The Ghosts of Bird Island Find a Family
A Kindred Spirit Mailbox Book—2nd in Series
Piper pushed the hair out of her eyes with one hand while she juggled her purse and briefcase on her opposite shoulder. She managed to keep her hand wrapped around Kevin’s wrist, both as a sign of solidarity and to set the pace. The December wind was blowing something fierce as she tried to hurry Kevin along. Her day had not needed this interruption.
“This is the third time I’ve had to come get you and take you out of school. What were you thinking, egging those guys on . . . forcing things to come to blows with James again? If it happens one more time, they’re not going to let you come back. You know that don’t you? You’ll have to go to a different school. And let me tell you, our mornings are hectic enough. Can you imagine if we had to add a half hour commute to the other side of the county?”
“I’m sorry Piper, but he started it. I am not a snot-nosed wimpy nerd! His breath smells bad and when he leans in close I—don’t—like—it. So I pushed him away, that’s all I did.”
“The teacher says that James landed on his back, on the gym floor, and that James says he saw white dots when he opened his eyes and tried to focus.”
Kevin couldn’t hide the sideways smirk of pride, or the snigger.
“That doesn’t sound like you just pushed him away.”
“Okay, so Connor didn’t like what he said either.”
“Oh. So this was all his fault?”
Kevin tilted his head and let his eyes roll up. He knew what he was supposed to say to end this so he gave it his best shot: “No. I guess it’s mine. And James’s. We need to get along better. We need to stop insulting each other and make friends.”
“Yes, that’s better. And that’s exactly what you two need to focus on . . . getting along. I’ll speak to Connor. He needs to stay out of these things.”
“He’s my best friend.”
“Yes, I know he is,” she said as she opened his door and then shoved all her stuff along with his into the back seat. “But he’s doing you no favors by constantly getting you into trouble. He trips someone and you get punished. He runs someone into a wall and you get punished. He pushes someone down and you get punished. Are you seeing a pattern here?”
She ran around the car, ducking her head to the wind, fought to open her door, and slid behind the wheel. And shivered from the contact with the cold leather seat. She hated winter. As far as she was concerned, except for Christmas Day, it had no redeeming value. She should have moved to sunny Florida when she’d had the chance at the end of the summer. She’d had to leave her rundown apartment anyway. With her degree and experience, she could go anywhere—but she loved her job with Brunswick County Social Services.
“He’s only trying to help.”
“Well he’s not helping, not at all. And as soon as we get home, I’m going to tell him so.”
“You can tell him now, you know. He’s right here.”
“Yeah well . . . I want to talk to him without you being around. I have things I need to say to him, things you don’t need to hear.”
“Hey, that’s not fair. He’s my friend. And you better be nice!”
“Kevin, really. When have you known me not to be nice?”
“You weren’t very nice to that teacher.”
“She said you were the worst kind of troublemaker.”
“Isn’t that what you’ve been sayin’?”
She reached over and chucked his chin, “Nah, I’ve been saying you’re the best kind of troublemaker. But you’re reforming. As of right now, got it? Because I am not getting up a minute earlier so I can get you to a new school. So if you still have aspirations of being governor one day, you’d better, as my dad used to say, ‘Straighten up and fly right.’ Now put your seat belt on. You know I’m not pulling away until you do.”
Kevin located both ends and with clumsy cold hands clicked the belt around him, muttering about Connor never having to wear one because he was already dead.
Piper bit her lip and tried not to laugh.
Piper sat at the kitchen counter, her bare feet wrapped around the rungs of a barstool as she took apart Oreos and dipped them into a glass of milk. To anyone who chanced to look through a window, it appeared as if she were talking to her oven.
Connor, knowing this lecture was going to take a while, was attempting to save energy. It took a fair amount of power to stay visible and he’d already used a surplus today, so he had parked himself against a counter, folded his arms over his chest and faded to a pale, wispy shadow.
“Connor, you can’t keep fighting Kevin’s battles for him. If someone calls him a name and he doesn’t like it, he has to handle that himself. You can’t keep defending him. He has to learn how to deal with conflict on his own. It’s part of growing up. And you, you should understand that more than most, what it’s like to be pushed down, beaten, humiliated, and treated as if you don’t matter.
“What your father did to you and the others was wrong—terribly, terribly wrong. And poor Calvin, your brother ended up getting caught up in it and continued that horrible legacy of abusing his own children to this very day. I’m so glad you and your siblings finally got someone to listen so it could all end. And I’m very proud of my part in that.
“But you don’t overpower a bully by using his tactics. Let’s not get Kevin all wrapped up in this fighting-for-turf business. When you hit someone for him, he gets the blame. Sure, maybe he gets some respect when you knock them down; and maybe everyone thinks he put someone in their place—rightfully. But he didn’t do it. You did. And that’s got to stop. He doesn’t need a guardian angel, or in this case, a guardian devil. He just needs a friend. Someone he can talk to, confide in, count on . . . but not as a bodyguard. I can see where this is heading, and the last thing I need is for him to turn into a bully—or to be perceived as one.
“Now, I don’t want to have to have this conversation again. Next time I hear you’ve championed him by putting those goons in their place, I’m going to have to punish you.” She regretted those words the moment she said them. Just how the heck did one punish a ghost?
Then it came to her. Almost overnight, Kevin had indoctrinated Connor into the world of video games, and they often played against each other well past Kevin’s bedtime. “No video games, no Electroplankton, no Blue’s Clues—for a week. I’m serious Connor. You can go to school with him if you like, but no more interfering. Oh, and don’t think I don’t know about the assists you’ve given him in the gym. He needs to make his own foul shots, or not make them at all. He needs to find and hone his own talents, not be some kind of superstar. Although, I must admit, if we were going to go that way, golf would make more sense than basketball. But we’re not going to do anything like that. No more cheating, because that’s exactly what it is. You’re not going to do that anymore, right?”
“Yes, ma’am. I jus’ want tid ta help.”
Piper watched as Connor shifted from a scruffy boy out of a Dicken’s novel to a barely-there white wisp, to a shimmering gray fog. He didn’t have enough power yet to remain in form for long so he often faded in and out. Sometimes Piper wasn’t sure whether he’d left the room or not and had to strain to hear if Kevin was talking to him. He always knew where Connor was; it was as if they were in tune with each other. It had been that way from the very first day.
“I know you only wanted to help. I appreciate it. And I know Kevin does, too. You’ve been the one he turns to ever since his mama died. You’ve always been there for him when he needed you. But in the long run, this will be the best thing for him. We want Kevin to grow up with confidence in himself. We want him to be independent. And we want him to know that you have to work for what you get, that no one hands you things unless you earn them. And in case you don’t know this, no one really appreciates anything they get for free anyway. What you earn and how you do it defines who you are. Kevin is a special boy; he’s going to grow up to be a special man. We have to help him by letting him do the work himself. You know he wants to be the governor of North Carolina someday and he can achieve that dream on his own if we’re all supportive and loving. He doesn’t need anyone to hand it to him. That kind of power—power without sacrifice and hard work—would just make the job tedious and undeserved. We all need to be challenged Connor, even you—even your siblings. Now go see if you can round everybody up so we can all get ready for dinner. I’m starving, even if you’re not.”
She looked up in time to see Drew come through the front door. “Drew’s here. Maybe we can get him to help set the table. Then if he’s not too tired, he might want to try his hand at beating you and Kevin at Wii.”
“That would be swell!” Connor said as he faded into a smoky gray mist one last time before disappearing altogether as a wispy white trail going through the wall.
Drew bent to kiss Piper on the neck then smiled, “You and Connor just had a little tete-a-tete about Kevin’s shoving problem today?”
Piper was stirring beef stew in the Crockpot. “Yes, I think we have things sorted out, at least for now.”
“Good, you didn’t sound very happy when you called me to tell me you were on the way to get Kevin out of school again.”
“Honestly, Drew,” she said as she turned in his arms and let him hug her tight to his chest, “sometimes I wonder if I’m cut out for this instant snails and puppy dog tails version of motherhood. I should have taken a course, read a few books, watched Donna Reed on Netflix. I don’t have a clue if I’m doing this gig right.”
He stroked a tendril of hair away from her face, then tucked it behind her ear. “You’re doing just fine. This is the way it’s supposed to be. Boy gets in trouble. Parent goes to school. Lectures ensue, then the dreaded Machiavelli punishment is foisted.”
“I didn’t punish him,” she said sheepishly. “I just couldn’t. He was already so sad.”
“He was playing you, and you fell for it. You should always mete out something. If for no other reason than you have a few chores that need doin’ that you could use some help with. You squandered an opportunity. I’m very disappointed in you,” he said, struggling to keep a straight face.
She shrugged. “I do actually have a chore I could use some help with. I’m behind on my Christmas baking.”
“Honey, that’s not punishment. Kids live to do those kinds of things. Punishment is cleaning bathrooms, scrubbing floors, doing laundry.”
“I don’t want to punish him by making him do all my work. That’s not fair.”
“Then take something away. He likes video games, Wii, baseball, basketball . . .”
“Those are his special times with you, I would never want to limit that.”
“Then get him to do something for the community. Have him help out at church. He can visit some people at Autumn Care, or pick up trash along the road.”
“Or he can help you sell Christmas trees for the United Methodists Men’s Group?”
“Hmmm . . . am I being punished too?”
“You said you’d like to do more for the church . . . and they could use a few more volunteers.”
“And you think him tagging along with me will be punishment. Gotcha. Thanks.”
“I don’t mean it like that. If you’re there, he can get the experience, learn what goes on so maybe when he’s older he can help out. But he won’t just go, not unless he’s forced. So you’re right, applied as a punishment, he’ll have no choice.”
“Why do I get the feeling that I’ve just been bamboozled into something?” he said as he leaned down to kiss her on the nose.
She smiled back up at him. “Well, just a little. Do you think you can find the time to do it for a few hours, for one or two days?”
“Sure. Meanwhile, let’s eat. After dinner I have to cover a shift for one of the deputies who’s attending a funeral. Can I help you get things to the table?”
“Why don’t you carry this pot to the table, just put it in the center. I’ll get the rolls from the oven and call the kids.”
“Deal,” he said as he reached behind her to unplug the Crockpot and wind the cord. “This looks really good. Tell Connor not to stuff himself as he usually does.”
Piper laughed at his joke. Connor and his seven siblings were all ghosts. They had no need for food. Sometimes they played at eating, but they didn’t really need to eat anything. But all of the cemetery kids loved being included at the family dinners. And Piper loved seeing their half-in, half-out faces as they laughed and caught everyone up on their days spent in the cemetery and the woods beyond.
So, no Wii with Drew tonight, she thought. Instead, maybe tonight could be the beginning of building what was surely destined to be the oddest gingerbread house in history.
Because of the approaching holiday, Piper had begun a gradual move back to her own bedroom. They needed a place for the Christmas tree. From the moment she’d first toured the house before moving in, she’d visualized a Christmas tree in the sunny Carolina room with her beautiful hand-painted angel from Italy perched on top, facing the graveyard.
Weeks after Kevin’s mom had died, Piper’s former bedroom was still the way it had been the day Sarah passed. The bed linens had been stripped but her personal belongings hadn’t been touched . . . until the day Piper saw Kevin integrating some of his mom’s personal belongings into his own room.
First to be moved was Sarah’s old Bible, then her warming pad. Then the linseed pillow Kevin had used his allowance to buy found its way down the hall. Sarah’s fragrance was imbued with it and Piper often found it under Kevin’s pillow when she stripped his bed on laundry day. When Sarah’s brush and comb disappeared from the old chest and reappeared on Kevin’s, Piper figured it was safe to move back into the room she had relinquished to Sarah on the night Kevin and his mom had come to live with her—the night she’d promised to do all she could for the cancer-stricken single mother as she prepared for her journey to heaven. It was the same night Drew had bigheartedly carried Piper’s mountain of pillows and linens to the sunroom and helped her set up her temporary bedroom. They had reconnected that night, several years after meeting at a C.P.R. class that Drew had taught.
The vision Piper now had for the sunroom was of the ultimate Christmas morning room. A big tree with lots of colored lights, gaily wrapped presents with big gaudy bows, an empty Santa cookie plate, her in her fluffy bathrobe holding a steaming mug of hot cocoa—with tiny marshmallows floating on top. Her new family was gathered around the tree and they were all admiring the wondrous effects of their superior decorating skills.
It was still hard to believe, that in seven short weeks, Piper had gone from being all on her own, to having eight ghosts hanging around; a boyfriend in law enforcement, and now, a nine-year-old son she was in the process of adopting . . . all eagerly awaiting this joyful Christmas morning she was alternately planning and dreading.
Dreading? Okay, maybe that was too strong a word. But really, what was she going to do when her mom and her new step-dad got off the plane from Italy and landed on her doorstep for their annual Christmas reunion? How was she going to introduce Kevin, her newly adopted son, and Connor, his best bud, the not-so-friendly ghost? Not to mention all his quirky siblings. And then there was Drew, sweet lovable Drew—the hunky man in her life who literally ran rings around every boyfriend she’d ever had.
The literal part was because he was a marathon runner. He ran lap after lap around the track field at the high school every morning or evening as his schedule allowed. But he also did so much more. He was trained as an E.M.T., worked as a sheriff’s deputy, and then often stepped in to help nearly every soul in the county who asked for it. So what exactly was the problem?
Only the fact that his mother had stolen her mother’s boyfriend back when they’d been roommates in college, over thirty years ago. Supposedly, it was a well-known fact at the time that her mother had never gotten over it. Piper knew, with every fiber in her being, that as soon as her mother realized who Drew was, she’d see him as the son she’d never had—with the man she’d always loved, even long after she’d married Piper’s father.
Oh yes, Christmas this year was going to be just ducky. But she was still going to knock herself out to assure that Kevin and the cemetery kids had the most joyous holiday ever. It would be a lovely holiday, even if it was going to be pretty dicey when her parents sat down with his parents for Christmas dinner—at the triple-long dining room table . . . in the lavish house on the point . . . in the immense house that Drew’s family owned that boasted 8,500 square-feet of comfort. It also featured side-by-side tennis and pickleball courts, an indoor gym and bowling alley, and lap and infinity pools overlooking both the Shallotte River and the Intracoastal Waterway.
Okay, no way was this going to turn out all right. And the fact that Drew had not known anything about this eerie connection she had to him until yesterday, well . . . that was all Victoria’s fault.
Not quite the youngest ghost, but certainly the most precocious, she’d been talking to a friend of Drew’s deceased grandmother, who was six-feet under, in the plot two up and two over from Victoria’s. Thanks Vickie, thanks for sharing, Piper mumbled, as she carried the breadbasket to the now laden table.
“What are you mumbling about?” Drew asked as he stood to pull out her chair for her. Always the gentleman. She loved that Old World charm that he wore like armor, shielding and protecting him, yet letting everyone know he was in charge. He was always unfailingly polite while taking over and assuming an assertive role; but he was still the ultimate leader of men. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. She felt cherished, cared for and protected when he was around. Everyone did.
“Just singing about Grandma getting run over by a reindeer.”
“Whose grandma?” asked Kevin.
Drew’s grandma, thought Piper. “It’s just an old Christmas song. One that shouldn’t be funny, but somehow is.”
“Will you sing it to us after dinner?” Margaret Ann asked in her sweet baby-doll voice.
“Sure, it’ll get me in the Christmas mood while we’re making cookies,” she said as she shot a quirky smile over her shoulder at Drew as he pushed in her chair.
Drew grinned. Then he took the hand she was unfolding her napkin with, lifted it while he bent forward, and kissed the back of it. He took his seat at the head of the table, Piper on his right and Kevin on his left. He waited as everyone else joined hands before saying grace.
For twenty minutes it was non-stop talk as everyone took his or her turn to speak. Victoria, Holly, and Nicholas had not earned their form back yet, so while the others sat at the table fading in and out like puffs of smoke, things floated in the air around their chairs as they literally played with their food. Shadow boxing as sepia-toned images, the other zambinos cast eerie shades on the walls. Spooky would have been the word for it, except Piper, Drew, and Kevin were so used to it, it was commonplace. Not your typical family at dinner, but a family at dinner nonetheless.
“Victoria, stop stirring the stew in the Crockpot,” Piper said as she reached over to gently slap at where she imagined the little girl’s hand to be. The wooden spoon clanked against the side of the pot as it was dropped.
“It’s chubblely,” Victoria whispered.
“What? What’s that?” Kevin asked.
“I think she means it’s chunky,” whispered Connor.
“It has chunks of meat in it, Victoria,” said Drew. “It’s really very good because Piper took the time this morning to get it started, and all day the beef has been simmering and getting tender. I wish you could taste it, it’s really delicious.” He reached over and patted Piper’s hand in a gesture of appreciation. Then faced Victoria again. “Did your mother ever make stew?”
“She made something with ‘possum, she called it Pe Pa Po,” Connor muttered. He pretend-ate, moving a spoon around his bowl, plopping a spoonful around the edge of his bowl then stirring it up again. He wanted so much to be a real boy again.
“It was awful. My Pa liked it though, musta . . . he kept bringin’ home the dagburn ‘possums.” He said it with undisguised disgust as another spoonful plopped off the side of the bowl and landed on the table.
Piper reached over and collected the spill in her napkin. Connor was upset, had been since their talk, and she wanted to bring him out of his funk. “Pe Pa Po? Why was it called that?”
“Peas, parsnips, and ‘possum. I had to gather the peas and shell them. Sometimes I had to get parsnips too. Those had to be dug up and cleaned. I hated the whole mess, it was gray and didn’t smell so good. I’m glad I’m dead when I remember eating that. At least there’s no more Pe Pa Po for me.”
“Sounds like ‘Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman,’ from the giant in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk,” Piper said.
“A giant?” asked Kathleen. Always prim, always proper, she looked wide-eyed with interest.
Elizabeth said, “There’s a Jack in our graveyard. Is that him? He does have an overlarge coffin, but I’ve never seen him. His other name is Galloway. He has a Mason sign. There’s a woman on top of him named Anne. Do you think she could be a giant too?”
Kevin interjected, “No, that’s not the giant. It’s only a fairy story, it’s not real life. I have the book so I can show you the pictures.” He patted Victoria’s hand and smiled at her. “There’s no real giant, so you don’t have to be afraid.”
Piper and Drew exchanged a look. It was nice that Kevin tolerated Victoria being sweet on him, but encouraging this kind of puppy love was not in Victoria’s best interests. She adored Kevin. Too much.
Drew stood. “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you kids go into the sunroom and let Kevin tell you the story while I help Piper with the dishes.” Within seconds the room was filled with the sound of chairs scraping on the floor. Within moments, the room was empty save for Drew and Piper.
“Ahh, alone at last!” Drew whispered in Piper’s ear as he drew her up by her elbow for a sweet, lingering kiss.
They had just finished putting away the dishes and wiping down the countertops when they were interrupted by a loud wail, much like that of a newborn in distress. Both Drew and Piper ran for the sunroom.