When Mama showed me the ghost room, I thought it was a joke. I’d heard of magic, but I thought that was for long lost islands and guys in big robes with beards.
Our family got rich dyeing cloth. We didn’t keep pet ghosts. But she led me into a basement I’d never seen before and I got the feeling things were getting weird.
Mama walked in all hushed and pushed back a heavy velvet curtain. It was dark, smelled humid, and a small white pedestal with a big golden stone sat in the center.
“Go ahead,” Mama said. She stood in the doorway, watching. “Go touch it.”
“Touch what?” I looked around. Four wood walls, wood floor. Cruddy old room. “That rock?”
I walked right up and jabbed my finger down. I expected it to be cold and smooth, but it was neither. The thing seemed to pulse under my skin.
Then he showed up.
“Hello.” He sat on the other side of the room. Pale, gaunt face, long eyelashes, almost too pretty.
I ripped my finger back and he disappeared. “What the hell?”
“That’s Jeremy.” Mama said it with a smile on her face. “He’s the family’s most precious secret.”
Precious my butt. That was a dead boy, sure as anything. I should’ve felt horror, I’ll admit I was a little scared, but I pressed my finger back down and introduced myself.
“My name’s Mellie,” I said. “Good to meet you, Jeremy.”
“Lovely to meet you too.”
Mama walked over and yanked me away. “Enough for now. You’ll speak of this to no one, do you understand?”
“No one, Mellie. Not a single living soul.”
I said okay, fine, you win, and let her drag me outta that dank basement room and back up into the relative warmth and luxury of the main manse.
But I took special note: living, not dead.
My husband-to-be had shoulders covered in thick, dark hair, and he laughed with his mouth wide open. He came to live with us after we got engaged.
I didn’t hate him, I only wished he didn’t exist.
The orb buzzed beneath my fingers. “You’re back,” Jeremy said. He wore clothes so old they looked antique.
“When did you die?” It was the first question I thought of.
“I don’t know,” he said. “What day is today? Wednesday? I died on a Sunday.”
I laughed. Jeremy smiled. Funny ghost. My hand felt warm on that orb and I stared at his long, curled lashes.
I asked more questions: What was the weather like? Can you eat? Do you enjoy being dead?
He always answered sideways: Warm, but sometimes cold, and it rained. Usually. Yes, but mostly no.
We talked about life in the manse. How my mother’s hands were stained blue from the dye, and fumes filled the halls like lingering clouds of fog. He wanted to hear about food, dancing, and music most of all.
Until one day I asked the only question that mattered: “Why does my family keep you in here?”
“Lick me,” he said.
I made a disgusted face. “Don’t be gross.”
“I’m serious. Lick me.”
I held the orb like a bird’s nest, staring at his sculpted jaw, his small, delicate nose, and leaned down, my tongue out, lapping toward his cheek, wondering at the tiny ghostly hairs near translucent, and tasted nothing but wet air.
“The orb. Lick the orb.”
I blushed, feeling like an idiot, and ran my tongue along it.
Bright flash, then willow branches dipped down around me, and my back pressed against a soft grassy knoll. Jeremy’s hands moved along my hips, his fingers real and dimpling flesh, his lips near my neck, breath hot on my skin as I grabbed his hair and held it, his face moving up toward mine, eyes hooded beneath his long lashes, my breath coming in short gasps of sweet fresh air, rolling hills all around us—and his teeth biting my lower lip, his hands moving up my body, along my breasts—
Another bright flash. I threw the orb onto the ground.
“What the fuck was that?” I breathed hard, staring at the empty room, the old warped wood planks, the rank walls, before slowly picking the orb back up.
Jeremy appeared. “What did you see?”
I opened my mouth to tell him—then stopped. “You don’t know.”
“I show you what you need.”
“You don’t choose?”
“What did you see?” He stood up for the first time since I met him.
“Nothing important.” I put the orb back on the pedestal and left as fast as I could.
I didn’t visit him for a week after that, but I dreamed of him. The ghost boy made flesh, his smell, his touch, but more than that, I dreamed of the world outside my family’s manse.
I’d never leave its walls. I would grow up here, marry my husband-to-be, have his children, dye fabrics, and perish alone. It was the way, our way.
Jeremy didn’t look surprised when I came back. “Are you going to lick it again?”
“No, I’m not. But you’re going to tell me what it’s like out there.”
“It’s nothing special.” He seemed disappointed.
“Tell me anyway. What are cities like?”
“Big. Loud.” He leaned his head back against the wall. “You should lick it again.”
“Maybe if you answer my questions.”
So he did, anything I asked, about traveling, about money, about cultures other than my own. He admitted to what he didn’t know, and did his best to tell me what he did.
One night, after more weeks of questions, he lounged on his side and watched as I carefully rolled the orb around between my hands.
“I want to take you away from here,” I said.
He slowly sat up and crossed his legs beneath him. “What did you see, when you licked me?”
“We leave tomorrow.”
“I thought you had a husband.”
“Is he good to you?”
“Tomorrow,” I repeated. “You’ll come with me?”
“I don’t have much of a choice.” But there was a smile at the corner of his lips. “Lick me one more time before we go.”
I was tempted. I thought of the metallic buzz of him on my tongue. I pulled my fingers away and watched him disappear.
I filled a pack, put on layers, and pulled a hooded cloak over my shoulders.
The orb was alone in its room. I picked it up and he appeared, standing again. “You weren’t joking.”
“Come on.” I walked to the stairs.
His legs didn’t move, but he drifted along above the ground behind me, wordless, smiling his coy half-smile.
Steps creaked beneath my weight. I wondered if I brought too many things: dried meats, hard cheese, bread wrapped in waxed paper, extra clothes, a knife, flint and tinder, tiny dry kindling for an emergency. The main floor of the manse was quiet. The heavy rugs soaked up noise as I crept toward the front doors.
I stopped and turned.
My husband-to-be stood in the shadows of the stairway. He wore his nightclothes, a long dark-blue robe, half open to reveal his downy chest.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Going for a walk.” I smiled at him, heart jittering.
“But it’s late.” He sounded more confused than upset as he closed the distance between us. “Let me escort you back.”
“Please, I insist.” He wrapped his robe tighter. “You’re my wife-to-be.”
“Come,” he said, taking my arm. “I’ll tell you a story to help you get back to sleep.” His eyes drifted down to my hands.
I smashed the orb into his face. He was tall, much taller than me, and I only managed to jam the thing against his mouth.
He grunted, his lips parted—
Then he released me and staggered back, his eyes wide.
“What the fuck?” he said.
“He licked me,” Jeremy whispered right next to my ear. “He tasted me.”
“What did you see?” I asked, unable to help myself. “Did you see him?”
My husband-to-be kept backing up. “I don’t— I didn’t see anyone. What was that, Mellie?”
I turned away. He didn’t try to stop me.
“What did you see?” Jeremy crowded close as we walked all day. Trees loomed at either side of the road and for the first time in my life, I felt lost.
“Nothing,” I said. “I saw nothing at all.”
His shoulder was inches from mine. I thought I felt his touch again. He smiled, and in that moment, I thought he knew—but no, he couldn’t and he wouldn’t.
When we camped that night, I held the orb up to my lips, ran my tongue along its surface, and closed my eyes.
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