Chapter 1:

Ghosts who wait


“Your hands,” he says, voice thin with distress. “You’re hurt.”

You look down at them. Aside from the perfunctory band-aid around the thumb, they are your normal hands, blunt and practical. The band-aid is a pale grey.

Seemingly, you’re not seeing them as he is: he frets and sighs as he runs his beautiful pianist’s fingers along the edges of your calluses. You’re surprised by the heat that floods your cheeks at the smooth touch of his skin. He really must be good at what he does. Or maybe it's your skin, unclaimed and yearning.

Your hands are ugly birds in his lap, unresponsive and wary as he strokes them. From time to time, he sneaks glances at you and you admire how truly lovely he is, the dramatic curl of his lashes, the dark, liquid eyes. You don’t know what you expected a sex worker to wear, but his simple outfit of a T-shirt and jeans isn’t quite it. He looks like he just got off from college. Your friends have sons his age.

The thought doesn’t curdle like you thought it would. Instead, your heart flutters as he raises your plain hands to his lips, and with his eyes on yours, kisses them.

“You’re a beautiful woman,” he purrs. He’s too professional to comment on the ring, but you see his eyes linger on it. Note the boring but expensive design.

For some reason, you laugh. It’s an awkward, self-conscious thing that falls out of your mouth with an ungainly splat. Your voice is higher pitched than it’s been for thirty years. “Flatterer.”

His mouth quirks. “Hardly. Have you seen yourself in a mirror? Most women would kill for hair like this. And your skin,” he says, admiring. “I’ve never seen skin so pale. You need to take better care of your hands, ma’am.”

You mull this over as he kisses your neck. Your hands are practical things: they tend the orchard, they wring the necks of the chickens you make for dinner. They make meals and lay it out in plates that clatter loudly in the silence between you and your husband as you eat.

“What are you thinking about?” he murmurs.

“I’m sorry I got distracted.”

“No, please don’t apologize,” he says, and he pulls off his shirt. Heat rushes to your cheeks, but you’re desperately trying to hide how long it's been, so you don’t let your gaze skitter to the window like you so badly want to, his gentle eyes on yours. You're almost overwhelmed by how male he is, the hard lines of his muscles, how big he is compared to your own mousy frame.

He has a tattooed symbol on his bicep that he notices you noticing. His gaze turns sly.

"Don't worry, I'm not one of the hardcore cultists." Reaching forward, he winds his fingers in a coil of your hair. “I just think that death is the closest we can get to god, you know?”

You bleat, ineffectual, “Cults are dangerous.”

He laughs, dark, and crawls towards you on the bed. His legs bracket yours. “Don’t worry, I don’t really believe in the Thanatos and Eros stuff. But you can’t deny that death’s the only thing that’d wait for someone like me.”

He’s so beautiful. You’ve always been bad around handsome men. Maybe that’s the trouble with you: you’re so taken with beautiful things and have no idea what to do with them.

“I think it’s lovely, in a way,” he says, his hands grazing your cheeks. “What about you, Miss?”

You reach out to touch his jaw and he gasps a little. The air is sterile in your lungs, and you hold it there, thinking of storm clouds over still lakes as your shadow sweeps across his eyes.

You don’t know what to say, so you lie. “I’m the same.”

The brush of his lips on your cheek is reverent. "I know," he says. His head dips into the curve of your neck. “There's so much sadness and kindness in your eyes. I knew you’d understand.”

You stroke his curls, trying to make him smile. "Everything will be okay."

He kisses you again. He’s diminishing before you: listless and lifeless, as if you’ve diluted all his color. "They won’t, let's be real. What’s there for me in the future? More of this?”

His flickering light makes you feel even more dull and insignificant. The illusion has broken: he’s no more interested in you than your husband is to hear about how the pipes needed to be fixed, the windows to be cleaned, the roof to be re-shingled.

Still, you try. “Things might get better."

"You could make things better," he says. His lips on you again, your forehead, your wrists, and his. His face is now in almost total darkness. "I’m sure you could."

His face is a study in pain and some unholy light. You finally face the truth you were running from, that this is a scared child in a handsome adult’s body, and you are who you’ve always been: a pale, grey presence in a darkened room.

You thought it’d be different, this time.

You should leave. He could come back from this. If you leave.

But it had taken so much for you to come. It had taken your neighbors’ curled lips as they saw you weeding the garden and their effusive pity as they beheld your hands. Your lovely hands, the boy had said. On the day you met your husband -how many years ago was it?- you’d been wearing goatskin gloves, and your prettiest dress, even though he doesn’t remember it anymore.

The boy kisses you again. His lips are warm and wet. "There's no point," he whispers, tears escaping his eyes. "I've ruined my life, and there's no way back."

You stroke his forehead in imitation of the mothers you’ve seen on the street: there, there.

"I'm so tired.”

"You can sleep, if you want," you offer. Because it’s in your nature. Because you’re no good for anything else. "For as long as you'd like. I don't mind."

"Is that what you want me to do?"

"If you're tired."

"A long sleep," he says, voice thick with longing. "I feel like I haven't slept in forever."

Your body feels heavy. "They say that death is the eternal one."

Light re-enters his eyes. "It kind of is, isn't it."

He’s so young.

"I should go," you say, abruptly. "This was a bad idea."

"No, wait, please," he begs, sweetly. He touches your skin like he's addicted to it. “You’re all I have.”

His eyes are past you, turned towards the night. You're on the seventeenth floor. Naively, you'd thought it was a good sign, as if putting on your favorite teal dress with its sweetheart neckline would make the stars that shine on him any less dead. 

"It’s all I want," he says.

You stand up to leave, and he touches your wrist again, one last time.

"I never expected you to be a woman," he says.

His face in the faded starlight, as he looks out, is something else. Familiar. Sanctified. He’s seen things, this handsome boy, and there’s a place he wants to return to as badly as you want to leave it. He'll never really belong to himself ever again the way he belongs to you, and with his face lit up like this you’re reminded that you’ll never be able to give anyone what they want. Just make them want you.

You’d tried hard to be a wife, harder to be a mother. You don’t have it in you. In a few thousand years you’d meet your lovely sister again, and she’d be happier than ever, rosy cheeks and full of good health, and envy will bubble in your mouth like bile.

You kiss his cheeks before you leave, and he makes a soft noise like his heart has collapsed. He makes his way to the window, puts his legs out one by one, but by then you’re gone: you’re getting ready to make dinner in the stifling silence of your home.