~Part Two~

 

"Lydia, those are just morbid," Melinda commented on the bouquet of dried roses, which Lydia had perched in a vase she’d made the year before. "You two must really be meant for each other," she added quickly, as if to mask the furtive apprehension in her tone.

Lydia glanced up from her sketching and smiled in greeting, watching casually as Melinda shed her jacket and tossed a canvas on her bed. Melinda sat down on her pillow, fixing Lydia with a look every bit as eager as it was full of concealed dread. Lydia released a tense breath. Her friend would not take silence for an answer, and the sudden change in attitude toward her undisclosed admirer was alarming.

"That’s... a safe assumption," Lydia replied, paying closer attention to her work. Upon returning from the Neitherworld around three o’clock, she had managed to contact her professors for missed work. Since Lydia was so rarely ill, making them believe she had the stomach flu had been easily accomplished.

"A safe assumption?" Melinda echoed, as if Lydia had made the understatement of the century. She continued in a tone that bordered on sarcasm, "Princess, I know he’s the one if you think he’s worth skipping an entire day’s classes. At least you finally see where I’m coming from."

Lydia blushed at the backdrop she was working on, at the same time struggling to discredit Melinda’s edgy manner. "You can say that again," she sighed. It had been harder than ever to leave Beetlejuice. Between loving in the morning, dozing through Jacques’ (rather nosy) offer of brunch shouted through the bedroom door, and dancing to discordant Weird Al parodies, they had proved once again that making the best of short time was their forté.

"Deetz," Melinda pressed with greater insistence, twisting one wild ringlet around her index finger in frustration, "you’ve got it bad. And I mean more than ‘You’re whipped!’ when I say that. Are you ready to tell me who it is?"

"You don’t know him," Lydia responded evasively. "He’s from out of town."

"Oh, come off it! Obviously, he’s close enough that he got you home in time to catch up on your precious assignments! Your name’s been all over campus today, you know."

"Why? Because I cut class for the first time in my college career?"

"You wish."

"Why, then? Mel, I don’t like the way you’re--"

"Unbelievable. You even bother to check the drama department call board? You’ve been cast as the seamstress in Sweeney."

Lydia dropped her pencil, feeling a rush of elation. "My designs were chosen? Are you serious?"

"Yeah, but Lydia, you’re serious!" Melinda cried, forgetting her quest for vindication just long enough to hug Lydia in congratulation. "You’re going to conquer Broadway one day, you know that? People like you put the competition out of business."

Smiling distantly, Lydia stared at her bedspread, as if she hadn’t heard her roommate’s praise. "I’ve got to tell him," she said, fingering the new adornment on her left hand.

Melinda released Lydia, sitting back to examine the ring. "God, that’s esoteric," she breathed, both impressed and disturbed as she lifted the face to reveal a miniature reflection of herself inside. "Honestly, Lydia, just... a name, that’s all I’m asking. I know you’re a private person and all, but so am I, and I introduced you to Ray before I introduced him to my parents. Please...."

Lydia pulled her hand away, closing the ring protectively. "Mel, you have to bear with me on this one. I’m not ready to go public with this, all right?" Lydia pleaded, biting her lip. She could not deny that Melinda was terrified. And that alone was more fearsome than silence.

"No one’s making you," Melinda admitted with a heavy sigh. "I can’t do that. All I’m asking you to remember is... I’m not exactly your public, and if you can keep a secret like this right under my nose, then chances are, they’ll never know. This admirer of yours might as well be a ghost! Whoever he-- or she-- is."

"She?" Lydia cried indignantly, fixing Melinda with a hurt glare. "Mel, I have no idea what’s gotten into you these past few--"

"Hey, you knew there were rumors about you last fall, didn’t you? I don’t doubt your orientation, but I think you ought to know there are those who do. I mean, think about it. People tend to speculate about reclusive individuals with no apparent love life."

"That," Lydia replied coldly, pushing Melinda off her bed, "is exactly why I don’t like people."

Beneath the fire of Lydia’s stare, Melinda barely prevented herself from landing hard on the floor. "I’m only telling you the truth! You know I don’t believe a word of it, because I know you-- live with you, for crying out loud. However, Lydia, it’s comments like that... that scare me, make me worry about you, that you don’t think you can tell me the truth. And so does this constant avoidance of direct answers! Give me a name, a personality! Give me anything that’ll reassure me you’re not seeing someone who’s stranger than you are-- in a bad way."

Lydia bowed her head, both ashamed and hesitant. "So what if he is one?"

Melinda blinked, confused. "What?"

"A ghost," Lydia retorted mildly, turning back to her work.

"Okay, okay," Melinda groaned. "I was really out of line on that one. Forgive me. So, you're dating a mystery man. Cool, fine, peachy. Just don't end up wasted or worse, okay? I never meant to make you feel pressured to fit in."

Lydia's head flew up, shock and remorse filling her chest. "Oh, Mel, don't tell me you think I went out and did this just because you and Ray... oh, no, that's not it! I'm honestly in love, but on my own terms. Learn to trust me, would you? I'm touched that you're always wanting to look out for me, but really, I can find my way. I always have. Oh, you've got me choked up. Get over here!"

"Princess, you're too much," Melinda replied, hugging Lydia so impulsively that they both nearly fell off the bed. "I think I've got a few gray hairs because of you!"

Lydia rocked her friend reassuringly. "I promise, when I figure out-- I mean, when the time's right-- you'll know everything that it's in my power to tell."

"Damn, this is seriously unusual. What an intrigue," Melinda replied, ruffling Lydia's hair and studying her sketch. "What on earth are you doing? They didn't assign proscenium work yet, did they?"

"No, but I thought I'd get a head start."

"You ambitious, spotlight-hogging monopolist. I swear there's a bit of the Deel-meister in you even if you're not her blood."

"Don't you ever let me hear you say that again. I'd sooner spill my guts to you than take after my stepmother!"

"Great. So, who is he?"

"Nice try, Mel. Really nice try."

 

 

* * *

 

 

September 6

T.G.I.F.!

 

I find it hard not to notice that the easier lying to my parents becomes, the circumstances that I must hide grow progressively stranger. Dad called earlier this evening to ask if I wanted to come home for the weekend. Mel's jaw nearly did a repeat performance of Jacques' when she heard me say no.

"What, you're going to be a recluse here rather than at home for a change?" she had teased. "Just in case you need to get in touch with me, I'll be at Ray's till Sunday. Lydia, why don't you come over too, at least for tonight? We're renting Rocky Horror. I think half of the sophomore class'll be there. Rumor has it, Nate knows the audience participation lines."

"Thanks, but I'll pass."

"Does the proscenium mean that much to you?" Mel had pleaded.

"Not really," I'd replied, looking up from my almost completed sketch. "But you know what half the sophomore class thinks of me. Oh, Mel, for God's sake, don't give me that look. You know I can't stand bad '70s cult classics anyway."

"You watch The Exorcist," she shot back accusingly.

My thoughts turned immediately to Beetlejuice, for whom the film was something of a favorite-- which he incidentally had skirted around watching with me until I was in high school, until which event I hadn't grasped why. "Well... that's a different story. Exorcist doesn't involve an otherwise dignigfied leading actor traipsing around in drag. I still think Tim was better in Clue."

"Fine, fine. Point taken," Melinda had sighed in defeat, shouldering her overnight bag. "I swear, though, Lydia... Ray and I will get you into social functions yet. Take care, Princess," she said affectionately, pulling the door softly closed on her way out.

Immediately following her departure, my ring grew eerily warm. Startled, I lifted the ivory face to find Beetlejuice mimicking its placid expression in the mirror.

"Is she gone? I can't hold this pose forever."

"You tell me, Beej," I laughed in reply.

"Oh, whatever. What about Chuck? Major heart attack when he heard you're not comin' home for the weekend?"

"Do you see his name in the welcome obits?"

"I guess that means the ghost is clear, Babes," Beetlejuice replied, fading to transparency so that only his glowing eyes and broad grin remained. "My side or yours?"

"Mine, tonight. The entire hall's empty. It's movie night down at the Commons, which also means keggers all over campus till the cows come home. Besides, I have some news for you."

"News that calls for celebrating?" Beetlejuice asked hopefully, restoring himself to full color and arching his eyebrows repeatedly.

"You bet. I've been looking for an excuse to use this chamomile-rosemary bath oil I bought at an herb fair back in June."

"Lyds, you're just cruel."

"About time somone had the nerve to get back at you for being such a pest."

"I'm gettin' used to this artistic revenge thing of yours, though, Babes."

"That's what I've been waiting to hear, Beetlejuice."

"And that's what I've been waiting to hear. Times two more, of course."

"Been brushing up on your math, Beetlejuice?" I teased. "I'm impressed."

"Funny, Lyds. Just hysterical. C'mon, Babes, the suspense is killin' me!"

"Beetlejuice, that's hysterical!"

A beam of weirdly refracted light shot out of my ring and bounced off the ceiling and walls like a demonic pinball. I dropped my sketchbook on the floor, following its haphazard trajectory with amusement. It finally crashed behind behind me on the bed, landing with far more force than such a small object ought to have. I scooted forward to the edge of the bed to make room for the dizzy figure lying sprawled there.

"Whoa... you've gotta try that sometime, Lyds," he remarked, giving his head a spin as if to verify it was still in working order. He sat up and offered enthusiastically, "Hey, if you want, I can arrange that right--"

"Uh, that's okay. I'll pass," I replied, tilting my head to one side in acceptance of a greeting kiss. I sighed, leaning back as he slipped his arms around my waist. "You feel so good after such a long day," I murmured, willing my back to memorize him as surely as the rest of me had.

"I never thought hearin' that kind of thing would ring my bell, y'know what I mean?" Beetlejuice commented, the resulting clamor perfectly worthy of sticking my fingers in my ears. "Only, you Lyds. Only you. Now, about that news!"

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Good things come to those who wait."

"Impatience is a virtue!"

"Ugh, you got me on that one. I was going to make you guess, but--"

"Mel finally started seeing a shrink about her thing for guys that still breathe?"

"No!" I cried explosively, laughing so hard at his unexpected conjecture that I cried. "Better than that. My costume designs were chosen for Sweeney... apparently without any otherworldly interference," I added, hugging him proudly.

"Hey, that's not true. Who put you in such a creative mood that morning, huh?"

"Excuuuuuuse me. Heaven forbid I forget how inspiring my strange bedfellow!"

"Now that's a complement."

"I might even deign to call you bizarre if you'll stoop to an herbal level."

"How in the Neitherworld you took water off my Not-To-Do list, I have no idea."

"I just need to talk dirty in order to get you clean. Reverse psychology."

"Last one in's a--"

"Don't say it."

"Right," Beetlejuice sighed, sporting an affectionate half-grin. "Oh, yeah... congratulations, Lyds."

"Mmm, for that I'll call you more than just bizarre!"

And so I did, though often at the expense of having bubbles flung in my face. Strange, I never thought I'd find a good use for this flamingo-pink terry bathrobe I got last Christmas in the white elephant exchange at Delia's Christmas party-- but lying here half damp and curled up more than proves its comfort and certain attraction in someone's color-addled eyes.

"Lyds, what'cha writin'? Hey, wha... you're writin' this all down? I'm sayin' that right this minute!"

"Yes, Beetlejuice," I laugh, playing scribe to my own speech in addition to his. "You've been watching me for ten minutes and only just figured that out?"

"Hey! That stuff made me kinda sleepy, you know, that whatchacallit your hair always smells like..."

"Me, too," I agree, yawning as I lean on his shoulder.

"Why're you doing that? Just curious."

"I want to remember," I sigh with a smile. "You know... how amazing this is, how goofy we are...."

"There's a new one. I still like bizarre better, thou-- hey, Lyds, you're yawnin' again. Gimme the book."

Sometimes, Beetlejuice knows best.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Before meeting his unruly housemate, Jacques had thoroughly believed he'd succeeded in giving up brooding. Bittersweet defeat, to admit to himself that the very admission of failure broke the resolution in twain a second time. Jacques hefted a miniature weight restlessly from one hand to the other. As many times as he convinced himself Beetlejuice's affairs weren't worth his marrow, he failed in believing that just as miserably.

Beetlejuice had vanished again the evening before, predictably. The last way Jacques had planned on spending his Friday night was pondering Beetlejuice's jaw-dropping romance, but in Ginger's moping presence, it was hard to do otherwise. He was finding his morning workout difficult due to how little he'd slept.

Jacques took a seat on the edge of his trampoline, forcing himself to acknowledge for whom it was he feared. Lydia was a sensible girl, he knew that. Even despite her odd tolerance for their concept of normality, she maintained a balance of thought and character capable of existing within the bounds of her own eccentricity.

But would a love based in a friendship transmuted too quickly-- a love bordering on madness-- upset that delicate balance?

Jacques was immediately angry with himself for even having considered it. The more he thought about it, the more he was certain she must have been the one to set things in motion. Jacques had noticed the change in Beetlejuice's cavalier attitude toward the opposite sex in the years since he'd met Lydia. When once he might have loved and left, uncaring, the present held him blinded by merciless sincerity. What Beetlejuice felt for Lydia, Jacques hoped against hope, was incabable of reverting to selfishness and ruin.

So he hoped-- and so, remained wary.

By the time the phone rang, he had worked himself into a reasonably calm sweat and vowed that whatever happened, he would be watching. The call in question, too, worked wonders on his disposition. Jacques was seldom keen on recording messages for Beetlejuice, but delivering this one would be a pleasure.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Shut up!" Lydia laughed, she and Beetlejuice almost tripping through the front door of the roadhouse. It felt almost like junior high again-- how many Saturday mornings she'd dashed across that threshold, she could not count. But not one of those times were her companion's arms so wonderfully present around her, never once his teasing so meaningful, never once his lips seeking her cheek-- her forehead, her hands, her mouth-- moment by moment.

"You asked for it, Lyds," Beetlejuice taunted playfully, swinging her to one side as the door slammed behind them. "Your hair just can't do that anymore without looking like a broom with a crew cut. Face it," he continued, briefly assuming the appearance of Clare Brewster. "That look is, like, so last decade!"

"Oh, sure, like, whatever," Lydia responded, pinning Beetlejuice against the wall impulsively. "Fess up. You like it."

"Yeah. And in a few minutes, you're gonna find out how much."

Lydia backed away with a grin of insidious acknowledgement, stepping lightly on his foot once her toe had slunk down his shin. The creak of a door caused them both to whirl around, their faces flushing in unison as the moment was broken.

"Ah, Be-atlejuice! Lydia! Bonne matin," Jacques greeted them as he emerged from the kitchen, a glass filled with some dubious blended substance clutched in one hand. "You 'ave 'ad a good evening, no?"

"Tell me something, Jacques," Lydia suggested brightly, ignoring the skeleton's suggestive grin and slanted eyebrow. Twirling in order to display herself from at all angles, she stepped away from Beetlejuice, who was trying his best to focus on the floor tile he'd promptly begun to scuff with the heel of his boot. "I can still pull off the upsweep, can't I?" Lydia asked, glancing at Beetlejuice with an almost impossible mix of reproach and adoration.

"Oh, mais oui, Lydia!" Jacques replied, making a great show of his approval. "You 'ave always been ze most versatile model zat I know."

"Hey!" Beetlejuice interjected, storming forward with amiable consternation, embracing Lydia more than jokingly, as if Jacques had challenged him to be more open with his affection. "I do the flattering around here. Got it, bone breath?"

"What-evair you say, Be-atlejuice," Jacques responded slyly, throwing up his free hand as if in defeat. "I am clearly no match for ze likes of you."

The skeleton turned and began to walk away, calculating without a glance that the pair behind him had seized the opportunity for continued mischief. He spun on his heel unexpectedly to find them forehead to forehead, Lydia teasingly sweeping Beetlejuice's hair into a semblance of her own and murmuring what sounded like, "Told you so!"

"Oh, and by ze way, Be-atlejuice-- your mother 'as called."

"Sure ya did, Babes, sure ya-- WHAAAAAAAAAAAAA?!"

If Lydia hadn't been holding onto Beetlejuice, he surely would have keeled over. Mustering all of her willpower against the urge to laugh, she steered him to the sofa. Jacques stood looking on, vastly amused and secretly proud.

"Breathe, Beetlejuice, breathe. At least it wasn't Donny," Lydia pointed out brightly. "You've met 'em both," Beetlejuice growled petulantly, "and you mean to tell me you can't see this is a case where the 'lesser of two evils' concept doesn't apply?"

"Stop that, BJ," Lydia whispered with a laugh, messing up his hair. "You have a heart, and I have the dark circles under my eyes to prove it."

"Weren't they always there?" Beetlejuice quipped dryly. "Yeah, fine, so I do. You remind me often enough as it is," he conceded, smiling wanly.

Jacques seized the opportunity to add, "You are supposed to call her back, mon ami. I told 'er you would return before ze evening, likely. She sends 'er regards to you aussi, Lydia." With that, he granted the pair on the couch their privacy.

"Why me, Babes?" Beetlejuice moaned, collapsing sideways into Lydia's lap. "Why me?"

"Beej, it's not that bad. It never is," Lydia reassured him, fussing with his hair once more. "Just give her a call and see what she wants. It's been more than half a year since you've seen her!"

"Yeah, and last time I did, brother dearest was there, too. Can ya blame me? I'm scarred for afterlife."

"But I was there with you, and I'm here with you now. You can do it."

"You're gonna owe me big later on," he mumbled against her forearm.

"Quit trying to hide that grin!"

"Gimme the phone and watch it melt, sweetie."

"Oooo, better shove Mr. Heart back in place before he goes spouting sonnets!"

"It's a wonder the sandworms never come after you-- ah, ah, ah! Don't say a word Babes, not another word."

The instant he rose and made his way to the phone, Lydia sprawled out on the sofa, gasping with hysterical laughter. Beetlejuice dialed his parents' residence, glaring at her out of the corner of his eye.

"Hello, yeah. Ma? Uh-huh. He sure did. Yes, I'm fine. Ma, I said I'm fine. Now, what did you... Yeah, yeah, behind my ears and in front of 'em too. Lyin'? No. You heard me-- MA! Cross my eyes and hope to-- I said yes! If Jacques is just tryin' to waste my time, I swear... uh, no, no! 'Course I do. So you really did have somethin' to... uh-huh... what? Whaddaya mean? Laughin'? Of course not, that's just-- yes, Ma. She is," Beetlejuice muttered, rolling his eyes and covering the mouthpiece. Lydia only giggled harder.

"Hello, Mrs. Juice!" she cried at the top of her lungs.

"Yeah, that was. I will-- hey, Lyds, she says hello back. There, is that ok? Ok. So what did you... no, I haven't, since when did I bother to clean up around here when she does? Oh, come on! It's not-- fine. Lyds, you're supposed to remind me to dust. Mom, just stop it already! What do you want?"

"Easy, BJ," Lydia mouthed, still grinning from ear to ear.

Beetlejuice glared at the ceiling, making a an impatient gesture at the floor. "You mean you don't remember what you... oh-- oh!...."

Lydia's amusement faded into confusion as the phone slid from Beetlejuice's grasp. He stared at the floor for several moments, looking as if he couldn't decide whether he wanted to curse or blow a fuse. Without thinking, Lydia leapt off the couch and retrieved the phone.

"Mrs. Juice? Are you still there? This is Lydia... yes, yes, fine, and you? Great. Uh... Beetlejuice went to answer the door. You know the Monster across the street, always something to... Beetlejuice? Why, no, he didn't-- you mean you just asked him-- well, what did you ask him? Certainly I'll ask him for you again. Now what is it? Ah... ah! Oh, Mrs. Juice, that's so thoughtful! Yes, of course I will. Uh, I don't think he'll be back any minute soon. We'll get back to you. Again, that sounds wonderful! See you soon. Bye!"

Lydia hung up hastily, bending to drag Beetlejuice to his feet. He swayed for a few moments, preferring her shoulder as an outlet for some fresh whining.

"Lyds... Ma wants... She asked... WAAAAHAAAAAHAAAAA!"

"Us to come over for dinner next Friday night. What's the big deal? Beetlejuice, we can do this. We've spent entire days in that house."

"Yeah, but were we involved?"

"Best friendship is involvement!"

"Lyds, you know what I mean."

"Your parents will find out eventually. We really don't have anything to hide."

"Look your folks in the face and then try saying that."

Lydia winced. "Point taken. You mean it would really...?"

"Upset Ma and Pop? Well, Babes, here's the thing... yes and no. I agree it's not as serious as your situation at all. Ma loves you. Pop doesn't say much, so that means about the same thing. But the fact I'm... well... uh, by their standards not making an honest ghoul of either of us...."

Lydia grew serious, searching his eyes for a moment. "Beetlejuice, I know it's not easy... but we have to start somewhere, right?"

Beetlejuice sighed, "Yeah, I guess. And Ma's as good a place as any. The worst she can do is tell me to go dry clean every last piece of lint I own. On the other hand, yours would probably ship you off to some--"

Lydia drew in a hurt, frightened breath and looked away. "Beetlejuice, please don't even speculate."

Beetlejuice felt a curious jolt in his chest, more an echo than a sensation. He held her close and admitted, "Yeah, that was wrong of me. Forget it."

Lydia's stricken look faded as quickly as it had come. She whispered in his ear, "I think there's hope for you after all."

"I think it's you, Babes."

"But... stay. The way you are. It's just the little things now and then. That's what I meant."

"Lyds, as many times as I've asked you that... I think what I meant to say half the time is, I know what you mean, too."

"Hey, it's getting a little mushy in here," Lydia said with a faintly embarrassed smile. "Yuck."

"Couldn't've said it better myself, sooo... let's do something completely ironic. You left my mind somewhere back by the front door, y'know."

"Before or after I stepped on your foot?"

"I'm not answering that," Beetlejuice said simply, returning the favor of earlier. After a euphoric minute pinned flat against the wall, Lydia could scarcely breathe. "You tell me, Lyds."

Each was too absorbed in the other to notice a hollow pair of eyes watching discreetly from around the corner. The only difference was, this time, their owner decided it best not to interrupt. He slipped away as quietly as his joints would permit, deciding that perhaps his fears were ungrounded after all.

 

* * *

 

 

September 11

Wednesday ~ 11:16 PM

 

 

Beetlejuice had been glad to relegate the duty of calling his mother back to me. Not that I minded or blamed him for it-- he never could get a word in edgewise amidst her endless queries and caveats. A long joyride immediately following our dalliance in the living room had calmed his nerves greatly, albeit rattled Doomie's when we decided spur of the moment to catch the next showing at the drive-in. Our wheeled friend expressed his distaste for Lon Chaney by snoring loudly through a disengaged muffler during the last half of the film. Beetlejuice and I had finally resorted to putting the hood up once the disgruntled onslaught of popcorn from neighboring viewers became too frequent. What amuses me most is that sound should bother them during a silent film! Well, no loss-- hoods are good for keeping out more than just popcorn. Even I didn't stay interested in Chaney's performance for the remainder of the evening.

I had hoped to avoid Melinda's usual invitation to dinner today, but I didn't succeed. She and Ray walked into the room just as I was about to take leave of this world for the evening. Not having spent more than an hour-- let alone a night-- in Beetlejuice's presence since Saturday had become definite torture. I snapped the ring shut just in time as the door opened. It trembled in shock and protest, Beetlejuice nonetheless growing instantly quiet.

"Hey, Lydia!" Ray greeted, embracing me with a casual enthusiasm that complemented Melinda's so well. "I haven't seen you since that night you and Mel stopped by the Outback. What've you been up to?"

"Sketching and scheming and disappearing on me," Melinda answered for her, entering behind him with a small bag of groceries. Lydia cast her a warning glance as Ray let go of her.

"Disappearing, huh? Added a new talent to your impressive repertoire, have you?"

I stared at them for a moment before answering, struck as always by the incongruous beauty of the pair. Ray is as broad and muscular as Melinda and I are petite. In every physical aspect, he seems to contradict her-- skin fair, hair dark and straight, eyes fathomless brown. But in temperament, the two could not be more similar.

"Well?" Ray pressed with a teasing grin. "Won't you demonstrate?"

"You couldn't handle it," I replied, half lightly and half sincerely. It gave me great satisfaction knowing I could do just that before their very eyes and no one in the world would believe them.

"That's enough, Ray," Melinda sighed, stepping forward to give my nose a tweak. "She's just sensitive about some interesting developments in her personal life lately, is all."

Ray's eyes brightened, the mirror double of Melinda's typical expression when intrigued. "Wow, Princess Sorrow's got a knight in tarnished armor? It's about time."

"Something like that," I said noncommittally. "You know. It's one of those things. You don't know what's going to come of it."

"Well, these have come of it," Melinda informed him, indicating the bouquet of dried roses and the ring on my finger. "She's really got a lot of explaining to do, when the time comes."

"Why?" Ray asked, catching me completely off guard. "It's not like she ever forced you to bring me out of hiding, and heaven rue the day you did. The poor girl's probably never recovered from the teasing I dished out the first time you introduced us."

I smiled gratefully, touched that at least someone could be curious and respect my privacy at the same time. "Oh, believe me, Ray. I've put up with much worse."

"So she has, poor dear," Melinda reiterated wryly, flashing me a look that brought to mind last week's conversation. "She's definitely a master of concealment and defense. They ought to put her in charge of national security."

"Mel, isn't that enough for now?" Ray asked, still mindful of my discomfort.

"Yes," I took the liberty of answering. "I really ought to get on this art history assignment."

"We had one?" Melinda croaked.

"You have to learn how to take notes."

"Tsk, tsk, is my girl slipping up?" Ray teased, kissing the top of her head.

"Oh, not both of you," Melinda grumbled. "Lydia, we stopped by here to ask if you want to join us for dinner at the apartment. We're making pancakes."

"Thank you, really, but I can't--"

"I don't understand," Melinda cut in sharply, sounding hurt. "You don't have the time for anyone."

"Mel, that's uncalled for," I said, gritting my teeth. "I really thought we discussed this."

"You're right. We did. But just don't expect me to give up my reservations about you in an instant, okay? Lydia, I care about you and I don't know the hell why! Sometimes I think anyone else could have roomed with you and just left you in your own separate world, barely knowing you were there-- and they'd have settled for that. But not me. Not me. I see too much that's worth knowing in you, Lydia. I just thought you might like to know."

Whether Ray sqeezed her hand in urging for silence or in encouragement, I could not tell. Melinda blinked, biting her lip before whatever words came next could escape. "I care," she said simply. "I know. It's selfish of me to force you to show that you do, too."

I put my arms around her, feeling cold and shocked. "Please, just tell me what I can do. But just not today, Mel. I have work. You know where I draw the line, miserly as it seems." Lying made my heart painfully aware of guilt's pinpricks constantly hovering at its periphery.

"Yeah, I know. A little too well," Melinda sighed, smiling again but much more subdued, quick to forget a moment's grudge. "We'll save you a couple if you want."

I hesitated a moment before deciding it best to respond, "Yes, I'd like that. And... well, I'd like to make this up to you. Is there something you guys are doing in the near future that might require my presence?"

Melinda smiled, thoughtful and touched. She murmured something to Ray, raising her eyebrows as if seeking his approval. He laughed and said, "Go right ahead."

"Lydia, you ever consider taking up dance? You have the right body for it."

"What're you getting at? You know I don't like stereotypes."

"Oh, would you just forget this nonconformist shit for once and sign up for tango lessons with us?"

"Since you ask so politely and since you have my blind agreement, yes," I responded with mild sarcasm. "When do they start?"

"Next Thursday night."

"I'll be there."

"Any chance of you bringing along Mr. Right for the ride? Couples are encouraged."

"Mel..."

"Right, right," she growled. "No bringing the vampire to light, heaven forbid..."

"Okay," Ray cut in hastily, steering Melinda toward the door. "That's great, Lydia. We're thrilled to have you. Mel and I will sign you up when we go to the rec center, won't we?"

"Yeah," Melinda assented with a sullen, almost hurt backward glance at me. "See you later, roomie."

"Later," I replied, shutting the door almost too forcefully once they both stepped into the hall. I leaned heavily against it, simply grateful to be alone once more. How had things gotten so out of hand? As if to comfort me, the ring grew warm. I opened it hurriedly, gasping for breath.

"Babes, I swear... let me juice her paintbrushes just once and she'll never--"

"Beetlejuice, shhh... it's tempting, but what would that solve? She doesn't know you exist. She wouldn't know it's an act of revenge even remotely connected with-- oh, let me take that back. Considering the animosity she's hiding, she'd blame me."

Beetlejuice's reflection quivered as if dealt a blow, ashamed. "Forget it. I should know better by now. You've taken falls for me one too many times."

"BJ, it's all right," I said softly. "Let's forget this. I want to see you."

"Me too, Babes," he whispered, his eyes almost feverish. "Me too. Good grief, might as well get in what time we can before Ma hogs our Friday evening... oh, yeah, I forgot. She called again this afternoon. She wanted me to ask you something."

"What?"

"If you took pictures of whatever you did with that shawl. She wants to see them."

"Well, you know I did-- the disposable camera I had the waiter use at Cleopatra's... but no, the film's definitely not developed."

"Ma'll blow a fuse," Beetlejuice muttered. "She'll think I didn't remind you no matter what you say. Do you have time to do that tomorrow?"

"I haven't even finished off the disposable roll yet," I admitted, biting my lip. There must be ten shots left on it."

"But is there time tomorrow?"

I couldn't think clearly, but it wasn't the reason my schedule popped up so full. I groaned, "Beetlejuice, I doubt it. I have classes solid till noon, then an hour break, and then I have a required meeting since I'm now on Sweeney Todd design staff and--"

"Babes, this isn't lookin' good... what about... tonight?" he winced, feeling the loss of valuable time that might have been spent wrapped in each others' arms.

"Well, yes, if we weren't planning on some private time like we happen to be," I replied, somewhat irked. "It's six thirty now and the darkroom closes at eight. I'd have barely enough time to snap off those ten remaining shots at random and tear the little sucker apart so I can develop the film."

"Hey, you still gotta develop the beach shots too! I'm impatient to see those! Whew, were we wound up like springs that day or what? I--"

"Beej, why don't you come here instead? Mel's eating dinner at Ray's, and I seriously doubt she'll be coming home tonight. No one else'll be in the darkroom, and I have a key to that wing since I'm vice president of photo club..." I trailed off, smiling hopefully.

"Heheheheh, yeah.... let's do it. Reminds me of the ol' days back in your basement."

"Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!"

I took us by the least conspicuous route to the art building I knew. Ten minutes later, we slipped down the dim hall into an even dustier side route with cinderblock walls. I turned the key in the rusting knob, swinging it inward with a sweep of the arm.

"You'd think they would be able to keep even this in better repair, wouldn't you?" I remarked to Beetlejuice, leading him by the arm into the tart, damp atmosphere. I closed the door behind us, the familiar automatic click of the lock firm and reassuring. No one would prevent us from getting the job done. Bee would not be disappointed.

While Beetlejuice eyed the cracks in the walls and floor with a familiar attentiveness, I made short work of dismantling the disposable camera and preparing the roll from the beach for developing. By the time I'd cut the film and begun setting them cautiously in the trays, Beetlejuice had drifted up behind me, his interest split between what I was doing and what I was wearing. His fingers brushed the waist of my knee-length black shirtdress every so often, half inquisitive and half tempted.

"I've never seen you in this before," he remarked absently, withdrawing just as quickly in order to focus on my fingers carefully setting the last frame in place. I turned unhurriedly, my job for the moment complete, brushing my hands off on a chamois cloth before casting it aside.

"I know," I said simply, smiling up at him. "But I wanted you to."

"So... all we do now's wait?" Beetlejuice asked, his fingers finding something invisible to brush from my shoulder.

"Beej, you know the drill. You've watched me develop film dozens of times, and your patience can be impressive."

"Yeah, well... you never looked this good," he said as if he feared choking on the words. "I'm kinda sorry I dragged us here. There's a dozen places I'd rather be with you right now."

I felt my lips turn up into a smile, a sudden rush in my veins. I took him by the hands impulsively, drawing him forward until we touched as we had on that first night, standing frightened and miserable beyond words. But no fear prevented me this time from clasping him near, from leaning my head on his shoulder as I whispered, "Why can't here be one of a dozen?"

Beetlejuice started for a moment, startled that I might even suggest such a thing, but in moments I was matched fervor for fervor. And if you think nothing so thrilling can be done in the twenty minutes it takes film to develop, let me tell you, you couldn't be more mistaken. At some point, pinned deliriously between he who held me and the edge of the countertop, my limbs wrapped about him for dear life-- I let go for the sparest instant, my arm arcing to one side as aimlessly as a whip. A split second later, the sound of shattering glass and the splash of liquid on cement was dimly apparent in the background.

But somehow, it just didn't matter, and to tell you the truth, I'm still not sure whether that jar was full of acid or mere distilled water. I'll let the morning custodian be the judge of that.

By the time we'd regained our bearings sufficiently enough to realize what we'd done and where, the pictures needed pulling-- and fast. Beetlejuice worked beside me, equally as dizzy, but he proved that so many years of watching me hadn't been spent in vain. In fact, I didn't even mind that he tracked a beetle on our way out. As far as I'm concerned, he earned it as surely as he earned the sleep he's now claiming at my side. The pictures now sit tucked in my canvas bag, safe from any prying eyes. A pity, that such marvels must be hidden from all mortal sight save my own.

Come to think of it, I need rest just as badly. I'll have to rise at seven if I expect to get him out of here before Melinda returns. Strange, though-- the risk bothers me less and less with each passing day.

And that's why a part of me is more haunted than ever before.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Babes, I dunno how you ever talked me into this," Beetlejuice remarked nervously, leaning on the arm of his chair as Lydia patiently ran a comb through his hair. "Ma's gonna scrub me out of house and home when she finds us out."

"Beetlejuice, for all your complaining, you never mind visiting your parents half so much when we get there," Lydia pointed out, arranging his wild mane in a careless but charming cascade on his shoulders. "There, you look fine. After all, she did say this is completely casual."

"Yeah, but she'll say, 'Junior, couldn't you just for once forget the stripes?'" Beetlejuice trilled in perfect imitation of his mother.

Lydia put her arms around his shoulders, rocking him. "Stop worrying. If anyone deserves a reprimand, it's me. My jeans have faint stains on the seat dating back to the second week of first semester when Melinda thought it would be amusing to leave her palette on my chair."

"Well, you know I noticed, but that sweater of yours just about covers 'em. It matches your eyes, kinda, did you know?"

"The stains?" Lydia asked, raising an eyebrow bemusedly.

"Nah! The sweater! You--"

"I know what you mean," she reassured him, sqeezing him and kissing the top of his head. "Come on, we'd better get going. Your mom said seven, and I don't plan on being late."

"Pppht. You didn't even consult with me on that," Beetlejuice commented, amiable despite his defeat. "You really know how to win me over, Lyds. You must have your parents mastered, too-- no protests when you said you weren't comin' home this weekend, either?"

"Not really. Dad was mildly disheartened, but Delia's apparently gotten off my case altogether! She's proud that her hermit of a stepdaughter has finally acquired a social life." "Whaddaya know. Delia's growing up. Kinda brings a tear to your eye," Beetlejuice cackled with gleeful sarcasm, mock-blowing his nose on a handkerchief drawn out of thin air.

"Tears of relief, maybe," Lydia responded wryly, pulling him to his feet. "Come on. Doomie's been raring to go. I think he's starting to feel sorry for the way he's been acting since things changed between you and I. He's not really upset, he's just afraid of losing attention now that we're so wrapped up in each other."

"Whoa, Babes, nice metaphor. We'd be runnin' fantastically late if I'd thought of saying that!"

"You wish, BJ," Lydia laughed. "Let's go."

Lydia was glad that she'd insisted on driving. They were on the road for scarcely two minutes when Beetlejuice gave in to his paranoia once more and started thinking up excuses left and right for why they shouldn't show. If Beetlejuice had been behind the wheel, God knows what detours or dead ends he might have purposely taken. Beetlejuice had removed his snakebelt and was cowering under the dashboard by the time Lydia pulled up in front of the Juices' residence.

Doomie pulled up next to the curb obediently, leaving Lydia free to lean over and hiss, "Beetlejuice, get up this instant! This is really unnecessary. Your parents love you. Nagging doesn't mean a thing, do you hear me? I don't care what they think, if they even bother to comment! I love you, and they won't change that."

Beetlejuice crawled onto the seat, hanging his head penitently. "Yeah, Lyds, right... right, right, right as always. I should've taken a hint way back when Doomie was 'stolen.' I am a jackass."

"Oh, shush," Lydia murmured, sorry that she'd come close to raising her voice. "Of course you're nervous... to tell you the truth, I'm nervous. I've never done this... meeting-the-parents thing before, I guess. Gracious, and I already know them!"

"Yeah, Babes, but the difference is, you've got self control. You can hide it," Beetlejuice pointed out as he hovered up and over, landing outside so that he could Doomie's door for her.

"You're sweet when you remember there's such a thing as chivalry," Lydia murmured, rising to meet him with a smile. Doomie clapped the door shut behind her with an approving beep.

"Yeah! Whoever said chivalry isn't dead has it all wrong!"

Just as he was about to lean forward and kiss her lightly, the sound of the front door opening changed his course of action drastically. They both nearly leapt out of their skins at the face peering exuberantly from behind the screen.

"Why, if it isn't the two musketeers! Mother, they've arrived! Isn't it delightful? Beetlejuice, come on up here and give your brother a big old hug!"

Drained of what spare color he possessed, Beetlejuice gripped Lydia hard by the shoulders, lest he lose consciousness in front of the one person he'd least care to witness him in a dead faint.

Lydia muttered through clenched teeth, "Uh, Beetlejuice, your mom didn't say anything about him coming over when she called back, did she?"

"Nnnnooo," Beetlejuice replied, locking his jaw into the biggest, fakest grin he could muster. "Showtime, Babes," he added, taking her by the arm rather possessively and advancing bravely toward the gate.

Predictably, Donny strode down the front steps and met them halfway, immediately crushing his older brother in a strangling bear hug. Lydia winced, giving Beetlejuice's apoplectic visage a sympathetic look over Donny's shoulder.

"What a fortunate coincidence," Donny gushed, "that my favorite brother's coming to dinner on the one night in a dozen I stop by. It's great to see you-- oh, just think! A whole happy family reunion!"

"Yeah... happy... blah, let go of me already!" Beetlejuice choked, struggling free of his brother's embrace, checking his throat for bruises. Oblivious, Donny turned his attention to Lydia.

"Miss Deetz, it's a pleasure to see you again!" Donny chimed, shaking Lydia's hand so vigorously that she thought it might come off. "My, what a fine young woman you've grown up to be. Wouldn't you agree, Beetlejuice?"

"Yes," Beetlejuice spat, almost seething, barely regaining control of his temper. Lydia blushed in spite of herself, touched by the sheer honesty that her lover allowed to defiantly shine through his fury.

"It's good to see you again, too, Donny," Lydia replied brightly, quelling her annoyance as best she could. For all of his sickening cheerfulness, Donny's heart was always in the right place. In fact, she'd always fancied it lodged there a bit too deeply.

"Just out of curiosity," Lydia added, pulling her hand away tactfully in order to tuck her hair behind her ear, "what brings you here? It's such a... pleasant surprize."

"Oh, you know I can't stay away from my dear parents for long," Donny said modestly, clasping his hands primly behind his back. "Aren't they just the greatest folks two guys like us could ask for?" he gushed, eyeing Beetlejuice expectantly.

"Sure, the best," Beetlejuice grated, claiming Lydia's arm once more. "Speaking of which, it's not very polite of us to keep them waiting, is it?"

Donny's face fell dramatically but earnestly. "Gee... you're right. Where are my manners today? Let's go in, shall we?"

"You certainly shall!" Bee called from the threshold. "You kids had better get in here before these appetizers get cold!"

Lydia took the initiative in getting Beetlejuice away from his brother so that his temper would have time to cool. She led him up the stairs, beaming at Bee. "Hello again," Lydia greeted her warmly. "If tonight's dinner is half as good as lunch the other day, then we're all in for a treat!"

"Lunch?" Beetlejuice echoed, perplexed.

Lydia mouthed, "I'll explain later!" as she bent to accept Bee's outstretched arms. "Thanks again... so much. We really ought to see a little more of you," Lydia said honestly, much to Beetlejuice's fleeting consternation.

"Well, my dear, you're here now and that's what matters. My, how neat and clean that georgeous hair is! It shines like midnight, doesn't it, Junior? How lovely!" Bee said admiringly, fixing her son with a curiously undefined look that was both pleasant and unsettling.

"Uh... yes," Beetlejuice replied awkwardly, swallowing hard. "Smells great in there, Ma," he said softly, taking his turn to embrace Bee and planting a light kiss on her cheek. Lydia didn't dare turn around, lest her mere attention induce some sickly sweet comment from Donny that would only irritate Beetlejuice further.

"Speaking of which, Junior-- so do you! My, my, someone's introduced my boy to shampoo! You weren't lying about the ears after all," Bee remarked approvingly, studying his right ear more closely through her spectacles. She glanced sideways at Lydia with the same curious look she had given her son moments previous.

Beetlejuice was quick to notice that Lydia's faint blush. Frantic to distract Bee, Beetlejuice blurted, "Uh, Ma! When did... you get those glasses?"

"Oh, a month or so ago," Bee replied, adjusting them primly. "Your father broke my magnifying glass when-- gracious, are those even clean teeth I see, dear?"

Beetlejuice rolled his eyes, sighing in relief, "I can't even surprize you for once, can I? Nothin' gets past you, Ma."

"Beetlejuice, that was downright sweet of you!" Donny remarked, moving in to pat his brother proudly on the back. "Goodness knows, Mother's always been getting on you about--"

Lydia cleared her throat before Beetlejuice acted on the urge to send his brother sprawling down the stairs. "Ahmmm... Bee, about those appetizers... I sure am hungry! Lead the way."

Bee chuckled, turning on her heel and leading them all into the living room. "My, Lydia, but if I'm not mistaken, he's rubbed off on you a bit, too!" she said softly, leaving Lydia with a mystifying look before bustling off to the kitchen. As an afterthought, she called over her shoulder, "Donny, why don't you be a dear and offer them a place to sit?"

"Yes, Mother," Donny agreed blithely, turning only to discover that his older brother had already claimed a spot on the couch and propped his boots on the coffee table. Lydia stared between the two for a wary moment before murmuring, "Don't mind if I do, Donny." She boldly took a seat close beside Beetlejuice, managing to resist both the urge to lean against him and to nudge his feet off the table. If this was his way of challenging Donny on their parents' turf, Lydia's mischievous side certainly didn't want to miss it.

Grinning as if nothing was potentially amiss, Donny took a seat on the recliner opposite them-- only to rise quickly a few moments later, gasping, "How could I forget? That's Father's. I really ought to save it for him." Much to Beetlejuice's annoyance and Lydia's amusement, Donny took a seat with them on the sofa. Lydia was only glad she separated the two.

"Question, bro," Beetlejuice said flatly. "Is Pop actually here right now?"

"Why, yes. He's upstairs washing for dinn--"

"I meant in this room, genius."

"Well, no...."

"Then you perfectly well could've sat in it!"

"Actually, you mean I could have been sitting--"

"WHATEVER!"

"Now, Beetlejuice, you just take a deep, calming breath and tell me--"

"BOYS! CUT THAT OUT THIS INSTANT, YOU HEAR?"

"Yessir!" Beetlejuice and Donny chirped in perfect unison. Lydia barely prevented herself from laughing as Gnat tromped down the stairs, still in heavy boots and his factory attire.

"Good evening, Mr Juice," Lydia said calmly, swallowing a tremendously amused breath. "How's work?"

"Hello, Lydia. Same as usual-- we get the job done. There's always demand for things as useful as neckbolts. Isn't that right, Junior?" Gnat asked in the same tone as she'd once heard him ask Beetlejuice why he had no employment.

"Right as rain," Beetlejuice muttered, avoiding Donny's gaze and staring at the floor as if he didn't notice the tiny raincloud depositing a light shower on their father's head.

Gnat shooed the cloud away nonchalantly, heaving a noticably disappointed sigh. "Always fooling around, Beetlejuice. A man'll never get anywhere that way. Couldn't you be a bit more like your brother sometimes, son?"

Donny beamed innocently, as if he didn't recognize his father's comment was also an insult to Beetlejuice. "Let me get something to dry you off, Father," he offered brightly.

Before Donny could rise, Beetlejuice sent a lightning bolt directly at their father's head. When the smoke cleared, Gnat's cap had been transformed into a towel swathed about his head like a turban. Taken somewhat aback, Donny shrugged with a ridiculous grin, resuming his seat-- Lydia thought-- rather insecurely. One sidelong glance at Beetlejuice's sore expression was enough. She took his hand and squeezed it.

"Was that enough like Donny for ya, Pop?" Beetlejuice asked in a strained voice.

Lydia realized uncomfortably that Donny's eyes were riveted on her-- or, more precisely, riveted on her hand comfortingly clasping his brother's. Tightening her hold, she cleared her throat and said quietly, "Mr. Juice, you ought to be glad that your sons are as different as they are."

A beat of shocked silence ensued, and it was hard to say exactly which of the men sported a more flustered expression. Gnat's face remained for the most part unchanged, but his eyes sought the floor, brow hardening inscrutably, his hands flexing awkwardly on the arms of the chair. Donny's eyes went bizarrely wide for a split second before narrowing the nearest to a look of discontent that Lydia had ever observed in him. She preferred to look at Beetlejuice, who likewise avoided the other two, looking both faintly embarrassed and desperate to seek refuge in Lydia's embrace.

His features uncharacteristically hardened, Donny opened his mouth to speak but was fortuitously interrupted. Bee shuffled gaily into the living room, carrying a steaming tray of brie tarts molded in tiny shapes ranging from stars to-- Could it really be? Lydia thought incredulously-- beetles.

"Eat them while they're hot, dears!" she instructed cheerfully, placing the tray on the coffee table. Her eye met Donny's briefly as she did so, and she murmured as if cooing to a child, "Were you about to say something, honey?"

Donny straightened up, immediately his old, amiable self once more. "Why yes, Mother-- that they must be absolutely divine," he praised in a voice dripping with saccharine, giving Beetlejuice the most subtly insolent look. "I could smell them coming."

Beetlejuice flexed his fingers at his side, muttering, "We'll be able to smell you coming by the time I'm finished--"

Lydia caught his fingers in a vise grip, whispering, "Calm down. Do you realize it'll irk Donny even more if you resist the urge to juice him? Wow, BJ... I've never seen him this way before. He looks... almost jealous."

Beetlejuice had been listening to her only halfheartedly, but the word "jealous" seemed to hit home. He grinned at Lydia as he reached for one of the tarts, making an exaggerated point of saying, "Ma, they look so good you can already taste 'em!"

Donny almost choked on the miniature star that he'd just popped into his mouth. Lydia slipped an arm discreetly around Beetlejuice and murmured in his ear as he chewed on a beetle, "Score one for the B-Guy!"

Beetlejuice stuck the tip of his tongue out at Donny just as Bee spun on her heel and returned to the kitchen. Gnat was too wrapped up in the newspaper he'd retrieved from the floor to notice that Beetlejuice had put an arm around Lydia in return and leaned close enough for his lips to touch her ear. Donny's eyes swelled to nearly twice their normal size, in perfect accompaniment to his fit of coughing.

"You know it, Babes," Beeltejuice murmured in Lydia's ear, following with a silent but unhurried kiss pressed just behind it. Rather enjoying the game herself, Lydia leaned into the gesture of affection with a genuine, blissful sigh.

Donny coughed even harder, leaping to his feet with a hasty, "I think I need a drink! Mother, may I have some..."

Beetlejuice and Lydia fell into hysterics as he dashed into the kitchen. Gnat looked up from his paper quizically.

"Something funny, kids?"

The two of them shrugged, each seizing a second tart and promptly shoving it in their mouth. As Gnat resumed reading, Beetlejuice murmured gleefully in Lydia's ear through a mouthful of brie, "I think you mean score two for the team, partner!"

Several minutes later, a considerably paler and more subdued Donny peered in from the kitchen and said, "Dinner is ready."

Gnat rose wordlessly, leaving the newspaper folded on the chair in his stead. Lydia and Beetlejuice followed suit, but they hung back for a moment, still holding hands. Donny remained in the doorway, his eyes narrowing with a curious, appalling petulance once Gnat passed by. Pretending not to notice, Beetlejuice and Lydia drew close for a moment, forehead to forehead.

"Do you think we should stop torturing him?" Lydia murmured with a delicate smile, the gentle play of her fingers on his shoulder betraying her desire for continued mischief.

Beetlejuice shot a glance at Donny before winking insidiously at Lydia. "Nah!" he replied in a low, devilish rasp.

Lydia giggled, pressing her lips to his impulsively, the briefest flirtatious brush. They heard Donny's strangled gasp of shock, but by the time they turned in his direction, he had vanished into the kitchen.

"Shall we?" Beetlejuice asked with absurd propriety, offering Lydia his arm.

"We're terrible, you know that?" Lydia remarked playfully, accepting.

"Only the worst, Babes. Only the worst will do!"

Bee met them at the kitchen door, hustling them toward the table with her potholder gloves. "Hurry along," she scolded Beetlejuice cheerfully. "Just because you're a slowpoke doesn't mean Lydia should go hungry."

"Pppht," Donny muttered almost inaudibly behind one hand raised as if to cover a yawn, "the lagging behind sure looked mutual to me!"

Lydia masked her shock behind feigned interest in what Bee had bubbling on the stove. Beetlejuice followed suit, flashing her a private look of fright. Never in his afterlife had Donny sounded so much like his older brother.

Bee sidled up between Beetlejuice and Lydia at the stove, lifting the pot with unbelievable strength for such a tiny woman. She carried it to the neatly set table, clucking, "Come, now, stop acting like strangers in your own house! Sit down, boys. And Lydia, dear, please do have a seat."

Donny stiffly claimed the seat to the left of where Gnat was seated at the head of the table, sulking vividly behind a perfect imitaiton of his usual sincere grin. He patted the chair directly beside him, inviting in a kind but strained tone, "Won't you join me, brother dear?"

"I'd be delighted," Beetlejuice grated in faultless imitation of his brother's trademark politeness. His expression, however, suggested otherwise. He gave Lydia a look of sheer misery as he plopped into the seat beside Donny.

With a smile at once sly and consoling, Lydia slipped into the seat directly across from him. "That way he can sit beside you and look me right in the eye. Great idea, Donny," she murmured smoothly, running the toe of her boot with slow deliberation up Beetlejuice's calf.

Beetlejuice didn't succeed in preventing his eyes from widening for a moment, nor his hands from tautly gripping the table. "Uh... sure is," he blurted, breaking into a hasty grin, but not quickly enough. Donny had already blanched another shade bluer.

Oblivious to the covert exchange of contempt, Bee had begun to ladel the pot's savory contents into the large soup bowls sitting before each one of them. Looking fairly sick with his surroundings otherwise, Donny breathed in the steam as if in denial.

"Mother, this stew smells simply divine!" he gushed, chancing a tart sidelong glance at his brother. He added in a snide side-tone, "Which is more than can be said for--"

"Your discretion," Beetlejuice interrupted crisply, mimicing his brother's action as Bee served him a helping of stew. "Ma, it looks so good I could take a bath in it!"

Bee tapped him across the back of the head lightly. "Junior, save the wisecracks for later. Lydia, dear, is that enough for you?"

"Plenty, Mrs. Juice," Lydia replied. "And, really... if I were to bathe in broth with beef and vegetables, I'd pick yours any day."

Beetlejuice, who had been on the verge of sulking, gave Lydia a positively adoring, furtive smile. As she served her husband, Bee clucked indulgently, "Kids... aren't they something, Gnat?"

"Sure are," he mumbled, immediately taking a spoonful of the stew.

Lydia couldn't help but notice that Bee carried herself with that same latent aloofness on the way back to her own seat. The five of them ate in silence for a few moments, either unsettled by the tense undercurrent in their conversation or too hungry to care-- which latter condition applied solely to Gnat. Donny, simmering more visibly minute by minute, was first to break the hiatus.

"Would you please pass me the lemonade?" he asked Beetlejuice, speaking politely enough but contradicting it with a sharp elbowing under the table. Beetlejuice dropped his spoon, flexing his fingers threateningly.

"With pleasure, Donny," he muttered, a faint spark illuminating the tip of his index finger. But for some reason, just before he could send the pitcher sailing perilously at Donny, the spark went out in unison with the peculiar expression that grew on his face. Lydia reached forward and grasped the pitcher, her eyes fixed restrainingly on Beetlejuice's face even as her lips pursed as if in concentration.

"Here you go," she said casually, handing it to a miserably confused Donny.

He reached out to accept it, but halted the action stubbornly. "I do believe I asked my brother for it--"

"Yeah, and I was about to give--"

"Donny, be a gentleman," Bee scolded more severely than any reprimand she had given Beetlejuice all evening.

Biting his lip in grudging acquiescence, Donny took the pitcher from Lydia with a forced, "Thank you."

Beetlejuice, for the moment, seemed to have lost all contact with the moment. If anyone noticed that Lydia's eyes had not left his the entire time, they might also have noticed the slight motion in her poise, even in stillness. The corners of his mouth turning up in almost a mirror image of hers, Beetlejuice quickly gulped a spoonful of soup and murmured, "Mmmm!"

"It is fabulous, isn't it?" Lydia agreed verbally, the accompanying arch of her eyebrows as out of place as Beetlejuice's utterance. She turned to Bee and asked with overcalculated poise, "Wherever did you get this recipe?"

"I'm so glad you like it, dear!" Bee replied enthusiastically, only her bespectacled eyes betraying her perception once again. "I don't really follow a recipe. I just do what seems best at the moment."

"Yeah..." Beetlejuice murmured somewhat distantly, finding concentration on his soup ridiculously difficult. Donny's eyes, though apparently fixed in his own lap, had steadily begun widening. In perfect contrast, Gnat's focused placidly on everything but the apparent situation emerging. Lydia tore her involved gaze away from Beetlejuice for a moment, flashing Donny a slit-eyed, mysterious smile.

"Spontenaity is definitely a virtue, wouldn't you agree? I mean, since you're such an expert on them," she said wryly, almost in a whisper. A slight forward shift of her entire chair was preceded by a dull thwack under the table. Donny's eyes bulged to the size of silver dollars and shot upwards at her, torn between a livid, disbelieving glare and sheer despondency.

"Y-Yes, Lydia," he said thinly, his eternal self-control hanging by a thread, "I suppose it is. By the way, I... I..."

"Yes?" Lydia asked innocently, making another subtle shift that sent Beetlejuice's spoon racing for his mouth once more.

Donny's eyes flew back to his lap, only this time scanning furtively from side to side, as if something beyond his lap were of more lurid interest. "I... lost my tie tack. I just thought I'd tell everybody to keep an eye out for it," he breathed shallowly, closing his eyes tightly and biting his lip.

"Hehe," Beetlejuice laughed with a grin, "you bet, bro!" With that, one of Beetlejuice's eyes took a short trip around his head. And simultaneously, Lydia slid halfway down in her chair, clapping a hand to her mouth as if the action were funny to a crippling degree. Unfortunately, Donny's eyes had opened-- and witnessed every move with final clarity.

"Mother, I don't believe this!" Donny shrieked, leaping out of his seat with such force that it knocked his chair backwards. He pointed maniacally at the floor as if accusing the carpet of treason. "How can you let them get away with it?"

Bee blinked at Donny over her glass of lemonade as if he were crying over spilled milk. "Get away with what, dear?"

"With... with... THAT!" Donny cried, pointing more frantically.

"With keeping all four of their chair legs on the floor?" Bee asked in a distinctly reprimanding tone.

Donny's lower lip began to tremble, his eyes glazing pitifully. "You mean to tell me you didn't notice?" he cried desperately. "It's... it's-- they're--!"

"Sitting upright like good guests and eating their supper? Donny, dear, that's more than can be said for you, right now," Bee chided with the same controlled disdain. "I think you had better just sit down and we'll forget this little episode. Gracious, have you been stressed lately? Calm down for now. You can tell me all about it later, Precious."

Donny fumed, doubly insulted by his mother's obvious imperviousness and the resurrection of his childhood pet name. "I can't believe it! You really don't see it? It's.. it's not fair!"

Gnat contributed to the conversation for the first time since they'd taken their seats. "Listen to your mother, young man," he said sternly, "and sit down."

Donny quite impressively held tears at bay. He bit his lower lip and said quietly, "Yes, sir." Only Beetlejuice, with great satisfaction, noticed the look of sheer, unbridled jealousy that passed over Donny's features when he spotted what had hit him in the shin as he bent to retrieve his chair. Donny shot a hauntingly miserable look at Lydia as he pulled his chair back up to the table.

"It's not fair," Donny repeated again, his eyes fixed expressively on Lydia, glowing with fierce bitterness. "All I want to know is, why?"

Lydia drew in her breath unsteadily, completely taken aback by Donny's direct, accusative query. Lydia shot a glance at Beetlejuice, pleading him silently to maintain self-control. Beetlejuice looked for all the Neitherworld as if he were ready to send his own brother on a one way trip to Sandwormland.

"Donny," she said levelly, "I don't owe you an answer, because it never concerned you in the first place. I can't pay for the pain of something that you never admitted. You're a friend. Please, either take the news like one, or find another outlet for your grief. We've suffered enough for our own folly. We're happy with or without your blessing-- but preferably with." She enunciated the last word with imploring care, her eyes moving slowly to include both Bee and Gnat in her monologue. Beetlejuice looked up from his bowl, emboldened by her resolution on the very matter he had feared revealing to his parents.

Gnat's expression of surprise was pronounced but brief. He stared at his oldest son without blinking for a few moments before nodding slowly, making a sound in the back of his throat that began on a note of admonition and ended on one of tentative acceptance. Beetlejuice swallowed the knot in his throat, drained and relieved. Until the strangest thing of all happened.

Very softly, Bee had begun to laugh. And Lydia was laughing with her.

"Lydia, would you care for any more lemonade?" she asked at length, dabbing at the tears of mirth behind her spectacles with perfect ease.

Lydia replied, blushing slightly, "Yes, please!" And under her breath, she added a comment cryptic to the male sets of ears present: "It was the bag, wasn't it?"

Just as softly, Bee responded as she refilled Lydia's glass, "That and the baths, dear. That and the baths!"

While Donny slid into an eerie imitation of his father, wordlessly polishing off his soup, Beetlejuice took his turn to blush. Conversation returned to normal for the remainder of the meal, in which Donny was a less significant participant than before. By the time Dessert was served, Gnat had already excused himself in order to return to his newspaper. Donny followed suit, making a weak excuse for joining his father-- but Bee would have none of it.

"Come now, dear!" she chided, placing a dish of vanilla ice cream drenched in chocolate sauce before him. "This is your favorite dessert!"

Still unwilling to give in to his sibling's apparent victory, Donny made the mistake of wasting another sidelong glare at Beetlejuice. But the fact that his brother's eyes were locked on Lydia's and very suggestively eating a spoonful of the confection didn't help in the least.

Sharp-eyed as ever, Lydia noticed Donny's sulking and murmured to Beetlejuice around a mouthful of her own, "Good idea. It'll be a scream, don't you think?"

Bee sat down to a dish of her own, content to act as if she hadn't noticed. Donny had scarcely taken two bites. He stood up with his dish, grabbing the single remaining one on the tray and announced sorely, "Father must be lonely. I'll see if he wants any."

Once Donny disappeared into the living room, Beetlejuice commented coolly, "I'm proud to have such a thoughtful brother... bwahahaaaaaaaaaaah!"

Bee shot him a warning look. "You're off the hook as long as you stop laughing this instant, Junior," she piped sweetly.

Rolling his eyes, Beetlejuice sighed, "Yes, Ma."

Seconds later, Beetlejuice and Lydia shared a few seconds' worth of uncontrolled mirth all the same. Bee clucked her tongue, but she was smiling with them. In fact, she was laughing with them when at last they finished and rose. Beetlejuice and Lydia were shoeless.

"Now, that's what I call fancy footwork," Beetlejuice congratulated his accomplice, folding her in a leisurely embrace once Bee had borne the cleared ice cream dishes away into the sink. "And, uh... really... I was only jokin' about the choc--"

"I wasn't," Lydia replied, kissing him full on the lips.

"Whoa... save that thought for later!"

At that instant, Bee strolled back to the table, swinging her dish towel at them playfully. "All right, kids. There'll be no idlers in my kitchen. Either lend a hand or run along and play."

Lydia touched the tip of Beetlejuice's nose with her own, turning afterward to Bee. "I'll help you with the dishes, Mrs. Juice."

"Hey, so can I," Beetlejuice offered, not to be left out. He detached one of his hands with a helpful look follwed immediately by a doubtful "Pppht!"

"Beetlejuice," Lydia suggested between amiably clenched teeth, "why don't you go fetch those pictures from the back seat so we can show your mother once the dishes are done?"

"Sure thing, Babes!" he agreed, vanishing.

"You've got him wrapped around your little toe," Bee observed with a wink.

"Believe me," Lydia laughed, carrying a stack of plates to the sink, "I'm as surprised as you are!"

The women barely had the chance to begin washing and drying the dishes when Donny strolled into the kitchen, offering them his and his father's empty ice cream bowls. He was smiling again, even if reluctantly. He took the dish towel from Lydia and offered meekly, "Here, why don't you let me take care of this?"

"Oh, no, really! It's sweet of you, Donny, but I can--"

"In that case," Donny continued, his sweetness giving way to an odd, feverish insistence, "Mother, why don't you take a load off and join Father in the living room? Lydia and I will wash and dry."

Bee looked thoughtful for a moment before dropping the dishcloth into the sink. "That's very sweet of you, son. Don't mind if I do!"

Lydia gave Bee a brief, helpless look of alarm, but the astute housewife was quick to quell it with a level, trust-me expression. Lydia said nothing, focusing doubly on the task at hand as Donny took his mother's place.

A few moments of working in aloof silence passed before Lydia said calmly, "I'm rather surprised at you. And as much as I think that sounds as inconsiderate as your outburst earlier, I'm determined to set you straight as civilly as I can. I know it's come as a shock to you. I know it's come as a shock to your parents. Donny, it came as a shock to us. I can question neither time and its revelations, nor what I'm feeling. But I can question you, because never at any time did I give you reason to think I might somehow figure into your existence."

Donny lowered the plate he'd been scrubbing into the suds, his eyes following in hurt agreement. "Lydia, it's not so much I that I ever thought you... that we... well, not until seeing you now... but, to think my brother's already cut in where I might have tried... you know."

"To think?" Lydia asked pointedly. "It's a fact, and I'm sorry for it, but I made sure the point came across as soon as I could see the look in your eyes. Low of me? Yes. But look who I learned from-- look who I love. It doesn't get any more simple or complicated than that."

"I think this conversation's through," Donny said curtly. "I apologize."

Lydia nodded, relieved. "So am I, for what it's worth. There's someone for you. Somewhere," Lydia added under her breath, wondering if there had yet a woman passed on that might remotely tolerate the likes of an extreme like Donny.

Appropriately, the thunder broke less than a heartbeat later. The shriek caused Donny to send a plate to its unceremonious demise on the kitchen floor. Lydia's nerves were much calmer from experience-- but she cringed all the same.

"AAAAAARRRRRGH! THIS IS THE LAST STRAW!"

Although the furious clamor had come from outside, its perpetrator materialized promptly beside Donny, carrying a small parcel wrapped in copy paper. Beetlejuice sustained the wail, leaning forward in order to drive it directly into his brother's ear. For a split second, the miserably bewildered Donny resembled an oversized shaft of wheat.

"Wh-What?" Donny stammered pitifully, fizzling into a frazzled likeness of his former self.

Beetlejuice glowered, opening his free hand to reveal the tiny object clenched in his fist. "You were lookin' for this?" Beetlejuice asked accusitorily, shoving the tie tack in its owner's face. "Well, sur-pri-iiiise... my car's tire was courteous enough to find it for ya!"

Lydia flung the dish cloth down on the counter, rushing to Beetlejuice's side just in time to take the photographs from him before he crushed them in his rage. Putting a hand on his shoulder, she asked in alarm, "You mean Doomie...?"

"Has a flat," Beetlejuice grated, "thanks to my brother here, who can't keep track of his prissy--"

"At least I know what grooming is!" Donny snapped.

"Okay, stop," Lydia sighed heavily, stepping between the two of them. "This won't solve anything, and we can't alter an accident. BJ, come on," Lydia said sternly, taking him by the tie and heading toward the living room.

"But Doomie-- has a-- and-- it's all his fault! Babes, do you realize--"

"I realize we have some photos to show your parents, and Donny too, if he wants to see them. We can deal with this later."

"The later it gets, the worse," Beetlejuice seethed, barely consenting to her logic.

The entire group ended up huddled around the couch as Lydia showed off the snapshots. Beetlejuice sat beside her, sulkily drumming his fingers on one knee, but even he couldn't keep his eyes off of them for long.

"Lydia, dear, you never mentioned a trip to the seashore!" Bee exclaimed with admiration, taking a closer look at a few of the snapshots taken on her birthday. "Junior, you're positively adorable," she commented sweetly, studying a shot of Beetlejuice awkwardly holding Lydia's hat in place, while unbeknownst to him she had pinned it with her own hand from the opposite side.

"Thanks, Ma," Beetlejuice sighed, halfheartedly evading a pat on the cheek.

"Who took this one?" Gnat asked unexpectedly, holding up the shot of Lydia about to bite into an apple.

"Beetlejuice," Lydia answered, turning a fond smile upon the sulker beside her.

"Nice shot, son. You have a good eye. Maybe you should consider journalism. There might be some paper around here that needs a photographer."

"Thanks, but no thanks, Pop," Beetlejuice muttered under his breath.

Gnat handed the photograph back to Lydia with a nod of approval. "Son," he added, mildly admonishing with a meaningful glance back at the snapshot, "you've no reason to be so sullen."

"Really? In case you haven't heard, my set of wheels is now one short thanks to--"

"Gnat, dear," Bee cut in tactfully, "why don't you go see if you have a spare tire in the shed?" She took the remaining photographs from Lydia as her husband tromped off obediently. "Gracious! You worked wonders with that old shawl. Donny, have a look...."

Lydia leaned back against the couch with a satisfied sigh as Donny and Bee studied the photographs from Cleopatra's. She murmured to Beetlejuice, brushing his hair back over one shoulder, "I told you everything would be fine."

"Yeah, and things'll be finer the sooner we can get outta here."

"Says who? Maybe for having an attitude like that, they won't be," Lydia teased in response to his lingering irritation.

"Oh, BJ, admit it. It hasn't been that bad at all. Was teasing Donny fun, or what?"

"Did someone find the missing half of my brain and give it to you?"

"You wish! And just look, they love our--"

There was no mistaking the terrible, grating roar that echoed from outside, followed by a muted cry of surprise that was recognizable as Gnat's. Several moments later, the front door swung hesitantly open.

"Son, I don't know what you do to that car of yours, but it sure doesn't like crowbars," Gnat said slowly, the closest to outright dumfounded that Lydia had ever seen him. He placed his tool kit on the floor, swiping his hat off with a whistle. "Chances are it's halfway across town by now."

Lydia and Beetlejuice exchanged mortified glances. Rattled beyond the point of another outburst, Beetlejuice muttered weakly, "There go our chances of flyin' him home, Babes."

Lydia stared at the floor, caught between laughing at the hilarity of their situation and wincing in sympathy. "Doomie always comes around before too long," was all she said. "He knows his way home. Call Jacques and tell him to keep a lookout."

"No need," Beetlejuice said curtly, grasping Lydia's hand and rising. "Thanks for dinner, Ma. We're taking the bus."

"Dear, the last run was fifteen minutes ago," Bee said matter-of-factly, wrapping the photographs up neatly.

Beetlejuice grabbed Lydia's wrist, groaning at the display of nine-thirty on her watch. "Fine, then," he said stubbornly, "we can walk. It's a nice--"

"Through the factory section of town? At this hour, with night nearly fallen? I think not, young man, and certainly not with Lydia! You ought to stay," Bee suggested firmly.

Donny spoke up uncomfortably, "But, Mother, I was planning on-- don't you think that's too many people in this--"

"Nonsense! There are two perfectly empty bedrooms upstairs. Don't tell me my boys don't miss their old rooms, now and then," Bee cajoled.

Beetlejuice might have gone on smacking his forehead indefinitely if Lydia hadn't put an abrupt halt to his maddened frustration. "Beetlejuice," she whispered, "it's only one night. Your mother's just doing her job, as far as she's concerned. Besides, it's an invitation--"

"Over my dead body! Lyds, are you insane? Spending the night... here!"

"If you won't do it for your own mother," Lydia pressed, cleverly persuasive, "at least humor your poor, eternally courteous girlfriend...."

Beetlejuice collapsed on the couch in defeat. "I should've known you and Ma together would be bad news. Fine."

Bee declared enthusiastically, "I'll go make sure everything's tidy upstairs!"

Gnat commented wryly on his way into the kitchen, "At least I'm not putting up with her guest withdrawal alone, for once."

Completely disregarding Donny's presence, Lydia flopped down beside Beetlejuice, slipping her arms around him and nuzzling his shoulder. "I'm really curious about your old room, you know. If it's as much fun as your attic, we'll be up all night," she ventured softly, attempting to cheer him.

"Actually, I think I'm tired," he sighed with light sarcasm, returning the gesture with an adorably contrary ruffling of her hair. "Ppht. I swear, Babes. The things you talk me into...."

"I think I'll go to bed," Donny announced glumly, starting for the stairs, only to be halted halfway up by a shout from Bee.

"Oh, come now, dear! Not until we have a game of cards with your father. He gave up his night with the boys, so I think maybe he'd like a little compensation. Besides, Lydia hasn't proved herself against my poker skills yet, has she?"

Lydia gave Beetlejuice an impressed look. "You never told me your mother was a cardshark!"

"Let's just say neither of us inherited it," Donny sighed, returning with heavy steps to the foot of the stairs. "Mother's ruthless. Undefeated, as far as I know."

"Did someone say cards? Now you're talking, boys," Gnat called from the kitchen. "Tell your mother to bring a pack down, and get in here."

Donny was quickest to obey his father's command. Bee responded that she'd be down in a few minutes. Lydia trailed after Donny into the kitchen, dragging a reticent Beetlejuice by the arm.

"You're a pretty good card player yourself, aren't you?" Lydia prompted encouragingly, taking a seat beside Beetlejuice at the table. "Come on, show me what you've got!"

"Only if you let me cheat," he replied with a small, mischievous grin.

"Anything, as long as it keeps you smiling!" Lydia laughed with relief.

Donny was trying his best to ignore their conversation. Gnat was paying little attention, as his eyes were glued to the classifieds. He looked up immediately when his wife finally joined them. Bee took the seat beside Donny, expertly shuffling a deck of cards patterned with a palm tree casino logo.

"These are from our little winter vacation last year, arent' they, dear?" Bee said to Gnat, dealing the cards with the swift efficiency of a professional.

Gnat did not reply verbally, but the look he gave his wife was one so oddly sentimental that Lydia found herself wondering if she hadn't seen a bit of his hidden romanticism in Beetlejuice. When all was said and done-- plays argued and rounds completed-- Bee had come off victorious as predicted. Lydia had spent more time giggling behind her cards than thinking seriously about which she threw down. Bee's knack for catching Beetlejuice in all his ingenious deceptions was phenomenal. Donny had, of course, played with subdued honesty and lost with much less flair than his brother. A casual inulgence about Gnat's plays made Lydia wonder briefly, too, if he hadn't let his wife win.

As Bee rounded the cards up, Donny announced for the second time that night, but much more convincingly, "I'm honestly very tired. You were all super sports. Good night."

Lydia noticed that he'd given Beetlejuice a look contradictory to the comment on what good sports they were, but he left without any such complaints as earlier. The two of them were left in a moment of charged silence with Bee and Gnat.

"You two must be exhausted, too," Bee suggested kindly, closing the card box. "Why don't you run along, too? Junior, your room's all fixed up."

"Thanks, Ma," Beetlejuice said, feigning a huge yawn and tugging on Lydia's hand under the table. "Don't mind if we do."

"Good night, son," Gnat said, giving Beetlejuice a look of mild warning. Lydia turned away, elsewise her blush would infer it was taken all too literally. "Lydia, sleep well."

"Yes, good night," Lydia replied, having composed herself sufficiently to bestow a gracious smile upon Bee and Gnat. "See you in the morning."

"Don't think you kids are leaving here without a nice breakfast. Consider yourselves warned. Good night, dears," Bee bubbled, rising long enough to hug them both and give them a little push toward the door.

"BJ, something tells me your parents enjoy some quiet time together as much as they ever did," Lydia murmured with amusement on the way up the stairs.

Beetlejuice looked faintly queasy. "Uh, don't say that. I don't think you'd appreciate a Delia and Chuck reference right about now, either."

"Point taken," Lydia replied, following Beetlejuice past the closet where Bee kept her shawls. They passed a white door that lay open a crack to reveal a neatly kept blue tile bathroom, and a second white door that was closed but had a soft light filtering from underneath.

"Donny," Beetlejuice commented, jerking a thumb at the door. "He's probably reading a book by his favorite motivational speaker or something. Well, here we go... mine," he said, turning the knob of the third adjacent door.

Lydia was surprised at the room's relative plainness-- walls of wood paneling, thick beige carpet, a blue throw rug beside the bed reminiscent of the bathroom's shade. She glanced at Beetlejuice dubiously.

"Redecorated?"

Beetlejuice nodded, equally shocked. "Yeah... well, you know mothers. Can't leave the posters up and crumbs lyin' around forever."

Their eyes finally fell on the bed, a simple but tastefully carved four poster draped in a homemade quilt. Beetlejuice lamented, "She couldn't even keep the one I spent so much time staining."

"Well, I think the quilt's charming," Lydia said in Bee's defense, plopping down on the bed playfully. "A feather mattress! Wow, and-- and-- and..."

They both stared at the bedside table for a long time, what sat there taking a few moments to register. A crystal vase full of garden-grown blooms sat innocently enough beside a plate of chocolate chip cookies neatly wrapped in cellophane. A small piece of stationery sat folded on top of the cookies, sporting an elegantly penned inscription: To Beetlejuice and Lydia, with love to those that are in it.

Lydia picked it up, feeling her eyes sting as she opened it slowly. Almost unable to speak, she whispered, "Should I--"

"Read it... yeah... do," Beetlejuice faltered with a mix of curiosity and touched chagrin, sitting down beside her.

"My dears... As weary of hearing this as you both must be, it's true. Mothers always know. And despite time's taste for presenting me with surprises, this somehow wasn't the greatest of my life. Actually, that was Donny. But enough about that-- I wish simply to say, wherever love has taken you, you both have my blessing in the going there. And, if I haven't waxed tedious enough already, Junior-- just don't wake your brother! Love, Ma."

By the time Lydia looked up at Beetlejuice, he was somewhere on the verge of either tears or mild embarrassment. She murmured, "What did I tell you, love? You have nothing to fear from them. Here, we're home."

"Yeah... and to think... whew," Beetlejuice replied slowly, drawing his sleeve quickly across his eyes. He seemed changed the instant he had, grinning awkwardly at the paper in Lydia's slim hand. "Don't wake your brother, she says... well... since he's not even asleep yet...."

Lydia swatted Beetlejuice with the note playfully. "Okay, out with it. What are you thinking?"

"She never said not to keep him from sleeping," Beetlejuice murmured deviously, swinging Lydia into his lap so unexpectedly she gave a yelp. Which utterance was soon silenced by a lingering kiss.

"Beetlejuice," she mumbled, "you can't mean...."

"Play along, Babes," he said with a wink, shifting them to a cozily intimate position against the pillows. "But, y'know... a little realism never hurt!"

"Oh... right," Lydia whispered, grinning broadly, slipping her arms under his jacket without hesitation. "Mmmmm," she sighed, her tone escalating from inaudible to an alarming level as she kissed him back.

"Ooh, Lyds," Beetlejuice responded, increasing in volume as well, lightly kissing her neck, "That's what I'm talkin' about...."

"You won't be talking for long if I have any say in the matter," Lydia replied, enunciating deliberately, her voice breaking slightly with the continued attention being paid to her neck.

"Aaaaaahah, well," Beetlejuice murmured in a conspicuously low tone, taken somewhat aback that she'd gone so far as to clasp him with familiar insistence, "we'll see whose line that really is-- yaaaaah, okay! Babes...."

"You're playing with fire," Lydia cried gleefully, tilting her head backwards as if willing the sound to carry. "Beej! I... all right, that's... yes...."

If the ability to admit any other emotion had not been so crippled by the situation, they might have coherently realized a backfired prank. An effort as conscious as maintaining inordinate vocal volume had suddenly become quite involuntary. Beetlejuice pulled away from Lydia, gasping.

"Me and my stupid ideas," he groaned into the quilt. "Babes, I think he's gonna get a point we actually didn't intend to make.

Lydia pulled him back agitatedly, pressing his body close once more. "Beej, I think we accomplished well enough what you intended," she whispered, trying to even her breath enough for speech. "Just... let's not torment him any more... but... mmhmm... shh, just be quiet... that's right... ahhhh, there! God..."

Lydia's voice faded to a choked nothingness, rocking with him, completely lost. No words found comparison-- only dazed inhibition, hushed agony. After a while, even breath failed since it had been denied all vocal access. Wrapped in complete silence and a quilt softer than shadow, their hearts had never sung nor cried so loudly-- truly spoken.

"Beej... what's happening to us?" Lydia whispered wonderingly, uncertain of whether an hour had passed or an instant. "I'm... this... do you understand what I'm saying? That's... perfect."

"I didn't think I know what you meant... you know... when you said... let's scare each other. Long time ago now, it seems like... Babes, but it wasn't," Beetlejuice responded with an effort, still stunned by the rise and fall of her chest against his own. "I think...."

"I think we have," Lydia said quietly.

"Yeah. Well..."

"So, is this... different?"

"Why do I have to think?" Beetlejuice asked suddenly, almost demanding. "It's you. Are you asking me to analyze?"

Lydia breathed in, closing her eyes. Yes, the moment, in the moment, just to be....

"No," she said softly, smiling once more. "I suppose not. You know me... I just...."

"Yeah, Lyds," Beetlejuice whispered, kissing her softly. "I do. And I'm so glad."

"Me too... Me too."

If the rest of the Neitherworld felt morning's unusual reticence to fall, they gave no sign of it. Pale sunlight through a second story window had no effect on the sleepers within. But a knock from without-- from the hallway-- did.

"Rise and shine, sleepyheads! I think noontime's late enough!"

"Never is," Beetlejuice grumped, waking automatically to the sound of what had once been his alarm clock. He rubbed Lydia's back, murmuring her name reverently, as if it were a prayer. "Lydia... sweetheart, get up," he whispered in her ear, aching at the thought of leaving their warm sanctuary. "Ma's gonna throw a fit if we don't come to breakfast."

"Mmmm-mmm," Lydia sighed, barely conscious, clinging to him all the more stubbornly.

"Babes, I know you're in there," Beetlejuice said softly, caressing her bare shoulders. "C'mon... she'll knock again in ten minutes if she doesn't hear some signs of life."

"Funny," Lydia murmured, almost coherent, smiling as she opened her eyes a slit. She yawned profusely. "Ahhhh," she sighed, stretching. "Tell your mother I want to take this bed back to Lyme with me!"

"We could get a mattress like this one for the coffin, if you want," Beetlejuice offered without missing a beat. He was painfully awed by how much more lovely and fragile she seemed in the new daylight.

Lydia gave him a peculiar look, still half asleep. "Hmm... I'd... like that," she said softly, giving him a light, dreamlike kiss. "Good morning."

As predicted, another knock sounded at the door. Bee's voice chimed promptingly, "French toast or pancakes, kids?"

"Both," Beetlejuice shouted distractedly, curling them into a sitting position. "Ma, fifteen minutes, okay?"

"Certainly, dear!"

Lydia rested lazily against her lover's chest, laughing. "She doesn't give up. Now we know where Donny gets it."

"Lyds, I've known for too long. C'mon, let's get you dressed."

"Just me?" Lydia giggled.

"You know what I mean! Grrr, get up already," Beetlejuice ordered affectionately, leaving her shrouded in the quilt in order to fetch her sweater and other items from the floor.

"At least you didn't somehow manage to zap them into the next room," Lydia mused, still dazedly sleepy. "That would've been embarrassing!"

"Yeah, would have been. So, next time you get the impulse to call me completely tactless, think twice," Beetlejuice said proudly, pulling the sweater down over her head.

"I can do it, Beej, here--"

"No. I took it off, so I'm putting it back," he insisted, working her arms into the sleeves with care.

"Not even the same way you removed it? That would save time and spare us your mother's chiding," Lydia said with a half smile, not truly minding at all.

"Not even."

"Then you'll let me return the favor."

"Okay.... Just no detours. Ma's impatient enough as it is."

Lydia smiled gently, reflectively, at last fully awake. She buttoned him into his shirt, finding that even temptation, finally, needed not always be so urgent. But it did not prevent an indulgent embrace, nor a fierce unspoken reflection on the night gone by.

Beetlejuice and Lydia descended the stairs to find Donny already seated at the table and Bee cheerfully flipping flawless pancakes and expertly battered pieces of bread over a large griddle. Donny, unaware of their arrival, continued nervously rearranging his silverware as he waited. The tall glass of orange juice in front of him appeared to be untouched.

Lydia murmured to Beetlejuice as they approached the table, "He hasn't slept."

Beetlejuice responded, "That was the point, right?"

Lydia stared at the floor. "Was the point...."

Beetlejuice groaned, "You make guilt fashionable, you know that?"

Lydia replied wryly, "That's my job, isn't it?"

Wordlessly, they took the seats across from Donny. He still did not look up, which made Lydia certain that she'd been wrong to assume he hadn't seen them coming. Beetlejuice cleared his throat awkwardly, only to take a quick sip of his orange juice in order to delay necessary apology. Lydia reached underneath the table as if intending a gesture of affection, and though it was half intended as such, she pinched his thigh hard.

Beetlejuice set the glass down hard, nearly spilling it. He clasped Lydia's hand, but only after slapping it lightly. As if on cue, Donny looked up at the same moment his older brother did.

"So, uh... sleep well?" Beetlejuice asked awkwardly, realizing only when Lydia dug her nails into his hand that he had, unintentionally, been completely tactless.

Donny's eyes hardened, a terrifying sight. "Oh, yes. Blissfully, brother dear."

Beetlejuice scowled. "I didn't mean it like that, and you know what I mean."

"Is that any consolation, coming from you?"

"I don't know, it was supposed to be. But I obviously-- screwed up," Beetlejuice said through clenched teeth, remembering Lydia, focusing on her strength. It had been a long while since he'd known such rage, and prompting him to imprudent speech was one of its side effects. As if to reassure him he'd done well, Lydia's grasp eased.

Donny's expression gave an inch, his eyebrows furrowing in saddened insecurity. He sighed, "I'm really wishing I hadn't come. It would've been a lot easier on all of us."

Beetlejuice let go of Lydia's hand, bringing his to the edge of the table, in full pleading sight. "I don't think you should say that. Do you hear me sayin' I wish Ma hadn't invited us here? I might've acted as if I did, true... but when did anything I've ever done mean anything?"

Donny cracked an unexpected half smile and admitted, "Not often. But Beetlejuice, you have your moments. I'm sure Miss Deetz here would defend you on that more adamantly than anyone."

"You know us better than you think," Lydia said, finally deeming entrance into the conversation appropriate. "We're sorry. And if you don't take your brother's word for it, take mine."

"I'd say it's as good as gold, coming from both of you," Donny said brightly, coming so fully back to himself that it made Beetlejuice momentarily ill. "Mother," Donny called enthusiastically, "we're all here! It's going to be delicious."

"If I can eat," Beetlejuice muttered to Lydia.

She laughed, claiming his hand once more, only with unquestionable praise. "You can," she whispered, resting her chin on his shoulder. "I'll help you."

"Breakfast is served!" Bee announced, bearing an overstacked plate of pancakes and french toast and a gravy boat filled with syrup over to the table. "Make sure you leave some for your father. I promised him there'd be something left when he gets home from work."

Lydia knew that Beetlejuice would have no qualms about eating at all when he looked slightly irked at his mother's ending statement. By the end of the meal, she found herself severely regretting that her father had no such luck where Delia's cooking was concerned.

Donny left shortly after helping his mother clean the kitchen. Lydia made no move to help as she had done the night before-- she understood that perhaps a talk with his mother was still what Donny needed most. Once the baby, always the baby, she thought, relaxing beside Beetlejuice on the sofa as he flipped restlessly through the channels. They rose briefly to see Donny out. The brothers' goodbye was by no means warm, but somehow, blunt civility sufficed. Lydia could not help surrendering an apologetic hug. At least Beetlejuice kept his jealousy on a leash for the sake of her conscience.

"Are you kids sure you have to be going?" Bee wheedled when the next afternoon bus departure time approached. "I'm sure your father would like a change to say goodb--"

Beetlejuice silenced her with a kiss on the cheek. "Yeah, Ma, we're sure. If Doomie didn't wander home, we have some serious car hunting to do."

Lydia embraced Bee warmly, handing the plate of cookies temporarily over to Beetlejuice, as unwise as that might have been. "We'll come again soon," she whispered with a smile. "I promise."

"I know you will, dears," she whispered only once they had gone, her joyous expression fading to one of knowing apprehension. "I know you will."

Because, before time was much longer spent-- who else would have them, and where else could they turn?

By the time the bus reached its stop at the corner of Elm and Agony, half of the cookies were gone. Lydia had only eaten three. She slapped the cellophane over Beetlejuice's hand as he reached for another.

"I love all of you, but I don't think I could handle any more," Lydia said firmly, whisking the plate away from him, leaving a flurry of crumbs in his lap. Beetlejuice was thoroughly annoyed.

"But Babes! You don't understand! I haven't had Ma's cookies in ages!"

"And you've just consumed enough to last you a few more. I think a little exercize might be in order, even," Lydia suggested with amusement, brushing the crumbs unhurriedly out of his lap. "I ought to consult Jacques."

"You're a much better trainer, Lyds."

"Fine, we'll leave Mr. Neitherworld out of it, then. You cajoler, you," Lydia scolded, glancing offhand out the window. Something made her blink in pleasant recognition. She stood hastily as the bus's engine started up.

"Beetlejuice, we're getting off here," Lydia announced, seizing his hand.

"Wha?!" he cried, stumbling as she dragged him into the aisle.

"Thank you, Ma'am," the driver said, halting the engine in favor of the few extra coins Lydia dropped in his fare box on the way out. Most of the bus drew a sigh of relief as they left the unlikely pair standing behind on the curb in a cloud of exhaust.

Beetlejuice took in a lungful of the thick smoke. "Ahhh, good idea, Lyds! I needed some fresh air anyway."

Lydia choked between coughs, "Whatever you say, Beetlejuice. Come on. I want to show you something." She took his hand, leading him toward the row of shops. Lydia pointed out the Vile Viola's sign.

"This is where your violin came from, so you know where to bring it with that gift certificate for repainting."

Beetlejuice nodded, breifly scanning the sign and contents of the display window. Lydia hadn't really expected a comment, but then, she hadn't intended for the strings vendor to be their primary stop.

Lydia said, "Now, for the surprize. Right here is--"

"Hey, Lyds, look!" Beetlejuice exclaimed, pulling her towards the very boutique she had been about to lead him to. Pointing at the scripted awning, he remarked, "Looks like they sell the kind of stuff you design. Wanna take a look? And wasn't that the name of our band?"

Before Lydia could respond positively or even utter a chirp of surprize, Beetlejuice barged through the front door with her in tow. No sooner had he stepped inside when a voice familiar to Lydia intoned with quiet hostility, "I believe you will not find what you are looking for here... sir. Kindly leave before I remove you."

Beetlejuice glared at the trim, auburn-tressed figure in violet that barred his way with sternly folded arms. "Oh really? Since when was 'The customer's always right' out of sty--"

"Beetlejuice, please," Lydia warned firmly, stepping from behind him. "Bonjour encore, Anne-Hélène," Lydia said with measured civility. She couldn't exactly blame the vampiress for her instinctive response, but at the same time, she was innately offended.

Anne-Hélène's eyes went from imperious slits to glassy, disbelieving orbs in three seconds flat. Lydia felt a combination of satisfaction and pity in viewing the dignified but barely concealed spectrum of emotions in the shopkeeper's expression.

"So, ma pétite artiste, you return," the vampiress greeted her, able to summon an impressive level of courtesy even if she couldn't tear her eyes away from the infamous intruder. "What a-- pleasant-- surprize."

"I really should have introduced myself properly the first time," Lydia continued, stepping between her companion and Anne-Hélène. "My name is Lydia Deetz," she offered, extending her hand.

"Lydia," Anne-Hélène repeated coolly, neither shaking nor releasing the young mortal's delicate fingers. "And I believe I needn't announce myself, since I gave you my card?"

"Correct," Lydia said tersely, drawing away. "Anne-Hélène Sanguin, this is Beetlejuice. A longtime friend of mine-- best friend, in fact," Lydia articulated, driving the insinuation home with a passionate look. As only so many of the palest creatures in existence still can, Anne-Hélène blanched.

Beetlejuice gave her a nasty smirk. "Always glad to be reminded that my reputation proceeds me, Anne."

"My name is Anne-Hélène, Be-atle."

Beetlejuice broke into a peal of obnoxious laughter and went sailing across the room, nosing through racks as he went. "Hahahaha, whoa! Lyds, did you hear that? We've got a regular dead ringer for Jacques, here!"

Lydia felt her own temper give a warning leap and shared a moment of mutual discomfort with the vampiress. "Beetlejuice," she called, "that will do."

In an instant, Beetlejuice appeared at her side, grinning innocently at Anne-Hélène. "Nice place you've got here," he remarked with thin politeness. "In fact, that's why we came in. I thought Lyds would want to take a look around. She's a whiz at this kind of thing."

Lydia blushed, staring at the floor. "Actually, Beetlejuice, I was going to bring you in here... but you spotted it first."

"Yeah, I thought that was kinda funny. You two've obviously met before."

"Which is why I know her talent, and which is why she was such a vision for you one night not so long ago-- am I right?" Anne-Hélène replied with matching deviousness-as-innocence.

Beetlejuice took one closer look at the racks just behind them and turned crimson. His only reply was, "I'll be over here lookin' around if you need me, Babes."

Lydia nodded, attempting a pained smile as he floated in the direction of some elaborate gowns. She turned back to the vampiress with a heavy sigh.

"I apologize for this going awry. I really should have known he just wouldn't be welcome here. But Anne-Hélène," she whispered, looking at this woman that she'd known for so short a time and yet felt such a kinship with, "what can I do? Am I punishable by law here simply because I love him?"

Anne-Hélène closed her eyes, bringing an elegantly withered hand to her forehead. After a moment, her head seemed to clear, and the fire in her eyes seemed to subside. "Lydia, I am the one that owes an apology. If I had seen you, I would have held my tongue. But one question I cannot stay no matter how discourteous it may be: why?"

Lydia faltered, "I don't understand. Why--"

"You love him," Anne-Hélène finished for her, arching an eyebrow at the figure perusing her inventory with its hands thrust angrily in its pockets. "And I wish to know why. Specifically, why you, of all people..." the vampiress trailed off, amusement finally replacing the distaste in her tone.

For the second time, Lydia was hurt. "It's too long a story to tell in ten minutes," she replied coldly, turning away.

An unexpected thing: Anne-Hélène's hand firm on her shoulder, turning her back. "Ma chère, then you need not tell it now," the vampiress said with an odd reassurance, surprizing Lydia with the implied future invitation. "Tell me, rather, what it is you see. You are an artist like no other I have known, I am afraid."

"I see him. Anne... Anne-Hélène... believe me when I say that. Seeing isn't necessarily visual-- perhaps that's the only way I can make you understand."

"I'm sure time has made a difference for you. Time and close proximity, it sounds like. Remarkable," Anne-Hélène murmured. "A human in our midst all along. You're the ghost here, child, you know that?"

"I never forget, and thus I survive," Lydia said nonchalantly, waving at Beetlejuice invitingly. "We really should move on."

Beetlejuice hovered back to her, still sporting a sour expression. Without a qualm, Lydia put an arm around him, pressing her face wearily against his cheek.

"Let's go home," she whispered softly, sounding tired and vulnerable. Anne-Hélène's wonderment at Beetlejuice's change went largely unnoticed.

The ghost forgot he had committed to sulking, forgot the vampiress' disdain. "You sure, Babes?" he asked gently, nuzzling her back, resisting the urge to shoot daggers at their company. "Nothin' you wanna look at?"

"No, I've been here. It's okay," she replied, returning her attention to Anne-Hélène. "Nice seeing you again," Lydia said honestly, smiling. "And well, the-- I'd like to tell you, sometime," she added just as sincerely.

"I would like to hear, Lydia," the vampiress responded with uncommon warmth. "Bonne après-midi to both of you."

"Yeah, whatever," Beetlejuice replied, biting his tongue against an imprudent utterance.

"Bientot," Lydia said, closing the door softly behind them. A movement from Anne-Hélène made her hesitate just long enough.

"You may call me what you did," the vampiress offered, winking.

"What I--"

"You corrected yourself. You need not do that, chère. Remember it for next time."

"I will."

"I shall call."

"But I didn't give--"

"Not hard to find that number."

"Oh, right," Lydia mumbled, managing to smile.

"I am well-versed in polite revenge and amends, child."

"I don't doubt it. See you."

Beetlejuice and Lydia were met by a highly irritated Jacques upon their return to the roadhouse. Doomie had indeed returned in their absence, but in doing so he had awakened the household at three in the morning. Ginger expressed her own ire by glowering silently from a crack in the ceiling. Lydia thought it prudent to take herself literally on a figurative suggestion. They'd been back for scarcely half an hour when she suggested, "Why don't we go for a jog?"

Beetlejuice gaped at her. "You mean you were serious about the exercize thing?"

"Not at the time, but considering the atmosphere around here, it's not a bad idea. Got any sports attire up your sleeve, BJ?"

Beetlejuice muttered something unintelligible, flexing his fingers reluctantly. He was not happy about the windbreaker and swish pants bearing a beetle logo that he appeared in, but Lydia's tank top and form-fitting aerobics pants seemed to compensate.

"So, where'd ya wanna go?" he asked, catching her around the waist.

"Anywhere but here, for now."

Walking was a more appropriate term for the activity they settled on. Lydia suggested they follow a trail through the woods where they had often taken their picnics. Autumn lay colorful on the landscape, a bright similarity between their worlds at that time of year. Early evening found them at rest beneath an oak on the edge of the wood, a slight breeze loosing a shower of leaves from overhead. Lydia reclined with her back to the tree, Beetlejuice's head in her lap. She ran her fingers absently through his hair, watching the sun sink low and heavy with bright orange glow.

"I really am sorry about Anne," she sighed after a while.

"Babes, forget it. Not your fault. You know how the French are. Ppht, I live with one of 'em, for cryin' out loud."

"Beetlejuice, you handled it very admirably. I'm... relieved, if you want to know the truth. I can't say I never worry about you that way," Lydia said softly, finding it painful to look him in the eye with such a confession.

Beetlejuice seemed perturbed, but only fleetingly. He reached up to brush her cheek and said, "It's okay... I know... I behave kinda badly sometimes... okay, a lot of the time... well, you know when to keep me in line. I couldn't cope with some people without you-- you know that?"

Lydia smiled wanly. "Are you sure it's not the other way around?"

"Shut up," Beetlejuice muttered, drawing her face down to his. "Mmm, there. I think you deserve somethin'...."

"A kiss for badmouthing you?" Lydia asked, bewildered.

"Way I figure, you can't say any more if I have dibs on your tongue. Heheheh."

"Really eloquent, Beetlejuice," she laughed, teasing him by drawing back a few inches.

He held her head firmly to keep her from resisting. Suddenly, he was more thoughtful than playful. In that instant, a red leaf whirled from above, caught in a lazy spiral pirouette.

"I miss something," Beetlejuice said simply.

Lydia arched her eyebrows, concerned. "What?"

"We haven't beat the tar out of the crowd down at Kneecap's in a few weeks. Let's go back next week."

"I'd like that," Lydia breathed, relieved.

She leaned forward, eager to give rather than to deny. She would not have believed that concern was a far wiser state than acquiesence at the given moment. But a sunset makes it possible to forget even the most careless promises.

 

 

* * *

 

 

September 17

Tuesday ~ 2 PM, I think....

 

Professor Malin wasn't lying when he said we wouldn't have time to breathe. The first set design meeting yesterday ran an hour overtime, and I'm in charge of organizing the costume crew this afternoon at four. It feels like last semester again-- sitting here alone at my desk, forking chicken stir fry into my mouth and not really tasting it. Come to think of it, I haven't tasted anything since the last of Bee's cookies at the roadhouse on Sunday afternoon. I returned that evening to find Melinda still absent and our answering machine full to the last inch of tape. Amidst calls from Melinda's acquaintances and Professor Malin, my father had called three times. When Melinda returned at 10 PM, I was still on the phone with him.

"Hiya, Pumpkin. Where've you been all weekend? Your mother and I were beginning to wonder."

"Out with Melinda and Ray... you always said I needed to get out more, after all," I lied just as Melinda walked through the door. Her look was confused for the split second it took her to decide she was deeply offended. I looked away, my heart thoroughly rattled. At least she wouldn't scream, "Mr. Deetz, your daughter's nose ought to be as long as Pinocchio's by now!"

Dad responded, "That's just great, dear. Have you had any time to relax? There's more to life than work and play." I caught a whiff of hesitant concern in his demeanor.

"Yes, in fact-- I did nothing for most of today. Slept in. Are you sure you're getting enough rest? You sound as nervous as you do when Delia's gung-ho about a new project."

Dad sighed, a precursor to a confession if I'd ever heard one. "Well, Pumpkin, actually, it's... You haven't been home for two weekends. I mean, I'm happy you're finding a niche at school-- don't think that I'm complaining or any--"

"Dad, you don't have to lie about missing me," I said quietly, biting my lip. "I miss you, too." I'm just less likely to get sick over it, I added mentally, overcome by a surge of remorse.

"I hate to beg, too," he continued, "but would you think about staying at home this coming weekend? I'll pick you up... we'll go out for a night without Delia. Just anything to see your face around here, honey. It counteracts the constant redecorating."

I felt my heart lighten and give in. Beetlejuice would surely understand-- and who's to say my room is no less a haven for us than it ever was? I laughed.

"Sure, Dad. I'd love that. What color is it this time, by the way?"

"More like what pattern," Dad replied, a shudder audible in his tone. "She's done our bedroom curtains over again."

I winced. "Let me guess. Calico?"

"Worse. Gingham."

"Ouch! As long as she didn't touch--"

"Your room's fine. I locked it."

I wanted to cry, to hug him till I had no strength left. "Dad, you're the best!"

"I'd better go, Pumpkin. Delia's having the Bentleys over for cocktails in fifteen minutes. I've been grilling hors d'oevres for an hour."

I scowled and asked a bit too candidly, "Why do you put up with it?"

"Excuse me, honey?"

"Why do you put up with her? These pretentious conventions that never get her any further than a single job with any one client? Face it, Dad. She's horrible."

He didn't answer for a very long time.

"Second love is a funny thing. It doesn't match the first in intensity or necessity, ever... but honey, it has its moments."

To hear my father speak so frankly was strangely unsettling. Hoping my tone effectively made it sound as if the matter were still alien and uncomfortable to me, I asked dully, "Behind closed doors... you mean?"

A sigh, reluctant but not evasive. "Mostly. But, I can't complain about a lot of other things, either. She helped me raise you, and she's a whiz at doing the numbers. Child-rearing and taxes... two things my nerves could never handle solo," he joked weakly.

"Was I such a handful, Dad, as a little girl?" I asked, smiling indulgently.

"You had your moments, too."

"Oh, yeah... the bugs."

"Pumpkin, you take care. Delia's waving from the living room, so I take it she says hello. Talk to you in a couple of days. Love you."

"I love you too, Dad."

"Speaking of which, honey, just an afterthought," Charles said before hanging up. "Don't ever let go when you find him... not even for death, understand?"

"Yes, I--"

Click.

My heart dropped with the phone into the receiver. I stared mutely at my hands for a few moments, stupefied. Melinda eyeing me like a tigress about to pounce was the only thing that kept me from sliding into a miserable reverie.

"Lydia, I never thought I'd say this," she said in a strange voice, "but you make me sick."

I raised my head fiercely, my lips contorting just short of a snarl. "You have no right to judge what I'm going through right now, do you hear me? No right!"

"Maybe if you would tell me what you're going through and quit using me in your fibs to Daddy Dearest, I might be better able to discern that!"

"That's the first time I've used you as an excuse, and I'm sorry for it," I said, my cheeks burning white-hot with shame.

"Why should I believe you? You won't give me the time of day anymore. You'd rather give it to your dark horse suitor. If you even have one."

I sprung out of my chair, loose sketches raining from my lap onto the floor. "The last thing you should do is doubt my honesty where that's concerned. And if it means so much to you to know that much? Fine. I do enjoy giving him the time, thank you very much!"

"I sure hope you're keeping track of time," Melinda shot back thoughtlessly.

I screeched at her furiously, "You're a fine one to talk, Miss Oh!-I-Hope-I'm-Not--"

"That was last semester," Melinda said with quiet hurt, "and it hasn't happened again." The look in her eyes was sheer disbelief: How did you know about that?!

"You have your secrets," I said harshly, driving the point home. "I heard that from Lauren. I didn't repeat it. I didn't even say a word to you, and when it turned out to be nothing?-- God, Melinda! My heart was bursting with relief for you, but I couldn't say I was happy because I technically didn't know about it. Think twice from now on. I told you I'd never bar you completely. But evidently, you have no qualms about barring me."

Melinda stared at her hands for a long time before turning her attention stiffly back to the e-mail she'd been writing. Feeling as if I'd had the wind knocked out of me, I retreated to my bed, uncertain who had won the latest round. Victory isn't supposed to feel like that. I curled up around a pillow, and without warning the ring rotated itself three hundred and sixty degrees on my finger. I clapped a hand over my mouth, half to stifle a cry of surprize and half in realization that I was in no mood to confide in Beetlejuice over any of this. I needed some time to myself-- after all, I'd left him only hours before.

Slowly, I removed the ring, administering an apologetic kiss upon its tiny smooth forehead. I shut it in a trinket box on the shelf above my bed, curled back up, and fell into an exhausted sleep that broke only when my alarm went off at seven thirty on Monday morning.

Melinda and I have barely spoken since. The silence adds taste to my meager meals, perhaps, a subtle bitterness that leaves me jaded with each new bite I force down. Perhaps Melinda will return from her class in a few moments, or perhaps she'll eat out with Karin. If she returns, she'll mumble a brief, furtively polite greeting, put her things away, perhaps read for a while.

It stings almost as deeply as my father's parting advice. Why are friendship and love lined on the underside with the same thorns?

I still don't care to look at my desk clock. To look at a clock means to acknowledge that time in actuality never ceased to exist. Part of me still insists that when the clock on my dresser froze, so did the passage of days as I knew it.

But that can't be true. At four o'clock, I'll be at the head of a long industrial table in the costume shop, praying that my colleagues bear enough respect to listen when pay is on the line.

For all I know, I may even be late. Ah, but, no-- a key in the door, a sour face framed by familiar curls emerges, invading my silence.

"Hey, Lydia."

"Mel."

She walks to her side of the room, eyes distant, already drawn to the window. She sits down on her bed, in no hurry to finish unlacing her tennis shoes. I am ever more amazed when she speaks again.

"Lydia, would you stop writing for a minute?"

"No."

"All right... well, I guess, if you're listening... Ray just asked today how you're doing. He says he can't wait to see you at the dance class on Thursday."

"Tell him I say the same."

"Lydia..."

"Hmm?"

"You ought to write a book. What the hell are you doing in art school?"

"Same thing you're doing here, Bubbles."

Finding that maybe the window isn't so interesting after all, Melinda smiles ever so slightly. So do I.

Suddenly, this pencil is not so captivating, either.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Be-atlejuice, are you meaning to tell me zat you 'ave nos-sing bet-tair or worse to be doing zan sitting around zis place? No Lydia aujourd'hui?"

"Nah, she's got classes. Like yesterday," Beetlejuice sighed, kicking the empty cookie plate across the floor. He had the sudden impulse to pick it up, but he managed to resist. Jacques, scarcely missing a beat in his jumping jacks, couldn't help but notice nonetheless. He stopped, bending to pick up the plate automatically.

"I was hoping she 'ad cured you of zat habit, but I sink not," the skeleton sighed, placing the plate on a table. He stood in front of the couch where Beetlejuice sat with his legs over one arm, carelessly beating the side with his heels.

"Mon ami, you must not forget zat you have a life, too. Lydia certainly 'as not forgotten 'ers."

"No I don't," Beetlejuice sulked. "I'm six feet under, and so are you, remember?"

Jacques ignored the comment. "Be-atlejuice, what you need is some oz-zair interaction, besides Lydia. What about Ginger? She 'as nos-sing to do either, je pense."

Beetlejuice knew a hint when he smelled one. "Uh-uh. No way. She'll wrap me as carryout!"

" 'Ave it your way," Jacques assented with a shrug, walking away. Beetlejuice fumed in silence for a few moments before his thoughts turned to what Lydia would advise in the matter. At length, he dragged his feet to the unsuspecting spider's door, chancing a barely audible rap on the aged wood.

When no answer came, he called tentatively, "Ginger?"

The door opened abruptly, sending Beetlejuice back a few startled feet. Ginger's eyes glowed livid yellow in the sliver of semidarkness within. "Whaddaya want?" she mumbled, preparing to withdraw immediately.

Beetlejuice sucked in a whistling breath, resisting the urge to shut her front legs in the door. "Just to say hello, if that isn't too tall an order," Beetlejuice said with as much civility as he could muster, growing to a temporary height just short of breaking the ceiling.

He heard Ginger struggle to stifle a grudging giggle. "I... I guess it's not," she pouted, sulking less convincingly.

"Then step outta those cobwebs and get some air. Geez," Beetlejuice replied impatiently, shrinking to his usual height.

Ginger stepped into the hall, revealing herself to be in a rare condition: bare-legged. Beetlejuice asked without thinking, "Did you give up dancin', or what?"

Ginger scowled. "You wish."

"You know it," Beetlejuice retorted in reply, his good intentions failing fast.

"I shouldn't'a opened the door in the first place," Ginger pouted.

"Hey, you're the one turning down an apology."

"Some apology!"

"I haven't had much practice! Take it or leave it."

Defeated, Ginger huffed, "Fine!"

"Fine. Go hide in the corner with your fly crumbs."

"Don't mind if I do," Ginger replied coolly, stalking off.

Beetlejuice left with a shrug, oddly satisfied. Ginger's sulky, conciliatory smile had not escaped his notice, even as perfunctorily as she had left him. Beetlejuice knew that it still wouldn't be enough for Jacques, but he decided not to let that matter. He was only beginning to realize how much things had begun to matter, since...

Beetlejuice sopped at the end of the hall, leaning against the wall. He could admit that he was gone, every part of him lost to this extroardinary girl. This extroardinary mortal girl.

He pushed the thought away with revulsion, so out of place was the realization. Too many implications there, too many matters to be considered in the future. And the future had never been a popular item of consideration for Beetlejuice.

He slipped backwards and down through the wall, landing in the living room. He took a seat on the couch when he was certain Jacques was nowhere in the immediate vicinity. Resigned and captive, he folded his cuff back to reveal a beaten watch band. Instead of numbers and hands set in the face of the derelict timepiece, a circular mirror had been inserted. He did not breathe as he skimmed an index finger across its surface.

Lydia's wall mirror in that instant became a window. Beetlejuice studied the circular view, both content and disappointed with what he saw. Lydia lay stretched out on her bed writing, responding now and then to Melinda, who sat typing at her desk. The tableau was one he knew better than to disrupt. Lydia had made him promise he would avoid calling on her when she wasn't alone. Though, sometimes...

Beetlejuice couldn't resist. He leaned close to the miniature glass, giving the barest tap. He repeated the action when Lydia did not look up. When she finally did, her eyes went wide in greeting only to narrow in warning. She mouthed, gesturing violently at Melinda, whose back was thankfully turned, "What do you think you're doing?!"

Beetlejuice shrugged, offering a guilty grin. "Seein'--"

Lydia pressed a finger to her lips furiously.

Melinda turned her head in profile. "Did you say something, Princess?"

Lydia's voice came out in a squeak. "N-No. I... mmhm, just cleared my throat."

"I told you to watch out for that cold."

Beetlejuice's eyes widened in concern. "Cold?" he whispered just audibly.

"Yes," Melinda replied. "I told you there's a killer one going around right now."

Lydia slapped her forehead, glaring the mirror. "Get out of here!" she mouthed urgently. "She'll see you!"

"But if you're getting sick--"

"Lydia, you don't have to whisper. Unless your throat's getting sore already..." Melinda trailed off, turning just slowly enough that Beetlejuice had time to duck out of the mirror frame.

Melinda studied Lydia's tense, ashen expression. "Honey, you're really pale, and I don't mean that as a compliment," she said. "You ought to see a doctor."

"I suppose," Lydia replied shortly.

"Good girl," Melinda said, turning back to her typing.

Beetlejuice hesitantly rose back into view, wincing ahead of time at what awaited him. Lydia was livid, drumming her fingers on her sketchbook. She mouthed with grave exaggeration, "Go NOW."

Beetlejuice's face fell. "Fine," he whispered half as loudly as before. "Though... Babes..."

Lydia sighed impatiently, "What?"

"Nothing," Melinda replied. "Are you hearing things too? Good, that means I'm not crazy."

"That's debatable," Lydia responded before turning her attention back to the mirror. "What? BJ, I don't have the time or resources to deal with what'll happen if she sees you right now!"

Beetlejuice was hopelessly confused, being no expert in such extensive lip reading. Cowering, he murmured, "See you later... Lydia. I..."

The words "love you" were lost as he turned away. Lydia had already fixed her eyes back on her writing, lest her continued attention tempt him to stay. But her lips, too, moved barely, her breath scattering a fine cloud of graphite dust upon the white page.

"Are you sure you didn't say anything?" Melinda asked.

"No," Lydia sighed, resting her head in her arms.

Beetlejuice covered his wrist again quickly, staring at the ceiling. What on earth had possessed him? He closed his eyes, beating his head against the back of the couch. He already knew the answer to that.

He couldn't stand to think that he'd angered her, so he thought about Thursday instead. Which thoughts irretrievably mixed with ways to make amends for his foolishness of moments before-- which thoughts grudgingly sent he and Doomie on their way to the corner of Elm and Agony.

The vampiress was none too distasteful of his sudden appearance, but at least she was no longer shocked. There was a moment of charged silence as he stepped inside. Beetlejuice claimed the right to speak first, much to her disdain.

"Okay, Madame, two questions for you, and I'm really not in the mood for clever answers today. One-- do you care about my girl as much as I think you do? Two-- do you accept plastic?"

Anne-Hélène's brow furrowed. "This is a most irregular visit, non?" she asked. A few moments later, she responded hesitantly, "Yes... and yes."

"Good. Then will you help me?"

 

 

* * *

 

 

Just when I think Beetlejuice has pulled the unwisest stunt he's capable of, he once again proves me wrong. My heart's still racing-- his behavior just now nearly cost us an unconscious Melinda. What would I have said once she came to, assuming she would have passed out at all? Mel, meet my boyfriend? You can't explain away phantoms in mirrors. Especially ones like Beetlejuice. Sometimes, as much as I love him...

Melinda's typing away, the episode forgotten. If only she would forget other things just as easily! If she knew those whispers and the situation at hand were related in any way, I can only imagine the consequences. But on the flip side, if worst comes to worst-- which part of me whispers I must be fully prepared for, ever more urgently now-- better Mel than my parents, after all.

I can't stop thinking about the way he looked. I believe I truly upset him. How tempted I was to call him once he vanished, I can't say. Sometimes I think ironclad self-restraint is as damnable as overt carelessness.

And something tells me I'm the greater coward for not giving in.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Congratulations. Your credit is barely acceptable," Anne-Hélène remarked, honestly impressed. She cleared the scanner, handing Beetlejuice his card. Anne-Hélène placed the crisp white box on the counter in a familiar plastic bag.

Beetlejuice grabbed it from her brusquely. "Yeah, and it's taken me years to accomplish, merci beaucoup."

"Your pronounciation is not bad," Anne-Hélène remarked unexpectedly.

"Yeah, well, living with Jacques for a couple hundred years hasn't hurt."

"Jacques?"

"Jacques LaLean. Hear of Mr. Neitherworld? He rents a room in the same dump I do."

"I've seen the Roadhouse," the vampiress remarked with a hint of disdain. "A countryman of mine lives there?"

"Not everyone's born into privelege, Anne," Beetlejuice smirked. "Jacques may be hollow-headed, but he's done a lot to get where he is. An' I sure haven't done a lot to help. At least I never meant to."

"Kind of you," Anne-Hélène murmured, rolling her eyes ceilingward.

"Wow. Now that I know two of you, I swear everything they say's true," Beetlejuice retaliated, heading for the door.

"Such as?" Anne-Hélène snapped, her eyes narrowing at a familiar angle.

"That," Beetlejuice said simply, halfway through the door.

"Tell your ami that I admire him." For putting up with you! her eyes blazed emphatically.

"Already? Oooh, so that's even true," Beetlejuice remarked wickedly, slamming the door before the vampiress could get another word in edgewise.

He and Doomie were halfway home before it even occurred to him that Anne-Hélène might actually wish to meet a fellow countryman, as rare as they were. Well, there would be time for that-- the possibilities were certainly amusing. All that Beetlejuice cared about for the moment rested beside him in the passenger's seat.

It was nearly five when he returned. Only once the parcel was shoved in a chest drawer did he notice the half slip of paper folded on his pillow. He recognized the paper as one of Jacques' aerobics class fliers. He opened it, briefly wondering who under his roof would have reason to leave one.

Dear Beetlejuice~

Got a few moments to myself-- Mel stepped out with Ray. Sorry I seem to have missed you. I wanted to say, I'm very sorry about this afternoon. You know I just worry about that; I always have. I don't know what I'd do if something were to ruin us. But enough about that, it's nothing you haven't thought about from time to time, too. What I came to tell you is that Professor Malin's asked me to stand in for Cara at a seminar at some art school up the road tomorrow-- I can't even remember the name, but it's an overnight and my transportation leaves in an hour and a half. Curse that cold that's going around, right? Lucky Cara. Anyway, I wanted to say, too, that I regret acting the way I did and that I'm rambling now because what I really want is to tell you in person, and...

Come by on Thursday afternoon, one o'clock-ish. I'll be back a bit too late tomorrow night to do anything other than sleep. Thursday, though-- I'll cut a class for you just to see to it Mel's not here, understand? Good. Because I'm anxious to try my hand at apologizing. God knows, I'm not used to you setting the example-- but lately, well, you've given me every reason to be proud.

All my love-- and I just know the dorm beds at Whatchacallit University won't hold a candle to your mother's mattresses,

Lydia

Beetlejuice reclined in the coffin, covering his face with the note as if it were a mask. He breathed the paper in and out a few times, much relieved and thoroughly devastated all at once. He'd missed her. But, for a good reason, he reasoned, and was content. Although, not with the fact that she was going away. Contacting her in a strange place would be risky. A risk he definitely did not wish to take in light of that afternoon's events.

It surprized him that she would ask him to come so early on Thursday, but then, the more time before Kneecap's the better, right? Right.

Beetlejuice drifted off to sleep early, an event quite usually welcomed by his housemates. Over dinner, however, a skeleton and a spider asked each other almost in unison, "Where's Beetlejuice?"

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Hey! How was the conference? Boy, that was random of Malin," was Melinda's greeting first thing Thursday morning. She marched in from showering unusually chipper, waking her exhausted roommate in the process. "Wow, you must have gotten in at... what was that, two in the morning? I don't even remember."

Lydia rubbed her eyes groggily, groping for her alarm clock and knocking it to the floor in the process. "Mm-- Wha?... What... time is it, Mel?" she mumbled, sitting up quite disoriented. She realized she was still in her clothes, that she must have simply dropped her overnight bag and collapsed in bed. One look at the floor confirmed the hazy recollection.

" 'Bout seven thirty. Don't worry, you won't be late for anything-- I shut your alarm off because I thought you deserved the extra half an hour. Lydia, you all right? Or is seeing me the early bird for once too much of a shock?"

Lydia shook her head confusedly, flopping back onto her pillow with a groan. "I'm so beat. I don't understand why our school needed a rep to attend the seminar. I could have written a paper on the subject and gotten Malin the information just as easily."

"That bad, huh?" Melinda asked, rummaging unsuccessfully for a bra. "Damn! Where does all my underwear go?"

"You should try doing your laundry once in a while."

"Ha, funny," Melinda smirked. "Lydia, are you sure..." Melinda trailed off, drawing closer to where Lydia lay staring glazedly at the ceiling. She pressed a hesitant hand to her roommate's forehead. "Holy--! You caught more than just a cold. I'll bet Cara wasn't half as sick as she let on."

"Oh?" Lydia asked indifferently, still staring.

"You stay in bed, or I'll have your neck, understand?" Melinda warned.

Lydia closed her eyes, remembering the note she'd left for Beetlejuice somewhat irrelevantly. Indignant thoughts related to missing too many classes clashed with her first recollection, but the former was the stronger of the two, fed by her fever. "Yes, understand," she sighed in a whisper. "But tonight... we're dancing."

"That's right, yeah, but if you're feeling like this, I don't think--"

"Promised you," Lydia murmured, rolling over to face the fall. "I promised-- B-- I'd skip-- anyway-- I mean-- skip class, you think I should?" Lydia barely covered for her slip, and likewise failed to make a connection between her promise to Melinda and a similar third promise she'd entirely forgotten.

"I think you should skip life today, for crying out loud! Look at you!"

Lydia opened her eyes for a moment, responding with a stubborn, level glance. "We'll see."

Melinda had located adequate underthings and was currently slipping into a pair of sweats. She responded, "We'll see my ass. Sleep for the better part of this morning and afternoon and then we'll see." Melinda's voice was temporarily muffled as she pulled on a long-sleeved tee emblazoned with her old high-school's track team logo. "I'm going to the gym before class, so I've got to run."

Lydia closed her eyes, feigning sleep already. Once she heard the door close, she rose numbly, shedding her clothes and donning one of her old gothic nightgowns. She found concentration difficult but managed to set her alarm for noon.

An hour, she reasoned as the heavy sleep of sickness claimed her, is all I'll need to dress.

The alarm dredged her from the depths of slumber too cruelly soon. Four hours had passed in the blink of an eye, and Lydia's were in none to sad a shape. She winced when the light coaxed them open, finding her head hurt with a familiar intensity. Oh, not this, she thought. Not now.

Thus cursed doubly, once by illness and once by her own body, Lydia showered and dressed in a decidedly sour mood. Tylenol would take care of her head and lower her fever, possibly, but it would not allay other pains soon to follow.

Twelve thirty, read the clock on Melinda's bedside file cabinet as Lydia wobbled back into the room. "Rats," she breathed through clenched teeth, pushing her sluggish thoughts into overdrive.

What to wear? Well, you'll only be going out for that class-- oh, yes, Melinda be damned, you promised her-- so, something you can move in. Lydia rummaged through her biking attire to find something she hadn't used in a while: an ankle to shoulder black bodysuit, sleeveless.

I've got chills, the observed with annoyance, rubbing her shoulders. She fished out a burgundy wraparound aerobics sweater. If she hd ever been in the habit of appraising her own looks, she might have realized how stunning a complement it was when paired with the bodysuit. But the only thought in her mind as she ran a brush through her damp hair was a curse on the viselike pressure beginning to clamp her middle.

Lydia dropped the brush onto her bed suddenly. Whether it was seeing the numbers 12:47 reflected redly in her mirror from Melinda's bouncing clock screensaver or the pain that drew her thoughts out of eclipse, she was not certain. It also might have been dwelling on whose visit loomed only minutes away. Drawn by trembling fingers, her right hand crept to her stomach.

You don't know how lucky you are! Just think if you had missed. Yes, you heard yourself: missed. Wouldn't Melinda be proud?

Lydia felt her knees weaken and give way. She sat on the edge of the bed, shaking from head to toe. When the tears came, she whispered, "How could I have been so careless?"

You're lucky, her conscience said again. But how long does luck last?

"If that's even possible," Lydia challenged herself softly. "He's... we're... not the same. I don't think I could..."

...Could I?

A sudden tap on the mirror caused her to jump out of her skin. Shaking badly, she turned around to face him, barely able to lift her eyes from the bedspread.

"G-Good morning," Lydia faltered. Her pain, sickness, and confusion wound themselves into a single relentless noose about the shallow rise and fall of her throat.

Beetlejuice had been smiling tentatively, but it faded as quickly as he had arrived. He leaned toward her as her eyes rose, knowing the sensation he felt would have stopped his heart if only it still had the capacity to beat.

"Lyds, it's afternoon," he said slowly, stricken with the fact she was visibly so. He hoped he had only caught her just waking somewhat disoriented from a nap. He ventured cautiously, "You okay, Babes? I didn't wake ya, did--"

"No," Lydia reassured him a bit too hastily, briefly running her hands over her slightly teared eyes. "No, I'm just... Beetlejuice," she cried softly, her voice no longer even a shade level. "Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice..."

He appeared in front of her, bearing a considerably large white rectangular box. It was of little importance, however, in light of her condition. He tossed it carelessly on the bed and grabbed her hands, somewhat panicked.

"Lyds, what's the matter?" he demanded, kneeling. He could not persuade her to raise her head. The traces of tears that she had tried to quell ran full force down her cheeks.

"Lyds, you gotta help me out here," Beetlejuice continued, hating himself for automatically reverting to helpless panic. He shook her hands desperately. "Lyds, c'mon!"

Lydia sobbed audibly only once, as if in remorse. She bit her knuckle, waving her other hand free. Beetlejuice was beside himself, for once too distraught to literally manifest it. "I didn't mean to do that the other day. You're right, that was the dumbest thing I've ever done," he babbled frantically. "Mel could've seen me. I get it now, honest I do! Babes, please forgive--"

"No," she cried, finally coherent, throwing her arms around his neck, "it's not that. Not that at all!" And for a while, all that Beetlejuice could do was offer her complete and uncertain reassurance.

"Oh... then... that's good," he said, rocking her. "But... shhh... Lyds... you have to tell me what's the matter. You're killin' me. Just leave that comment as it is for once, ok? I'm honest."

"I know," she said at length, shakily chasing her tears with angry fingers. "I know."

Get a grip, right now! Beetlejuice thought to himself. He took her face gently in both hands, banishing his own upset. "Lydia, tell me," he said firmly.

The outright change in his tone seemed to surprize her, seemed to fortify her own resolve. She murmured, "Uhm, it's...." And stopped. How was she supposed to tell him a thing like that?

"Yes?"

Lydia eyes fell again, threatening to overflow this time with shame. Joint responsibility, yes-- but so wretchedly hard to voice. Even to speculate, she feared, would send him off on a tangent more dangerous than the one she herself had taken. She began to speak, but only a sob passed her lips.

Perplexed and alarmed, Beetlejuice embraced her fiercely. "Lyds, stop, please--"

"Agh!" she cried out, wincing as she pressured his arms out and away from her waist.

Beetlejuice was dumbfounded. "Answer me, Babes!"

"It's... that," Lydia sighed, biting her tongue. At least it was half true.

"It's what?" Beetlejuice demanded, showing the first signs of hurt temper. He grasped her again, only to be met with another moan.

"That, that that that!" Lydia winced. "Understand?"

"Oh," Beetlejuice muttered sheepishly, his eyes taking their turn with the floor. "Yeah."

"Sorry," Lydia breathed, succumbing to utter emotional exhaustion. She encouraged him to hold her, this time, but lightly. "That's why I told you to come, anyway. I owe you an apology. But that debt's doubled now."

"Nah, that's okay," Beetlejuice murmured hastily. "That's not entirely true, anyway. I'm here for a lot better reason than that anyway. I can't wait to get to Kneecap's-- uh... that is... if you're still feeling up to--"

"Kneecap's?" Lydia echoed, one hand racing back to her mouth.

"Yeah," Beetlejuice said, appraising her indulgently. "You'll slaughter the competition with that getup alone."

Lydia's only reply was a short, horrified gasp.

"Beetlejuice... I..."

"I understand if you're feelin' badly. We don't have to go, really, and don't worry about me just because I'm the one who suggested--"

"... I forgot," Lydia whispered numbly.

Beetlejuice peered at her a bit more closely, confused. "Babes, shh, I think you're a bit sicker than you're lettin' on. You're not making sense, just relax--"

"No," she repeated more firmly. "I honest to God forgot. I promised Melinda and Ray I'd take Thursday night tango lessons with them starting this week."

Beetlejuice just stared at her, uncomprehending. "But you promised me-- when we were jogging--"

"I'd promised them first. Which means I'm guilty twice more. I forgot I'd promised them, and then I forgot I'd promised you on top of it...."

Beetlejuice blinked away a rather frightening expression, shaking his head rapidly, as if in denial. He pressed a hand to her forehead. "There, see, I knew it. You have a fever on top of everything else. You're delirious. You really shouldn't go anywhere tonight. Mel will understand. Just lie down and let me get you covered--"

"No," Lydia said, trembling, her eyes closed tightly. "I promised Melinda."

Beetlejuice was appalled. "You're sick," he insisted tremulously, his hands clenching into ominous fists on the bedspread.

"Yes, I am. And I'm going dancing."

"Without me," he burst out bitterly.

Lydia's eyes flew open indignantly, pleading. "Beetlejuice, I promised her! Do you have any idea how much lying and rejection I've put her through?"

"Funny, you've been doing it for seven years and never minded," he retorted.

"That's different! We've been over that! I can't cancel on her. She wants nothing more than to find you out, Beetlejuice, whatever and whoever you are! I've skipped so many invitations for your sake! Said so many things that were untrue, and at her expense! I owe her something in return. I won't cancel!"

"But you'll cancel on me," Beetlejuice replied viciously. "I was really looking forward to tonight!"

Lydia turned away. "So was I," she cried helplessly, "but I made a mistake! I have a prior obligation. Is it such a hard concept for you to grasp?"

"If it means missing even a single minute with you, yes!"

"You can be so selfish sometimes."

"Thursdays are our night! We've missed a couple of weeks now! I've missed dancing with you, damn it!"

"We've done a lot more than dance, and that's all you have to say about it?" Lydia hissed savagely. "You can be so irrational. I've given everything else up for you, and one error isn't even forgivable?"

"What's one of our principles, Babes? Are you forgettin'? Teamwork. I'm not so absent minded after all," he cried furiously. "It's not fair!"

Lydia glared. "You revert back to that excuse when you know you ought to stop while you're still ahead."

"Oh, so is that a hint?"

"There's a much larger one you might have taken by now, but something tells me you're not in touch enough to see what's really bothering me."

"How could I be?! You make it so difficult! You took five-- minutes to answer me," Beetlejuice spat, wondering why he'd even refrained from saying what he almost had.

Lydia's eyes were glassy with a look of utter loss. "You do too, Beetlejuice. You make things incredibly difficult. What's more, you take pride in it."

"That's it!" Beetlejuice growled, swiping the box off the bed. "I don't think this is a good time for random acts of kindness or apology."

Lydia's eyebrows lost their hard set. "What?"

"You'll just have to wait," Beetlejuice said, forcing himself into a state of bitter self-control. "I don't think you need this right now. Have fun. Save me the last--"

"Oh, for the love of God, stop," Lydia cried, catching him by the sleeve. "Don't say that. I'll come undone all over again."

Beetlejuice lost his nerve. "Then come with me tonight, please," he begged in a whisper, kissing her desperately. "Please. I miss it. That's my defense. So what if I'm selfish. I don't easily give up what's mine. No, take that back. I don't ever."

Tears streamed down Lydia's cheeks as they had before. "I promised... I'm sorry...."

"Like I said, then," he whispered miserably, brushing her cheek only to pull away just as his fingers curled into an agonized fist. "Have fun, Babes."

"Beetlejuice, wait, there's something we really should discuss--"

He said as he vanished, a bitter echo of what he'd said seconds before, "You'll just have to wait. If I have to wait, then so do you."

"Fine," she cried in a whisper, seeking refuge in her pillow, and eventually in sleep. Dreams found her, though, ones she prayed within her sleeping mind she would not remember. But when she was awakened by a gentle touch on the shoulder, she was screaming.

"You wouldn't listen to me! This is what I was trying to tell you! I hope you're satisfied with--"

"Lydia! Oh my God, Lydia, wake up!"

"Who's there?!" Lydia wailed, sitting up straight as an arrow. When she realized whose paint-stained hand it was on her shoulder, she relaxed somewhat.

Melinda was frightened almost to tears. "It's... It was just a nightmare," she said, awkwardly embracing her roommate. "It's all right now. Fevers can do that."

"Yes," Lydia whispered. "Apparently."

Melinda, incidentally, was feeling her forehead. But her expression seemed to say she found the opposite of what she had expected.

"Huh. Lydia, that's funny... it's broken. You're only warm, now. Must have been one of those 24 hour things... anyway... do you think you can still make it to the lesson tonight? I really understand if you want to stay in bed."

The words hit her like a ton of bricks, but hurt infinitely more. She set her jaw stubbornly and said, "No, I'll be okay. I'm coming."

"You're crazy. So crazy, Princess," Melinda said quietly, staring at her hands. "God, I've been a jerk to you."

"I've been a jerk, too."

"No, you've been damned wise. You have every right to defend yourself. Ray's really been a help. He always sees a situation I'm tangled in better than I do, and he can generally point out to me with reasonable success whether I'm in the right or in the wrong. In this case, I'm the screwup. I've invaded your privacy, hounded you to unkind words even after you made polite evasions... Hell, Lydia," Melinda said, her voice breaking, "I belong there."

"No, you don't. You were worried. Are you my friend?"

"Yes..."

"You were doing your job. Just a little too well, maybe."

Melinda found the courage to smile again. "I like your prognosis a lot better than Ray's."

"I never said I completely disagree with him. But feel free to tell me any time he correctly pegs me as the villainess."

Melinda shook her hand. "Deal. Well, are you hungry? We have time to eat before the lesson starts."

"I think so. With cramps like this, it's hard to tell."

"Ooh, honey," Melinda winced. "Let's drug you first."

"Nothing that'll knock me out, Mel. I don't care if your Mom's a pharmacist-- stick to something without a prescription."

Melinda stuck her tongue out playfully, dangling a vial of something half composed of codeine before Lydia. "You're no fun."

Lydia bit her lip, closing her eyes against the ache, only to be beaten into submission. "Okay, Doc. Hit me with the best you've got."

Melinda uncapped the vial with a click-click-click-POP. "Now you're talking! Trust me. If you want to dance, you definitely want some of this."

After dinner, Ray met them on the steps of the recreation center. He kissed Melinda and smiled at Lydia.

"Mel thought you weren't going to make it," he greeted her. "Glad you did, though."

"Yeah, barely," Lydia agreed, feeling inordinately placid and emptyheaded. "Mel... what... is it normal to feel like your brain's put up a 'Space for Rent' sign while you're on this stuff?"

Melinda smiled somewhat guiltily. "Yes, but it'll pass. I'd think someone like you would put that kind of focus to good use."

"We'll see. If I slip and fell the whole class like dominoes, you know who I'm blaming."

Ray cuffed Melinda's ear. "Tsk, tsk. Playing with Mommy's medicine cabinet again, are we?"

"Shut up. She'd be doubled over right now if I hadn't. Mom doesn't send that stuff with me for it to sit and expire. It's for emergencies, and this is one."

Ray raised his eyebrows at Lydia.

"You had better believe it is," she laughed. "Come on, let's go in."

"Women," Ray murmured, shaking his head.

Lydia banished a returning trace of misery from her vacant mind quickly. She couldn't help but feel out of place as she stood in a registration line composed predominantly of couples. Her stomach put up a mild protest, but she ignored it.

"Next," said the underenthusiastic student aide manning the table.

"Deetz, Lydia."

"Thanks. You're on the list. Next...."

The twenty-four of them followed printed and laminated signs to the multi-purpose room. They milled about the varnished wooden floor, the several students nervously appraising themselves in the mirror that filled the entire front wall. Lydia hung close beside Melinda, realizing they were the only art majors present. She found that her observation was neither dulled nor sharpened, and she used it.

"There are more couples than I thought," she commented softly, somewhat uneasily. "I think there are only four of us here alone. Me, those two girls on opposite sides of the room, and that young man over there."

"So, you'll have to pair up with one of them. No biggie."

"Probably'd be in my best interest to claim the guy," Lydia remarked wryly. "We all know what some people think of--"

"Lydia, relax. These people don't know us. Choose whoever you want."

"True. Gotcha."

Ray observed, "The instructor's late. Thank goodness it's free. Does anyone know who's teaching this?"

A general buzz of confusion went up in response. "Hmm, I guess not," Ray said, and shrugged. He didn't notice that Melinda's eyes were wide and fixed on the door, but only for a moment.

"Morera!" a girl nearby breathed excitedly.

Lydia looked up from the floor, nudging Melinda. "What did she say?"

"Morera," Melinda repeated in a tone almost identical, only three times more softly. She pointed and said, "Look. Tell me that's a sight hard to ignore, even for a gal who isn't single!"

Lydia's eyes followed the direction of her friend's finger. Striding across the front of the room toward the sound system was a figure clad entirely in black, fitted slacks and a slim turtleneck. His short, sleek hair was almost as black as his eyes, his face youthful and tan. All in all, the young man was possessed of a hawklike beauty. For a moment, Lydia was captivated, but she found herself nodding noncommittally.

"I don't remember ever seeing him before. Is he a sophomore, too?" Lydia asked, shrugging.

Melinda slapped her forehead in disbelief. "Lydia, that's André Morera!"

"Who?"

"Wow. Oh, wow, you really need to get out more. He's only been in the performing arts news for about a year now. He's the finest dancer Argentina's produced in a decade, not to mention the youngest. The Academy dance division has him as faculty-in-residence this semester. I had no idea they'd let him teach a small peanuts class like this!"

"Good for him. He doesn't look much older than we are at all."

An excited redhead to their left informed Lydia, "He just turned twenty-four. Read it in Entertainment Weekly."

"If you don't mind, I would like to begin," echoed a crisp, clear tenor voice above the chatter. Lydia was amazed at his faint accent and flawless English. He's probably traveled extensively, she thought.

"I assume that you have all been accounted for. I also assume that because you are here, you are prepared to take this quite seriously. Even if you learn nothing else from me in the coming four weeks, I expect you to remember that dance-- any dance-- is nothing without passion. I am more likely to commend someone who is missing steps and moving fluidly than someone who is technically correct and moves as if they have no joints. So," André Morera finished, flashing a smile full of brilliant white teeth, "on that note, let us begin."

The majority of the female occupants of the room exhaled audibly. Lydia heard Ray scoff, "Our teacher just had to be that pansy-ass salsa guy."

Melinda replied as Morera strode over to the sound system once more, "He's good, okay? We have the best teacher currently this side of the Equator. I think your selective amnesia's acting up. This was your idea."

"Yeah, because I knew you'd appreciate it."

Melinda grinned. "You know I'm teasing. Love you."

Lydia felt a pang, a swift wave of nausea as the music began. As if in a trance, she followed Morera's instructions, drifting with some others into a front line to begin warmups. He mind, in truth, was anywhere but there. She moved blindly, painfully aware that while her body was anesthetized, her heart was not. She left Melinda and Ray at the back of the room, and eventually, she left them in the dust. Morera wasted no time pairing the single students and launching into demonstrations of basic steps.

Lydia found herself opposite the single young man, but she did not hear his name nor particularly wish to see him. He could not keep up with her, but it seemed irrelevant. When he let go of her in frustration, she simply danced as if she were indeed on the ballroom floor at Kneecap's. When the music stopped, Lydia whirled and froze, holding a pose that only Beetlejuice could complete. Only when her eyes opened did she realize that twenty-four pairs were fixed steadily upon her, their owners long since halted in their own blundering endeavors. The figure front and center, previously no more than a guiding voice that had faded for Lydia as quickly as the sea of faces, stepped close, demanding her attention.

"What is your name?" Morera asked, the gleam in his black eyes curious and stern.

"Lydia Deetz, sir. I'm sorry. My mind wandered."

Morera's lips twisted for a moment, deliberating between a thoughtful frown and a tentative smile. "Let it wander, then, but within reason," he replied, his tone less threatening that it had seemed before. "All right, let's begin the series again. Back in line, all of you." Just as a fascinated buzz rose from the rest of the class, Morera added softly, leaning a breath closer to Lydia, "Will you see me after class?"

Lydia sighed, realizing she would probably be pulled on the grounds of too much experience. It even lightened her thoughts to think Beetlejuice would be thrilled by the prospect. "Certainly," she replied. Morera nodded curtly and returned to the front of the room.

From close behind Lydia, a familiar voice hissed, "You didn't tell me you already know how to tango! Jesus, Lydia! You're as good as he is."

"Mel, a promise is a promise. I'm here, aren't I?"

Melinda swayed into Ray, who was also regarding Lydia with equally vivid admiration. "You could be teaching us. Where did you learn to--"

"The young lady in the back row, please, quiet."

"Sure thing," Melinda muttered to the instructor, falling back into line. Her eyes blazed, You have some explaining to do!

Lydia ignored it. For the rest of the class, she forced herself to hold back, finding it extremely difficult. All the while, her stomach's vague but stubborn upheaval continued. She felt warm, found herself wondering if it wasn't some side-effect of Melinda's administration. But the supposition did not last long; she knew herself better than that.

"Whew! Some workout," Melinda exclaimed as soon as Morera proclaimed the session finished. The three of them watched the rest of the students mill out, a few of whom paused to compliment Lydia. Melinda elbowed her roomate and added, "Did you hear that?"

"Yes, I heard them. All of them," Lydia replied, unable to smile even though she longed to.

Ray asked, "Are you all right? You look dizzy. Want us to walk you right back?"

"No, I have to stay. He asked to see me."

Melinda raised her eyebrows, as if hit by a sudden epiphany. "Lydia, have you been seeing him all this time? Did you play dumb? Oh my God, it makes sense--"

"It doesn't and you're wrong," Lydia said curtly, cautioning. "I would have told you that."

"And you won't tell me the truth...." Melinda mused sadly, trailing off.

"Just go. I'll be back soon," Lydia said quickly, striding away from them. The fact that Melinda couldn't let go no matter what she said annexed an additional sting to her unfathomably deep hurt.

"Later, then."

"See you."

Lydia watched them leave. She was so absorbed in untangling her misery that she did not notice the dark figure draw close behind her.

"Lydia, is it?" André Morera inquired politely, pronouncing her name with a unique delicacy.

Lydia spun, startled. "Oh, I... yes, that's right. Deetz."

"Apologies-- Miss Deetz. Perhaps it is inconsiderate of me, but I am curious. Why are you enrolled in this class when I have almost nothing to teach you?"

Lydia shrugged and smiled wearily. "Well, the blonde you silenced is my roommate. I promised her I'd come along for the ride."

Morera inclined his head. "She did not know you are already so skilled?"

Lydia blushed. "No."

"Are you a dance major? I don't recall you in any of my afternoon classes."

"No. Art. Costume design."

"Intriguing, incredible. I would never have guessed. You dance as if you are accustomed to your feet not touching the ground."

Lydia's stomach rose to meet her sinking heart, jarringly. "I suppose you might say that. I have... a fantastic partner. We go dancing for fun every week, we... well, used to."

"I see. So you are an experienced ballroom dancer?"

"Absolutely. We win first every time."

Morera eyes glittered darkly but warmly. "Miss Deetz, that is exactly what I like to hear."

Lydia felt her defensiveness rise. She withdrew a step, suddenly aware that his focus had broadened to include close examination of her physical state. "Why do you say that, Mr.-- Professor--"

"Please, you may call me André. I say that because I am in severe need of a partner if I am to enter a certain competition being held in Stamford three weeks from now. You are a godsend."

Lydia frowned. "I am also very busy. I'm head of costume design staff for Sweeney Todd, not to mention involved with set design--"

André's eyes flashed with sheer delight. "That's a lie, Miss Deetz."

"What? How dare--"

"I am involved with choreography, and I happen to know that no set design team has been chosen. But you dare to assume you will be, and I know that you are nothing less than correct. You are sure of yourself, even a little arrogant beneath that prim exterior. Exactly the kind of abmition it takes to win five thousand dollars."

Lydia snapped to attention. "Five... five thousand?"

"If we win first place-- that is, if you are game-- I have every intention of splitting it with you. You are a genuine talent."

As wildly as Lydia's better judgment beat against it, other thoughts in favor of assent pushed their way ahead of the fear that she might enrage Beetlejuice further. She was silent for a time, and turbulently so.

Twenty-five hundred... that's still a lot! We could do so much with-- we... we. Of course we'll need to gain solvency sometime soon; what better way to start? I won't fool myself any longer. When my-- IF my parents find out... No, well, don't think of that. Think that having some extra money put away is the smartest thing. You really ought to say yes. If you dance with this guy, you'll have it bagged!

Lydia finally looked him in the eye, extending a hand. "It'll be a pleasure working with you, Mr. Morera."

He shook it firmly and reminded her graciously, "André, senorita. Please, André."

He regarded her thoughtfully a few moments more and murmured, "Lydia."

Lydia did not notice the tremor that overtook the mirrored wall as the two of them exited, discussing details of the competition.

 

 

* * *

 

 

September 20 7:05 AM

 

Three weeks. I have only three weeks to practice for the most profitable chance I've ever decided to take in my life. I'm somewhat humbled, that one dance competition may gain me in one sweep over twice what I've earned at photo shows and sales in an entire year. Fate throws the widest curveballs of them all. But the thought of surprizing Beetlejuice with such a sum lessened the arc's dizzying angle considerably.

I walked with André as far as the parking lot, finding it uncomfortably necessary to pull myself away using rather urgent excuses. He had fallen to hanging on my every word, clinging to my very presence. I hope to God it's only beause he sees in me his ticket to half of five grand. In my present situation, I don't think that I could cope with the alternative.

I returned home to find a brief but typical note from Melinda: I don't have to say where I am, by now. Sleep well, Princess. You just didn't tell us just how much of a prince he really is! Way to go, kiddo. I thought you might appreciate me leaving you an empty room tonight (wink wink!)

I crumpled the note, furiously aggravated by her insistent need to believe that I have been seeing André. I suppose that being secretive entitles one to being dished undue grief. I sat down on the edge of my bed, pulling my shoes off dejectedly. I couldn't think of anything but this afternoon's fight, of how harshly we'd spoken. Quietly, I did thank Melinda for the empty room.

"Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice, Bee--"

"Save your breath, Babes," a familiar voice said, sounding curiously empty, defeated. I looked up to see Beetlejuice sagging in Melinda's desk chair, leaning glumly over the back, head in his arms.

"Oh! I-- how did--"

"You didn't send me back, remember?" Beetlejuice asked, raising his eyebrows as if struggling to read me. A moment later, they sagged as he muttered, "I suppose you don't."

Both annoyed and effectively guilt-tripped by the comment, I began to rise, but a moment later thought better of it. I stood my ground with some effort, biting my lip.

"Come over here, please?" I whispered, unable to keep my voice from quavering.

My counter attack proved equally as effective. Letting his own remorse get the better of him, Beetlejuice hesitated only for a moment before proving he was willing to trip over a pile of Melinda's books just to get to me. He sat beside me, hands clasped in his lap, eyes on the floor. I hadn't realized that I had rendered him so much worse off than I. I forgot any rules of engagement I might have established for myself. Pride be damned! I leaned over and kissed him deeply. I pushed away the alarm that resulted from his lack of responsiveness.

"I'm not sure I can use words to resolve earlier. Harsh of me... I have no tact today whatsoever."

"Well," Beetlejuice said after a few minutes, "I can't exactly blame you for that considerin'... uh, you know, what week it is, I suppose."

"That's not an entirely acceptable excuse. But... I do want you to understand that I consider Melinda as worthy of a promise as I consider you."

"Fine," he said, shrugging.

I scowled. "Are you so determined to draw this out?"

"If you were me," he said without elaboration, "you would be."

"What?"

Beetlejuice just shrugged, finding the floor as fascinating as before.

"Sometimes... sometimes," I muttered through clenched teeth, digging my nails hard into the bedspread until the fury subsided. Feeling incredibly drained, I yawned.

"You should get to bed," was all Beetlejuice said in the same empty, despairing tone.

"Only if you'll stay," I countered, mildly panicked. Even if I couldn't get him to talk, I was determined to keep him present.

Much to my relief, he nodded, succumbing to moment of miserable earnesty. After a few minutes of charged silence, I said, "Just a couple of minutes."

When I returned from the bathroom, he was lying in his beetle pajamas, covers down, staring at the ceiling. I climbed into bed beside him, dragged and bent by a fatigue stronger than gravity. Beetlejuice dimmed the lights. I think he held me until I fell asleep, which did not take very long.

That was last night.

For the first time, I have awakened to find him gone.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Ding-DONG!

Jacques groaned, rolling over to fumble with the light on his bedside table. He glanced at the clock and read 7:15. He couldn't decide which sound was more infernally aggravating-- his alarm or the doorbell. The latter had awakened him no less than an hour too early. He lay still for a few moments, praying that Ginger was perhaps already up and about, or that perhaps Beetlejuice had gone to answer it.

Ding-DONG!

"Agh, must I do every-sing ici?" he muttered, rolling out of bed and struggling into a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt. He took the stairs slowly, remembering the times he had run carelessly and ended up in a pile at the bottom. The bell sounded a third time, but enhanced by a more urgent accompaniment.

"Is somebody there? It's Lydia. Ginger?" the voice pleaded to the beat of small fists. Mon Dieu, Jacques thought, abandoning caution and taking the last few steps in a leap. She is crying!

Jacques threw the doors open, almost shocked to tears himself at the sight. Lydia stood shivering, paler than pale, her hair thrown back carelessly, a robe draped hurriedly over the black bodysuit she wore.

"Lydia, what 'as 'appened? Oh, zere, zere," Jacques crooned, drawing her inside. He let her extinguish her tears on his shoulder before asking, "Do you want me to wake Be-atlejuice?"

"Please," Lydia sniffed.

Fleetingly, Jacques had the feeling it had been against his better judgment not to pry the problem out of her. On the other hand, though, he reasoned, knocking on his housemate's bedroom door, she would probably prefer telling her lover over telling his best friend. Jacques rapped sharply.

"Be-atlejuice! Lydia is 'ere, and terri-bail-ly upset! Be-atlejuice? Leves-toi!"

Jacques waited a few moments. The complete silence from within was only broken by a sound so faint he could not justify it as what he thought: feet faint and hesitant on the floor, retreating as quickly as they had approached. A few seconds later, loud snoring issued from beyond the door. Jacques banged one more time, but to no avail. Puzzled and highly disturbed, Jacques returned to Lydia.

"I sink 'e is sleeping, still," he faltered, shrugging helplessly. "I cannot seem to wake 'im."

Much to his growing discomfort, Lydia's unhappy gaze transformed into a narrow glare. She stormed past him, attacking Beetlejuice's door with all the force of a small army.

"Get up this instant, BJ!" she shouted, kicking the door. "You're not that light a sleeper!"

Silence, punctuated every now and then with a series of snores.

"GET UP!" Lydia cried, hammering the door with the flat of her palm. With the other hand she jiggled the doorknob. Locked.

"I don't believe it," she cried softly, staring wide-eyed at Jacques. "I just don't believe it." Quietly, she retreated in the direction of the front door.

"Lydia," Jacques said sternly, catching her by the shoulder. "Maybe you should tell me what zis is about?"

She brushed his hand away slowly. "I won't burden you with it. I've awakened you too early as it is. Don't worry, Jacques. I have class in less than an hour."

"Do you really sink zat--"

"Tell Beetlejuice that Dad's picking me up tonight. He knows where to find me, if he wants me," Lydia said quietly.

She left Jacques standing with one arm still outstretched. No longer desiring to sleep, the skeleton fetched a pair of miniature weights from his room. Resolutely, he settled himself on the couch, working his foreceps. When Beetlejuice's door finally opened half an hour later, he set them down quietly.

"Good morning, Be-atlejuice," Jacques greeted coldly. "Sleep well, ami?"

Beetlejuice's reddened eyes served to lessen some of his friend's fury. Sacre bleu, Jacques thought, zey both 'ave been in tears....

"What's it to ya?" the ghost demanded harshly, responding more forcefully with a gesture.

"You pretended to sleep, Be-atlejuice! Lydia is out of 'er mind wiz tristesse and you cannot even comfort 'er? Shame on you!"

"Are my eyes any drier, buddy? Huh?"

Jacques gave a pained sigh. "I sink you need to tell me what Lydia would not."

"I think you should mind your own business. Don't you have some laps to run?"

Jacques charged at Beetlejuice, startling him into unsteady flight. "You listen 'ere! You do not ignore 'er ze minute you are 'aving a fight! I 'ave no clue who started zis, but I 'ave ze feeling it was you. I told myself I would not let zis turn into anoz-zair circus. Lydia is too special for zat!"

Beetlejuice hovered a few feet lower, his limbs dangling heavy with despair. "Yeah... yeah. But it didn't even occur to that thick skull of yours that maybe I had a reason."

Jacques' eyebrows arched in alarm. "B-eatlejuice--"

"The road's callin' your name. I'm outta here," the ghost added glumly, drifting back in the direction of his room. Jacques was left to ponder what he knew and did not, wondering since when worry affected his appetite for a workout.

 

 

* * *

 

 

September 22

Sunday, Moody Sunday

 

Delia's affinity for U2 may be the sole heir to my approval in her entire preferences repertoire. I needed only alter the title of the song drifting up from Studio One in order to aptly immortalize this day. Dad, unfortunately, is still in bed. Eleven AM already, and I know not to expect him earlier than noon, when Delia traditionally prepares a brunch appallingly large to a Deetz stomach. As hungry as I am, as faint as I feel... for two days I have scarcely eaten. For two days, I have not heard a word from he who would scold me witless over my self-negligence.

Dad collected me on Friday immediately after my second costume meeting. The crew is cooperating now that I've assured them my instructions will be clearer than the sometimes illegible scrawling accompanying my sketches. I slept the whole way home, sedated by another dose of Anaprox much larger than I should have taken. I am in a sad state of affairs indeed when I must sleep off my grief. Dad roused me concernedly upon reaching the house and helped me up to bed. I drifted off to the faint sound of concerned voices drifting from the room at the end of the hall. I was too dazed to hang onto several snippets that the better half of my subconscious deemed important. I missed dinner that evening, but Dad was thoughtful enough to bring me a plate upon hearing me stir around nine o'clock as he passed in the hall.

"Have you been ill, Pumpkin?" he asked softly, depositing the plate of stuffed cabbage on my bedside table as he took a seat beside me on the bed.

I sighed, lying propped against my pillow, absently clutching one with a thought and intent he could never guess. It was unlike Dad to be so direct, and the strain in his voice told me Delia had put him up to it.

"No more so than I've ever been once a month," I responded, forcing my clouded, drifting eyes to find in him some anchor. "Melinda gave me some kind of prescription. It really," I said, interrupting myself with a vast yawn, "helps."

"I think you should watch the dose, dear. Remember, I'm no stranger to medication. You shouldn't take something unless it's intended for you."

I was vaguely annoyed. "Dad, I'm twenty. I think I'm safe in assuming that if I were to see a doctor, I'd be given this or at least something similar."

"Pumpkin, is there anything you'd like to tell me?"

I stared at him incredulously, automatically defensive. "Are you saying-- you think-- I mean, not that, but--"

Dad looked as if he wanted to curl up and find sleep's oblivion himself. "No, Lydia. I'm just worried. My daughter declines to come home two weekends in a row, and when she finally does, she's drugged and irritable."

"Could be worse," I whispered, staring out the window. "Could be so much worse, Dad. God, when will the two of you ever trust me? I'm busier than I've ever been. I'm head of costume design and have my eye on set. I'm taking dancing lessons. Of course I'm irritable. I'm stressed. This week, I just happen to have an added bonus."

Dad nodded slowly, stroking my cheek. "I guess you're right. Delia's been happy for you... I've been happy for you... that you're making attachments at school. Just... don't blame us for being concerned when you come home so apparently changed. Of course we'll be alarmed until we know--"

"Well, now you know. I've always spread myself too thin, and I always will."

"That's not healthy, Pumpkin. You know that."

I laughed bitterly. "I don't know what I know, Dad. I just know what I want, and I'm doing that. My life, my way. This's depressing, okay? Things'll be fine when I'm feeling better."

"Then you can start by eating something. This isn't burnt."

I smiled thinly, accepting the plate with the full knowledge I would ingest half if I were lucky. "Will wonders never cease," I said, concealing my pained unrest with a mask of exhausted amusement. "Delia's learning to cook."

In the morning, Delia tried her best to make grilling me over a late breakfast as pleasant as possible. I was somewhat shocked not to be met with warnings or concealed disappointments-- on the contrary, she was remarkably pleased with my carefully doctored report. No mention of the friction between Melinda and I, no accidental slipping of hints that indicated my life is no longer solely my own.

"That's wonderful, dear," she responded to every other answer. I could almost bring myself to believe that she hadn't been the one to contest my decision in favor of costume design in the first place.

"You have no idea," I countered just as often, both hurt and satisfied that not even a forced smile could betray me.

The woman has built her life on flattery and assumptions. Why should lies be any more discernible from the truth? No wonder I've gotten away with my entire adolescence. Only Dad ever suspected something out of the ordinary, and only the mundane had ever brought Delia to short-lived alarm. I wonder if it would knock a few more feet off Beetlejuice's egotistical stilts if he knew he's not the most prolific liar in existence.

My grief is that I do not take pride in the title, nor have I ever. I have done it out of necessity, out of friendship-- and finally, at present, out of love. And to have the very justifying factor of my perjury called into peril has reduced me to what I am: once more too proud to face the inevitable, once more too proud to sort it before a period of undue suffering has passed. The only difference is, this is much more serious. I risk losing the very thing I fought for and won only a month before. Can irony possibly stoop any lower?

I don't know what it will profit me to get up. I don't know what it will profit me to eat. In days to come, a straw must break. The first time around, I was that straw.

Adamantly, my heart whispers, It is no longer your turn.

I can only hope that Beetlejuice is as much of a team player as he professes to be. Enough of one to take his. I've proved my tendency to buckle already. Now, Beetlejuice needs only admit----

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Chaaaaaaaaar-les! Ly-diaaaaaaa! Toast's done and sausage is on! Early to rise never hurt a soul, least of all you two!"

Lydia closed her sketchbook in resignation, not bothering to finish the sentence. She slid it beneath the mattress of her bed and made her reluctant way downstairs. Her father, who had just begun to take his place at the dining room table, abandoned the action to pull out a chair for her instead.

"Smile, pumpkin... please," Charles murmured, pushing Lydia carefully up to the table. She obeyed, but she doubted her ashen complexion gave the expression any credibility.

"Lydia, dear, are you feeling better?" Delia crooned, placing a few links of sausage on her stepdaughter's plate.

"Much," Lydia said in a tone that contradicted her father's request. Delia nodded approvingly, willing to take a mask in good faith. If she indeed realized it was a mask.

The meal passed as any other in the Deetz household ever had, with one exception. The third alert member present did not exist in the wan, black-haired shell directly across from Delia. Rather, he kept absolute stillness in the form of her beloved green triangle clock-- a carefully chosen manifestation of jealousy that went completely unnoticed.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Be-atlejuice, are you certain zat you 'ave nos-sing to tell--"

"I told you to bug off!"

"I don't sink so! Zis is ridiculous, je te dis!"

"Je suis sor-ree!" the ghost shot back furiously. "I said no!"

Jacques scowled, this time determined not to let his friend's formidable comebacks daunt him. Realizing it left him only one alternative, Jacques resorted to desperate measures. Beetlejuice had scarcely turned his back when he found himself tackled, his neck in a bony vise-grip between Jacques' collarbone and forearm.

"Oof! Hey--"

"I 'ave been working out my enti-air afterlife just for zis," the skeleton spat derisively. "Disgusting, non?"

"Under any other circumstances," Beeltejuice muttered, blowing a strand of faintly damp hair out of his eyes. He had even purchased his own set of towels.

"You listen 'ere, I am serieux! I do not know what 'as 'appened wiz you and Lydia, but she is suffering. I 'ave seen you break too many 'earts in ze past, and I will not let zis 'appen again. Not to zat girl! You 'ave known 'er and loved 'er too long. Are you going to just throw zis away?"

"She seems determined to," Beetlejuice scoffed.

Jacques loosened his grip a fraction. "I do not understand."

"Yeah. That's the problem. You never do. Would it help if I didn't parle so much anglais?"

Jacques cuffed him twice as hard as before. "You are going to tell me evairy-sing!"

"Oooooooh-kay!" Beetlejuice cried on the very exhalation being knocked out of him. "She... well... she broke a promise!"

Jacques narrowed his eyes, taunting, "Oh, Be-atlejuice. As if you 'ave nevair done zat."

"That's not the point!"

"What kind of promise was zis, any'ow?"

"Kneecap's. Said she'd go dancin' last week when she'd already told that ditzy roommate of hers she'd take tango lessons. She already knows how to tango."

Jacques let go of Beetlejuice in earnest, kneeling with one hand on his hips and scratching his chin with the other. "I still sink zere us some-sing you are leaving out," he prodded.

Beetlejuice sat up irritably, fingering his neck as if to check for bruises that would never form. "I was watching, the room had mirrors, mirrors all over..."

"And?"

"And... the instructor guy singled her out," Beetlejuice recounted hesitantly, closing his eyes as if in severe pain.

"And?"

"He got her to stay after class somehow! They talked for a long time! I just heard bits and pieces... some kind of competition he wants her to enter... as his partner! She's running out on me."

Jacques cast a dubious look on Beetlejuice. "For heaven's sake! You mean you are sinking zat just because she--"

"It's the principle of the thing, Jacques! All this time you've been waiting for me to grasp that, to get my sorry head on straight where morals are concerned. Well, Merry Christmas! It finally is."

Jacques sighed heavily. "I just did not expect it to be so straight zat you are once more leaning in ze wrong direction. Funny, zat it makes you as selfish as evair."

"You're no help!" Beetlejuice fumed. "None whatsoever."

Jacques shrugged, rising to leave. "I am sorry you sink so. Maybe you will see ze right way before it is too late. I hope so-- for Lydia's sake, mon ami."

Beetlejuice grumbled something incoherent.

As an afterthought, Jacques added, "Oh, by ze way... where is she?"

"Back at school. Parents musta taken her back a couple of nights ago. I don't know! Why're you asking me?"

"Any-sing," Jacques said softly, "to make you sink of 'er."

Beetlejuice swore softly, left to himself once more. Of course, Jacques had won. He no longer had anything better to do with his Tuesday evening than spy on the one person he couldn't stop thinking about even if he tried.

 

 

* * *

 

 

September 26

I hate Thursdays!

 

Really, I do. I used to love them. Even if this is the only the second in a row I have reason to loathe, I'm still determined to shout it from the rooftops and mountain peaks... voicelessly. There really isn't any reason physically that I should be in such a bad mood now-- that's all passed, thank heavens. My chief annoyance (aside from the chiefest of them all) is that I left my sketchbook at home under my mattress. Thankfully, Dad has the sense to lock my bedroom door. This sorry little notebook picked up for $2.99 in the campus bookstore will have to suffice. It's lamentably plain. I'll probably take my mind off things after dancing tonight by decorating the cover.

A week now-- a full week. I can't believe he hasn't so much as shown his face in the mirror. He can't stand it when we're arguing, and I should hope that he can stand it least of all now, of all times. He's usually so careless about being stung. He has no more resistance against the urge to grovel than a kicked puppy. I was so certain that I'd find him cowering in every windowglass along my way, or at least that he'd warp my ring's face with a perpetual pout. But I must remember: it is no longer my turn.

And so, I wait.

I rehearsed with André alone for an extra hour after class. We met twice earlier in the week, too. I must admit, it's a workout-- there are some facets of technique that Beetlejuice and I never covered, but how could we, not having the dance from its cultural source? I returned forty-five minutes ago, and my legs are protesting still. What matters is-- as a team-- we work. I hadn't intended to smile at him as we moved, and I didn't think that I had. Until I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror upon leaving. It fled as quickly as I marked it. Sacrilege, my heart whispered.

My heart is right, of course.

So much to do, so little sanity left. I might as well admit it while I still can. Guilt and worry have deadened my insides. I'm not feeling hunger. A strange satisfaction, this lack of nourishment. Better that my work demands a cool head than a bleeding soul. I've learned how to promote swift scabbing.

The design team is cooperating, at least, which is more than could ever be said for my classmates at Miss Shannon's. I've nearly completed a submission for the proscenium, and they won't announce the request until tomorrow. And I'll be rehearsing with André again on Friday and Saturday afternoons. I'd rather be one jump ahead than ten thousand leagues on track.

Better distracted than drowning.

 

 

* * *

 

 

A sudden knock at the door caused Lydia to cover her bared upper half defensively. "I'm dressing! One minute!"

"Hey, just me," Melinda called.

"Just wait. Let me find my shirt."

"Okay."

Lydia shrugged into her old Edward Scissorhands t-shirt, hoping it wasn't too garish an item to wear in André Morera's presence. As she tiptoed around an increasing mess on her own side of the room, she thought, Why should it matter, and why do I care?

Lydia opened the door for Melinda, who had spent most of the week at Ray's due to the fact he'd been stricken with a bizarre early strain of bronchitis. Lydia could not envision Melinda as anyone's nurse, but then, she would never in a million years have pictured Beetlejuice as one, either....

"Lydia, you all right?" Melinda greeted her, unreasonably edgy for just having been admitted into the room.

"Why do you ask?" Lydia asked casually, stepping back to let her roommate pass. She felt her stomach rise against the cold cell of apathy in which she'd encased it.

Melinda's eyes swept the room for all of three shocked seconds before she whirled around and responded, "This is not like you!"

"What, the mess?" Lydia laughed weakly, sweeping an arm casually at her side of the room. "Well, you know I have more things going on than I can handle. I just haven't had time to clean."

Melinda immediately bent to inspect Lydia's trash can. "It looks like you haven't had time to eat either," she observed sternly.

Lydia shrugged, biting her lip to stave off an irrational surge of anger. "Comes with the territory, I guess," she said in a strained voice, finding herself unable to push back the sudden sting of tears. "It's Friday, after all."

Melinda gaped, dropping her canvas tote where she stood. "Lydia," she whispered, advancing a few disbelieving steps, reaching out imploringly with one hand. "Lydia, my God--"

"Don't touch me!-- Please," Lydia cried, her voice immediately fading to a harsh whisper. "Please...."

Melinda watched in horror as Lydia whisked up her backpack, carelessly shoved her feet into a pair of tennis shoes, and raced out the door.

And so did the mirror, though its eyes with Lydia quickly fled.

 

 

* * *

 

 

This is the last straw, Lyds. You'd better believe it. You're tearin' me apart, no pun intended! See? When did you ever hear that phrase come outta my mouth, huh? I've been watching you. Every minute, Babes, and every mirror in between. I don't know what you're doing with that-- hmm, what did Mel's lame-o boyfriend call him... pansy-ass?-- Mexican or whatever he is, but he must be more important than me. You'd call me selfish for sayin' that. Maybe you're right. You're always right, Lyds. That's the one thing I never did get. You deserve a guy that doesn't need to remove the top of his skull in order to make sure his brain absorbs it. You're too good for me-- you always were. And that's why I want you so much. Why I can't forget you. Why I never will.

From side-view mirror to fender to dormitory complex window, Beetlejuice followed Lydia's tremulous flight. Her every step pained him. The exhausted sway of her limbs suggested that she might fall at any moment, collapse into nothingness. He did not understand how she could still dance. He did not understand what kept her empty shell aloft--

Any more than he understood what was keeping his.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Delia, it's Friday. Will you relax?"

"I don't think so, Charles. The Bernhardts are coming at six! This place must be immaculate," Delia chimed, sweeping past him with a feather duster.

Her husband sneezed unappreciatively, closing the solitaire window in irritation. "At least you could save dusting my office for when I'm not actually in it."

"Oh, come now, Char-les, we want to do our best to impress my new clients, now, don't we?" Delia crooned, pinching his cheek.

"Why not," he sighed defeatedly, sneezing again.

"I knew you'd understand," Delia bubbled, continuing her enthusiastic tidying of Charles' surroundings. Fifteen minutes later, every surface was clear, but the air was much worse off. Delia paused thoughtfully on her way out.

"Charles, do you mind giving me the key to Lydia's room? I ought to change her sheets and freshen the place up. I just know they'll want to see the entire house. Lydia would so love them to see her artwork, I'm sure."

Too busy sneezing to object, Charles opened the right hand drawer of his desk and pointed. Delia fished out the jangling ring with a brightly cooed, "Thank you!"

Delia hummed as she climbed the stairs, wondering if there wasn't something she could do to brighten up her stepdaughter's eccentric haven. A few fripperies, perhaps, that could be easily removed before her next visit home. I can replace those curtains in no time, Delia thought decisively, pulling a clean set of sheets out of the hall closet. Balancing them on her hip, she turned the key in the lock.

Entering Lydia's room had always been somewhat discomfiting, though Delia would never admit to it. There seemed to be a presence even in the young woman's absence-- a something constantly watching. For the first time, however, Delia did not feel it upon crossing the threshold. Odd, but a peculiar relief.

Still humming, Delia set about stripping the bed. She had just finished peeling away the mattress liner when she noticed a dark line between the mattress and mattress box that did not continue for the length of the bed.

With curious fingers, Delia pulled the sketch book free of its hidding place. Placidly, she took a seat on the edge of the bed, balancing it in her lap.

She had a few hours till the Bernhardts were to arrive, after all. Perhaps the book contained some sketches noteworthy enough to parade before her guests.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Lydia slipped into the multi-purpose room through the back entrance, making hardly a sound. She spotted André on the opposite side at the sound system. Without turning around, he greeted, "Good afternoon, Lydia. I'd know those feather steps of yours anywhere."

Lydia closed the distance between them wearily, putting her bag down beside the stereo system. "Thanks, I think."

André turned abruptly, leaving the buttons and dials. He grasped her right hand deftly, raising it to his lips. He locked eyes with Lydia, administering a lingering kiss between her second and third knuckle. When he attempted to move up the length of her arm, Lydia pulled away.

"The middle section needs work, I believe," she faltered, changing her shoes quickly. "Shall we start with--"

"The only middle section that I am concerned with," André said softly but determinedly, catching her around the waist and pulling her suggestively close, "is yours."

"André, this is not how we begin," Lydia remarked tartly, pulling away. "Our arms are in an open position," she explained patronizingly, as if teaching him, but with an undercurrent of warning. She set their arms at proper length, placing one hand on his shoulder.

André gave her a searching look. "Is there some misunderstanding?"

"Yes, yours. I'm sorry if I ever led you to think that I'm-- well, I'm not," Lydia said firmly, though her voice quavered. "I'm... taken."

"Why is it that I see tears, then?"

Lydia let go of him, turning away miserably. She clapped one hand over her mouth, stifling the fierce sobs that she had been suppressing for days. André put a hand on her shoulder.

"Lydia, if there is anything that you need to speak about, please--"

"Please, let's just get on with it!" she cried. "Whom I love is no concern of yours!"

"Provided that love does not kill you first."

"Why do you care so much?"

"You're a rare creature, do you know that?"

"Someone does. He's just... having a difficult time, right now."

"He doesn't deserve you if he can forget even for a moment."

"Enough," Lydia whispered harshly, striding quickly to the stereo. If she had not started the music in that very second, she would have heard an eerie, furious cry echo low in the walls.

"I hope you have chosen wisely," was all that André said as they launched immediately into the three-quarters choreographed routine.

He spun Lydia and drew her in, the closeness this time warranted for the sake of the combination. She said close to his ear, "What's wise to me was never wise to anyone else. Let's leave it at that."

"As you wish."

True to his implied promise, he did not say another word. Lydia was too emotionally exhausted to congratulate herself, so she gave what little physical reserves she had left entirely over to the music. She doubted they'd ever danced so well. She summoned the movements from memory with rhythmic thoughts, as had always been her habit with Beetlejuice.

Lift!-- slip down, arms--

SNAP!

When André staggered, Lydia fell with him. She had never heard such a sound, and when she finally managed to roll shakily into a sitting position, she noticed that André lay almost unmoving, muttering a horrific string of Spanish under his breath. He sat up with difficulty, gasping as his fingers sought his left ankle. He had scarcely touched it when he roared something else unintelligible-- in extreme pain.

Lydia's mind went completely blank, but somehow part of her understood what had happened. "Is it-- broken?"

"Si," André gasped through gritted teeth. "Lydia, you must get someone here. I cannot... get up... let alone walk," he cried, forcing himself into a closer examination of his ankle. Lydia found it necessary to look away. Angles like that did not exist in nature.

"I'll dial emergency from the call box," she reassured him, starting for the door. But a thought occurred to her, and she turned around just as she reached it.

They'll think you tripped him. Accident, sure, but how will Lydia the Klutz sound when added to the string of other murmurs you hear in the halls...

Lydia knew that wasn't true. He must have fallen on something. She scanned the room quickly before leaving him. A cold knot formed in the pit of her stomach.

By the stereo, her gym bag had been opened. On the floor only feet from where they had fallen lay one of her tennis shoes.

Put it back before he sees it! she thought, panicking.

Lydia lingered in the doorway just long enough to see her shoe-- unbeknownst to André, who was in far too much pain-- vanish.

I knew it. God, how I hoped it wasn't so! But, I knew it....

Lydia ran as fast as her trembling legs could carry her.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Melinda leapt off her bed at the sound of Lydia's key in the door. She blotted her eyes hastily with a tissue, but Lydia walked in before she could dispose of it. The two young women regarded each other for a shocked moment before each hesitantly began to speak.

"You're here? I thought you'd be--"

"You were late, Lydia!"

"Yes," Lydia said quietly, closing the door shakily behind. "There was--"

"I heard an ambulance--"

"-- an accident--"

"It was only André?" Melinda breathed apprehensively, unable to hide her relief.

Lydia shook her head, confused. "What?"

"I thought it was you. You're about to collapse, Lydia."

Lydia nodded slowly, eyes on the floor. "I know that."

Melinda's eyes flooded uncontrollably. "Oh, God, Lydia," she sobbed. "Oh, God!"

"Melinda? Please, Melinda, he slipped and broke his ankle. I'm--"

"I can't tell you! I-- I don't-- know how I'm supposed to tell you, but I have no goddamn choice!"

Lydia shook her head, holding one hand up defensively. "Melinda, for the love of God, if this is only your infernal--"

"Your stepmother called!"

Lydia let her hand fall, uttering a disbelieving cry of relief. "Is that all?"

Melinda whispered, "She found something terrible... but you must know about that..."

Lydia's set her bag down slowly. "No, I... she found... what?" she stammered, confused.

"I didn't understand what she was raving about, honest, I didn't," Melinda sobbed. "Some diary--"

"Oh, no," Lydia murmured, her voice full of quiet dread.

Melinda broke into bitter laughter amidst her tears, choking. "I knew you knew. I knew there was something dreadful. God, Lydia, if you'd just had the sense to tell me, I'd have--"

"Shut up!" Lydia cried, charging at Melinda. "Where's the phone? The phone. Now!Give me the phone!"

Terrified, Melinda pointed at the floor. Lydia scooped it up, hard of eye and jaw.

"I'll leave you," Melinda said softly, scurrying into the common room, letting the door slam behind her.

Numbly, Lydia took Melinda's place on the bed, taking scant comfort in the residual warmth. She dialed home with leaden fingers.

"Hello?" Delia answered sharply on the first ring.

"You forgot to say 'Deetz residence,'" Lydia pointed out smugly.

"Don't you take that sarcastic tone with me, young lady! You had better tell the truth about this-- this-- nonsense!"

"It is the truth," Lydia said flatly.

Delia gave a short, exasperated laugh. "Lydia, I know you're imaginative, but I always warned you about living in that fantasy world of--"

"It exists," Lydia said, raising her voice furiously.

"Oh, what, this Neitherworld? Lydia, please, I've read better in children's books--"

"I told you," Lydia whispered, enunciating each word. "It fucking exists!"

"Lydia! Don't you ever say a thing like that in my presence again!"

"What else will it take to make you recognize the truth when it's right under your nose?" Lydia railed. "What? Photographic evidence? Because I have that--"

"Don't you think I'll take any of your sneaky doctoring for an answer. I can't believe just how far you'll go to uphold this ridiculous manuscript! If you really want to be a writer, for crying out loud, you've made your point!"

Lydia began to laugh, low and harsh. "My God. My Go-o-od..."

"Lydia... are you listening to me? Your father is worried sick--"

"You thoughtless bitch!"

"LYDIA!--"

"You told Dad! You know that's the single worst thing you could have possibly done, since you're so bent upon believing it's--"

"You explain to me why you wrote this and assent to therapy, and it'll all go away," Delia said tersely. "It's all up to you. I will not accept the fact that I've obviously spent twenty years of my life fostering a--"

"Freak?" Lydia challenged, caressing the syllable with relish. "Oh. Oh, that's just rich. If that's the way you look at this, you're the one that needs--"

"Until you fess up to this farce," Delia grated, "I will not treat you as a presence in this house. Your father-- is in agreement."

"That's not--"

"True? Lydia, Lydia. You know your father's nerves better than that. How in the world is he supposed to face you--"

"He knows," Lydia murmured, smiling. "He knows I'm telling the truth. Good for him. Good for him. I'll give him that time. He'll need it."

"That's ridiculous!" Delia seethed. "I'm asking you one last time--"

"I'm going to Melinda's until you sort this out for yourself. You know where to find me," Lydia said brusquely, hitting the cordless phone's button as if lowering an executioner's axe.

Melinda peered in timidly, a bit too soon. Lydia dropped the phone on the floor once more and said, "I was rather hoping you'd listen. Is it all right?"

"Yes... you know it is," Melinda said quietly, and took a seat at her computer.

"Thank you," Lydia said expressionlessly, rising.

"It's really that serious-- isn't it?"

Lydia nodded, taking a seat on her own bed.

"I'm packed already. You should do the same. Mom's coming at six."

"What time is it?" Lydia asked, supposing that time, for once, was not as empty as she.

"Twenty till."

"I can do that," she whispered, rising once more.

Lydia had barely located her overnight bag and begun mechanically gathering necessities when Melinda asked hesitantly, "You were never seeing Morera... were you?"

Lydia fixed her with a hopeless look. "No, I was not."

"I knew that," Melinda murmured. "I just needed some kind of validation, I guess. I feel so stupid, in a way... you know... my own roommate, the closest thing to a best friend I've ever had... and I don't even know who she's dating or how I can help her out of an imminent nervous breakdown!"

Lydia turned away, swallowing tears. "It'll be all right, Mel. Really, it will."

"I'm afraid," Melinda whispered in response, shutting her computer down with an air of despondency. "So afraid."

"Please, don't worry," Lydia murmured, but the damage had already been done.

After a brief period of silence, a piercing car horn sounded outside the building.

"That's Mom," Melinda said. "You ready?"

Lydia only nodded. She was quite ready.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Lydia!" Connie Garrison exclaimed through her open window as the girls trooped down the concrete stairs. "Good to see you! You're finally taking me up on that invitation?"

"Yes... thank you," Lydia said with a half smile and considerable effort. "Good to see you, too."

"Been keeping my little flirt in line?"

"Mom!" Melinda groaned, tossing her own bag and Lydia's into the back of the teal Blazer.

Connie winked at them. "Just checking! Hop in. We're in a race against my oven timer."

"Mom, what're you making?" Melinda asked, mildly irritated, as if addressing a lackadaisical child.

"Ham and scalloped potatoes. You have another lecture to give me on my own recipes?"

"Just don't leave it in too long! I hope it hasn't been in there for two hours already--"

"Melinda, seatbelt," her mother warned brusquely.

"Right," Melinda muttered, rolling her eyes.

Lydia obeyed, too, though her eyes were fixed on no point in particular just outside the window. A brief silence ensued as they pulled away. For the better part of navigating their way from campus onto the interstate, Lydia listened to mother and daughter slip between banter and commiseration with shocking ease. But Melinda's irritation-by-proxy was beginning to show, and at length Connie decided Lydia a better target for friendly conversation.

"You girls seem a little tense," she remarked. "The work piling up already, Lydia?"

"You'd better believe it. I'm neck deep in costume and set design."

"You always were a busy one, from the sound of things. Has M--"

"Melinda's been fine," Lydia said shortly, feeling suddenly defensive of her friend. "She's working hard, and she's concerned about me. She does you proud."

"Oh," Connie said softly, brushing Lydia's burst away with a pleasant laugh. "Good... then... you said she's been concerned about you?"

"She's stressed, Mom, okay? What part of 'You'd better believe it' didn't you understand?"

"Melinda, have you been taking your vitamins?"

"Argh. Yes!"

Connie nodded, turning her attention back to the road. Melinda and Lydia exchanged desolate glances. Almost in unison, they reached for each others' hands. And held on as if they never meant to let go.

"I'm not staying in the house tonight," Melinda muttered. "She's in that kind of mood."

"I noticed," Lydia replied, staring at their entwined fingers on the dark upholstery.

"So... do you want to go somewhere after we eat? Lydia, I really think you need to--"

"When I'm ready. But, yes... why not."

"It's a nice evening-- warmer than it's been. The shore's not far--"

"Perfect," Lydia said with a quickened sigh, and it was decided.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Hey, loser," Melinda greeted her brother blandly but affectionately, pulling his glasses off as she and Lydia found places at the dinner table.

"Whatever," Lucas grumbled, as juniors in high school often do. "Gimme those. How's school and stuff?"

Melinda grinned smugly, returning her trophy. "Busy as hell."

"What did you just say, honey?" Connie's voice rang from the adjoining kitchen.

Melinda rolled her eyes, indicating that Lydia should take the place across from her. "I said, everything's going well."

"That's what I thought."

"What's up with her?" Melinda mouthed to her brother.

"Dad's golfing instead of coming home for dinner."

"You addicted him, you know!"

"Shut up! Why do you care? It's her problem, not ours."

"When she's in a bad mood, it's curtains for the rest of us!"

Lucas shrugged. "You care too much."

"I used to," Lydia said quietly, drawing both pairs of eyes instantly in her direction. Neither had the chance to react, however.

"I hope you're all hungry. We have to eat enough to cover for a fourth," Connie announced as cheerfully as she could, bearing a casserole dish gingerly with oven mitts.

"You're not saving any for Dad--"

"You father will have already eaten," Connie replied shortly, cutting her daughter off.

"Yes, I suppose," Melinda whispered, staring down at her hands. Lucas made himself indifferently busy with the pitcher of Kool-Aid. Lydia's heart broke a few stitches, longing to reach out to her but knowing that (at this point) it was unwise.

Lydia silently commended Melinda for keeping the dinner conversation well out of ashes and bitterness. It gave her an entirely new insight as to why Melinda behaved the way she did. Lydia could not imagine being an eldest child, feeling the constant need to be everyone's keeper. Not that she couldn't relate-- she simply hadn't ever been concerned with anyone's peace of mind or secrets but her own. Except her father's, but that was different.

"Let's get out of here," Melinda whispered as the two of them finally managed to slip away from the table, rattling plates in hand. They placed them side by side on the counter.

"Need anything besides your shoes?" Melinda asked, wiping her hands on a hand towel buttoned to the oven handle bar.

"Just to use the bathroom--"

"Lydia."

"Oh, for crying out loud. Just because I cleared my plate and had seconds for the first time in--"

"As far as I'm concerned, any suspicion I have about your health at this point is as good as valid!"

"I was hungry! Your mother's ten times the cook Delia is, and a thousand times better than that cafeteria sludge. Ease up!"

"I suppose so," Melinda murmured. "Sorry. You remember the way from that day last summer?"

"Yes. Photographic memory has distinct advantages."

"You don't have to remind me," Melinda pouted, attempting to restore some lightheartedness without much success. "I'm wickedly jealous."

"Yes, well," Lydia sighed, heading for the stairs, shouldering her bag on the way. "Sometimes it's a curse. I'll be down in a few."

"I'll be waiting," Melinda said, unable to erase the remaining wariness in her tone.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Melinda is already calling. I must make this as brief as I must make it meaningful. Just as well that I never got around to decorating the cover. This notebook was meant to be temporary from the start.

So cold, this tile beneath my feet, so different from Delia's plush rugs and decadent frippery. This place is really my idea of what a home ought to be like, full of mundane simplicity and mundane concerns. Even mundane squabbles! My parents fight an unspoken war of control and neuroses. Melinda's disagree over hobbies and time management. Where on earth did things go wrong?

Don't accuse me of being insensitive. I know Melinda's situation is a plight as much as mine. But I would take hers over my own in an instant, which is a frightening realization to make, however wrong it may sound. No, it's not so much a realization as it is surrender: I am giving up.

I can breathe now, even though that matters little. Unraveling those four simple snakelike words means that the knot in my chest is no more. I'd rather have it gone than leave it. There's something to be said for excess baggage in any venture one embarks upon. I choose to have none.

Fight for your freedom, or die trying. I wonder why we are so slow to learn the lesson so many before us defended in that very fashion. The battle's long and hard, oh, yes, and I stood bravely in the ranks as best I knew how. It's my firm belief others must relieve the weary eventually. Especially when the weary have something to come home to.

Especially when that something is love.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Lydia, do you want me listening at the door?" Melinda yelled up the stairs. "I'm going to count to three. One, two--"

"I'm coming," Lydia called back, emerging from the bathroom with pen and notebook in hand. "Just let me put this in your room, all right?"

"Sketching on the john again?"

"If you like," Lydia replied, sprinting back from Melinda's darkened room. "It's for you, anyway. On your cedar chest."

"Cool! I'll have a look-see later. Come on, daylight's almost gone. I'm driving."

It was slightly farther to the shore from Melinda's than from Lydia's own home. For most of the fifteen-minute ride, they kept a companionable silence. Lydia preferred it that way, somehow, watching the sun set over the nearing water through her open window, the wind whipping her hair every which way.

"This is our stop," Melinda announced, parking the car at a makeshift gravel lot alongside the service road they'd pulled onto in order to gain beach access. "Did you bring a sweater? It might get nippy after all."

"You didn't," Lydia pointed out, hopping out of the car.

"I've got hot Mediterranean blood, honey. You don't. And there's no meat on your bones as it is."

"I'll be fine," Lydia replied reassuringly, finding a warm, genuine smile easier to give.

Melinda half-smiled in reply. "I think you almost convinced me that maybe you're feeling better."

"I might be," Lydia said softly, taking Melinda's hand as they approached the sand. "I've always loved the ocean. Don't ask me why. It's in my blood somehow."

"You were probably a mermaid in a previous life or something."

"Could be," Lydia murmured, staring out over the waves with placid, determined eyes.

The two of them left their shoes just out of the gentle surf's reach, wading in ankle-deep. They stared into the sunset for a long time before Lydia spoke.

"I'm going to tell you something," she said softly.

Melinda nodded, looking almost as if it no longer mattered to her. "If you want to."

"I do."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," Lydia laughed, feeling the last kinks in the knot straighten themselves. "I'm very much in love with a ghost."

"Lydia, don't talk like that. Just because you can't find someone--"

"No, Melinda. I want you to listen to me again-- look at me. I'm in love with a ghost. You said it once yourself and didn't know how true it was."

Melinda's eyebrows knit in concern and consternation. "Lydia, I think I understand where your stepmother's coming from. I don't see how-- you mean... you mean to tell me you believe you see a spirit and that you're in love with it?"

"With him. And if you sympathize with Delia, that saddens me greatly indeed."

"I'm frightened of your delusions. That's what I meant earlier. I couldn't possibly imagine what living with that woman's done to you. Now I know."

Rather than tears, Lydia succumbed to laughter once more. This time long and unhindered, carefree-- so like that moment mere weeks ago when to the strains of Breathless she wondered at the world entire.

"Lydia... Lydia."

"Melinda, are you crying?"

"Yes! I don't know what to do about you!"

"Nothing," Lydia said softly, taking Melinda's hands, kissing them with a forgiving smile. "You're not to do anything at all. And that's all right."

"You'll never tell me the truth, will you?" Melinda whispered, stricken, making no effert to free her hands in order to brush her tears away.

"I already have. Come on, why don't we swim? It's not that freezing. You only live once!"

Melinda was slow to follow Lydia's suit. Lydia let go of her hands and ran forward with surprizing vitality, as if some part of her were truly untouched by the ravages of grief. Hesitantly, Melinda waded after her with a heavy sigh. It did lighten her heart, somewhat, to see Lydia as free and smiling as weeks ago, even if mad as a hatter.

Lydia was grateful of the spray each crashing wave produced, the farther she waded. Her cheeks, too, were hot with tears: she could never look back, not at Melinda. She'd come undone, surely. It was a wondrous discovery that Beetlejuice was not the only soul with such a capacity to rend her own. No, she must not look back.

Melinda was hesitant, once the water was waist deep. Lydia was far braver, much more experienced where swimming in potentially perilous conditions were concerned. She stopped, content to watch her friend at last take to long, graceful strokes when the water reached her chin. Lydia's sleek head appeared and reappeared with rhythmic regularity for a few yards.

Like a seal, Melinda thought. White-skinned and dark-haired, like that selkie legend I read in Intro to Mythology. God, Mr. Carrier was the most boring--

When she looked back out from within, Lydia was no longer in sight.

 

 

* * *

 

 

A mermaid, Melinda had called her. So simple, that last stroke-turned-dip-beneath-the-surface. As if she'd done it countless times before, as if she'd been waiting her entire life to do it once more. Several lifetimes, possibly, for all she knew. What she did know was that she wanted out of the cycle. She'd grown so weary of Time's wheel of fortune.

And spin she did, certainly, hoping in a last gasp that she'd swum far enough. Unpleasant, the cold, salty invasion of her nostrils and eyes, but she refused to close her eyes as firmly as she refused to breathe-- just yet. Some part of her feared that perhaps she still possessed gills as well.

The current tried a few times to buoy her back up, as if it knew to reject this fragile moving thing that its minions have loved so well. Rare, a mortal with such a reverence for the deep. Rare, that a child of ages ago should choose to return in such an ill-suited skin. No, the Ocean did not think it proper.

Tenacious, however, that fragile moving thing, and fight she did. She beat against the current, driving her angular form deeper, perhaps convincing the Ocean that there was a merblood in her yet. It welcomed her at last, filling the darkness of her offered throat with a darkness of its own.

Such a peaceful, precious darkness it was....

 

 

* * *

 

 

If Melinda had not seen Lydia's pale foot kick once more at the surface, indeed there might have been a tragedy. Melinda forgot her terror, did not think twice: into the waves she dived, heedless of the approaching darkness.

She lunged again and again, frantically searching the vicinity where Lydia's toes had last seen dusklight. Tears again, torrential ones-- Melinda could barely see, and the salt water was certainly no help.

"Lydia!" she cried, surfacing, desperate for another lungful of air. "LYDIA!"

Just before Melinda took in a frantic breath in preparation for another dive, the barest familiar brush of limp fingers against her leg set her reflexes flying. She dropped under and grasped them-- and the arm attached-- with deadly accuracy.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Images, a deluge of them: rough-hewn leather sandals on her feet, windswept sand beneath them, and a russet robe at sunset that billowed about her slim white arms. So long, the curling black tendrils that blew into her eyes, to her waist, nearly. And betwixt them came flashes of another creature in the unruly dusk: blond hair just as wild in the wind, framing eyes of the most piercing green.

She had him by the hand, this tall, Viking-fair sailor. Leather tunic, breeches nondescript otherwise, a pendant the shape of which she could not place at his throat. But she could place it, innately, just as surely as she could place her companion. This man was her husband, and she was pleading with him not to go, not to leave her, lest something terrible happen--

"How terrible, Annwyn? How terrible could it be? I'll be gone a mere season."

"A season is a long while to carry a child alone," she whispered in reply, finding herself-- shockingly and not so shockingly-- moderately pregnant beneath her vestments. "Leoric. You may miss the birth...."

"Then come with me, Annwyn. I cannot bear to leave you, but I cannot forego this voyage. We've a sure trade with Rolo, and... Anni, Anni! Please come. You always said you dreamed of going b--"

"Not like this," she said with emotion, shaking her head with a deep, anguished frown. "It would be...."

A tragedy! I am not ready to leave you, and they would take me, Leoric, take me and the child so far--

"Would be what, Anni? I don't understand you! I never believed in your people's jabber till I chanced to catch the fairest maid to swim the shores of all Eire by moonlight!"

She smiled indulgently. "Just what were you doing all alone that twilight, love, wandering the strand like a man lost?"

"Same thing you were doing far from your kelpy sea bed and out of your skin, dear fae," Leoric whispered, kissing her fondly.

"Aye, such dreamers, we," she murmured when at last she could speak, closing her eyes and summoning the strength to make her request. "If you will not stay, Leoric, then... I want you to burn it."

He drew away from her, his brow instantly heavy with fright. "Anni, you know I cannot-- that skin is--"

"I'll protect you," she murmured, drawing a strand of shells and tiny seed pearls from about her neck and putting it around his, "with this."

He fingered the beads almost fearfully. "What, is my selkie wife then also a witch?"

"We are many things," she said quietly, "but most of all human. I do this out of love, Leoric. As I rose in the moonlight four years ago never to swim again-- out of love." She bit her lip, closing her eyes against the pain of a solitary lie. "Please," she whispered. "Believe in it as you believe in me."

Leoric stared at the beads, once more a man lost and uncertain, on the brink of discovering an unspeakable legend. He looked up at her pleadingly and whispered once more, "Come with me!"

"I tried," Lydia whispered, her head falling to one side upon the damp sand as she choked up the water that Melinda's insistent thrusts brought gushing.

"Tried what, Lydia? Lydia, please... stay with me!"

Lydia squinted up at the dark, familiar form and sighed, "I'm not going anywhere now."

And the blackness engulfed her once more, but the weightlessness did not. Part of her still sensate felt very heavy indeed as Melinda heaved her up with a strained grunt and swayed with her in arms the entire way back to the car.

 

 

* * *

 

 

When Lydia next opened her eyes, her lashes brushed a cool pillowcase that had grown faintly damp from her hair. She lay on her side with a towel thoughtfully spread beneath her neck, limbs leaden and stripped down to nothing-- wrapped in a robe foreign to her and slightly itchy. When she tried to sit up, a pair of hands flew to hold her in place.

"Still-- just be still. You've been coughing a little up intermittently," Melinda said, sounding oddly calm and distant. "I really should have known better than to let you swim. In your condition, I'm not surprized you couldn't fight the--"

"I fought them. I won, almost," Lydia said softly, reflecting.

Behind her, Melinda's voice broke. "Oh God. Oh my God. Lydia, don't tell me that. Don't tell me that you... that it wasn't an..."

"Accident?" Lydia laughed, her vocal chords lined with sandpaper. "I'm afraid not."

Melinda's hands, gentle on her arms, balled into disbelieving, anguished fists. "Why? Lydia, you cause us so much grief!"

"Oh, no, you didn't call my--"

"Of course I didn't! I didn't think you had consciously tried to--"

"Well. Now you know--"

"No, I don't!" Melinda wailed. "I want to know why!"

"Be quiet," Lydia whispered thinly. "Your mother will hear."

"She and Lucas aren't here. Left me a note, they went to a movie."

"Oh."

"Why, Lydia."

Lydia rolled onto her back against Melinda's urging to remain on her side, meeting her friend's shattered gaze levelly. "Because I'm tired, Mel. Because I love him. Because I... was stubborn, incredibly stubborn, once..."

"Princess," Melinda cried softly, her tears falling on Lydia's forehead. "This is madness. You have to let go."

Lydia rolled back onto her side, half laughing and half sobbing, wistfully. "Oh, Mel. How can I do that when I don't even have him?"

"Lydia, I thought you--"

"I'm still stubborn."

"You're talking nonsense," Melinda whispered, sniffling. "Your head must hurt... let me get you some water and--"

Lydia gripped Melinda's arm with shocking strength, causing her to cry out. "He's real, Mel. I don't care what else you choose to believe, but believe that."

Melinda looked into Lydia's pleading dark blue eyes and whispered, "I can't." She tore away from the bed and dashed down the hall, murmuring about tea and Tylenol.

Lydia rolled onto her side once more, her empty form filling out slow but sure with rage and annoyance. Rage at Melinda and annoyance at herself. She closed her eyes tightly and groaned, hiding her face in the pillow and towel, ashamed.

"What was I thinking?"

"My guess is you weren't thinking at all, Babes," came a rough, tremulous reply from directly in front of her.

Lydia looked up, her heart tripping. She was parallel with Melinda's full-length wall mirror, which held one more occupant than it had the moment before.

"Beetlejuice," she whispered, and felt her eyes fill to match the pools in his. "I messed up."

"No you didn't, Lyds," he whispered, his voice breaking. "You didn't--"

"I'm still breathing."

"Yeah, and just between you and me, I prefer it that way," Beetlejuice cried, beginning to hide his face in his hands before abruptly deciding against it. "Lyds, I've been--"

"You had better be on your side when I get in there, Lydia!" Melinda's voice called, accompanying her footsteps nearing the top of the stairs.

"Beej, wait--"

By the time Melinda re-entered the room, the ghost had vanished. "Did you just say something, Lydia?"

"Yes," she said almost petulantly. "I told Beetlejuice to listen to me, but he didn't, just the way he always doesn't."

"Beetlejuice?" Melinda echoed.

"Yes," Lydia said matter-of-factly, her eyes narrowing as she sat up boldly, locking gazes with Melinda. "That's his name, and I want you to meet him."

Melinda nodded, her eyes widening as if she felt sickened and scared all at once by Lydia's eerie expression. "So... let me get this straight," she said haltingly, as if she'd humor her patient anything just to quiet her. "Your ghost's name is Beetlejuice and--"

Crack!

For several moments, from opposite sides of the bed, over a smugly satisfied Lydia's head, Melinda and the lightning bolt that had blindingly leapt from her newly-fissured mirror and taken striped form stared at each other for several flabbergasted seconds.

"I knew you'd just gone invisible," Lydia said with a grin, but Melinda's scream mostly drowned the comment out, as did Beetlejuice's outburst.

"You've really done it now, Lyds!"

"You were asking for it!" she seethed back, ignoring the fact that Melinda had dropped the Tylenol and thrown the water all over in screeching terror.

Beetlejuice, too, ignored the clamor and shot back, "Exactly how does my taking justified revenge on that sissy make me eligible for discovery?!"

"Justified?" Lydia cried. "Justified? We were partnered for a competition! It was business!"

"R-Revenge?" one of Melinda's cries stammered before turning incoherent again.

"Yeah," Beetlejuice seethed, advancing on the poor hysterical girl as if seeking support. "What would you do if some other gal was makin' moves on your man, huh?"

Melinda, by this time, was backed up against the wall and too petrified to scream. "I... I suppose I'd..."

Thump.

"If you expect me to move her," Beetlejuice said acidly to Lydia, indicating Melinda's inert form on the floor, "you'd better forget it."

"I don't expect anything from you. Not anymore," Lydia said bitterly, weeping afresh. "I can't even trust you to trust me!"

Beetlejuice stared at the floor. "I was afraid, Lyds. So, sue me!"

"If you were even worth the suing--"

Beetlejuice's head flew up, his expression more hurt than she'd seen it during their relationships entire. She felt her stomach drop through the mattress.

"-- monetarily speaking," she whispered, looking at her hands somewhat shriveled on the coverlet. "That's why I entered the competition, you know. Five thousand to the winners... André was going to split it with me. Fifty-fifty, Beej. I thought I'd surprize you...."

"Oh, no," Beetlejuice moaned, opting finally to conceal his face.

Lydia raised her head slowly. "That wasn't wise of me. I know you, how you are. I should have told you... up front. But now it's all lost anyway...."

"Is it?" Beetlejuice sobbed, daring to pry his hands away, reaching for her, pleading. "Do you really think--"

"It's too late to withdraw, and I have no partner--"

"I want you back! I'm not talkin' about your damned competition anymore. I just want you, Lyds. That's all."

Lydia's rage expanded to include herself, and thus, inversely, collapsed.

"I... want you back, too. Oh, God! I-- I--!"

Beetlejuice had closed the distance between them just in time to catch her.

When Melinda opened her eyes a few moments later, this is what she saw: Lydia clasped with a fearsome tenderness in the specter's arms, the pair weeping so poignantly that each of their silent heaves came nearly in unison.

She sat up and asked hesitantly, as if she couldn't think of anything better to say, "You gave her the black rose, didn't you?"

Beetlejuice-- though he never looked up once, his face buried in Lydia's chaotic hair-- nodded.

Melinda stood shakily. "That's... fine. I... listen... can... you maybe tell me what's going on so I don't feel the need to run screaming this to the entire neighborhood?"

This time, it was Lydia who nodded but chose to look up. She murmured in the ghost's ear, "Give me half an hour and I'll come to you. I promise."

"No cutting yourself on the glass. Do you promise?" Beetlejuice faltered.

"Yes," Lydia murmured, her eyes regaining the luster that so much salt had depleted. "Yes, Beetlejuice. Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice... my love."

Melinda watched him fade and swayed where she stood. "L-Love?" she echoed. "Lydia, you said you didn't have--"

Lydia patted a spot on the bed. "Melinda, sit down. I'm about to pay you what I owe you."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Jacques had rushed down the stairs immediately, when he heard the mirror crack. Finding the door of Beetlejuice's room wide open, he stepped inside, observing nothing amiss other than what the sound had indicated. For several moments he lingered, uncertain, finally turning to leave but drawn immediately back by a distant echo from the other side:

"You've really done it now, Lyds!"

"You were asking for it!"

"Sacre bleu!" the skeleton muttered, leaning close to the fissure in Beetlejuice's full-length mirror, and proceeded to eavesdrop on the entire exchange.

By the time Beetlejuice and Lydia reached reconciliation and Melinda regained consciousness, Jacques was near to fainting himself. The ghost's abrupt appearance at his side was nearly the straw to break his backbone.

"Be-atlejuice, you will be ze second death of me yet!" Jacques cried, staggering against the mirror.

Beetlejuice was too stricken to reply, twice as imbalanced as his fleshless friend. Jacques recovered himself quickly, offering Beetlejuice a quivering set of phalanges.

"I am... fier de toi-- proud of you, mon ami."

Beetlejuice took Jacques' hand, shook it numbly. "She tried... she tried to...."

"Sh, I 'ave 'eard it all," Jacques consoled, placing an arm around Beetlejuice and guiding him over to the coffin. "Lydia 'as always been as good as 'er word. You wait, she will be 'ere."

Beetlejuice slumped against the side of his bed, whispering, "She... wants me back."

Jacques smiled, resisted the urge to laugh. "Be-atlejuice, some-sing tells me you never lost 'er in ze first place."

Beetlejuice nodded at the floor, as if nothing but her presence could fully convince him.

Only Lydia, Jacques thought, closing the door softly behind as he left the room. Lydia seulement!

 

 

* * *

 

 

Melinda stared at the floor for several long moments before she could speak.

"You've been haunted by this guy since you were twelve? I mean... didn't it seem... well, weird? Lydia, I'm having enough trouble grasping the fact that he's dead!"

Lydia shifted and shrugged, even blushed slightly. "That's a very loose term, you find out eventually... and as for weird? No. Not really. Not once we got past it. I think it would have been weird if I hadn't known him since I was twelve."

Melinda shook her head with a strange, wide-eyed expression. "A Ouija board. Those things never work!"

"Not the way they're supposed to, anyway, I suppose," Lydia sighed. "But I'm glad it mal-- no, I'm glad BJ malfunctioned," she laughed as an afterthought.

Melinda gave her an edgy sidelong glance accompanied by a hesitant smile. "He really does it for you, doesn't he? You're not putting me on. You're seriously not putting me on. Wow."

Lydia scowled. "He broke your mirror. What more are you asking for? I have news for you... once you've met Beetlejuice, there's no turning back. This isn't something you can go bubbling about. I'm swearing you to secrecy by giving you this confession."

"Honey, I've been sworn since the minute the glass cracked!"

"Good," Lydia sighed, patting her hand. "I have to go."

"Wait a minute. You're going to the Underworld or whatever you call--"

"The Neitherworld."

"Promise me you'll come back."

"Melinda, I've been coming back. The only difference about earlier is I tried to leave my body behind-- that's when it's permanent."

"But Beetlejuice seems pretty solid to me-- he'd have to be, right...?"

"That's another paradox. You also learn that you can't ask that many questions."

"I see. But, how do I explain it to Mom... that you're gone?"

"Would we actually see your Mom before morning, if we both sleep in this room?"

Melinda twisted her fingers into her hair. "I suppose not...."

"Good. Then as soon as I'm gone, turn the light out and lock your door. Bingo, we're asleep."

"What about the mirror?" Melinda cringed. "That's kind of hard to ignore."

"The mirror's not an issue. You just wait," Lydia said, smiling, slipping off the bed. She embraced Melinda fiercely. "Thank you. For saving my life."

Melinda's voice cracked as she held on jut as tightly. "How can you say that when you obviously don't want to go on living?"

"I just thought I didn't. I wasn't thinking, like Beetlejuice said."

"He's smarter than he looks, I guess."

"There'll be days when you wish you could revoke that statement," Lydia responded wryly, drying her tears on Melinda's shoulder. "I'll be back, come morning. Maybe late, though. I advise you to sleep in till noon at least."

"Are you kidding? After a day like today, that's no problem!"

Lydia released her at length. "Good, then get some sleep. But first... watch."

Lydia backed away slowly, wearily, but with that dancer's grace that would never leave her, not even post suicide-attempt. Melinda watched her turn to face the mirror, felt the hair on her arms rise as Lydia whispered:

"Though I know I should be wary, still I venture someplace scary. Ghostly hauntings I turn loose: Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!"

Scarce had the ghost's name passed her lips for the third and final time when, in a muted flash, the mirror dissolved and drew her in. Melinda stared at it, dumbfounded. She jumped when, a few minutes after Lydia's disappearance, a tendril of yellowish lightning emerged from the crack like a finger, healing it in one stroke.

Melinda swallowed two Tylenol dry and put herself immediately to bed.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Thanks, Beej," Lydia murmured, biting her lip as her eyes filled with tears. "She was kind of worried about that."

The two regarded each other over the short distance briefly, each reminded of the tense quiet before their very first tumultous embrace. Which was faultlessly replicated seconds later, except for the fact that Lydia's feet no longer touched the ground. Beetlejuice rocked her, cherishing that familiar slight weight, which had become all the slighter.

"I'll feed you till you can barely hold it down, I swear," he whispered, almost crying again, burying his face against her neck.

"No need. Did that willingly. Mel's mom's a great cook," Lydia replied, her heart more in the kiss she pressed to his cheek than in her words.

Beetlejuice looked up, pressing his forehead to hers, locking gazes for what seemed like a very long time. "You're okay... really okay, huh? Jacques tellin' me that... sounded kinda crazy... but I see it in your eyes. I think I believe it."

"If you hadn't come back to me, I... wouldn't be okay. Of course, I'd be with you anyway, so you might say that--"

"Don't go there. Not yet, Babes. Promise me."

Lydia closed her eyes. "I promise."

"Lyds..."

She opened them. "I promise."

"Lydia--"

"Once," she breathed.

"Lydia," he repeated, and settled her lovingly in the coffin.

"Twice."

"I love you-- Lydia," Beetlejuice whispered, and joined her.

"Three times as much, I!"

The kiss lasted only as long as Lydia could hold an exhausted yawn at bay.

"Oh, so I do bore you?" Beetlejuice teased halfeartedly.

"You bet. To death," Lydia sighed contently, snuggling against his chest with eyes closed. "Who else can boast that they know every joke in your book?"

"That's only my joke book, Babes. I'm a pretty prolific author!"

"Don't I know," she replied sleepily, but not too sleepily to laugh. "Maybe I should be grateful you didn't mention me in your autobiography all those years ago!"

"Oh, shut up. Get some sleep, will ya?"

"How romantic!"

"Oops, I forgot. You don't know how."

"To sleep or to shut up?"

"Neither. 'Night, sweetheart."

Lydia giggled, following up quickly with another yawn. "Good night, Beej. You know what? We'll be okay."

"Yeah. If I didn't have the heart to be sarcastic, I'd be worried, too."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Delia painted long into the night, even though nothing substantial turned up on her canvas. She didn't dare venture upstairs. Charles would not be asleep yet, and she did not relish confronting him again. Their argument that evening had probably disturbed their nearest neighbor half a mile away.

Delia wondered whence his tolerance came, considering he had very little of it-- or the nerves-- for anything else. If any blood-child of hers had developed Lydia's habits or wardrobe, those things would have been quickly snuffed out. What a woman will do for a neurotic man, she thought, dashing her brush across the canvas with a violent green fwap! She recalled the exchange that had passed between them with no small measure of discomfort.

"Are you finished yet?" Delia piped with anxious dread from the dining room, rearranging the flowers in the centerpiece for the dozenth time. "It shouldn't have taken you more than an hour. Her writing's gotten much more legible."

Charles did not respond. Delia gave in and stormed into his office. She found him sitting with the book in his lap, open to the last half-filled page. He stared at his hands, which held it tensely flat.

"Do you understand now? Do you have any doubts regarding why I've come to think the way I do about your daughter?"

"You adopted her," Charles said quietly, haltingly. "So, I'd appreciate it if you stopped referring to her as--"

"I did not produce that deceitful little--"

"You never believed me, Delia! Not one of those times when I 'saw things' in her mirror, not even when the spaghetti--"

"Oh, so you noticed her horrible 'explanation' for that incident? And you're buying it?"

Charles looked up, his eyes blazing with doubled anger. Delia was shocked; she had not seen his expression before, had honestly not expected to see any ill-will intended for his daughter. But she had been wrong, and she had been added to his wrathful roll-call. For the first time in nineteen years of marriage, Charles raised his voice. And hurled it at her mercilessly.

"What am I supposed to do, Delia? Be as delusional as you used to be and write this off as Lydia's wild imagination? I know she has a fantastical mind, but honestly, I don't see any fabrication in these pages whatsoever! Call me crazier if you like. Commit me, for all I care! But don't you dare accuse Lydia of lying here. She's already done it, and for quite a long time, vocally. I'm scared to death by what I've read here. I don't know what this is, but I have the sinking feeling I know who. You never once wondered where Mr. Beetleman came from? I think you can put two and two together, Delia. That is, if you're not letting go of the shred of sensibility I finally see in you and revert back to your insipid ignorance!"

"I can't believe you, Charles!" Delia seethed, swiping the sketchbook away from him. "I'm calling her to demand she fess up to this pathetic piece of work. If she wanted attention or acceptance or whatever it is, all she had to do was--"

"She never lacked it. Not coming from me."

"Rub it in, Father of the Year!"

"If you call her, Delia, I'll--"

"Take some Valium and sleep this whole thing off?" Delia sneered.

"Don't call her. She must realize she left that here. If she doesn't, she will soon. Delia, as much as... as much as..."

Charles broke down briefly, and it was several minutes before he cornered his sobs into retreating enough for him to speak. "As much as it hurts... I... want to wait. For her to tell us of her own accord. If she's making some terrible mistake, well... I want her to realize it. She's old enough. She's--"

"Like her mother," Delia seethed, and went immediately in search of the portable phone.

No, Delia would not go upstairs. He must know she called. Even if she did not, he would be able to tell. Why, oh, why had she fallen in love with a certifiable manic depressive...

... and his adorable dark-eyed daughter?

Charles sat in bed with the lights dimmed, clutching the covers with all his might. He was determined not to touch the medicine cabinet. For Lydia's sake.

Charles wondered briefly why he had let Delia's perkiness inadvertently cover for Lydia's now-confirmed supernatural dealings for so many years. He wondered why he had let his skepticism-- which had, in truth, always been paler than his belief-- take the front seat to acting where his daughter was concerned. He knew the answer to that, of course: Helen.

They had met while Charles was in college. He was a student, and she was not. How a level-headed engineering major ever got mixed up with a woman like Helen Kent was beyond his circle of a few close acquaintances. Charles was a very private person, which in part led him to his first wife.

Some things, Charles never could explain. His earliest recollection preceded even measurable boyhood: he had been scarcely two years old when he first noticed that he shared his bedroom with a sour-looking lady in austere long skirts who yelled things when he cried at night because she frightened him so. He couldn't understand the words she jabbered at him. They weren't the same sounds that his mother made. She was dark, too, her skin as black as teak. Also, his mother didn't vanish into thin air-- she always used the door, always departed visibly. Even then, Charles had the innate sense to know that people should not vaporize.

No sooner could Charles talk (he was articulate early) than he made mention of the lady, and the other "air people." His parents ascribed his imaginary friends to an overdeveloped imagination and managed to enroll him in kindergarten a year ahead of schedule. Sharing the fact that an old man with a gold-tipped cane regularly glared at Miss Turner from the corner of the classroom didn't acquire him good stock with his classmates, especially since none of them could see him. So the edgy, straw-haired boy with a funny last name closed his mouth, once the other boys' reactions to his insistent, almost desperate reports turned to physical roughing. By gradeschool, Charles had a reputation for being bookish and excessively nervous. You never could be sure what those skittish brown eyes were fixed on, nor why he walked so fast in the vicinity of B Wing when the halls were apparently empty.

Mirrors did not bother him till considerably later. By junior high, Charles had a vague, dread-filled understanding of the things he regularly heard and saw-- and even more regularly wished that he did not. The first incident occurred in an acquaintance's home when he was in eighth grade.

The fact that he'd been invited to Stephen Carrol's birthday party in the first place was farfetched enough. There were about seven boys present, half of which tolerated him and half of which detested his scholarliness, his unwillingness to participate in activities they deemed far more worthwhile. Thus it was that when Stephen's parents went out for the evening and the rest of the boys decided to sneak some of Mr. Carrol's smokes in the back yard, Charles pleaded athsma and locked himself in the bathroom, where he was determined to stay until Stephen's parents returned in order to avoid any disdainful retribution that Arnold and Gary might have had in mind for when their host wasn't looking. He sat dismally on the toilet seat thumbing through a Reader's Digest until a bizarre tapping sent it flying from his grasp.

"Whoever that is," Charles cried at what he believed was one of his peers on the other side of the door, "this isn't funny! As if wanting to asphyxiate me wasn't enough! I about jumped out of my skin. Go away till you're finished tarring your lungs."

This time, the sound was directly to his left, issuing from the mirror-- whence it had come in the first place. Charles' hair stood on end as he turned toward an unmistakeable movement in the glass.

"Hey there," the boy in the mirror said in a hushed voice, his eerie blue eyes half-transparent. "Don't suppose you could let me out of here, could you?"

"Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!"

"Oh, come on," said the redheaded youth who couldn't have been more than fifteen at a glance. "Don't tell me you've never seen the likes of me before. I know your kind. And I really mean your kind. You're the worst-- you see us but pretend you don't. Come on, now, and be a good sport. Get me out of here."

Charles had backed against the door, trembling so violently that it shook with him. "Who... are you?"

The boy laughed devilishly. "I thought that kind of thing didn't matter to you. I just want out. So do you. What do you say we... make a switch?"

Charles shrieked again as the boy reached through the mirror with both pale, clawlike hands, his grin darker, more hypnotic. But the boy could reach no further, and withdrew.

"See?" he said, his eyes taking on a distinct, desperate glow. "I can't get out of here. That's why I need you."

"I-I'm sorry... I..."

"Can't?" the boy finished for Charles, hissing, and for the first time the mortal noticed how strangely sunken this specter's eyes were in comparison to the ones in open ground that he was used to.

"N-No! Won't!"

"Why not? Chuckie!"

"Be-Because!" Charles cried in terror, realizing he had not given his name.

The boy's eyes by now glowed as menacingly as neon lights. "C'mon, Chuckie. You didn't think ol' Stephen doesn't laugh about you behind your back, too? He only invited you because he pities you. I overheard him on the phone with Tanner the other day."

"Lie!"

"Lie? Nah. The phone's right there in the hall, around the corner. Easy eavesdropping."

Which was true, which sent Charles racing from the bathroom with the boy's insane laughter ringing in his ears. He did not receive a throttling as he had feared, but the looks and facefuls of smoke he received bruised as lividly as any punches. He never entered Stephen's residence again, let alone was he ever again invited.

He encountered another of those strange mirror-bound souls during his first year of college. A loner still, Charles had managed to procure himself a single room in one of the oldest dorms on campus. A week later, he demanded to switch buildings, no explanation given further than, "It just doesn't agree with me." By then, his nervous disposition had reached the point that some treatment was necessary. Through which little progress was ever made-- how could it be, when he could never admit to his ailment without signing his own committment papers?

He passed three and a half years thus, alienated but determinedly getting by. More than getting by, in fact-- at the end of first semester his senior year, Charles was due to graduate salutatorian. And he might have, if not for finals week. The night before his first exam, which fortuitously fell on Monday, a pestering entity the likes of which he had never seen (or wished not to remember seeing) attached itself to the driven young architect.

He was awakened on Sunday night after a lengthy study session by a violent, double-handed grip on his arm.

"Oh my God, don't touch me!"

"Too late," a low but feminine voice said, and the lights came on as if of their own accord.

The young woman standing over his bed glowered, her darkly sunken hazel eyes gleaming with streaks of green. He recalled the mirror-bound from his freshman year and shrieked as loudly as he had in eighth grade.

"W-Who let you out?" he cried.

"Someone who didn't intend to," she said disgustedly. "Never even saw me. They just happened to read my name in the ceiling graffiti and used the magic number on a fluke. Imagine that." She bent over Charles menacingly, causing him to sink even farther into his pillow.

"Magic... number?" he babbled.

"Don't you play dumb with me. Your kind ought to know about that kind of thing!"

"M-My kind?"

The young woman regarded him incredulously before tucking her limp dark hair behind her ears and rearranging the collar of her blouse. "You mean you really don't know the old Third Time's a Charm rule?"

"Only figuratively speaking," he stammered, wishing he'd wake up.

The girl broke into rich laughter. "Oh, fancy that. The Sensitive doesn't know his vocabulary even for all his learning!"

"Leave... me... alone," Charles whispered, going as white as his sheets.

"Hey, not so fast," she hissed. "You think that now I'm out of there I'm going to pass up a chance such as this? No, sir. As far as I know, you're the only one like you on this whole campus! Well, I've heard tell there's that girl on Kearney Avenue, but I'm not interested. I need you. You know how a guy's mind operates, oh yes. You're going to help me track down that bastard and--"

"I'll do no such thing! Get out of here!"

The girl's eyes blazed as she set her chin high and fierce. "Never," she grated, her eyes set aglitter by startlingly real tears, "in your wildest dreams."

Contrary to her oath, the girl disappeared. Shaken beyond all reason, Charles did the only thing he knew to do: medicated himself heavily and slept with the lights on. But for the next two days, both booked solid with exams-- Charles Deetz woke to a living nightmare.

The girl in the bloodstained blouse and plaid skirt hounded him every waking moment. His professors stared in shock as their star student cracked before their very eyes, staring wide-eyed and trembling at the exam sheets, unable to complete more than half, and that haltingly. They would have sworn he was trying to shut out some horrible racket, except none-- from anywhere-- was evident. Falling back on knowledge of his nervous condition from a concerned classmate led them to an alternate conclusion: a breakdown in progress.

On the second afternoon, as Charles walked home shakily from his second ruined exam, the girl came down particularly hard with her petition.

"I'll kill you. Don't think I can't do that," she whispered, grabbing him by the shoulders fiercely. Charles stopped dead in his tracks, flinging her away, horrified.

"I d-don't believe you," he lied.

"You're not as smart as everyone thinks you are, then," she countered, the whites of her eyes blazing faintly yellow.

Charles recoiled, racing a few paces backwards and receiving undecipherable looks from passers-by. "What is it with you?" he cried. "Why me?"

"Because no one else would understand!" she railed, racing at him again. He evaded her cold hands with another series of backsteps.

"Why not that girl on... on... whatever street it was?"

"Because she's a girl," the specter muttered darkly, irrationally.

Charles broke into a desperate run, clutching onto the very line that he had offered her.

Why not that girl on Kearney Avenue? He thanked God for his good memory the entire jog to the parking lot. He drove for half an hour-- with the young woman hounding him from the back seat the entire way, no less-- until he found the street in question. He stopped at the end of it, daunted by the lining of unremarkable houses.

"Okay. You've got to help me out here if you expect me to help you, because I sure can't do it alone."

The girl regarded him acidly, for once rendered speechless. "Why should I?"

Charles laughed maniacally. "Because you're demanding it of me and not offering anything decent in return!"

"Why do you always expect something to be offered?" she spat.

Charles took a chill. "I... don't."

"Your kind, I mean," she added hatefully.

"Sensitives?" he asked, remembering the term she'd used.

"No. Men."

"Oh, I..."

See. And for the first time, Charles did. He understood the bloodstain on her blouse with horrifying clarity.

"Oh, God. I'm sorry."

The girl's eyebrows furrowed, a sudden change coming over her. "Uh, you didn't do anything really...."

"Sorry it happened. You understand. You're not witless."

Her eyes flared. "Damn straight."

"So, who is this girl I'm looking for?"

The specter eyed him with a discomfiting uncertainty. "Well, I'm going on hearsay. A girl lives on this street who, you know... makes a living in an unusual fashion. Not too many people like it, especially not in this state. Salem really did a number, you know? Even way back then. I remember sitting through the grade school and high school history lessons... I mean, witches, how neat. But they had the wrong idea back then, way wrong. They didn't know the real meaning of a witch. The real witches, they couldn't even catch."

Charles shuddered. "Uh, what are you getting a--"

"Oh, for heaven's sake. Look in the mirror and tell me what you see."

"I see myself."

"Then you see what I'm talking about."

Charles blanched.

"Why do you do that? I hate being this blue, God knows why anyone would do it willingly."

"I don't," Charles retorted, and for the first time realized he was not on the verge of sobbing. He had carried on an intelligible conversation for at least five minutes with this maddening...

"Ghost, Charles," the young woman said quietly. "You see ghosts. Witches see ghosts. Understand now?"

"I'm... you mean you... this girl..."

"This girl just knows her stuff. Unlike you, she didn't freak out when she realized what was going on. She looked into it."

Charles leaned heavily on the steering wheel. "What house?" he asked impatiently.

"Gimme a minute," the girl said, and started to fade.

"Hey, wait-- your name, since you seem to know mine?"

"Lily. Now just let me get this over with, will you...."

Charles sat alone for fifteen minutes in the cold November sun streaming through his windshield before Lily popped up in the passenger seat, placing a hand as startlingly solid as ever on his arm. "Number thirty-two, red brick joint on the left side. She wasn't as shocked to see me as you were, believe me," Lily informed him, rolling her eyes.

"So, why didn't you just explain yourself and get it--"

"Uh-uh, buster. You've made me see the light, this can't be any one-sided deal. If you talk to her, you're not just helping me. You're helping yourself!"

"Fine, fine," Charles muttered, starting the car. He made a mental note to ask for a higher dosage at his next appointment.

Charles parked curbside not far from a plain tin mailbox painted with an uneven "32 Kearney," under which was emblazoned in the same capital letters, "Kent." Lily all but pushed him out of the car and up the front walk.

"Get up there, but please don't freak when she answers the door," the ghost sighed.

Charles rang the wirebare doorbell. When the door swung inward, he was inexplicably compelled to follow.

"Yes?" said the soft but startlingly clear voice that accompanied the white face and clear dark eyes that looked up at him piercingly. The girl at the door could not have been more than twenty, and Charles understood instantly why Lily had made him promise not to swoon. The girl looked like a ghost herself-- almost.

"I... I, um... are you..."

The girl raised her eyebrows and opened the door a few more inches. Her shining, shoulder-length black hair separated itself from the house's darkened interior. Charles found himself wishing the opposite of flight, as frightened and confused as he was. She was lovely.

"Helen, who's there?" called a man's voice from within.

Helen glanced nervously from side to side, biting her lip, clearly aware of Charles' desperate aura. "An... old friend of mine, Dad! I'll only be a couple minutes!"

Grinning sheepishly, the girl stepped lightly onto the porch beside Charles and quipped, "Have a parent like that? I'm convinced all of us do."

Charles nodded dazedly.

"Listen, I think you have something to do with that young lady yonder, don't you?" Helen asked sympathetically, indicating Lily pacing in the neighbors' yard.

"Uh, yeah. I've failed two exams on account of her, I'm pretty certain."

Helen's eyes filled with pity. "Heavens, you probably don't understand. But you've had this all your life, haven't you? They're everywhere, aren't they?"

Charles nodded mutely, too grateful to speak.

Helen took his hand boldly, consolingly. "Well, unfortunately we're not everywhere, and most of us don't even understand. I was lucky. My first haunt didn't scare the hell out of me-- she wanted to help me. I don't know how often that happens, but I can see it's never happened to you until now, and even then, she hasn't been very compliant till now, has she?"

"No.... Listen, you mean... you make a living helping people with--"

"Not this entirely. I read palms and tarot cards, but it's rare indeed when someone's wise enough to ask me about matters this otherworldly. Don't tell my parents," she laughed. "They think I have one gem of a good secretarial job, seeing as I somehow earn a little more than most. I'll be out of here in six months if I'm lucky, can you imagine? My own place. Do you want to come in and meet them?"

"Oh, I couldn't. I'm an absolute--"

"Stranger? So what. They won't even remember you weren't really in my ninth grade social studies class," Helen said with a wink, pulling him in by the arm. "Besides-- that way I have a good excuse to take you out to lunch, so we can discuss this. Plus, you get to ditch her for a little while," Helen added softly, once more nodding at Lily. "I know the feeling. Sometimes I wish they'd lay off!"

"Why are you so willing to help me? You don't even know--"

"Charles, you'd be--"

"How did you--?"

"Lily's a bitch. You're right about that," Helen said with a wink, and closed the door behind them.

That was when he realized her eyes were actually blue, and that he was captivated for better or for worse, until--

"Death do us part," Charles whispered, staring at his fists firmly clutching the bedsheets, now in pained remembrance.

Helen had done so much more than help send Lily on her way and clarify (as best she could) the difference between those mirror-bound souls and the ones wandering open daylight. She had put his soul to rest as surely as he lightened the load of hers: even knowledgeable, it was a hard thing to bear alone. Even with a heightened understanding, Charles could not rest, however-- and less than a year after they formally began dating, Helen had shared a secret that held those pestering souls at bay for good. They could look at him, but touch him no more. With Helen by his side, even those sulking shadows were tolerable. From the time of their wedding until Helen's sudden difficulty halfway into the pregnancy, Charles went unmedicated and doctorless.

Charles wondered if Lydia's life had been the same as his. He wondered if she had been strong enough to handle it-- perhaps a little too strong. And yet she'd shown none of the signs that he had, not even after moving into that eerie old house in urban Connecticut. Even though he caught glints in mirrors and felt an echo of a presence that never quite revealed itself to him. He half wished it would, just like those ones outside the walls of his home that forever would be held at bay by Helen's enchantment.

He wondered how Lydia had ever come in contact with Beetlejuice. He wondered why she could live with the unspeakable and remain unscathed, even embrace it. Most of all, he wondered where Helen was when he needed her more than ever. She had passed on before he could ask her the things that he thought he might have a lifetime to discover.

"I'm sorry, Pumpkin," he whispered, and closed his eyes on tears.

(Charles did the only thing he knew to do: medicated himself heavily and slept with the lights on.)

 

 

* * *

 

 

Annwyn stood on a precipice in the inky dusk, staring out to sea. The wind whipped her hair about her shoulders and her robes about her legs with equal ferocity. The tiny bundle strapped firmly to her back stirred and wailed, winding tiny, angry fingers into her chaotic curls.

"Hshhh," she murmured, her eyebrows knit fretfully, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet to quiet the infant. "Eithne, dear daughter, hush now. Your father is coming home. He will have jewels for me and furs for you, little pup! Your very own furs, Eithne... ones from sweet land-dwellers far away...."

Annwyn knew that she spoke largely to console herself. For weeks she had come to that place and kept her vigil, both morning and evening. Brenna tried to convince her to leave the child behind, to let she and the other women look after her-- but Annwyn clung stubbornly, almost fearfully to her month-old daughter. "She will meet her father," Annwyn insisted, "when I meet him."

To leave the baby behind might have been wisest. The sea, after all, was their greatest danger. A halfblooded infant had been the death of many a selkie maid-- a death in spirit. For if the child is taken, the mother must follow. Annwyn shivered violently. Losing Leoric would indeed be the end of life as she knew it. And still, day in and day out, she went to the cliffs with Eithne, beseeching the air sprites guide his sails safely home.

Annwyn did not wish to consider a grave possibility: that the sea had taken its revenge already. Woe unto the man who binds a mermaid, she had once been told. Storms had been known either to claim their lives or free the creature held captive.

"But I am so willing a stranger here!" Annwyn cried bitterly, and thunder rolled as if in reply.

The wind grew so forceful that it brought her to her knees. Eithne's howls doubled in volume and desperation, as if the child understood. Annwyn unfastened the baby's carrier and swung the fussing bundle into her arms, cradling it protectively, glowering at the sky.

"So you challenge me," Annwyn whispered bitterly. "Have you taken his life already, many leagues from here?"

Lightning illuminated the murky sky entire.

"You mock me!" Annwyn cried. Eithne choked and cackled in newborn fury. The next blinding flash revealed a sight that left Annwyn quaking. The waves had risen to a level mere feet from where she perched. She rose to her feet in a panic, but the waves anticipated her flight. Buoyed up by a terrible gale, a wall of water crashed over she and her child, sweeping them into the sea.
When dawn cleared many hours later, a sea serpent with pale tattered wings drifted on the horizon, a speck of blazing gold set with emeralds hovered at its neck. For how many hours she tumbled and spun, Annwyn could not tell. Eithne was gone-- gone from her arms now bare and bleached, gone from her breasts high set and firm. She could not open her eyes; rather, she refused to. If the gods had the right to anger, then she had the right to grief.

Quite suddenly, she was no longer submerged and no longer as she quite remembered herself. Quaint and dry, that darkened room lit only by an oil lamp, and not utterly unfamiliar. Before long, the sea whence she had come seemed the place almost alien.

She knelt beside her bed, reaching beneath with singular intent. The device in the dusty box slid into her hands with an apprehension nearly as great as her own. As she assembled it on the table before the oil lamp, an unaccountably familiar man's voice said, "I'm sorry, Pumpkin!"

This was no longer a flashback, but a nightmare. She leapt backwards in terror as the Ouija board's planchette spelled out her mother's epitaph in a frenzy.

"No!" Lydia cried. "NO!"

A familiar set of red-tipped fingers had taken her comfortingly by the shoulders, attempting desperately to turn her in their owner's direction. Still, Lydia stared in horror at the Ouija board's dreadful monologue:

"And though I venture through the unknown,

Those that I love shall never--"

"Be alone," said a voice, this time a girl's, that was equally familiar. "Never, Lydia. Look at me."

Lydia looked up and beyond the hand that had halted the planchette in its tracks. Melinda Garrison smiled calmly across the table at Lydia, gently lifting the oil lamp's glass globe with her free hand and setting it aside.

With fingers unusually pale, Melinda pinched out its feeble orange flame.

"Melinda!" Lydia cried, jerking awake. A pair of hands still insistently clutched her shoulders.

"Babes," Beetlejuice whispered, holding her still, comforting. "Shhh. Nightmare, that's all."

"No," Lydia whispered, lying still. She stared into the darkness above the coffin, her eyes drifting between the slit in the curtains of Beetlejuice's solitary window. "It wasn't," Lydia whispered, sitting up. "Beetlejuice, it wasn't just Melinda...."

Lydia shook her head as if to clear it. Beetlejuice sat up beside her, livid with concern. "Lyds," he murmured, grasping her hands, "I'll never forgive myself for the aftershocks you're suffering alrea--"

"Beej, no," she said quietly, this time reassuring him. "I understand... I.... all right. Listen for a minute... when I was... drowning, well... I saw something. I remembered something."

Beetlejuice implored her with brows knit, pitifully troubled.

"It was us-- it was us but it wasn't," Lydia faltered, sleep clinging sluggishly to her tongue. "A very long time ago. On the shore, at night. Eire, you said Eire-- that's an ancient name for Ireland, so it must have been--"

"Lydia, I'm beggin' ya, slow down! I said Ireland? I said this on the--"

"Shore," Lydia said, nodding. "All right, listen... don't tell me I swallowed too much seawater. Do you believe we've known each other forever? Answer me honestly."

Beetlejuice's eyes glittered in the darkness. He trembled.

"Lyds, that past life stuff scares me, okay?"

Lydia breathed excitedly. "You do believe in it."

"Of course, Lyds," Beetlejuice said softly.

"To both?"

"Yeah. The forever especially."

"All right then... wow, I ought to wake you in the dead of morning for serious discussions more often... anyway, I remembered us, once. Don't ask me how. You were an honest Nordic trader, can you imagine? And I--"

"Remember... Annwyn. Lyds, I swore I'd never tell you about that and here you are telling me."

Lydia swayed against him in the dark. "When did it happen to you? The vision, I mean?"

"Dreaming," Beetlejuice replied solemnly. "A few nights ago. I thought your absence was driving me to hallucinations, you know? But when it kept coming back...."

"God," Lydia murmured. "Then you know what happened, eventually...."

"I went away, you mean?" Beetlejuice asked, his brow furrowed. "Lyds, I thought about this too much as it is... I'm almost glad I didn't..."

"See more?" Lydia prompted.

"Mhm."

"Beej... I... just did."

"Aw, no!"

Lydia nodded, staring at their hands.

"Don't tell me..."

"The sea was angry. It's a warning, Beetlejuice. But listen, I think we've done the right thing, because-- the dream didn't end there."

He looked up. "Oh?"

Lydia recounted the semblance of their very first meeting, barely breathing. She described how it wasn't quite the same, how he'd embraced her from behind even as the board flung her mother's death in her face. And then--

"Melinda was there," Lydia said with a shiver.

"You woke up calling her name."

"Beetlejuice, she stopped the planchette's mocking with one hand... and... and..."

"And?"

"Snuffed out the oil lamp with the other," Lydia whispered, tears filling her eyes. "Beetlejuice, do you know," Lydia sobbed softly, "how far Melinda's always gone out of her way to look after me... but that she's forever saying that she has no idea why she feels so compelled? She's a month younger than I am, almost, did you know that?"

Beetlejuice couldn't quite respond. "Really?"

"She was born on Halloween," Lydia sobbed more deeply this time, but Beetlejuice couldn't help but notice her smile.

"Lyds, I swear, if I've ruined you--"

"Beetlejuice, do you understand what I'm suggesting?"

"Not really... but--! Babes, I feel just--"

"Do you mean to tell me you never wondered why the Ouija board didn't work the way it was supposed to, before you got to it?"

"Uh... well, now that you mention it... from time to time, y'know, I'd think, gee, how nice if I could... you know... find her...."

Lydia embraced Beetlejuice convulsively. "Thank you," she cried softly, "but I think I already have."

Beetlejuice rocked her in bewilderment. "Already have...?"

Lydia kissed his cheek and whispered, "Think for a minute. About how my dream ended."

"I'll never call her shallow again," Beetlejuice gulped several shocked seconds later.

He held Lydia for what seemed like several eternities, wondering how close dawn hovered just beyond their sight. But the darkness held on, as if determined to wait and grant them what rest was their due. After a while, Lydia murmured, "What are we going to do?"

"About Melinda? Well, I don't think you should go sending a Mother's Day card or any--"

"No," Lydia said, shaking her head. "About... ugh. I think about too many things at once. About the competition, about... Dad and Delia."

"They know, don't they?"

"You're perceptive."

"I couldn't think of any other reason you'd try eliminating yourself."

"Ugh."

"Lyds, are you feelin' sick?"

"A bit," she replied, clutching her stomach.

"Knowing ol' Chuck, Babes, I'd be half tempted to say..."

"Say what, Beetlejuice?" Lydia demanded curiously, piqued by his unfamiliar tone and evasive eyes.

"... Don't say anything at all. Yet. He, uh... knows more than you think."

"I know he understands. I deduced as much from Delia's ranting on the phone, but Beej, is there something--"

"Put it this way: he's not a basket case because of me, as much as I'd like to claim the credit. He's dealt with an entire lifetime of spooks, Lyds. Where did you think you got it, huh?"

"Oh... ugh," Lydia moaned softly. "I'm blind...."

"You're not exactly like him, though, for some reason...."

"There was my mother, too. I always assumed..."

"I'm pretty sure you're right, 'cause I assume with ya, Babes."

"Good Lord," Lydia sighed, closing her eyes, leaning on Beetlejuice's chest. "Okay, opting not to dwell on those implications just now... I leave Dad to his own devices till I'm in good enough shape to discuss it?"

"Right. Now, about that competition. You're pretty sick, Babes. And I don't mean that as a compliment, for once."

"I can't withdraw," she groaned. "That's why Morera asked me in the first place, you know-- to replace his former partner. Now I'm stuck with the same problem he had-- it's binding, someone has to show."

Lydia heard Beetlejuice grit his teeth, knowing the bait was taken. "How soon is it?"

"Middle of the week after next. Wednesday evening. Go figure, I... Please. Dance with me. Pathetic as that sounds now..."

"Wouldn't miss it," Beetlejuice faltered, struggling against his own tears. "But... we're getting you better first, and I don't care if that means you miss classes and set designs meetings and--"

"But, I--"

"Lydia. You're... going to stay... right here."

Lydia opened her eyes wide in surprize. "All right...."

Beetlejuice lay down, drawing her with him. "I'm gonna make an effort at being more responsible for you, okay? But unless you listen..."

"Don't give me any room to resist. I'm--"

"Stubborn," Beetlejuice whispered, almost laughing. "Yes. I knooow."

 

 

* * *

 

 

At approximately 9:00 AM, Melinda's pillow acquired a mind of its own beneath her sleeping head.

"Hey, pssst," it whispered, breaking out in groggy black stripes, wriggling ever so slightly. "Unless you want me to get my buddy to sing you his rousing rendition of Frère Jacques, you'd better get up pronto."

"Wha-- huuuuuuh?" Melinda cried, rolling away from the offending pillowcase, staring at it dazedly.

"Hi. Howya doin'?"

"Yaaaaaaaaaah! Lydia, there's--"

"She isn't here, remember?" Beetlejuice reminded her quickly, slipping off the pillow and winding about her mouth like a gag. "Shhh, help me out here. Listen for a sec."

Melinda nodded mutely, tugging at the pillowcase gingerly, mumbling softly.

"What's that?"

"Lmeeeee uht! Ibee qu--qht, hhnest!"

"Hm, okay."

Beetlejuice slithered away, leaving her gasping for breath. "Lydia... wasn't... joking," Melinda gasped, still half asleep. "I don't believe this."

"I don't believe I'm forced to talk to you looking like this, if it's any help," Beetlejuice responded dryly.

Melinda regarded him with dubious annoyance. "Is there some catch I should know about before I say the magic words?"

Beetlejuice scowled. "At this point, I think that should be the least of your concerns."

"Yeah... right, okay. Beetlejuice... Beetlejuice... Beetlejuice?"

"Not so hard, is it?" the ghost replied, appearing in his typical beetle pajamas at the side of her bed. Melinda sat up quickly.

"No," Melinda said soberly, looking him over thoroughly. "You don't look any different than you did last night, so I'm not about to believe anything's changing."

"Hey, once upon a time, I wouldn't have dreamed of it."

"You're kind of gross, aren't you?"

"Blunt and flattering, whoa! Lyds is such a great judge of character, isn't she?"

Melinda felt her heart pick up. "Why isn't she here?"

"She's where she should be. Asleep. I hate to break it to ya, but she's... really sick, uh... Melinda," Beetlejuice finished akwardly, as if he felt he had not been given permission to call her by her first name, now that he held her in much greater esteem.

"I know," Melinda whispered, looking sick with it herself. "Which is why she needs to be--"

"With me," Beetlejuice cut in authoritatively. "I know that it means a lot to you to help her and all, but--"

"Wait, wait, wait. Do you understand at all? My mother is going to hold me accountable for my friend's absence! Do you know how hard that is to brush off?" Melinda cried. "I feel... responsible..."

If only you knew, Beetlejuice thought ruefully. "Need a cover-up? Allow me."

"Yes, and fast, if you're determined not to surrender her," Melinda replied fiercely. "Whoa, calm down. Okay, lemme think... Lyds' place is what, an hour and a--"

"Too far to make the trip logical in the time frame we had last night."

"Right. Uh... hmmm..."

"But her boyfriend's place isn't," Melinda sighed, offering a half smile.

"Right! Just tell your mother you dropped her off. You don't need to embellish on who the guy is or anything," Beetlejuice said with a wink, spreading his arms in a wide shrug.

Melinda nodded, rubbing her eyes a few times. "You know, everything she's told me is true? Everything. Like the fact that I want to curse you and ask you to stay here all in one breath-- well, not in those words, but... you know what I mean."

"Now I know we're gonna get along!"

 

 

* * *

 

 

September 29

8:00 PM

 

I awakened well after noontime to voices drifting in from Beetlejuice's living room. The sound of heated discussion permeated my consciousness before I even opened my eyes or realized that I lay in the coffin alone:

"Voulez-vouz un ou deux, Madame?"

"Deux, merci... je le prends sucré."

"Uh, as I was sayin'-- hey, would you two knock it off already? This is important."

"We know, Be-atlejuice, but I was just asking 'er if she wanted some su-gair in 'er--"

"Jacques, go put your apron back on and make us some croissants or something."

"Est-il toujours comme ça, Jacques?"

"Oui, je regrette!"

"Hey! I'm better with context clues than you think! Stop talking about me!"

"Whatever makes you think that? If I recall, we were on the subject of the young lady in the next room. You are lucky that she is still alive."

"Gee, Anne, ya think?"

"Lydia would not appreciate zis sarcasm, Be-atlejuice!"

"Go away already! Anyway, Anne, the reason I asked you here wasn't for decorating tips, so kindly quit looking at my setup as if you'd like to replace it all."

"I'm listening, Be-atle."

"Rrrrgh. Whatever. Okay, what I wanted to ask you was, since you care about her as much as I do... what do you remember about being human? How do you treat a case like this? And don't get fresh with me, I know that feeding her goes without saying."

"Likely, she is iron-deficiency anemic because she has not eaten well. I know the look of it as well as I know the taste. Would you like me to test--"

"Don't even think about it."

"It would have been harmless, but as you wish. It'll take a prescription supplement to remedy the condition."

"Great. Her roommate's mother is in the business. What else?"

"Calcium would not 'urt, je pense!"

"Thanks for the insight, Jacques. Ppht."

"I am serieux! 'Er bones may be lacking--"

"You have a one track cranium, buddy."

"I advise you to take his advice. Il va être le mort d'elle, je vous dis!"

"Non, non! Vous êtes allée trop loin! Ne direz pas qu'il est incompétent! Lydia est son après-vie!"

"Desolée...."

"You guys are scaring me! Cut it out!"

"She says zat she is sorry, Be-atlejuice."

Anne-Hélène's only response was a muted hrrrmm. By then I was fully awake, sitting dazedly upright, struggling to grasp the gist of Jacques' sudden scolding of the vampiress. I understood the last sentence perfectly:

"... Lydia is his afterlife!"

Part of me felt strange about not being present. I climbed lightheadedly out of the coffin, tugging at the sleeves of Melinda's old robe as I made my appearance.

"'Afternoon. I, um... kind of think I ought to have some say in this. It might be hard for Melinda to get her hands on things like that on-demand. I'd need a doctor to prescribe it."

"Good afternoon, Lydia," Anne-Hélène replied, once more her usual composed self.

Beetlejuice looked torn between scolding me and racing me back to bed with a flurry of endearments. Instead, he drifted over and swung me up in his arms, carrying me back to where he'd been sitting on the couch. Jacques and the vampiress occupied nearby chairs.

"What are you doing, Babes?" Beetlejuice whispered in my ear.

"Helping you out a bit, here. You're linguistically outnumbered!"

"Pshh, yeah..."

"Allo, Lydia! It is good to see you! Can I get you some-sing?" Jacques chimed, rising quickly.

"Tea. Thank you."

Anne-Hélène's lips turned up in a faint smile. "You are much better off than I imagined. But yes, still... definitely anemic. You will need those pills."

"I'll see what I can do...."

"No, I'll see what I can do," Beetlejuice corrected me.

"Right," I sighed with a weary smile.

"Mel and I are on great terms!"

"What did you do to her, BJ?"

"Nothing! But I saw to it your absence won't go unexplained."

"I won't even ask."

"Honest. We'll get her here later on, if you want," Beetlejuice offered nervously.

I blinked, thinking it over. "If she can take you, she can take this... yes, that's not a bad idea.... We'll need to talk with her, anyway."

"Put together, I suppose you are startlingly efficient," Anne-Hélène mused unexpectedly.

"Thank you," Beetlejuice and I replied almost in unison.

"I can attest to zat," Jacques interjected, crossing the room with my tea. "Sug-air?"

"No, Jacques. Sweet of you," I thanked him, winking at Beetlejuice.

"That's my girl. Bad jokes with the best of 'em even when she's under the weather."

"You have an odd way of saying you love her, to say the least," Anne-Hélène observed, but whether it was to commend or futher her habitual criticism, I could not tell.

"I wouldn't listen if it was normal," I replied, sipping my tea, hoping it sufficed in either case to silence her. I was still growing accustomed to this woman that I both fear and admire.

Conversation settled into a decidedly unilingual rhythm, punctuated by Jacques' occasional lapses. By the time I finished my tea, Jacques had risen and returned with a thoughtfully well-stocked tray ("Bone appetit, Lydia!")

Not long after, I leaned heavily on Beetlejuice's shoulder, uncustomarily full and upsettingly exhausted. Beetlejuice carried me back to his room without a word, but as we left them, I heard our company lapse back into rapid French.

"Go back to sleep, Babes," Beetlejuice murmured once he'd tucked me in. "I'm ditching the foreigners in favor of your roomie. We'll straighten out this meds thing for you--"

"Beetlejuice... just..." I murmured, appalled at my heavy eyelids, "be careful. Don't get her in trouble. She has enough to hide on her own as it is...."

"Trust me."

"I do," I sighed as he kissed my forehead, slipping away.

I awakened a few hours later to a gentle brushing of my cheek.

"Hope you rested in peace, Princess. No reason why you shouldn't have," Melinda added under her breath, looking unsure of what to make of Beetlejuice's bed.

"Mel!" I whispered, sitting up immediately. Beetlejuice hovered close behind her, and had he been closer, he would have pressed me to lie back down.

"I can't imagine what hiding all of this your entire life must have been like," Melinda breathed incredulously, embracing me. "This place is an artist's dream come true, though! Hey, wait... I just realized how many of them must be here--"

"Oh, yeah. Now I can tell you about that new Matisse exhibition BJ and I went to my senior year of high school."

"N-New..."

"She's a little shaken up, Babes," Beetlejuice interjected. "Poopsie's on the loose."

"That's enough to startle anyone."

"Be proud of me," Melinda said dryly. "I'm now his accomplice in crime on both sides of the mirror. You should've seen that little furball run!"

"I don't think I want to know," I groaned, flopping backwards and pulling the pillow over my head.

"Hey, you're the main beneficiary! You'd better take all of these!" Melinda said firmly, tossing two rattling cylinders onto my stomach.

"You didn't," I cried, sitting up again, watching the iron and calcium supplements roll their separate ways into the folds of the sheet.

"Mom has a leatherbound edition of the national drug index from every year since about 1970 right in our dining room. It was a piece of cake figuring out what to get for you. All it took was me showing him all of the pharmacies in town--"

"And lettin' me rip off about four or five of each pill from each," Beetlejuice interjected slyly.

"They'll just think some employee's been careless with the counting tray. If a pill falls on the floor, it's trash. I've been to work with Mom on enough career days and shadowing ventures to know," Melinda said just as proudly.

"My heroes," I said weakly.

"It was sort of fun, once he persuaded me to stop listening to my... oh, what do you call it again? Conscience?"

Melinda and Beetlejuice nailed a perfect high five, laughing hysterically.

"This is not happening," sighed, finding that my only option was to join them.

"Oh, by the way," Melinda said, drawing something out of her back pocket. "I'll only give this back to you if you promise not to leave any more suicide notes."

She dangled the makeshift notebook over my head.

"Hey! Give it!"

"Promise?" she and Beetlejuice wheedled in unison.

"Cross my heart and hope to cry. Wow, I've ruined you, Mel!"

"Nah. It was only a matter of time. I would have hounded you till you broke down, you know that," she said with a wink, dropping the notebook where she'd plunked the pills. I retrieved the bottles along with it.

"Beej?"

"Hm?"

"Get me a drink?" I asked with an exaggeratedly pathetic look.

"That only works for her, y'know," he grumbled, feigning annoyance, jerking his thumb at me as he addressed Melinda.

"Hate to say it, but I have to run," Melinda said, hugging me again. "It's been one wild Saturday!"

"Run-of-the-mill for me!"

"Don't rub it in. I'll catch up soon enough! Lydia... take care--"

"Wait, I'll need you to do me another favor...."

"Notify your professors, take over your mettings, yadda ya. Got it."

"I can't thank you enough.... I don't know what to say. You've thought of everything!"

"No," Melinda said, smiling. "Your man has. You crazy kid! Take those meds and go back to sleep. Later, Princess!"

I watched the very three words that had carried me home for so long do the same for Melinda. Beetlejuice returned, looking slightly confused.

"Where'd she go?"

"Home."

"Aw, and I was hoping she'd get a look at the disgusting little scene in my living room. More disgusting than usual, that is--"

"What are you talking about?"

"There's a bottle of champagne uncorked on my coffee table. Those two must've spent the entire time babbling on my couch. It's almost gone!"

"You mean Jacques and Anne are still out there?"

"Yeah, and I hope they take the party elsewhere before they get any tipsier!"

And I couldn't have hoped for a better way to begin turning the contents of this notebook around!

 

 

* * *

 

 

On Monday afternoon, while Charles and Delia ignored each other in the shadow of their diamond-cut deck extension, an unusual message recorded itself on their answering machine without the aid of the phone ringing unanswered:

"Hi, this is... uh... Dr. Graves, campus health services. Your daughter came in today with a pretty bad cough, so I put her on vocal rest for the week. She can't talk or anything, so... that's why you won't be hearing from her... so, um... have a nice weekend."

"As if I've anything to say to her anyway," Delia muttered, erasing it immediately upon discovery.

In the next room, Charles pretended to be tracking the progress of a cardinal through his binoculars. They fell from his grasp when he was certain he recognized the gruff voice on the recording despite its altered state.

 

* * *

 

 

Around that same time, Beetlejuice sat on the chair which had taken up temporary residence beside the coffin, watching Lydia's every move.

"BJ, are you sure you asked Jacques what to put in this quiche?" she asked dubiously, at last prodding the one item on the tray that she had most tactfully avoided. "Because I find myself remembering what happened that time you doctored the Caesar salad I made you in home ec..."

"Got it from the chef himself! Relax!" Beetlejuice replied testily.

"Where is Jacques today?" Lydia sighed, swallowing a forkful.

"Somewhere plus important," Beetlejuice scoffed.

Lydia almost choked on her quiche, but she was grinning. "You mean Anne's showing him the shop?"

"Something like that. But you know those French broads, so something tells me she's showing him a lot--"

"Beetlejuice!" Lydia scolded, brandishing her fork in defense of the vampiress' honor.

"You're not well yet if you can't even laugh at my jokes. Eat up, Babes!"

"I am," Lydia mumbled, but not before intentionally stuffing her cheeks.

"Ma was wrong. Who's rubbed off on who, huh?"

"If you get me some milk, I'll make sure I laugh so hard at your next wisecrack that it comes out my nose."

"Back in a flash!" Beetlejuice cried, vanishing.

Lydia shook her head, pushing around the remaining contents of the miniature pie pan. The glass of milk appeared just above it, startling her.

"BJ, if you're in there, I'm making you get me another one."

"And I know you too well, so I'm not," he replied, drifting through the wall.

Lydia finished off the quiche and felt the weight of his stare decrease. And suddenly, her own eyes lit up.

"Beetlejuice, Jacques' recipes are fine and all... but I think I'd like a little variety in days to come. I foresee a week of regional specialties, at this rate! Do you suppose your mother would have some cookbooks to spare?"

Beetlejuice shuddered not so much at the thought of Bee's cooking as at the thought of calling her. "But, Lyds--"

She fixed him with a glare that reiterated everything she had said to him on the way to his Bee and Gnat's.

"Right. Fine," Beetlejuice sighed, vanishing again.

Lydia heard him pick up the phone in the next room and turn dial his parents' number.

"Hello. Yeah, Pop. Who'd you think? Shouldn't you be at work?-- haha, funny. I have my hands full enough here-- more than usual, yeah, you'd better believe it! Why? Lydia's sick. Yes, Pop. Me... taking care of her... that's right! No, Pop, your hearing aid is fine. And you wonder where I get my sarcasm? Oh yeah? You wish! Put her on the line. Now."

Lydia was grateful that she had not taken a drink. Sides heaving, she continued to listen when the conversation continued several minutes later.

"Hi, Ma! Yeah, I am glad to hear your voice. Why? 'Cause the old man's getting cantankerous, that's why, so you'd better find him somethin' to do on his days off-- no, Ma! Aw! No, I didn't say anything! If you don't believe me, I can get-- gee, thanks. All right, now-- yes, uh, she is-- uh, Ma, wait, slow down, she-- good grief, what did Dad tell yo-- uhuh... Ma! Yes. She's sick-- with what? Well, it's kind of seri-- MA! What do you mean this is no place for-- but she's-- she's-- grrrrrrrrrrrrrgh! Yes, my bed. Where else-- Maaaaa! Really, I can handle-- honest--"

Lydia felt sorry for Beetlejuice as Bee apparently managed to slide her tirade in edgewise.

"Okay, Ma. Yes, Ma. If she wants. What do you mean I have no choice?! I'm my own man, need I remind... since when did I ever have to-- oh, no, don't you guilt-- sorry. Yeah, you do. Every month. And guess what, for the first time in my afterlife I'm usin' it for laundry! I-- yes, Ma. I do. With all my heart. You know that, dammit! All right. All right. I'll bring her. Yes Ma, I do realize... One thing. If Donny sets foot in your house, I'll set him out head first!-- sorry, Ma!"

After several more apologies and as many goodbyes, Beetlejuice hung up and drifted back looking for all the Neitherworld like a cowed schoolboy.

"I know you're probably not so keen on traveling, but this outfit's moving to--"

"I know," I said softly, motioning for him. Beetlejuice dropped his head miserably on my shoulder. "I would like that, actually."

"Babes, she means well, but..."

"I know. Just think about that mattress."

"Oh, yeah. But I swear she'll lock me in Donny's--"

"No she won't. Your presence is in the terms of my recovery, and I'll say so."

 

 

* * *

 

 

By Wednesday morning, Melinda still had not grown accustomed to the silence. Even Lydia's often wordless presence had a way of filling their shared space. She caught herself growing listless, leaving sketches in mid-progress and wishing she could visit the Neitherworld once more. What was worse, she had no way-- and no intention, unless she had the permission, if indeed it would ever come-- of communicating her restlessness to Ray. As far as he knew, Lydia was taking the week off at home.

"Something wrong, Melinda?"

She could scarcely look up from his tiny dining room table. When Ray used her full first name, it was a deep expression of concern.

"Worried about Lydia," she murmured, grazing the paper with a pale streak of blue watercolor.

"You guys have gotten so much closer since last year, haven't you?" he observed, catching her along the collarbone and kissing her ear. "I think it's good for both of you."

"You're telling me. If not for Lydia, I wouldn't have anyone to confide in but you."

"Are you sure?"

Melinda put her brush down, fixing him with a hard, earnest look. "Yes, I am. I might look the part of captain of the cheerleading squad, but I never had the popularity that comes with it. You, well... look at you. Star of your highschool basketball team. National Honor Society vice president. You're up there."

Ray gave her a look that was half cringe and half apologetic. "One thing I might have is connections, true. But there's not a minute I don't wish I were as creative as you and Lydia are. So there."

"I never cared about all that-- your 'connections,' I mean. And you never flaunted it! Thank God..." Melinda murmured, her eyes rising to meet his with a smiling sigh.

"You're more like Princess Sorrow under there than you think," Ray teased, cuffing her again.

"I know," Melinda said, but without his trace of jesting. "I know that more than ever."

"But please don't brood as often as she does!"

"Only lately," Melinda reassured him. "Don't worry."

She spent that night at the apartment, leaving reluctantly early the next morning. A vigorous jog left her alert enough for her first class, and she managed to remember the off-schedule joint design meeting over which Lydia had briefed her. Transferring the information was not as difficult as she had expected, as most of them were highly capable. What surprized her was the genuine concern they expressed at their supervisor's second absence.

"Is Lydia all right?"

"Some bug she must have, poor thing."

"Hope she's recovered soon."

"Tell her I'm feeling for her, my girlfriend's got it!"

Melinda sat in the empty costume studio long after they had gone, giving in to tears that she didn't fully comprehend.

Beeeep!

"Hi, this is Ashland calling for Melinda. You guys gotta change that message greeting, getting pret-ty stale. I was just wondering, when's the watercolor due?"

Beeeep!

"Hey babe, just me. You left in such a hurry this morning that you forgot your art history textbook. Cheer up, I'll bring it by later tonight. Mel... Melly... smile! Love you."

"Thanks, hon," Melinda sighed, skipping to the last message:

"Royanne Dara, chair of the Stamford Ballroom Open. Miss Deetz, I'm calling to confirm your partner's withdrawal. Mr. Morera contacted me himself and expressed some concern for you. You are aware of the policy. Please contact me at the number listed in the confirmation packet we sent last week. I need your replacement partner's name as soon as possible. Thank you."

Melinda hesitated, thought for a moment, and rewound the message. She recalled Beetlejuice making small talk during their "errands," and he had mentioned that Lydia insisted on remaining in the competition, substituting him for Morera.

She's in trouble if she doesn't get in touch with them soon, Melinda thought. And she's in no place to do so!

Minutes later, Melinda found herself doing something she would normally consider completely unorthodox for the second time in less than a week. She shuffled through the papers that Lydia had uncharacteristically let pile up on her desk and at the foot of her bed until she found the torn-open item that she sought.

Rrrring!

Rrrr--

"Good afternoon. Royanne Dara, Stamford dance studies division."

Melinda didn't like the cool, perfunctory tone that was identical to the one on her answering machine. "Hello. I'm returning a call for one of your competition entrants."

"I beg your pardon?"

"She's unable to do so right now, so I'm covering for her."

Royanne simply cleared her throat impatiently.

Melinda stuck her tongue out at the receiver. "Lydia Deetz is indisposed at present, and I promised her I'd provide her alternate's name," Melinda said, adopting a lofty tone.

"Very well. The new entrant?"

Melinda hesitated, realizing the likelihood that this woman would accept a name so ridiculous-- and realizing also that giving his real name was not an option.

"You do realize this is important," Royanne hurried her condescendingly.

"Absolutely... I..."

Melinda sifted through Lydia's after-attempt confession for the alias Lydia had used to pass the ghost off with her parents.

"Beetleman. Mr... B.J. Beetleman, esquire," she added, imagining the woman's nose drop a notch.

"Recorded. Tell Miss Deetz that it would be in her best interest to show in person."

Click.

Melinda smirked at the phone. She was ridiculously pleased with herself. A few hours later, as she added highlights to her watercolor sky, it rang.

"Yep?"

"Melinda... is that you?"

"Mr. Deetz!" Melinda dropped her brush, adding a new streak to her jeans.

"Y-Yes! I'm sorry I frightened you," he replied, sounding fairly shaken himself.

"Nah, that's my line. You taking it easy?" Melinda stalled, knowing that he would ask the inevitable.

"As easy as can be expected," he replied flatly. "Listen, I... know that you know. I don't know how much you know, but--"

Melinda's heart lurched, wondering what that implied. That he knew only what the diary revealed, and that he believed it to be nonsense just like his wife? Or that maybe-- just maybe--

"I, uh... I know that she's... having a hard time right now with Delia and all.... I--"

"Oh, I'm sorry," Charles apologized. "I didn't mean to drag you into this or sound like I'm prodding, it's just that I'm..."

"Worried?" Melinda asked softly.

"Very. And I know she's ill right now--"

"D-Do you?" Melinda squeaked, her heart rising rapidly whence it had sank at his apparent unawareness.

"Yes, about the vocal rest. Dr. Graves left a message."

"I beg... your... pardon?" Melinda stammered, her fright and confusion intermingling.

"Yes," Charles said slowly, as if waiting on an imminent confession.

"I-- I--" Melinda choked-- "of course."

"Is she resting, then?" Charles sighed, desperately disappointed.

He believes I don't know a thing! Melinda thought.

"Melinda?"

"Yes... very... peacefully."

"Thanks anyway, dear. Talk to you s--"

"Wait!" Melinda cried explosively, the guilt more than she could bear.

"Oh?"

"She... did... she tell you about-- about--"

Oh, what should I do at a time like this? Melinda thought desperately. Wait-- what would--

"Melinda, are you catching that cough?"

--Beetlejuice do?

"About the dance competition," Melinda whispered blankly. "I know she hasn't spoken to you much, and... I thought maybe she hadn't..."

"No," Charles said, genuinely surprized. "She hasn't said a thing."

"It's a week from today. She's competing. At Stamford, seven in the evening. Convention hall," she added weakly but helpfully.

"Thank you, Melinda. Thank you very much," Charles said, oddly calm.

"Sure...bye... see you there."

Only after Charles had hung up did Melinda realize what she had done.

* * *

 

 

October 4

Thorsday

 

Considering the storm raging outside, the god of thunder definitely deserves to have his day spelled correctly for once. Neitherworld storms possess a sinister, intensified beauty. Watching it from Bee's mattress is definitely an added luxury. Though I'm not so sure I'd say that about Beetlejuice's snoring. At least he doesn't indulge that often. He makes a comfortable writing desk, though.

Bee received us with her usual sincere welcome, but she had a subtle tone of reprimand for Beetlejuice. I suppose I can understand her reticence to let him handle my case alone, capable though he was proving. If I was not familiar with a side of my son that only his beloved had ever seen, then I would take similar measures. But Bee-- as I expected she would, and as was my intention of showing her by accepting her offer-- let up on him very briefly after our arrival. Bee murmured to me not long after he'd faultlessly settled me into his old room and volunteered to go after a few things that she needed to make breakfast for me the next day, "Young lady, you have made a gentleman of my Junior!" Keeping him by my side had not even been an issue, much to Beetlejuice's chagrin.

"You like it here. Admit it," I teased earlier this evening, poking him.

"Yeah, yeah, but don't let the cat out of the bag. I have a reputation to keep."

"Not with me."

"That's disconcerting!"

"You're so silly," I whispered, and he kissed me quite deeply for the first time since the night of my rescue.

"I miss you."

"Lyds, you're getting better. But you're still weak... and..."

I hmphed softly into his shirt, but I knew that he was right.

"You have to save yourself for the competition."

"I just had the most random thought as you said that."

"Yeah?"

"I don't have anything stunning to wear. Presentation's half the battle with professionals, Morera kept reminding me!"

Beetlejuice looked at her steadily. "Suppose I were to tell you that you do."

I laughed. "Nice one, Joker. I suppose you're about to tell me Anne volunteered to do you a little favor--"

"She already did."

Beetlejuice? I don't understand."

"Remember that white box?"

"Oh! I was so upset that I didn't even think..."

"It was to apologize for being a little short with you before the big bang actually occurred. I wanted you to wear it at Kneecap's that night, to celebrate...."

I was dumbfounded. "I... I'm so--"

"Uh-uh, we're through with all that apologizing stuff," Beetlejuice said firmly. "It's for the competition now."

"And Kneecap's, still," I added stubbornly.

"Hell yeah!"

"Oh, Beej," I murmured, returning his gesture of affection.

"Same to you, Lyds."

I am, of course, aside from alternately tired and content, very impatient to see the contents of the elusive white box. But having removed the last shreds of tissue paper from a reluctantly (but, at last, fully) open heart is the far greater reward.

If I could wait on us, then I can wait on anything.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Whut in tarrr-hooties is goin' on 'round these parts?" the hulking figure at the roadhouse door demanded amiably.

Ginger looked up pathetically and burst into tears.

"Everyone around here's got someone to love 'em but me!" the spider wailed, flinging herself upon one of her neighbor's cowboy boots.

"Now, thayr, thayr, lil' lady! Yew slow down and tell me whut in tarnation yuh mean," the Monster Across the Street responded, scooping Ginger up with a well-meaning gloved hand, removing his hat with the other as he crossed the threshold.

"It's true!" Ginger wailed. "Jacques is runnin' around with this fancy French designer, an' Beetlejuice an' Lydia--"

"Beetlejewce and Lydiuh!"

"Yeah, you mean you haven't heard nothin'? They've been seein' each other a month at least!"

"Ah... Ah dunno whut to say tuh that! You done flabbergasted me! Beetlejewce and... whoo-eeeee! That's some kind-uh news, yesiree! Though ah'll be danged if she ain't all growed up tuh be uh right fine--"

"So rub it in already!" Ginger snapped.

"Oh, now Ginger, yew ain't meanin' to tell me that..."

"I can't help it!" the spider cried, springing fresh tears.

The Monster stroked her back with a huge but gentle finger. "Thayr thayr! Why, ah betchew there's dozens-uh good lookin' eight-leggers out thayr just uh-waitin' for a purty lil' filly like yew! Put on yer dancin' shews and show them batchelers whut thay're missin'!"

"You really think?" Ginger sniffled.

"By golly, ah dew!"

"Maybe," Ginger said in a small voice.

"Yew gotta quit bein' yeller uhbout it. Ah don't mean that in uh bad way, either. Happens all thuh time, amiga! Yew just gotta get out thayr and be yew!"

"Gee, thanks. You really know how'ta cheer a girl up!"

"Any time, lil' lady!"

"Were you lookin' for someone in particular, since ya came by?"

"Naw, not really. Just bein' nayberly. But yuh know, ah think that Beetlejewce done scared Poopsie intuh hidin' again! Beetlejewce and Lydiuh, though! Ah'll be a tumbleweed's uncle! Whut in tar-hooties, ah ask yuh, is this Neitherworld comin' tew?"

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Did you know," Charles asked his wife casually that same stormy night, "that Lydia's performing next week?"

"No, and I'm not surprized," Delia sniffed, turning her nose back to her painting, which still had not emerged as a masterpiece. "She seems intent upon hiding the full range of her interests, so why would she have mentioned it to me? And since when are we discussing her, Charles, until you're ready to give up this hopeless theory of yours?"

Charles ignored the latter half of her statement. "Oh, well. I didn't think it would interest you to know she's dancing in the Stamford Ballroom Open."

"The-- The Stamford Ballroom Open?" Delia gaped, her weakness for the affluent gloriously tripped.

"None other," Charles confirmed, putting down his newspaper for effect.

"Well... Well, I don't know what to say... except..."

"Except?" Charles milked her, raising his eyebrows coaxingly.

"Where are our seats?!"

"Lower balcony, third row, center," Charles replied placidly, drawing the paper back up quickly in order to conceal a devious smile.

 

* * *

 

 

"Lydia, if you do not hold still, I cannot determine how much I need to trim."

"I'm trying," Lydia replied honestly, reaching for Bee's shoulder once more, wondering why she'd been foolish enough to let go in the first place.

Anne-Hélène pinched the fabric along Lydia's side, pleased to find the damages less than half an inch, but still enough that without alteration the garment would be too loose. She murmured a warning as she secured it with straight pins.

Bee stepped back a little, holding Lydia's hand. "You look so lovely, dear!"

Lydia stared at the floor. "Thank you..."

Beetlejuice had gone to fetch the dress before she woke that morning. Her shriek upon opening it early in the afternoon had drawn Bee instantly upstairs. Bright scarlet and something finer than satin, its tattered edges had a finely sewn finish, plunging in a deep v-back from the obviously strapless, low-cut bodice. Though it reached the floor, the daring slit up its right side would just miss revealing her hip.

"Is this a gown or lingerie?" had been her bluntly delighted reaction.

"I spent too much for it to be the latter," Beetlejuice quipped in response, turning pink.

"Don't remind me. I still have to repair a bit of the stitching in that burial shroud!"

Lydia allowed Anne to coax her feet off the floor one at a time, slipping a finely arched red stiletto character shoe on each. "Can you dance in these, once you have your balance back?"

Lydia pulled her hand free of Bee's determinedly, taking a few delicate steps, shifting her weight back and forth experimentally. Anne-Hélène clucked something incomprehensible but approving under her breath. Lydia would have given what health she had gained back to understand French.

"They're perfect. I can't thank you enough, Anne. How much for these--"

"Nonsense. The least I can do is provide the finishing touch."

"Too kind," Lydia murmured, blushing.

"De rien."

Lydia circled the room a few times, finding herself not half as impaired as when she had taken to bed eight days ago. What she had lost in confidence besides what she had lost in health, only she could restore. With a little of Anne-Hélène's cutting-edge magic.

"Bring him in here," the vampiress sighed to Bee, watching Lydia's movements more closely resemble the dancer so startlingly locked inside. Bee slipped out of the bedroom quietly. Anne-Hélène listened to her progress down the stairs and the exchange that followed with preternatural clarity.

"Junior, come along and see what Ms. Sanguin has done with your patient."

"Ma, five more minutes! This guy's about to win--"

"Turn off that gameshow!"

"But Lyds'll under--"

"Now, Junior."

"Just kiddin', Ma!"

"Convince me."

"Owowowowow!"

Anne-Hélène smirked at the sound of the ghost being dragged up the stairs by his ear. Bee and her son appeared in the doorway, the latter looking none too disgruntled but quickly transfixed. Lydia was so busy testing a few simpler steps in the shoes that she didn't realize her audience had expanded. Just as the vampiress opened her mouth, Beetlejuice silenced her with a glare that said, You just watch.

He vanished and reappeared abruptly as a rose with striped petals between a bewildered Lydia's teeth.

"May I have this dance?"

Lydia laughed at the tinny sound of his voice in miniature. He fell with a sharp, shrill "Aaaiiiiiieeee!" until Lydia caught him deftly in both hands.

"Yes, Beetlejuice, you may."

"See? Everything's coming up roses!"

"Thorns and all," Anne-Hélène observed with a demure grin.

"Hey! Nobody steals the spotlight around here but me, Fang Face!"

"How charming," the vampiress laughed coolly. "I will be certain to tell Bone Breath."

"Don't even go there."

"Junior!"

"Sorry, Ma."

"Oh, Beetlejuice!" Lydia sighed, brushing away tears of mirth. "What am I going to do with you?"

"I liked your teeth just fine."

Bee fixed her shapeshifting progeny with an acute warning stare.

"Sorry, Ma!"

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Are you sure you're ready for this, Princess?" Melinda asked with concern, sitting on the edge of Bee's couch, unable to relax despite Bee's offerings of milk and cookies.

Lydia executed a few difficult turns-- wearing the character shoes, no less-- as if to prove a point. Beetlejuice hovered nervously, ready to catch her, but unnecessarily.

"Think about it. The competition is in two days. If I'm not ready now, I won't be. That's why I want you to watch us rehearse."

"I am glad to hear you've been up and about since Saturday, but I must admit, this is a surprize! You bounce back as quickly as you sink!"

Beetlejuice landed beside Lydia, elbowing her playfully, more to dispel his own worry than anything else. "Yeah, isn't it something? She's pretty resilient for being so dense--"

"I'll nail you to the floor with these," Lydia warned pleasantly, tapping his boot with one of her heels.

"Yeow! Hit the music, Ma. Showtime!"

Melinda was nothing short of astounded. The couple before her danced as fluidly as if it were a performance, even though they had never heard this particular tape. Melinda had brought it along at Beetlejuice's vague request: "Somethin' spicy, I guess. You have any Flamenco? Ma's music collection is pretty dry."

They ended the number with a signature lift that had regularly left the bystanders at Kneecap's green with envious applause. Melinda did not take a breath until Lydia's feet hit the floor with light, precise poise, her body manouvered meticulously by her partner.

"Yes," Melinda breathed, clapping with amazement. "It definitely is Showtime!"

"You know I love ya," Beetlejuice whispered proudly, twirling Lydia away from himself and whipping her back for a peck on the cheek.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Charles, where did you put my brush?"

"It's on your dresser, dear," Charles sighed, adjusting his tie. He had not touched it.

Delia ran it through her coppery hair, which had taken an unusual wave. For a moment, as he watched her, Charles was able to forget his anger and how deeply she had hurt him.

"You ought to let it air-dry more often, Delia," he said softly.

Delia's brushstrokes slowed to a halt, the brush following the descent of her eyes into her lap. "I did that day we went to New York, but you didn't seem to notice," she replied with a hint of bitterness.

Charles seized her shoulders and spun her to face him. "Delia, when I married you, it was my understanding that you loved my daughter, too. I know Lydia was all I could think about that night! Well, can you blame me? She'd acted strangely. And apparently, she acted even more strangely in our absence."

Delia looked at him for a few moments, speechless. For the first time in perhaps a year of Charles' remembrance, her eyes filled with tears.

"I... did, Charles. I loved Lydia. I still love her. It's just that..."

"Delia?"

Delia bit her lip, and for the first time, Charles realized it was a mechanism that all three women in his life shared at one time or another.

"Delia, please don't leave me here," Charles whispered.

She fell on his shoulder. "I'm so jealous, Charles!"

"Jealous... of..."

"Of Lydia! Her talent, your obvious devotion to her. Oh, you're the same strangely adorable gentleman I married twenty years ago, don't get me wrong. Just somewhere along the way... I felt as if you left me. With each passing day, that picture you once locked in your drawer breathed another breath, sighed another sigh, blinked another... and the day you threw away the key was the day I lost you both! But--"

"No, Delia--

"-- it was my fault, Charles," Delia said calmly, her tears receding into the harsh corners of her whisper. "And this is my fault."

"Delia... about Lydia's--"

Her look hardened. "We're going to see her in half an hour. I hope she's thought long and hard. I still don't know what to believe, Charles, and I do not expect there's any ghostly suitor, least of all one that masks as Mr. Beetleman."

Charles sighed, accepting what shade of an embrace they had left. Yes, he had promised-- for better or for worse.

And so had Delia.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Your names, please," requested the young man in tails at the velvet-lined podium in the Stamford convention hall's lobby.

"Deetz and Beetleman," Lydia replied, still growing accustomed to the finely-glossed lip color that Anne-Hélène had so efficiently applied.

"You're early. Warm-ups aren't for another fifteen minutes. Here are your numbers. Allow Vivian to show you to the waiting room."

Lydia elbowed Beetlejuice discreetly.

"Why, thank you, sir," he said in his usual affected tone reserved for such occasions. He threaded Lydia's arm gracefully through his with a gloved hand as a slim, dark-haired girl in a mauve gown and pinpoint diamonds gestured for them to follow.

"You weren't kiddin', Babes," Beetlejuice murmured under his breath. "This is some high society shin--"

"No puns!" she whispered curtly. "Yes, you might call this a shindig. An extremely sophisticated one. Delia would feel right presumptuously at home."

Beetlejuice's brow furrowed as Vivian escorted them down a narrow, carpeted corridor. "Did they even know you're in this?"

"No. I never mentioned it, and it's a good thing I didn't," Lydia sighed, looking a little disappointed.

Beetlejuice slipped his arm around her, less mindful of propriety. "You wish Ch-- your Dad were here, don't you?"

The corners of Lydia's mouth turned up in a touched smile at his restraint. "Yes. I do."

"He's a good old channel surfer. This is televised, right? He might just catch it on the tube."

"Maybe. Now you have me hoping!"

"Wait here a moment," Vivian said, halting them just a few feet before a set of double doors.

"Of course, my dear!" Beetlejuice accented stuffily as she slipped through the doors.

"I don't have the heart to tell you to knock that off," Lydia giggled. "It's too much of a tradition."

"So is your letting it slide, so we're right on the money."

"Let's hope," Lydia said under her breath, a slightly nervous twitch in the otherwise even set of her lips.

"You okay, Babes?" Beetlejuice asked.

"Yes. It's just that, well, this is obviously a lot bigger than Kneecap's," she sighed, declining further comment.

"I wonder how Anne and Jacques fared sneakin' in...."

"They... what!"

Beetlejuice grinned. "Oops!"

"Let me guess. They wanted it to be a surprize."

"No one can pull the wool over your--"

"Sh, okay, I get the point," Lydia laughed, pressing one heel lightly into his ankle.

"Hey! No fair! You get to be literal!"

"I'm less likely to turn a herd of sheep loose on an ivy league campus!" she laughed, pulling away from him ever so slightly. "Oh, Beetlejuice," she said quietly.

"What, Babes?"

She took him in from head to toe: hair combed back neatly into a curiously dashing ponytail (black silk ribbon courtesy of Anne), a solid black vest and bowtie to match, trim new tails ensemble, and the spats he had worn to Cleopatra's. No stripes on him anywhere.

"You really would do anything for me," she whispered, as if she still could not believe what they had been through in a little over a month's time. "You look wonderful."

The ghost stared at his feet for a few moments before Vivian's head emerged from the doors.

"Right this way. Oh, please put your numbers on first."

Lydia smiled, slipping one set of front-and-back panels labeled 24 over her own head before vesting Beetlejuice with the same.

"Showtime, love."

"Almost," Beetlejuice agreed, following her inside.

For a while, they simply stood at the front of the room, gaping at their competitors. Couples milled around both together and split, friends greeting friends and enemies glowering at enemies. Most of the women were in dark, shimmering shades-- midnight blue, forest green, burgundy wine. Upon their entry, Lydia's gown had caused a momentary stir.

"Can you believe it?"

"Look at that slit. Tsk, she's barely a child..."

"What I wouldn't give to get my wife into something like that!"

"Wow! Somebody's keeping the male judges in mind."

Lydia glared at the utterer of the nearest comment. Beetlejuice's hands balled into fists.

"Take it easy," Lydia breathed, willing her own fury to subside. "We can't get ourselves disqualified."

"Easy for you to say."

Lydia decided to give them something more to talk about. She silenced Beetlejuice with an indiscreet kiss.

"That's how you know they're good," someone murmured, and Lydia was pleasantly surprized. "Lovers make the best partners. Odd pair, though, aren't they? He must be near twice her age."

"More," a woman replied offhandedly.

"You have no idea," Beetlejuice murmured through clenched teeth, more for Lydia's amusement than to thank the speaker who had become lost in the sprawling assembly.

"I do stick out like a sore thumb," Lydia mumbled. There are only two other bright dresses. That magenta affair across the room and that blonde in turqouise."

"It could work for us," Beetlejuice said.

"Or against. These people must be phenomenal. The majority seem to know austere is in, and that you let the dancing do the talking."

"That's not our style, Babes. Stop worrying."

"I'll try," Lydia murmured, resting her head on Beetlejuice's shoulder.

"Hey," Beetlejuice suggested to cheer her up. "Let's see who cheated is out of lucky thirteen! They can't be as weird as--"

"We are?" Lydia finished, gaping slightly, her eyes one step ahead of him. "You might want to reconsider that statement, Beej."

Beetlejuice followed her gaze to the far end of the room. In one corner, a considerable rectangle of space had cleared. A waiflike but subtly-curved figure in a black floor-length gown that glittered weirdly under the lights stood with her back to most of the room, revealing the number dreaded of triskadecaphobics.

"How will she dance in that?" Lydia breathed, moving forward as if propelled.

Beetlejuice followed, his own curiosity peaked. "Beats me!"

The young woman's gown hugged every contour from chest to knee before flaring in a small but elaborate train of lace. She maintained utter stillness, her sleek dark head bowed, long hair in shining twin braids, one over each shoulder. Even her sleeves were long, lace almost obscuring her hands.

Lydia halted six feet away, her breath catching on the glint of the dagger in the woman's hand as it slowly rose from her side.

"Take it," she said in a tone straight enough to be a child's but with undertones revealing her to be around Lydia's age.

"O-Okay," stammered her dark-haired, bespectacled partner, who approached awkwardly.

The girl turned without appearing to move, and for the first time her milk-white profile and soulless black eyes were visible.

"We've rehearsed this," she said impatiently, her elfin rounded chin set with all an empress' arrogance. "My brother isn't afraid to do it," she sneered.

Despite her tone, Lydia almost swore there was love behind every venomous word.

"Geez Louise! You two have been at each other's throats since the cradle. But you've got a point. All right, we'll do it!" her partner quavered, a Long Island accent lingering in his nasal pronounciation.

For a moment, the young woman turned her face so that her oval features were no longer obscured from the room. She arched her high, thin eyebrows chillingly at Lydia, breaking the mask of severity.

"I'm ready," she said with an unaccustomed, poisonous smile and a doubly poisonous sideways darting of her eyes.

"If I were that guy, I'd scoot," Beetlejuice said with a gulp.

"I want to watch," Lydia breathed, fascinated.

"Nooo-ooo," Beetlejuice chimed. "I think you want her dress."

"That too! Now, shhh!"

"When I give the signal," the young woman said, turning her back on the quailing young man.

Her partner backed away slowly, clearing more space parellel to where Beetlejuice and Lydia stood.

"I think we're gonna want to back up a bit," Beetlejuice said, drawing Lydia with him.

The signal came without apparent visibility. Lydia let out a small yelp when the young man's arm lashed out, hurling the dagger at his counterpart. A split second later she lunged into a heart-stopping backbend, the dagger captured between the even line of her teeth with a dull clink before her hands even hit the ground.

"Deadly-vu!" Lydia whispered, trembling.

The acrobat drew herself as lithely back up, meeting the scattered, shocked applause that had broken out in the room with an arrogant lowering of her eyes and nothing more. She took the dagger genteelly by the handle, halting her partner's relieved approach imperially with her other hand.

"Wait," she said, tapping her temple thoughtfully with the dagger. "My public demands."

Lydia's heart leapt into her throat as the girl approached, the dagger held threateningly at arm's length. Before it came to rest at Lydia's collarbone, Beetlejuice leapt in the way. The young woman, imperturbed, advanced nonetheless. She did not even blink when the blade passed directly through the interloper. Beetlejuice swallowed, and Lydia quivered.

"Impressive," said the girl. "Step aside slowly so the rest of the room doesn't notice. I won't give you away, however dead the potential. My quarrel is not with you."

Beetlejuice complied, stepping fiercely back into place beside Lydia. The dagger rose and fell with her every frightened breath.

"If it's pointers you want," the young woman warned, "the only only ones I'm willing to give will require me to interest you in a cemetery plot as well. Don't be shy. We have plenty of room on the estate."

"I-- I beg your--"

The girl raised her eyebrows in mock pity. "What a shame. I rather like your dre--"

"I make the funeral arrangements around here," Beetlejuice snarled, zapping the dagger to ashes.

Just as her hand fell in astonishment, the girl's partner grabbed her wrist, twisting her arm behind her back. Lydia surmised that her resulting coy smile meant only this young man could restrain her and get away with it.

"Didn't I say I would kill for you, mon cher?" she said evenly. "These two will be trouble."

"Yeah, well. I have news for you. You don't kill your competition! It's bad sportsmanship, Wednesday."

"Precisely."

"Apologize now, honey."

"I hate you."

"Geez," Beetlejuice whispered in Lydia's ear. "Does that sound familiar or what?"

"Nauseatingly," Lydia managed.

Beetlejuice scratched his head. "Except the hate part."

"I'm sorry," Wednesday said with a bounce of sarcasm, smiling once more as if the expression were utterly unfamiliar to her facial muscles.

"If you'll excuse us," her partner muttered sheepishly, steering her away by the shoulders.

Wednesday managed to slide in a whisper before allowing herself to be removed from their presence: "Actually, I know you're not like the rest-- especially if you hang around the likes of him. I do like your dress, but don't tell anyone I said that. If you want to trade secrets, look me up. Massachusetts private listings. Addams."

Lydia staggered in Beetlejuice's arms.

"Welcome to show business, Babes."

"We're goners," she whispered, biting her lip.

"Nope. Just me," Beetlejuice joked, but it did not seem to comfort Lydia in the least.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Charles, the view is just fabulous!" Delia raved, lowering her opera glasses. "I've never seen so much ermine under one roof!"

"I find the dance floor more interesting, personally," Charles replied in annoyance.

"Well, yes... that, too."

"Delia, look! They're admitting the contestants for warm-up," Charles cried, raising his own glasses in eager pursuit of his daughter far below.

"Oh, of course," Delia sighed, following suit. At that instant, however, her elbow was jarred.

Delia lowered her glasses haughtily. "You might have watched where you're going!"

"Oh, pardon, madame!" apologized the clumsy arrival.

Delia couldn't help but stare. The sallow, profusely garbed man with sunken cheekbones, exaggeratedly large nose, and comblike black mustache escorted the most glamerous woman she had ever seen.

"Oh," Delia said, changing her tone drastically. "Are your seats on the other side of my husband?"

"Yes, those very vacancies," the auburn beauty in heavy cosmetics replied. "Kindly let us pass."

"Ooh, why, of course," Delia gushed, elbowing Charles before she rose and gestured for them to pass, implying that he should do the same.

"Trade me places!" Delia hissed in her husband's ear as the two took their seats. "Potential clients!"

Charles grumbled, but he complied.

Jacques could scarcely believe his eyes. Leaning close to Anne, he murmured in French, "Those are Lydia's parents."

"You must be kidding."

"Absolutely not! The woman beside me is her stepmother. Most likely she will try to sell me her half-baked decorating services."

"Pretend you don't speak English," Anne suggested deviously, raising her glasses. "I'll have a convenient relapse."

Delia, who had been listening, squealed with excitement to Charles. "The French have such exquisite taste!"

Which is more than can be said for you, he thought, blocking out Delia's immediate attempt to address the hapless foreign couple.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

Lydia clung tightly to Beetlejuice's arm as they filed with the other couples into the stadium-like space. Lydia's eyes swept the circumference and found the seating capacity staggering.

"There must be just over a few hundred people here," she murmured.

"Yeah, Babes. No small potatoes, that's for sure..."

Lydia closed her eyes tightly. "Oh God, he's here!"

"Who? Your Dad?"

"Morera. He's actually on the floor, across the way, off to the side! Crutches on the floor beside his chair. Oh, no. He's been asked to judge!"

"Oh," Beetlejuice muttered, slumping visibly.

"I'm just... well... done assigning blame, but I feel bad about the entire situation. And this makes it a lot worse for us, to hell with my dress being the issue!"

Beetlejuice grunted, possibly in assent.

"Would you apologize, afterward?" Lydia asked him boldly.

"For making moves on you?" Beetlejuice snapped. "Kind of hard to forgive."

"So is what you did to him," Lydia pointed out objectively, allowing Beetlejuice to guide her into a series of turns. Other couples had begun rehearsing snippets of their repertoire as well.

"Babes, do we have to discuss this now?"

Lydia set her jaw and shrugged, eyes glittering. "I suppose not. There will be compensation, one way or another."

Beetlejuice ignored her final comment, seeing to it that their antics stood out as boldly as they always had at Kneecap's.

 

 

* * *

 

 

By feigning limited and no English respectively, Anne-Hélène and Jacques managed to effectively hold Delia's advances at bay. The vampiress' sharp eyes were the first to spot Beetlejuice and Lydia.

"I see them," Anne-Hélène said to her companion, her hand nestled with comfortable propriety in his.

"So do I. Look at them go. Be-atlejuice does have his moments, and tonight we will see a lot of them."

"I'm amazed by that girl," Anne said softly.

"Oui?" Jacques asked, smiling.

"She's not like any mortal I've ever known, or fed on, for that matter. She's impervious to what we are, and she's clearly ill at ease in her own world. Not to mention, she has the tact and tolerance of a saint."

"I couldn't agree with you more," Jacques replied. "I have known her as long as Be-atlejuice. And I told him on several occasions that he'd be foolish to ever let go."

"Wonder of wonders," Anne mused. "His ears function after all."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Charles' heart stopped when he finally spotted his daughter.

"Do you see her yet?" Delia asked, fanning herself with the program, leaning back with closed eyes. "I hope this show gets on the road shortly."

"Yes," Charles said softly, tapping her glasses. "Have a look."

"I think I would rather wait until it's her turn," Delia said nonchalantly. "What number are she and her partner?"

"Twenty-four," Charles said softly, lowering his glasses, his belief in Lydia's written confessions absolutely confirmed.

"How many couples overall?"

"Read your program, Delia. Thirty two, I think."

Perhaps it was best if Delia waited, after all.

Her shock would be vastly gratifying.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"This is Royanne Dara, Stamford dance faculty, proud to be coordinating the Ballroom Open for three years consecutively. On behalf of the judges, I would like to announce that all couples should at this time report back to the holding room," came the authoritative voice over the sound system.

"That's the bitch I had on the phone," Melinda muttered to Ray, shifting in her chair.

"She sounds like one."

"Yeah. I swear she saw to it personally that we got nosebleeds."

"Sh, Mel, it's starting."

"Did you see Lydia out there? I did. Can't miss her in that dress."

"I'm just amazed she recovered in time! And who's her stand- in partner, anyway? That's some hair he's got."

Melinda shifted more uncomfortably. "Do you want to hear as much of a long story as I can possibly tell you?"

"Sure, we have 23 snoozers till our girl's up, anyway."

"Good," Melinda breathed, mentally putting the finishing touches on her fabrication of who Lydia Deetz had been dating and why.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Lydia paced in the corner of the holding room that she and Beetlejuice had claimed for themselves.

"I can't believe this," she murmured over and over. "I just can't--"

"Lyds, stop now," Beetlejuice finally said, rising and catching her in a stern embrace.

"We're going to lose for sure!" she cried.

"Lyds, don't call me a sap or anything, but haven't you always told me it's not the winning that counts? Or even the money?"

Lydia looked at him with a sad sense of pride. "I've waited for the day it would sink in... and now that it finally has, look at who's worried about winning!"

"Why are you so bent out of shape, anyway?"

Lydia lowered her eyes. "The only reason I took Morera up on his offer in the first place was so that I could win us half of the money. You know, to have a bit of something to call our own."

Beetlejuice looked down, too. "I'm touched, Babes..."

"Well, you know, now... considering how fierce the competition is and the fact that the guy whose career we put on painful hold is judging..."

"Lyds, how can you, of all people, believe we don't even have a chance? Leave the pessimism to me!"

"I'll try," Lydia sighed, realizing that the other half of her designs upon the money would no longer be effective either.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Couple number eight: Lisa Renault and Andrew Morgenstern; White Plains, New York," Royanne informed the crowd.

Delia leaned heavily on one armrest and sighed. "I hate to admit it, Charles, but so far, they're all the same."

"Dear, I thought this kind of thing would interest you."

"The audience interests me more."

"Well, there's a grand dame somewhere on the other side who obviously shops at Saks Fifth."

"Really?"

Charles sighed, shoving her opera glasses into her face. "Knock yourself out. Just like Where's Waldo?"

"What color's she in?"

"Delia, Delia. That would be cheating," Charles chided, hiding his sarcasm. "Surely you don't mean to tell me you don't know your major New York department store styles!"

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

"Couple number twelve: Angie Chung-Kim and James Brandon; Annapolis, Maryland."

"Wow, they're fish out of water," Melinda broke her narrative to comment.

"So, let me get this straight... Mr. Beetleman was employed part time by her parents?"

"General property maintenance," Melinda clarified, doing her new friend as much justice as she could.

"Huh," Ray mused. "And the guy can dance. He must be a real jack of all trades."

"You might say that."

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Beetlejuice," Lydia cried, momentarily energized, pulling him toward an overhead monitor. "Thirteen is up. I have to see this. They're the ones I'm worried about."

Beetlejuice only nodded, staring at the screen.

Royanne announced that Wednesday Addams and her decidedly Jewish partner hailed from Winter River, Massachusetts and Long Island, New York respectively.

"Winter River?" Lydia puzzled. "Where on earth is that? I've never even heard of it."

"Somewhere in Mass, Babes. Sounds as dull as Peaceful Pines, doesn't it?"

"Infinitely more, if you ask me. Oh! They're starting!"

Despite the obvious absence of the dagger, the youths' routine was still staggering. Despite the young man's awkward bearing, he danced more than adequately. But Wednesday, predictably, was the true star. She slid between trancelike and hyontically terse, her movements fluid and often unpredictable without missing a beat, proving even more appallingly limber than her backbend had indicated. A blood-red rose materialized between her teeth during their spectacular finale.

"She probably hid it in her sleeve," Lydia sighed, turning away.

"Babes... you've gotta stop this. For me," Beetlejuice pleaded. "I can't stand it if you're not gonna have any fun!"

"I'll try," she said bleakly. "But what hope's left for us, really?"

"Just that, Babes. I'm hoping you come around and decide to enjoy yourself. Besides..." Beetlejuice added, his eyes suddenly lighting up.

"What now?"

"Apparently," Beetlejuice said slyly, "those judges have nothing against having a trick or two up your sleeve."

"We are not cheating."

"You got it, Lyds. We're not. We're just going to do exactly what we always have. Modified, of course, because we can't have mass fainting, now, can we? C'mon, to the back of the room. We have time to tweak this wimpy two-feet-on-the-floor stuff you've confined us to."

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Couple number seventeen: Mary and Alan Ashby; Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania."

"So very, very soon, now," Anne murmured, squeezing Jacques' gloved hand so tightly that a joint popped. "Oh, I am truly sorry..."

"Don't worry," Jacques replied, popping his pinkie discreetly back into place as if cracking his knuckles. "I'm as nervous as you are! Number thirteen was spectacular, non?"

"Gown and all," Anne replied softly, crestfallen.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Holy smoke, they're next!" Melinda cried, shaking Ray as couple twenty-three was announced.

"Hmh? Oh, of course," Ray replied, shaking off his nap.

"You really can be stereotypical when you put your mind to it."

"On rare occasions. I try, my lady."

"Shut up," Melinda grumbled fondly.

Ray's eyebrows shot up in surprize. "There's a new endearment! Someone being a bad influence on my Mellie?"

"Horrific," she replied, deadpan.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"I've never been so nervous in my afterlife!" Beetlejuice cried, pacing. "Oh, Lyds, d'you think it's good enough?"

"You made the changes, not me," Lydia replied calmly, leaning against the wall just inside the doors that would lead them onto the dance floor. "My faith rests there entirely."

"That's some gamble," Beetlejuice muttered.

"Beej, I bucked up for you. Now, buck up for me! I should have known your Last Minute Panic Clause would come into effect."

"You know you love it."

"Argh!"

"We're next, Babes."

"I know..."

"Lydia?"

"Beetlejuice?"

A desperate, I-believe-in-you-only! kiss prevented either of them from conventional reply.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"She's next, Delia," Charles said calmly, observing the program clenched tightly in his wife's hand. "Have you actually read that?"

"No, why?" Delia responded tensely, as if he had broken her reverie.

"Delia, you seem nervous."

"Well, who wouldn't be, just a bit? She's our daughter."

"You're right. No offense," Charles said brightly, raising both hands in his own defense.

"If anything, Charles, you're not nervous enough for once," Delia sulked.

"Are you sure you haven't read that program?"

"Charles, she's up next. I'll hear everything I need to know. Besides, I like some element of surprize. I just... can't believe they only award three places out of this many... they've all been magnificent, especially the young lady in braids..."

"Five thousand, two thousand, one thousand. Yessir, some lucky people will walk before the day's over."

"They don't even do a process of elimination! You have one shot to show your stuff and then..."

"Delia, relax."

For Charles, the fun was about to begin.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Couple number twenty-four: Lydia Deetz and... Mr. B.J. Beetleman, Esquire," Royanne announced, hesitating over the second name, pronouncing it as if it were distasteful. "Peaceful Pines, Connecticut."

"Go Lydia! You show 'em, BJ!" Melinda yelled.

"Maybe you should have been a cheer--"

"Can it, Mr. Team Captain."

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Heaven help them," Anne whispered.

"Ne t'inquiète pas, ma chère," Jacques murmured, and timidly kissed her hand. The gesture was interrupted by a shrill cry to his left.

"D-Did she just say Beetleman?" Delia stammered.

"I don't know, dear," Charles said disinterestedly. "I wasn't listening. I'm only here to see Lydia."

"B-But, I swear she said... that she said--"

Anne leaned across Jacques and said in more heavily accented English than usual, "What she said was, 'Mr. B.J. Beetleman, Esquire.'"

Delia turned a shade of scarlet that Charles had ever seen, a shade that only deepened when she finally dared focus her opera glasses on the couple that had taken the center floor with grand panache.

 

 

* * *

 

 

It seemed that they remained in their signature cheek-to-cheek tableau for a small eternity.

"Now or never, Beej," Lydia breathed through clenched teeth so lightly that not even Beetlejuice could have detected any movement.

In response, he flexed his hand just as imperceptibly at the small of her back, as if to prepare her for some unseen turn of events.

No sooner had the music been cued than the lights went absolutely haywire. A cry went up as for a split second the entire convention hall was bathed in darkness. Moments later, the still-frozen dancers were bathed in a flamelike spotlight. And with equal abruptness, they began to move.

Beetlejuice knew Lydia better than she knew herself. In that forced sliver of light, she could concentrate on nothing but the emerald rings of his eyes-- where, from their very first day at Kneecap's, every cue and questioning look that demanded an equally fantastical response had lain. Thus she was rendered almost insensate of the spectacular lighting effects that accompanied their sometimes-buoyant physical repartee: the audience would write them off as unparalleled footwork aided by the extroardinary lighting. Ironic, when in fact their dazzling display would have been just as striking by broad daylight.

Lydia did not think twice about the fact that when they ended she hovered for a moment too long before Beetlejuice swung her into that dangerously low and hard-to-maintain juxtaposition of their forms.

She simply was, and gloried in every moment of that being.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Delia's choked gasp broke the silence after the music ended. The darkness had not abated, nor had applause broken out.

"He's fired," she whispered numbly. "He is fired."

Charles brushed amazed tears from his eyes, but he was breathing, and so freely.

"How can you fire a ghost, Delia?"

"Enough of that nonsense!"

But her scream was drowned by the flooding return of the lights and thunderous applause.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Oh, that's the way!" Melinda screamed, clapping till her palms ached, her cheeks wet with excitement. "That's the way! Lydia, you did it! BJ, you rule! WHOOOOOOO! YEAH!"

Ray clapped with silent intensity, aglow with his girlfriend's enthusiasm and faintly amused by the thought of how hoarse she would be the next day.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"I'm astounded," Anne whispered, clapping fiercely, visibly battling proud tears. "She is a miracle, ma petite vivante...."

"No," Jacques corrected her, grinning even more broadly than usual. "They are a miracle."

Anne cast him a grudging but unabashedly affectionate glance. "Of course..."

Neither could have been less surprized to find themselves in the other's embrace.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The judges' table erupted into general pandemonium and garbled static as couple number twenty-four exited the floor.

"What in God's name was that?"

"No lighting requests were submitted!"

"Lighting requests were prohibited!"

"Know-it-all."

"It's true!"

"Backstage just paged! They've got those two cornered. They're not giving straight answers. Almost scared. Especially the girl. She doesn't look so good."

"Somebody radio the light crew. Immediately."

Being nearest to the end of the table and most coolly composed, André Morera seized the walkie-talkie.

"Judges' table to light booth," Morera said into the device. "Please, judges' table to--"

"Gotcha, sir. And we're all over the problem. That was the damn weirdest malfunction I've ever seen."

"You mean that no covert request was made for such a display?"

"No, sir, no bribes or anything. If you ask me, it's 'cause Ronnie spilled some coffee on the switchboard last night-- hey, now, don't tell Dara! She'd--"

"Understood," Morera replied. "Are you certain it was only a glitch?"

"I'd bet my job on it."

Morera made eye contact with the rest of the table to make sure they had heard. Their subdued, sheepish looks told him they had.

"Thank you," Morera said. "Proceed."

"Some false alarm. That was the strangest thing I've seen since the sound system failed first year, though."

"Look on the bright side," Morera said calmly. "That one errant spotlight was bright enough to see their every move. And such exquisite moves they were."

"You're telling me."

"You ought to know."

"No score-inferring!"

"Oh, come on. We'll end up placing them in the top three-- no saying where, as unpredictably as the lot of you score-- and we all know that."

"No penalty," Morera informed the backstage supervisor. "Mishap in the light booth. I repeat. Mishap."

"Yessir!"

Morera leaned back in his chair as the others returned to their scoring. With a calm expression, he did the same, recalling the most extroardinary grace his arms had ever held, his hands had ever guided....

It had been nothing to forgive a tennis shoe dropped on her way in, after all.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Sorry to have detained you, Mr. Beetleman, Miss Deetz. Klutzes in the light booth. Some things never change. You're cleared. "

"Wha-- I mean, we are?" Beetlejuice asked, even producing in his eyes a shimmer of bewildered relief.

Lydia swayed heavily against him, so shaken that she was barely able to stand.

"Thank... you," she managed as the supervisor strode off to call the next couple.

Beetlejuice turned back to her, instantly concerned. "Lyds, are you--"

The sudden increased weight in his panicked embrace was more than enough answer. Lydia's head rolled onto his shoulder, one arm swinging limply over his.

Beetlejuice shouted after the supervisor, sinking to his knees in order to lie her down.

"Hey! I need some help here! First aid-- water-- somethin'! NOW!"

 

 

* * *

 

 

"NOW! Charles, do you hear me? I want out of here! I'll disown her. I'll--"

Charles pried her relentlessly clawing fngers away from his arm. "Delia, think a minute about who would have to approve the disowning."

"You're both crazy!"

"Delia... correct me if I'm wrong, but... didn't you marry the hired help, too?"

"You were designing Daddy's office! That was different!"

"Still, I was employed by your family."

"But... but... a handyman! And some of those trades of his, a little fishy, don't you think? And... and... he must be twice her age! Charles, really! New York was New York. This is...."

"This is Lydia. I'm not happy she was hididng him from us. But she seems happy Delia. I was having my doubts, having nothing to go on but her words. But watching them out there, well--"

"Crazy!" Delia accused wildly.

"Those people sure aren't staring at me, dear."

"You're going to let it go? Over my dead body you will!"

"Correction, Delia. Over Mr. Beetleman's. And yes, I will."

Delia folded her arms petulantly. "Why, I'll-- I'll--"

"Remember who puts all that money in our joint checking account?"

"You and your brilliant back-room blueprints," she grumbled. "Let's just go home, then. We can deal with her later."

"Oh, no," Charles said, checking his watch leisurely. "There's another brief intermission after the next couple. I'm meeting my daughter backstage."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Jacques and Anne-Hélène shoved their way past the arguing Deetzes and managed to make their way to the lobby.

"Which way to ze competit-airs?" Jacques asked, having reached the reception table before Anne.

"Down that hall, but I don't know if they'll let you in."

"Merci!"

Jacques pulled the vampiress down the hallway, but they were intercepted halfway by Vivian.

"I would let your party know you're here, but I can't admit you. We have a medical situation on our hands."

"Oh, no," Anne-Hélène murmured.

Jacques read her thoughts. "Mademoiselle, if you could tell me about zis--"

"Collapse. One of those silly thin girls. You know, some dancers--"

"Let us through," Anne hissed, her eyes fixed on Vivian's, flashing like a violet strobe.

"Yes... of course... right... that way," Vivian said blankly, pointing at a half-open door.

Jacques was too startled to ask questions. This time, Anne pulled him.

"Bientot," she reassured him, barging through the door.

"Lydia," Jacques said softly, his eyes falling on the scene on the far side of the room.

Lydia was conscious but wan, lying on a cot that had been dragged in from elsewhere. Beetlejuice stood nervously at the foot, wringing his hands. A well-dressed man was taking Lydia's pulse while a woman hovered over her head with a glass of water.

"Pressure's low, but that's probably normal for her. Her pulse is still a little agitated. Probably just some strain-- you two did cut a rug out there! Has she been sick?"

"Yes," responded Beetlejuice, Anne, and Jacques in unison.

The man who had taken her pulse was startled but he chuckled all the same. "Miss, you have visitors already."

"I know," Lydia said faintly.

"Hon, can you sit up?" asked the woman with the water.

"I think," Lydia said, and did, accepting the water.

Beetlejuice edged in behind her protectively, eyeing Jacques and Anne, who had come closer.

"How'd you two get in here?" he asked.

"A little persuasion," Anne said with a shrug, reaching for Lydia's free hand.

Lydia squeezed it back, looking at her over the rim of the glass.''

"Brava," Anne murmured. "And even that does not suffice."

"Oui," Jacques offered in congratulations, including Beetlejuice in his glance. "I am speechless!"

"We oughta do this more often. Pht!"

"BJ," Lydia sighed lowering the glass.

"Yeah, yeah. Thanks, you two."

"Welcome," Anne responded quietly. "We are simply glad that you're all--"

"Sir, Ma'am," interjected the supervisor, revisiting the scene only to find intruders. "I'm afraid I must ask you to leave."

"Right away," Jacques replied, steering Anne out by the shoulders. "We will see you two lat-air!"

Lydia leaned back against Beetlejuice, closing her eyes. "How did number twenty-five do?"

Beetlejuice sighed, kissing the top of her head. "Not too shabby, Lyds."

"That was impressive, Beej, but still," she whispered, referring to the lights. "I think we're--"

"In the top three at least," said that cool, strong voice from earlier. Wednesday had approached undetected. "I'll see you there."

Lydia took the pale hand that Wednesday offered and shook it dazedly.

"Good show," Gomez Addams' daughter murmured slyly. "We might just spare you second!"

"Second?" Beetlejuice echoed.

"Place," Wednesday clarified, fixing him with a hard, eerie glare.

"I forgot about that," Lydia mumbled. "The other place amounts... still decent."

"See, Babes? We might not leave here penniless after all."

Just then, the supervisor interrupted once more. "Miss Deetz?"

"Yes?"

"If you think you can step into the hall, there's another couple to see you. These ones claim to be your parents."

"Beej, I think I'm going to faint again..."

"Lydia?" Charles' voice echoed from the hall.

She sat up straight.

"Better not do that, Babes," Beetlejuice whispered, guiding her to her feet. "C'mon. You can do it. For Chuckie."

"Yes," Lydia said softly, "but... Beej... well--"

"Don't think this isn't the toughest thing I've ever done," he muttered. "Yeah, I'm comin' with you."

They arrived arm-in-arm with opposing demeanors. Lydia held her head high, determined to hide her diminished strength. Beetlejuice stared at his feet up to the very moment they faced a teary Charles and a red-faced Delia.

"Hiya, Pumpkin," Charles murmured, his voice breaking.

"Daddy," Lydia faltered, letting go of her escort's arm and closing the few steps between them.

Charles held her fiercely and wept even more so. "I'm proud of you, Lydia. So proud!"

"I'm sorry," Lydia choked against his shoulder. "I never meant..."

"Pumpkin," he whispered, wiping his eyes on his sleeve. "Why don't you introduce us?"

"Dad, but you know..."

"More properly," Charles said firmly, offering Beetlejuice one hand. "I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot in the past, don't you?"

"I... uh..." Beetlejuice stammered, accepting Charles' hand in disbelief.

Delia muttered something unintelligible and stalked up the hall before Lydia could offer her any momentary reconciliation. Beetlejuice regained enough presence of mind to take her hand.

"Don't mind her," Charles said. "Things are looking bleak for her favorite contestants."

"Yeah," Beetlejuice replied, his courage coming back. "And looking up for her least!"

"You can say that again," Lydia murmured, grinning, unashamed to rest her chin on Beetlejuice's shoulder.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Wish they'd hurry," Melinda sighed, fidgeting.

"The intermission's over in five minutes," Ray reassured her.

"The only thing I care about now is the awards ceremony."

"It's tight," Ray murmured.

"Yep. That girl in glittery black was something."

"Couple twenty-five, even...."

Melinda scowled. "They have to make the top three!"

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Couple number twenty-eight: Kari Fisher and Mark Evans; West Warwick, Rhode Island and Windsor, Connecticut."

"Four more," Anne-Hélène said with relish.

"I hope Lydia is all right," Jacques murmured.

"She will be. If the promise of a thousand or more won't get her on her feet, our friend will."

Jacques was amused. "Our friend?"

Anne-Hélène sighed, but only halfheartedly. "Any friend of yours, Jacques. You know how the saying goes."

This time, he kissed her on the cheek.

 

 

* * *

 

 

As couple thirty-two left the floor, Lydia stood anxiously beside Beetlejuice next to the monitor. It had been impossible to keep her off her feet for more than half an hour. Beetlejuice saw to it that she was never beyond his reach, let alone free of his touch.

"It won't be that long now, will it?" Lydia thought aloud.

"I'd give the judges a little while for last deliberations, but yeah... not long, Babes."

Lydia held him tight. "We did our best."

"Would you stop this doubting stuff? It rubs off, y'know!"

Lydia breathed a sigh of relief when no bizarre physical translation ensued.

"I'm on my toes," Beetlejuice said with a wink.

"And letting the words stand alone for once," Lydia giggled.

"You sound like your old self again!" Beetlejuice cackled, and Lydia felt the air about her shoulders substantialize and drape itself around her.

"BJ!"

"Thought you might be cold!"

With a measure of nostalgia, Lydia studied the red and black spiderweb, which now fell only to her waist.

"Okay, I'll let you get away with that one."

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Royanne Dara speaking. Thank you for supporting the third annual Ballroom Open. The judges have reached their decision. Please, all contestants on the floor for the awards ceremony."

"Charles, if my head didn't hurt so badly, I would have been home forty minutes ago," Delia seethed.

"Well, dear, there's nothing you can do now but watch."

"That's what I'm afraid of."

 

 

* * *

 

 

Beetlejuice and Lydia stood on the sidelines between their predecessors and the aftermath in perfect single file. Hardly a soul dared breathe. Lydia's stomach tied itself in knots as André made his labored way to a previously unused podium not far from the judges' table.

"May I present Mr. André Morera," Royanne announced over the sound system. The internationally acclaimed performer was met with thunderous applause.

"Please, please," André said with his usual genteel precision. "It is an honor to be here despite the accident that has prevented me from participation. I have seen many truly fine artists on this floor today, and it is my privelege to applaud them. Thank you to all who entered."

Lydia's cheeks burned as André led the auditorium in another round of applause. She wondered if Beetlejuice showed even a shred of remorse, but she was too overwhelmed to look.

"Alas, it is my privelege to reward only six of you," André continued. "Then, let us give those talented couples their due."

"Here goes," Lydia heard Beetlejuice murmur uneasily, his hand tightening around hers.

"Third place: Wednesday Addams and..."

"We're dead," Lydia breathed softly, shutting out the rest, her heart plummeting. "Didn't even make third."

Beetlejuice's fingers had gone absolutely limp. Lydia watched the darkly flashy young woman lead her partner with head held high to claim their reward.

"Second place: Rachael Argento and Nathan Bowen."

"Don't even remember 'em," Beetlejuice murmured emptily.

"Neither do I," Lydia whispered.

Couple number eighteen followed in Wednesday's footsteps.

"As you can imagine," André said with pensive finality, "our decision was not a simple one. The competition, I am told, has indeed gotten progressively fiercer, and likely will be even more so in years to come. It is in the spirit and embodiment of that hope, then, that I present first place to Lydia Deetz and Mr. B.J. Beetleman... Esquire."

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Oh... Oh, my Goddess! Princess! LYDIA DEETZ, YOU'RE AMAZING! YEAH, THAT'S RIGHT PEOPLE! THAT'S MY ROOMIE! THAT'S MY--"

"Melinda," Ray said happily, clapping a hand lightly over her mouth, finding her cheeks streaked with tears, "your voice is going ."

"I don't care! It can go to hell for all I care! My Princess won! And B.J. Beetleman, Esquire, thank you very much! Up yours, Royanne! WHOOOOOOOO YEAAAAAAAAAAH!"

Shaking his head, Ray continued his own ecstatic applause.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"I cannot believe my ears! Mon Dieu, Anne, they've done it!" Jacques cried, swinging the vampiress in as wide a circle as the row would allow.

"Yes," Anne said, laughing richly. "Une miracle, vraiment!"

Delia dodged their energetic jubilation. "What's with them? As if they knew these people...

But Charles did not hear her. His hands and voice were lost in the same praises as the foreigners:

"I knew you could do it, Pumpkin! I knew you could! Lydia, we love you! Good show, Beetleman, old sport!"

Delia sighed, picking up the applause. A grudge cannot be indefinitely maintained when in the face of victory.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Lydia propelled them forward even if half of her was convinced she hadn't really heard Morera's last statement. But her feet were, and since they had done quite a portion of the arduous work, they took off, dragging in tow a ghost so flabbergasted that he almost floated. By the time they reached the small lineup beside the podium, Beetlejuice had found his footing and Lydia had finally awakened.

"This doesn't change a thing," Wednesday murmured coldly as they passed, but she gave them a slip of a smile.

"Well done. You handled the lighting situation like true professionals," Nathan Bowen remarked.

"Thank you... thanks," Lydia said blankly, nodding to each.

She pulled Beetlejuice up beside the podium, gripping his arm tightly. André offered his hand first to the ghost.

"We, the judges, commend you," he said with a nod. Beetlejuice nodded back, still unable to speak.

"Miss Deetz," André said more sofly, leaning away from the microphone, grasping her hand, "there is no one more deserving. I do not know your battle, but you fought it bravely. Thank you."

"No," Lydia whispered, taking the envelope in her trembling fingers even though it swam in her vision, as if attempting to melt away. "Thank you. For grounding me, for a while."

"Really," Beetlejuice added, startling them both, his eyes heavy with something Lydia had never seen in him in such volume. "I don't know where she'd be if that determination of hers... hadn't had something... to hold on... to..."

Lydia rescued him with the sheild of her arms and gentle murmurs.

In front of an audience that had eventually neared five hundred, Beetlejuice wept and wept.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Are you sure you can't stay, Pumpkin?" Charles asked, the evening breeze ruffling his hair against his forehead. "I'd love to take all of you out, even if Delia's bent on being a sourpuss."

Lydia caught sight of her stepmother through the kitchen window and sighed.

"Please?" Melinda begged, knowing full well to what-- and to where-- the victors wished to escape. "Ray misses you, too. The gang hasn't been together in a while! What happened to the three--"

"Really," Lydia said softly. "We'll stay a little longer, but I'm tired.... It's overwhelming, after all."

"I'll bet," Charles responded, scratching at the arm of his barca lounger. "I hate to be trite and a tease, but what are you going to do with all that money, Pumpkin?"

Beetlejuice opened his mouth to speak, but as usual, Lydia silenced him.

"Giving a thousand to Morera and putting the rest away."

"You're too thoughtful. He probably has more money than he can keep track of!" Melinda said.

"He's not a movie star," Lydia said. "And I'm thinking of his medical bill...."

Beetlejuice looked uncomfortable.

Lydia stroked his hand. "I feel half responsible. He tripped on a shoe I dropped, after all."

Beetlejuice heaved a pained sigh and opened his mouth once more. This time, Lydia silenced him with a look, and twice as adamantly.

This is one secret I intend for us to keep, her look said.

"Yeah, well, you know my Lyds," Beetlejuice finally said weakly but proudly, slipping an arm around her. "Her heart's too big for her."

"Yes, we do," Melinda said affectionately, rising to ruin Lydia's perfect coiffure. "She's ours, too, after all."

"I'll have to learn to share, won't I, Pumpkin?" Charles asked.

"You're not the only one," she sighed, and smiled at the ghost beside her.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Yip-peeeee! Uh party! Ah jest luuuh-ve parties! Ah'm makin' up uh barbeque for every one-uh you buggers! Ah'll be back in no time, now!"

"Hold the Poopsie," Beetlejuice muttered as Ginger descended from the ceiling and snapped a party hat on his head and Lydia's.

"Way to go, you guys! I was watchin' it on the satellite at Monster's! You guys really killed 'em! With a ya-ta-da--!"

"Shoot me, Babes," Beetlejuice whispered beneath the flurry of enthusiastic airborne legs. "Shoot me now."

"Oh, no, Beetlejuice," Lydia laughed, thrusting a party horn in his mouth. "The fun's just beginning!"

"Oui, you had bet-tair believe it, mon ami! Anne et moi 'ave made you ze finest hors d'oeuvres you will ev-air 'ave!"

The vampiress, too, met them at the door, immediately folding Lydia in her amazingly strong embrace.

"Tu es belle, ma petite, si belle!" Anne whispered, running long fingers languidly through Lydia's loose hair. "Never in an eternity would I have dreamed what would become of that waif who wandered through my doors by chance. Never in two would I have imagined I would come to love her so."

"Je t'aime aussi, Anne," Lydia whispered, finding that she had not successfully banished her tears at all.

Jacques winked at her over the vampiress' shoulder. "I 'ave taught you well, non?" The skeleton turned immediately to his old and often troublesome friend. "Not so fast, Be-atlejuice. You are in for ze congratulations, too! Put 'er zere, eh?"

Beetlejuice sighed as Jacques' arm landed heavily across his shoulders. "Sure, buddy. What would I do without you embarrassing me all the time?"

"Embarrass yourself, mais of course. You do not need 'elp from anybody!"

The roadhouse had never before been host to such an amiable gathering.

 

 

* * *

 

 

"Beej, now I am beat," Lydia murmured a few hours later as the ghost closed his bedroom door quietly behind them.

"I hope no one noticed I juiced us outta there."

"Are you kidding? The Monster's gone to pack up the grill, the Monstress has Ginger tied up in knots over some new department store, and Anne's had so much champagne that Jacques can't keep her on her feet. I think he and Ginger will know when to clear everyone out."

"Though I bet ya Anne isn't goin' anywhere," Beetlejuice snickered.

"Of course not!" Lydia said primly, hitting him lightly with the flat of her shoes as she struggled out of her hose. "Jacques would never let her out past dark alone in that condition."

"Riiiight," Beetlejuice replied, catching Lydia grinning just as broadly.

Lydia put her hands on her hips, marching up to him in her bare feet.

"Okay, so I'm not that tired."

"You incorrigible faker."

"Your vocabulary still surprizes me every now and then!"

"Babes, everyone knows I'm the ghost with the most entries in the OED!"

"Sure, Beetlejuice," Lydia ragged. "But I know something that none of them do."

"Yeah?" Beetlejuice said softly, drawing her in by the waist.

"That... that... ohhhmy," she cried softly, almost a sob, falling against him, forgetting whatever jest she had intended to make.

Beetlejuice caught her in surprize. "Lyds... are you okay?"

"No," she murmured fiercely. "I still miss you."

Beetlejuice trailed her cheek until he found her lips.

"Miss you, too... Lydia."

 

 

* * *

 

 

October 31

Nightfall

 

By now, as far as secrets are concerned, I know that I can trust you. You are everywhere, and for that fact, I have given up hiding things for good. Mostly, anyway. Delia still doesn't want to know any details concerning my relationship, and that's fine with me. Not that I offered any.

Ray doesn't know the story in its entirety, either, but what he doesn't know won't hurt him. Melinda keeps saying that, one of these days, she'll tell him where she slips off to on the occasional excursion with Beetlejuice and me. Until then, he's as blissfully ignorant as he was earlier when we took Melinda out to dinner for her birthday.

She turned pink when the servers bore out a cake just large enough for four.

"Princess, you shouldn't have done this."

"She shouldn't have taken all the credit, either," Beetlejuice quipped.

"At least I didn't ask them to sing!"

"Yeah, Mellie," Ray teased, lighting the candles. "Then I would have asked you what key it was in, and then at your failure to respond they would all have known you're tone deaf."

"Ha ha," Melinda muttered. "Not even you can do that."

"Darn right, I'm no music major."

Beetlejuice, who had been quietly buffing his fingernails, interjected right on cue. "Never told you I went to Ghouliard, did I?"

Melinda had a minor laughing fit when he drew a black and white striped violin from under the table cloth.

"You're kidding, BJ! You play? By the way, niiiiice paint job there."

"Thanks," Beetlejuice said, bowing ridiculously. "Lyds got it for me... oh, way back in the day--"

I slapped him on the arm good-naturedly.

"Uh, anyhoo, that's my cue to play!"

Needless to say, he performed "Happy Birthday" with flying colors, even if in tritones. A moment that I will never forget passed shortly after.

Just before blowning the candles out, Melinda murmured, "Lydia. Look at me."

"Wh-What?"

Melinda took my hand, squeezing it briefly.

"I'm... glad you're here."

I swallowed, knowing full well what she meant. "Well... I wouldn't miss it! Happy Birthday, Melinda. You're... an old soul."

Melinda winked, blowing the candles out in one puff.

"Takes one to know one, Princess."

I have no reason to believe that Melinda knows what I know, but I do know that she feels some transcendence of time, some bond from which she and I will never be free. I do not consider us captive. I consider us lucky.

"Lyds," Beetlejuice murmurs, tucking my hair behind my ears so that it ceases to blow into my eyes. "Are you almost done there? You're gonna miss the sunset."

"Almost," I breathe, bringing my pen briefly to my lips in poignant reflection.

Yes, this place has known many wonders after sunset. Many that I do not know, and countless more that I never will. I acknowledged that long ago, one far-off evening when I came here alone with a heart full almost to flooding....

"Lydia," Beetlejuice says gently, kissing my cheek, "you're gonna miss it. You promised."

"Yes," I say, looking up, kissing him lightly back. "I did."

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

 

~Afterword~

 

 

By the time Lydia had seen off her bizarre new acquaintance, it was three in the morning.

"Nothin' like the witching hour, Babes," he had said with a grin, and vanished upon her third repetition of his absurd-sounding name.

Try as Lydia might, she could not sleep. She tossed and turned for a while, her eyes wandering again and again to the dark silhouette of her mother's oil lamp.

Part of her was vaguely disappointed. Why hadn't her summons worked the way it was supposed to? Was her mother hiding? Watching? In a place that gave her no freedom to roam, even in answer to her daughter's plea?

Lydia sighed and finally closed her eyes. She was not devastated, at least. Wherever her mother was, she was sure there had to be a reason for her silence. Besides, how could she be disconsolate when she had made a friend like Beetlejuice?

Her thoughts turned over the dozens of peculiar wonders he had shown her without even leaving the confines of her room. Lydia had asked him promptly to repeat the stunts he had pulled with the Ouija board. She laughed in delight as the letters rearranged themselves, shrieked as the ghost once more possessed the planchette and endowed it with glassy, crooked-toothed jaws. And the fun did not end there: Lydia at last fulfilled her childhood-long dream for the first of what would be countless times-- to fly.

Drowsy on enchantments learned and secrets that murmured to be kept, Lydia Deetz found sleep at last, completely unaware that she was still watched with equal wonder from beyond the shining darkness.

 

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