Chapter 1: From Water

Lauren knew something was wrong the moment a large fish swim past her car’s windshield, its bulbous eyes peering at her like she was an alien being. She’d woken in the driver’s seat only moments before, seatbelt still strapped in.

A soft white light illuminated the front seat around her. Only watery darkness lay beyond. Lauren sat up, alarmed. She was not holding her breath. In fact, her mouth was wide open in shock. Her body full of water. And yet she felt... ​nothing?

Lauren clutched her chest, her throat. ​Wake up,​ she thought. Her skin felt strange, like thick slimy mud. Her fingertips sank right ​into​ her throat, causing ripples that undulated across her face. ​Please​ ​wake up!

Lauren’s body, her skin, her dress, her glasses, everything was composed of a syrupy glowing liquid. She soon realized she was the source of the hazy light illuminating the gloom around her.

Please wake up!

Lauren let out a muffled cry as she scrambled from her seat and floated upwards. Up through the roof of her car, between a school of passing fish, until she hovered over her beat­-up Toyota Camry. The car rested in the muddy bottom of some large, dark body of water. ​Was it a lake? A river? The ocean? It didn’t matter...

Please WAKE UP!

Lauren could clearly see what was sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, the seat she had just vacated. It was her pale, purpled corpse, still strapped in. Lauren was­­--

​No, No, NO I’m not.

She swam back to her body, trying desperately to re enter it, but her new form just passed straight through, arriving in the backseat.

Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!

Lauren shoved her hand into the spectral blob that was her head in an attempt to shock her brain back to reality. But this was reality now. And the world around her remained dark and drowned and eerily silent. No matter what she thought. No matter what she hoped, this was the truth... Lauren was dead.

But how?​ She checked her ghostly form for any scars from a stabbing or the bullet hole of a fatal gunshot. There was nothing. ​Did I really drown? ​She knew how to swim. She could have popped the seat belt, broken through a window and swam to the surface unless... she was unconscious from the wreck. ​Or something else.​ Perhaps she had been drugged or drunk.

Lauren tried to remember the past day, but her memories were like images on a mirror that kept getting fogged up. There were vague shapes and movement, but all details were lost in the thick mist.​ Okay.​ ​What clues remain, ​she wondered. ​Her dress.​ Her ghostly body was a complete mirror image of her physical one, right down to the clothes. She was wearing her fanciest dress, a red, strapless ball gown. She had never worn the gown before. She was saving it for a special occasion. ​Graduation? That wasn’t for another six months, at least​, Lauren thought. My birthday isn’t for months either. ​She wasn’t even planning on going to the senior prom.​ Was it­­--

Then came a flash of memory. A handsome, boyish face. Mischievous eyes and a scruffy chin. Flip, her boyfriend.​ Where is he? Was he... ​But there was no one else inside the car. She even checked the trunk. Just some old water­logged National Geographic magazines and comic books. ​One thing at a time, Lauren thought. One thing at a time.

First... Where had they gone? Clearly someplace elegant. ​Another flash. This time it was a glass of champagne. ​Was I drunk?​ Lauren wondered.​ Is that why I can’t remember anything?​ That didn’t seem like her at all. Lauren and her friends rarely drank and she had only been drunk once, which ended with her vomiting in the backseat of her friend’s car and vowing never to touch tequila again. The strongest drink at most of her social gatherings (board gaming, going to the movies, playing Super Smash Bros for eight hours straight) was Diet Coke. ​If not drinks, then what was it? Drugs?​ ​Did someone spike my drink and...​ She didn’t want to consider the rest.

God dammit​, Lauren thought. ​How could I have been so stupid?​ Every stern faced horror story her mother told her had just come true. “Just one drink,” she would say. “One drink is all it takes.” Lauren couldn’t even remember why she was wearing her best dress, much less how she ended up at the bottom of the ocean...Wait. ​Was this the ocean?​ That, at least, could be answered.

Lauren swam to the surface, though it wasn’t really swimming. Her new spectral form reacted to the water as though it were some kind of thick sludge, forcing her to practically climb through it. When she broke the surface, she realized she could keep “climbing” until her ghostly form stood atop the waves. At first, Lauren felt woozy on the unstable surface, but she soon realized she could walk across the water like it was an unusually soft, sandy beach.

As she walked, Lauren took in the familiar surroundings. Her car had clearly crashed into the brackish waters of the Menendez Bay. It was a moonless night, but still she could see clearly. Lauren was only a dozen yards from shore. The brilliant lights of historic San Sebastian, Florida danced upon the dark waves surrounding her. With its old Spanish fort, ancient cobblestone streets and historic inns and shops, the quaint town was a major tourist hub for history aficionados. And like anyplace with a lot of history, it also attracted its fair share of ghost hunters.

As Lauren neared the shore, she noticed two police cars parked next to a section of broken guardrail above the barnacle­-encrusted jetties separating San Sebastian from the bay. Though she couldn’t remember how it had happened, she knew it was her car that had crashed through that guardrail. Two police officers shone their flashlights out into the bay. One of the beams passed through Lauren as she approached them, causing her whitish glow to momentarily brighten.

“Help! HELP me,” the words were out of her mouth before she had realized how futile they were. ​Of course they won’t hear you, much less be able to help, ​she wondered as she climbed the jetties.

Her body felt lighter on solid ground, like she was walking on the Moon. One ghostly step was equal to three when she was alive. She approached the cops, who were scanning a taped ­off area along the guardrail with their flashlights. Lauren reached out and tried to touch one of them, a female officer. Lauren’s hand passed through the officer’s shoulders, which caused the cop to shiver ever so slightly in response. ​She can sense my presence,​ Lauren thought. “Can you hear me?” She whispered right in the cop’s ear. No response, save for another slight shiver. “My body’s out in the water, not on land.” The cop just kept walking, passing right through Lauren.

An hour passed. More officers arrived at the scene, while a dozen or so onlookers congregated behind the police tape, whispering rumors among themselves: “Did you see the car?”­­ “No. No one did.”­­ “Must’ve flown out over the water, like a missile.”­­ “Accident?”­­ “Maybe it’s a suicide?”­­“Coulda been run off the edge by another driver.­­”

Lauren stared at the onlookers’ faces. Many of them looked like tourists. They were just out having fun on a Saturday night. A few even pulled out their iPhones and took pictures. Lauren felt like smashing the devices. “Hey! Someone just died here, assholes,” she said. Of course there was no response.

“AH!” Lauren felt a sudden, sharp pain in her left calf, a piercing ache that rippled through her spectral body like an electric current. ​I can feel pain?​ She turned. Behind her squatted an impish creature covered in slimy, knob­like scales. It was not glowing like she was. Not a ghost​, she thought. ​Something else. ​The creature had a man’s body with a head that most resembled that of an alligator. It (he) smiled at Lauren, revealing row upon row of needle­like teeth dripping with greenish ooze. “Ello, spec!” the creature said. A name was scorched onto his chest, right where a nametag would usually go. It read Gambit.

Lauren grabbed her calf, which still radiated pain. And she quickly saw why. A small chunk of it was missing. She watched with growing alarm as a stream of white mist flowed from the wound. Am I... bleeding?

“Yum. Tasty spec,” Gambit said. Then he lunged at her, jaws agape.

Lauren jumped out of the way just before the squat monster could sink his incisors into her leg again. “Stay the Hell away from me!”

Gambit smiled and jumped at her again, this time latching onto her ankle. While strong, the creature was only half her size.

“Let go!” Lauren kicked at him with her other leg. Gambit’s body felt solid to her, like he was a part of the physical world, but clearly he wasn’t. None of the living people nearby noticed him.

“Owwww!” More white mist spurted from Lauren’s ghost wound. “You little piece of sh­­--”

Suddenly, a flurry of red and black flashed by Lauren’s face. Something else grabbed hold of Gambit’s back, biting into his knobby hide.

With an annoyed grunt, Gambit released his jaws from Lauren’s ankle and started to attack this interloper.

Lauren stepped back, clutching her wound. She temporarily forgot her pain as she watched the bizarre battle playing out before her.

Lauren’s “savior” appeared to be some kind of glowing animal spirit, red and black in color, its body stretched out from whizzing around Gambit so fast. Too fast to tell exactly what it was. Gambit quickly grew dizzy from turning around and around, trying to catch it.

“No. Not this time,” Gambit shouted. “This time, mine. Mine! Mine!”

CRUNCH! The impish creature snagged the animal spirit with his pudgy hands, squeezing. “Hahahaha.” Gambit held his prey high and Lauren could finally see what it was.

The animal spirit had a round, bushy head with giant eyes and a slender, furry, four­-legged body ending in a plush tail. Two tiny hummingbird-like wings appeared to be its means of flight and its button­-nosed face reminded Lauren of her favorite childhood pet, a pound puppy she had named Scruffy, who died some years back in a car accident.

Gambit opened his jaws, ready to swallow the creature whole. The Scruffy ­spirit squeaked, its body shaking, tiny wings beating hard to get away. But Gambit was too strong. He just laughed, ectoplasmic drool dripping from his maw.

Staring at him, Lauren felt her body harden. Her glow went from white to red. “No,” she whispered to herself.

Just before Gambit could bite down on the animal spirit, Lauren ran headlong into him, causing him to drop his meal. At that moment, she grabbed hold of the animal spirit and ran off as fast as her wounded legs would allow.

Gambit hissed as he struggled to his feet. By the time he did, Lauren and the animal spirit had disappeared down a nearby alleyway.

After running/limping for an hour, Lauren finally felt she’d lost Gambit. She stopped to rest and her glow returned to its original white color. “Okay. Okay. I’m okay.”

Almost immediately, the pain in her calf came back. White mist still issued from the wound. It didn’t appear like it would heal any time soon. If it would heal at all.

Lauren sat on the ground beside a dumpster, exhausted. “What the Hell is happening?” she said to the small, furry creature she had just rescued. The animal spirit felt solid to her touch, like holding a fluffy dog. It, like her, was a part of this strange world of the dead. The animal licked her calf. Though the wound did not heal in response, her pain subsided ever so slightly, leaving a ticklish feeling behind. Lauren petted the creature and for the first time since waking as a ghost she felt some manner of peace. “Hey. What’s your name?” she asked.

The critter squeaked in response, its voice high and chittery.

“How about I call you Scruffy? Is that okay?” she asked.

Another squeak.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

There was a low grumble nearby. ​Gambit​, Lauren thought. She didn’t have the energy to defend herself again.

“Come on,” she whispered. “Let’s find some help.” Surely, if there were things in the afterlife like Scruffy, then there would be a way to fix her up. And hopefully figure out how this whole mess happened in the first place. Together, she and Scruffy continued on into the night.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2: Clairvoyant Extraordinaire