I drop my purse on the hardwood floor and giggle like a teenage girl at her first boy band concert. The apartment is small, the bathroom so tiny there’s only room for a shower stall, not a tub, and the toilet is close enough to the sink that I think they’re married. The bedroom closet won’t hold my growing boot collection or all of my handbags. I may have a slight addiction.
But despite the apartment’s limitations, it’s all mine. I don’t have to share one single square foot. I can paint over the current off-white walls, fill the front windows with plants, and buy an excessive amount of cute, pastel throw pillows.
I half-twerk, half-chicken dance across my new space. Yes, it’s as bizarre as it sounds, but I only do it in private. And not very well.
Having my own place is a first for me. Of my twenty-six years, I spent the first twenty-three living at home. Then I moved to Connecticut and lived with my chatty, somewhat self-absorbed cousin for two years. She got married, and what did I do? I moved in with the super hot, super new boyfriend, Julian, hereafter known as Douche Nozzle. I should’ve immediately known we weren’t soul mates. Who finds true love and moves in with them after one week?
I moved back home to South Shore Beach, New York four days ago and it’s been awesome. I forgot how entertaining it is listening to Ma sing show tunes while she cooks and cleans. This week’s theme is My Fair Lady, and yes, Ma, it would’ve been lovely if I could’ve danced all night in the rain in Spain. The only down part about being back home is my sister and niece are staying with my folks, too, and I’ve had to endure sleeping on their lumpy couch. But I’ve missed my family tremendously, and being home simply feels so right. And the cream cheese icing on the pumpkin cupcake—I’m craving sweets—is that the folks handed over the keys to the apartment above the family deli. The one my parents lived in when they first married. The one my siblings and I were conceived in. Despite the pungent stench of salami and Pine-Sol, and what an eye-watering combination that is, I choose to believe this twist of fate, this full circle, is the universe’s way of pushing me down the right path. Hopefully I’m correct and the universe isn’t mocking me.
I open my arms wide and take in a long, deep breath. Then immediately gag, sputter, and choke like a dying car. Dear God, my brother lived here for five years. How did he stand it? Silly question. This is the same person who left a pepperoni and Swiss cheese sandwich in his backpack in the trunk of the car during a camping weekend with Pop. In June. Not only does he have seriously odd taste buds, but he could live in a can of sardines and not be bothered.
I rush forward and open each of the three windows facing the street out front. I press my nose to the middle screen and breathe in lungfuls of clean air until I’m lightheaded and almost pass out. That would be one way to not notice the smell.
My phone plays Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which means it’s my sister. I swipe the green flashing circle while making a mental note to use the rest of my credit balance on cases of Glade PlugIns.
“Izzie, I shouldn’t be much longer,” I say. She and I have a night of drink, dance, and darts ahead of us. This will be our first night out since I’ve been back. I’m just waiting for my bed to arrive.
“Why are my husband and his buddy hauling a mattress out of his truck?” Her words are garbled, as if her mouth is directly pressed against the phone.
The answer seems pretty obvious to me. “Where are you?” I ask, and spot her car parked down the street by Park Place Bakery.
“In the deli. Pop’s cleaning the front counters, and I’m in back.”
No doubt peering through the peephole in the door. I don’t know what’s wrong with her marriage. When Ma and I pressed her on it, she said something about lonely nights and cabana boys. She gets muddled when upset. This was two days ago. I figure a pitcher of margaritas, a few hip thrusts to the latest bebop, and she’ll be spilling her guts.
Ma gave me explicit instructions to report all findings back to her pronto, but I won’t betray Izzie’s trust. Ma knows this. All those times Ma tried bribing me with ice cream or cookies so I’d spill about Izzie’s latest crush or whether she really went to the library after school. Not once did I tell what I knew, and I knew tons. Izzie was not a reader. Despite her being five years older than me, she’s my sister, and I’m not a tattler. Besides, Izzie knows a wild shopping cart didn’t dent Pop’s car when I was in twelfth grade. I accidentally inhaled some secondhand marijuana smoke—that’s my story anyway—and got slightly high. Then I volunteered to go on a munchies run. I didn’t see the Return Carts Here sign when backing out of the space. I only tapped it. Nine years isn’t long enough though for that truth to come out. Not that Pop is violent or easily angered. I just don’t want to see the disappointment on his face. He restored and adored that car.
“You couldn’t ask someone other than Paulie to help you move?” Izzie’s voice penetrates my memories.
Heavy boots clamor up the back steps.
“Pop asked him. I couldn’t very well say no. Ma and Pop aren’t bringing the rest of the furniture until tomorrow after Sunday dinner. As appealing as it sounds, sleeping in the shower stall is out of the question.”
I turn to let Paulie and his buddy in and spot an unfamiliar guy standing by the breakfast bar I scream and freeze, because that will save my life.
The phone slips from my hand as I remind my heart to beat.
“What is it?” Izzie shrieks from beside my shoe.
Something hard hits the door. “Gianna?” Paulie calls through it. He sounds concerned. Good brother-in-law. No matter what’s going on between him and my sister, he has a lifelong duty to help me move, kill spiders, and protect me from murdering, raping, stealing home intruders.
Technically the guy doesn’t look threatening, but I read that Ted Bundy didn’t either. How did this guy sneak up behind me? The downstairs entrance has a dim light bulb, but it’s only two walls and a narrow staircase. How didn’t I hear him?
He’s wearing khaki shorts, a light blue polo shirt, and beige flip-flops. He holds his skull. “Whoa, dude, you can see me?” He looks barely legal and sounds like he’s spent one too many hours surfing waves.
What is he talking about? Of course I can see him. Did he accidentally inhale secondhand weed smoke?
Paulie manages to open the door without letting go of the mattress and knocking his buddy down the stairs.
Izzie still calls my name. If she was a loving sister, she’d run up with Pop’s cleaver, regardless of the fact that her husband is making his way in.
“Are you okay?” Paulie asks as he turns the corner. His sweaty face is pink, and his eyes are wide. He stares wildly around the room, which is really one half-stretch of the neck, and looks straight through Surfer Dude.
Oh crap. I take a step closer and realize Surfer Dude isn’t standing but hovering. Well isn’t this interesting? My brand new apartment comes equipped with its very own ghost. How many have I seen in my lifetime now? Close to a thousand? What is he doing up here? And does he do windows? That’s the worst chore in the world.
“Gianna?” Paulie asks again, dragging the mattress farther in and allowing me to catch a glimpse of his buddy—six-feet, bleached blond, light green eyes, and a back so broad he won’t need shoulder pads when they come back into fashion. All the weird things do.
I instantly blush, already knowing the fantasy I’ll have tonight on that very mattress. “Um, yeah, sorry. It was just a spider.”
I snatch up the phone, say, “I’m fine. See you in a bit,” and disconnect the call.
Paulie nods. “This is one of the paramedics, Harry. And this is my sister-in-law, Gianna Mancini.”
I hold out my hand, anticipating his warm flesh against mine, and practically purr, “You can call me Sally.”
Harry and I exchange smiles bright enough to put the sun out of work. While he checks me out from head to toe with a slow, smoldering gaze that almost singes my black mini dress to ash, I do my best not to lick my lips. It may have been only be two weeks since Douche Nozzle and I officially broke up, but it’s been four months since I got freaky. That’s not very long, but since that time has been filled with a hide-in-your-bed, sobbing, snotting, Ben & Jerry emotional meltdown and an out-of-state move, it feels like a stint in a nunnery.
Paulie smirks. “So, uh, bedroom?” He tugs the mattress forward, almost pulling it from Harry’s grip.
As soon as they’re out of earshot, I wave Surfer Dude over and whisper, “You know the freezer’s downstairs, right?”
“Yeah, I know, but I don’t need it now.”
I do my best what’chu talkin ’bout, Willis? pout. “But you’re dead, and all good dead beings leave this world through the freezer.” For some reason our deli freezer is the portal to the other side. I don’t know why this is, and none of the ghosts I’ve ever encountered know either. I’ve often wondered if there was something special about our freezer or if there were freezers all over the country acting as rotating doors to the great beyond. Whatever that is.
He shrugs. “I’m not ready to go yet. Is there a deadline? The freezer’s not disappearing, right?”
I cock my head and frown. “Exactly how does a freezer disappear?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I haven’t exactly died before. But you can see ghosts, so anything’s possible.”
He has a point. “No. Leave when you’re ready, but I didn’t sign up for a roommate.” I don’t mean to sound stingy, but a plus-size girl with an adequately big butt shouldn’t chicken dance in front of people.
He flashes a smile that would put the Cheshire cat to shame. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
I roll my eyes. I doubt that.
Paulie and Harry step back into the living area. “We’ll get the box spring and set it up.”
As much as I want to drool over Harry, I don’t have time. Izzie’s known for her impatience, and I need to get downstairs before Izzie explodes and Pop has to clean up bits of her off the back door. “Don’t bother. Just prop it up against the wall, and I’ll do it later.”
“Are you sure?” Paulie asks. He chews his bottom lip, which means he wants to talk to me—probably about Izzie. I wish I could pat him on the head, rub his belly, toss him a treat, whatever will make him feel better, but when I gotta go, I gotta go.
They head out, and I turn to Surfer Dude. “What’s your name?” I ask.
“How old are you?”
I close my eyes for a second and a chill runs through me. That’s way too young. “How’d you die?”
He shoves his hands into his pockets and hangs his head. “According to my folks it was alcohol poisoning.”
I attempt to slap him on the shoulder for sheer stupidity, but my hand goes through him. Wait, he’s seen his folks. So he’s been around for a bit, at least. “When did you die?”
That’s March for the college crowd. “Six months ago?”
He shrugs. “I guess. Time is kinda irrelevant now. So what’s with the freezer? Why is it the portal?”
“Beats me. How do you know about the freezer? Does it have a beacon or some kind of alarm only the dearly departed can hear?” It’s a question I’ve asked many times to many different deadies.
He shakes his head. “Nah, some dead guy by the beach mentioned it’s the way to pass over, but he didn’t say why.”
That’s the same sort of answer I always get. I guess we’re the talk of death-central. Maybe we should add that to our advertising. Mancini Deli—Fresh Sandwiches, Salads, and Portal to the Other Side.
As far as I know, the deli has always been a hub of paranormal activity. When I was eight I went into the walk-in freezer to steal a Good Humor Chocolate Eclair. Ma and Pop were up front dealing with customers, and Izzie and our brother, Enzo, were arguing over whom Ma told to sweep by the sinks. It was totally Enzo, but he’d do anything to get out of chores, even make Izzie think she’d gone crazy.
The boxes of ice cream were on the third shelf, and I had to climb to reach them. I slipped and hit my head on the floor, knocking myself out. By time they realized I was inside, I was a human Popsicle. There’s irony there too. Thank goodness ’cause it slowed down the dying process. According to the paramedics, I flatlined in the ambulance for one minute and thirty-two seconds.
I don’t remember much—just falling, and some guy with white hair and shocking blue eyes grabbed my hand and tried to pull me to him. I later realized he was dead, too, a ghost who wanted me to cross over. You’d think there was a more tactful way of welcoming the recently deceased. Yanking is so tacky.
Thankfully, either the paramedics were skilled, or I couldn’t fathom a future without grilled cheese. Miss all that ooey-gooey goodness? I think not.
It was after this that I started communicating with ghosts while awake and conscious. I could suddenly see them everywhere. Graveyards and hospitals are the worst. For some unknown reason they pass over to the other side through the deli freezer. The first time I saw it happen I thought the little old lady was looking for the Chocolate Éclairs. Really, who can resist them?
One day I asked one of them, and the guy said it was their way over. It seemed weird, but who am I to say how a dead person should cross? I don’t make the rules.
Paulie and Harry walk through the living room with the box spring. Preoccupied with the past, I barely notice Harry’s lecherous grin. When they’re done, Paulie’s steps seem to slow down, as if he wants to hang and chat and brew tea. We can’t have that. I practically feel Izzie’s negative energy float through the floorboards, and I don’t want her to get too annoyed to go out. We both need tonight.
“Okay, well, I need to go.” I make crazy eyes at Billy, hoping he’ll think I’m a bit unhinged and find a new place to hover. He seems like a nice kid, but I want to be able to walk around in the buff, leave the bathroom door open when I pee, and not have to hold in gas until pain shoots into my belly. I don’t think I’m asking for too much.
I run down, knock three times on the deli’s back door, and stick out my tongue when Izzie’s deep brown eyes appear in the glass. She unlatches it, and I hurry in with a glance to Paulie’s black truck. He’s watching us through his side view mirror.
I shut the door. “You ready?”
She looks awesome. She’s wearing black pants and the pumpkin-colored, silk blouse I bought her for Christmas last year. Even though we both have an olive complexion, she looks good in the color. I wouldn’t be seen dead in any shades of orange, brown, or gold. They make me look so washed out. Maybe it has to do with her hair being a milk chocolate shade of brown, and everyone thinks mine is black.
Izzie’s arms are crossed over her chest. Her foot’s tapping a groove into the tile. “You’re not supposed to be nice to him if I hate him. That’s the sister rule. What did he say about me?”
Whoa, paranoid much? There’s some serious discord between these two. Weren’t they happy five months ago? She sent me a photo from their anniversary, and they were both smiling.
“Nothing. I didn’t give him the chance.”
Her foot stops. A half smile appears on her face. Hurricane Isabella has redirected itself. “Good. I’ll go get my purse.”
Her three-inch heels click-clack as she heads up front, and I’m reminded of her weird height issue. She’s five-four and insists on never standing below five-five. I don’t think she’s owned a pair of flats since junior high. Meanwhile I’m five-two and won’t wear any shoe attached to a long, narrow spoke. Stilettos and pumps are evil, gorgeous torture-devices. They trap you with their sexiness and leave you in pain. Give me wedges or chunky heels, even flats, any day.
I walk to the freezer, in my chunky-heeled, thigh-high boots, which are comfortable yet still rockin’, and stare at the stainless steel. It’s shiny, and it almost looks brand new. Ma knows how to sweet talk with a bottle of cleaner. I tug the handle and jerk the door. It opens with a soft whoosh. I shut one eye, anticipating a freezer full of walking stiffs. Nope. Nothing but trays of Ma’s lasagna and eggplant parm. Not a single dead person. Ma will be happy. Not that I plan to tell her though. The family knows I’ve seen ghosts walk around the deli, but at around age fourteen I stopped sharing. No sense in freaking out their dreams as well. As open-minded as the family is, I don’t think Ma would like to know that grumpy, old dead lady from church has been yelling at her every time she’s muttered damn all week.
I shut the door and sigh. I’m not sure if no deadies is a good or bad thing. Living above ghost plaza could get disruptive, but then again, I’ve been kinda hoping to put my skills to use, to help. I like the idea of having “Ghost Whisperer” (in a Jennifer Love Hewitt way) engraved on my tombstone when I die. Although, “Master of Deliciousness Between Bread” will be okay too.
Someone has to invent the next greatest sandwich.
“Gianna, you’re staring at the freezer,” says Izzie. She should work for the CIA.
I shut the door and turn to her. “Ready? I can really use that one drink.”
“We need to make a quick stop first.”
I groan. “Does this have to do with Paulie?”
She pushes me toward the back door and shouts, “Bye, Pop. We’re leaving.” To me she says, “Nope. It has to do with our annoying brother.”
“Uh-oh. What’d he do?” I offered to be the designated driver tonight, so we walk across the gravel to my old silver Kia Rio.
“He snuck into the house last weekend, went into the basement while Alice and I were watching a movie, tripped the circuit breaker, and screamed like he was being gutted by a serial killer.”
I fasten my seatbelt and try not to laugh. I love her imagination. Knowing my sister, she screamed as well. Knowing my thirteen-year-old niece, she did not. That girl is so like me. My earlier reaction to Surfer Dude Billy doesn’t count.
“And what are we going to do?” I pull out of the corner lot and head east on Park Place.
“I went by his house this morning and unlocked the window in his spare room. We’re going to sneak in and pay him back.”
Oooh, a good old-fashioned Mancini scare. I’ve missed them. I’m so glad I’m home.