How To Get Ahead In Navigating

Fenton Thermos; Friday; 11:27 pm


Sitarist's skull doesn't make an awesome pillow, but since he's dead now and stuff, it seems kinda wrong to kick my feet up on it. I mean, I would, maybe, if his head was still attached to the rest of him. I used to do that all the time because it bugged him a lot. But now that it's not attached anymore, even thinking about treating him that way just feels really weird all of a sudden.

There's not a lot of space in Phantom's prison bottle genie lamp thing to put his head anywhere else, though, and my boots with spurs take up a whole ton of room. So. Yeah. He gets to be my pillow now. I mean, curling around it is better than just lying there with him on top of me. Imagine how freaky that would be, his big skull flattening my boneless chest all the way down, the hollow eye sock thingies glaring into my face. Yeah, see, that's weird. That's why I went with "pillow."

I don't lift my floppy bangs when they fall over my face in a stamp of cold green. I just tighten my folded arms around Sitarist's skull. It's so weird to see his horse head. I still think of him as having his parrot head the most, or his monkey one. It still smokes at the bottom from where Phantom's big sister blasted it off his neck with her laser shooter. Even closing my eyes doesn't block out the stench of boiled marrow. And the whole rest of the prison bottle smells like root beer, so that doesn't help at all. Root beer with soggy little almond bits floating on top. Blech. Ember said once that if I ever ended up in here, it would smell like Oreo cookies dipped in chocolate fondue. I don't know why I even listen to her sometimes.

My neck's got a cricket in it. We've been inside the prison bottle for longer than nine seconds. Every skeleton in the world knows what that means. Probably every ghost knows it too. I do.

I mean, not like it really even matters anymore. I knew the exact split-second I saw all his bones fly off in different directions that this was it for him. Sitarist was pretty clear about the whole, "Skeletons can only survive with their heads cut off for nine seconds" thing like a million and one times. Nine months to get born, nine seconds to get dead–this is kid stuff. They teach this in baby schools. For like, newborn dead guys.

Kinda weird to actually see it happen, though. But, well. Sitarist knew the risks when we agreed to take this job, I guess. It wasn't actually a job in the beginning, but the game kind of started getting more exciting after it was. Messing with Phantom's head was fun in the first place. Knowing we'd be paid for it after we'd already gotten the party started was just an extra bonus. I don't get that saying about people not working hard on jobs they like once they start getting paid. It's like the overcompensating effect or something from psychopath school. Messing with adults is fun.

Hmph.

Okay, I'm not mad at Thirteen for urging us to push the little game me and Sit started with Phantom as far as we could go. I'm also not mad at Phantom for fighting back. Yeah, even though he hung me off the side of the camper going at crazy fast miles an hour and made me lose my hat. And he tore my sleeve, which is so lame. But I'm not mad. I'm not mad at Sitarist for getting shot by Phantom's sister. I'm not even mad at Phantom's sister for shooting Sitarist.

I just feel something…

… weird.

The bottle stinks like root beer, but it feels like a polar bear's mouth. I think Phantom tossed us in his camper. We haven't moved for a while, and I can't hear him or his family talking, so it's just me and Sitarist's dead head now. We could play card games, but we don't have any cards. I can tell some of my knock-knock jokes, but I mean, what's the point? I could pick up his skull and practice being a vet request, maybe use my hand to make his jaws move and pretend he's talking, but that's not fun. I like puppets that can play by themselves. Not like this.

My attention wanders to the graffiti some of Phantom's past prisoners scrawled on the bottle's inside walls. I didn't bring anything in the pockets of my cowboy clothes to write with. I can't even use my laser eyes to doodle on the wall. Ghost powers don't really work in jail, or something. And even though my fake left hand has a highlighter form, both it and my fake left leg malfunctioned once Phantom screwed on the lid. What's the point of having a highlighter attachment for your hand if you never get to use it?

I don't just do pirate stuff. Or cowboy stuff. I also like playing a superhero, and a mad scientist, and a doctor, a burglar, and a scuba diver, and an astronaut, and a warrior hunter, and a wilderness explorer, and a mattress salesman, and a king, and a baseball player, and a comedy joke-teller, and a ninja, and a vampire, and a pharaoh, and a race car driver, and a wizard, and an Indian chief, and a jungle boy, and a knight, and a secret agent, and a circus performer, and an airplane pilot, and a robot, and a super fancy rich lady whose wealthy husband dies in mysterious circumstances in the middle of broad daylight, and a construction worker, and a shepherd, and a cop, and a baker, and a preacher, and a sled dog racer, and a stage magician, and a fashion designer, and a singer, and other things too. I just like telling stories! I'm an Outborn ghost, not a Zoneborn one, so I'm stuck at the age when I died and I can't exactly grow up. But if I could, I'd wanna be just like Sean Ghostwriter. He has a printer. Now that's neat.

I like Sean. He plays with me more than most people do. He says it helps with his creativity. Sometimes he gets too bossy and frustrated when I don't do everything perfectly the way he wants it, though. That's why I like Ember too. Sure, she's mean sometimes, but she's never bossy with me. Ember doesn't like it when I sing with her, but if it really bothers her so much, she should teach me how to sing better. But you can't just wake up and decide what you're going to be one day. You have to spend a whole weekend meditating and researching and yeah. It's called getting into character. It's a thing.

You can look it up. If you didn't know it was a thing.

If you want to.

My hair used to be red back before I died. That's why it's green now. It got flipped when my dead body went through the portal that dropped me in Limbo after I drowned. I actually drowned in a whirlpool made by a Ghost Zone portal that randomly appeared out of nowhere in the bay even though I was being careful, which is kind of unfair, except that I've had a lot of fun being dead, so I guess there's that. Some colors flip when you die.

That's the same reason Skulker's green all over. I mean, he never told me that, but all the guys know what he used to be. He still acts like onehissing and cringing away from splashes of water, napping on Technus' gadgets, chasing stuff. I dunno what happened to his ears though. Torn off in a fight, I guess? Do baby kittens get in fights? Huh. I dunno.

I miss my earrings. They don't match my cowboy costume, so I took them off.

"Don't be such a hog," I mutter, using the one knee that isn't being crushed to push Sitarist's skull farther away in the bottle. His fat head takes up a lot of space. I wiggle my other leg out from under him and roll away so I don't have to look at his freaky staring eyes. At least he doesn't smell. Do skeletons start smelling more when they die? Re-die? Die to the power of two? Get exor… Sarah…

Sitarist had a special word for dying when you're already dead. What's the word? It sounds like 'exercise', but it's not exercise. I dunno. But I guess maybe skeletons don't smell. It's not like they have any rotting flesh on them. I mean, I think, but I don't know about if eyes count or not. Do eyes rot out of your face? Sit told me his glowy skeleton eyes are made of light. They're "projects" and "fake" and "No that doesn't hurt but I would appreciate if you would get those filthy thumbs out of there I don't know where those have been."

Aw, man. What am I gonna tell the guys? Sitarist and Skulker were always close, and Skulker's close with Technus and Ember, and I guess they're probably close with some other people too. Sitarist was like a way big deal for the skeleton people, or at least the ones he told his secret identity to. You know, since he's the last bonewalking shapeshifter guy that didn't get murdered during the war and everything. Is. Was. We're going with "was." People are gonna find out about this eventually.

Sitarist didn't have any next of kin, so I guess I can take all his stuff as mine. He's got a birdcage on my pirate ship, and another birdhouse up at Skulker's place. He's got lots of small lairs instead of one big one. Now that I think about it, I don't think a lot of people are gonna bring me any gift baskets or case rolls to say they're sorry about this. Lots of skeletons don't like me because I'm a ghost, and lots of ghosts don't like me because I hang out with the rebel slaves–I mean, the skeletons. Everybody used to say me and Sit would get each other killed someday. So, uh. I guess I won that bet. That's fine.

It's not like it's a big deal. At least I'm not an orphan. I mean, I'm Captain Youngblood. I've got a whole skeleton crew on my ship who always throw parties for me all the time, 'cuz I'm like their savior ghost prince or something, I guess. So there's that.

Oh yeah, and I've still got the guys. Well, they're not exactly "family." Oh, ew! Ember's not like my mom! We're not even super close like brother and sister. She's more like, uh… Hmm. She's just Ember. I like her 'cuz she always treats me like how smart I am is more important than how old people think I look. I'm way smart for an eight-year-old and she always says to strut it. Strut? Strut… strut… Yeah. It's "strut." Ember always has new fun ideas for adventures, and she lets me have s'mores past my bedtime, and she also tells me all the secrets Sitarist still thinks I don't know. Oh man, he's gonna kill me when he finds out I know the Tooth Fairy doesn't visit kids in the Ghost Zone because ghost kids don't even lose their teeth.

You're not laughing. That was a joke. See, it's funny because I'm already dead and Sitarist is extra dead. Ghost kids don't even have real teeth. We don't have any bones in our whole bodies, and our teeth are made out of goopy magical glowy light flesh. I'm hilarious.

You're still not laughing? It's funny! The joke is that I can do whatever I want now 'cuz Sitarist is dead, so he can't stop me. See?

Wow. Whatever, guys. You don't understand good quality humor. That was like, really funny, okay?

Yeah. Ember's way cooler than any of my real-life sisters. And I had fifteen of them when I was alive, ayep. Well, six real sisters and nine half-sisters from my mom's first marriage. She's that cool. It's hard to explain, but she's so cool, she rocks. I think that's the word. What's that other word the merchants from Fairy World say? It's a 'b' word. Oh yeah. She's blitzing. She's like that. She's so cool that even the Fairies have a word for how cool she is.

Then I've also got Skulker, who's like her really awesome sometimes-boyfriend. He always builds new hooks and hands for my, uh… hand bobble thing. The part that goes shaky-shaky. This part. Wrist. Yeah, that's the word. I don't know why I always forget that. I mean, it's just like "wristwatch." There's also Technus, who's like my strange uncle or crazy neighbor. He's kind of a weirdo, but I guess he's cool too.

So it's not like I'm an orphan or anything. I have Ghost Zone parents. They're dragons and they're not around too much, but they still like me, I guess? We didn't even know each other when they adopted me, and it was mostly a legal thing so they can come get me out of jail if I ever get caught again, and so they can scare people who try to mess with me, but they usually let me live with Sitarist because they can't handle me like he can. So I'm not an orphan. I've got parents. We don't have to love each other to be family.

I'm not an orphan. Really. Sitarist wasn't like my dad. Him extra-dying doesn't mean I'm alone now, okay? I'm not helpless. I may look like an eight-year-old, but I'm actually forty-five or something. I dunno. I use the Ghost calendar now, so I dunno.

Man, Sitarist was way nice to me. Don't get me wrong–he was also totally annoying. I don't even like him; I don't know why I even hung out with him. He's just this guy. He's not even cool. He's really lame and boring all the time. Like that day I got my hand and my leg cut off and Sitarist was all, "Oh no, we have to save them, my friend Princess Dorathea can totally sew that back on, because of course I'm friends with the ghost princess of half the Cliffscape sector who's like 5 billion years younger than me and lives outside the timestream!" and Skulker was all, "Wait, why should we do that when his hand can be a wicked cool rocket cannon?" I mean, who do you love? Not you, you big baby.

But Sitarist did help me steal my lovely lady The Soaring Dane, so I guess that's pretty nifty. He was way nice. It's not really part of Zone culture to be nice, even to your friends. Some people are nice, but it's not normal for dead people.

That never stopped Sitarist. Sitarist was one of the nicest dead guys I ever met. He was also a boring, know-it-all jerk, but he was seriously so nice. I mean, Sit was the last bonewalker in existence, and he probably could've been famous if he wanted to. The other skeletons would've loved him for it. But he just wanted to be with me. Mostly I think it's because when he hung out with me, he could freeload off Skulker and Technus all the time. They like me 'cuz my hand is awesome. People say "awesome", right? They do.

It's not really "cool" in the Ghost Zone to help other people, unless maybe you're in love with them. Skulker and Ember help each other all the time, but they're probably the only people I know who actually like helping people. I guess maybe there's that one guy in the illusion school, but I don't really know about him. Maybe my parents help each other sometimes. One time when I was staying at Skulker's place while Sitarist was gone for "official skeleton business" that was all super dramatic and he didn't want me around for, so he was probably killing a guy and didn't want me to figure out how, and so I was at Skulker's place and I saw him stay up all night working on some kind of music project for Ember. All night! He doesn't even do that for himself when he's fixing his armor. I remember I was rolling giant checker pieces across the floor while he was busy, and I was thinking, "I wish someone would stay up all night making neat toys for me."

Sitarist never did anything like that for me. I don't think he's ever stayed up past his bedtime in his life. He's so controlling of everybody, he even has to control himself or else he stresses out. People don't stay up late making presents for their favorite eight-year-old.

I don't think Sitarist cared for me all that much. We were dopey and goofy around each other, and I'd push his head under the sink when we were washing dishes, and to get back at me he'd innocently squeeze berries or the soap bottle with his talons so juice and stuff squirted in my eyes. Maybe Sitarist didn't love me or anything, but he could be fun sometimes. Sometimes he was bossy and sometimes he complained too much. He wasn't even always there when I needed him. Sometimes not for days. He called me an annoying brat and a twit all the time.

But still, he stuck around with me just because he wanted to, you know? People don't stick around other people in the Ghost Zone all the time, even when they're in love. We're all stuck here being hungry and miserable pretty much forever unless you're lucky enough to get out and stay out, so no one likes to tie themselves down forever without having time to hang out with their friends. But Sitarist didn't love me, and he stayed anyway. He was different and weird like that. He's one of the nicest people, or at least skeleton bird people, that I've met since that time I died forty-something years ago.

I think about that for the whole rest of the weekend, huddled up like a ship in a bottle in the opposite side of the prison bottle from Sitarist's staring skull. It probably takes two or three boring days for the weekend to be over. I think weekends usually work like that. At least in the Living Realm, ghosts don't need to eat or go to the bathroom or anything. That would be really awkward with Sitarist's head right there. So lucky we don't.

Then Phantom just goes home. The prison bottle rumbles around in the camper, and sometimes I hear people chatting. They make jokes and laugh. Sometimes they just… talk to each other. It's normal for them.

Oh yeah. I forget sometimes that Phantom has a whole family. I mean, I remember them, but it's not like I normally sit around thinking like, "Wow, Phantom has a whole family. Even though he's this rad ghost superhero guy pretending he's still alive so his family don't try to bury him in the Zone with the rest of us, he's got a mom and a dad and a big sister. Those are his real parents, and he can spend as much time with them as he wants. Lucky stiff."

I'm not mad at him for what happened to Sitarist. Or at his sister. They were just trying to protect each other, like Sitarist was protecting me.

When Phantom finally gets home, he plugs the prison bottle into the tunnel tube machine in his parents' underground lab that connects to their Ghost Zone portal. The lid on the prison bottle pops, and my liquid energy pours out of the bottle and into some kind of big laying-down tube on a white table, I think. I blink with half-formed eyes, trying to see. Ayup. I've been in the lab before, when I was teasing Phantom the night before Thirteen even showed up and offered me a job. That was one of the best days I'd had in a long time: Just me, Sitarist, and making a nosy doofus look crazy in front of his family.

Thirteen mentioned the transfer tube when Sit and I were talking to him (though I wish he'd have mentioned the prison bottle too). He said that Phantom can press a button and flush a ghost's party cells (I think that's the phrase) back into the Zone without officially opening his portal, which means we can't just turn around and attack him again. Most ghosts don't want to anyway. He usually beats people up a lot, just like a superhero. I mean, he picked me up and body-slammed me on the roof of his family's camper, and shot me with his hand blasts, and I'm just an eight-year-old kid to him. I don't even want to know what he does to the adults.

Cuts off their heads, I guess. At least when they're skeletons.

I can get an okay look at Phantom through the smudged glass of the transfer tube, but I can't see much of the lab and stuff. The lights are pretty dim. Did Phantom even turn them on? What time is it? I squint. He's back in his human clothes again, wearing white instead of black like he does. His hair's normally white when I see him, but now it's black. His eyes are regular human blue again too, instead of super bright glowy green. And worst of all, he's wearing my cowboy hat, and probably doesn't want to give it back. It's weird how he's not even an adult. You'd think he wouldn't be too tough to fight, but he's tricky. Not even the adults can usually beat him.

I used to kinda like Phantom. He's funny and smart and he likes to play and goof around, just like me. We'd probably be friends if he'd just give up pretending to be alive and come join the rest of us in the Zone already. We've all gotta go sometime. There in the glass tube, I try to give my goopy body some hands. My baby-sized palms pat the glass. Phantom glances over at me, brushing slick hair from his face. Huh. He actually looks like he got some good sleep this weekend. His eyes don't even have bags. Last time he had bags.

"Well, Youngblood. Next time you wanna play rough with my family, how 'bout you think about this: 'Remember the red canyon.' Heh heh. Here's lookin' at you, kid. We'll always have Amity Harbor."

Is that supposed to be mean? I think that's supposed to be mean, 'cuz that's where he sunk The Soaring Dane. I blow a raspberry back at him and wrap my arms around the goop that I think is Sitarist's cut-off head. Phantom touches a button on a panel near his hand and waves good-bye. My body zooms through the tube, into what looks like the wall of his parents' lab, and right through the wall into the Ghost Zone. It blasts me out, and I go skidding face-first in the dirt on the Zone's side. Sitarist's skull clunks and rolls alongside me before tumbling to a stop.

"Hey!"

I don't think he can hear me. I sit up, spitting out dust. He kept my hat. Whatever. I can make my clothes look however I want, as long as they can still fit on my little body. With just a thought, I summon a new cowboy hat that looks just like my old one. Yeah, how's that? I kick dirt at the big blue rock that marks the inactive portal entrance.

Aw, man. Sooo… Ghost Zone. Again. My stomach starts hurting immediately. Ghosts don't have to eat in the Living Realm, since we're "dead" there, but in the Zone, we're sort of "alive." I liked it best when I didn't need to eat for the whole weekend. Now I gotta get some food soon.

Still adjusting my hat, I hover in the air and look around, trying to find all the goopy swirly stuff that squirms through the sky like currents in the ocean. I'm used to seeing that stuff a lot in the Zone. But I don't see currents in this area, so I guess we're too far inland. What I do see first are blue and white Christmas lights, strung up along the rocky cliff walls all around me. I dunno what they're plugged into, but they're glowing anyway. It's like someone made landing lights for airplanes around the portal door.

Where the heck even am I? In some kind of glowing green canyon, I guess. That's all I know.

I give my hair a pat to smooth it down. My hair's always prickly, and it would get in my face all the time if I didn't keep it tied back in a ponytail. I'd cut if off, but I'm afraid it won't grow back because I'm dead. One of the green strands dangles in front of my face. It's literally just one strand. I try to push it behind my ear, but it falls in front of my eyes again, so I twist it around my head and snap it right out of my head. When I let go, it drifts down to the rocks. I watch it fall, counting to nine. The color fades away. Then it disappears.

Phantom is some guy. I don't really know what's so special about him, but I know a little bit. I know that he's the guardian of one of the only super stable portals in the whole Ghost Zone that connects us to the Living Realm. After he flushed me back inside, he made sure the portal was shut. It's usually a giant green swirling hole, like a cave in the wall of this canyon. At least, I think I've heard that. But it's gone now. All that remains behind me is a dull chunk of blue rock.

I put Sitarist's skull down on the ground and then tap my left hand's wrist with my right thumb. Skulker made this machine hand for me after I lost my regular hand, and he hooked it up to my brain somehow. Technus helped with that part. Concentrating is hard work when I'm this hungry and dizzy, so I float back and forth a few times because it helps me focus. The spurs on my cowboy boots chink like metal coins (Real Ghost Zone coins are made of rock, but I still like metal coins the best). After a few seconds of straining, I manage to retract my fake hand with the black cowboy glove, and push out a panel with two swirly dials on it. So it's like I have this high-tech panel and robot claw for my hand.

"Where am I?" I mutter to myself, trying to read all the letters and numbers on the tiny screen. It's way too small. Is it always this small? I shake it up and down as I start walking away from the portal, up a skinny path that switchbacks up the cliffs. Maybe the letters work better when the signal is stronger or something.

The Ghost Zone is huge, and it hasn't been very organized ever since King Pariah Dark got locked up in his magical treasure chest bed, which happened way before I was even born (let alone died). But, Sitarist taught me a few things. I know that the Zone is divided into an infinite number of "sectors," which are kind of like countries. Most ghosts don't have real houses like the skeletons do. Instead, everyone has these "pocket dimensions," or "lairs," where they live. Most lairs look like these purple floating doors that are just kind of there, floating in the middle of the Zone's black sky, way above the ground and the trees. I like to plow through them with my ships. They spin around and ching! like pinball.

Lairs are sort of made out of people's hearts or souls or whatever you wanna call them. I like "souls," but Sitarist is a predestinatious nerd with fancy words that I can't actually remember. So people's souls in the Ghost Zone are these really gross purple balls that they spit up right after they die in the Living Realm and their body immediately passes through a portal and turn into a ghost in the Ghost Zone. If everything in the world was fair, then every dead person would have small purple door dimensions to live in just like everyone else. But it doesn't work that way. The strongest people learned pretty quick that they could steal souls from people weaker than them, and combine them together with other souls to make huge, giant lairs. That's how islands get made. I dunno about the sector islands, though. I don't think that's where they came from, but no one has an answer for that. Maybe a whole bunch of ghosts lost their souls in one spot and the sectors are built out of pollution and dust and rock that clumped around them. I dunno. I don't study ghost rocks.

I like Skulker because he's cool, but he also scares me sometimes because he's a hunter. He hunts people down and steals their souls so he can keep making the island where he lives bigger and fancier. I'm one of the only people he never did that to, because I distracted him by not having an arm or a leg, and I think Sitarist and Ember are the others he never messed with. I don't even know about Technus. I think Skulker might be scared of him or something? Maybe Technus helped him build his robot suit and he owed him one. That could be it.

Sometimes, people's lairs move around the Ghost Zone. It's not a very stable place, and the lairs kind of do whatever they want. The only rule is, they can only move around inside the sector they belong in, and there's a whole mess of those. But, there are nine main sectors that are hugely gigantic, like continents. They shift a little bit, but not too much. Mostly it's like they're those I Spy bottles of sand that you shake and little toys and tokens show up. The toys don't leave the bottle, but they get all tossed around.

Okay. First there's the Cliffscape sector, which is like this colorful forest that basically rains blue fire all the time, and where only the coolest people like my parents, Ember, and the Royal Draco Family all try to live. It's one of the places I visit most, and it's supposed to be closer to the Plasmius portal than the Phantom one, so I already know I'm not there. Then there's scorching, desert-like Mitadelr where the mummy ghosts and stuck-up Greek and Roman people are, and… there's the freezing cold Farfrozen sector with its snow and icky red, sappy pine trees. I'm definitely not either of those places. It's my dream to eat a bunch of Living Realm fruit on one of the Mitadelr beaches someday. I don't even like fruit more than anyone else does, but I would totally eat a whole plate of fruit on one of those pretty white beaches. I haven't done it yet, though, because then I'd have to get a new dream and it probably won't be as good as this one is, and I like to be excited about things.

Then what? There's Cocadive, which is kind of way high in the sky, and my favorite place to attack the merchant ships from Fairy World. Oh, and that one sector that's mostly tunnels and puzzles, Purgebane. Theeeeere's Limbo, which is really boring because the black ground is too mushy and gross for the skeletons to build there, and it's also where this guy Walker lives and he's annoying. Nobody likes Limbo. Not even me, and teeeeccchnically that's where I'm supppppooooosssssseed to have my lair, because that's the sector I ended up in when I died, so if King Pariah was still ruling then I'd be a Limbo citizen and have to do years of paperwork to be allowed out of it, I guess?

Then there's Nether and Haykees. I don't really know much about them because Sitarist doesn't like to talk about it. Especially Nether. I'm forbidden from poking around in there, so I can only go when he's not around to stop me. Sitarist never tells me anything about Nether that he doesn't have to, and Skulker and Technus don't care enough to research Ghost history by themselves, and the rebel skeletons just keep telling the same stories over and over. But I think the Nether sector is mostly fog and the ruins of the old Skeleton kingdom back when King Sagittarius Light ruled over them. Then the Ghost King, Pariah Dark, came in like a bulldozer with the Crown of Fire and enslaved all the skeletons, and Sitarist doesn't talk to me about anything that happened after that. I know there's a story there about how he lost his ring finger, though. Yeah, that's all I know about Nether.

Then Haykees is rock and lavafalls and birds, and that's where Pariah came from. These one-eyed alien-looking people called Observants who are way obsessed with this mysterious old (and probably imaginary) guy called Sojourn hang out there now. The Observants are boring, but we have a mutual agreement: I keep my ships out of Haykees, and they don't attack the skeletons who've pledged loyalty to me. I think. I think that's what's going on. I actually don't know.

That's eight, right? Okay. Last is the Summersphere sector, which is the best sector. It has all the warm, tropical lairs in the whole Ghost Zone, probably. That's where I live when my parents don't make me visit them in Cliffscape. Skulker likes me because I let him invent stuff for my hand, which is kind of a toy for him, so he lets me dock my pirate ships at his island sometimes. The Soaring Dane was actually my lair, so uh. That's not cool. I mean, I do have a couple backup souls that I stole from some guys and buried on a beach. That's what pirates do, and it just felt right. I marked the place with a rock shaped like an N. No one would ever check for treasure under an N any more than they'd check over their shoulder if I shouted, "Look behind you, a three-headed monkey!"

When a ghost gets hurt, they can't heal unless they're actually hanging out at a lair that they made themselves from somebody's soul. Sometimes that's the soul they died with, but that doesn't always work out for reasons, because we're all greedy backstabbers when it comes down to it. My buried backup souls are a little inconvenient to get to, but they're mine, and nobody can take that away from me. Well, unless they follow my map, I guess. Maps aren't that great in the Ghost Zone, though, except for this one that's legendary, but we don't really talk about it because there are probably reasons why.

According to the panel on my wrist, I'm in some kind of fragment sector halfway between Limbo and Purgebane. Yeah, I don't even know. I've sailed all over the whole Ghost Zone, but I've probably been to Purgebane like, one time ever. Right? Yeah. I went there to scope out the arcade Technus built when he was trying to be "hip and funky-fresh like all the wild kidlets these days", which… did… not…

Soooo I gotta go to Limbo. I'll need to find Soaring Dane and steer her through the craggy pass to Summersphere. No, wait. Duh. I can't do that. Phantom wrecked her for no reason after he sunk her in the harbor like a jerk. I actually have this entire fleet of ships, but none are actual other lairs of mine, so I'll have to start over making a new one. And all my other ships are in Summersphere already. So I guess I… don't know.

Huh.

I keep floating up through the canyon until the edge of the path I'm following drops off on one side like a huge cliff. I peek over the edge. Every sector of the Ghost Zone is basically this crazy huge floating island in a big black sky, kind of like planets in outer space. If I look down and see green rocks at the bottom, that means this isn't the edge of the sector's island. There could be wild animals in the canyon, or old native spirits, or creepy land sharks down there. No one knows.

But if I see empty blackness, then I'll jump. That means I'm at the edge of the island, so if I swim way far down underneath it, I'll reach the bottom landscape of the whole entire Ghost Zone. The skeleton rebels build their cities in the black forests down there. I don't get along with every skeleton, but I get along with skeletons better than I get along with most ghosts sometimes. Sitarist says most of them will run from or fight any ghost they see, but I've made friends with tons of skeletons before. Maybe word gets around and they'll recognize me. Then I can eat something nice and get a good place to sleep.

When I look, the rocks way down there are all green.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I float backwards and tap my fingers on my real leg. Now what? Stay in the upper cliff part of the canyon? Fly down and wander the bottom part of the canyon? I'm only eight and a half, and I don't know what kinds of monsters are around here. It's mostly that it's birds in the Ghost Zone, but still. Ghosts are weird, and some are like aliens. I gotta get home, but just because I vaguely know which direction home is, that doesn't mean it's gonna be easy to get there. It could take me hours. Days.

"Okay." I concentrate on my left hand, and make a flat palm with it. Then I turn it from being a panel into being a telephone. I actually don't know how any of the stuff Technus and Skulker helped me make my body do even works with electricity and ghost powers and stuff, because I didn't care, but it does. That's just how it is. I lift the phone off its dock, watching the spiral cord bounce, and hold the receiver up to my ear. After clearing my throat, I say into the speaker, "Phone, call Nicolai Technus."

Beep. "Please hold. Attempting to contact Nicolai Technus. At any time, you may hang up to cancel this call."

Phones aren't really a thing for most ghosts. My phone isn't like a real phone with numbers and buttons to push. It's all pre-programmed so it's super easy for an eight-year-old to use. I can only call five people in the whole Ghost Zone. If this doesn't work, then I'm in really big trouble, probably. I shift from foot to foot, walking back and forth along the edge of the cliff as I wait for Technus to pick up.

Beep. "This contact is out of range and cannot be reached at this time. Please try a different contact, or hang up and try again later."

Weird. I've never gotten that message before. I didn't even know Technus had professional-sounding messages on my phone besides the first one. Is this the message you get when you try to contact someone who's in the Living Realm instead of the Ghost Zone? Maybe the phone can't connect to the Living Realm. Come to think of it, I haven't seen Technus for a long time. So maybe that's where he is, and Phantom hasn't caught him and sent him back yet. Or Phantom doesn't know he's not in the Zone. Or he's in the Zone, but somewhere the signal can't reach. Maybe he's visiting Prince Aragon in the technological deadzone, like he does sometimes when he's absolutely convinced he's invented the product that will make the prince want to lift the tech ban on that side of Cliffscape.

Maybe he's just ignoring me.

I click the phone in my arm dock, then bring it to my ear again. "Phone, call Skulker the Blazing Lion."

Beep. "Please hold. Attempting to contact Skulker. At any time, you may hang up to cancel this call."

I clear my throat. Three times. There is no response.

Beep. "This contact is out of range and cannot be reached at this time. Please try a different contact, or hang up and try again later."

That's not real. Skulker's there. I say, "Skulker? It's Sor… It's Captain Youngblood. Are you there?"

I'm answered by more silence. I pull the phone from my ear and wrinkle up my nose. I don't get it. Skulker's telephone is attached to an arm of his robot suit, sort of like mine is on my hand. Underneath his suit, he's just a tiny goopy blob kitten with no tail and no ears, like a frog. He's been in the Ghost Zone for hundreds of years, and he's worked really hard to make himself into a powerful beast. His name is almost as famous in the Ghost Zone as mine. Almost. And he loves his robot suit. He never takes off his robot suit.

Well. Almost never. Maybe he had a good reason to step out of it. He built it himself, and he tinkers around with it a lot. Maybe part of it broke off, and he powered down the suit while he fixes it. Maybe he and his suit are both in his shop, but he was working on fixing a boot while he was tiny, and he can't answer the phone even though he hears it ringing, because it's too heavy or too far away. Or maybe he's still in the suit, but just can't answer. Maybe I called him while he was hunting and scared his prey, and now he's trying to catch it while he still has the chance.

Maybe he's on a date with Ember and doesn't want to be bothered with my problems right now.

I hang up again. I look up at the sky. I don't want to call my parents. I really, really don't want to. If they find out what happened to Sitarist, one of two things will happen. They might bring me back to Cliffscape. Desdemona will baby me too much by licking me clean before and after every meal, and by never letting me leave the table for longer than .007 seconds if there's milk in my cereal. Ikhiro will pretend to be the scary dragon while I'm a knight, and we'll have lots of fun together, until they remember they can't tire me out, that I'm never done with playing, and they can't keep this up forever. That's what happened the first time, and the second time. Then they gave me back to Sitarist, and I only got to see them when he made me or if they said so. Sitarist did a lot of parental things for me, but he was only okay with it when he could act like he was my guardian or my big brother or even my personal assistant. Never my dad.

If I tell my parents that he's gone now, they might take me back for awhile, but they're so possessive of me when I'm around that I can't be out adventuring on my ships doing what I love. Or, my parents'll say that it was nice knowing me, but I spent so much time with Sitarist that we were never a real family, and now that he's gone they don't have to listen to him anymore. They'll cancel my adoption, and it'll be just like my first day in the Ghost Zone after I died all over again. Desdemona and Ikhiro are just my Ghost Zone parents. They're not real.

Sean doesn't own anything I can call him with. He never keeps up with what's cool these days. My phone only knows how to contact one other person besides my parents, and I'm still annoyed at her for setting The Soaring Dane on fire when she knew it was my lair. But I don't think I have much choice. I bring it to my ear again.

"Phone…" My voice cracks. "Call Ember McLain."

Beep. "Please hold. Attempting to contact Ember McLain. At any time, you may hang up to cancel this call."

She picks up on the second beep, and I can hear her hair crackle with fiery blue sparks as she tosses back her head. "Technus, whatever you want, this is not a good time for it."

"Ember?"

"Wait. Youngblood?"

A nervous giggle spurts out of my mouth. I've only seen Ember use her phone once before, but I know it's part of her favorite guitar, so I'm just imagining her holding her guitar up to her face all weird. I mean, I broke her guitar when me and Phantom were fighting on my ship, but she probably got Skulker to make her a new one already. He would. He likes her. I don't know how long I was trapped underwater, but it feels like maybe a month, and I barely had time to duck into the Zone for supplies before Phantom left on his vacation in the camper, and I had to follow him. I clench my fist around the top of the phone's spiral cord. "Ember! Yes! I'm so glad I got you. Nobody else picked up when I called." I had to know. "Is Skulker there?"

"Skulker's at the library."

"Oh." I bounce on my toes. That's weird. Skulker hates the library, so why would he care about rules saying you should be quiet and not answer the phone? "Okay, hear me out. Phantom just dumped me out of his prison bottle by his portal, and I don't have The Soaring Dane anymore. You know where I am, right? You've been here twenty times. Maybe even fifty. Can you come get me?"

"Eh, we've all got to get dumped sometime. You'll figure it out."

"Huh?"

"You know how to get to Summersphere from Founded Town, right? If that dipstick just dumped you, then you're not far from Limbo. Take the first left turn in the canyon instead of the right. Going right will take you into Purgebane. You don't want to hit up Purgebane solo. Fly above the cliffs and go left until you hit the river. Follow it until you see Limbo floating overhead. The signs point to Founded Town, and from there it's easy."

"Yeeeaaah, but after Founded Town I have to cross the border to Summersphere, and I'm not legaaal. I reformed in Limbo after I died, remember? You were in Limbo that same day. You saw Sit. He said. I've never crossed the border by myself before, and I don't have any of my ships, so I can't just sail around it this time…"

Ember exhales. "Well, you've got Sitarist to do the talking, don't you? It's easy. Ask him."

My lips stay apart, even when I try to force them together again. I squeeze my eyelids shut and let the twisted phone cord fall from my hand. "Can you just come? You can teleport."

"Yeah… No. Look, kid." If I know Ember, then she's sitting on a really soft couch, using her hand to pull her feet closer to her when she crosses her legs. "It was real fun collaborating with you on the other side last month, pop rock, but I'm no babysitter. I've got a show tonight in a couple of hours. Everyone's still on edge about Pariah, and these guys really need some warmth in their spirits. Why should I drop everything I'm doing to haul your snotty butt all the way out here?"

I'm too stunned to be offended. "Wait, wait, wait. Go back. What did you say about King Pariah? Everyone's on edge about something? What do you mean, huh?"

"Oh, uh. You mean you didn't hear?"

I shrug. "I didn't hear anything. I got trapped in Soaring Dane at the bottom of the sea, stuck underneath the ghost shield, ayuh."

"Ooooh…" Ember's teeth hiss together. "Yeeeaaah. I'll tell you in Summersphere, okay, Y.B.?"

"I wanna know! What happened to King Pariah? Did something happen?" I start walking again. If I talk to her through the panel on my arm as I go, it'll be almost like she's actually there next to me.

"Pfffft. Tell you later, kid, but not in front of Sit. You know he'll freak."

"Sit's not here anymore, though. You can tell me. Just don't call me 'kid.'"

Ember clicks her tongue. "Riiight. Hey, I'll tell you the whole story after you guys hit the island, but there's no way I'm doing it over the phone, so shut your little pie-hole about it, ya little whiny brat."

She's not trying to be mean. You can tell it from the absent-minded way her voice comes through the phone. She used to say mean stuff to me all the time, when I used to tease her about how much she and Skulker like each other. "Little whiny brat"'s not even the worst thing I've ever been called. I've been sworn at before. That's worse, I guess? Still holding the phone to my ear for one last minute in case she changes her mind and wants to talk longer, I poke my toes over the lip of the cliff and stare down at the rocks below.

"Ember, are there any skeletons around this area? Free skeletons, I mean, not just slaves."

"Youngblood, if you don't know, then how could I even know that? Ask Sit. I'm sure it's just ghosts. If there are any free skeletons, they should be on the Zone's bottom layer, not the floating sector isles. You know how it is these days."

"Oh. Okay. Sorry I bothered you. Good luck with your concert."

"Good boy. Now, kindly get off the line. I'm expecting request phone calls from all my adoring fans before I head on out there."

Is she really the same Ember I know? Maybe she's just having a bad day. Or maybe someone's listening and she's just trying to impress her friends with how brave she is to be talking to Captain Youngblood like that. I think that could be it. Or maybe we're back in the Ghost Zone, and it's not cool to help other people in the Ghost Zone. Ember's all about being cool. She is pretty cool.

When I hang up, I wipe my face with the red bandana at my neck. I switch the panel on my arm to be a gloved hand again. My fingers clench in my hair. I guess I'm going to the border by myself now. So I shake myself off and start to float the way Ember said to.

Maybe this is a good thing? I mean, I need to go to Limbo anyway, I guess. There's this cluster of floating buildings there called Founded Town that has places to eat and stuff. This one, Ruby's, is a little bit like a grown-up bar, but mostly a place where you can get huge sandwiches and lots of ice cream. Sitarist and I don't have an official store or business place, unless you count the ships, but we hang around Founded Town a few days a month so we can collect pay for old jobs and try to get new ones. People pay us to steal things for them, or deliver messages, or give them rides through the Zone. Mostly we pillage the Living Realm for old possessions that used to belong to people when they were still alive, or shirts they don't want their siblings or lovers to have.

Sitarist may not look very threatening when he's in his parrot form, but he can shapeshift because he's this thing called a bonewalker that can turn into the skeleton of any animal whose bones he actually went and touched in the Living Realm, and he can be real scary sometimes. And almost everyone knows me. I may not be that tall, and I may not even be a grown-up, but people respect me as a real capable cunning threat anyway, just the way I like it. I'm Captain Youngblood, the ghost kid who makes friends with rebel skeletons and shoots at buildings with my cannons. Scariest pirate on all the ghostly seas, really, even though I'm still dressed like a cowboy right now. People learned pretty fast not to cross me, and my reputation presents me. Heck, in some parts of the Ghost Zone, some guys will literally throw themselves at my feet and start kissing my boots, begging to work on my ship. Some of them just think it's cool to be a pirate but didn't get to in life and don't wanna miss out again, and some of them want to be famous for backstabbing and overthrowing Captain Youngblood and taking the infamous Soaring Dane for themselves. Luckily I'm too smart for that, and Sitarist is always there so we can laugh at those fools together and he can watch my back.

Yeah. We usually swing by Ruby's on the third week of the month, though, and now it's the beginning of the next month. I think. But I guess I needed to go to Founded Town anyway. I mean, one of us has to. I just hope I don't regret going there by myself, without my ship and my cannons to back me up. Because I take most of my payment up front but still get more at the end, Sitarist taught me not to do jobs for people who aren't scared of us. If they aren't scared, they might do something stupid like try to threaten us at blaster point to fork over all the cargo we have aboard. It's better that everyone stays scared of us, so nobody gets hurt.

Well, scared of me, I guess. Just me.

At least Ember was nice enough to give me directions. The canyon path splits into two just like she said it would. I look to the left. Limbo. Then I look to the right. Purgebane. I didn't even think about going the way she said not to until I got here. Is it weird that I kind of want to though? I open my mouth to ask, then shut it. Nope.

I dust off my puffy cowboy pants, flap some grit off my giant hat that's probably there, and make my hands into fists (They can both do that–it's not just a mechanical hand thing). I haven't seen anything scary yet, but this way, I can punch anyone or anything who tries to attack me. And I have my fake leg. I can change that too, and shoot lasers at people with it and stuff. It's a good thing Skulker looked at me one day after we met and thought, "Yes, this is the child I will load up with all the automatic weaponry and coolest gadgets in the world." Actually, if Sitarist and Ember didn't keep stopping them, he and Technus would probably make me a robot suit like Skulker's too. Then I'd be way huge.

There's the left turn. There's the river. And I guess I make it into Limbo without needing anyone to escort me after all.

Towns in the Ghost Zone are rare, and floating towns that were made by ghosts instead of skeletons are even rarer. It's hard to come up with regular building materials when you're dead, and so ghost towns are made up mostly of the lairs of these different people all floating together around a pretty patch of landscape, or a hidden corner out of the public eye, or something.

Most towns are made up of people like cousins and friends who know and like each other, but who still don't feel comfortable merging their souls into one and sharing a lair together. I mean, that takes a lot of trust. The thing is, souls can be used to make lairs, but you can also walk in, find the soul hidden inside, and unmake someone's lair, and steal one or all of their souls that way. That's why you always gotta be careful about protecting it. It's hard for a lot of ghosts to trust each other since lots of people want to build the giant lairs of their dreams. Sitarist always said that when "good King Pariah" (His adjective, literally no one else's) returned, he'd instate a policy that somehow made it so everyone had the equal number of souls they deserved. He wasn't clear on the details. Techus always said that Sitarist was too cuckoo to see the bad in anyone, and that if he was a fork, he'd stick himself in a wall socket just to prove they could be best friends. Sit was weird.

Founded Town's an interesting-looking place. I still think its name is the dumbest ever, but it's kind of cool because the whole town looks like it's made from giant kites. Founded Town works because unlike in most places in the Zone, the lairs that get docked here can't drift away in the sector currents farther than the ropes used to tie them down. Well, I mean, it's not like they're tied down, because for some reason that doesn't work? The ground isn't stable enough, or the ropes would touch some kind of material that rots them super fast. I dunno. It's a thing, though. So the ropes for each lair are tied to all the other lairs instead, in a huge mass that makes the whole place look like a flying spider. The town is too heavy to move very much, so even though it isn't officially tied down to like rock, it sort of stays in the same area, and all the lairs stay close to each other. I still think it would be way too easy for someone to fly in swinging a cutlass and slice them all loose, but okay.

The building in the middle that holds all the others together is Ruby's, because Founded Town was her idea. That was probably hundreds of years ago by now. Yeah, can you just imagine it? Ruby floating there with her hands on her hips and saying out actual loud, "Ah yes, and we shall call this newly-founded town Founded Town." Wow.

I think her place used to be more of a pub or an inn back then. She still sells adult drinks there nowadays, I think, but I don't know if they're real alcohol, or if ghosts can't taste alcohol and people just make that stuff up because they miss being able to drink. All I know is that even though I'm usually a pirate and pirates drink rum, everybody in the whole universe is like, "NOPE, these drinks are not for Youngblood. He gets milk and juice." But I like Ruby's because she's really branched out, so there's a lot of stuff for kids like me to eat, and calories don't count at all, ever, and health only matters if you think you want to improve yourself on purpose, so it's great. Restaurants, even simple ones, are still pretty rare in the ghost half of the Zone. I think I still won't tell anyone that skeletons serve all the best food. Not even Skulker. He doesn't have to know. I'll start telling people once they start caring about skeletons. That's the deal.

As I float up to where the flying kite/spider town is, it occurs to me that I don't think I've ever, ever been here without Sitarist before. He always shoved me along quickly whenever we got here, urging me that confidence was the key to conquering, and not to make friends with anyone who might end up my client someday. But since he's not here right now, I take my time looking around more carefully than usual.

Where's all the people? Founded Town is always busy, and not just inside Ruby's. The Founded Towners always seem so friendly, at least until they realize who I am and start getting all awkward about it. What could've happened since the last time I came here to make them so nervous that they all decided to hide behind their purple doors? The night is still young, if it even is night. But no one's sitting out on their front stoops to chat and laugh with each other.

Freaky-deak.

As I keep looking through the little town, I hear a sudden clanking noise behind me, like the lid of one of those trash portal can things. I jerk my head around. Something huge and black flits away into the shadows between a building and some floating cans. When I listen, I don't hear anything. No shifting of body parts and clothing in the air currents. No gasping or darting away. I edge closer to Ruby's, trying to get a good peek back there. There's no one hiding that I can see. Just a glint of green. It flashes once in the dark, and then it's gone.

"Okay…"

I turn my attention back to Ruby's. It's a small building, more sideways than it is up and down, but only by a little bit. I really like it because it has that good ol' Western feel to it (except for the random jukebox that makes no sense, but no one cares), and I'm dressed perfectly today for any kind of Western occasion. Just two tiny, swinging doors that only fill half the front doorway stand between me and my food now. I inhale deeply for some reason, then push my way through with both palms. Hard.

Everyone's party stops when I drift in. Even the skeleton behind the bar counter with Ruby freezes halfway through pouring somebody's drink. The drink totally just freezes in his hand, the juicy stream sticking to the sides of the glass. The girl he was getting it for glances behind her, then immediately faces forward again. Her fingers tense around the counter's edge, shoulders rising to her pointed ears.

I'd say only about a third of the town is here tonight, or maybe only a quarter. Ruby's is also a popular spot for tourists, and for bounty hunters or odd mercenaries like me, so that makes it harder to count who's actually who. But still, there's so many people missing, and I'm pretty sure it has to do with Ember mentioning King Pariah. People must've been talking about him a lot while Sitarist and I were stuck underwater. I guess she'll answer that later, then. Poor Sitarist missed out.

Stroking my bandana, I try to look at every ghost's face for at least a second. Most people don't hold eye contact that long, if they do at all. Some don't raise their heads, and pretend to be very busy wiping their faces with their napkins. Their eyes wander the ceiling or the windows. One snakey ghost takes it even further by devouring his own tail and slowly munching his way along towards his head. I was hoping Sean would be here in his black and gray scarf with the crazy long tails that are fun to yank on when he's looking the other direction, but he lives in Mitadelr, so I guess that's pretty far away. I keep looking around some more. There's only one person in the whole entire Ghost Zone I'm afraid of, and I have to check real carefully to make sure she's not here before I come foxtrotting in like a big flashy show-off.

Nope. Nooo Dr. Spectra. Unless she's in the bathroom. Aw man, I hope she's not in the bathroom. She'd better not be here. I. Don't. Do. Dr. Spectra.

"Ayep, that's right." I flick my hat back with my fingertip and puff out my chest. Also, that's hard to do when you don't have lungs, so yeah. "Ladies and gents, lads and lassies, Youngblood's here to call in a few favors. Who's buying tonight?"

As fingers scramble for purses, one snarl slices through the rest. "Hey."

I whip back to the bar when I hear the sharp voice. The speaker, who's a lady, fires a beam of red into the ground just in front of my feet. I almost fall back through the swinging doors, and probably would have plummeted pretty far down to solid Limbo dirt, but I hit the doorway arch border thing instead. The thick white stripey thing that goes up around doors? We have those around our doorways in the Ghost Zone too. It's that thing. First, I check my boot to see if I got hit. Then my bandana. Then my gloves. Then I look up to see Ruby there behind the counter, leaning one hand on her chin, her pointy finger pointing up. It still steams from the blast. Her triangle earrings twinkle. She looks me up and down, her lips twisting like licorice pretzels.

"You know the rules. No hats inside, sheriff."

I yank it off and hold it behind my back. It's real obvious that I'm still holding it, because the hat's almost bigger than I am, but I give her my biggest reassuring smile anyway, because I'm not gonna cause any more problems when she's got stuff I want. Ruby always makes everybody take their hats off when they come inside because she likes to control people. I can level with that. In forty years, I don't think I've ever seen anybody tell her 'No' a second time.

But technically, the rule is "No wearing hats inside", not just "No hats inside" period. I can use it as a collection bucket. I put my hand to my waist and bow low and politely to Ruby so she knows that we're cool, then drift over to the left side of the restaurant. Clenched hands and light fingertips come down on stacks of green and gray dread bills with their little /d/ symbol on them. As one, they all slide their money to the outsides of the tables. Nobody looks at me as I come by to sweep everything off the tables and into my upside-down cowboy hat. Everyone on the right side of the restaurant sighs in relief and starts tucking their cash away.

I stop in front of the second-to-last table on the left side. "Wait."

The room goes quiet again. The pink fish lady at the table dares to lift her eyes from her plate. I hover in front of her and her burly-looking turtle husband(?), who has his head pulled halfway into his shell. I tap my chin. "Hmm," I say, drawing it out for a long time. I look down at my hat and shake it so the cash inside rustles and jingles. The fins ripple along her back. Then I push the bills on the table back towards the happy couple. "Yeeeah. Actually, you know what? I'm willing to let this one slide. I think you need that stuff more than I do. But just this once. Don't make me regret my ingenuity."

She mutters a thank you and stuffs the money away before I can change my mind. There's absolutely no rhyme or reason to who I pick to mess with like this. Some days I don't pick anyone. It's just fun to be spontaneous and watch everyone else go bezerk as they try to figure you out. I enjoy that more than money. I mean, I mostly just steal stuff anyway.

People mutter behind me as I move away. Chink, chink go the spurs on my boots. The jukebox is playing a jazzy song.

When I reach the last table on the left side of the restaurant, I find two older, blue-green ghost men sitting in a booth. One wears a black shirt with a star on it, and the other is dressed all in white, except the underside of his cape is red. There's no money waiting for me at the end of the table. My forehead wrinkles up. It can do that even though it's not real skin. When I look up, I find myself hovering pretty much nose to nose with the first guy. His black shirt doesn't have sleeves, and his arms are totally beefy. On his bicep, I can see the most cliché ship's anchor tattoo in the universe. Oh.

I slit my eyes. I know his kind. He looks big and tough like Skulker, but less smart. The man in white has Dr. Spectra hair curled towards the back of his head in points like devil horns, or the letter V, but I try not to freak out about it. He looks way fancier than Anchor Arm, his gloved hands resting around a mug of cold liquid chocolate. He probably has a lot of money. Or better yet, a lot of glowing purple souls he's willing to hand over. Souls are the best currency in the Ghost Zone, especially since King Pariah can't make laws about people not trading them in public anymore. You can get anyone to do a job for even just one or two souls. I should start charging people for souls instead of rock money. Yeah, this guy definitely looks like he's running the show here, and if he's trying to hire a brainless musclehead, he's chatting up the right guy. That figures. I put my hands on my waist.

"Gentlemen. Name's Youngblood. Captain Youngblood, actually. I'm kind of a big deal around this place."

No verbal response. An irritated sideways glance from the muscleman, and an amused one from the man in white who looks in charge.

"But, it's your lucky day. I'm willing to let you both off easy since I'm not wearing my captain's hat, and you probably didn't recognize me until now."

Anchor Arm grunts and takes a swig of strawberry milkshake. He actually ate his cherry. Whipped cream is smeared in a line down his cheek. His head isn't fully human, and his ears are more like a pig's than any other animal I know. Small tusks stick up from the bottom of his mouth. The perfect muscleman archetype, if it weren't for his enormous sparkling eyes. "Yeah. I've heard of you. You're the little boy who builds sandcastles along the smoking beaches of Cocadive to play with his baby dollies. From the back, I'd think you were a girl with that pretty ponytail of yours."

"Okay, they're not dolls." I bring my fingers in front of my chest and make like okay signs to signal perfection, I think. He's gonna get this right with me. "They're called living puppets. And second, I don't care what you think about my ponytail, because I like it a lot, ayuh. It makes me feel like a pirate. I know I'm dressed like a cowboy today, but I like pirates too. And yeah, I guess I'm known for playing with puppets in my off-time, but that's not the part of my reputation I need you to focus on right now, buddy."

"Who the heck are you to be bossing me around, kid?"

It's very quiet in the room. I hear someone reach out and adjust their fork on the table behind me.

"Mmm." I prop my cheek against my fist, with my elbow on the table. I even kick my legs behind me as I do it, so I'm more like floating horiz… horace… on my belly in front of them. "You're cute. You know what? I like your moxie, so I'll give you one more chance to decide what you're gonna do about this. I'm Captain Youngblood. The Captain Youngblood. Plunderer of merchant ships, transporter of Living Realm goods, adopted son of Prince Aragon's chief royal advisers, hold the all-time high score on Plasmius Peril at the Purgebane arcade, savior of the skeletons. Ring a bell up in that waxy noggin of yours?"

Anchor Arm sweeps his stare over the other patrons in the restaurant. I don't look behind me, but I know a lot of them are probably watching us. This doesn't happen a lot. "You really here bragging that you're the toughest guy in this dinky little joint?" He looks at the man in white like Is he for real? while the man in white simply smiles back at him with the patience of a cracking tree branch.

"Yeah, well." I walk my gloved fingers across the tabletop, and jump them on Anchor Arm's spoon. His spoon flips into the air and clatters down in the other guy's soup bowl. "I never said thaaat. I mean, I am just eight years old. You don't really have to do anything I say. Unless you want to."

He gets ready to smack me in the face, because we're being the most cliché people ever and of course he's going to lose his temper at me in five seconds. I get ready to not move. If he chickens out, I win. If he slaps someone who looks like a kid, then everyone will be shocked and afraid, and I can fall to the floor and act stunned, then get up and be super calm about it and make a show of forgiving him while still being the mysterious, barely-restrained loose cannon everyone thinks Captain Youngblood is. And then I win.

But I don't get the chance to not move. A glowing pink coil of energy, like a whip, snaps out and catches him around his hand bobble. Wrist. It's the other man at the table. With a yank, he pulls his friend's arm down with a light grunt. It slams against the table, rattling the silverware.

When I look at Anchor Arm's friend, I expect to see him pleading, ready to grovel at my feet for mercy. Instead, he's all relaxed. Maybe even laughing. The guy actually has a sort of chuckle on his face, a friendly We're sharing a joke here; typical Anchor Armyou know how the poor man gets.

Um. Do I know this guy? Like I said, he's dressed in almost all white, except for a black triangle of a shirt at his chest. He also has on huge black gloves that look like my cowboy ones, and a thick black belt around his waist. And there's that huge puffy red and white cape too. The collar on that thing is like fwoosh. His Dr. Spectra devil horn hair is the blackest shine you can get in hair. His calm attitude stabs me in the guts. If I had skin, this is the definitely the first guy I've met in a long while who would make my skin crawl. But I don't have skin. I don't know who this is.

"Goodness me, I'm so terribly sorry. Allow me to extend my most formal apologies." The man touches two fingers to the two clasps on his red and white cape, briefly shutting his eyes. The smile doesn't disappear. "My name is Vlad Plasmius."

… Eep. Yeeaahhh, I know who this is. I mean, we've never met, but I don't think we have to. I'm Captain Youngblood, champion of the rebel skeletons. He's Vlad Plasmius, the grown-up halfa who can beat up Phantom, and guardian of the only other permanent portal we usually talk about in the Ghost Zone. Does anything else even need to be said? What's he even doing in the Limbo sector? I thought his portal was in Haykees. Shouldn't he be, I dunno, guarding it?

Plasmius retracts his pink whip with a flick of his hand. The energy dissipates like mist. "And what my friend Romeo here means, dear boy, is that we would be delighted to provide a strapping young orphan boy like you with all the funds you could possibly need that you've been unable to procure for yourself."

My smile wrinkles. "Huh?"

I know what all those words mean. I'm smart like that. But huh?

The man reaches into his vest, I guess, and pulls out the biggest stack of cash I've ever seen, except on game shows. He drops it on the table next to his bowl, where the spoon I flipped is still sitting, then pulls out another stack of cash even bigger than that one. And then another. It's like he just goes around wearing a whole padded vest stuffed full of money to protect him when he gets shot by lasers or something. I don't even have a clue how valuable cash even is in the Ghost Zone, so is that a good idea, or a wasteful one? Does our economy even work anymore now that King Pariah's gone and half our money is rocks picked up off the ground? I actually do not know. I don't really care about booty.

"Now." After four bundles, the man laces his fingers under his chin, leaning his elbows on the table. "What exactly was your usual pay rate, again?"

"Uh." My eyes dart to the money, then to him again. That stuff looks real. That can't be real. It's too much. He's showing off. This is weird. What's going on? "I… I… I don't have a set rate for what I take. I just take whatever people give me. It, uh, averages out to be about 900 /d/ a person, I guess."

That didn't sound very pirate captain. That sounded very domino punching bag king.

Plasmius holds my gaze. His eyes glimmer as scarlet as the feathers of a phoenix that just got shot in the heart and is bleeding all over the place. I clench my fists at my waist, refusing to let my hands jitter. We raise eyebrows at each other. I bite my tongue. Then he casually glances down, super easily and without concern, as if we weren't having a contest at all. My shoulders collapse, then tense up again. Oh boy. Plasmius splits one stack of bills in half, then in half a few more times just because he wants to make a show of it. He pushes a small pile down the table to me.

"Will that help to cover your current needs? I would certainly hate to see a poor orphan such as yourself starving in these bitterly cold skies on a night like this one."

It's four 1,000 /d/ bills. I've never held that much money in my life without stealing it from somebody. And he still has like ten times that much laid out all over the table. Is he showing off for me, or for Anchor Arm? Anchor Arm looks interested too. So do a lot of people in Ruby's. Wow. There's a lot of buff guys in Founded Town. I did not know that before now.

"Y-yeah."

"Good. I'm glad we had this little chat and managed to work out an agreement then, Captain." Plasmius rises straight out of his seat and into the air, cape billowing in an imaginary breeze he just invented, and looks around. Everyone looks at him. He smiles. "In fact, I'm feeling so generous, that I'll return everyone's cash in full out of my own pocket, no questions asked."

Generous. That was the word.

"The dear captain here said he collects an average of 900 /d/ from each of you every time he comes around. I'll even throw in some extra on the side. We'll make it 1,000 /d/ a person. Now, now, this is a gift; no need to repay me. How does that sound?"

People cheer. Well, most people, except a few who are the ones really scared of me. They're looking at me, trying to figure out if this is okay. They're wondering if I'm going to freak out. I hover there by his table, pleading and praying that my face isn't burning as green as it feels behind my freckles. I don't even know what to say to that. Okay. I've had people try fighting me before, and I've had people try to figure me out or sway me with kindness before, but no one's ever straight-up invalidated me like he just did. Plasmius' fangs glitter in his smile when he looks at me. I know his kind too. If I say something to him, he'll twist it around somehow so that I look like the stupid one. I'm a brat, but I'm a smart brat. I'm not stupid. I don't care if people think I'm annoying, but I'm not going to let anyone think I'm stupid.

Instead of saying anything to Plasmius as he starts going around, tossing out money like salt on crackers, I turn around very calmly and carry my hat over to the bar counter. Most of the stools are empty. I choose an open spot right between two people on purpose, because it's funny when they try to decide what they're going to do about it. One gets up and leaves without making an excuse. The other just pulls his drink closer and leans away. I climb onto the empty bar stool, and shake all the loose change out of my hat in front of Ruby. It's mostly dirty bills, some of them from the Living Realm. A couple of stone coins click and ping their way to the floor.

Ruby folds her arms. Her ghost skin is gray like mine, but one of the lightest shades I've ever seen. "What's your poison today, sailor? Root beer?"

"Ew, no way! That stuff's gross. Just gimme all your underberry juice. And a soft pretzel with extra salt, and a cheese sandwich with fries, and, uh…" I pick up a tiny plastic menu from the counter, then put it down again. "One of those cups of dirt, but I know it's not really dirt. The one with the Oreos and the Gummi worms. That's what I want."

She lifts her shoulders. Her earrings twinkle again, and there are actually eyeballs inside the ruby triangles on her ears that watch the other customers (Mostly Plasmius, I'll bet), even though the eyes on her face are on me. "Fresh out of Oreos. Someone blasted the merchant ship that was coming through with the latest delivery."

"Okay, look." I fold my arms. "They were in my way, and I'm in a really bad mood right now, so just get me the most sugary thing you've got and put it in my sandwich."

"Whatever you say." She reaches out to pat my hair. "Stop shooting down our ships, would you, pumpkin?"

I smack her arm away. My hand hovers in the air two seconds longer than it should, clenching into a fist. I let it drop. "Sure, whatever. Captain Youngblood takes no prisoners and makes no promises."

She chuckles. She chuckles at me. "Is this to stay or to go?"

Sitarist's film is supposed to be on TV after whatever game show comes on tonight. But he's gone now, so I guess I've got no obligation to get back to the ship for awhile. If she were even still in the Ghost Zone, I mean.

"Uh." I shrug. "To stay, I guess."

"Then if you would kindly skedaddle over to the corner, I'll have that right out." Ruby makes that two-finger walky sign and nods towards an empty booth on the right side of the restaurant. Oh yeah. I'm not supposed to be at the bar because I'm just a kid, even if I'm smarter than most of the grown-ups I know. Pretty much all the grown-ups I know, except Skulker and Technus, and maybe that guy who roasted me over there. Maybe. But I'm definitely smarter than Ember. She's wicked cool, but she's not smart-cool.

I take back my change, then grab a napkin roll of silverware for no reason and take it to the booth table with me. There's nothing to do while I try very hard to ignore Plasmius delighting the crowd in the background with his tricks. So I make a catapult with the spoon and the fork and start flinging the knife around, until it hits the window and I realize I should probably be flinging the fork instead.

When I check to see if there's a crack in the dirty glass, I catch a glimpse of something fuzzy and black outside. Or maybe not fuzzy, so much as… shadowy. My eyes track the shadowy shape over to the floating motorcycle tied up at the post outside, like a sailboat at a pier. Then my eyes go to the two people who got off the motorcycle and are coming through the swinging panel doors.

Oh no.

I spread my fingers out on the table, trying to figure out if I should jump up and hustle to the bathroom, but it's too late. This is not great. Kitty and Thirteen are already inside, so all I can do is hope they don't see me. Otherwise I'll have to talk to them and collect my fee for what's been happening since me and Ember left the Ghost Zone, and I can't do that right now. I don't want to assign a number value to this job.

My fingers tap. I hold up one hand to cover my cheek and look away out the window some more. That's not really great, 'cuz it's dark out there and light in here, so I can see my freckles and buck teeth reflected perfectly. I can see the two of them too, behind me. Thirteen tells Kitty to hang out by the jukebox on the left side while he "ties up a few loose ends with Captain Kid." She nods, and they exchange a quick kiss. Then he starts hobbling straight over to me. His skull necklace jingles around. Very slowly, I turn around and prop my arm up over the top of my booth seat.

You can tell a lot about what Thirteen's life in the Living Realm was like from the way his shadow moves in front of him as much as possible, even when that doesn't make sense because of the angle of the lights and stuff. His shadow's alive. Well, so not alive anymore, but it has a mind of its own, and two glowing green eyes. They blink on and off pediocrily. I squint. So that's who was spying on me outside.

I've seen Thirteen walk without Shadow before when he has to, but he doesn't like it. You can tell that from the way he pauses sometimes, almost limping, like even after all this time in the Ghost Zone, walking's still new to him. When his fists aren't stuffed in his pockets and you watch him real closely, you can notice him making a certain movement with his hand, like he's tapping the ground with a cane before every step. Or he'll reach out to touch the walls or chairs around him as he tiptoes. And, well, the shadow's purpose in their past lives becomes appariti… clear to everyone after that then, right? I mean, come on. That was obvious.

Shadow pauses at my table, and Thirteen pauses next to him. I fold my arms and cross one of my legs over the other, waiting for him to address me first. I deserve this.

Thirteen makes a fist with his right hand and slaps the knuckles to his chest. I guess it's a salute. When he smiles, his lips twist up like Gummi Worms. "Well, well. Our good Captain Youngblood finally made it back to home port. It's been a couple since last I saw you around, skipper. How've you been?" His eyes flick over my cowboy clothes. He raises his eyebrow. Dirty blond is such an ugly color against the gray of his skin. "I was just about ready to think you'd forgotten about little old me. Kitty and I are all packed up and ready to slip outta here. Two more nights, and we were gonna ditch this town for good."

I glower at him. I don't know why. I'm not even mad at him. Not any more than I'm mad at Phantom or his sister. There's no reason why I should even be pretending to be mad. I greet him as, "Thirteen."

"Johnny," he corrects me. I think he's the only one in the entire Ghost Zone who actually calls himself by his real name, except maybe his girlfriend. She probably calls him mushier things too. Thirteen glances around real carefully. He even checks under the table. Then he gives me a weird, quizzical look. "Where's your friend the dodo? He run off to cry over Pariah's coffin or something?"

"Yeah, Sit couldn't make it today. I'm all yours, grease monkey."

His hands go up defensively. "Easy on the overbite there, tyke. I was just asking. Here." Thirteen digs through the pockets of his sweeping gray coat. It falls almost to his ankles, so there's a lot of pockets to check. "I brought you a free souvenir from up top."

It's hard to keep frowning when someone brings you a free souvenir. I manage.

Thirteen finds what he's looking for and holds it up so I can see. It's a keychain with a little pirate ship dangling from the chain. It has a tiny skeleton standing on the deck. I try to smile, but it's no use. I don't even have keys. I'm not old enough to drive. Even so, Thirteen sets it down with a click, then slaps a wad of gray-green bills on the table in front of me too. They unroll. Flop. I blink without processing their value. "That's it?"

"The second half of your compensation." He grins and reaches for the back of the booth seat across from me, bracing all his weight on the leg closer to it to help him keep his balance. As he does, Shadow flickers up his waist, ready to help him sit if he decides he wants to. "For keeping the Phantom kiddo distracted. Hey, we agreed on a fair price. You didn't think I wasn't gonna follow through with my payment, didya?"

I shrug without saying anything. I don't take the useless money either. Hartman's skeletal face stares back at me from the crumpled green paper. It's weird how all skeletons look different. I mean, you'd think they'd all look the same since they have skulls and bones. Actually, lots of ghosts think all skeletons look the same, but that's a stereotype they just use so they don't feel bad about being mean to them. All skeletons are as different as ghosts are. You just have to get to know them, is all.

"Yeah. So that's the skivvy. My debt's repaid and my conscience is clear. That's how your little business works, don't it? We're all squared up?" Thirteen's fingers drum. "Thanks for distracting the halfa longer than you first planned so me and my girl could snatch a little time alone up top."

When his fingers drum again, mine tighten. I lower my head, all my teeth burning. This would be a really good time to be wearing my hat with a brim. My cheeks are facially… philanth… that's not the right word. Sitarist would know the right word. My cheeks are actually steaming as they turn hot in the cold air.

"So that's what you wanted me to distract Phantom all night for? It was all just for a kiss?"

Thirteen tugs at the cord of his glowing green necklace, then makes a teeter motion with his hand back and forth. "Hey, I don't mean to go into the details with an ankle-biter, but we managed to get a little farther than just a kiss, you dig?"

My fingers tighten even tighter than they were already tightened. I want them to go even tighter, but my gloves are too thick, and the padding gets all creased. There's droplets at the fingertips from my hands getting sweaty. "I don't get it. Why couldn't you just kiss in the Ghost Zone? Other people kiss in the Ghost Zone all the time. Even you guys. I've seen you kiss a million times."

He chuckles and rubs the back of Shadow's head. Shadow leans into it, keeping one green eye trained on me as if to ask me if I'm jealous. "Alas, poor youth. The old birdbrain never gave you the talk about the birds and the bees?"

He means Sitarist. I shake my head. "No. Just the fish and the crabs. Flying ghosts rule the top of the Zone, walking skeletons rule the bottom. I already figured out all that stuff."

Thirteen smirks when I say that. "Then this will be real fun for me, little man. So. You still the kid inside who never wants to grow up?"

I don't even know if I'm mad anymore. I am, but I'm not at the same time. Does that make sense? I clench my fingers around my elbows and lean a bit over the table. "Hey. I'm just as smart and mature as you are. It's just that I'm stuck in a kid's body forever, 'cuz this is how old I was when I died, and only ghost kids who were actually born in the Zone can grow up if they want to. Your Zoneborn girlfriend's told you that, right? Spoiler alert."

He laughs when I say that. "Yeah. Sure. Every game has its loopholes, Cap'n Crunch, and when you get to die at my age, you get pretty good at playing your cards just so. Well, it's like this."

Shadow perks up when Thirteen makes a move. The wraith-y creature skitters down the padded bench, staying just far enough in front of Thirteen's hand that Thirteen has room to sit, but not so far away that they break contact with each other. For the first time, Thirteen slides down the seat across from me. His hands come together, palms almost touching, as Shadow nestles across his lap under the table.

"Two ghosts who like each other very much sometimes get the urge to show how much they love each other in real physical, affectionate ways. Now normally, this would make a million and one ghostly babies, and not all of us wanna have to deal with the little tykes for all eternity, you get?" Thirteen spreads his arms without waiting for my "I get" or "I don't get." "In the Living Realm, it's official: Us ghosts are black and white and dead all over. Every part. Ghosts can only have babies in the Ghost Zone, kiddo. Cuddling and kissing out in the Living Realm means no worries."

I keep my arms crossed, elbows on the table the entire time. I stare at him until like after maybe three minutes, I guess, Ruby's skeleton helper sets my giant pretzel and my sandwich plate down so the plate clicks on the table in front of me. When I drop my eyes to it, I see that the checkerboard green and white wrappy napkin thing at the bottom of the plastic basket is already coated with greasy fingerprint stains. Ghosts leave fingerprints, but only on Ghost Zone stuff. Lots of people don't know that, but Sitarist showed me how you can track people's ghostly residue for whole miles this one time. Skeletons are tricky. They don't leave fingerprints because they're just bones. I like letting my crew handle stealing jobs for exactly that reason.

"You ask the bird man to give you the real deets when you get home. Maybe over a glass of warm milk and cookies to really hit the spot and let it all sink in. Ha. Sink. That could be a pirate joke."

"Sitarist got his head cut off when we had a fight with Phantom and his sister."

The sarcastic grin plunges from Thirteen's face. It could have cracked rock. It probably hit Shadow. "Oof. You pulling my leg right now?"

"Nuh-uh. All true."

"Yikes."

That's the actual first time I realize something I wish I didn't. My first bite of sandwich almost falls out of my mouth. I choke it back, coughing as the too-large bite moves past the back of my tongue.

I left Sitarist's head by Phantom's portal. I just left it sitting there on the ground. I didn't even think about it until now. Not even once. Maybe Sitarist isn't the only one who didn't care about his partner as much as he maybe could have while he had the chance. Would he have forgotten my head like that if I'd been the skeleton?

Suddenly I'm all full. I drop my sandwich on my plate. The top piece of bread falls off. Thirteen probably thinks there's something wrong with my bad hand, because the flickering glance he shoots me is all pity. I press two fingers and my thumb just above my eyebrow and turn to stare out the dusty window, holding my elbow. I don't know how a window can be dusty when the building floats and there's not really much wind in the Ghost Zone. I guess it's green dust, so it's more like goopy slime chunks. That makes sense.

It was an accident. I didn't even think about it.

Whatever. It's not like I wanted to see his creepy head staring at me all the time when I'm trying to sleep anyway. You can't just keep body parts of your dead friends in your house like decorations. I know Sitarist always said he wanted his head to be buried in the solid rock in front of Sagittarius Light's empty sarcophagus at Bonewalkers' Keep in the Nether sector, buuut that would be so much work just to put him somewhere so lame and sprinkle some dirt on his vacuum space eyes. What he really would have wanted is to be free. He would have wanted to be next to Phantom's portal so he can spy on everyone. He always wanted to be controlling.

Maybe someone's hurled his face into the corner of the canyon walls by now. Or drop-kicked his head into a pool of lava. Maybe he's got spiders and worms crawling around in his eye sockets, and in his old talking mouth. I bet there are. I hope he likes it there. I bet he does, so I'm not gonna move him.

My sandwich is cold, and there's no ham in it. Food's always cold in the Ghost Zone, which is mostly why it's terrible here, unless you're eating ice cream, 'cuz then it never melts. Melted ice cream doesn't turn into ghost ice cream, though. I mean, that's what Ember said, but I never tried it. Since her hair is fire, she would know. I usually like Ember. She gets me.

But always having cold food doesn't make sense, because there are lots of ghosts who have fire powers and stuff, and there are other things in the Ghost Zone that can be hot, but apparently not the food that I want to eat, because everything is always terrible for dead people sometimes. It's almost funny. When me, Sitarist, and Skulker would go on picnics to the Living Realm, my job was to bring the bread. Skulker would get us different meat all the time. Then Sitarist would make me sandwiches with ham while I kept lookout for people. He'd always cut the crusts off.

Thirteen sighs through his teeth. His hand reaches towards me, the wrist and heel part actually scraping along the table while his crooked fingers stay pointed up. He doesn't touch my arm, but he comes close. "Hey. I'm sorry your friend got exorcised on accident. That really wasn't part of my plan. It blows. You let me know if there's anything Kitty and I can do to ease the pain before we split town, okay?"

I pick up my sandwich and try to think of something, but after I take another bite of cold cheese and not-totally-grilled bread, the only thing I can do is shake my head at him. "I mean, I dunno? I miss Sitarist, but sometimes stuff happens and then you die. We could've chosen to hide our lairs far away somewhere like some guys do, but we didn't. It's not our style. Me and Sit are adventurers. We started taking jobs to squeeze through the portals and mess around with adults because we like the action, we like doing this kind of stuff. For a skeleton like him, dying's just an occu… a job hazard, ayuh. It doesn't matter if he was kinda famous in the skeleton community. He knew getting exorcised can happen to anyone. We knew doing jobs in the Living Realm like we do would be scary, but we do it anyway. We had to. We loved it."

"You're taking this pretty well, kiddo."

Huh. Thirteen almost sounds impressed. His arms are folded now, and he looks me up and down with a thin smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. It makes me pause, still chewing as I think about it.

"Am I? I mean, it's every ghost and skeleton for himself, really. That's the law of the Ghost Zone. You don't get attached and you do your thing and try to get by. It's always been like this. Someone trips a guy, not even his close friends help him up. It's just… people for themselves. I'm used to living like this. It's just how I grew up, you know? I'm okay. Right now, I'm okay."

"Who're you moving onto next, then? Got a spare skeleton handy?"

He says it with scorn in his voice, the way other ghosts always do when they talk about skeletons. Sitarist would squawk at him for it if he heard the jive. Jab. I don't get it. The skeletons are all either dead or monsters from this dimension too, just like us. Why do all the ghosts hate them so much just 'cuz most of them live in the cities on the bottom level of the Zone?

Sitarist would want me to squawk at Thirteen for being rude. I pretend I don't notice.

"Yeah, I think I need a break from working with a partner. Maybe I'll take a break from doing jobs too and stay with my parents in Cliffscape for awhile, so I can think. Since Sitarist is gone, there's a lot to do so I can get my crew ship-shape again before the season turns and the currents shift around, ayuh. I mean, I only lost one ship in the Living Realm. I've got a whole fleet to go. Captain Youngblood will be back in action real soon."

I let my gaze fall on the table again. My pretzel doesn't look as appetizing as I hoped it would be. Ruby's guy still hasn't brought me my cup of dirt and Gummi Worms yet. Oh yeah, I should probably grab that money before Thirteen changes his mind and tries to take it back. I brush it towards me and let all the coins patter on my lap. The keychain too. It's kind of dumb, but it's neat. "Thanks for paying your bill without me asking, though. Sometimes when I do my jobs, messing with adults and stuff, people don't come back and give me the rest of the money. That's why I always take most of it up front, and I always get their DNA so I can track them almost anywhere in the whole Zone."

(I don't really know how to do that without Sitarist, but he doesn't need to know that.)

Thirteen chuckles and rubs Shadow's neck with both hands. "And when your clients don't pay up, you fishtail your blimpy boat right over, all cannons firing like turkey pistols."

"Huh?" I shrug. "Yeah, I guess so. I do that a lot. What's the point of having cannons if I'm not gonna use them?"

"Truer words, no honorable captain has ever spoken." Thirteen puts his hands on the table and stands up. His cool green skull necklace swings, bouncing against his chest. My eyes track the shiny metal. "Well, I get that you're a kid and cooties are a scream, but if you ever decide you want a nice girlfriend, come find me and I'll try to hook you up. Professional matchmaker, you know."

I did not make the oblingering "Love is blind" joke today. I am very mature for my age.

"Hey." I hold up my hand as he starts to follow Shadow back to the jukebox. I'm not blocking his way or anything, just kind of holding it up as I chew, but Thirteen still looks at me. I bring my hand back to my sandwich and swallow. "Can you buy me the biggest milkshake here, with marshmallows and chocolate syrup swirled in? But not with the almond bits sprinkled on. I don't like the almond bits. C'mon, Sitarist's dead and I'm almost an orphan now," I wheedle when he looks like he wants to say no.

Thirteen makes a weird face with his mouth, like tightening his teeth or something, but he scratches his head and nods. I finish the sandwich while he asks Ruby for my shake, and am halfway through the fries when he comes back. He thunks the elegant triangle-shaped glass on the table in front of me. Then he grabs like two or three of my fries (I didn't count because he grabbed them really fast) and tosses them in his mouth. "On the house, Captain Kiddo."

"Only because I asked you to buy it."

"And I bought it." Thirteen flicks his hand near his forehead like he's saluting me. He's got freckles. I didn't know he had freckles. "Well, if you don't need me and Kitty any time soon, we're ducking out for the night, pup. Drop by the inn on the corner and ask for us if you need a place to stay the night or something. Catch you on the flip. Good luck with the skeleton uprising, if you're still doing that."

My mouth is full of milkshake, so I just wave. Shadow oozes off. Thirteen limps after him to go see Kitty. She's been leaning against the jukebox picking at her crazy red nails this whole time. She smiles when he walks up, because he's so important to her. Even with Shadow's help, it takes him a second to find her, and she guides his arms into place and off again when they hug. Helping each other comes naturally to them like that.

They leave Ruby's way too easily. The little wood doors swing behind them. Soon his motorcycle is roaring at the post outside. They speed past my window and fly away alongside one of the cables that connects Ruby's to the actual inn. After I swallow, I dip one of my fries in my shake. Then I lean my head back against the window, and put the straw up to my lips. It catches on my tooth. The light's not very bright in the little diner, and all the lights are blue, if I forgot to mention that. I probably forgot because I've been here like a million times with Sitarist before, so it's just normal for me and I guess I didn't say it.

People are talking with their friends. I know some of these guys, like Sean's other writer friend who always drinks the spicy pumpkin stuff with him here when there are pumpkins growing in the Living Realm. Lots of us get paid to steal those from gardens, because that's just not a thing the merchant ships do, since they go to Fairy World sometimes and I guess they don't grow pumpkins in Fairy World. The closest thing we have to pumpkins in the Ghost Zone are these purple gourds that taste like watermelon. When the season's good, Ruby pays me 300 /d/ for every pound of the whole pumpkin, and sometimes she'll make me a free ice cream cone when I come in with my wagon. Not ice cream with the almond bits. I don't like the almond bits.

But there's a trick to get more money for the job, 'cuz if you hold onto them when the season starts getting colder in the Living Realm and there aren't as many pumpkins around anymore, you can bring them in and sometimes she'll pay 500 or 600 /d/ a pound, and maybe extra if she likes you. I think she knows I figured that out and I like to wait with the pumpkins, but she pretends not to, and she pays me the price I want on them anyway. We're cool. We're like this. I'm crossing my fingers, if that's not obvious. Not crossing them like I'm lying, but like Ruby and I are close buddies. I like her.

I try to sip my milkshake again. It's mostly too thick to squeeze up the straw, so I give up and use my fries as a spoon. I do that until I run out of fries, and just use two fingers of my glove. It's gross, and the window is grimy and there are stains on my seat, which I probably also forgot to mention when I sat down too. I didn't notice them earlier. Usually Sit's the one who notices that kind of stuff and complains about it. He likes it when the seats are clean. That makes no sense, because he always either sits on the table, or on my shoulder, so he doesn't even touch the seats. He's just weird that way. He doesn't sit on my hat when we come here, though. We can't wear hats in Ruby's Place. She doesn't like it.

He's not here, and I hang out for a long time after my milkshake and pretzel and fries are done, playing with my bandana and spinning my new keychain around on the table while I try to figure out if it's worth sticking some of my coins in the jukebox, because I've never tried using it before in all my forty-plus years of being dead and I dunno.

Of course, Sitarist doesn't like supporting music that comes from electric boxes. He still remembers the days when the skeletons made music that filled the whole Ghost Zone somehow, because apparently that was a thing, but only a skeleton thing, I guess? So if I got out of my seat then he might worry about where I'm going and how I'm doing, but he shouldn't, because I'm doing okay.

How much money do I even have after buying that whole mess of food? I lay out the change I took from everyone in the restaurant, and the stuff I got from Thirteen, and what Vlad practically showered me in and dried me off with. 4,520 /d/. That's not enough. Not even close.

I check the weird cat clock on the wall. Again. My visits to Ruby's always seem like they're spaced out just long enough that I forget how ugly that clock is just in time for me to show up here and remember that I hate it all over again. It's a tiger past mountain lion now. Sitarist's film hasn't started yet. The rest of my crew are going to be laying out their sleeping bags and cots on The Soaring Dane's deck over at the drive-in show, because we always watch it together. I always pretend to like doing that, even though I have no idea what's going on like half the time because the voices are hard to hear and the pictures are all in black and white and there's no action going on, and sometimes there's a mast and sails in my face. Everyone in old movies just stands around and talks about drinking and dolls.

Yeah, those films are weird. Sitarist was weird. I just like the film about the guy whose train engine gets stolen during the Civil War and he goes all the way to the north to get it back, and this girl thinks she came to rescue him but he didn't even know she was gone, and he did it all just to get back the train engine he loved. His name's Buster. He keeps his face straight all the time when there's chaos going on and he wears this flat hat probably made of straw, and it's fun for me. It's so funny, the way he acts the same where he never laughs and never cries even once.

Aw, man. My sleep schedule got all messed up when I was in Phantom's prison bottle. I'm too tired to go back to Summersphere tonight, but not tired enough yet to go see if I can stay with Thirteen and Kitty at the inn. There's no way I'm telling my parents about this. And it'd be impossible to get back to Phantom's portal now. There's probably wild animals out in the canyon. I just wanna stick around Ruby's and see if anyone's got any more jobs for me. I wanna fight something. I wanna pull on my huge hat and dance on Ruby's tables. I wanna shoot lasers through the roof. I wanna wrestle a ghost crocodile. I'm pretty sure there are ghost crocodiles. There are skeleton crocodiles. Or maybe those are alligators. If you think it's hard to tell when they're alive, try figuring out how to tell when they're skeletons. That's really hard.

And the afterlife just kinda goes on, I guess.