A/n: Happy Valentine's Day! And what better way to celebrate than with a kind of morbid, ghost love story? Enjoy!
Warnings: Mentions of death, abuse, self-mutilation, and suicide.
More Than That
Death feels like nothing.
At least, it did for me. Maybe it would have been different if the bullet hadn't killed me instantly. If the hunter who'd mistaken me for a deer had hit me in a spot other than the heart. Maybe then death would have felt like pain.
Instead, it had felt like nothing—it was nothing. It was Nothingness. Not black. Not dark. Not cold. Not warm. Not peaceful. Not unsettling. Not thinking. Not unthinking. Not anything.
For an eternity.
At least, it felt like an eternity. But it couldn't have been. It wasn't.
Or maybe it was in the Nothingness. Time probably worked differently there than in the world of the living. I mean, only a day and a half had passed there while I had been in the Nothingness. Which I knew for a fact because I had come back.
Because I was—am—a spirit.
Being a ghost isn't much different from being alive. You just don't ever have to eat or go to the bathroom and you can't touch other people or make them see or hear you.
Okay, okay. I guess it is different from being alive. If you consider those things the some of the defining characteristics of life, that is. Which I don't. For me, being able to have rational thoughts and emotions defines what life is. And I'm able to do those things. Obviously.
So, I can't really find it in myself to mourn or despise being a ghost. I mean, the first part of it—the not having to eat, piss, or shit part—I find extremely convenient. The second? Well, I didn't do much touching, seeing, or talking to people when I was alive. Thus, I don't feel as if I'm missing out on much.
I'm not missing much at all, to tell you the truth.
What about your family? you ask.
And I say: Family? What family? The two, coldhearted workaholics who care more about their jobs than anything else, including each other and their family, that I am biological required to refer to them as my mother and father, and the stuck-up, dumb bitch I have the misfortune to share almost identical DNA with? You mean them? You mean that family?
Yeah, well, fuck that family.
Which is exactly what I said two years ago when I left for college. To their faces, which I haven't seen since. Nor have I talked to any of them. And I'm perfectly okay with that.
Just like I'm perfectly okay with being dead.
There's this abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods not far from where I died. And when I say abandoned, I mean it. Everything has been left in there. A small bed with dusty sheets, a tea set and kettle on a small table by a window, firewood by a woodstove, and books. Lots and lots of books on the shelves, table, and even some stacks on the floor by the bed.
I don't know who this place belonged to before it was abandoned, but it hardly matters. 'Cause it's mine now. So are the books.
It's not that difficult to build up enough energy to turn the pages. Or to knock a new book down from the shelves. I found that out within an hour of finding the cabin. Which would make it about three hours after I came back.
Which would make it four months ago.
Since then, I've been doing nothing but reading my way through all of the books here and wandering the woods. That isn't much different from what I was doing when I was alive when I didn't have classes or work to go to.
I like it.
I like spending my days reading and wandering and nothing else. I like not having to worry about a job, my rent, classes, coursework, and working my way to a degree that would get me a career. I like not having to worry about my future anymore. I like not having to worry about anything.
Well. Except for what I'm going to do when I run out books. I'm worried about that.
But I guess I could always take to haunting a library or something.
What was that?
Frowning slightly, I look up from the book I'm reading and turn my head towards the window. I swear I just heard the sound of leaves crunching as someone stepped on them. Maybe it was just an animal, but I don't think so. It sounded…different.
It sounded human.
My suspicions are confirmed when a face suddenly appears in the window by the table.
The person—a boy about a year or two younger than me—peers into the cabin, his gaze taking in everything (excluding me, because I'm a ghost, which, by default, makes me invisible). There's a guarded, slightly wary expression on his face that doesn't completely hide the spark of curiosity in his eyes.
And it's that which sparks my curiosity.
I get up from where I'm "sitting" on the floor and pass through the cabin wall. Once outside, I hover beside him and, as he continues to survey the inside of the cabin, I survey him.
Whoever this guy is, he's an inch shorter than me and has dirty blonde hair that's kind of short, but with bangs long enough to hang in his dark blue eyes. He's wearing a plain black hoodie, semi-tight jeans, and worn in black Chuck's. He holds himself as if he's cold, with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched, despite how it's actually quite warm for early fall. And his face remains stony even as he moves away from the window, heading towards the cabin door with an unhesitating stride, making me realize his guardedness had nothing to do with being wary of this place.
Then what does it have to do with?
I cock my head to the side, fascinated and more curious than I was a minute ago. Which is kind of strange. I mean, since I became a ghost, I haven't felt that about any of the other living people I'd been around the few times I decided to wander into town. What's different about this kid?
He found my cabin.
Taking that as good of an answer as any, especially when I can't think of another, I nod to myself. Then, I glide back over to his side again and watch as he tries to open the door. The first time he goes to turns the knob, it doesn't turn. Of course it doesn't since it's locked.
But the second time…
The second time it opens for him.
Because I unlocked it.
Why? you ask.
Well, to tell you the truth, I'm not really sure. Just—why the hell not? I'm curious to see what'll happen. And about him. Especially when I see how quickly the surprise of having the door open fades from his face to be instantly replaced by that stoniness again.
The kid takes a step into the cabin and glances around again. When his eyes land on all of the open books on the floor—my doing—they linger there, a small frown forming on his lips. A moment later, he takes another step inside and closes the door behind him.
Then, he starts to clean.
I watch him from the corner of the room where the bed is tucked in as he puts all of the books back on the shelves, organizing them alphabetically by authors' last names, and dusts the entire place down with a piece of cloth torn from the bed sheets. Afterwards, he stuffs the cloth and the sheets in the woodstove and sets them on fire, along with the half charred wood that was left in there by the cabin's previous owner. He watches them burn from a spot on the floor until the flames die out.
Once they do, he stands up and heads back to the door. I notice his face is no longer stony. Instead, it's just weary—more so than it should be for a kid his age. And his blue eyes are incredibly sad.
I stare at him, my eyes wide and my lips parted. This kid…god, whatever the hell happened has done a number on him. Poor guy. Even though I don't know him, it still really wrenches at my heart to see him like this.
Which I suppose is why I decide to make the key hanging on a piece of string from a nail by the door swing ever so slightly—just enough for it to catch his attention as his hand goes for the knob.
The kid pauses, stares at the key for a second, and then takes it. He locks and unlocks the door a few times, making sure it works, before he gives a satisfied nod, slipping the string over his head as he walks out of the cabin.
And I watch him leave from a window, wondering when he'll be back again.
The next day.
And the day after that.
And the day after that.
Actually, almost every day in the past month and a half since he found this place, the kid was here. Weekdays, he would come midafternoon and stay until late evening. On the weekends, he would usually stay all day. All that considering, it didn't take long for me to develop the almost certain hunch that my cabin is where he goes when he has nowhere else. When he doesn't want to be home.
Which, like I said, is almost every day.
Something is seriously wrong with this kid's life. That's obvious. What isn't is what that something is. I suppose it would be really easy for me to find out; I would just have to follow him one day and observe what goes on. But no. I don't want to stalk—pardon me—haunt him.
More than I already do, I mean. Then again, all I do when he's here is watch him. Is that considered haunting him?
Probably in some Unwritten Ghost Etiquette Handbook or something like that. I wouldn't really know.
And honestly, I don't really care. In my opinion, I'm not really haunting him. I'm just watching him when he comes to my cabin. That's all. I even stay on the other side of the room; I don't hover over his shoulder as he does his homework or writes.
Which is all he does when he comes here. Well, that or just lie on the bed, staring moodily up at the ceiling for hours on end.
The kid barged in a maybe two hours ago, looking wild, pissed, and upset. After whirling aimlessly around for a few seconds and slamming a fist into the wall, he finally threw himself down on the old mattress and took to glaring at the dust in the air. Occasionally, he shakes his head, sneered, scoffed, or clenched his fists at his sides, but otherwise has barely moved since.
And I'm still watching him like he's the most fascinating thing on Earth to me. Which, to be perfectly honest, he is. Ever since he first came here, I've been intrigued by him. So much so that I don't even mind that he's taken over my cabin. I mean, he's the most interesting thing that's happened to me since I died and came back as a ghost—of course I'm going to be incredibly fascinated by and curious about him.
It's more than that, though. Admit it.
You know, I would—I will when I figure out what exactly more than that means. 'Cause right now I don't. I don't know why I'm so drawn to him. Maybe it's the fact that this kid probably lives a rough life and I feel for him? It would make sense. But…no. It's not just that. It's—
More than that.
I frown to myself, unsatisfied with that inconclusive conclusion. Before I can think more of it, though, the kid sighs loudly, and my attention is immediately and solely on him once again.
He sits up slowly, moving for the first time in hours. His expression is weary and resigned as he passes a hand over his face. A pang goes through my heart. Poor guy. Whatever he's dealing with, I'm sure he doesn't deserve it.
The kid drops his hand from his face with another sigh and looks around the cabin. When he sees the books on the floor by the bookshelf, his eyebrows furrow and a frown forms on his lips. I smile wickedly. His confusion at why there are always books on the floor when he comes here, despite how he make sure all of them are on the shelf before he leaves, has become a source of great entertainment for me.
Shaking his head slightly, the kid gets up from the bed to put the books back where they belong. He then lights the woodstove, settling down cross-legged on the floor in front of it. As the fire begins to warm the cabin, he plays idly with his lighter.
At least, he plays idly at first, with just flicking the small flame into existence before lifting his finger off the thumbwheel after a few seconds to make it go out. He does that for a minute before he switches to pinching the flame out with the fingers from his other hand. After the seventh time he does that, I start to notice he's closing his fingers on the flame slower and slower. Predictably, there comes a point where he does it so slowly that he gets burned, snatching his hand away with a sharp hiss. But even then, I don't think much of it.
Now until he goes to do it again, purposely holding his fingers close enough to the flame to burn them.
Incredulous and wondering what the fuck he's thinking, I glide across the room until I'm across from him and blow on the flame. Surprisingly and luckily, it goes out—something I wasn't exactly sure it would. I sigh in relief.
The kid, on the other hand, blinks in bemusement. Then, he lights the lighter again. I let it stay lit until he begins to bring his fingers towards it. When the flame goes out, he frowns, only to try it once more not even a second later. Frustrated and not understanding why he's so determination to hurt himself, I blow out the flame for the third time.
"The fuck…?" the kid mutters under his breath, staring at the lighter with incomprehension. I give him a superior, disapproving, yet satisfied, look.
Of course, he doesn't see it because he can't see me. So, it has no effect on him whatsoever. Meaning he just shrugs to himself, dismissing it all, and puts the lighter back in his pocket. In the process, our knees accidently knock together.
And when I say "knock together," I mean they touch.
I mean he feels my knee hit his.
The kid yelps and jolts backwards, his eyes wide as he whips his head back and forth, frantically searching for whatever he felt. When he sees nothing, he stills and the color drains from his face. I stare at him from my spot on the floor, in absolute shock and bewilderment.
That's never happened before. I mean, I've touched a few of the living since I've died, but it's only been me who could feel it. Not them. So why could he? Was it just a strange paranormal fluke or something else?
I blink and slowly cock my head to the side.
Slowly, I move closer to him. He's still pale and staying as motionless as possible. His face is set in a stony expression, but his faster-than-normal breathing and his eyes quite clearly give away that he's scared. I gaze at him ruefully, feeling bad for being the reason for it.
Yet, that doesn't keep me from reaching out to touch him again. 'Cause I need to know if it was just a fluke or if it's—
"What the fuck!" the kid shouts, once again propelling himself backwards across the floor.
Swatting and rubbing at his cheek.
Where I just placed my hand.
My eyes widened in realization.
I can touch him.
And he can feel me.
Before I can even begin to try and figure out what that means, the kid has scrambled off the floor and bolted from the cabin.
And I'm left sitting there, stunned into stillness for the next several hours.
A week has passed since that day.
He hasn't been back yet.
I think he's too freaked out. Understandably. I mean, he did feel something invisible touch him. Twice. Anybody would be freaked out by that. It's just—well, to tell you the truth, it's boring without him. I haven't had anyone interesting to watch for hours on end for the past seven days and I'm bored out of my mind. He was my new source of entertainment; I'm not coping well with having that source being taken away.
Yeah, yeah, okay. And I might—just maybe—miss having him around. A lot. To the point where, for the first time since I realized I was a ghost, I feel lonely. Really lonely. To the point where I can barely concentrate on anything else. All I can think about is him and it's driving me insane, because I don't understand why or what it is about him that's making me—
I whip my head in the direction of the door, where sounds of a key fumbling and turning in a lock are coming from. My heart leaps in my chest and I feel an excited/relieved/happy smile start to slide onto my lips.
Both are frozen when the kid throws open the door so hard that it bangs against the wall before he slams it shut again after stumbling into the room.
He's seething. Tearing his hands through his hair, his blue eyes impossibly wide, his pupils blown, his teeth bared, his breathing ragged and fast. He looks more wild and upset than he did the last time he was here.
But that's not what I focus on.
No. What I focus on is his bloodied bottom lip, the dark bruise forming around his right eye, and the wetness on his cheeks.
I'm hovering beside him in an instant, peering anxiously into his face. I don't remember moving or making a conscious decision to move, but that doesn't matter. All that matters is that something bad has happened to him and I want to—
What? Comfort him?
And just how do you plan on doing that? Can't touch him without freaking him out again. Can't make him see or hear you.
I gaze longingly at the kid as he digs his nails into his scalp. My hands twitch at my sides, itching to take his wrists and pull his hands down to make him stop. Or to wipe away the tears that are steadily dripping from his eyes onto the floor.
But I can't do either of those things.
It kills me.
That's an awful pun. You're already dead.
Wishing—not for the first time—that my brain didn't function in such a way that whatever part of it formed my inner-monologues didn't sound like an insensitive smartass, I scowl to myself.
And in the next instant, I'm quickly moving out of the way before I accidently touch the kid again as he suddenly whirls himself towards and onto the bed.
Yanking his hoodie and shirt off as he goes.
I freeze at what I see.
Skinniness. Too much to be healthy. Too much to be anything but years of malnutrition. To put it in perspective for you: I can count his ribs.
What's worse is that he's covered in bruises, old ones and new ones. They are all over him—on his chest, stomach, back, and arms. There's even one on his neck, like the shadow of a hand. Like someone tried to choke him.
But what's even worse than that are the scars. They go up both of his arms. Silver little lines, crisscrossing or running parallel to each other. Some of them…god, I think some of them are words carved into his skin.
There's no doubt in my mind, though, that all of the scars are self-inflicted. Unlike the bruises.
I stare at the kid, my throat constricted and my heart heavy, no longer wondering why he only wears baggy hoodies. It's completely obvious now.
You poor soul. Who hurt you like that to make you do that to yourself? Why hasn't anyone—
No, what are you doing?
My eyes widened and it feels like my heart skips a beat—if it was still beating, that is—as the kid pulls out a pocketknife and flicks it open. Still breathing raggedly, his eyes alight with a feverish gleam, he rests his left arm across his slightly raised up knees. He positions the knife point just below the crease of his elbow.
Don't do it. Please don't do it.
He starts to carve three lines into his skin. It's a letter—an F. I shake my head.
He moves down his arm a little to begin another. This time it's an A.
He begins another letter, barely flinching as the blade cuts into his skin and makes him bleed. I'm the one doing the flinching. Especially when I see what the next letter is.
Then another G.
Then an O and a T.
Until the word FAGGOT is written in bloody, bright red letters down the length of his forearm.
The kid stares down at it, angry and hurt tears still running down his cheeks. I stare at him, with deeply distressed and frustrated tears welling up in my eyes. For the first time, I absolutely hate that I'm dead. I absolutely hate that I'm only a ghost—an insubstantial spirit who can't take him in my arms and murmur whatever he needs to hear to make the wound that fucking word tears open, and the feelings of worthlessness and pain that seep out of it, go away.
Because I know how shitty it is—I know. I've been there, been called that, and desperately wished someone had been there to do for me what I want to do for him.
But I can't because I'm a fucking ghost, and I fucking hate it.
I hover mournfully beside the bed, right across from him, feeling completely useless. What's worse is the knowledge that he would feel it if I touched him. It just wouldn't be the comforting touch I want it to be. Which makes me—
The kid suddenly scoffs, shaking his head. He's still staring down at his left arm and the bloodied cuts, like he has been for the last two minutes, but now there's a small, cold smile on his lips.
I don't like it.
"Nothing's changing. Nothing's getting better," he whispers to himself. "So what's the fucking point anymore?"
He shakes his head with a huff, looking away, up at the ceiling, only to blink and turn his attention back to his arm a short moment. He regards the cuts with speculative eyes, that awful smile forming on his lips again.
"Fuck it," he says, and picks up the knife again.
He places the knife point to his wrist, right on top of a vein.
Don't do it.
He takes a deep breath—
—then presses the tip firmly into his skin, until it breaks through and blood appears, and—
The books on the part of the shelf nearest me fling violently to the floor at my shout. The kid lets out a yell and jumps back, so startled that he drops his pocketknife before he gets the chance to make anything more than a knick on his wrist.
Good, I think as I watch the kid cower in the far corner of the bed, huddled by the wall. He's pale and wide-eyed with terror, just like the last time I frightened him. But, unlike then last time, I don't feel bad about it. Because I'm pretty fucking positive that if I hadn't done something, he was going to try to fucking kill himself.
Which is not okay.
Breathing heavily, the kid stares out into the cabin. After a long moment, he licks his lips nervously. Then, he quietly and uncertainly says, "Hello? Is…is someone there?"
"Yes," I answer automatically. Then, I have to roll my eyes at myself. He can't fucking hear m—
That thought is cut off as I noticed the way the kid's eyebrows furrow and how he cocks his head slightly to the side. My own eyebrows rise. Can he hear me?
"Can you hear me?" I ask.
The kid's frown deepens and he closes his eyes, like he's straining to hear something very faint. I snort with disbelief.
So. He can feel and hear me (even if it's only weakly). Interesting. But—why? Again, what's different and/or special about this kid compared to every other living person?
Before I can figure it, the kid shakes his head and opens his eyes. "If someone is there," he begins cagily, "and if you can, knock on something."
I blink, wondering why I didn't think of that, and then wrap my knuckles against the nearest hard surface. Which just happens to be the bedframe. It makes a nice, distinctive tap that, from the way the kid's eyes widen, he can feel through the frame as well as hear it.
"Shit," the kid breathes. He then slowly starts to move out of the corner, crawling over to sit on the edge of the bed. "I…Can you do it again? Just so I know I'm not crazy."
"Too late for that," I mutter, not easily forgetting that he was ready to commit suicide not even three minutes ago if I hadn't stopped him. Regardless, I knock again. All the air rushes out of the kid's lungs with disbelief.
"Fuck me," he says. "I'm communicating with a ghost."
I snort. "Believe me. I'm just as shocked as you are."
"Was…was that you the last time I was here—was that you I felt?" he asks, of course not hearing my statement, and thus ignoring it. With a sigh, I give him a knock of affirmation. The kid blinks.
Then, he holds up his right hand.
"Can you do it again?" he asks, a challenge in his voice and eyes.
And because I'm never one to back down to a direct challenge, I reach out and lay my hand against his. Instantly, an astonished expression takes over his face, his dark blue eyes once again widening. That's fine, though, since this time it's with surprise, not fear.
"Oh, holy shit," he says. "I can feel that. It's like—touching a spider web. Or a very mild breeze. Barely there, but still there."
"Interesting," I say, cocking my head to the side.
The kid does the same a moment later, curiosity now overcoming his astonishment.
"Have you been here this entire time?" he asks. He still has yet to put his hand down. I still have yet to take my hand away from his.
So, I tap my fingertips against his for a yes, not exactly sure if he'll take it to mean such until he gives a nod afterwards.
"Huh. Okay." The kid chews on the inside of his lip for a moment, looking thoughtfully down at the floor. Then, he looks back up at me with surprising accuracy. It's almost like he's not just looking in my general direction, but like he's actually seeing me.
The desire for that to be true hits me like a freight train.
I don't have time to sort out all of the reasons before he asks me another question.
"What's your name?"
I give him a look. Now how does he expect me to tell him that when I—
I turn away from him, finally breaking the contact between our hands, and head over to the other side of the shelf. After a moment of scanning the titles, I find the one I'm looking for. I pull it off the shelf. The kid's slight jolt as it falls to the floor makes me snort with amusement.
The way he gets up from the bed and walks over to pick the book up right afterwards makes me smile with triumph.
"A Spell for Chameleons by Piers Anthony," the kid reads. His eyes spark with intelligence and sudden insight. "Tap once for Piers, twice for Anthony."
I tap twice on the back of his hand.
The kid smiles slightly and crookedly. "Anthony what?"
Going back over to the bookshelf, I knock another book to the floor. He picks it up.
"Proof of an External World by G. E. Moore," he reads. There's sure look on his face when he lifts his head up, somehow accurately guessing once again where to look so it seems like he's actually seeing me. "Anthony Moore? That's your name?"
Smiling, I tap the back of his hand. The kid gives another slight, crooked smile of his own in response.
"Okay," he says. "I'm going to find out more about you and then I'll be back. Okay?"
"Sounds like I plan," I say, tapping his hand once more in agreement.
The kid nods like he didn't just feel me, but heard me as well.
Then, he turns around, pulling away from me and my touch, to go grab his shirt and hoodie from the floor. He puts both back on before he heads towards the door. I watch him go, telling myself I shouldn't feel so putout that he's leaving, especially not after we found a way to communicate with—
Already halfway out the door, the kid abruptly stops and looks over his shoulder, back into the room. His eyes sweep from one wall to another, as though he's not sure where to look. Even so, when he finally does settle his gaze in one spot, it is, for a third time, exactly where I am.
Which begins to make me wonder if it really is a mere coincidence and something else.
Something more than that.
"By the way," he says, "my name's Zak."
Then, with a flitting smile, he's gone.
And I'm blinking at the door, in a daze.
Not because of his sudden departure, though. No. If that was the case, I wouldn't have this little, inane smile on my face.
A little, inane smile that is slowly, yet surely and inexplicably, turning into a large, inane grin as marvel to myself.
His name is Zak.
The grin stays on my face for the rest of the night.
By mid-afternoon the next day, Zak's back at the cabin.
It's earlier than I expected him to be back, but that's fine. I'm not complaining; I'm just saying. And I'll think about why the mere sight of him causes my stomach to swoop later. Right now, I'm too busy smiling at him as he walks in, closing the door behind him.
Why bother? He can't see it or you, so what's the p—
No point. Because it doesn't matter. All that matters is that he's here. All that matters is the way he looks hesitantly around the room before saying, "Anthony?" in a hopeful voice. All that matters is how a crooked, happy grin breaks across his face when I knock against the wall and then touch him gently on the shoulder.
And like I said: I'll think about the reasons why his grin makes my stomach give another swoop later.
"Hi," Zak says, squinting at the air next to him, where I'm standing, as if that will help him see me. From the way he frowns slightly and cocks his head to the side, it's possible that he might be able to see something. Not me exactly, but definitely something.
"I was at the library all morning," he continues a second later. "Trying to find out more about you." Zak slides a backpack (which I just now notice he has with him) from his shoulder, opening it, reaching in, and pulling out a piece of paper. He holds it up. "Is this you?"
I look at the paper and blink. It's a print-out of the article about the hunting accident that killed me from a news website. Not a very lengthy article. Merely facts stated in a respectful, to-the-point way. Probably because they didn't find anything else about me—besides how I died, of course—interesting. That doesn't bother me.
What does is that this article has a picture. It's not a bad picture. Actually, it's a rather good one considering it's just my student ID photo. But still. I'm not sure how I feel looking at it. Seeing my needs-a-serious-trim, messy dark brown hair. Seeing my hazel-green eyes with a sarcastically cocked eyebrow. Seeing my equally sarcastic, vague smirk. Or simply just seeing myself for the first time in months.
For the first time since I died.
I frown and look away, my chest and throat feeling uncomfortably tight. Strange how something as trivial as that can suddenly make me feel so shitty. I just want to go sulk and brood in a corner with my books now.
At least, I did. But then Zach catches my attention again by saying "Well? Is it?" with incredibly curious eyes and tone, and, at once, all I want to do is answer him.
Communicate with him.
Talk to him.
"Yes," I say, simultaneously tapping him on the shoulder.
Zak smiles. "Okay. Cool—well, no." He winces, a rueful expression on his face. "Not cool because that's a shitty way to die. But—yeah. You know what I mean." He raises his eyebrows. "Right?"
More amused than I should be—smiling and having that swooping feeling in my stomach when I shouldn't—I tap his shoulder again.
And Zak smiles again.
"Good," he says. "So…uh…okay." He exhales in a huff, almost looking embarrassed, and reaches in his bag for a second time. "I don't really know if this is going to work, but I thought it's at least worth trying. What do you think?" he asks, pulling out a box and holding it up.
When I see what it is, I let out a laugh, genuinely entertained by this idea of his, and more hopeful and excited about the possibility that it will actually work than I have any right to be. But I'll worry about later. Because right now, I'm busy letting Zak know that I agree with him—that we should definitely try it out—by giving him another tap.
Zak smiles a pleased, crooked smile and quietly says "Cool," before he goes to set up the Ouija board on the floor in front of the woodstove.
When it turns out the board does indeed work, identical grin spread across both of our faces.
The way that makes my stomach give another swoop is just another thing I'll worry about later.
We talked via Ouija for the rest of that afternoon and most of the evening.
The same went for the day after that.
Then the day after that.
And the day after that and so on and so forth until just over month passes by.
Until both of us know almost everything about each other.
But using the Ouija is tiresome work, having to spell out every word. I did it anyway. And Zak was patient—more patient than anyone I've ever met. He would wait quietly as I moved the pointer around the board, his blue eyes bright and curious as they took in each letter and formed them into words. He would just wait until I was done with whatever I was saying, no matter how long it took for the sentence to finish, and then smile slightly before asking me something else, starting the process all over again. And he never seemed to get frustrated or annoyed.
With each day we talked, I found myself becoming more and more agitated that I couldn't just speak to him. With every day that passed, I got a little angrier that I couldn't just say what I wanted to say aloud. With each question or statement he said that warranted a reply, it made me increasingly upset that he couldn't hear me.
This is especially true the day I finally get up the nerve to ask him the question that's been on my mind since almost the beginning—the question that gained new significance on that day.
The one where he almost killed himself.
I move the pointer around the board, my insubstantial fingers beside his substantial ones, and spell out: What is wrong?
Zak frowns faintly, his eyebrows coming together. "What do you mean?" he asks.
Instead of using the Ouija, I reach over and touch the new bruise on his jaw. I know the way he suddenly flinches has nothing to with the strange spider-web sensation of my hand. For one, it's too light to hurt him. Two, Zak too used to it by now considering how often I touch him.
Which is a lot. More than I know I should. But I can't help it. Even though it feels like there's a thick plastic film between us, I still like being able to feel him.
I know his flinch has nothing to do with my hand on the bruise. Just like I know it has everything to do with the dark shadow suddenly in his eyes, his clenched jaw, and the scars on his arms.
"Don't…don't worry about it," he says, his voice tight. "It's nothing."
I give him a flat look he can't see and put my hand back on the pointer. As always, his attention is on it the second it starts to move.
Spelling out Bullshit.
Zak looks at me—directly at me in the inexplicable, intuitive way he always does—and his expression and eyes are pained. "Please," he says quietly. "I don't want to talk about it."
Too bad, I Ouija. Then, realizing how insensitive and asshole-ish that sounds, I add, Please tell me. I am worried about you.
"Why?" he asks.
Because I just am, I tell him. And because of the scars.
At the last word, Zak flinches again, his right hand automatically going to his left forearm. He stares wretchedly and guiltily down at the floor. It's a long while before he finally responds.
"I really should've expected you to ask about that," he mumbles.
"Yes, you should've," I say. But rather than spell that out on the Ouija, I just tap my fingers to the back of his knuckles. Afterwards, I lay my hand on top of his hand.
His right one.
The one still on his left forearm.
The one covering the scars hidden by the sleeve of his hoodie.
And, for whatever reason, it's that which makes Zak take a deep, shaky breath and say, "Okay. Okay, I'll tell you. Just…give me a moment. I—just give me a moment."
I do as he said.
Then, after a moment, so does Zak, telling me why he does that to himself.
Telling me about his drunken whore of a mother that never wanted him.
Telling me how she just sits back and watches as her abusive, scumbag boyfriend beats the shit of him.
Telling me that the bastard does it not just because Zak's gay, but mainly because he's there.
Telling me how the pain he inflicts on himself with cutting helps ease—helps erase—the pain other people cause him. Telling me how it calms him down. Telling me how it also reminds him that most of the time he feels empty, lost, and worthless. Telling me that he sometimes feels his life is pointless because of it. Telling me how he doesn't always see the sense in existing.
Telling me that he hates how absolutely alone he is.
You are not alone, I tell him via Ouija, spelling out the words so hastily that it's a wonder he's able to understand them.
But he can, reading them as easily as anything else I've said. He then looks up—looks at me—with a small smile.
"No, I'm not," Zak quietly agrees. "Not anymore."
And it's in that exact second, as I stare into eyes—eyes so grave, sad, grateful, lovely, and blue—that it hits me.
That I understand it's more than just sympathy for what he has to deal with which causes my heart to wrench every time I see how much pain he's in. That it's more than compassion or concern which makes me yearn to comfort him with my touch. That it's more than finding him fascinating because he can feel, almost-hear, and communicate with me. That it's more than him being the only person I can talk to which makes my stomach swoop and pool with happy warmth whenever I see him. That it's—it's just more than that.
That everything I feel for Zak is more than that.
Of course, I've known such from almost the very beginning. But it isn't until that moment that I finally understand what more than that actually means.
Which is that I've fallen for him.
That I'm in love with him.
"What does death feel like?"
I don't answer the question immediately. Instead, I stare hard at Zak with a small frown. Anyone else looking at him right now, seeing the way he's sitting cross-legged on the bed, his expression mild, would probably think he's just innocently curious.
But I know him. Well enough to see and recognize that particular sheen in his eyes. It's too curious. Actually, it's more than that—it's too thoughtful. To considering. Too eager to know.
I don't like it.
Even so, I answer him. Not because I want him to know. But because he asked. Because of the way he cocks his head to the side and says "Anthony?" in an expectant tone. Because of how lovely his eyes are. Because of how beautiful he is.
And because I love him so much.
To the point where I can't bring myself to say no to him. Ever.
To the point where I will do anything he asks. No matter what it is.
It feels like nothing, I Ouija. Nothingness. For what seemed like an eternity until I came back. Hard to explain.
"Was it…was it bad?" asks Zak quietly.
It was not anything. Not bad. Not good. It was just Nothing.
"What about being a ghost? What's that like?"
Kind of like being alive, but less convenient in some aspects and more in others. But I am biased. I was not exactly a life-loving guy before I died. Did not have many friends or interests. Just spent most of my time reading. Still do.
Zak gives a soft laugh through his nose. "Being a ghost sounds pretty ideal for you then."
I used to think so too.
"Used to?" Zak says, the tense not slipping past him (of course not; he's too observant for that). "What do you mean? What changed?"
I stare at him wistfully, hesitating and feeling like my heart is in my throat. Then, after deciding fuck it, I move the pointer around to give him his answer.
I met you.
Zak sucks in a sharp breath, his eyes going wide as he stares down at the Ouija board. After a few seconds, he lifts his head up, somehow correctly guessing once again right where to look so it like he's staring me directly in the eyes.
"Anthony…" he whispers, his voice cracking halfway through my name.
And then the tears start to pour down his cheeks.
My heart breaks as I watch him pull his legs up and hug them to his chest, hiding his face between his knees. Without thought or hesitation, I slide over on the bed until I'm right beside him and press my side up against his as I begin to stroke his hair. It doesn't matter that he can hardly feel it. All that matters is that he desperately needs some sort of comfort, even if it's the barely-there touch of a ghost.
But—fuck, how I wish it was more than that. How I wish I was more than that so he could feel me and my touch properly.
It kills me that he can't.
Even so, at the sensation of my hand on his hair and my body against his, Zak turns his head in my direction. Tears are still falling from his eyes. He looks like he's in so much pain that he's beyond inconsolable at this point. A strangled, distressed noise escapes my throat as I touch his cheek in a futile attempt to wipe some of the wetness away. Zak gives a quiet sob at my touch, but still leans into it. And that breaks my heart and kills me all over again.
"Why couldn't I have met you when you were alive?" he asks in a broken whisper.
"You have no idea how many times I've wondered the same exact thing," I whisper back, not caring that he can't hear me, and resting my head against his shoulder. I can't stand how it feels like there's a barrier between us.
Which, of course, there is:
The fact that he's alive and I'm dead—that I'm only a fucking ghost.
Strange how I used to be perfectly okay with that. Strange how meeting and falling in love with him changed that.
Strange how now there's nothing I hate more than that.
I know something's seriously wrong the moment Zak walks through the cabin door. But it's not the new bruises, freshly split lip, or the limp as he walks that give it away.
No. It's how he comes into the cabin. It's not the normal way he does it when some terrible shit has happened. Normal would be throwing the door open as he stormed in, ranting and seething with violent, sharp movements that wouldn't stop until I somehow managed to calm him down.
But today, he comes in quietly. Slowly. With absolutely no expression on his face. With vacant eyes. Going over to the bed in a zombie-like way.
Without calling out my name or acknowledging me in any way.
And that's the real kicker.
Feeling like I've been physically struck in the gut and that there's a clamp tightening around my heart, I watch as Zak lies down on the old mattress. He half curls up into the fetal position with his spine pressed against the wall, staring unseeingly out into the cabin. His eyes, lashes, and cheeks are dry. Which isn't good. I know him well enough by now to understand that, when he doesn't (or more like can't) cry, his thoughts are in a dangerous place.
That he is in a dangerous place.
A place I need to get him out of before something awful happens.
I go over to the bed and lay down on my side, facing him. Zak's blue eyes give the slightest of flickers, as if perceiving the change in his view (though there technically isn't one since I'm invisible) on some unexplainable, subconscious, phenomenal level. But other than that, he doesn't give any other indication that he knows I'm there. He just keeps staring at nothing without a word, remaining scarily still for a long time.
It takes me leaning a little bit forward to rest my forehead against his that finally gets a reaction out of him.
Zak closes his eyes and lets out a ragged breath—one that sounds like he's been holding in for hours. Then, he gives the tiniest shake of his head that thankfully doesn't disturb the contact between our foreheads.
"I can't do it anymore, Anthony," he whispers. Hearing the pain, defeat, and resignation in his voice is so heartbreaking that it makes my throat constrict. "It's just…I've tried and I can't. It's too hard. It hurts too much. And no matter what I do, nothing changes. Nothing gets better. It just gets worse."
"Zak…" I say quietly, even though he can't hear me. To make up for it, I put my hand on his cheek and gently stroke my thumb across his skin. Zak leans into to it before miserably continuing.
"I'm so sick of it. I'm so tired of always being in pain, being sad, and being alone."
I tap him sharply on his cheek, shaking my head, and Zak finally opens his eyes to look at me. But the deep-set anguish in that stunning, gorgeous blue isn't what I want to see.
"I am alone," he says. "I know I have you, but that's all I have and—fuck, Anthony, you're a ghost."
"Please don't remind me," I beg.
"I…it wouldn't be so bad if I could actually see and hear you, and feel you normally," Zak carries on, my appeal predictably gone unheard. "But I can't and I hate it. I hate how the only good thing in my life is something I can't have—at least, not in the way I want and wish I could." He closes his eyes again, pain etched into every line of his face. "That, along with everything else, is driving me insane and making things hurt worse than ever. I can't take it anymore. And, to be honest with you, I don't really want to."
"Please don't mean what I think you do," I whisper, my eyes wide and my stomach sick with anxiety.
Of course, he doesn't hear me. So he just keeps confessing things that I don't want to hear because they make me so sad, distraught, and hurt on his behalf since I can't do a damn thing to make any of it better.
"I've thought about it before," Zak tells me. "I've almost gone through with it before. Which you know already. Just like you know the only reason I haven't is because I usually get interrupted or too scared at what it would be like. But Anthony—now that you've told me it's not so bad, I've never been so sure in my life.
"I realized that today thanks to him." The hatred in his voice when Zak spits out the pronoun is all I need to hear to know he means his mother's scumbag boyfriend. "He choked me. Threw me up against the wall and put his hand around my neck. He's done it before, but this time—god, I swear he was actually trying to kill me this time. And…and I didn't care, Anthony," he murmurs, in a vague, wondrous tone that scares me more than any other behavior of his so far. "More than that, I hoped he would. I wanted him to because at least then all of this would stop. At least then, I wouldn't have to deal with it anymore…"
"Zak, no." I press myself closer to him, whining with tears beginning to well up in my eyes. "Stop—stop talking like this. Please, Zak. Just—"
"Not having to deal with it sounds so appealing," Zak says, cutting me off. Not on purpose; just because he has no idea I was even talking. "I want it to stop. I want it all to end so badly."
I shake my head and frantically touch and cling to him. "No. No, no, no, n—"
Zak reaches up, miraculously guessing exactly where my cheek is and laying his hand against it. I freeze and shut up at once. Not just because of his touch, but also because of the look in his eyes.
I've never seen them with such significance and longing than I have right now.
"But most of all, I just want to be with you," he whispers vehemently, absolutely serious. "And the only way I can be is if I'm dead, so—"
My outburst causes books to fly off the shelves, like it did once before. But I barely even notice. I'm too busy glaring at Zak incredulously from the middle of the cabin, having propelled myself off the bed, away from him.
"You can't!" I tell him. I'm so furious and on edge that my ghostly energy is making books rattle. "How could you even say that? You can't! You—"
"Anthony," Zak says, his voice gentle and soft as he sits slowly up on the bed. All the while, he's staring serenely in my direction with clear and solemn eyes. "Listen to me. What other choice do I have? It's not like I have any hope for a future. I can't afford to go to college. I can't even leave because I have nowhere to go. Even if I did, I don't have the money to survive. It's just—Anthony, I have nothing to live for. I have nothing at all besides you."
He gives me an incredibly beseeching look. "Please try to understand. I'm not happy being alive. I'm so far from being happy that it's unbearable and it's always been that way for as long as I can remember. The only time I'm happy is when I'm here with you. And because of that, I know I could—we could—be so much happier if I was like you." Zak hesitates for a second before adding, "If I was a ghost too."
Tearing and grabbing violently at my hair with my hands, I whirl around helplessly and franticly. Then, I go over to the bookshelf and knock the Ouija box from the top shelf, where Zak keeps it when we aren't using it. And, thanks to the wild, intense emotions I'm feeling, it's not at all difficult for me to get the board and pointer out of the box, and set it up myself.
Once I do, I hastily Ouija: But what if you do not come back? What if you are stuck in the nothingness forever?
Zak is silent for a long moment. His eyes are shadowed and his face has closed off again as he ponders my question.
And when he does finally answer, his voice is so horribly emotionless that a part of me wishes he just kept silent.
"It's still better than living," he says. "It's still better than feeling this pain."
You would not feel anything, I tell him, and Zak just shrugs.
"That's okay. I've wished for that sometimes. I don't think it would be so bad."
Frustrated, angry, upset, distressed, in pain and feeling absolutely useless, I swipe at the Ouija pointer with my hand, unable to stop myself and needing some way to release everything I feel. The pointer flies across the room, hits the wall, and breaks into pieces.
"Anthony," Zak whispers, his eyes suddenly sorrowful and uncomprehending. "Why are you acting like this? Don't you want to be with me, too?"
"Of course I do!" I lament. "It's just—I don't want you to have to kill yourself in order for that to happen. And…just fuck, Zak!"
He tilts his head slightly to the side and his eyebrows furrowing, as if he almost heard me curse him. Then, after a short pause, he quietly says, "Come here," and holds up his hand, palm facing outward. Just like he did the first day we communicated with each other.
And, without thought or hesitation, I go over until I'm hovering directly across from him and lay my hand against his. Zak once again guesses where to look so it's like he's staring directly into my eyes, his blue ones disturbingly calm, yet still astoundingly lovely.
"I want this," he tells me. "I want to be with you—actually be with you, talk to you, see you, hear you, and touch you. I want to get out of this hell I'm living in. I want to be happy. And the only way I can have any of that is if I'm dead. Even if that means I have to chance ending up in the nothingness." Zak leans towards me a bit, a hopeful look in his eyes. Knowing what he wants, I lean in too so our foreheads and noses touch. Our hands are still pressed together.
"It's a risk I'm more than willing to take, Anthony," he continues in a whisper. "And you know it's the best thing for me—I know you do because you know what I put up with when I'm not here with you. This is the only way I can escape. So, please. Let me do this." He stares deeply, imploringly, and desperately at me. "I need to do this."
I clench my eyes shut, my breathing so pained and ragged I'm practically sobbing. Might as well be with the way tears are threatening to pour down my cheeks. 'Cause this is so awful. Awful that he wants to do this—wants to kill himself. Awful that I'm part of the reason why he does. Awful that he's practically begging me to let him.
Awful that I know he's right.
There isn't any other escape for him. He's trapped at the house with that horrid bitch and bastard—who, after hearing what I have today, is probably on the verge of killing Zak anyway—without a way to get out. He doesn't have anyone else who cares about and loves him besides me. And it's been completely obvious from the first day I saw him that he's not happy.
It kills me to admit it, but he's right. Death is the best thing for him at this point. He'd be better off that way. He'd be happy. Free. A ghost.
And with me.
That's really what it comes down to. That he would be with me—be mine. It's so selfish, especially considering when we don't even know if it'll work—if he'll come back instead of being stuck in Nothing—but, if I'm going to be honest, I don't care. I just want to talk to him, hold him, kiss him, and love him so badly, and I have for so long. Now that I have a chance to have those things and for us to actually be together, how could I pass it up?
Fuck how selfish that makes me. Not that I think it matters much anyway. I mean, is it really selfish when Zak wants the same thing?
That's something else this comes down to. That Zak also wants it. So overwhelmingly much that I can sense it. And I've already come to terms with the fact that I'll never say no to him. That I'll never deny him anything he wants because I love him too fucking much.
Which is why I tap my fingers against his in acquiescence, though it anguishes me to do so.
"Anthony?" Zak says breathlessly. Almost disbelievingly. "Is that—are you—?"
I tap my fingers to his again as I nod. What with our foreheads still resting together, he's able to feel the movement, giving him his answer. Zak lets out a shaky, relieved, and contented breath, and closes his eyes.
"Thank you," he murmurs.
Then, before I can even whine at how terrible and sick I still feel for agreeing to this and having him thank me for it, Zak pulls away. I watch wretchedly as he reaches under the bed for the pocketknife he dropped there the day we first communicated with each.
The day I stopped him from committing suicide.
Funny in a totally not humorous way that I'm doing the complete opposite now.
I shake my head in an attempt to get rid of that thought, along with all the other fucked up emotions I feel. It doesn't work. Especially not when I see Zak bringing the blade to his wrist. Still sitting on the edge of the bed.
In our cabin.
Impulsive, I grab the hand of his holding the knife with both of mine to stop him. Zak looks up at me in confusion and a bit of impatience and frustration.
"What?" he asks. "What's wrong now, Anth—?"
"Not here," I tell him. And because speaking to him in useless—plus the fact that I broke the Ouija pointer means there's no other way to communicate with him—I also tug on his hand. I don't really know if it's going to work since my touch isn't strong or substantial; it might just seem like spider webs are sliding across his skin. Still, I have to try.
The relief that washes over me when Zak blinks and stands up from the bed, maybe sensing or guessing what I want, makes me feel better.
Until I remember that I'm practically going to be leading him to his death now. Then I feel like shit again.
Despite that, I continue to pull him towards the door. Zak follows behind me without hesitation or question. The only pause he makes is to lock the cabin from the inside, hanging the key (which he's been wearing around his neck since he took it) back on the nail before he shuts the door behind him. The finality of that gesture—one that will keep him from entering the cabin as long as he's tangible—strikes something deep within me and makes it necessary for me to just spend a moment touching him. I press my body up against his side, hiding my face in his hair. With a barely-there, yet contented, smile, Zak leans into me.
We stand there like that, on the cabin's small porch, for a long while. Until Zak eventually steps slowly back from me and the cabin, into the woods.
But his eyes are still looking directly at me as he moves a few more paces away. The clarity in the blue is staggeringly soul piercing and heart wrenchingly beautiful. That, and the way he assuredly holds out his hand to me while he says, "Lead the way," makes it hit home that this is what he wants. More than anything else in the world. No doubts or qualms or fears about it. He's going to go through with this. No matter what. All because he wants to be free and happy and with me.
With my throat constricted in wonder, love, and a lot of conflicted, contradictory things that deal with my selfish desire to be with him and the guilt at what that's going to cost him (which still doesn't deter me, though it should), I go forward to take his hand. Zak smiles faintly at my touch.
Then, he and I begin to make our way through the woods.
Zak's footsteps crunching through the February snow is the only sound either of us makes. We don't talk or communicate in any other way. The only thing I do is give his hand a slight tug to lead him in the right direction. I think both of us are too deep in our thoughts to say anything or do much more than walk.
Whatever Zak is thinking, it's causing a determined and confident expression to be imprinted on his face. My heart skips a beat and then feels like it's going to burst when I see it. Because only Zak would walk to his death like that. With such bravery.
Which it is. Fuck anyone who tries to argue otherwise. Fuck anyone who tries to say it's cowardly. How can it be when you know what to expect? When you know there's a chance of ending up in Nothing? When you know that, yet you're still willing to take that risk because the possibility of becoming a ghost is more than worth it to you?
Like it is to Zak.
So, no. Not cowardly. Not at all. Just brave. Incredibly, incredibly brave. To the point where the amount of love I feel for him in that moment is impossible to describe.
After thirty minutes of walking, we finally reach our destination. I tap Zak on the back of his hand to tell him so. He gives a small nod to let me know he understands, then spend a moment looking around. And because he's so smart—because he knows me so well, meaning he knows I wouldn't bring him somewhere that wasn't significant to me—he's able to correctly guess what this place is.
"This is where you died, isn't it?"
I tap his hand. "Yes."
Zak nods, a small, strange, half-sad, half-happy smile flicking over his lips. "I actually hoped you'd bring me here," he whispers, as if it's a secret. Which, after thinking about it, I realize it is.
But before I can do more than blink at that, Zak begins to head towards a large tree a few feet away. And because I don't want to let go of his hand, I follow him.
Of course, once we're at the tree, with him leaning his back against it, I still end up releasing his hand so he can push up the sleeves of his hoodie to expose his forearms. There's enough afternoon light for me to see the scars already marking his skin there. I stare miserably down at them, suddenly feeling like I can't breathe because my throat is once again constricted.
It's only when Zak quietly says my name that I look back up at his face.
"Come closer," he tells me, apparently sensing somehow when I'm looking at him. "I want—I need to know that you're there."
The undisputable truth of that statement can be seen so clearly in his eyes that it makes my heart ache with so many things. But mostly with love. Which is why I do as he said and move until I'm pressed right up against his side, resting my chin on his shoulder.
Zak sends a small smile in my direction, his gaze impossibly tender. "Thank you," he murmurs before he looks away from me, down at his bare arms. With a deep breath, he places the tip of his knife at the base of his left wrist, directly over a vein. He takes another deep breath.
Then, without any more hesitation, Zak presses down hard on the blade until it breaks through skin and drags the knife slowly up the length of his arm.
Zak doesn't react at all to the rush of blood that follows. But I do. A strangled noise escaped my throat and I press myself more firmly against him, clutching desperately at whatever body part of his I can reach. Zak must feel that and sense my distress from it because he leans his head to the side, resting it on top of mine.
"Shh, Anthony," he says soothingly. "It's okay—I'm okay. I want this, remember?" he adds as he takes the knife in his other hand to make a cut on his right arm identical to the one of his left.
Afterwards, Zak tosses the pocketknife away and leans against the trunk of the tree, dropping his arms to his side. I watch as the blood runs down them, to his hands, and steadily drips from his fingertips, staining the snow with large, red drops. There's so much that it's not long before there are two sizeable, imperfect circles of blood on either side of him, now melting the snow instead of staining it.
And all I can do is stare with horrified, wide eyes and my heart feeling like it's in my throat.
Until Zak gives a quiet, ragged gasp. Once he does that, my gaze immediately snaps to his face.
Which is ashen. I whimper when I notice that. Then, I whimper again when I see his gorgeous blue eyes have started to glaze over, unable to focus on anything.
"That…that happened quicker than I thought it would," Zak says, his voice dazed. The way his breaths are coming in short, little bursts, and how some words barely have anything behind them, tell me he's getting weak.
But I don't know just how weak until he suddenly slides down along the tree trunk until he's sitting on the ground.
"Zak!" I exclaim in concern, falling to my knees beside him at once. Zak turns his head in my direction, keeping it rested back against the tree. Probably to keep it from lolling around.
At that thought, I wince. Then, tears flood my eyes and I sob before I can help it. Because the fact that he's too weak to even hold his own head up has made it hit me. Zak's dying. And though I know—I hope—he's going to come back to me, it doesn't make it any less agonizing to watch.
I huddle close to him, wrapping my arms around him as well as I can (which brings my attention to how badly he's shivering), and hide my face in his hair.
"Zak…" I whisper wretchedly. "Zak, I…Chirst, baby, I'm so—"
"I can hear you," Zak says abruptly, gasping afterwards from how much the effort costs him. "I don't know what you said…and it's really distant and muffled, like…like someone talking through a brick wall—but I can hear you."
The revelation causes the tears brimming in my eyes to overflow and spill down my cheeks. Sobbing again, I hug him tighter. When the film-like barrier between us that mutes how well I can feel him doesn't seem as thick as it usually does, I tell myself I'm only imagining it.
It isn't until Zak starts speaking again that I know I'm not.
"I can feel you better, too," he mutters, his voice barely more than a breath. He so weak that he's even struggling to keep his eyes open. His shivering has also gotten a lot worse. Which of course it has. Severe blood lost plus sitting in the snow in the middle of February doesn't exactly make a person warm.
It makes them extremely, extremely cold.
"Y-you know, that makes me…" Zak pauses to inhale shakily, lungs rattling. "…makes me almost p-positive I'll…come back." He swallows with difficulty and forces his eyes open with even more. His eyes are completely glazed over and unfocused now. It pains me beyond any description I can give.
"But more than…more than that," he struggles to continue, "the fact that we—that we were able to talk…and touch at all…I think that means this was meant to happen. You know…me dying. So I c-could become a-a ghost. So I could—be with you. So we could…we could be together." Zak somehow manages to find the strength to smile and lift his hand up to my cheek. Blood is still dripping from his arm, but only just. I think most of it has soaked into the snow and his clothes by now.
But I try not to think about it. Instead, I just concentrate of the feeling of his skin against mine as I lean in to his touch.
"Anthony," he whispers. "I…I…"
He never finishes the sentence.
Because it's at that moment that his voice fails him. That his hand slips from my cheek as his arms just drops down uselessly to his side. That his eyes dim and glaze over, all light leaving the blue. That his goes completely still. That his breath stops.
That he dies.
Sobbing hysterically, I clutch, hold, press, and huddle against Zak's lifeless body, muttering his name over and over again. All the while, tears stream relentlessly from my eyes as I pray and wish with absolute everything I have that he's not gone for good. That he'll come back—he has to come back.
Because I need him. Because I love him. Because, if he doesn't come back, I'll have to spend forever without him.
I can't imagine a worse possible Hell than that.
It's been three and a half days.
Zak hasn't come back.
And I have never felt more alone and lost and heartbroken.
I haven't left this spot since. Not even for a second. Not even when a hunter found him yesterday morning and had the police swarming the place within an hour. Not even when they took his body away.
Of course, when they did that, I thought about it. Thought. Didn't actually do it in the end. I couldn't. I just—I couldn't bring myself to leave this place. Just in case he came back while I was gone. I didn't want him to think I had abandoned or given up on him.
But it's been almost four days now and he's not back yet. I can't help that I'm starting to lose hope that he ever will. I mean, I came back within two days. So why didn't Zak?
Maybe not all ghosts are the same. Maybe it takes longer for people who committed suicide. Maybe—
I don't know…
I don't feel like I know anything anymore. I just feel…empty. Hollowed out.
Like my heart's missing.
Each minute Zak doesn't show up seems ten times longer than my entire time spent in the Nothingness. Honestly, I'd rather be back in there—feeling nothing, being nothing—for an eternity than have to deal with this for another day. I can't…I just can't do it. It hurts too fucking much. And there isn't any way to stop or ease the pain. Not with knowing I have to spend the rest of forever without him.
Not with knowing he isn't ever coming back to me.
That sinks in the fourth morning. When it does, I spend hours crying so hard and hysterically that, if I were still alive, I probably would have made myself sick. As it is, I'm a ghost and ghosts can get sick. Just like they can't die.
I wish they could.
More than that, I wish I could. Because it's just not worth it anymore. Not without Zak. Not with him gone.
Once my sobs and tears finally subside—not from me calming down or becoming exhausted, mind; I just reach that point of absolute despair and anguish where there's simply no way to express it anymore—I spend several more hours vacantly staring at nothing. Pondering the possibility of a ghost fading away into Nothing if they are inactive for a long enough time. Wondering, if that's true, how many days, months, or years it will take until I cease to exist.
Deciding that, if I'm going to find out, I'm not going to do it here, in the middle of the woods. Deciding that, if I'm going try it, I want to be in a place where I can drown in memories of Zak as I fade away.
Like our cabin.
It takes much longer than it should for me to get there. And once I do, I just stand outside and stare at it blankly for the longest of time.
But I guess that's what happens when you've given up. When you no longer care about anything.
When you've lost your reason for existing.
Which is exactly what Zak was for me. Not always, but shortly after we communicated for the first time. Until then, I had no idea how lonely I'd been as a ghost. Having him around made it so much easier and better to deal with. And we became each other's only friend. More than that, we connected on some level that surpassed the barrier between life and death.
No wonder I fell in love with him.
No wonder he became my everything.
No wonder the pain I feel at losing him is so unfathomably awful that I can't even fucking cry anymore.
I close my eyes briefly as I take a deep breath. But even that hurts. So, I stop doing both to spend another few seconds merely staring at the cabin before I finally drag myself up to it, passing directly through the walls. I then stand in the middle of the room and look slowly and pointlessly around. Slowly because I can't bring myself to care enough to do it faster. Pointlessly because it's not like anything's change since the last time Zak and I—
At the sound of that voice, I snap my head in the direction of the bed. And when I see what—who is sitting on the edge of the mattress, I stagger, both in breath and step, and stare at him with wide eyes.
Suddenly, it feels like my heart has started to beat again.
"Zak," I try to say. Only I'm too stunned, amazed, and relieved that my voice has forgotten how to work and all that comes out is air.
But that's okay. Because Zak can read my lips. Because he can actually see me now. And I can see how that makes a slow smile spread across his lips, becoming bigger and wider until it's a full out, incredibly stunning, unbelievably gorgeous grin. Which makes me realize this is the first time I've ever seen him genuinely happy.
Probably because this is the first time he's been genuinely happy.
That realization makes it impossible for me to stay back any longer. I practically dive across the room, ready to embrace him tightly in my arms for real and never let him go ever again.
At least, that's the plan until Zak says, "Wait," when I'm only two feet from him. Lurching to a stop, I do as I'm told, though I still give him a deeply incredulous and deeply confused look. He just smiles back at me.
Then, he holds up his hand, palm facing out towards me. And that's all I need to know what he wants. Sending him a grin of my own, I place my hand against his and—
The air rushes out of my lungs at how good the contact feels. At being able to touch him in general. At how it feels normal and how soft and warm Zak's skin is.
At the fact that it feels exactly like it would if we were both alive.
I let out a delighted laugh, beyond happy, and entwine our fingers together, squeezing them hard just because I can. Zak doesn't seem to mind all that much. In fact, he smiles and squeezes my hand back.
The next thing I know, we're embracing. Greedily running our hands over and tightly clutching at any part of the other's body we can reach. Nuzzling our faces into hair, necks, and shoulders. For the first time, being able to touch. Being able to feel.
Fuck, it's glorious—so fucking glorious.
And it only gets better.
"Anthony, say something," Zak whispers in my ear. I shudder at the feeling of his lips and breath ghosting (haha) across the cartilage. "I want to—I need to hear your voice."
I blink. Then, I smile. Because that's right. He doesn't know what I sound like since he's never heard me speak before. Never been able to hear me speak before.
Still smiling, I rest my forehead against his and spend a moment simply gazing into his blue eyes before I finally tell him what I've been longing to tell him for months.
"I love you, Zak. I love you more than—"
I never get to finish saying what I love him more than. Because it's at that moment Zak decided to smash his lips to mine and began to passionately kiss me. But—hey. I'm not complaining. In fact, I'm so far from complaining that I'm kissing him back instead. Just as passionately. Just as hard. Just as urgently.
Because it's better than anything else I have ever experience in both my life and death.
Which is why I'm really not surprised when hands start to slip underneath clothing not that long after we start. Or when Zak unexpectedly breaks our kiss because he can't catch his breath, and lolls his head back into the finger I have threaded through his hair. And that's okay. In fact, it's great. Since that means I can now bite, suck, and kiss his neck.
Immediately, he lets out a moan as he presses his body more firmly against mine, allowing me feel his erection through his jeans. I grin triumphantly against his skin.
"Can ghosts have sex?" Zak asks a second later, panting out the question. "Please tell me they can have sex."
With a chuckle, I stop what I'm doing to his collarbone and lift my head up to look at him properly. "I don't know if they can or not," I tell him. Then, I smirk, slowly, mischievously, and promisingly, before adding in a whisper against his lips, "But let's find out."
The way Zak shivers, along with how his blue eyes spark with lust, delight, and excitement, is all the permission I need to shove him towards the bed and bear him down on the mattress.
Ghost can indeed have sex.
And Zak and I just had some of the best ever.
Now, we're just lying here. Curled up together. With his head rested on my shoulder while he trails his hand in random patterns over my chest. With my arms securely around him as I continuously press gentle kisses to his forehead, temples, and hair. In an attempt to make up for all the ones I couldn't give him when he was alive.
After a while, Zak makes a noise somewhere between a pleased hum and an amused laugh, and tilts his head back so he can see my face. He stares for a moment, just smiling, his blue eyes the brightest and happiest I have ever seen them. Then, he reaches up to trace my cheekbones, nose, and lips with the tips of his fingers. I can't help but lean into his touch with a contented sigh.
"I love you," I tell him again.
Because I want to. Because I can. Because it makes Zak happy. Because it makes him beam and look at me like that.
Like I've become the center of his universe.
Which is relief. Since he's been the center of mine for months already.
"You know, Anthony," Zak begins a few seconds later with a glint in his eyes. "I would say I love you too, but…well…" He lets out a breathy, joyous laugh and shakes his head. "What I feel for you is more than that. Beyond love. Beyond happiness. Beyond everything. Do you—does that make sense?" he asks, suddenly seeming uncertain and nervous.
To let him know that it's all right—that it's more than all right—I smile and kiss him.
"Of course," I then murmur against his lips. "Because I feel the same. It's just—I didn't have the words for it. But you're right. It is more than that—more than love." I kiss him again, letting it linger for as long as it will. And only afterwards do I whisper, "So much more than just love."
Zak inhales sharply. "Anthony—"
Whatever else he was going to say is lost, apparently having deemed kissing me far more important. I laugh and wrap my arms tightly around him as I kiss back.
And if this is what it's going to be like all the time, then being a ghost is more perfect and wonderful than I ever imagined it could be. If being with Zak makes me feel this happy and this complete, then that's it. Then this is all I need and will ever need.
Then I can't think of a better for us way to spend the rest of forever than with each other.
Than being each other's.
Than being together.