Ghost of a Chance by Laura Peyton Roberts

 

Chapter One

The thing about Chloe is, you never know what she’ll do. She’s crazy. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. It’s just that she’s totally unpredictable. Take the Junior Prom, for instance—she wore a tuxedo. Not that weird, you say? It was her date’s tuxedo. And she actually convinced him to wear her prom dress. And this is Josh Stone we’re talking about, King of the Jocks, not some poor little freshman so in awe of her he couldn’t say no. Why did she do it? She said that shade of pink was perfect with his skin. If you knew Chloe, you’d know that is so typical.

So that Monday on the lunch lawn, when Chloe told me her new house was haunted, I pretty much took it in stride. I mean, things that sound outrageous when someone else says them sound like everyday stuff coming from Chloe.

“Yeah, right,” I said, peeling my orange. “I’ll bet it’s Elvis.”

“Don’t be silly,” she giggled. “Elvis is dead.”

You see what I’m up against. If she wasn’t my best friend, sometimes I think I would just write her off.

“I thought that was kind of a prerequisite,” I said.

“His name is James,” Chloe told me, ignoring my sarcasm, as usual.

“Oh yeah. James Dean. That was going to be my second guess.”

She laughed. “You never believe me, Melissa, but I always turn out to be right. When are you going to learn?”

I didn’t say anything back to that, because basically I couldn’t. Unfortunately it’s pretty true. The thing is, though, her stories are always so totally unbelievable. Take the story in question, for example.

I sighed. “So what makes you think you have a ghost in your house?”

“Well, I can see him for one thing. And he talks to me. He’s a really interesting guy—cute too. I know you’re going to love him.”

“No doubt,” I said, completely unconvinced. “And how do your parents like . . . what’s his name again? James?”

“They can’t see him,” Chloe answered, pulling another speck of pickle out of her tuna salad sandwich and adding it to the growing pile of condiments on the pink paper napkin in front of her.

“Of course not,” I said, sarcasm flowing once again. “That’s so convenient.”

“Yes, it really is,” Chloe agreed, missing my point completely. “Can you imagine my mom dealing with a ghost in her new dream house? Or my dad either for that matter—he’s still in shock over the payments. It’s a lot better this way. Everybody’s happy.”

That, of course, was the understatement of all time. If the average family is happy, then Chloe’s is delirious. Her mom and dad are as in love as when they met twenty years ago. It’s a crazy story, but then it involves Chloe.

You see, her dad is British, but he got sent to Japan to shoot some photos for the magazine he was working at—he’s a photographer. He met Chloe’s mom on a bus and it was love at first sight. They got married a week later and eventually moved to California.

The rest, as they say, is history. Chloe and her older brother Chaz were both born in California—half Japanese, half English, and 100 percent American. Chloe of course gets no end of enjoyment out of watching people try to figure out how a girl who looks like she does could be named Chloe Hart. If they’re unfortunate enough to ask, she always tells them she’s Norwegian. That shuts them up every time.

“And Chaz? Can Chaz see him?” I asked at last.

“Not yet. James and I are still trying to decide if that’s a good idea. You’re the first person I’ve told.” Chloe glanced quickly over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening. “I would have told you sooner,” she added apologetically, “but I only found out a week ago and I’m still getting used to the whole idea myself.”

“No problem,” I said. At that point, of course, I had no idea exactly how big a problem it was going to turn out to be.

Chloe gathered up the napkin containing the spurned pickle specks, stuffed it back into her brown paper bag, and looked around at the other students lounging on the lunch lawn with satisfaction. “Thank God it’s the last week of school,” she announced. “I don’t know how much more of this I could take.” She stretched her bare legs out more comfortably on the grass and turned her face up into the sunlight.

“How much more of what?” I asked.

“You know. School.”

“Oh, right. It must be awful. Josh Stone practically on his knees asking you out every day, everyone else trying to get you to go out for cheerleader next year or at least class president, all of your teachers telling the whole class how much they’re going to miss you, cute guys practically lining up to sign your yearbook—I can see why you have to get out.” Of course I was exaggerating, but not much. Everyone loves Chloe.

“Oh, Melissa,” she giggled. “You know that’s not true.” But she look pleased just the same. “Anyway, you’re just as popular as I am.”

I snorted so hard that Diet Coke almost came out my nose. “Please!” I said. “No one is as popular as you are.”

She opened her eyes just long enough to favor me with that very trying expression she has when she thinks she knows more than you do.

The thing is, I know I’m popular. I’m also pretty good looking—in the exact opposite way of Chloe. A lot of girls could probably do more with blond hair, blue eyes, and a figure like mine—heck, I could probably do more with them—but I just don’t care that much most of the time. I go through stages.

“So what are we going to do after school?” I asked finally.

“I thought you wanted to come over and meet James,” Chloe said, as if it were all settled.

“James. Right. How could I forget?”

“Meet me in the parking lot after sixth period, then,” she said, smiling a beautiful closed-eyes smile.

* * *

I waited for Chloe in the student parking lot after school, and by the time she showed up at her canary yellow Karmann Ghia, I was prepared to really enjoy my afternoon. There was no doubt in my mind that I was not going to see a ghost, but, if we were very quiet and very lucky, we still might sight the elusive Chaz—Chloe’s older and oh-so-gorgeous brother. Not that I would tell Chloe for a minute what I was thinking. She had only scorn for all the girls her age who chased Chaz year after year with zero success. And now that Chaz was in college, my interest in him was even more futile. But hey, a girl can dream can’t she?

“I know what you’re thinking,” Chloe announced as she dumped her books into the backseat through the hole that used to be her rear window. In true Chloe style, she had cut the old vinyl window out of the rag top shortly after she got the car, reasoning that windows in a convertible were pointless anyway.

“You do?” I asked, feeling a little sick to my stomach.

“Sure. You’re nervous about meeting James. I mean, what do you say to a dead guy, right?” She giggled at her own joke as we got into the car and I fumbled around for the seat belt—something you definitely don’t want to be without when Chloe’s driving.

“Right,” I said, immensely relieved that she didn’t know me quite as well as she thought she did. “I’ve been thinking about my opening question. I mean, it would probably be kind of rude to ask him how he died, us just having met and all, so I’m thinking of asking him if he knows Marilyn Monroe.”

“Oh, Melissa,” Chloe giggled again. “You’re going to love him. You’ll see.”

I knew she was pulling my leg, but I figured the game would be over soon enough when we got to her house and “James” failed to appear. And anyway, it was pretty good entertainment.

We drove through the downtown streets by school and out to the coast, where we cruised along the white stretch of beach for as long as we could before we had to make the turn toward the foothills and Chloe’s house. The day was glorious—does that sound too stupid? Well, you know what I mean. Absolutely beautiful. It was practically summer and you could smell it. A hot ocean breeze funneled through the open car, blowing our loose, flowered dresses over our knees and sending our hair streaming out behind us like the banners of two different countries. Cute guys on the boardwalk even stopped to whistle at us as we went by.

Way too soon, we were at Chloe’s house. I still couldn’t believe that she was actually living in the old Harding mansion. It’s practically the biggest house in town and very pretty, in a 1920s, Hollywood-Spanish, white-stucco-and-pink-bougainvillea kind of way. Mr. and Mrs. Hart have loved it for years. They even talked to old Mrs. Harding about buying it a few times, but she didn’t want to sell and Chloe said they couldn’t afford to pay her what it was worth anyway. No one could believe it when Mrs. Harding died and her will said that the house should be sold to the Harts for half its value (which was still a lot, by the way) and the money donated to charity. Nobody challenged it, though.

“This doesn’t look like a haunted house to me,” I observed as we pulled off the big, circular gravel driveway into the little shaded alcove that Chloe calls her carport. Everything about the house and yard was immaculate, and new white lace curtains billowed in the breeze at every second-story window. The flowers were blooming everywhere, including halfway up the walls on the sides of the house, and enormous clumps of white and purple wisteria hung down from trellises over all the doors. As we got out of the car, I could hear someone splashing in the huge rectangular swimming pool in the backyard, and I swear my heart missed a beat—could it be Chaz? And there was something else.

“Do I smell cookies?” I asked hopefully.

Chloe laughed, knowing my weakness for a good chocolate chip cookie. “Probably. My mom’s gone all domestic on us now that she has her dream house.”

“Well, I’ve got to tell you, Chloe,” I said, heading up the walkway. “I don’t know about you, but I’m terrified.”

As soon as we got in the front door, Mrs. Hart called out in that truly unique Japanese-British-Californian accent of hers, “Is that you, Chloe? Come into the kitchen—I made some cookies.”

Yes!” we whispered, high-fiving as we started toward the back of the house.

The kitchen in the Harding mansion is really incredible. It’s as big as most people’s living rooms for one thing. I guess it was originally built for servants or something, which is why it’s kind of tucked away at the back of the house, but somewhere along the line it got remodeled and most of the back wall was blown out and replaced with glass. Big plate glass windows look out over the back patio and swimming pool, and big plate glass windows were giving me one of the best views of Chaz Hart I’d had in a long time. And talk about something to see! Chaz Hart is probably about the most heart-stopping handsome guy anywhere. I watched with longing as he toweled off his tall, muscular body, his short brown hair still dripping from his swim.

“Cookie, Lissa?” Chloe asked, reminding me that I was not at leisure to stare too obviously.

“Thanks,” I said, joining her at a counter bar stool and taking the big, gooey cookie she was offering. I probably didn’t need the calories, but hey—you’d have done the same thing if you’d seen it.

“How was school?” asked Mrs. Hart. Mrs. Hart is really nice and everything, but I mean it—can’t adults ever think of anything else to ask us?

“Fine,” we both said together, our mouths full of cookie.

“Did anything interesting happen?” she pressed.

“Well,” I said. “Chloe can’t decide if she should be head cheerleader or class president next year. The entire junior class has promised to vote for her either way.”

Mrs. Hart looked thrilled. “Really?”

“No,” Chloe said, kicking me gently but meaningfully on my bare shin. “Melissa is just fooling around.”

“Oh,” said poor Mrs. Hart, looking totally confused and disappointed. “I guess I knew that.”

* * *

“That was mean,” Chloe told me as we headed up the stairs to her room. “You know my mom takes everything seriously. You shouldn’t play with her like that.”

“I forgot,” I said, feeling a little guilty. If you’d seen how crushed Mrs. Hart looked, you’d know what I mean.

“She’ll get over it. Just don’t tease her anymore.”

“I won’t,” I promised as I followed Chloe into her room. I really had the best intentions at the time.

“Whoa, Clo!” I said as soon as I got a good look around. “Been doing a little redecorating?”

“My mom did it for me,” she answered, indicating the entire room with a sweep of her right arm. “What do you think?”

“Wow.”

“That’s what I think too,” she said, pleased as could be.

Mrs. Hart had really gone all out. It seemed like the whole room was white lace. White lace curtains, white lace canopy bed, overstuffed white chairs with white lace ruffles around the bottom, white lace valance over an antique white vanity—you get the idea.

“Wow,” I said again. It was unbelievable. It was all so romantic and . . . well . . . feminine, I guess. It looked like a girl’s room. More than that, it looked like Chloe’s room.

“I knew you’d like it,” she said, flopping onto the bed.

And I really did, but somehow it made me feel lousy at the same time.

“It’s beautiful,” I assured her.

But the monster was out of the closet and I knew I was going to be depressed for the rest of the day. The thing was, I knew I’d never have a room anything like Chloe’s. Not because I didn’t want one, and not because my parents couldn’t afford it, but because they’d never think of it in a million years and I’d rather die than ask them. You see, they insist on thinking of me—when they think of me at all—as the intelligent, no-nonsense type who prefers everything to be functional and practical. I can’t begin to tell you where they got that idea, but parents have a way of forming you into what they’ve decided you are. So I’m the practical one. My room is very practical.

Unfortunately it doesn’t end with my room. My clothes are practical. My classes are practical. Everything I do is practical. Most of the time I feel like I’m in jail. Just once I’d like to be like Chloe—free-spirited, wild even, at liberty to be whatever I want one minute and something else the next. Just once I’d like to have a lacy room or a low-cut dress without everyone saying, “You, Melissa? That’s not really your style, is it?”

The rest of the afternoon was kind of a drag. James refused to show himself (big surprise there) and I was too depressed to really appreciate how ridiculous Chloe looked scolding empty air. I was sure it was all just a big show for my benefit, but I couldn’t get into it. By the time Chloe took me home, I could barely keep up the cheerful act.

You see, I haven’t told you everything yet. My parents are getting divorced.

 

Chapter Two

It’s hard to say how these things get started. God knows if just thinking about it was any help, I’d be able to tell you the exact minute of the exact day when things went wrong. But everything is so gradual. You don’t notice at first.

Sure, after a while I realized that my parents weren’t getting along that well, but you still could have knocked me over with a feather the day they made the big announcement. I mean, everybody’s parents fight, don’t they?

Of course I blamed myself, even after the psychiatrist they made me go to told me all kids do that, even though it isn’t their fault—it’s just kind of a stage. After that I got really mad at them. I mean, nobody ever asked me how I felt about anything. Why should they get to make all the decisions when it affects me, too? I guess I’m still kind of mad at them, but mostly now I’m just depressed.

The divorce is supposed to be final any day now. My dad moved out and my mom put our house up for sale just to spite him. The thing is, my dad wanted us to stay in the house, but my mom didn’t want to because she said it reminded her of him. I’m asking you—how stupid is that? Like she’ll forget him if we move into some crummy apartment.

When Chloe dropped me off after we gave up on James that afternoon, the obnoxious little toad that passes for my baby brother was all over me the second I walked in the door.

“Where have you been? I’m telling Mom.”

“Telling her what?” I asked.

“You’re late. It’s ten minutes after five.”

“Like she cares. Get a life.”

“I’m telling, I’m telling, I’m telling,” he sang.

I know he’s my little brother and I’m supposed to love him and all, but most of the time I just want to slap him silly.

“If you tell Mom that I was late, I’ll tell her you wet the bed last week.”

That shut him up in two seconds, of course. Nathan is nine and he stopped wetting the bed a long time ago, but this whole divorce thing is getting to him too. When he wet it the week before, he was so upset that I actually felt sorry for him—I washed his sheets so Mom wouldn’t find out. Not that I wouldn’t use it against him if I had to. I mean, it’s every person for herself around here lately.

“And while we’re on the subject,” I said, “you can just empty the dishwasher and set the table. Now!” Those are actually my chores, but I was on a roll. “And stop sniffling!”

“I’m going to tell Mom that you’re mean to me,” he said, but it was such a pathetic attempt to bluff that I didn’t even bother to respond.

If you want to know the truth, I was late. I’m supposed to come home by four o’clock, which is a joke. I hardly ever do it. My mom hatched that brilliant idea after Dad moved out so that Nathan and I could “spend more time together.” Give me a break. We aren’t the ones getting divorced, and if I have to spend any more time with Nathan there’s no telling what I might do. The truth is, it’s free baby-sitting and she knows it.

Of course he is kind of little to be home by himself all afternoon, but that’s my mother’s problem. Am I my brother’s keeper? Someone famous said that, but I can’t remember who.

Well, anyway, we got the table set just in time for Mom to walk in and overwhelm us with her dinner preparations—calling for a bargain pizza and opening a bag of pre-made salad. Obviously any comparison between my mother and Mrs. Hart could only depress me.

“So did you two have a nice afternoon?” Mom asked over pizza.

“Oh yeah. Great,” I said. Of course she picked up on my tone right away. My mom can be a real pain in the butt, but she isn’t stupid.

“You know, Melissa,” she said. “I wish you would try to have a better attitude about this. I think it’s important for you and Nathan to spend this time together to strengthen your relationship.”

“Mom! He’s nine and I’m sixteen. We don’t have a relationship. And you’re going out of your way to make sure I don’t have one with anyone else either. By the way, have you heard from Dad lately? How is he?”

That shut her right up, of course. I can be a real pain in the butt too, but I’m not stupid either.

* * *

The next day, after school, Chloe wouldn’t give it a rest. All the way out to the parking lot and from there all the way into Sunflowers—our favorite store—she talked nonstop about James and his failure to show up the day before.

“I could just kill James!” she said. “That is if he wasn’t already dead.” She giggled at her own little joke.

Have I told you how cute Chloe’s giggle is? Probably not, because it’s totally indescribable. Take it from me though, it brings guys to their knees.

“I don’t know why he had to be so sulky,” she continued. “I told him I was going to bring you over.” I could hear her every word clearly from two dressing rooms over, so I was pretty sure the rest of the store could too.

“Maybe he’s shy,” I suggested quietly, my attention far more absorbed by the summer clothes I was trying on than by Chloe’s ramblings about James. I came out of my little booth and opened the door to Chloe’s. “Do these shorts make me look fat?”

“Fat?! No. Get a grip, Lissa—you’re built like a model.”

“A model. Right.” But I have to admit I liked hearing her say so. “I guess I might as well get them, then.”

We were standing at the cash register when she brought it up again. “Why don’t you come home with me? I really want you to meet him.”

I pointed to the clock over the register. It was already four o’clock.

“Just for a few minutes!” Chloe insisted. “I’m sure he’ll come out today!”

“Chloe,” I said, losing patience, “I’ve got to tell you that this whole James thing is getting a little old. I’m not going to keep on pretending I believe you when I don’t. I mean, come on. A ghost? I don’t think so. Why don’t you admit it’s a joke and let’s move on?”

She just looked at me with those big brown eyes. “Please?” she begged. “It’s really important.” Then she smiled.

It’s pathetic the way she can get me to do whatever she wants.

“Okay. But just for a minute! If he doesn’t come out the second you call him, I’m out of there.”

Chloe drove so fast all the way to her house that I started wishing I hadn’t been quite so firm with my time limits. I mean, after all, what’s the point of being on time if you’re dead when you get there? When Chloe finally nosed into her carport, I can tell you I was plenty happy just to still be breathing.

You’ve probably guessed that I was hoping to see Chaz again, but no such luck. We didn’t even see Mrs. Hart—we rushed straight up to Chloe’s room.

“I know you think I’m crazy,” Chloe said, “but now you’re going to see.” She called up toward the ceiling somewhere, “James. James, come out and meet Melissa.”

Of course nothing happened.

“James!” she tried again. “I mean it. If you don’t come out today I’m going to be really mad. You’re making me look stupid!”

She smiled at me apologetically.

“I mean it, James!” she yelled into the air.

After five more minutes, she had to admit defeat. She threw herself down on the lace canopy bed in a huff. “I don’t know what his problem is,” she complained. “He promised he’d come out today and meet you.”

“Chloe—”

“No! Don’t even say it!” she cut in. “I know you don’t believe me, but I swear I’m telling the truth. I’m not making this up, Melissa.”

I started to say something smart, but as soon as I opened my mouth, the look on her face stopped me cold. I knew that look. I didn’t see it very often, but I knew it just the same. It was unbelievable. She was serious.

“You’re serious,” I said.

“Yes!”

“You swear.”

“Yes!”

And I’ve got to tell you that now I was really worried. I mean, I’ve always known Chloe is crazy, but I never actually thought she was crazy. Lucky for me, Mrs. Hart saved me from having to say anything else just then.

“Chloe? Is that you?” she called from downstairs. “Come down here a minute, please.”

“Be right back,” Chloe said, heading for her door.

“Hurry. I’ve got to get home pronto.”

“I will,” she promised as she ran down the hall.

I didn’t know what to think. I mean, what are you supposed to do in cases like this? Chloe is my best friend and I didn’t want to have to tell her parents she was losing it, but on the other hand, she was. It was pretty clear she needed professional help, but how could I help her get it without making her hate me? I’m telling you it was a dilemma—and meanwhile I was getting more and more nervous because now I was really late getting home, too.

My soul-searching was interrupted suddenly by a big splash in the backyard. Rushing to the French doors, I craned my neck to try to see over Chloe’s balcony and down to the pool.

“Do you find Chaz interesting?” asked a voice at my ear. And I mean right at my ear—more like inside my head.

“Whoa!” I said, spinning around as fast as I could. Some guy I’d never seen before had walked into Chloe’s room and come up right behind me. I never even heard a whisper. And what a guy. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone so cute. Even Chaz dimmed in comparison. I figured he must be about 18, and he had the most piercing blue eyes I’ve ever seen. The straight black hair that framed his face made his eyes that much more startling—hypnotic even.

“You scared the stuff out of me!” I complained.

“Sorry.” He smiled and looked out through the glass doors in the general direction of the pool. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“No, I don’t find Chaz interesting,” I lied. “I was just trying to see who was in the pool.”

“I see.” He opened the French doors and stepped out onto the balcony. “Why not come out here, then? The view of the pool is much clearer.”

I swear he was laughing at me too, but out I went, right behind him. He must be a friend of Chaz’s, I thought. And, at the risk of repeating myself, he was cute. So cute. I tried to pull myself together enough to flirt with him.

“So,” I said. “Who are you? I’ve never seen you around here before.”

“You don’t know, Melissa?” he said. “I’m disappointed. Chloe told me you were smart.”

“You’re a friend of Chloe’s?”

“Of course.” And this time he laughed out loud. “You really don’t know who I am, do you?”

I shook my head.

“Then let me give you a hint,” he said, leaning in real close in a way that gave me some serious goose bumps. “I’m James.”

And then, I swear, he disappeared into thin air.

I must have lost a few minutes in there somewhere, because the next thing I remember is Chloe coming out onto the balcony with this big old smile on her face.

“What’s the matter, Melissa?” she asked. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”

 

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