Life had felt different for Rowan ever since her return from the Necropolis. Life itself hadn’t changed much; she still missed Komala terribly, and her little brother still annoyed her, but the feel had changed. Johnny told her that’s what it’s like when you’ve been to the underworld. More than that, she felt like a bit of the Necropolis had come back with her.
Rowan remembered the night she’d made it out of that dark world, tumbling out of her closet as though pushed through by some other-worldly force. For a long time after that, the world had felt quiet, like the eerie silence of the night after leaving a concert. She had nearly been trapped in the Necropolis, she knew, and some entity had gotten her out with only seconds to spare.
Johnny knew that her journey through the afterlife and back had been a heavy experience for her, so he stayed close to her in the days that followed. At first, she was so quiet, like she was in a daze, and sometimes it seemed like she could see another layer to reality. Since he’d given her the book that had enabled her to visit the world of the dead, he felt responsible for helping her re-acclimate to the world of the living.
Before he knew it, those days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to months. Their seventh-grade school year ended, and they spent the summer together. Rowan seemed to be in less of a daze, but there was still something about wistful and other-worldly about her. They watched movies and read books on death and magic together, and if she talked about her time in the Necropolis, he would listen, but he never forced her to share what had happened.
When eight grade started, Johnny was thrilled that they had many of the same teachers together. They studied together, Type O Negative playing in the background, and sometimes explored the city together. The year after that was much the same, and they ended up inseparable throughout high school.
Johnny couldn’t say exactly when Rowan’s feelings for him turned from trust and friendship to something deep and serious, but he knew they had long before she said anything, and long before she kissed him one moonless October night.
They applied to the same college together, he for engineering and she for English, literature and journalism. They had both worked hard enough to earn scholarships at Pacific University, and even though they couldn’t room together, they ended up in the same dormitory hall. Johnny was okay with having a fellow engineering major for a roommate, Rowan applied for a single room, and nobody bothered her about it. There was an unspoken understanding among friends and family that she preferred to keep to herself, and that she appreciated peace and quiet.
Even though they had different majors, Johnny and Rowan were still able to take general studies courses together. Sometimes he would study in her room just to enjoy her company, and he didn’t mind that they both focused on their only books quietly for a while.
Once October came around, Johnny was starting to feel like things in his life were going incredibly well. From his phone calls with his mom, he could tell that she was happy, and he believed in his heart that he father would have been extremely proud of him. Life felt peaceful and hopeful. He had been trying to rid himself of thoughts that there had to be a catch– a snag, some imperfection– when he was interrupted from his studies by a noise from Rowan’s closet.
“Hey Rowan–” He turned around to find that she had dozed off on her book, and laid a hand on her shoulder to shake her gently.
“Wha…” she mumbled, her eyes opening slowly.
“Something’s making noise in your closet,” Johnny told her.
“Oh,” she said, then yawned. “Maybe it’s that stack of books falling over.”
“No Rowan,” he shook his head. “Don’t you hear that?”
There was now a lot of noise coming from the closet, as though somebody had snuck in and fallen asleep while trying to set up a prank, and was now waking up and trying to find the door.
Rowan sat up and listened. After a moment, she walked over to the closet and opened one of the doors. It reminded Johnny that she would do the same thing back home.
“No way…” he whispered staring at the closet.
“What?” she asked, plopping down next to him.
“Rowan, it can’t possibly have followed you here, could it?”
She looked up at him as though surprised by what he’d said. “What, you mean Brandon? He’s not malicious you know.”
“Sure,” Johnny replied, laying an arm around her shoulders. “You say that, but…”
“But what?” she asked. “I told you a long time ago, Brandon got me out of the Necropolis.”
“I know. But the gates were closed after him, and now he can’t go back unless you go back, and the things waiting for you…” Johnny shook his head and shuddered.
“Well, he seems okay with the closet, even if this one isn’t as big as the one I had back home.”
“You don’t think he’s the least bit upset with you? He can’t move on if he’s stuck here.”
Rowan shook her head. “He’s helped me so many times over the years… No entity with a grudge would do that.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” Johnny said, holding her closer.
Johnny had known about the spirit of Brandon for years. Rowan hadn’t realized it right away, but the entity who had helped her escape the Necropolis had ended up trapped in her closet. She had learned about him a few weeks after the ordeal, when she’d nearly had the entire contents of one of her closet shelves come down on her. Brandon had appeared before her and held the shelf up long enough for her to get it stabilized.
Rowan had been startled at first, seeing a boy in her closet, but a wave of gratitude washed over her so strong that she didn’t question him. As she pulled over a stool and rearranged her items, she had the distinct feeling that he’d helped before, and a few minutes later, she was leaning against the back wall of her walk-in closet introducing herself to the spirit.
Except introductions weren’t entirely necessary, because they’d already met in the Necropolis. He was the one whom Peter had asked to take her down that long, dark hallway leading back to the world of the living. They’d been chased by malicious entities all the while, but they’d still made it. What Rowan hadn’t known until then was that Brandon had been shut out of the Necropolis by the spirits who were mad that she’d escaped. After she’d tumbled out of the closet, terrified and exhausted, she’d slammed the closet door shut and climbed into her bed to cry into her pillow.
She hadn’t told Johnny about Brandon until a few months later, when he’d come over to her house. They were listening to music together, and Enigma’s “Gravity of Love” had just finished playing. The next song was starting when suddenly the track switched back to the beginning of “Gravity of love.” Johnny turned around to look at Rowan’s computer and immediately jumped back several steps.
“What in the–” he gasped, breathing hard. “Who in the world is that?!”
Rowan turned around more calmly and saw Brandon standing by her desk. He rarely stepped out of the closet, but it wasn’t as though he couldn’t. “What are you doing?” she asked the spirit.
“That was a beautiful song,” Brandon told her. “I though you’d like to hear it again.”
Johnny grabbed Rowan’s hand and begged her to explain. Once he understood what Brandon was and how he’d gotten there, he calmed down quite a lot. He actually thanked Brandon for having saved Rowan, and as time went on, he tried to research a way to help him get back to the Necropolis. Brandon was a lot shyer about coming out of the closet after that.
Over the years, Rowan had shared stories about how Brandon had helped her in some way or another. It wasn’t always about saving her life; he was much more likely to help her with her computer than anything else. It seemed as though there was nothing that he couldn’t, so he sometimes helped her study, too.
Anyone else would have thought that Rowan was crazy for saying that a ghost (as they would have labeled him) had saved her life, but Johnny knew enough about the occult and Thanatology to understand that it was possible. It didn’t mean that he completely trusted Brandon, because as much as he had helped Rowan, he was still stuck in a sort of limbo. and that could wear on a soul over time. Now that it had followed her all the way to the university, he was even more wary of it.
The deciding event in revealing Brandon’s true intentions came on Halloween night. Johnny and Rowan had already gone through a nearby neighborhood in their costumes– Kaoru Kamiya and Himura Kenshin– and made an appearance at a couple different Halloween parties, and were back in her room. They had tended to Rowan’s Samhain altar, adding to it a few acorns and colorful leaves they’d found earlier, and were having some quiet time before they headed back out to visit the local cemetery.
Johnny and Rowan planned on staying up well past midnight to observe various Pagan traditions, which was just as well, considering that McCormick has had not been spared by those who took Halloween as an opportunity to party loudly and drink wildly. Rowan was working on a large sketch of Hades sitting on a throne of bone, Cerberus lying beside him, and Johnny was reading the manga he’d picked up and the second-hand book store the day before, when they heard several figures running down the hall. They were screaming, but not in the usual annoying way that college students did.
“They’re actually terrified of something this time,” Johnny said as he looked up from the pages.
Rowan grumbled and laid down her pencil. “Why isn’t the RA doing a better job of keeping them in line?”
She got out of he seat and headed over to the door to peek he head out. People were running from and otherwise avoiding a room two doors down. She thought about getting someone’s attention, but listen carefully to see if she could figure it out herself.
“That thing is a real ghost!” someone shouted. He was looking into the room a few doors down.
“I’m outta here!” the boy next to him said before heading for the stairs.
Then Rowan realized that the hall was smoky. It was a non-smoking dorm, and the smoke seemed to come from something much bigger than cigarettes or incense. She stepped out of her room as the last of the students fled the hall and peered into the room that had gotten everyone excited.
Inside was the translucent figure of Brandon, scrambling around the room trying to throw water on a smoldering curtain. On the floor was a melted candle, its wax cooling in the fibers of a rug, and the remains of a charred pillow and blanket. Rowan could hear the tone of a knocked over landline phone nearby; it sounded as though someone had made a call, but then never hung it up properly. The wooden bed frame and wall paneling were scorched.
“What happened in here?” Roman asked. Just then, she could hear sirens pulling up outside. Her eyes widened, worried that she was going to get caught up in what had just happened.
“Back to your room!” Brandon declared, hopping into the burnt room’s closet.
Rowan rushed back to her room and managed to close the door before the firmen made it up the stairs.
“So what was it?” Johnny asked. He jumped when Bradon burst out of the closet.
“Kids this age can be so stupid, leaving candles unattended like that,” Brandon grambled. Then he looked straight at Rowan. “I put out the fire before it could get too far.”
Rowan blinked. “Th- thank you, Brandon,” she said, her voice shaking.
She and Johnny exchanged looks, and from then on, he never again thought that the spirit that Rowan called Brandon had any ill will. If Rowan had died in a fire that night, he would have been able to tag along with her back to the Necropolis. He could have let the dormitory burn down to the ground just for the chance to return to the world of the dead, but instead he had chosen to protect her. Brandon was there for her, just like Johnny was, just like he would be for years to come.