-timed growl.

"Was the cafeteria serving beetles today, or what, huh? I told you to eat something, and if I’m never mistaken, there’s a huuuge difference between that and nothing-"

In light of his fierce concern’s reprisal, I attempted to keep my defensiveness to a minimum. "But I ate! I had one of your… new favorites, a sandwich, not to mention some iced tea on the side."

Beetlejuice ceased regarding me suspiciously for long enough to mutter almost after the fashion of a theatrical aside, "That sounds like something my mom’d push on me. Eee-yeeeeew! Uh… unless it was one of your ham sandwiches, of course, Lyds."

He was too busy waxing apologetic to notice that I’d almost surrendered to asphyxiating laughter. "You had better mean that," I replied, opting for mild sternness. "Besides, look at the clock. It’s almost five. I’m supposed to be hungry again."

"Oh, yeah. So, uh… well… I guarantee I’ll make you have some supper. On me."

And for the simple fact that I was still in his lap, mirth washed over us both instantly. Between chuckles, I gasped, "You’re adorable when you try to apologize."

"Yuck!" Beetlejuice protested, sticking his tongue out with a shudder. "But, if you insist, just wait till you see me order a pizza!"

I scrambled off the bed, retrieving the portable phone from my desk. As I claimed a spot beside him, I dialed Mamma Mia’s. "You’re on, showoff!" I quipped, thrusting the phone into his unsuspecting hand.

Beetlejuice cleared his throat just in time. After two rings, a garbled voice responded from the other end. Beetlejuice leaned back against the headboard and mouthed, "Watch and learn, Babes."

"Er, yeah… bone-a sera to you, too… I need a medium Gravedigger Special with the works, but hold the lichens-"

"Look, Halloween’s not for another month, okay? Get a life," I heard the annoyed employee say, followed by a distant "Stupid prank call!" muttered to a co-worker before hanging up. Beetlejuice turned red, breaking into his "I did it again, right?" grin while hastily hitting the end-call button.

"I swear I didn’t mean to do that! Grub Scout’s honor! Really! Too many years of callin’ Moldy Mozarella’s, I tell ya-"

"Calm down, Beetlejuice," I laughed, reclaiming the phone. "Leave this to me."

"Shoulda quit while I was ahead," he muttered.

I leaned closer to him, dialing with one hand as I held his head in place with the other to prevent it from a pun-induced topple from his shoulders. The same employee answered with, "Buona sera, you’ve reached Mamma Mia’s Pizza. May I help you?"

"Yes, I was wondering-do you still have a pasta menu? You do? Two orders of spaghetti, then, with meatballs but no mushrooms in the sauce-oh, wait, better leave them in one order; God knows, I’ve got a fungus lover here-yes, yes, right… that’s it. Location for delivery? Lyme campus, Complex F, Baker Hall. Extension 6575, just call from the courtesy phone outside when you arrive. Meet you in front. Sure, no problem. Bye. "

Beetlejuice tapped my back testily. "Who’re you callin’ a showoff? And what about pizza? Seems like you forgot-"

"On the contrary," I corrected, giving him the same indisputably suggestive look that he’d once given me, "my memory’s much better than you give me credit for. Can you explain to me what that means?"

Beetlejuice barely prevented his jaw from dropping in shocked embarrassment. "Hey, for just how long have you been ‘reading too much’?"

"Not that long, but Dad and Delia wouldn’t want to know."

"Yeesh. Judge Mental coulda put me away on a charge of corrupting minors."

"You’ve done an impeccable job."

"Yeowch! Someone hurry that delivery boy!"

Needless to say, I am very fortunate that my bedspread survived dinner without any tomato sauce stains. For Beetlejuice, levitation and pasta have always gone hand in hand. But we hovered to alternative rock instead of calypso this time, thanks to Melinda’s extensive CD collection. To Beetlejuice, a band with a name like Vertical Horizon sounded just bizarre enough.

We lay side by side for a while after the meal concluded, warming up unhurriedly to the promise I had made. A brief silence marked the disc’s transition into a slow but driving ballad. I closed my eyes to the familiar guitar strains, savoring a slow kiss pressed to the back of my neck. I understood for the first time why Mel was so fond of it-and why this particular disc often accompanied her to Ray’s.

"On the Sea," I whispered half-lucidly.

"…What, Lyds?"

"What? Oh… this song… that’s the title."

Beetlejuice chuckled, rolling me so that I faced him.

"Somethin’ tells me that Miss I’d-Rather-Show-You would rather be the audience tonight."

Fighting the lethargy he’d unwittingly wrapped me in, I began to wrestle him out of his jacket. "You make it easy for her to change her mind!" I remarked.

"Indecision- you know I love it! ’Specially right now…."

"What a gentleman," I retorted indulgently, using what knowledge I’d gained in three days’ time to render him defenseless at my fingertips. "You’ll owe me one!"

"Will I ever…."

I will only say that we both dozed soundly in the aftermath, and that I have awakened to muse on the day and watch him sleep, restless as that afternoon nap has made me. To have something such as this recorded, I’m coming to believe, is priceless. I sense that perhaps in days to come when I cannot see him, these memoirs will see me through. If you had told me even a month ago that I’d become addicted to this diary thing, I would have called you crazy (but that would have been highly hypocritical!)

Soon, I’ll rise to put out the light and return this book to its rightful spot. But while I can yet cast off the thought of parting in the morning, I’m content to bask in what we’ve become.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Whether it was the subtle shift of weight beside him or the sudden dimming of his surroundings that had awakened him, Beetlejuice could not be certain. Sensing Lydia’s absence, he sat bolt upright only to sink backwards with a relieved sigh at her returning form in the darkness. She slipped beneath the covers, and in moments her arms were around his neck, her skin a warm and comforting against him once more.

"I can’t sleep with the lights on," she murmured as if to reassure him, kissing his cheek. "Don’t worry. I’ll be your fright light."

"Mhmm," Beetlejuice agreed sleepily, folding her in a possessive embrace.

"They might find an excuse for calling you Snugglejuice yet," Lydia yawned with amusement.

"Don’t even," Beetlejuice muttered through his drowsiness, "or I’ll… I’ll…"

"Go back to sleep, Beej. You know I’m kidding."

"Hmm… That’s… mmm… my girl," Beetlejuice sighed, returning to the sandman’s realm even more placidly than before.

"Thank God tomorrow’s Tuesday," Lydia whispered almost inaudibly, closing her eyes to join him.

"What?" Beetlejuice blurted suddenly, snapping back with a start.

Lydia sighed bemusedly. "I don’t have class till eleven, is all. We can sleep in. Mel won’t show up until afternoon. She always heads to class straight from Ray’s. Sweet dreams, love. You can rest easy."

"Speaking of which, thank God for easy roommates."

"Beetlejuice!" Lydia exclaimed. "I hope the only reason you said that’s because you’re half asleep," she chided, elbowing him in the side. "Melinda’s no easier than I am. There hasn’t been anyone before Ray, and I doubt any will come after. I mean that she’ll take so seriously…."

"I know, I know. Sorry. You know me," Beetlejuice yawned. Only once his eyes adjusted to the dark did he realize that Lydia had fixed him with an intensely pensive look. Her words also registered much more clearly.

"I do know you," Lydia said plaintively, tracing his cheek gently. "There were so many times I worried, I… you know, I barely understood-till now-why. Even before it was an issue, as if I’d lose you somehow…."

"Babes, don’t tell me-you mean, you think-you’re afraid that I’d-?"

"No, oh, no!" Lydia breathed hastily. "I trust you. Despite every other dishonest thing you’d do… I trust you in this-in the matter of us." Lydia bit her lip, and briefly, Beetlejuice thought he saw the faint glimmer of tears.

"You’re… adorable when you get all sentimental, y’know, Lydia?" he whispered, brushing her hair back. "But you didn’t hear that from me. Aw, Babes, c’mon… don’t think like that!"

Trembling, she hugged him tightly. "Forget I said that. I’m still not completely used to it yet, but God, I… just love you. Just… that’s all."

And in minutes, her breath deepened, an untroubled sleep setting the solitary tear that had traversed her pale cheek aglitter.

"I love you for making me learn how," Beetlejuice murmured close to her ear, finding sleep a bit more elusive than before.

How did she do it-place such faith and patience in a wretch like himself when even he could not? Slumber, thankfully, asked no such questions and demanded no such philosophy. It welcomed them both with equally open arms. Morning, however, arrived to witness a scene slightly more chaotic.

"Do you really have to go?"

"Yes, really!" Lydia cried, frantically rummaging through a drawer. "Class’s in half an hour. I didn’t think I’d oversleep this long."

"Good thing your friends up the hall slammed that door. We might still be snorin’ away."

Lydia forgot her haste long enough to laugh with the figure still lying swathed in her bedclothes. "BJ, I don’t snore!"

"Wanna bet?"

Lydia sighed in exasperation and settled on a pair of socks. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled them on. "Well, since all I have to offer at the moment is sock fuzz, I think I’ll just concede and let you win."

"It’ll be the jewel of my collection, Babes."

"Second only to your own, I’ll bet!"

"I thought you trusted me."

"Oh, hush. I do," Lydia laughed, leaning over for a kiss. "You really make running late a lot more entertaining than it usually is."

"Late? I invented late."

"That doesn’t surprise me," Lydia replied wryly, running a brush through her hair. "Where did you put that clip last night?"

"Clip?" Beetlejuice asked quizzically.

"The thing you pulled out of my hair that looks like it has teeth."

"Oh, yeah… um… good question. The sucker about bit me, so I kinda dropped it."

"Never mind," Lydia muttered, reaching as far as she could down the space between the metal headboard and the wall. "I think it called to me," she added triumphantly, holding up the hairpiece. She dusted it off, promptly sweeping her hair into a tight twist and securing it. Lydia stood up and threw out her arms. "What do you think? Presentable?"

Beetlejuice donned a monocle as if he’d been named stodgy fashion critic of the year. "Well, as a denim connoisseur, I’ll have you know, the rinse finish on those jeans is simply fabulous. And that red shirt, ah, such taste! Three-quarter sleeves are definitely in this season."

The monocle and the accent promptly vanished, leaving Beetlejuice to comment as his old self, "Kid, you’re irresistible no matter what. But that getup could use a little upscale accent."

In the time it took Lydia to blink, Beetlejuice had zapped her bottom drawer. Her silver snake belt with glittering faux ruby eyes slithered out and across the floor, wound its way up her left leg, and threaded itself through her belt loops before hooking tail to mouth, lifeless once more.

"Yep. That’s what I call ssssensational."

Lydia embraced Beetlejuice and whispered, "Thanks. I’d better get going. Just make sure you’re out of here before noontime. Mel might have forgotten her meal card."

"Babes, don’t worry about me. Get outta here."

"See you tomorrow," I murmured, not wanting to let go.

"Tomorrow? Not even later today?"

I bit my lip. "Beej, I have lots of… work to do," I said hastily, thinking of the dress and gift waiting patiently in my closet.

"Didn’t we decide you have to lighten up on this work thing?"

"Yes, but… some of this work relates to tomorrow," I admitted reluctantly, gritting my teeth. I knew full well what hinting at a surprise would do to Beetlejuice.

"Oh, reeaaaally? Well, I’ve got news for you. I have some work to do, too," he replied with the same aloof taunting, returning my smile with an air of subtle challenge.

"Then it looks like tomorrow it is. Oh, but come on, I know I won’t be able to stop you from popping up here and there. Just promise me this: all reflective surfaces in this room are off limits till tomorrow afternoon. Deal?"

Beetlejuice sulked for a moment, crestfallen, before giving in. "All right, whatever. Deal. This had better be good."

"It is," I said mysteriously, tucking him back into bed with a parting kiss. "At least I hope you’ll think so."

Beetlejuice watched her leave, regretting that he could not follow. As the door closed, he sighed into her pillow, "Babes, I think so already." Seconds later, he vanished.

His own room was the same relative disaster that he’d left it, coffin-bed unmade, cans still scattered about, various clothing articles occupying a good percentage of the floor. He clothed himself with a snap and did something he hadn’t taken seriously in ages. A wave of his hand was all it took to send the offending items on the floor sailing to their rightful places. The bed, he made by hand, but only after coaxing the sheets to change themselves. It crossed his mind briefly that Lydia would confine him to bed after witnessing such behavior. He had, however, admitted to having work to do. It had not been a lie, as much as he loathed the related telling and doing.

Beetlejuice wandered into the living room, slightly disappointed to find it empty. It had only just occurred to him that he’d given his housemates little to no consideration in the past few days-let alone torment. He glanced at the ceiling, finding Ginger’s welcome banner for Jacques still intact. Sheer boredom might have led him to demolish it, except the front doors swung open before it had the chance to.

"Ah, Be-atlejuice!" Jacques exclaimed from behind an armful of groceries. "So you ’ave survived another night out? Things ’ave been quiet around ’ere without you."

"Don’t sound so ecstatic," Beetlejuice retorted, watching a canned energy shake take a tumble from the sack his friend carried. "Thought maybe you’d appreciate it."

"To a point, oui," Jacques replied over his shoulder, "but I think you are still hiding some-sing. "You ’ave not bothered to bother Ginger in days, mon Dieu!"

"Well, if you hadn’t walked in, that revolting bit of knitting up there woulda been history," Beetlejuice replied, pointing at the ceiling. "Talk about killing two birds with one bone!"

"In fact, I would ’ave been relieved," Jacques admitted from halfway up the steps. "As much as we sometimes dislike you, it is ’ard to get on without you. Do you know ’ow incredi-bail-ly boring zis place would be?"

"Well, yeah," Beetlejuice gloated, taking a moment to primp. "The room does kinda light up the instant I walk in."

"I ’ope Lydia is not suffer-ing ze same neglect," Jacques mused, reaching the top of the staircase and rounding the corner to his room. "I ’ave not seen her ’ere in ages."

"That’s about to change," Beetlejuice muttered under his breath, floating up through the ceiling and onto Jacques’ waterbed. He snapped his fingers, retrieving Jacques’ errant can as an afterthought.

"For your information," Beetlejuice said, tossing the can at Jacques’ back, "tomorrow’s our seventh anniversary, and I’ve been working my tail off getting things ready."

"For what? Ze five minutes she will be standing in zis house before you two run off to where-evair?"

"Nah, her present an’ stuff," Beetlejuice said casually, hovering a few feet into the air. "But I thought you might have some advice on, oh, just one tiny little issue…"

"If you are asking me to go shopping again, mon ami, ze answer is non!"

"Geez, don’t jump to conclusions. It’s just… well, y’know, a whole closet full of stuff and no clue what on earth to wear to a place like Cleopatra’s-and what, with your awful taste and all-"

"Sacré bleu! You are taking ’er to ze pyramid? Since when can you afford zat?!"

"Hey! A guy’s never quite as broke as he lets on, okay?" Beetlejuice growled. "I’ll manage. My only problem’s coming up with a getup that won’t leave me looking mummified among the swanky dopes that patronize the place."

"Be-atlejuice, maybe zis is a dumb question, but why go somewhere you will be feeling out of place, eh?"

"Because Lyds has been curious about that place for years. You know, her fascination with ancient Egypt and all that mumbo jumbo. Besides… don’t tell me you’ve never dreamed of one night among the elite, old pal."

"Well," Jacques laughed weakly, "you do ’ave a point zere. I suppose I can do one more favor, since you ’ave been on good behavior. Besides, I cannot resist ’aving ze chance at a good laugh!"

Beetlejuice chased Jacques the whole way down the stairs.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Don’t tell me I missed the party," Melinda said with a whistle as she walked in the door, noting the discarded cartons from Mamma Mia’s in Lydia’s trash. "Looks like you lived it up while I was gone, you pasta fiend, you."

"You might say that," Lydia replied with a shrug, barely looking up from her sewing. "Might also say the same thing about yourself. A few reliable sources tell me you didn’t show up for class at all today. I was starting to wonder by the time I got back here at four and no one showed up. Karin and I had dinner without you."

Lydia glanced up briefly, catching Melinda’s sheepish smile. "Lydia, trust me, if you were in my position, you’d see how easy it is to spend the whole day in bed every once in a while!" she said with a wink.

Lydia fastened her eyes back on her work hastily and thought, Try me.

Melinda carelessly dumped her overnight bag on her bed, picking up a stack of sketchbooks and notebooks. "So, what do these reliable sources say that I missed?"

"I’m not your mother. I didn’t go around asking for your missed assignments. You’re a big girl, pick up the phone and call."

Melinda looked up in surprise. "Someone’s bitter," she remarked airily. "I think Princess Sorrow needs to-oh! Oh, my. Wow…."

Lydia thrust the dress aside, brushing away the shawl scraps that had stubbornly clung to her jeans. "What?" she demanded, following Melinda’s spellbound gaze across the room. "What?"

"Lydia, you’ve got to give up this masquerade," Melinda breathed, rising from her bed and approaching the black rose perched on Lydia’s bedside dresser. "It’s positively elegant, positively you. Who is this guy? Come on, I’m not as blind as you think I am. Who is he?"

Lydia’s jaw dropped. "I… I don’t know what you’re talking about. So I like black roses, went out and got one, big deal-"

Melinda shot her a wry look. "Really, Highness, you’ll have to try harder than that. You have an admirer, and you can’t hide it. Do you know how strange you’ve been acting? And, oh-oh, don’t tell me-you don’t know who he is yet, either! A secret admirer! How romantic!"

"I know who he is," Lydia murmured under her breath, almost defensively.

"Then why don’t you enlighten me?" Melinda demanded.

"I… well… you know, it’s one of those things… it hasn’t been very long, and I don’t know how it’s going to work out… you know… don’t want to go introducing someone I-"

"You’ve got some trust issues, honey," Melinda said sympathetically. "Well, you know, I’m here. But just from the look of things, I’d say you’re more certain than you’ll let on."

"How would you know?" Lydia shot back, resuming her needlework. "You’re not me."

"That’s exactly how," Melinda said quietly, retreating into some history notes. "Like I said, I’m here."

I almost wish that weren’t the case, Lydia thought, finishing off one shoulder of her gown and moving on to the other. She made short work of cutting the seams in order to remove the thin shoulder strap. And, painstakingly, she sewed the bit of custom-cut shawl in its place, just as she had done on the other side.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Buddy, are you sure you weren’t a fashion consultant back when you still had some meat on your bones? Because that would definitely explain a lot," Beetlejuice jibed as Jacques studied with a critical eye the reflection in the mirror before them. The skeleton stepped back, rubbing his chin in appraisal of the assemblage he’d pulled from Beetlejuice’s wardrobe and thrust upon its owner for modeling. It was several moments before what the ghost had said registered.

"What are you saying, Be-atlejuice?" Jacques asked suspiciously.

Beetlejuice snickered in spite of himself. "Oh, y’know, just that it’s a shocker that you an’ Musclehugger haven’t hooked up by now!"

"Zat is not funny! I ’ave told you, mon Dieu! I am not zat way! Just because I ’ave not ’ad une pétite amie in-"

"Geez, calm down! Technically, you coulda taken that as a compliment."

Jacques sighed wearily, regaining his dignity enough to respond with pride, "Mais oui! Ze French ’ave always ’ad a sixth sense about zese sings. Voilà! You are ready for ze date, je pense."

If Jacques noticed Beetlejuice’s slight reddening at his choice of words, he gave no indication. Beetlejuice grinned, recovering quickly.

"Yeah, I think so too. Thanks, pal. Though, y’know… couldn’t we do something to liven it up a bit? I mean, ok, the white shirt and bow tie, great, great… but… black. Awfully formal, don’cha think?"

"Be-atlejuice, in a crowd like zat, formal is ze way to go. Trust me, mon ami."

"Ok, but the vest is goin’ striped, whether you like it or not."

Four-thirty the next day found Beetlejuice clad once more in the black tuxedo, altered by the addition of his self-chosen vest and a pair of white spats that Jacques had suggested as an afterthought. He paced nervously, recalling his brief encounter with Lydia that morning. She had been as elated at his sudden appearance on the cover of her art history textbook as he by the mere sight of her.

"I missed you last night, Lyds," he had pouted, nearly causing her to trip over the curb in front of the art building.

"You, too," she breathed, regaining her balance as she stared down at the top book in her small stack. "I couldn’t sleep for the longest time. Wow, you haven’t pulled this stunt since the Shakespeare Festival when I was in seventh grade, you know that?"

"Can’t beat a classic. So, Babes, is all that, uh, work of yours done?"

"All but a certain gift-wrapping," she replied temptingly.

"What other than gift-wrapping was there, anyway?"

"You’ll see. Beej, I hate to cut this short, but I’ll be late for class. I’ll be ready at five. I can’t wait."

Impulsively, Beetlejuice complained through gritted teeth, "Neither can I…. I wish I could kiss you."

Lydia had halted in her tracks, looking for all the world as if she wished she could summon him right then and there. "Save it for later. You can do a lot more then. I wish that were now!"

"We’d better stop this conversation before I turn you into a cover illustration, too. Five sharp, Babes. Make sure Mel’s out of the room."

Lydia winked. "By hook or by crook, she will be!"

And so, he paced the remaining half an hour away, hoping that Lydia had as easy a time of keeping her promise as making it. As the skull clock struck five, Beetlejuice whispered, "It’s showtime."

Lydia had barely added the finishing touches to her outfit-her mother’s turquoise choker and earrings-when the mirror before her dissolved. An impressive bouquet of roses the color of old blood and equally as dry thrust itself unceremoniously into her face. The voice behind it said, "I hope that black one sufficed till I could get you a decent funeral arrangement, Lyds."

Lydia grasped the bouquet with delight, revealing the head and shoulders of her bizarrely charming suitor. She dropped the flowers on the bed, leaning forward eagerly. "Someone’s gonna get his wish," she murmured, and granted it.

"No Mel?" Beetlejuice asked once he could breathe again.

"No Mel. She’s at dinner with Karin and Ashland. I told her not to expect me home."

"She’d probably believe you have a late-night study date!" Beetlejuice snorted absurdly.

"She doesn’t, actually. Beej, she saw the rose. She’s onto me. Luckily, she grudgingly accepts my close-mouthed terms on the matter."

"Here’s hopin’ she’s not as nosy in the long run as Delia. Come, darling, shall we blow this joint?" Beetlejuice inquired gallantly, offering his arm through the mirror.

"We shall. But first," Lydia said, pointing at two neatly-wrapped rectangular gifts on the floor, one significantly smaller and flatter than the other, "zap those over to your side and put them in a safe place. And no rattling them, Mr. Curious! Oh, also… get that bag at the foot of my bed while you’re at it."

Beetlejuice did as he was bidden, folding his arms proudly across his chest. "And you say I never do as I’m told. Hah!"

"Yes, well… you’ve improved by leaps and bounds," Lydia assured him, taking his arm. "Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!"

The dorm vanished in a flash, hurling her into Beetlejuice’s waiting embrace. He held her a few moments before taking a step backward, clasping her hands at arms’ length. He couldn’t seem to find words as his eyes took her in from the floor up.

"You said you’d dazzle me, not blind me, Babes… wow," he breathed, his fingers tightening on hers. No doubt of it-Lydia was stunning in the floor-length gown of black taffeta that hung from her pale, bare shoulders by exquisite cobweb "sleeves" that rode enticingly low on her upper arms as she shrugged.

"I told you that I had my work cut out for me. But I couldn’t have done it without a very significant contributor."

"Who?" Beetlejuice asked, drawing her close again, only half as interested in the query he’d made as in the vision before him.

"Your mother sends her regards."

"Ma?!" Beetlejuice burst out incredulously.

"Where else was I going to find fabric like this?" Lydia asked, grinning cleverly.

"I guess the old bat is good for something," Beetlejuice mumbled, impressed.

"You’re looking exceptional yourself, love," Lydia complimented him, brushing his chin with her index finger, eyes half closed. "That vest really does it for you."

"You’d better save that for later," Beetlejuice suggested before helplessly claiming her mouth once more. "Boy, do I wish Jacques were here to hear you say that."

"No housemates?" Lydia asked, puzzled.

"Nope, had other engagements tonight, apparently. The place’s empty. Let’s go, Babes. Your surprise required a six o’clock reservation, unfortunately, or otherwise I’d say, let’s take advantage of this place being deserted!"

"Someone has a one-track mind today," Lydia teased as they exited the roadhouse arm in arm, approaching the garage.

"Yeah," Beetlejuice agreed, hitting the automatic door button. "I couln’t stop thinkin’ of you for the death of me. Isn’t that right, Doomie?"

The car’s ever-friendly headlights fixed upon Lydia approvingly as the door lifted, his greeting honk resembling a complimentary whistle. Beetlejuice slipped an arm around Lydia, remarking as he escorted her to the passenger’s side, "See? Even our car can’t blame me. You’re bootiful, Lyds." Beetlejuice added reluctantly, "But, there’s somethin’ I forgot. I’m gonna have to blind you for a little while."

Before Lydia could ask what he meant, Beetlejuice had snapped his fingers. The black and purple striped scarf that usually hung unworn on the hat rack just inside the roadhouse raced from beneath the doors and tied itself around her head like a blindfold.

"At least that scarf’s good for something," Lydia laughed, more than content to sit back and play along. Beetlejuice closed her door and drifted to his spot behind the steering wheel.

"Can’t let ya know where the Dragster’s headed till we get there, Babes. Strictly coffin-dential." And with that, Beetlejuice hit the gas pedal, peeling out of the garage at a speed that would have frightened anyone else but his willing captive.

Ten minutes and several minor traffic violations later, Beetlejuice pulled up in front of a grand edifice that glittered with gold and granite even in the dim, early evening light. A gaunt, austere ghost resembling a figure from some illustrious pharaoh’s tomb wall waited on the curb, gesturing for Beetlejuice to stop.

"Your keys, sir," the Egyptian requested, staring down the bridge of his chiseled nose with well-masked disdain.

"Keys?" Beetlejuice echoed.

Lydia inclined her head in his general direction, explaining in surprise, "It’s valet parking, Beetlejuice." She added in hushed tones, "Where are we?"

"Patience, Lyds. Uh, sir," Beetlejuice explained, turning back to the valet, "there aren’t any. Just steer him in the right direction. Either that or just tell him where to go. He has a better sense of direction than we do."

"Very well, sir," the Egyptian sniffed, sounding mildly insulted, making no move until Beetlejuice had exited the vehicle and in turn aided Lydia in doing so.

As the valet assumed the driver’s seat, Lydia begged, "Can’t I take this off now? I really want to see this!"

"You bet, Babes," Beetlejuice replied, whisking the blindfold away.

Lydia watched Doomie bear the valet away, staring incredulously. "Who on earth would hire General Horemheb as… as… Beetlejuice, this isn’t-"

"Walk like an Egyptian and step this way," Beetlejuice instructed her gleefully, turning her to face the splendid pyramid.

"Deadly-vu… it is!" Lydia whispered faintly, swaying on her feet, only to feel her escort’s arm tighten around her waist.

"Happy anniversary, Lyds. And this is only the beginning."

Lydia only nodded, mute with wonder as they passed between the torches flanking the magnificently carved and pillared entrance.

Beetlejuice asked incredulously as they passed by ghouls and creatures dressed both as finely and even more so than themselves, "You knew that guy’s name? Whatever you said, General something or other?"

"Horemheb," Lydia said, drawing an awed breath at the grandly painted walls sloping upward and to a point at the center of the building’s interior. "He was Pharaoh Akhenaten’s first-in-command of the royal army. I’ve seen sculptures of this guy in a museum! The artist really captured him accurately. That creep’s probably the one who assassinated Tut, if the boy king’s death wasn’t merely a hunting accident."

Beetlejuice grimaced. "Whoa, Lyds, stop right there! That’s one too many history lessons for me."

Lydia grinned broadly, kissing him on the cheek. "This pyramid is a history lesson, even if the name’s not historically accurate. Cleo ruled long after Cheops. And look, and a lesson in art and architecture-dozens of them!" she added, indicating the palm tree planters, which were giant, lidless canopic jars. "I’ll bet this place was engineered by Imhotep himself!"

"Boy, and you used to think my name was ridiculous. These mummies are worse off than me!"

"Shh," Lydia whispered with a giggle as they approached the hostess’ stand. "Don’t let them hear you say that. In Egypt, names were power. We’re about to be seated by one of them."

"I suppose you know who she is, too," Beetlejuice supposed, jerking a thumb at the sunken-cheeked woman in a heavy wig and tattered linen robes.

"Not really. My guess is she was some nobleman’s wife. Here, leave this part to me since you got us here," Lydia volunteered, turning to the hostess. Her nametag read "Merankh," and beneath it marched minute a row of birds and animals enclosed in a sideways cartouche.

"Wait," Beetlejuice hissed, grabbing Lydia’s arm. "I, uh… kinda called in the reservation using your name. Not likely they’d have accepted one in mine."

"Somehow, I anticipated that," Lydia sighed. "Table for two, Deetz," she said to Merankh.

"Six o’clock? Right this way."

A replica of the Nile in miniature tumbled from a waterfall on the back wall and flowed through the establishment, splitting the floor space in half. Merankh led them to the right, seating them at a back table situated near the water in a convincingly real oasis. A stone oil lamp burned as the centerpiece. Once they’d been seated and Lydia had ordered a vessel of red wine to save Beetlejuice from deliberating indecisively over the drinks list, Lydia studied the menu with delight.

"They’ve thought of everything!" she exclaimed, pointing out that "Cleopatra’s" was printed not only in English and hieroglyphics but also in Greek and cuneiform. "And… and so have you, Beetlejuice," she murmured, reaching across the table to take his hand.

Beetlejuice glanced down at their fingers laced on top of his menu, overcome with emotion and slight abashment. "Well, Lyds, you… make me want to be less forgetful, that’s for sure," he offered, pressing her hand to his lips.

Bee was right, Lydia thought proudly, nodding at the half-unwrapped priestess who poured them each a silver goblet of wine. It was a wonder she didn’t trip and break the clay vessel as she bore it off to the side, placing it in a stand designed to hold its conical base.

"I’ll drink to that, Beej," Lydia whispered fondly, raising her glass. "To seven years of friendship, five days of romance-"

"Longer than that," Beetlejuice corrected her, "and counting."

Silver clinked. "Yes," Lydia confirmed with a tearful smile, "to us."

Shortly after, Lydia admitted she was hungry enough to find the menu items more interesting than the Book of the Dead. Beetlejuice scanned the selections until he came upon an item with "Scarab" in its title. He announced on the spot that he’d made up his mind, causing Lydia to turn faintly green.

"Listen, Babes. I haven’t had a decent beetle in a week! Humor me."

"At least it’s gourmet," she conceded. "You might get me to try a bite."

"And get you sick? That’s one idea you know I hate!"

Lydia shrugged capriciously. "You only live-oh, never mind. That cliché suddenly seems a lot more complicated than it ought to be!" she mused, sipping her drink. "I’m having the duck in date wine sauce with watercress on the side. How’s that sound?"

"Like you’re in de-"

"Say ‘Nile’ and I land straight in the river. Which means I’d have to drag you in, too, which also means we’d be kicked out," Lydia reminded Beetlejuice with sarcastic sweetness, clapping a hand over his mouth."

"Good thing you’re on Pun Patrol. I’m sure not. This stuff goes to your head pretty quick! Hey, I wonder if it was stomped barefoot! Mmmmmm, toe jam. Couldn’t hurt the fermentation process."

Lydia playfully confiscated Beetlejuice’s wine glass. "I can fix that problem, too. You’re not having any more till the food comes."

"Swell. We haven’t even ordered yet and I’m still sober."

Lydia handed the glass back with a warning look. "You’d better stay that way if you think you’re driving home."

"Are you kiddin’? That’s what Doomie’s for!"

"BJ, promise-"

"Joking, joking! Besides, I wouldn’t wanna miss anything. Not tonight, Lydia. Not with you."

The waitress returned with an appetizer tray that looked as if it had been a grave offering for the great queen’s own afterlife. She jotted their order on the trailing end of her unraveling wrappings.

"She used scribes’ shorthand!" Lydia remarked excitedly, prodding at one of the appetizers she’d chosen. "Oh, well-bottoms up! Whether this was a fig or a piece of honey cake, it couldn’t taste any less interesting than it looks."

"Mm-hmm," Beetlejuice mumbled in agreement through a mouthful of the same.

At length, their meals arrived on gleaming silver platters that matched their glasses. Beetlejuice scoffed, "You’d think that a place as upscale as this, they’d serve you on gold!"

"Actually, they wouldn’t. Silver was considered much more precious in Egypt because of its rarity there. It’s remarkable, Beej. This place’s authenticity has me hooked."

Not to be outdone by inanimate décor, Beetlejuice gave her his most endearing look as he pulled one of the giant Scarab’s roasted wings with a faint crackle.

"Okay, okay," Lydia sighed, grinning back. "Not as hooked as I am on you."

She found the duck as exquisite as anything she would have expected to taste at a mortal four-star restaurant. Lydia also managed to steal a forkful of Beetlejuice’s entrée, but she found herself chasing it hastily with a huge gulp of wine.

"How do you do it?" she grimaced, pressing a napkin to her lips.

"If I knew, Babes, I’d tell you. That’d be kinda like me asking you how you get by without bein’ able to fly."

"Easy-you take care of that for me!"

"You’re a shameless moocher, y’know?" Beetlejuice teased. "Okay, so it was a rotten analogy."

"Better than you think, love. Better than you think."

"Would you care for dessert?" the waitress asked, clearing their plates away.

Lydia insisted that she was too full, but Beetlejuice talked her into sharing what the menu billed simply as "Jewel of the Nile."

"If it has eyes or legs, I’ll pinch you," Lydia threatened under her breath.

"Hey, that doesn’t sound as painful as you think it does."

"O-kay, no more wine for you!"

The dessert, as it turned out, was harmless enough: a piece of elaborate semisweet chocolate cake garnished with bits of sugarcane cut to look like papyrus. Before they left, Lydia left the tip, knowing full well Beetlejuice would forget to even though he insisted he had the bill under control. On the way out, they took a last, unhurried look at their surroundings.

"Oh, stop here a minute," Lydia said, halting them at a picturesque spot by the false Nile’s impressively planted bank. She hailed a passing waiter, glancing at his name tag. Pulling a disposable camera from her purse, she inquired of him, "Would you be so kind, Seti?"

"Sure!"

Lydia pulled Beetlejuice into a close embrace under a nearby desert palm, leaning her head on his shoulder with a jubilant smile. "Say cheese, BJ!"

Seti snapped a shot, and a second, and a third at Lydia’s bidding as she altered their pose shot by shot. The waiter handed the camera back to her and shuffled away. As Lydia pocketed the camera, Beetlejuice remarked, "I should’ve known you had one of those hidden somewhere."

"I have lots of film to develop now, don’t I? The beach, tonight… Say! I’m going to start a scrapbook for us."

"Great idea, Babes! What kind of scraps did you have in mind? I’m sure I have plenty of-"

"Beetlejuice, you’re hopeless!" Lydia cried. "But, remind me that’s one reason why I adore you. I might need it now and then."

Once they reached home, Doomie seemed fretful of being left again so soon, so his creators remained in the front seat a while longer. Lydia leaned on Beetlejuice’s shoulder, left temporarily drowsy by the wine.

"So you enjoyed that, huh?" Beetlejuice asked, ruffling her hair, sounding quite pleased with himself.

"So did you. Yes, it was incredible."

"How couldn’t I? I’m the luckiest guy in either world."

Beetlejuice had no more than leaned over to kiss her when Doomie covered his headlights with his fenders in annoyance, popping both of their doors open.

"Rule number one, Beetlejuice," Lydia giggled. "Don’t park when your car has a mind of its own! I think we’ve been evicted."

"That’s fine with me," Beetlejuice said, helping Lydia out of the car and waving Doomie an annoyed goodnight. "There’s another surprise waiting with your name on it."

"And a couple with yours!"

Once inside the roadhouse, which still appeared empty, Beetlejuice seated Lydia on the couch. He cracked his knuckles, announcing, "And now, the after-dinner show!"

Lydia cut in, "The boxes-just the boxes, understand?"

"How did you know I was gonna-"

"‘Me want present!’" Lydia cried in an imitation of that long-ago babysitting incident. "I don’t think that you’ve changed one bit," she challenged affectionately.

In seconds, the boxes appeared at her feet. Something appallingly tiny appeared in Beetlejuice’s hand, but he was quick to conceal it in an inner pocket of his suit jacket.

"I’ll give you one first on the condition that I can present the remaining one last," Lydia said, dragging him down beside herself by one of his coattails. She picked up the smaller package, placing it in his hands. "Happy anniversary to my best friend," she murmured, hugging him. "There’s an amusing story behind all this, trust me."

Beetlejuice pinned her with the kiss he’d been denied the chance to offer in the car, opening the gift simultaneously. Once the paper fell away, he looked down, blinking like a thrilled child on its birthday.

"Al in the Box!" he cried enthusiastically. "This guy’s possibly the only soul weirder than me, and he has a pulse. Lydia, this’s great! I…"

"Somehow, I doubt that," Lydia reassured him, tilting his chin affectionately. "No one’s stranger than you, whether he uses it as his stage name or not."

Beetlejuice set the CDs aside, producing the mystery object from his pocket. A small velvet-covered box rested in his palm. He inhaled deeply as if in preparation for a speech.

"See, I have a confession to make. I didn’t really want to go for a walk on Monday. I begged you to let me out of that tinfoil so I could go shopping. Yeah, in your territory. Pretty desperate, huh?"

Lydia clapped a hand over her mouth. "That makes my own story twice as funny! I was eager to get rid of you so I could sneak here and do the same thing! I never helped Mel study for a math test. I caught a bus to your parents’ place for the web material and then bought this," Lydia explained, tapping the larger, heavier parcel with her foot.

"Great minds think alike. So, tell me… what do you think of this?" Beetlejuice asked quietly, opening the box slowly so that the light dramatically caught and shimmered upon the object within.

Lydia’s breath caught in her throat. She had never seen such an unusual ring. Set ornately in gleaming silver was an ivory face slightly smaller in circumference than a nickel, its finely carved features unspecific and peaceful, neither masculine nor feminine. Two large peridots, one set on either side of it, winked up at her with a multifaceted, familiar hue. Lydia couldn’t find words. She simply bit her lip, wondering why impulse led one to cry at the sight of so meaningful a token.

"That’s how it feels to look at you, Babes," Beetlejuice whispered honestly, removing the ring from its box and slipping it on her left middle finger. "There’s nothing like you, Lydia."

"Wait!" she gasped. "There’s…"

Amazed, she used her right pinkie to lift the tiny silver latch she’d spotted on the left side of the ivory face. She lifted it slowly, and the light reflecting off what lay beneath shone as brightly as her tears.

"A mirror!" she cried, laughing between sobs. "Now you can pester me discreetly no matter where I am! It’s perfect. How did you find such a-Beetlejuice, are you all right?"

"M-Mirror?"

"Yes, look. It opens like a poison ring, but there’s a mirror inside instead. It’s brilliant; I would never have thought of that myself! Sh, it’s all right… oh, look… look at me, love…"

The touch of her arms, her lips-it said what both of them knew. Beetlejuice had not realized the ring housed a mirror. It was simply an added blessing they would not question.

Lydia whispered in his ear, "And now, happy anniversary to my lover." She reached down, presenting him with the larger gift. "Slight warning… I really feel this is inadequate now, after-"

"My turn to tell you it’s all right," Beetlejuice said quickly, brushing at his eyes with embarrassment. "If you went to all the trouble I did, which I think you did… Oh, how the hell did you know about that?" Beetlejuice demanded with raw emotion, lifting the latches of the unwrapped violin case. "I never said a word to anybody…"

"Sometimes wishes don’t need words, right? I expect you’ll play for me on that, once you’ve brushed up some of your old repertoire," Lydia said with a smile, running her fingers over the polished white varnish. "Also, I got this in case you want it customized," she added, biting her lip, lest she make him think she found his sudden vulnerability amusing. She pulled a gift certificate from the rosin compartment. "This is one paint job that’s out of my league."

Beetlejuice stared at the instrument with regretful longing, testing the strings. "This’s worth more than-"

"Whatever you were going to say, I guarantee you, it’s not," Lydia told him vehemently. "It’s befitting someone who’s worth much more. Who can make something more of what he is. No one here or above’s without room for improvement. That’s where the value is. Oh, remember that! Can I say I love you again without sounding like a broken record? God, it’s the most overused phrase in the English language, and most of the time so wastefully… but really… it’s true."

Beetlejuice closed the violin case slowly, never looking more haunted in his life. When his eyes finally met Lydia’s, every word he might have struggled to say was there, sore and shining. "I know… Lydia, you… just… agh! I’m no good at-listen," he murmured fiercely, taking her so suddenly by the shoulders that her heart leapt thrillingly, as if afraid. "You know what I mean."

"Yes," Lydia replied tersely, hoping he would crush her in his arms before she made him. Her supposition wasn’t long in coming true. He almost dropped the violin case in order to make room for her.

"Just give me a second chance tonight. I promise I’ll sweep you off your feet like I shoulda the first time," Beetlejuice whispered urgently, rising with her in his arms.

"What are you talking about? You’ve done that a few times already. Stop worrying."

"I’m not, Babes. But you one-upped me, gift-wise, and I don’t plan to let that go unrequited, got it?" he added, smiling freely once more.

"Uh-oh," Lydia murmured as he floated her in the direction of his room. "Then you won’t quite forgive me for what’s in the bag, will you?"

"Wha?"

Lydia bit her lip, writhing free of his grasp mischievously. "Sorry, but you have to wait at the door for a minute. Getting you back for that blindfold, you know."

"Aaaaaaah! Babes, you must have a secret weapon for every occasion. Are you tryin’ to tell me this revenge is gonna be artistic, too?"

Beetlejuice landed dizzily, leaning against the wall while Lydia dashed behind his bedroom door, closing it authoritatively.

"After a fashion," Lydia laughed from within, her voice briefly muffled.

"Have I lost the right to undress you, even?"

"Oh, no, you have a second chance, though it’s considerably less than you might have removed otherwise. By the way, are these really clean sheets I see?"

"Like you said, I’ve thought of everything," Beetlejuice replied, striking the wall with the flat of his hand. "Babes, you’re killing me…."

"Not possible!" Lydia chimed without missing a beat. "Just a second… honest… arrrgh, there’re so many shreds not to rip… I can’t believe this was designed on purpose!"

"Uh, was I supposed to hear that?"

"No, you got me. Come in. Can’t make it any worse than it already is," Lydia laughed. For all I know, it’s on backwards! It looked a lot simpler on the hanger, she thought

Beetlejuice didn’t waste any time opening the door, but what opened before him appeared to be an empty room. "Lyds, I didn’t ever get the impression you’re a hide-and-seek kind of girl," Beetlejuice commented, checking under the bed.

"Think up, not under," came a soft whisper from above him. Beetlejuice nearly hit his head in his haste to stand up. He stared down into the coffin, grasping the side for support as his breath ran out on him.

"Lydia, that’s… that’s… just frightening. Don’t make me think like this."

She lay with one arm limp across her chest, the other flung just as carelessly above her head, as if she’d been drained and flung there. She’d done away with the dress and jewelry of earlier, all except for his ring. Her pale figure was both hidden and masterfully accented by a fitted, faintly lilac burial shroud riddled with strategic rips and tears as if age and the elements had worn it-which shreds were all hemmed with deliberate strands of red and mauve in so many different variations it defied known craftsmanship.

Lydia’s eyes opened unhurriedly, heralding the return of her previously held breath. "Why not?" she asked with a tantalizing smile. "It’s working so well. I won’t even have to lift a finger, which is what it seems you have in mind anyway."

"You know what I would have done if I were you?" Beetlejuice asked distractedly, kicking off his boots. "Saved that for April Fools’ Day!"

"Nah," Lydia replied, sitting up slightly. "You’re the only fool whose eyes this was meant for."

"Sit still, would you? You’re royalty tonight," Beetlejuice murmured, slipping into the coffin beside her.

"Cleo herself was never this lucky," Lydia murmured, welcoming him warmly.

"You won’t be quiet, will you?" Beetlejuice asked between kisses. "Well, I mean for now…."

"Couldn’t pay me to. Oh, and-crush me all you want."

"Now, that, I don’t mind hearing at all."

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Wow, I’m exhausted!" Ginger cried, sounding perky despite her claim. Jacques trooped into the roadhouse behind her, barely holding himself together.

"You can say zat again, mon amie! I ’ave nevair danced so ’ard in my life! What a work-out!"

"Yeah, well, thanks for takin’ me out, Jacques," the spider replied, scurrying up the wall. "We’ll show Beetlejuice and Lydia they’re not the only ones allowed to have fun around here! Gee, do you think they’re home yet?"

"Who knows, and who cares?" Jacques asked, throwing up his hands. "I am going straight to bed! Les rêves doux."

"Sweet dreams to you, too. Gosh, what a pretty language. If I learn nothin’ else from you, I’m never forgettin’ that. G’night, then," Ginger yawned, vanishing through a crack into the attic.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Lydia crept quietly down the hall, wrapping Beetlejuice’s white shirt more tightly around herself. Climbing out of the coffin without waking him had been almost as difficult as deciding to get up in the first place, but inordinate thirst had eventually driven her to it. She crossed the living room on cautious bare feet and slipped into the kitchen, intent only upon finding the bottle of water she’d left in the refrigerator a couple of weeks before after a night of dancing at Kneecap’s. The mere thought of her lover’s sure, unhurried intensity the night before left her all the more eager to return to him.

Lydia pried the refrigerator open so deftly that it barely made a sound. She scanned its contents quickly, finding what she sought on the bottom shelf. Lydia uncapped the bottle hurriedly, raising it to her lips. She nearly choked on a long, refreshing gulp as the kitchen light flickered on without warning. Lydia dropped the bottle with a startled cry, spinning around so abruptly that she knocked the refrigerator to a jarring close.

"Aaaah!"

"Au secours! Quoi?!"

Once the moment of shock had worn off, Lydia recognized her company with hysterical relief. "Oh, Jacques," she laughed, clutching her stomach, "it’s just you!"

The skeleton stood in the doorway, a trendy set of sweat suit pajamas hanging loosely from his frame. He stared blankly, as if what he was seeing didn’t quite register- either that, or he didn’t want it to.

Lydia stepped forward in concern. "Jacques, are you all right?"

His jawbone hit the floor in clattering reply.

Lydia felt her cheeks burn. She had completely forgotten what she must look like, and she checked her hazy reflection in the refrigerator door for verification: hair an unruly mess, eyes still reddened from sleep, her frame just well enough covered by the oversized dress shirt. She turned the collar up quickly, not about to take any chances with what might stand out. But Jacques’ chinless expression told her he’d already seen more than he’d bargained for. She bent carefully, retrieving the water bottle. Eyes fixed on the ground, she advanced and picked up Jacques’ missing mandible.

"Here. You might want to see a joint specialist about that," Lydia said apologetically, finding herself almost unable to meet his gaze.

"Oui," Jacques replied once he’d snapped his jaw back into place. "Either zat or you might want to tell Be-atlejuice zat some secrets are bet-tair when told!" Jacques had gone faintly pink in the cheekbones himself, but he recovered enough to smile and say, "I should ’ave known, though. Félicitations!"

"Thanks," Lydia replied, slipping by him hurriedly into the darkened hall. "Just… let Ginger down easy, all right?"

Lydia heard Jacques’ mirthful reply from halfway through the living room. "Ma chère, I thought I was ze only one who noticed ’er lit-tel crush!"

"So did I," Lydia said quietly. "So did I."

She glanced at the clock briefly, returning to Beetlejuice’s room as noiselessly as she’d left. For a few moments, she stood over the coffin just watching him. She was torn between the impulse to splash him with water and the desire to simply curl back up around him and go back to sleep. Remembering the time, she decided reluctantly but mischievously on the former.

"Hey, what the--!"

"Rise and whine, sleepyhead," Lydia murmured in perfect imitation of Delia, dangling the water bottle upside-down above Beetlejuice’s head. "Thought you might be thirsty, too."

"Yeah, well, think again," Beetlejuice muttered, sitting up and knocking the bottle out of her hand. It rolled harmlessly against the wall. He caught Lydia by the wrist, dragging her back into bed. "Wouldn’t your professors like to know their star student’s taken up cross-dressing?" Beetlejuice asked, extracting her from his shirt and tossing it back on the floor.

Lydia collapsed lazily onto the pillow, stretching and grinning up at him. "They might. And wouldn’t Jacques like to know that you’ve taken up sleeping with humans?"

"That’s none of his business," Beetlejuice pointed out. "But since you mention it… why?"

"You really didn’t tell him about us!" Lydia mused, laughing. "Why? Because I went to the kitchen for a drink and ended up fetching his jawbone from the floor."

Beetlejuice flopped down beside her, burying his face in her hair. "Oh, brother," came his muffled reply. "I don’t even wanna think about what would’ve happened if that had been Ginger."

"Why should you? We couldn’t have hidden it for very long anyway. It was only a matter of time, and the way I see it… we’re safer in the open on this side of the mirror than the other. It’s okay, Beej. I’m sorry about the water. Couldn’t help it."

Beetlejuice embraced her from behind, his fingers threatening to tickle her stomach at any moment. "You’re usually right, Lyds. Now, can I get back to playing Snugglejuice with my ghoulfriend, huh?"

"Oh, rats," Lydia moaned. "I have class at noon."

"Babes, what time is it now?"

"Almost ten, I think."

"And what kind of class is this, anyway?"

"One I could sleep through and still pass," Lydia replied, relaxing.

"Then that settles it. You’re not goin’ anywhere."

"It’s about time you showed some authority around here."

"Oh, so last night wasn’t enough for you?" Beetlejuice asked provocatively.

"Never, Beetlejuice. Never."

 

 

* * *

 

 

"I don’t know about you, Jacques," Ginger observed uneasily over a newly-caught fly that served as her breakfast, "but I think somethin’ strange is goin’ on around here. Beetlejuice hasn’t come back yet, an’ you know he thinks torturin’ us is the only job worth doin’. You don’t think somethin’s wrong with him, do ya?"

Jacques sighed, putting down the newest copy of Bones Illustrated. "Ginger," he said slowly, "I sink you need to stop zis."

"Stop what?"

"My ’ead may be empty, but I am not stupide. I know zat you ave been nagging Be-atlejuice for years, and you ave not done zis without good reason. But believe me, nagging is no way to flirt, ma chère. Be-atlejuice and Lydia did come ’ome, but I do not expect zose two to be getting up any time soon."

"Th-Those two?" Ginger stammered.

"Oui. I suggest you find some unsuspecting garçon zat needs to be rescued from a black widow. Forget zis foolishness. Even I am resigned to playing solitaire for now."

If any sleepers had remained in the roadhouse, Ginger’s wail would surely have awakened them.

 

To Part II

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