“That’s him,” Sophia said.
Noah glanced out the window of his truck. The front door of a suburban house had opened and a guy in a business suit was walking out.
David Torres, Sophia’s father.
He held a briefcase in one hand, a light coat folded over his arm. He was younger than Noah would have expected, maybe in his mid-thirties, but even from a distance he looked tired.
Noah drew in a breath, exhaled, and opened the truck door. As he approached Mr. Torres, all the advice that Akira had given him rolled through his mind.
Dress nicely, make sure you don’t look poor or crazy. Wear clean clothes. Shave. Check. He’d done all that at a nearby motel this morning, even ironing his button-down shirt.
Be friendly, but not too friendly.
“Excuse me.” Noah called the words from the sidewalk, smiling but not turning up the charm. “I’m sorry to bother you.”
Don’t talk too fast. You’ll be tempted to, but don’t.
Mr. Torres paused for a second, the key to the car in his hand, then kept moving. He clicked the button and Noah heard the locks sliding open. “Yes?”
“My name’s Noah Blake and I’ve got a small problem I’m hoping you can help me with,” Noah said easily, pausing at the foot of the driveway. It felt like he was sweating, perspiration prickling the back of his neck. He hoped it didn’t show.
Mr. Torres opened the back door of his Mercedes sedan and slid his briefcase inside. He obviously didn’t see Noah as a threat. That was good, if a little dumb of him. Hadn’t he ever heard of home invasions? Car-jacking? But it was a nice suburban neighborhood, upper middle class, not ritzy but classy, and it probably felt safe to its inhabitants.
“What is it?” Mr. Torres asked with a frown.
People don’t listen. You have to get their attention right away, so mention the person, but don’t say ghost unless you have to.
“It’s about your daughter.”
Sophia’s father froze. He stared at Noah, his lips tightening, lines of tension and pain appearing on his face.
Decide what you’re going to say ahead of time and don’t go off-script until you’ve gotten the hard part out.
“Let me start at the beginning, though. I was injured in Iraq when a convoy I was in hit an IED and came under fire. It was bad. I wasn’t expected to survive. Head injury, three weeks in a coma, but I made a full recovery.” Noah was talking too fast now, he could hear it. “Almost a full recovery, that is.”
Noah took a couple steps into the driveway, deliberately staying behind the car. If Mr. Torres tried to leave, he’d have to run Noah over. Noah was betting Sophia’s dad wouldn’t take that risk.
“Afterward, I heard voices,” he continued. “Head injury, right, it made me crazy. The voices are hallucinations, aural hallucinations. I’m not so crazy that I don’t know what will happen if I tell anyone about the voices, though, so I ignore them.”
Noah paused for breath. He’d lost his script a little there. The pain on Sophia’s father’s face was so deep, so real, that it was hard to keep talking.
Mr. Torres sounded like he was gritting his teeth as he said, “Thank you for your service, but I don’t see what this has to do with my daughter.”
Noah had to look away to keep going. “In December, I went for a hike in Rock Creek Park and a new voice started. A new hallucination. This hallucination, it’s persistent.”
“Hallucination,” Sophia snorted. “Just tell him I’m a ghost. You’re being a coward. What do you think he’s going to do to you? Hit you?”
Sophia’s father slammed the back door of the car shut and reached for the door handle of the driver’s door. “I’m sorry for your difficulties, but I have to leave now. You need to get out of my way.”
“Sophia wants you to know she’s sorry,” Noah blurted out. “You cried at the tree, she said, and she tried to talk to you then, to tell you that she didn’t mean to hurt you, that she didn’t want to hurt you, but you couldn’t hear her.”
Her father’s hand tightened on the handle.
“I take it you saw me there?” he said, coldly.
“I’ve never seen you before in my life,” Noah replied emphatically.
“This is some kind of con job.” Mr. Torres’s eyes narrowed. “Money? Is that what you’re looking for?”
“My dad always thinks the worst of people,” Sophia said, sounding fond of him. “It’s ‘cause he’s a lawyer. He spends too much time dealing with cheats.”
“Nope, not at all. I’m not even here for you, really.” Noah stuffed his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders. “I don’t even know you. I’m just here to try to get a hallucination — a really stubborn, persistent, ridiculous hallucination that claims to be a kid named Sophia — I’m just here to try to get that hallucination to shut up.”
“Stop calling me a hallucination,” Sophia said. “It makes you sound crazy. I want him to believe you!”
“Trust me, “ Noah muttered. “Hallucination does not sound any crazier than the g-word.”
Mr. Torres frowned at him. The anger in his eyes was turning puzzled.
“My hallucination claims that you don’t believe in an afterlife and that you think she’s gone forever and she wants you to know she’s not,” Noah went on.
“Is this some religious thing?” Sophia’s father ventured. “Are you a Jehovah’s Witness or something? Some kind of cult?”
Noah gave a wry half-grin. “Aren’t they the ones that don’t believe in medical treatment? I’d be dead if I was one of them. Some very high-end doctors and technology kept me alive to be here today.”
“I think those are Scientologists. Or maybe Christian Scientists. I’m not sure I know the difference.” Mr. Torres shook his head again, but his eyes stayed on Noah’s face.
“None of the above, anyway,” Noah said. “My hallucination says—“
“Tell him about my room,” Sophia interrupted him. “And the baby, too.”
“Seriously?” Noah said under his breath. “I don’t think that’s—“
“Just do it,” she insisted.
Noah turned his hands out and shrugged helplessly. “My hallucination wants you to know that she hates what you’ve done with her bedroom. She thinks it’s creepy.”
Her father blinked three or four times, quickly, looking indignant.
Noah shrugged again. “I haven’t seen it myself, obviously. But something about the pictures? She doesn’t want her room turned into a museum. Also, um…” He paused. If anything he said was going to have Sophia’s dad taking a swing at him, this would be it.
“Tell him,” Sophia said. “I want him to know.”
Noah swallowed. “She thinks that the baby is a really good idea but that you should have two of them, not just one. She never liked being an only child and she doesn’t want her little sister or brother to grow up alone.”
“It would be weird for them, don’t you think?” Sophia said. “To only have stories about your dead big sister? Not cool. And they won’t have my grandpa to play with, either. They’d be lonely.”
But her father reeled, almost falling against the car, catching himself with a hand on the window. “How do you—did you—is our house bugged?”
“Dude, really.” Noah shook his head. “I don’t have time for that kind of shit.”
“We were talking about another baby just last night. My wife, Marisol, she thinks we’re young enough… but I would never, could never… Sophia’s not replaceable. She…” The words came in sharp bursts, almost panted out between gasps of breath.
“You’re not replacing me,” Sophia objected. “And I don’t mind. It would be good for you. Maybe you’d have a kid who liked baseball next time.”
“She wouldn’t feel replaced. And she thinks it would nice for you to have a kid who likes baseball.” Noah was horribly afraid that Mr. Torres was going to cry. He had a flushed look, a tightness around his mouth and nose that looked as if he was fighting back the tears.
“Ah.” He brought a clenched fist to his mouth on an anguished groan.
“Okay, ah, yeah…” Noah hadn’t appreciated Sophia’s accusations of cowardice, but now he definitely wanted to run away. He looked away, muttering, “What do you think, Sophia? Are we cool?”
“Tell him no violin lessons. I hated violin.”
“Also, um, no violin lessons. She hated violin.”
“She — what?” Mr. Torres dropped his fist. “But she played beautifully. Ten years of lessons!”
Sophia chuckled. “I knew that would get him.”
Noah smiled in relief.
“All right, now tell him he has to tell my mom, too. All of it. I don’t want her thinking that I’m gone forever.”
Noah did as told. Sophia’s father nodded, his eyes wide, his expression stunned, but when Noah started back toward his truck, he called after him. “Wait, wait. Is she okay? What happens next? Is she still with us? Is she—“
Noah turned in his direction.
Never make promises. Try not to lie. But if they believe you, get out as quick as you can, because they won’t want to let you go.
“She’s moving on now,” Noah called back. “Her grandpa’s waiting for her.”
The tears overflowed, but Sophia’s father was beaming through them, so Noah slid behind the wheel with a sigh of relief.
One down, two to go. Now he had to figure out what he was going to say to Joe’s mom.
And after that, his own.