(Posted March 6, 2019)

A Road of Our Own

Year of Water, Spring of the Aligned Raindrops

Saturday, May 15th, 2004 - 6:31 am


Molly. 5:20 am. Hey. R u up yet?

Kevin. 5:22 am. No.

Molly. 5:25 am. Haha. How is Cali?

Sigh.

An hour ago, Kevin had unplugged his phone from its short charging cord specifically so he could roll to the other side of the bed. It was nice and cool against the window, and felt amazing when combined with the warm blankets. He spent twenty minutes just staring at the pale gray screen before he sent his thumbs to tap out a reply.

Okay I guess. Made it safely. Uncle Denzel invited kids my age over and we ate pizza. His cat is a snooty know-it-all but she means well. Not a lot of power outlets in my room tho :( Hard to squeeze behind bed. How is Montana?

He typed each word carefully, double and triple checking for spelling mistakes. Molly was dyslexic, but he didn't know her well enough to be sure whether it was easier for her to read when words were spelled out, or when they were abbreviated. It was five minutes before she replied.

Pretty lame.

That message came through in its own bubble, followed by three gray dots that signaled she was typing something else. Kevin continued staring at the screen, his cheek resting on his hand and the cord of his lucky shark's tooth necklace in his mouth. One of his feet stuck out from beneath the blankets, and every few minutes, two of the three Crocker family birds (Dwayne and Pile of Goo) would peck at his toes like they were chubby little worms. Last night, after lying in bed thinking about memory-ghosts, Kevin had begged Miss Idaho to watch over him until he fell asleep. She'd flatly refused. Instead, she'd vanished into the depths of the house and returned with the raven and the maybe-conure perched on her spine. One… looking considerably more bird-like than the other. Kevin had wanted to protest, but Miss Idaho brought them all into his room in the end, and Kevin had reluctantly admitted they'd be much better company than the spiders in Uncle Denzel's spider hatchery.

6 cousins. read Molly's next text. No space. Sharing room with 3 girls. Slpbag on floor :p

New text, a few minutes later: Dad has it worse tho. Only place for him was couch and he can't get comfy. Outside lights in his eyes.

Again: Aunt Mandy has dogs. Cuddly by day, nightmares at night.

Joke's on you. Kevin typed back. I have my own room to myself.

But no cousins, he couldn't help remembering as he flopped his head back against his pillow. The curtains were drawn back, hanging like musty bats, but not a lot of sunlight was getting in just yet. Kevin sighed at the ceiling. The room had this one spiral light bulb which flickered constantly, but no ceiling fan. He was awake, but had no real reason to get up.

Although maybe he should. He could leave his phone up here in his room, and pretend to be so busy doing something else, he wouldn't notice when Molly replied. Then he wouldn't feel obligated to respond to Mommy's missed call, either. She hadn't left a voice message. Kevin checked his phone again and scowled. He really needed that WiFi password. That was as good a reason as any to start his day…

One of the birds pecked the bottom of his foot again. All evidence pointed to Dwayne. Kevin pushed himself up and stared at the raven crouched on his knee. Dwayne, in turn, stared back at him. He gave a squawk and rustled his feathers with a soft shuffle. Then, with a final decisive pluck, he flew over to one of the stacks of boxes and perched himself there instead.

Pile of Goo, however, remained where he was. Kevin reached forward and stroked the little green bird's cheek(?) with one finger, then grabbed his glasses and oozed out of bed. His clothes were still in his suitcase. Kevin opened it to grab a shirt, but stopped, hand hovering. That two-legged memory ghost kitten, Cyborg, lay curled up on top of his underwear. Nope. Kevin slammed the suitcase shut, snatched his phone, and headed into the hall instead. He'd deal with that problem when there were more witnesses awake to suffer through it with him.

Let's see… Ask for WiFi password first, then get breakfast? If he waited long enough, would someone cook something up for him? It was technically his first full day in the Crocker household, after all. He deserved pancakes for that or something, or waffles. He'd also accept a crepe or a fat blueberry muffin. Grandparents were supposed to be all fawning and motherly, right? Eh, it wouldn't hurt to ask. He should at least talk to Grandmama this morning before he went off and did anything else–he didn't want her to think he was avoiding her on purpose, after all.

Wait. What was that sputtering sound? A broken vent? A leaking pipe? Or…

Miss Idaho and Smokey both sat in the hallway, facing Grandmama's bedroom door with their ears pricked up. Kevin flicked a finger at the black tomcat. "Yo, what's with him? This is the first time I've seen either of you mad at something other than me. Is breakfast late for you guys too? I'm heading down there now, if anyone wants food."

"Shh," Miss Idaho said. "Dennis needs a moment to process his own empathy."

"Uh, sorry. Who's Dennis?"

She sighed. "Smokey, dear. You really ought to keep a list. You see, 'Smokey' doesn't remember it, but Dennis was his old name." Miss Idaho licked her forepaw and ran it over one ear. Without awaiting a response, she said, "Something's upset him. I haven't worked up the amount of care required to request he elaborate."

Okay, sure. He'd allow it. Kevin listened with them for a moment. The noises behind the door didn't sound, like… great, or anything. Kind of sad, actually. Um. Tucking his shirt into his pajama pants, he asked, "Is my Grandmama crying in there?"

Several seconds passed without an answer. Miss Idaho flipped her tail from one side to the other. Then, not taking her eyes from the door, she said simply, "Yes."

Kevin studied the door too. Silence. He scratched behind his neck, then across his throat. "So, uh, should I ask if she wants to talk about it or something?"

"Hmm… Ordinarily, I'd tell you no. 'She's only mortal, after all,' I'd say, and whatever pain she's experiencing would all be over soon, so why waste your time running damage control on inadvertent emotions?" Miss Idaho turned her head, whiskers twitching. She upturned her paw in something like a shrug. "But then, witches are not ordinary mortals. Perhaps, for once, it is in fact worth stepping in."

Kevin came forward, hand raised to knock. Smokey/Dennis hissed and slunk to Miss Idaho's other side before sitting down again. To Miss Idaho, Kevin said, "You're a jerk. You know that?"

"Hmph," she said, not sounding offended in the slightest. She lifted her chin and placed one paw across her chest. "I'm a korrigan, dear. Being kind of heart while in my most beautiful form isn't in my nature. If it's empty pity you want, talk to me when I look human. There's a reason I caught your uncle's romantic interest back in the day, unappealing as that form's face may be…"

Kevin knocked on the door three times, slowly. The whimpering sound on the other side died down to sniffles. Kevin licked his lips. "Um… Grandmama? Are you okay in there? You… sound kind of upset about something."

Footsteps. Smokey/Dennis mewed. Miss Idaho pretended not to care. The door swung inward to reveal an elderly woman with dark blue eyes and thick glasses just like Kevin's own, although her puffy hair had turned white over the years. She wore rose-colored pajamas, and a crocheted shawl around her shoulders. The bedroom behind her had been painted pale green with darker stripes. Kevin noticed mocha brown bedsheets and a spiral-cord telephone on the bedside table, but not much else before his grandmother grabbed his head and crushed his body against hers in something like a hug.

"Oh my goodness! Good morning, Kevin. It's so wonderful to meet you at last, dear!" Her tone was genuine, even though she sniffled at the end. The frames of her glasses clacked against his own. "Terribly long bus ride to Dimmsdale from Idaho, I imagine? Oh, I just hate that your mother chose to send you all this way all on your own."

"We needed a break," Kevin said, hugging her back. He tried to keep the pinching teeth out of his words when he said it. He drank in that wrinkly old-person scent of her, and the softness of her hug. He'd never have a grandparent to hug before and it was… kind of nice. Like he was actually part of a family for once. He tightened his grip around her shoulders instead of loosening it. "Uh, the bus ride was nice, actually. Kind of a welcome break from doing homework in my room, I guess."

"Well, I'm overjoyed to hear it, Kevin dear." Grandmama pulled back, rapidly blinking her eyes. Kevin sucked on his bottom lip.

"Yeah. It was fine. Uh. Is there anything I can do to, um… Help you out? I know I just got here last night, and we haven't…" Kevin pressed his hand behind his neck. "Gee. Actually, I guess this is our first time talking face to face. Well, uh, I just wanted you to know you can probably talk to me about stuff or whatever, if you need to. I'm good at listening."

"It's… it's all right, Kevin. Thank you. I appreciate it. I do." Grandmama's eyes welled with tears. She took off her glasses and wiped her face with the end of her sleeve. "You wouldn't know anything about him, but… My dear brother Albert died this morning. He's gone now."

"Oh…" Mommy had never mentioned her Uncle Albert before. Kevin gripped his arm. Yikes. He'd never actually had to, uh… comfort someone who'd lost a sibling. Especially a stranger (even if they were technically related). Erm… How exactly was he supposed to go about this? "Wow, they sure deliver news fast these days, huh?"

Grandmama held her glasses by her waist, folding the arms in and out. "No. No. They'll be arriving soon to deliver the news in person, I'm sure. I haven't been officially told yet, but…" She lifted her gaze to meet his. "… I sensed it when his spirit let go. He's gone. My little Bertie's gone…"

Her gaze pierced his skull on a skewer. Kevin's breath stung inside his throat. His fingers pinched his elbow. Was she expecting some kind of reaction about her 'I sensed it' comment? Did she know the whole truth about the Crocker family being witches? Because Uncle Denzel didn't even seem to know for sure, from what little information Kevin had gleaned from him. Had Miss Idaho ever spoken to her about magic? Based on what Uncle Denzel had said last night, Miss Idaho used to talk to Grandmama before he came into town. Kevin studied his grandmother while she studied him. Had she heard him talking to the cats outside the door? And was she wondering how much he knew, too?

I should ask. Surely she's seen the memory ghosts before? Maybe she can give me some advice.

But I can't talk to her now! Her brother just died! She needs some time alone without me making her think about complicated things. The only thing Kevin knew for sure about magic right now was that "Complicated" was putting it all mildly.

"Are you all right?" Grandmama asked. She tugged at her shawl. "You're looking rather pale, even in this light."

Kevin's nails tightened in his skin. "Um. Grandmama?"

The doorbell rang downstairs. Kevin flinched, his question puttering into silence. Grandmama rubbed her eyes with her sleeve again. "Ah… I suppose I should get that now. Were you saying something, dear?"

Kevin clenched his eyes shut. "… Can I get your WiFi password?"

Grandmama swept downstairs to talk to the people bringing Great-Uncle Albert's death notification, if that's really who they were. Miss Idaho and Smokey/Dennis followed right on her heels like silk shadows.

Back in his room, Kevin found Dwayne and Pile of Goo plucking at packing peanuts and bits of lace from the stacks of boxes. Meh. Miss Idaho wouldn't have brought them in here if she was worried about them getting sick. The memory of Cyborg was no longer sleeping in his suitcase, which was a nice plus. So, Kevin flopped on his bed and checked his phone. 4 unread messages from Molly. He still had that one missed message from his mom. No follow-up texts. Whatever.

He opened a search page instead of calling back. His stomach rolled, nibbling at his insides. Hhh… Shame the whole downstairs was out of bounds for the moment. Should've been faster. Kevin checked up on his favorite neurorobotics blogs (No new updates), then started poking around for ways to contact Danny Phantom. Miss Idaho might be insistent that the memory-ghosts couldn't do him any harm, but it wouldn't hurt to ask for a little advice from an expert, right? Right. His fat thumbs made way more mistakes than he'd hoped, so when he finished the short request, he made sure to read it over at least seven times in search of spelling errors.

Hey Danny,

My name's Kevin Crocker. I'm staying with my uncle for the summer, and it turns out there's this ghost that's been living here in secret for YEARS. I know your parents invented a way to suck ghosts into jars so you can get rid of them easily. Could you send me the blueprints? Any file type is fine. I'm an expert builder, so I'll take it from there myself. Thanks!

His thumb hesitated over the Send button. The eighth time he reread the message, he ran a few pros and cons through his head. What if…?

Two tiny puffs of smoke burst into existence at the foot of the bed. Dwayne squawked and flapped his wings while Pile of Goo just stared. Kevin jerked upright. One after the other, a tiny angel and a tiny devil leapt onto the bed covers and scampered along them like they wanted to take their traditional places at his shoulders. Oh, great. Now the House was passing judgement on him.

"Can't a guy have any secrets?" he muttered as the angel and demon stopped running. They perched together behind a tented fold of the messy blankets. Both were already waving at him frantically, making wild hand gestures. Their mouths moved in utter silence. Kevin glared at them. "You know what? Forget you guys."

He tapped his thumb. The message blinked away. Who knew? Maybe Phantom himself would even be the one to read it.

Both shoulder angel and shoulder devil stared at the screen, then accusingly at him. "What?" Kevin asked. He clicked his phone screen to black. "I didn't have any better ideas. Mommy raised a problem-solver."

The angel ruffled his wings in irritation. The devil twitched his tail. They both went up in white smoke, just as they had arrived.

"Good morning, House," Kevin said loudly, rolling off the bed. He could probably kill time by actually showering today, and maybe the downstairs discussion about Great-Uncle Albert would be over by then. His stomach let out a feeble whine. Eating would be first thing after he finished the shower. Cookie dough for breakfast today? Or make another fruitless attempt for cereal? Hmm. Too bad he didn't have any friends he could run over to share a meal with.

In the bathroom, Kevin made sure the shower had soap and a towel he could use. The only sleepover he'd ever been to had taken an awkward turn when he'd forgotten to check, so no way was he making that mistake again. He took off his glasses and blinked at his own reflection. Geez. If someone secretly entered him in a contest for whirlwind hair, he'd win first prize today. Most had been crushed while he slept, and the rest stuck up in random directions. He looked like half a bird's nest. And he hadn't remembered to brush his teeth last night, had he? Kevin stuck out his tongue.

He took a drink of water straight from the faucet and was just stripping off his shirt when his phone rattled across the counter. What? Kevin tossed it a bleary-eyed stare. It was probably just a spam call, but… What if it was Mommy? He shouldn't ignore her twice in a row.

Oh well. At least he hadn't started the shower yet. It wouldn't hurt to take a moment and talk. It had already been a day since he'd heard her voice. So, yawning, Kevin picked up the phone and pressed the bright green Accept button. He wedged it against his shoulder and started peeling off his stupid bear pajama pants.

"Crocker residence, Kevin speaking. It's me. I'm here in Dimmsdale… I made it fine, Mommy, like I told you in that other message. I met these friends, I guess. I'm doing okay."

"Good morning, Kevin," chirped a voice. It was female, but carried the famous dusky Crocker whisper that made it more difficult to identify. Kevin squinted. His family members sounding alike might be a stereotype, but he knew his mother's voice. And this wasn't it.

"… Thanks. Uh… Grandmama? Why are you calling me? Do you need me downstairs?"

"I'm glad you asked, Kevin!" cried the speaker, albeit in a comparatively more masculine voice this time. "If that's even your real name."

"Uncle D-Denzel?" Kevin grabbed the counter's edge and leaned forward. Every hair on the back of his neck quivered to attention. His mind flashed to last night, when he'd first stepped inside the house. Uncle Denzel had hurled him instantly into a game show to prove his identity without taking 'No' for an answer. He'd made that same comment about Kevin's name. In that same voice.

Huffing, Kevin grabbed his elbow. He fell back against the wall, seriously prepared to scream if he had to. It was too familiar… almost as if… the house… was using its… memories to…

"Welcome home," said the House, creaking like a floorboard. Kevin blinked once, his fingernails wedged in his cheek. Oh. His eyes flicked to the hazy light bulbs flickering above his head. Wasn't this a good ghost story: Cowering half-naked in a strange bathroom, shaking himself to pieces while the house itself shared its life story.

Was… he supposed to say 'Good morning' back? Kevin kind of just wanted to hang up, but he wasn't sure how the House would take that. And he… wasn't sure he wanted to find out the hard way. Should he shout for Miss Idaho? Yeah, that sounded good… But he'd have to scramble and get dressed again first. Wait. How would he explain to Grandmama why he was shouting for Uncle Denzel's ex? Or if he called her by her cat name, what would the death notification guys think when an almost-teen upstairs started yelling "Girlfriend"?

"Um… Hi, House. Good morning to you too…?"

"It's so wonderful to meet you at last, dear."

Kevin's fingers curled into his mouth. He said nothing.

The House switched to the voice of an unfamiliar male. "I can't wait to show you around, Debbie. You're going to love it here."

Kevin still didn't move. The House started to speak again, but its words trailed off too soon. Then it tried it again, this time with the voice of a teenager.

"I need help for someone super-duper important to me."

"I'm s-s-sorry, House… I'm just a kid. I just got here from Idaho last night. This is my first time ever in Dimmsdale, so… you don't want my help. You should ask my uncle. O-or Miss Idaho. Miss Idaho will help you."

"I'm afraid of the dark, Denzie! Can you snuggle me?"

Kevin tilted back his head. "I can't help you, House. Please don't ask anymore. Talk to Miss Idaho if you need anything."

"Mommy never listens to me!" shouted a little girl's voice. Then, like before, "I'm afraid of the dark, Denzie! I'm afraid of the dark, Denzie! I'm afraid of the"

"Stop it! Please, please stop… I'm sorry, House. I can't help you."

"I'm an adult. I want to be treated like an adult."

"I'm sorry." Kevin tried to steady his breathing. "I'm sorry."

"You can see the room right now," the House offered with his uncle's enthusiasm.

"Why am I crying?" Kevin muttered. He clutched his knees to his chest. "This is so… I mean, I shouldn't be so…"

"Why can't I have it?" asked the House in the high-pitched voice of a child.

"H-have what?"

"No, inside my tummy!"

"Can I, uh… ask for specifics?"

Brief silence. Then, with another creak, "Crocker family…"

Kevin lifted his gaze to the ceiling again. His shoulders trembled every time he breathed. What did you even say to that? He didn't answer. Although many minutes passed, neither did the House. Eventually, the other end of the line hung up. His phone went black.

He never did take that shower. For an hour, he sat on the floor with his shirt off and his pants only hanging on by one leg, clutching the cord of his lucky necklace and wishing he still believed it worked. His phone rang again about twenty minutes in, but he didn't dare check the caller's name.

When Kevin came downstairs, Grandmama and the people who'd brought the news of Great-Uncle Albert's death were gone. Good. It would've been awkward to eat cereal next door to elderly people discussing a funeral or something. Hm. Did they even have cereal? Kevin poked his head into the kitchen, fingers wrapped around the doorframe. No ghostly memories peered back at him. He slipped inside.

It turned out that when Grandmama had gone shopping last night, she actually had bought good cereal. Kevin pulled out three boxes, then rethought his decision to mix them in the same bowl and put two of them back. He'd be stuck here until August, after all, so may as well keep them fresh. One would do for now. Kevin poured himself a bowl of Square-Os, then set the box on the dining room table. The back wall was made up of a sliding glass door. He could see Grandmama kneeling in the garden, holding four worms.

Just as he was adding some almond milk (the only option available), the doorbell rang. Oh boy. At least it probably wouldn't be another death notification. Well, most likely. Kevin folded the carton shut and stared unhappily at his bowl. The milk went back in the fridge. Truth be told, he really wasn't keen on the idea of seeing Trixie or the Guildford kids again. And if anyone else was at the door, he probably didn't know them. Just once, he'd like someone in Dimmsdale to really be nice to him, the way a real friend would. A friend who would love to hear him talk about his inventions, and who would smile and keep their mouth shut if they didn't have anything nice to say. Nevertheless, he picked up his bowl and spoon and trudged into the living room to greet their visitor. Grandmama was upset, Uncle Denzel was probably still asleep, and Miss Idaho didn't even have hands. Someone had to do it.

When Kevin opened the door, he found himself face to face with a boy who, judging by how windblown his curls were, may or may not have sprinted all the way here from the far end of Latin America. He wore a blue sweater and at least three charm bracelets on his right hand, and despite looking like he was only eight years old, his cheeks were smeared with lipstick stains. He also held a black gift box wrapped in a silver bow. The boy took one look at Kevin, then dropped the present, clapped his hands to his face, and screamed in a shrieking pitch.

"Ahhh! Why didn't I disenchant the house the last time I was here? Crocker, you've shrunk!"

Something about the curly-haired boy looked sort of familiar… Kevin flashed what he hoped was a cool sign with his fingers. "Yo, s'up? I'm Kevin. Denzel Crocker is my uncle, and I'm staying with him and my grandma for the summer. Are you that kid with the sleight-of-hand magic channel on TooYube? My friend showed me a couple of your tricks. You're good. Well, I thought he was my friend. Turns out he really wasn't."

The boy stood on the front step, frozen, for twenty seconds or so. He seemed to be running several dozen calculations through his head, studying Kevin's face with detached fascination. Kevin raised his eyebrows at him and continued to stand in the doorway, calmly eating his Square-Os. If he could deal with the creepy House, he could handle any stranger.

"You are?" he finally prompted.

The boy blinked and shook his head. "Ah, well. Call me Foop. Everyone does. Is your uncle awake yet?"

Kevin's mouth was full, which prevented him from commenting on the boy's rather odd name. After swallowing, he said, "Probably not. He was out late last night. Hardware store, I guess."

"Oh, jolly. Is your grandmother in?"

"If by 'in' you mean in the garden out back, then yeah."

For some reason, this seemed to annoy Foop further. "So you mean, it's just you and your uncle inside the house, and as far as you know, he's still out like a broken mirror?"

"I guess," Kevin muttered. Trailing off, he turned to glance around the living room. Miss Idaho groomed her leg over on the couch, not caring who saw. Although calling her "Girlfriend" again when she acted so animal might have been more appropriate. Smokey/Dennis lay on his side beneath the little table that held the house phone, glaring at them both. "I mean, there's the cats. And the spiders, and the birds."

Foop dragged his hand down his cheek and grumbled words that didn't sound English. Louder, he said, "I didn't bring my pendant, and this human skin is chafing at my bones. A few more minutes and I'm going to lose my concentration. I'd so much rather be inside and out of the public eye when that happens. May I come in?"

Kevin considered this request as he took another bite of cereal. Then he granted the stranger entry. After all, this kid seemed to know his uncle well enough. The "human skin" comment was proof of that all on its own. Maybe weird speech patterns ran in the crowd. He looked fairly young, but it was still possible he could be in Uncle Denzel's fifth-grade class at school. He was probably just really short for his age, and Kevin was tall, so who knew? Maybe he was here for Saturday detention or something. He'd heard one of the kids at Shirley's make a comment like that in passing. Hanging around 'Mr. Crocker' when you didn't have to was supposedly pretty brutal.

"I'm eating," Kevin told Foop after he came in. He shut the door with his shoulder. "But when I'm done with this bowl, I could get you something, if you want. My Grandmama went shopping last night, and she almost overbought. Almost. I think she plans to feed me until I go up three sizes in jeans. Then again, maybe I'm safe. Uncle Denzel seems to be thin as a whistle, anyway. I hope she plans to cook something nice, at least."

Foop had a distracted air about him. He kept turning his head from side to side, hugging the black and silver present to his chest. Only after Kevin had stopped talking and gone back to clicking his spoon around his bowl did the boy turn to look at him again. "Has Crocker got around to mentioning me yet?"

"No. Not unless your real name is Timmy Turner."

"Really?" Foop's nose twitched. "Well, that's unfortunate. And honestly a little damaging to my pride."

Silence fell around them. Foop continued to stand there, tugging almost constantly on the front of his sweater and itching his arms beneath his sleeves. Kevin finished his cereal, despite the fact that Foop's intense stare bore into his forehead while he ate. He disappeared into the kitchen long enough to refill his bowl. When he came out again, he found Foop looking like he'd been kicked in the gut by a very small donkey, his face all contorted with imaginary pain.

"What?" Kevin asked, dipping his spoon in the milk again.

"I can't retain this shape any longer," Foop said simply. "By any chance, do you have a problem with anti-fairies?"

"I guess not, but mostly because I don't really know what that is."

"Then I do hope you won't mind if I slip into something a little more comfortable!" With a sudden puff of dark smoke that seemed to burst straight out of him, Foop disappeared. In his place hovered a strange, furry, cube-shaped creature in a baby onesie. He shooed the smoke away with one blue hand. His other hand clutched a little bottle with bat wings flanking its sides. The child himself, upon a second look, had bat-like wings flapping behind him, although maybe calling them "dragon wings" would be more appropriate. After all, they weren't connected to his arms. He still held the black and silver present, although now the box was almost as big as he was.

Inwardly, Kevin sighed. This must be the "square blue bat child" that Miss Idaho had mentioned once rented out the mystery room upstairs. Accurate description. Hit the nail right on the head. Kevin looked him up and down, still crunching through his Square-Os. He swallowed a little too fast so he could speak.

"White toes, huh? That's very Mexican free-tailed bat of you. Wait, so if you're a Mexican vampire, why do you sound British?"

Foop tossed him a surprised look that only carried the faintest shred of annoyance. He pocketed his bottle somehow and brushed lingering curls of smoke from his arms. "You're… perceptive. I'm an anti-fairy. I'm neither from Mexico nor England, although I did inherit my father's accent, didn't I?"

Kevin gave up trying to count how many times Foop had ended his sentences with that almost-sneering upward inflection since his arrival. He knew he should probably question the bizarre scene in front of him, then didn't. He leaned back on his heels. "Oh, so you're an anti-fairy, huh? Sure, that's just weird enough to sound completely believable for my wacky life right now. So, what's it like to be an anti-fairy?"

"Ick. Recently, it's been busy. In my culture, May 13th is The Day of Unspoken Bonds: possibly the most romantic day on the Anti-Fairy calendar, except of course May 14th." He rubbed a lipstick smear on his cheek away. "I'm a prince, and I had to kiss a lot of babies. Being a baby myself, you can imagine how this went down."

"Is an anti-fairy a kind of fairy? Y'know, I'm starting to see why you're so good at sleight-of-hand."

"Of course!" Foop struck what probably would have been a pose, if his body hadn't been so stiff and blocky. "Fame and fortune don't just fall out of the sky for free. Popularity takes hard work, discipline, and most importantly: talent. At least I have my popular purple puffball of a counterpart beat online."

Kevin thought back to some of the vulgar comments he remembered reading on those sleight-of-hand videos, and winced. "So, uh… What's in the box?"

Foop glanced at the present in his hands. He shook it several times in the air so whatever was inside rattled around. "Oh, right. I brought a two-days-late-but-still-very-much-appreciated birthday gift for your uncle. Though I'm not sure it's even still good… or at this point, alive. It came out a little squashed when I smuggled it through customs."

"Alive is good. I'll accept alive."

Trudging footsteps echoed on the front porch. The doorknob twisted. Then the door swung open (which is usually what doors do). Uncle Denzel came into the living room in his green pajamas, rubbing sleep from his eyes with the back of the hand that clutched his glasses. When he spotted the pair hanging out in the front room, he seized up.

"Gah! Kevin and Foop! What are you doing here?"

"I live here," Kevin said.

Foop shrugged defensively. "Your nephew let me in. And I thought I'd just see where this goes from here, you know, maybe score a new Foop-sized playmate out of the deal…"

Crocker's hand came out towards Kevin in a desperate gesture, like "? ? ?"

"Yeah, I get it. I'll see myself out and give you two some privacy. Check ya later." Kevin wandered back into the kitchen with his cereal. Oh wow, the memory/ghost boy who looked like a pilgrim was over in the dining room. Of course he was. Weird, but he certainly didn't seem like a memory or a ghost. His form just looked solid from here. If it weren't for that out-of-date coat and pair of britches he was wearing, Kevin would have thought his uncle had invited a second estranged nephew to visit for the summer and forgotten to let everyone know.

Well… Miss Idaho had basically said that the memories made of stinky magic haunting this house couldn't touch or hurt him in any way, and she was a runaway fairy semi-permanently locked into the body of a hairless talking cat of her own free will, so she could probably be trusted. Just to see what would happen, Kevin sat down in the seat across from the pale boy. The boy had been gazing down at the two-legged kitten in his lap, but he looked up at Kevin with apparent surprise, and then smiled.

"So, you're a memory made from stinky witch magic?" Kevin asked. He set his bowl of Square-Os on the table. "Tell me what that's like."

The memory nodded. Okay, so he understood English. Or at least the House did.

"Can you talk?"

The memory thought about it, then shook his head. Huh. Did the House even control the memory ghosts, or did it just spawn them? If they couldn't speak, maybe the latter. Kevin brought his cereal to his lips.

"Can you write?"

This time, the memory reached for the prize from the Square-Os box—a small plastic key—which Kevin had fished out of the bottom (He was just going to look at it, honest! Then he'd put it back so he and Uncle Denzel could compete to see whose bowl it fell into). The memory's fingers passed through the prize, turning to spitting sparks on contact. He turned to Kevin, and sadly shrugged.

"Gotcha. So you can't touch real things, and you don't have a pencil or paper of your own. Just the memory of that cat. Hmm."

Nod.

"Why can you sit in a chair but not touch a pencil?"

"Kevin?" Uncle Denzel called from the other room. "Are you talking to someone in there? Perhaps a FAIRY? Oh, I hope it's not Mother. You don't need her filling your head with self-loathing this early on a Saturday. Let me enjoy the one meal of the day that still brings a semblance of joy to my life, Mother!"

"No, Uncle Denzel," Kevin called back. "It's just one of the house's memory ghosts."

A pause. Then quick steps. Uncle Denzel appeared in the dining room doorway, pressing one hand against the wall. Foop hovered behind his shoulder with an equally puzzled expression. Uncle Denzel adjusted his glasses with two fingers and a frown. "The house's memory ghosts, you say?"

Kevin lifted his spoon to gesture vaguely at the memory sitting in the other chair. The child was still there, though his knees were now pulled up to his chest, and most of his face was obscured by kitten fur.

"I don't see anything," Foop said, clutching his bottle tight, and Uncle Denzel seconded this with a thoughtful murmur.

"Of course you don't." Kevin walked past them so he could rinse his empty dish in the sink. He turned to dry his hands on the ratty rag dangling from the oven handle, and noticed the boy had disappeared. "Oh look," he scoffed. "He's gone again. He does this, but he'll be back. You'll see. Actually, you won't see. Apparently I'm the only one he shows himself to, so I guess your weird house likes me even more than the cats. Next you'll probably tell me you can't see that creepy room at the end of the hall either. Oh wait, Girlfriend said you rented that out to Foop here one time, so I guess you know all about that."

He sighed. "Oh well. Since my phone battery is basically dead thanks to the power in the wall sockets going on and off, and I'm not sure where to find a reliable plug for my soldering iron, I'll just go outside and weed the garden with Grandmama for a few hours. That is her out there, right? That looks like her. Have fun over in the living room, or wherever it is you guys hang. Peace out."

Both man and bat baby stared at him, jaws hanging, as Kevin headed into the dining room and then out through the sliding back door. He mused about the expression on Uncle Denzel's face the whole way. He and his uncle might look alike, but how similar were they, really?

Miss Idaho had made that comment last night about how she'd noticed Uncle Denzel possessed "the power of levitation." The way she'd said it suggested she doubted Kevin could do the same. Which seemed to be true. Kevin had watched the way his uncle twitched and flailed each time he used the word "fairy" in conversation. But he couldn't say the same for himself, either with the word "fairy" or with the word "cyborg."

Maybe different witches could have different powers, even in the same family. That might explain Grandmama's ability to sense Great-Uncle Albert's death before anyone even told her about it. Maybe seeing these "memory ghosts" in physical form was a witch power too… or maybe the house's stinky magic could choose who it showed itself to, the same way it seemed like Miss Idaho could only be understood by someone she chose to hear her even if he and his Uncle Denzel were both on the stairs together.

Or, maybe Miss Idaho was nuts, his uncle had a nervous tic, and Kevin was chronically inflicted with hallucinations of talking cats. By this point, that made complete sense too. Moreso, maybe.

Kevin slid open the house's rear door and joined Grandmama in the garden. She knelt in the hot dirt, prodding the soil with a trowel. "Hello again, Kevin," she said when he came out. She hadn't even looked up. She just knew it was him without turning around.

"Um, hi… Are you doing okay after, uh, this morning?"

Grandmama sighed. She stabbed the trowel into the ground and drew a sharp, random line before reaching for her lemonade glass. "Gardening helps."

"I guess so… Would you mind if I join in? I help Mommy with the weeding back home all the time, so I know what I'm doing."

"Here." Grandmama handed him her trowel. "Take my gloves too."

"I can't–"

"I insist." She stripped them off and handed them over. "My hands have worn with callouses over the years. Thorns hardly graze me anyway."

They worked in silence for several minutes, probing the long garden for weeds and stray thorns. Kevin sunk his trowel beneath a particularly big knot of crabgrass, then paused. "Grandmama? Can I ask you something weird?"

Grandmama looked up at him, pulling a shiny new garbage bag from the box beside her. "What is it, dear?"

"Um… Does Uncle Denzel's cat ever talk to you, and do you ever see weird spirits floating around the house whenever you're alone?"

At least, that's what his question was supposed to be. But the words that popped out of his mouth were entirely different.

"Can you tell me what my Mommy and Dad were like when they were my age?"

"Oh." Grandmama sat back on her heels. She wiped her hand across her forehead, leaving a long smear of mud behind. "Well… Denise always was fascinated by airplanes. All sorts of flight, really. Even before her interest in vampires consumed her, she would spend hours drawing bird wings, bat wings, and even rockets on pieces of copy paper. She'd shade them blue with colored pencils. Denzel was working with blueprints by that point, and she wanted to be just like her big brother."

Kevin found himself smiling just a little at that. He stuffed the weeds away and reached for some new ones. "Really?"

"Yes, and as she grew older, she used to steal his good paper to draw on too."

"Gee, Uncle Denzel must have hated that."

"No," she said softly. Her fingers gripped the garbage bag. "For many years, Denzel loved her more than he loved anyone or anything in the world. If fairy godparents were his holy grail, Denise was the god he hoped to show them to. They were born fourteen years apart, but Denzel adored her as though she was his twin. They were closer than Albert and I ever were. He never accepted it when Denise disappeared without a proper good-bye. All she left us was a note." Grandmama appraised Kevin with a new, curious look. "Would I have known your father? Could he be that roguish young scamp your mother ran off with?"

Kevin nodded and thrust his trough into the dirt again. Grandmama closed her eyes. She reached for her lemonade and brought the straw to her lips.

"Let me try to remember. That was a dozen years ago now… You are eleven, aren't you?" She sighed. The glass came down again. "Elliot Buxaplenty. His older brother, Bennett, lives here in town with his wife, Seneca. Their family struck it rich off the railway, you know. Since we could never afford tickets on a plane, Denise ran off on a train instead."

Kevin paused. Then his head shot up like a spring. "What? Mommy always said my Dad's name was Elliot Buxley. At least, I think she did. I guess it was a long time ago when I last asked her for the story, so I guess I could have misremembered."

Grandmama shrugged. She peered into the pail of worms and adjusted her glasses with two fingers. "The Buxaplentys have a little boy around your age. Reggie, or Richie his name is. I believe he just turned 12 this April. You could pay him a visit."

"Huh? Here in town? You mean, like, I could just walk over and see them today?" Kevin's eyes snapped wide. He'd never had a real cousin before. Logically he knew he must have some somewhere in the world, since after all, Elliot Buxley (er, Buxaplenty) was supposed to be the 10th of 11 kids. Of course he had cousins somewhere, but he'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts about Mommy / Marvin / Molly / Miss Idaho / The popular kids / Memory ghosts / Death notifications / Phone calls from the house / Foop / Uncle Denzel, the thought that his dad's family might still be living in Dimmsdale today, with kids his age, had never really crossed his mind.

"I have the address," Grandmama mused, rolling her eyes towards the sky. "My son used to teach little Reggie before he moved up to middle school. I drove him home more than once. Sweet boy, really, but he's quite shy."

"That's amazing," Kevin whispered. He leaned forward on his hands, fingers clenching into the dirt. "Of all the people… I mean, of course! Duh. 11 kids. At least one of them would still be living in Dimmsdale. I should've guessed!"

Grandmama nodded and went back to pulling weeds. "Why don't you run inside and wash up? Give me an hour to finish with this section, and I'll drive you over. He may not be able to come out and play today, but you can at least tell him 'Hi.'"

"Wait, you can still drive? You're not too old? Who cares!" Kevin flung his arms into the air. "I'm going to meet one of my estranged cousins for the first time ever! This is the greatest day I've had since before I met Marvin and Molly! Thank you, Grandmama! Thank you!" He hugged her neck, kissed her cheek just below her glasses, and ran back to the house with more than a slight spring in his step. It felt like he was literally running on air.

For about five seconds. Halfway through the kitchen, Uncle Denzel snagged him by the back of his shirt. He'd been going so fast, his feet literally flew up in front of him. "Greech!" Kevin squealed, grabbing for his throat. Uncle Denzel yanked him backwards and grabbed hold of his forearm.

"Kevin, my boy! I was just about to come and get you. Grab your coat–we're going out. Today's the day the Crocker family gets a new pet!"

"You know," Foop said, "it really disturbs me that you call them that."

Kevin blinked, pawing at his neck. "Wait, what?"

Uncle Denzel shook his head. After pushing his glasses up with one finger, he crouched a bit so his face was closer to Kevin's level. He didn't let go of his nephew's arm. "It's like this, Kevin. When your mother first called to tell me you were coming to town, I called up a good friend I haven't seen for ages. He said he doesn't have enough time to stop by just yet, but to put my belated birthday meal on his tab, because for once he's actually paying for it. So, Foop invited someone else along, and at long last, I'll have the opportunity to speak the words that have never left my mouth before tonight." His uncle clasped a hand over his chest, standing straighter, and sniffled. "Table for four."

"What? No!" Kevin tried to squirm his arm away, but holy cow, the old man had a grip like a cyborg. "Uncle Denzel, I already made lunch plans! Grandmama is taking me to Reggie Buxaplenty's house today!"

"Remy Buxaplenty?" Foop cocked his head. He still held the wrapped present he'd brought over. "How is his arm healing up, by the way? I've been meaning to look into that."

"I don't know. I didn't ask."

Uncle Denzel chuckled and dropped his hands on Kevin's shoulders. "I happen to know something even more exciting than crossing town for the Buxaplentys."

"What? Really? No way." As soon as the words left his mouth, Kevin's eyes widened in horror. Foop and his uncle grabbed him under the arms anyway.

"Road trip!" they sang together.

"Nooo!" Kevin wailed. He dove for the hallway. Maybe he had time to reach the bathroom and lock the door?

Too late. Despite his struggles, Foop and Uncle Denzel dragged him outside to a pretty suspicious looking van that, despite its name, had the words Unsuspecting Van smeared on the sides in clumsy lettering. Kevin hoped he'd at least be allowed to sit up front, but they chucked him in the back and slammed the doors behind him. Kevin got to his knees, rubbing his arm. It felt bruised. His uncle and Foop climbed in the van's front and turned the music up load. The van zoomed forward, bumping over every lump in the road. Kevin lurched against the wall and clung onto some kind of odd metal contraption jutting out of it for support.

It felt like they drove for an hour, but every time Kevin checked his phone's clock, only a few more minutes had passed since the last time. They either hit every green light, or Uncle Denzel ran them all anyway.

Finally, after maybe twenty minutes, the van skidded over the curb and finally jerked to a stop in what was probably a parking space. Kevin poked his head above the seats and squinted through the window. They'd parked just in front of a small restaurant–the diner type. He could see a giant, goofy statue of a pig out front, but he couldn't tell much else from this angle.

Uncle Denzel switched off the engine and twisted around. "Kevin, you've lived a long and sheltered life in Idaho. The things you may see and hear in Dimmsdale may shock, horrify, and amaze you, but this is the town we Crockers call home."

"I'm cool with that."

His uncle leveled his gaze. "I'm being completely serious, Kevin. Not every rumor turns out to be a rumor, and not every lead is a false trail. Cryptozoology is the Crocker family legacy for generations, stretching all the way back to the time we called ourselves Bitterroots. If you intend to be part of this family for even a moment, you need to respect the things we all choose to devote our time to researching. No matter how crazy anyone outside the family thinks we might be. A skeptical Crocker isn't even a Crocker at all, and no one in our little tree would ever call them such."

Kevin gave him a thumbs up. "Sounds good to me."

His uncle's eyes lit like glowworms. "Great! Which is why I brought a confidentiality agreement you need to sign. You're a Crocker! What happens in the Crocker family is meant to stay within the Crocker family. Except for the occasional instance when your personal data is leaked online for the entire world to see and humiliate you with. So, here!" Uncle Denzel pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket. He handed it to Foop, who strained his little arm to hand it back to Kevin. "Sign on the dotted line at the bottom, and we can officially invite you on board the family business–plus Foop and Laser."

"Aww," Foop said, drooping forward. He shook his tiny fist. "One of these days you'll forget that clarification, and I shall torment you about it endlessly."

As his uncle and the anti-fairy began to bicker up front, Kevin skimmed through the confidentiality agreement he'd been given. It wasn't very long, and didn't contain nearly as much legal jargon as he'd expected it to. Or information about the 'family business' itself, for that matter.

Whatever. If it meant he could call himself a Crocker in his uncle's eyes, sure. Kevin didn't have a problem with that. Yesterday alone he'd met some memory ghosts, a talking cat, and a cyborg after all. Nothing wrong with agreeing he wouldn't deny it to his uncle's face. He signed it and, when Uncle Denzel popped open the back of the van, hopped out and handed it over.

"Excellent," his uncle crowed. He thrust his glasses higher with a finger. The paper went back into his pocket, this time more crumpled than folded. "Well, come along, Kevin. It's bottomless clam chowder day, you know."

Uncle Denzel and Foop hopped from the van, but a minute passed and they forgot to come around the back to let him out. So Kevin wriggled over the seats and climbed out after them. The sun seared down today. Kevin shielded his eyes. This was his first time wandering Dimmsdale in the daylight. Foop was back in his human disguise, itching his arms and muttering to himself. Kevin walked over to stand beside him.

"The Cake 'N Bacon," he read aloud from the sign on the diner's window.

"Exactly!" Uncle Denzel grabbed his hand and one of Foop's. His grip put Bigfoot's to shame. "A little taste of local weird! They don't serve a lot besides bacon and cake, but it's still my favorite restaurant in the whole town. Besides, they take 5% off your tab on birthdays!"

Kevin stumbled after him, trying to keep up with his uncle's humongous steps. "But your birthday was Thursday, Uncle Denzel."

"They don't know that," the man answered with a twinkle in his eyes.

The diner had a mellow, drab feel to its insides. Its walls had been painted blue, but the paint was chipping off in more than a few places. Two flies buzzed around the door. The three waitresses bobbing about wore yellow and white, but none of them looked particularly cheery. A teenage girl with a squirrel-scarlet ponytail locked eyes on them. She beelined over instantly, grabbing three menus on the way. Uncle Denzel stopped walking. His hands flew halfway to his mouth.

"Oh no! She knows that!"

"Hide me," Foop whimpered, half-ducking behind Kevin.

"Welcome to the Cake N' Bacon," chirped the girl, holding the menus by her waist. "Follow me this way, please."

The diner was on the crowded side today, but the waitress found their trio a booth seat by the window. It was… almost unoccupied. Leaning against the corner of the wall, surrounded by more than a few swirling shadows, sat a hooded figure in a brown cloak. His gnarled gray hands rested on his stomach, folded together so the knuckles bulged. The Grim Reaper? Kevin blinked and stopped walking too fast, so Foop bumped into him. Was it usual for waitresses to seat someone at a table where someone was already waiting?

Well, if it was, their waitress didn't acknowledge it. Foop slid across the bench to sit beside the ghoul-like figure, though, and Uncle Denzel sat on the end. That left Kevin on the other side alone. So, uh… okay. The waitress distributed the menus (Foop got a paper one for kids and three crayons to draw with), then set her hands to her hips.

"My name's Vicky. It's nice to see a few outsiders in our little local joint. I know you, Crocker, but where are the rest of y'all from?"

The y'all rolled awkwardly off her tongue. Foop hesitated, then offered, "Luna… City?"

"Oh?" Vicky picked at one of her fingernails. "Where's that, then?"

"… Connecticut?"

The Reaper lifted his hand. "I hail from the twenty-third plane of existence myself. Twenty-fourth, technically. I upgraded from the mystical life-giving fountain of the gods to a cheap dorm room few million years ago. It's not exactly glamorous and I have half a dozen kids to raise, but hey, the commute is at least ten minutes shorter, so I can't complain."

"Peachfield, Idaho," Kevin said, feeling boring.

Vicky bobbed her head. "What can I get started for you three today?"

Three? Kevin recounted the people at the table. The Grim Reaper raised a finger to his lips to shush him. Oh. Gotcha.

"What do you have?" he asked, trying to glimpse what the people in the next booth were eating.

"Menus." Vicky shoved one into his hands. "Read 'em."

"We'll need a moment," Crocker assured her, flipping open his own. Foop had already lost interest in her and started peeling the wrappers off his crayons. The birthday present tumbled from his lap to the floor.

After Vicky left, Kevin asked, "You said it was bottomless clam chowder day, right? Where's that on the menu?"

Uncle Denzel plucked the menu away from him. "Order food later, Kevin. Introductions now."

Foop looked up. "Oh, right!" After clearing his throat, he waved his hand at the cloaked figure sitting beside him. "Kevin, if I may have the honor of introducing the all-powerful, so oft misunderstood–"

"We've met," Kevin and the Grim Reaper said together.

"You've what?"

"I did a job shadow with him once back in Peachfield." Kevin checked his phone, until several seconds passed in silence. Huh? When he looked up, Foop and Uncle Denzel were giving him those puzzled stares again. Kevin shifted his gaze back and forth. "What? Was I supposed to tell you everything about my past when I got here? Gee, I'm surprised Mommy didn't blab it already, since she already trusts you to take care of me until the wedding."

Foop flung his arms forward, still clutching the baby bottle he seemed to carry with him everywhere. "You've met the Grim Reaper? As in, you two have talked? You did a job shadow with the Grim Reaper? I mean, that just seems a little…"

"Contrived?" Kevin asked.

"No, I mean it's so… Wow! Really now, that's the kind of thing you wanna let a baby know, Little Crock."

"Well, it didn't seem important before…"

"Not important?" Foop grabbed the table's edge and leaned forward, his eyes bugging out. "But that sounds so fascinating! How couldn't it be important?"

"It's…" Kevin's eyes fell half-shut. "… really not that cool."

"We're old friends," the Reaper supplied, leaning forward on his elbows. He tucked the area of space that was probably his chin atop the heels of his hands. "Have been for years."

"We are not friends."

"Pen pals?"

"No."

Foop clasped his hands. "Details, please?"

Kevin scowled at the menu in Uncle Denzel's hands. "Foop? Just drop it, okay? You're making this out to be bigger than it is, and I'm not in the mood for questions right now."

The baby's arms went sideways. "But it's the Grim Reaper! Why am I the only one fanboying over this?"

The Reaper slid his arm behind Foop's shoulders and pulled him into a sideways squeeze. "Kevin and I first met at the birthday party of a… mutual acquaintance, I guess you could say. The only Crocker I've ever even liked." He patted Foop twice on the head. "Don't worry about it right now though, buddy. After all, some people don't think it's a big deal."

"It's not," Kevin said.

Foop bit his lip, cheeks puffed, and was obviously questioning this tidbit of information quite a bit. At that moment, Vicky swept by again to take their orders. After she left, Foop finally said, "All right, I'll let it go for now," but made an I'm watching you sign Kevin's way. "That said, I will follow up with you about this when I talk to you about your invisible ghost problem. Prepare accordingly."

Kevin shrugged and glanced at his phone again. "Hopefully that whole thing with the House and stinky magic won't be a problem much longer. I mean, I sent an email to Danny Phantom this morning. I don't know when he'll read it, but I think he'll take care of it when he can. I'm here until August, so I've got time."

Foop dropped his sippy cup then and there. It cracked against the table and bounced into the Grim Reaper's lap. "The Creature-hunter? He's coming here?"

"Creature-hunter?" Kevin had never thought about that label before, since he usually saw Phantom as this guy who just worked with ghosts. He shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe."

"Kevin…" That was Uncle Denzel. His fingers curled around the table's edge. "What did you do?"

Foop clung to his uncle's arm. "We'll probably have to leave town. We'll live off the road, hunting beetles and spiderwebs for all our meals!"

The Grim Reaper raised Foop's water glass to his lips. "I love drama."

Kevin shrank into his shoulders. "I thought you didn't believe in ghosts, Uncle Denzel. Isn't that why I'm the only one who can see the ones living in your house? Because you don't believe?"

"Of course I believe in ghosts, Kevin! What sort of cryptozoologist would I be if I denied the existence of creatures that publicly-accepted science has already documented as real?" Uncle Denzel glowered at him and jabbed a finger into the table. "Forgive me if I don't want yet another Creature-hunter poking his dirty fingers all over my house. On second thought, don't!"

"Well, I'm sorry," Kevin shot back. "It just made sense at the time. And anyway, Phantom's probably not even coming. I just emailed asking if I could see some blueprints, that's it."

"It's not the Crocker way to hire rogue Creature hunters to do our job. Collaboration, sure, by all means, but a full-on handover is out of the question."

Kevin glared at Foop's shredded crayon wrappers. "Like I'd know that," he muttered.

The Grim Reaper drew a golden pocket watch from the shadows somehow and gave it a glance. "Since we've all been introduced, I'm going to finish what I came here for and then take my leave. My team do the best they can without me, but I still have a good four souls to collect in person before I hit the gym. Anyway!"

He ducked beneath the table. Kevin and Foop exchanged a glance, but the guy popped up again a second later with an entire iguana in his hands. He plunked it in the middle of the table, totally ignoring the fact that Vicky would need space when she brought out their food. "This is for you," he said cheerily. "See? I'm not totally unreliable after all. So maybe I do let myself get outfoxed by mortals every now and again, but when it comes time to deliver, I deliver. What do you think?"

"That's an iguana," Kevin said, resting his chin on his hand.

"A small iguana," the Reaper clarified. "Last one I had in stock at the shop, too. I thought it made the most sense to hand the little angel over here. Beats leaving it on your porch like some weirdo, right?"

Foop rolled his eyes, but Uncle Denzel seemed to be drinking this up. He held out his (ungloved) arms for the iguana like a child awaiting a popsicle. "Sure, makes sense to me!"

The Reaper slid over a sudden stack of paperwork too. "The usual. And use the red pen, please. Blood is so unsanitary. I don't always know where that stuff's been, you know?"

Kevin watched his uncle sign his name on three lines without reading a word. Foop noticed too. They exchanged glances, but neither said anything. Once the signatures had been made, the Reaper stood up and snapped his bony fingers. The papers disappeared in a seafoam green flame. "Thank you," he sing-songed. "Please allow 2-3 business days for the process to complete on my end of things. Standard rates may apply, and this offer cannot be combined with any others you may have recently received. No refunds are permitted. And with that settled, I should really hit the road." He waved. "Nice to bump into you again, Kevin. See you soon."

"Soon?" Kevin asked, his brows shooting up, but the Reaper had already turned to his uncle again.

"Oh, and be sure to give my shop an excellent rating on Fairyscope, 'kay? Same deal, Foop."

"You're a good man, G.R.," Uncle Denzel said, cradling the iguana.

"Hey, the Elsewhereness knows I try." With another snap of his fingers, the Reaper melted into shadow and completely disappeared. Kevin reached for his water glass.

"So, uh, is this a normal Saturday lunch in Dimmsdale? Making a deal with Death to swap sandwiches for reptiles?"

"Not usually reptiles," Uncle Denzel admitted, holding the iguana like a teddy bear. "Getting a lizard is new. In the past it's just been cats, birds, and spiders."

It wasn't until Vicky brought out their servings of clam chowder that it hit him. Oh. Everyone paused to thank her, which she responded to with a scoff. She didn't seem to notice the iguana (or at least didn't seem to care about it), but Kevin's eyes snapped from it to his uncle's face. Then to Foop's. Foop was too busy petting the lizard's spines to notice, and his uncle was eyeing his soup bowl. "Oh," Kevin said. He lowered his spoon. "Oh…"

"Dennis was his old name," Miss Idaho had sniffed at him this morning in the hall. She hadn't wanted to use 'Smokey.' Kevin dropped his hands to his lap and checked the iguana over again. Wow. What a coincidence the Grim Reaper would hand one of those over to the Crocker family the same day Great-Uncle Albert died…

Under the table, Kevin typed the question Do witches turn into animals when they die? into his phone. Only after he hit Search did he realize that was kind of a dumb thing to ask. Oh well. He'd have to talk to Miss Idaho about it later. Uncle Denzel was way too excited about opening the birthday gift Foop had brought him to answer any serious questions right now, and Kevin still hadn't decided whether or not he really knew about witch stuff anyway.

His uncle hadn't even torn the wrapping yet. He was too busy rotating it around or shaking it beside his ear, trying to determine what was inside despite Foop's insistence he should just rip off the paper and see for himself. Kevin took the chance to check his email too. 1 new message. Oh, sweet. His thumb couldn't slam down fast enough.

Hi, Kevin! Danny here.

Unfortunately, for safety reasons, we can't hand out my parents' tech blueprints to just any stranger who emails us. But if you do have a serious ghost problem, leave me your address and I or one of my associates will check out the situation as soon as possible.

In the meantime, if a ghost has been living in your uncle's house for years, they probably like it there and haven't been causing a lot of trouble. Not all ghosts are malicious (I'm un-living proof!) Sometimes, all they really want is a friend. If you're brave enough, consider asking them if you can just talk face to face. That might turn out to be all you need.

Good luck,

D. Phantom

P.S. If your ghost really has taken up residence in our world, they're probably a fan of meat. Meat turns into ghost animals once it's been in the Ghost Zone for a hot minute, so it's not exactly easy for them to come by. Want to call a truce? Offering some nice, cooked meat might be your best bet. Bone appetit! :)

Kevin sighed. He read the message three times, then shut off his phone without replying with his address. His ghost problem wasn't that serious, and he didn't want to bother Phantom, even though hunting Creatures was kind of his job…

I mean, the guy probably had better things to do than help out some random loser kid all the way across the country anyway.