Mom and Dad picked him up from school and sat in the waiting room. Jack repeated Grandma's advice to himself. Everything happens for a reason. He still wasn't buying it. He felt a little sick to his stomach when he was called into the doctor's office. He looked at the window, but he didn't think he would be able to escape through it. He sat on the couch and watched Dr. Lawson going over notes in a thin file.
"So, Jack, how are you this afternoon?" Dr. Lawson asked when he looked up from the file.
"Fine," Jack said. The room temperature dropped. Goosebumps erupted along Jack's arms. He looked at the space above Dr. Lawson's head. A ghost waved at him.
"What can you tell me about the things you see?"
The ghost began to make silly faces. Jack had to look down at his feet to keep from laughing.
"You see ghosts, correct?"
"Demons, angels, whatever."
"Do you know why you see these things?"
"Because I'm psychic."
"Do you know what that means?"
"Um ? it means I'm psychic."
"It means that your brain isn't functioning normally. People with normal brain function don't see the things you do. These ghosts aren't real, Jack."
The ghost behind Dr. Lawson threw its hands up in the air. "Man!" it said. "I'm getting nowhere with this guy. After the hundredth time I moved his files around, you'd think he'd get the point, but no. Would you mind telling him that I'm here? Tell him that Joey wants to talk to him. He'll know who I am."
For a long time, Jack didn't say anything. He thought it was a probably a bad idea to mention Joey to Dr. Lawson.
"Jack?" Dr. Lawson asked. "What's the matter?"
"Um ... nothing. I'm fine. Who's Joey?"
Dr. Lawson's face went white.
"He says he wants to talk to you."
"Joey isn't here. Joey passed away."
"Yeah, that's why his ghost is here. He says you keep ignoring him even after he messes up all your files."
"There's no ghost here, Jack."
"Okay. But he'll keep messing up your stuff if you don't listen to him."
"Wouldn't a ghost be more likely to haunt the place where they died?"
"No. I think it depends on what they want. Maybe there was something he wanted to tell you or you wanted to tell him that didn't get said before he died."
Dr. Lawson looked around the office as if he were trying to see where Joey was.
Joey grinned. "Aw. I think you got to him, kid," he said. "Tell him I'll be back when he's done seeing patients. Thanks."
Joey vanished, and the office warmed up a little.
"He left," Jack said. "He said he'd come back when you're done."
"All right, then," Dr. Lawson said. "Let's move on."
Sessions with Dr. Lawson weren't so awkward after that. Joey never did show up again, and Dr. Lawson seemed happier somehow. Jack didn't ask what had happened between them. It wasn't his business, and it didn't change what Dr. Lawson was trying to accomplish. He still wanted to convince Jack that ghosts and demons and other supernatural entities weren't real. Every week, it was the same thing. Dr. Lawson would explain how these things couldn't exist, and Jack would just nod and pretend to understand. Dr. Lawson knew the case was hopeless, but he refused to give up. Every week, the same thought was in his head. Be normal, or they'll hurt you.
Jack had been trying to find out more about the Agency. The internet was full of misinformation and jokes. There were no less than three sites that appeared to be parodies of a real website. The Agency, if it had a website, wasn't easy to find. The more Jack tried to learn about it, the less he was able to find. It was as if they knew he was getting close to them. It freaked him out a little to think that they were watching him, but it made sense. They probably knew about his powers. They probably knew he was unwilling to be cured. They probably even knew about his plan to try to help the ghosts. If he was going to help the ghosts, he had to protect himself from the Agency.
The Agency, at least according to some of the kids at school, hunted psychics by tracking brain waves because a psychic's brain waves were different from a normal human's. Jack could act as normal as the rest of them, but he couldn't hide or change his brain waves. He spent an entire lunch period in the school library one day looking for any books or articles that might tell him how he could hide himself from the Agency. He wasn't the only paranoid person in the world. All those other paranoid people had to have some ideas on how to hide from shady, ill-intentioned government organizations.
He finally found the answer on a website called How to Hide from Big Brother, and the answer was aluminum foil. If he could cover his head with aluminum foil, the Agency and anyone else who might be spying on him, wouldn't be able to see that his brain waves weren't normal. It seemed logical that it would work the other way around, too; that he wouldn't see or hear things that weren't supposed to be there. Of course, if he had just covered his head with aluminum foil, it would have been obvious what he was trying to do, and that wouldn't have done him any good at all. He would have to be discreet about it. He would need a real hat under which he could hide the aluminum foil hat. The only problem was that he didn't have a hat.
Grandma died suddenly some six months after Jack had started seeing Dr. Lawson. Jack was devastated. It was no comfort to him that he might see her ghost one day. Ghosts weren't the same as people. Jack ended up missing a whole week of school. Quinn picked on him for being a big baby, but he didn't care. He wouldn't have been able to deal with school. He was too sad. It was nice to be able to sleep in for a while and not have kids making fun of him every day.
Jack didn't really want to go to Grandma's house that weekend. There was no point since she wouldn't be there. Mom and Dad made him go anyway, and while Mom and Aunt Yuki sat around crying over their dead mother and Dad and Uncle Ryan tried to console them and Quinn and Sterling tried to figure out what to do, Jack looked around for Grandma's ghost. He could feel her there.
When he found her, she led him up into the attic. Jack had never been allowed to go up into the attic before. He had no idea why Grandma wanted him to follow her up there. She was pointing to a locked trunk and trying to tell him where the key was, but Jack was too busy staring in wonder at all the junk. Books that had been out of print for years or banned by the time Jack was born, photo albums full of pictures of Grandma when she was a young woman, old newspapers with articles about strange happenings colored over with faded yellow highlighter, old clothes, CDs and DVDs. It was enough to keep Jack distracted for weeks.
Jack found the hat in a round box under the attic window. When he saw it, he knew it was the perfect hat to hide aluminum foil in. It was a black suede hat with a shallow crown and a wide, floppy brim. It fit his head perfectly.
"Grandma, can I have this hat?" he asked her.
"Of course," she said. "You can have anything up here you want." She cocked her head towards the locked trunk, but Jack wasn't interested in that. She sighed.
Aunt Yuki heard him when he asked Grandma for the hat. "Jack, who are you talking to up there?" she called up the attic steps.
"Um ... no one. Just myself," Jack said.
She left it at that. She would probably tell Mom, but Jack didn't care. Mom and Dad already knew Jack was strange. There wasn't much more they could do about it.
Once he had the hat, Jack needed to get the aluminum foil. That was a little harder. He could have asked Mom for some, but she would have asked him why he wanted it. If he had done that, Quinn might have discovered why Jack wanted aluminum foil and why he wanted to line his hat with it. Quinn would have made it his top priority to pick on Jack about that. Quinn's sole purpose for existing was to make Jack's life miserable, and he excelled at it.
Mom and Dad would be concerned about the implications of a request for aluminum foil to make a lining for the hat. They wouldn't talk about it in front of Jack. They would wait until they went to bed, and they would talk in hushed voices, debating whether to tell Dr. Lawson of such a development. Mom was convinced that any further incidents would make Dr. Lawson suggest trying to use medications to control Jack's abilities. She thought Jack was too young for that. Dad only wanted what was best for Jack, and what was best for Jack, as far as Dad was concerned, was for Jack to be normal.
Jack avoided the whole situation by using candy bar wrappers to line his hat. It made the hat smell like chocolate, and he had to tape it into the hat. He could have done better. It was a rush job. If it did the trick, he would fix it up later.
Jack went back to school on Monday. On Monday afternoon, he left school an hour early to go to Dr. Lawson's office on Ward Avenue, which was about three blocks from Sandusky Middle School. Not much ever happened on the short walk, but Jack was prepared. He put his hat on as he stepped out into the rain.
The foil lining seemed to be working. Jack heard nothing except the hiss of rain on the street and the music in his left ear from the archaic MP3 player he had found in Grandma's attic. The hat didn't fit his head as well with the lining in, but that was all right. As long as it kept his brain waves in, he didn't mind. The biggest downside was that bits of chocolate kept falling on his shoulders like dark dandruff. He would have to explain that to Dr. Lawson somehow, but he had more than enough time to come up with something.
Jack stopped at the convenience store and bought a soda, one with enough caffeine and sugar to keep him awake until well past midnight. He guzzled half of it before he went back out into the rain. He was sure by then that the lining was working just as he had planned and that nothing could possibly go wrong. He started to ponder ways he could go about helping the ghosts and such. He could start something like a detective agency, and he could have a secretary. It would be like those cheesy ancient detective movies Dad's dad liked to watch. People would call him Detective Runner, and that would be really cool.
"Mad Jack Runner," a voice said.
Jack stopped and looked around. He saw no one. He cowered under the hat, pressing it tighter against his head. Chocolate bits showered his ears. "Leave me alone," he said.
Jack looked around again, but he was still alone. He started to walk away.
"Just where d'ye think yer goin', boy?"
"Um ... to the shrink's office?"
The voice uttered a string of curses Jack had never heard before. It occurred to him that the voice was coming from the earbud in his left ear. He turned the volume down. The voice faded but didn't go away. He selected something else to listen to and walked faster. He was already late because he had stopped for the soda.
"Mad Jack!" the voice said.
"Damn it, get lost," Jack said. "I don't wanna talk to you."
A hand fell on Jack's shoulder. He shuddered as he was jerked to a stop. He hated it when ghosts touched him. It felt like cold knives easing through his flesh. He shrugged out of the ghost's grip and looked up to see what was harassing him.
The ghost was a greenish white suggestion of light that assembled itself into a form vaguely resembling a pirate. There was even a parrot on its shoulder.
"Who are you?" Jack asked.
"My name be Skye, and I be the captain of The Midnight Diamond." Captain Skye leaned forward and squinted at Jack. "Yer a mite smaller than I thought ye'd be."
"I'm twelve. How big am I supposed to be?"
"Hmmm. Ye got Chinese lookin' eyes. You Chinese, boy?"
"My mom's Japanese. Look, I'm late. I gotta --"
"Ye'll just have to do."
"Have to do what?"
Captain Skye grabbed Jack's arm and started to drag him away. Jack dug his heels into the wet sidewalk. He tried to pull away, but Captain Skye was too strong. He stumbled along behind Captain Skye, getting a strange look from a woman coming out of a coffee shop. She couldn't see Captain Skye. Jack saw her staring and waved. "It's okay!" he said. "My imaginary friend wants to show me something."
The woman walked quickly in the opposite direction.
"Would you let go already?" Jack said to Captain Skye. "People are gonna think I'm insane."
"Aye. Ye are insane," Captain Skye said. "That's why they call ye Mad Jack."
"Mad Jack! Mad Jack!" the parrot said.
Jack glared at the bird.
Captain Skye laughed.
Jack kept trying to wrestle his arm out of Captain's Skye's grip as they stalked down the street. There wasn't much he could do. No ghost had ever forcibly tried to take him anywhere. He didn't yet know how to fight with them. Weapons wouldn't affect them, and Mom didn't want him learning martial arts. She thought he would be too good at it and go around beating people up.
They took turns down streets Jack had never seen before. They went through alleyways choked with litter. They passed buildings that had been abandoned for years. Jack got scared when he realized where Captain Skye was taking him. He was going to miss his entire appointment with Dr. Lawson. He would be in big trouble when he got home. If he got home.
They paused at a fifteen-foot-high chain link fence. Beyond the fence lay the part of the city called Darkside, where gangs, junkies and prostitutes made their homes. It did seem a little darker beyond the fence, as if all the negative energy of the crime had gathered into a black fog. It hurt Jack's head to be so close to it.
"Why are we here?" Jack asked.
Captain Skye pointed to the river that oozed down the spine of Darkside. "That there's The Midnight Diamond," he said.
Jack could just make out the outline of the vessel and the tattered Jolly Roger on the mast. "So?"
"She ain't got a full crew. We be needin' us a good little cabin boy. All ye gotta do is whatever we tell ye."
"What d'ye mean no?"
"I don't wanna go."
"No one said ye had a choice. Ye got power we be wantin', and we be takin' it."
Captain Skye grabbed Jack's arm again and yanked him towards the fence. Captain Skye passed through the chain link, but Jack slammed into it, cutting his face just millimeters from his eye. Captain Skye was more stunned than Jack was. Jack knew he couldn't go through the fence. Captain Skye, apparently, didn't.
Jack staggered backwards and tripped. His hat came off. The foil lining popped out. Blood flowed into his eye. It made his eyes water, and his vision blurred. Captain Skye drew a cutlass and went after Jack. Jack grabbed his hat and ran.
He didn't get very far before he fell again, and as soon as he hit the ground, he felt something cold pass through his ankle. He couldn't tell if it was the blade or Captain Skye's hand, but it hurt. He turned over onto his back and rolled out of the way just before the cutlass came down at him again. He got up and took off again.
"Mad Jack! Mad Jack!" the parrot shrieked.
"Arr!" Captain Skye growled.
"Fuck," Jack said as he found himself trapped in a dead end alley.
"Watch your mouth, kid," someone else said.
Jack looked down to find a ghost's head sticking through the brick wall at his back. The ghost smiled at him.
"I got ye now, Mad Jack!" Captain Skye said.
Jack dove to the left to avoid the chopping cutlass. He tried to run past Captain Skye, but he didn't have enough room.
"Hey, what're you listening to?" the ghost in the wall asked.
"I don't know," Jack said. "I'm kinda busy right now." He dodged a swing. He was getting dizzy, and there was blood all over his face and his shirt. If Captain Skye didn't kill him, Mom would.
"It looks like pirate radio," the ghost said.
"What?" Jack asked. He jumped up to the ladder to the fire escape but couldn't pull himself up. The cutlass sliced through his chest. The red light on the metaphorical path of his life lurched so close he could hear electricity buzzing through it. He crashed down to the ground. His ankle buckled and twisted.
"Pirate radio! Hey, turn it off! Quick!"
"What the fuck?" Jack yanked the MP3 player off his belt. He squinted at the display. It said Soak 98.6, Pirate Radio. Captain Skye hovered above him.
"Turn it off! Turn it off!"
Jack fumbled with the device until the display went blank. Captain Skye vanished just as the cutlass was coming down at the back of his neck. He pulled the earbud out of his ear and threw the thing into the corner of the alley.
"Whew! That was close," the ghost in the wall said.
Jack sat up. He blinked until his eye cleared, but he was still bleeding. He pressed his sleeve to the cut. "Thanks," he said. "I think."
"You're welcome! I really thought you were a goner, kid. I'm pretty impressed at how you handled him."
"Who are you? Or were you? Or whatever."
The ghost in the wall laughed. "You know, I don't remember much. I was a construction worker. There was an accident. No one realized I was dead, so the building got built on top of me. Now I'm trapped here. It's not so bad."
"Is there a way to get you out?"
"You'd do that for me?"
"Well. Let's see. Hey, you're still bleeding. Why don't you get out of here before something comes along that isn't a ghost? Come back when you feel better."
Jack had to admit that sounded like a better idea than trying to figure out a way to free the ghost with blood still running into his eye. "Okay. I'll do that."
"Cool! I look forward to seeing you again, Mad Jack! Bye!"
Jack got to Dr. Lawson's office an hour and a half later than he should have. Mom was there with Dr. Lawson. Dad had gone out looking for him. Jack didn't get yelled at until after the cut over his eye was stitched closed and his badly sprained ankle was wrapped up and iced down.
"A pirate tried to shanghai you onto his ship?" Mom asked. Dad paced in front of Jack's bedroom door. Mom had her fists on her hips.
"Yeah," Jack said. "He had a parrot and everything. I saw the ship. Out on the river behind Darkside."
Dad stopped pacing. "You went to Darkside?" he asked.
"No, I was --"
"Enough with the pirate story, Jack."
"But Dad ?"
"Don't lie to your father, Jack," Mom said.
"I'm not. There was a pirate. With a parrot and a ship. I had Grandma's music player on pirate radio. The ghost was in there. Another ghost figured that out before I did and told me to turn it off."
Mom looked at Dad. Dad shrugged. "Your mom, not mine," he said.
"She wasn't psychic," Mom said. She turned back to Jack. "We're just glad you're okay. But don't ever go anywhere near Darkside ever again. Understand?"
Jack nodded. He knew he would end up near Darkside again. In fact, he was pretty sure that was where he would be when he came to that red light.
"And don't ever go off with strangers, ghosts or not."
"No television, books, comic books or video games for two weeks. Got it, mister?"
"I mean it."
"What about school?"
"You can do your school reading at the kitchen table. Where I can see you. And no sneaking comic books into the text books."
"Now get some rest. I'll make dinner soon."
Quinn was standing outside the door snickering into his hands when Dad opened it. Quinn laughed and pointed at Jack. "Mad Jack, Mad Jack!" he said, mimicking the parrot.
"Quinn, leave your brother alone," Dad said.
Quinn walked away, still laughing. Jack would have to endure teasing for the pirate incident for the rest of his life. He wasn't looking forward to it.
"I hate pirates," Jack muttered.
The next time Jack had to go to Dr. Lawson's office, Mom and Dad picked him up after school instead of letting him walk there. They didn't sit out in the waiting room like they had the first time. They went into Dr. Lawson's office with him.
There was a woman in Dr. Lawson's office who Jack had never seen before. She wore a black suit, and her smile made him think of plastic wrap stretched too tight over an empty bowl. Everything about her was sterile and somehow very dangerous. Jack didn't like her at all.
"Are you with the Agency?" Jack asked.
The woman's smile withered a little. She fought to keep it on her face. Jack thought it was amusing that she was so afraid of his abilities and his abilities had nothing to do with figuring out that she was Agency. "Yes," she said. "I am. My name is Sue Leland. I'm a recruiter."
That was an answer Jack hadn't expected.
"Your situation has come to our attention, Jack," Sue said. "And after some discussion with our psychologists and with Dr. Lawson, we think that we can help you. It'll be a lengthy program. There will be tests we have to perform, both physical tests and written tests. There will be evaluations of what exactly you can do. We have a top notch team of neurologists, and we're certain that we can cure you. Once we've done that, we think you'd make an excellent detective. I've gotten transcripts from your school. Your grades are fantastic. You have experience already in dealing with the supernatural. Once you're properly trained, you have the potential to be a superb detective."
Sue's words were mostly for Mom and Dad, and they seemed impressed and hopeful. What she really wanted to say to Jack was in her head. You don't have to do this, kid, but if you say no, you'll be hunted down eventually. They'll lock you up somewhere, and they'll torture you with experiments to try to figure out what makes your powers work. They'll do that until you're so insane you can't speak, and then they'll kill you and dissect your brain. You don't want that. I don't want that. Your parents don't want that. I know you think it's a raw deal, but hey, you'll be alive.
Jack closed his eyes and thought about it. Being cured would be no better than being tortured, but those were his choices. Grandma had told him that everything happened for a reason. There was a reason he was being presented with this choice. He just couldn't see it yet. All he saw was the red light looming even closer. He opened his eyes and looked at Mom and Dad. For once, they didn't look angry or scared. "Do I have to keep going to school?" he asked.
"We'll have tutors on hand to complete your primary schooling. College, on the other hand, will be required, depending on your desire to complete the program. However, we're prepared to offer to pay a certain percentage of your tuition based on your test scores."
"How much will you pay?" Dad asked.
"Up to seventy-five percent."
"It sounds almost too good to be true," Mom said.
Jack thought Mom was right. "What's the catch?" he asked.
"There's no catch," Sue said. Her smile tightened. "Unless you consider it a catch to be essentially under contract to the Agency for the next ten years at least." You don't have any other career options. There's nowhere to hide. Come on, kid. Do the smart thing and take the deal.
Jack thought about it some more. It wasn't exactly what he wanted. He didn't want to help ghosts the way the Agency helped them. Then again, he might have the wrong impression about what they did. He had nothing to lose. Maybe this was what Grandma meant by everything happens for a reason. It would give him a chance to learn things he wouldn't have in regular school. "Okay," he said. "I wanna try it."
"Wonderful!" Sue's smile wrapped so tight across her face that Jack thought it might snap. "We can get started next Monday. I'll have someone call later in the week to make arrangements. Thank you for your cooperation, Jack. I'm sure you won't regret your decision."
Jack wasn't so sure about that, but at least it seemed that there was more than one path to that red light. Maybe one of them would get him where he wanted to go.