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In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same

Five children have gone missing since the school year began. The youngest, only six; the oldest, no more than ten. They all went to school together, but all in different grades. The only thing they have in common is that they all rode the school bus together every day.

Richard McGinty reported the first child missing. And the second. And the third. He’s the bus driver, it makes sense he would notice, but even so, the police chief can’t help but wonder. There’s just something about him, the police chief has always thought so. Sunnydale is a nice town, a safe one, but there are some people, like Richard McGinty, who just don’t seem to belong. It isn’t anything the police chief can put his finger on, but he’s learned over the years that if someone looks suspicious it’s most likely because they are. So the police chief writes McGinty’s name at the top of his suspect list, then he does what he always does. He gives the Super Teen Detective Squad a call.

Helen is the pretty one. Everyone says so. Her hair is long and red and flips over her shoulders just so. She isn’t quite rich, but she isn’t poor either. She always has money for new clothes when she wants them, but she tends to wear the same ones day after day. Pretty is something she is, not something she does.

She’s been a Teen Detective as long as she can remember. Along with Greg, Tricia, and Rooster, she’s solved more mysteries than she can remember. They blend together in her mind—the Old Mill, the Haunted Cemetery, the creature in the pond, or the river, or the swamp. There’s always a ghost, or a demon, or a monster, one that always turns out to be someone in disguise. Helen has never met a real monster. She’s almost eighteen, but she still hopes she will grow up to be a monster someday.

In her time as a Teen Detective, Helen has learned that most people only think they know what monsters look like. They walk past real monsters every day and never see them at all, which is why the monsters she meets go around in disguise. It’s the only way anyone will ever recognize them, and they are all so desperate to be seen.

Helen thinks a lot about disguises. She thinks about putting on a hundred pounds, or losing fifty, and paying someone to beat her up so badly it will utterly transform her face. She’ll get a crummy apartment, one with a roach problem, and a door that doesn’t properly lock. It will be the kind of place a girl like her would never live. She’ll spend her days walking right up to people who know her, or think they do, and laughing behind her hands when they don’t recognize her. And it will be absolutely glorious.

This future, alternate, unrecognizable version of her will get a dog. A big one who slobbers. One who growls at everyone who isn’t her. The dog will know her and love her unconditionally; it won’t have any idea she’s supposed to be the pretty one. It will know her by her smell, and the fact that she feeds it, and it won’t care a thing about her face, her shape, or the color of her hair.

By unofficial consensus, Greg is the Super Teen Detective Squad’s leader. Helen thinks she might have slept with him once, because they are both pretty and that’s the way it’s supposed to go. Though it’s also possible that they got drunk together once and he told her that he’s gay.

Lately she’s been having recurring dreams about murdering Greg. In fact, she’s dreamt about murdering every single member of the Teen Detective Squad. More than once, she’s woken with blood on her hands. She has no idea where the blood comes from. The only thing she knows for certain is that it isn’t hers. Sometimes she wonders if she’s spent so much time thinking about becoming a monster that she’s turned into one after all.

He didn’t start driving the school bus until after he retired. Maybe that’s why all the kids on the bus call him old. “Better behave, or Old Man McGinty will get you.” “I heard Old Man McGinty’s face is just a rubber mask.” “I dare you to pull it off and see what he looks like for real.” “I heard he crashed a bus on purpose once.” “I heard he locks bad kids inside the bus and hurts them.”

There are so many rumors, none of them true. He doesn’t even really mind; it’s just the way kids are. It comes with the job, it comes with being “old”, with being a little too quiet, a little lonely, a little odd.

The kids are right about one thing at least. He does look like someone in his disguise, his face and clothing all wrong. The clothes are hand-me-downs from his father. Never throw a good piece of cloth away, his mother always said. They don’t fit him right. They smell of mothballs and smoke, though he’s never touched a cigarette in his life. His father died when he was eight years old, but his mother kept the clothes in a trunk in the attic, waiting for him to grow.

He doesn’t remember the growing part. As far as he knows, he’s always been old. What he does remember is the day his mother pulled his father’s old clothes out of the chest and presented them to him. He remembers climbing into them, all shades of umber and brown, sienna and burnt orange. It was like wearing his father’s ghost. He looked in the mirror and saw a man with hound dog eyes, with shadows in the seams of his skin, and hair fading to the color of a mouse’s fur. He was only eighteen at the time.

Tricia is the smart one, but no one ever tells her so. They simply take it for granted. She is the reliable one, dependable, boring. She is so predictable that even she catches words coming out of her mouth before she’s had time to think of them sometimes. It’s like someone else living in inside her, speaking through her skin.

Every morning when she gets dressed, Tricia finds dog hairs on her clothes. She finds them even though she hasn’t been anywhere near a dog, ever, as far as she knows. Her parents have always told her she’s deathly allergic, even though the dog hairs on her sweaters don’t even so much as make her itch. It’s the greatest mystery she’s ever encountered. Even with the ghosts, the pirate treasure, the naiad inhabiting the old pond. This is the thing that will haunt her, the unsolved puzzle that will follow her to her grave.

There are times Tricia wishes she could be the pretty one. Even better, she wishes she could be both pretty and smart, even though everyone knows that’s impossible. There are other times she knows it’s that she wants to be with the pretty one. She dreams of kissing Helen, running her fingers through her fiery hair. She imagines trying on Helen’s clothes, and she imagines them shopping together. They take turns in the dressing room, like a movie montage, holding up dresses and jeans and sweaters, saying “What do you think about this one and this one and this one?” Tricia knows it will never happen. She and Helen don’t spend time together unless they’re solving a mystery. She doesn’t even think they’re friends.

Sometimes Tricia wonders whether she would rather be with Greg, or be like him. So smooth, so confident, always ready with a quip and a smile. Always up for anything. Other times she knows with absolutely certainty she doesn’t want to be with or like any of them at all. In fact, she hates them. They terrify her, and she wants to run as far away as she can and never see any of them again.

Every day, after he picks up the last child at the last stop, before he turns onto the road leading to the school, Old Man McGinty counts the children’s faces. He counts them once in the rearview mirror, and once again when he turns around. There is always one more or less than there should be, but he can never be sure which way around. His school bus is haunted; he knows this with certainty, but he has never told anyone. The school itself is haunted, but he’s the only one who knows.

Once the ghost children realize he can see them, they start coming to him all the time. They press their hands against his skin, never blinking, never breathing, silently asking why. “Tell me how to help you,” he begs, but they cannot answer him.

At night, when he’s making soup from a paper packet, they hover around his stove. When he’s watching TV, they drape themselves over the top of the set. When he’s brushing his teeth, they crowd the mirror beside him. When he sleeps, they stand at the foot of his bed, and they are there again when he wakes in the morning.

“Please,” he says. “Please tell me how to help you.”

The ghosts’ voices have been stolen, so they show him instead. Old Man McGinty dreams about the school grounds. He dreams about a particular patch of trees, so far away at the edge of the property that it isn’t even visible from the school. There’s an old shed under the trees where a wheelbarrow and other unused equipment is stored. It’s a bad place. Nobody goes there. It’s just another one of those things that everyone knows.

Rooster is the dropout, the burnout, the one everyone knows will amount to nothing. They tell him so all the time. In turn, he tells them nothing. Not about the nightmares, or how he wakes screaming and shaking with a head full of memories that couldn’t possibly be his.

He’s a soldier in a far away country where the air thumps with mortar fire and helicopter blades, and all around him foliage burns. He knows the memories cannot be real. He’s only ever been a member of the Super Teen Detective Squad. They solve mysteries and unmask fake monsters, and nothing is dangerous or scary at all.

The four of them drive around in an old jalopy painted the blinding-bright color of the sun. He isn’t sure where it came from. Like the Squad itself, it’s always been there, a fifth member of their team. Except didn’t there used to be a dog? Rooster thinks so. At least he remembers burying his fingers and face in thick fur, holding on like he was drowning.

Rooster has never asked any other members of the Squad about the dog. The only thing they ever talk about is mysteries. Like the Squad isn’t just what they do, it’s everything they are. They’ve met other Teen Detectives in their time—the sheriff’s daughter who is a little bit psychic and her pudgy, brown-haired friend. The murder-solving twins. He’s always wondered which one of them is the evil one and if they’ll grow up to be a killer after all they’ve seen, if they even grow up at all. There have been others, a blur of faces over the years. Every time they encounter another team, he can’t help thinking “Aren’t they too young for this? Aren’t we all?”

The case he remembers the most clearly is the Civil War ghost haunting the old graveyard. Of course, he wasn’t really a ghost, though he was a soldier, only in a different war. He felt more at home among the dead, he told them when they unmasked him, but no one other than Rooster seemed to hear.

He wanted to hug the man, or hold his hand, but he was afraid to even look him in the eye. He wanted to say he could understand the appeal of wearing a mask, of being someone else for a while. He could understand wanting to hide. But he didn’t say anything at all, silently thinking about the days he wakes with a name in his mouth that tastes of mud, and cold beans, and rain. Which one is he? Is the soldier or the Teen Detective Rooster’s real disguise?

“It’s the ghost who killed them,” Old Man McGinty says. “Not the little ones, the big one. Except he wasn’t a ghost at the time. He was a man, and he worked at the school a long time ago.”

The ghosts showed him, the ones with the blue skin, sad eyes, and tiny hands. The ones who curl up on top of his refrigerator and slide in under his door. They showed him what happened to them, and he tries to tell everyone, but no one listens.

“Please,” he says. “Just let me show you, just let me explain.”

He digs in the dirt until it forms rinds under his nails and streaks his arms. He unearths skulls and cradles them in his hands. He kisses them, whispering lullabies as he weeps into the empty sockets of their eyes. They’re his ghosts. The ones who ride his bus. He knows them, he tries to say. But the parents who didn’t even notice their children were missing until he told them—the men who smell of scotch and expensive cologne, and the women who smell like chalkboards and wear skirts that brush their calves and pillbox hats on Sundays—click their tongues.

“There’s no such thing as ghosts,” they say. “And everyone knows what monsters look like anyway. They look like you.” Wrong. Sad. Old.

After all, how else would he know where to find the bodies? And there are so many rumors about him. He must be the one.

Greg is the rich one. Definitively rich, disgustingly rich, not just a little rich like Helen. He lives in a mansion, surrounded by grounds that have a whole team of people to take care of them. There is a tennis court, a swimming pool, and more water features than he’s ever cared to count.

Greg isn’t certain how his father made all his money. He thinks it might have something to do with weapons and a military coup in a far away country. All he knows is that his father is not a good man. His father was the first man who ever hurt him, but he wasn’t the last one.

There’s a place on the grounds where Greg never goes. It’s a little cabin, barely more than a shed really, where the groundskeeper used to live. There’s no groundskeeper now. The lawn and all the water features are maintained by a team who arrive once a week in a fleet of vans with neat green lettering on the side. Their logo is a broad-shouldered silhouette, standing under a tree.

Something happened in that cabin. But no matter how much he wants to forget, he still hears and smells and feels it, like jagged fragments lodged in his skull. He remembers screaming, his throat open and raw. The handles of the garden shears dry and splintery in his hands. The knowledge that once the terrible, ragged breathing stopped, no one would ever hurt him again.

He tried to tell his mother, then it was like someone came down out of the sky and scooped all the bad things out of the world like they’d never happened. Nobody said they were sorry, or that everything would be okay. There was never any body, no police ever came, then the cabin on the grounds was empty so maybe there was never a groundskeeper at all.

Just in case, though, he doesn’t go there anymore. Because maybe the rind of dirt he remembers under the groundskeeper’s nails was real. The calluses on his hand the first time they met. His father had just hired new staff, and he presented Greg to each of them like a trophy, not like a son. The groundskeeper is the only one who winked at him. “Don’t let Greg be a bother,” his father had said, like Greg was a troublesome lump of stone that might be run over with a lawnmower. “Oh don’t worry your head, Mr. B,” the groundskeeper had said. “I used to keep the grounds at the school. I love children.” And that’s when he winked. He leaned down so Greg would see, and his breath smelled like wintergreen.

There was a dog, too. A big one, with black and tan fur. It had a spiked collar and mean teeth. Greg remembers how one time it barked at him, and lunged against its chain. He was so scared he wet himself. The groundskeeper laughed; the dog belonged to him. But he told Greg not to worry, it would be their little secret. He wouldn’t tell anyone, especially not Greg’s father. Greg could even change his pants in the groundskeeper’s cabin so no one else would see, and the he would help Greg bury the old ones when he was done. The groundskeeper told Greg he was very good at burying things so no one would ever find them.

Eventually, Greg realized the dog probably wasn’t mean at all. It had been hurt too. But by then the damage was done. He’s been scared of dogs ever since.

There was another dog later. At least Greg thinks so, but he isn’t sure. He stole a bottle of liquor from his father and went driving in the sun-yellow jalopy. He’d driven too fast, top down, even though it was raining. The headlights made tunnels of light, then something jumped out in front of the car. Or maybe he’d already been veering for the side of the road, foot crushed down against the pedal. Maybe whatever he hit saved him.

Once he’d stopped the car, shaking, afraid to look at the shape lying in the road, a man appeared. A boy, really, except he looked much older—his hair long, his beard scruffy, his clothes covered in mud. He shaved the beard later, and he turned into Rooster, but he had it the first time Greg met him, when he picked him up hitchhiking and they drove through the rain. Rooster had a guitar case and he smelled like incense. He looked like he’d been through a war, and he was crying.

The dark bundle still lay at the side of the road, all limbs bent and pointing the wrong way. Greg didn’t look at it as they pulled away, while Rooster couldn’t stop looking, staring in the rearview mirror like he was leaving his best friend behind. Or maybe Greg imagined that part. He was drunk and it was raining, after all.

“This isn’t right,” Greg says. Or that’s what he tries to say, but what comes out as Old Man McGinty weeps and clings to Greg’s shoes is, “I bet you thought you could get away with it, too. Meddling with those kids.” The real words, the ones he wants to say, stick in his throat. He smells wintergreen, and feels the splintery handles of garden shears gripped in his hand.

“Stop sniveling,” Helen says. “You’re pathetic. You’re not even a real monster.” Her teeth are very bright when she says it; her lipstick very red. It’s hard for Old Man McGinty to see her. He’s on the ground, looking up, and she’s haloed by the sun. It sets her hair on fire and casts her face in shadow. She doesn’t look human.

“I’m sorry,” Rooster whispers, but he isn’t sure anyone hears. He feels sorry for the old man and babbling about ghosts. Rooster knows a thing or two about ghosts. They are terrifying.

“Fuck you,” Tricia says. She screams it behind a locked jaw, so all that comes out is a moan.

She never asked for this. She never even wanted to be a Teen Detective. She had never touched alcohol in her life, but right now, she wants to drink and fuck and take drugs over and over again until she forgets everything, even her own name. She won’t be Tricia anymore. She’ll be Karen. She’ll be the kind of girl who smokes half a cigarette, then grinds the rest under her heel before lighting up another one. No one will ever think of her as the smart one again.

It’s all gone wrong, and he isn’t sure how. He only tried to help. Now there’s a rope around Old Man McGinty’s wrists, and the Super Teen Detective Squad is being congratulated on another job well done. Everyone who matters is happy; the monster has been revealed, justice has been done.

The ghosts watch Old Man McGinty with heart-broken eyes. The bodies he dug up are old. Theirs are still missing. But no one seems to have noticed except for him. They’ve already moved on. Sunnydale has a remarkably short memory, it seems.

The sun sets, the slate wiped clean, and the Super Teen Detective Squad go their separate ways. Old Man McGinty listens to gravel crunching under three pairs of feet, and two sets of wheels. And just before he’s led away, very far off in the distance, he thinks he hears a lonely dog howl.

About the Author

A.C. Wise is the author of the novels Hooked and Wendy, Darling, and the recent short story collection, The Ghost Sequences. Her work has won the Sunburst Award, and been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Stoker, Locus, British Fantasy, Aurora, and Shirley Jackson Awards. She also contributes a regular review column to Apex Magazine.