John Kowalski stood at the door of 225 Cardinal Street in Ithaca, New York, and wished he were anywhere else. The family neighborhood appeared idyllic. Toys and bicycles were strewn across clipped green lawns. Pansies and crocuses bloomed in shades of pink, yellow, and violet along the borders of white picket fences. A kid on a bicycle tossed newspapers onto front porches, never missing the welcome mats. Men and women called greetings to each other as they went to their mini-vans and SUVs, carrying travel mugs and briefcases, heading off to work.
John checked his reflection in the skinny window next to the oak door. He wore a freshly dry-cleaned charcoal gray suit with a crisp lilac shirt and darker purple and gray striped tie. His dark brown hair was styled in a business cut. The deep lines etched around his mouth and in his forehead made him appear older than forty-two. It was important that he appeared professional, not slick like a salesman, and definitely not like a kook.
Melissa Goldstein squeezed his hand in encouragement. The ten year old girl stood beside him, her small, cool hand within his bigger, rougher one. She wore jeans and a t-shirt with a picture of a popular cartoon character on it, and her hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. She looked like everyone's daughter, and it reminded John why he did what he did.
John pressed the doorbell and waited. It didn't take long for Mike Goldstein to answer the door. Mike looked haggard and unkempt. He might have been sleeping in his World's Best Dad sweatshirt and sweatpants, if he'd been sleeping at all. He eyed John with a mixture of wariness and hope.
"Mr. Goldstein, I'm John Kowalski. I'm a private investigator." John held out one of his business cards that he'd had at the ready for Mike to take. "I'd like to talk to you and your wife about your daughter. May I come in?"
"You have information about my daughter?" Mike stepped back, allowing John and Melissa to enter. Mike didn't spare a glance at Melissa. Melissa didn't run to embrace her dad, either, though John could tell she wanted to, badly. Mike wouldn't have known Melissa was there, anyway. She was dead.
John had been blessed with a gift: he was able to see, hear, and speak with dead children. He'd developed the ability after a car accident involving his five-year-old son, Kevin. A drunk driver had hit them head on. John's son hadn't survived, but unlike most parents, John had been able to still be with Kevin, who'd hung around after his death until John finally let him go.
John had initially thought grief had given him delusions, but after Kevin had gone, ghosts of other dead children had started showing up on his doorstep at home or at the office. It hadn't been until the kids started communicating to others who couldn't see them that he'd started to believe they were really there. Oddly, it was never deceased adults that John saw, and he didn't usually see ghost children hanging around the streets or lurking in graveyards. Usually the kids found him, and he did what he could to send them on to wherever the dead were supposed to go.
"I'd like to speak with you and your wife together, if I may. Preferably somewhere with a radio," John said.
Mike's face creased with confusion, but he nodded in agreement. "Jenny's in the kitchen. There's a radio in there."
John followed Mike, taking in the happy pictures of Melissa and her parents at various stages in life adorning the beige hallway walls. Melissa was well-loved.
The bright, cheery colors of the kitchen couldn't dispel the pall that hung over the room. Empty pizza boxes, Chinese take-out containers, and bone-filled chicken buckets littered the counter, and a week's worth of dirty dishes were piled in the sink. Photos, invitations, and Melissa's A+ schoolwork hung on the refrigerator with smiley faced magnets. Jenny Goldstein sat at a square kitchen table, stoop-shouldered and nursing a cup of coffee. Her appearance was worse than her husband's. Dark circles bagged under her eyes and her skin was a sickly gray. Her blonde hair was a rat's nest on her head. She wore a blue terry cloth robe and yellow slippers that had seen better days. She barely looked up when Mike, John, and Melissa entered the room.
"Jenny, this is John Kowalski. He's a private investigator. He knows something about Melissa," Mike said.
"Melissa?" Jenny's attention focused immediately on John. Fear, anxiety, and hope were written across her haggard features. "Do you know where she is? Do you know what happened to her?"
John glanced at Melissa, whose face was scrunched with tears. He wanted to take her into his arms and tell her it would be all right, but they both knew it wasn't the truth.
"I need to tell you first that I'm not here for money. I don't want you to hire me, or to collect on a reward, or give me a gift. I don't want notoriety or to get my name in the papers. I'm here because it's the right thing to do. Do you both understand?" John said.
Mike and Jenny exchanged looks and both nodded. "We got it. Now, tell us what you know about Melissa," Mike said.
John spotted the compact radio on the counter nestled beside an unused toaster. He switched it on and pressed the tuner button until he heard only static. He placed his hand on top of the radio. Melissa still held his other hand. "Go ahead. They can hear you now," John told her.
"Mom? Dad?" Melissa's voice came over the radio, faint and mixed with the static.
"Melissa?" Jenny jumped to her feet, dropping her coffee cup. It shattered on the floor, splashing coffee on Jenny's slippers and the hem of her robe, and spreading across the blue patterned linoleum. "Melissa, honey, where are you?"
"I'm right here, next to John," Melissa said. John gave her hand a squeeze of encouragement. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. I should've come right home after school."
Mike's face contorted with rage. "What the hell do you think you're doing?!" he shouted, barreling towards John with fists raised. "Get the hell out of my house!"
"Daddy!" Melissa shrieked as Mike grabbed John by the lapels. John did his best to keep his hand on the radio so Melissa could still talk to her parents. "Stop it! John is trying to help me!"
"Mike, don't!" Jenny ran over and grabbed Mike's arm. She tried to pull him back. "That's Melissa. Don't you hear her? That's my baby. That's my baby!"
This was the part John hated. Sometimes it went smoothly, but not often. Distraught parents were not easy to deal with, especially when it came to missing children. More often than not, they thought he was tricking them for money or as some sick joke. It's why he started making a pronouncement before proceeding, but it didn't always help.
Mike managed to take a swing at John, connecting with his jaw. It hurt like a bitch and John lost contact with the radio. Static filled the room, Melissa's voice cutting off mid-word. Mike cradled his hand, hurt as well from the hit. Jenny dragged Mike back, away from John. Melissa was crying.
John turned to the most important person in the room - Melissa - and picked her up. He probably looked strange, appearing to mime lifting and holding a little girl. She sobbed against his shoulder and he rubbed her back. "It's okay, Melissa. They can't see you, remember? I warned you this might happen."
Jenny gasped, clutching at Mike. Mike looked like he wanted to hit John again. "That's enough! Get out!" Mike barked, pointing toward the front door.
John reached for the radio again, resting his hand on top of it. Melissa's crying became audible over the static. Mike still looked angry and Jenny trembled. "Melissa," John said, maintaining his calm from years of practice. "When did you get your dad that sweatshirt?"
Melissa sniffed and drew away from John's shoulder to look at Mike. "A while ago. It was a Christmas present," she said.
"What did you get him this past Christmas?" John asked.
"A coffee mug," Melissa said, wiping her nose on her sleeve. "It's over there in the sink." She pointed at the dirty dishes. "It's the yellow one with the big crack in it. We knocked it over playing Jedi with the wrapping paper tubes in the living room and it broke. He fixed it with glue."
John looked at Mike, who paled and collapsed into the nearest chair. "Melissa?" Mike said in a shaky voice.
"It's really me, Daddy," Melissa said. John nudged some empty take-out containers aside and set Melissa on the granite counter. Even as a ghost, kids were heavy. John offered her a hand to hold again, while his other hand remained on the radio.
"Mr. and Mrs. Goldstein, I brought Melissa here so she could say goodbye," John said. His tone was solemn. There wasn't any way he could sugarcoat the truth, or the pain it would bring. "The police are following through on the information I gathered on the guy who took Melissa. They'll probably be contacting you soon to let you know that her body's been found."
Jenny's hands flew to her mouth to smother her cry of anguish. Mike squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his fists.
"The other kids have been calling me to come and play with them, but I wanted to see you guys again before I left," Melissa said, her static laced voice filled with sadness. "I'm sorry that I didn't listen."
"Oh, honey, no. No," Jenny said, trying to discern where Melissa was seated. John indicated with a tilt of his head to the spot on the counter. Jenny came closer and put her hand down - and through - Melissa's leg. Jenny's expression screwed up in grief. "It's not your fault."
Melissa hugged her mother, and even though John knew Jenny didn't physically feel it, he could tell somehow she still knew it had happened. "I love you, Melissa," Jenny choked out with a sob.
"I love you, too, Mom," Melissa said. "Make sure you give Veronica back her book. It's her favorite. I left it in my backpack."
John had found the backpack in the kidnapper's trash. It was currently in the hands of the police and wouldn't be returned for a long time. "We'll make sure she gets it," John said. "Why don't you give your dad a hug before you go?"
"Okay." Melissa hopped down from the counter, through her mother, and went over to Mike. John watched as she hugged him tight. Mike shook with suppressed tears.
Melissa returned, took John's hand, and her voice came over the radio once more. "Goodbye, Mom. Goodbye, Dad. I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, too, sweetie," Jenny said, clutching her hands to her chest. Mike was unable to say anything in his grief.
John shut off the radio. The sudden silence hurt his ears. "You have my card," he murmured, and escorted Melissa out the front door. Neither Jenny nor Mike followed.
Out on the street, children were skipping and running for the bus stop, backpacks swinging. Mothers strapped their toddlers into car seats, heading for daycare or pre-school. A mower came to life as a gardener got to work. Melissa waved to someone up the road that John couldn't see.
John gave Melissa a smile and dropped her hand. "Go on, now. They've been waiting for you. Have fun."
"Okay. Bye, John." With the emotional simplicity of a ten-year-old, Melissa ran off to play with her friends. John watched her go until she faded from sight.
Taking a deep breath to ease the sorrow in his chest, John fished his keys from his pocket and headed to his car parked at the curb. He wasn't too surprised when he saw a six-year-old ghost sitting in the front passenger seat. "Hi," he said after he'd slid into the car. "I'm John. What's your name?"