Ghosts and Flames

an excerpt



Ben stared out at the neon lights blinking garishly in the twilight beyond his hotel room window. Florida at Christmas. It was just weird-sunny beaches and women in shorts and strings of colored lights on palm trees. But after all, that was why he was here. Because Nevada at Christmas was too damned familiar, and too achingly empty.

He leaned closer, watching the way the lines of red and gold broke apart, reflected in the gentle swells of the surface of the ocean. His breath fogged the glass. And when he stepped back to let it clear, a man's reflection was slowly revealed through the receding haze. Ben sighed and didn't turn around. In the glass, a pair of clear blue eyes gazed at him intently.

"You're dead. I fucking well know you're dead, and if I turn, there will be no one there, right?"

In the reflection, the handsome dark-haired man in fatigues shrugged one shoulder apologetically. His hand reached toward Ben just a little.

Not turning, not turning, damn it all to hell! Ben turned. The room was empty.

Shit. Ben threw himself on his bed and closed his eyes. It had been almost a year since the letter had come: ...sorry to tell you...Grant...killed in action... A short cool note, with just the basic facts. If he'd been home in the small town they'd grown up in, the grapevine would have let everyone know within hours of the chaplain showing up at the Williams' front door. He could have gone over, done...something. Although, after all, knowing sooner wouldn't have made Grant less dead.

Grant's mother had known how close they were and mailed him a letter. But she'd sent it slowly, by snail mail, and never called him. It had arrived too late for him to go to the funeral. He sometimes wondered if she had seen something in his relationship with Grant that the two of them had never acknowledged themselves.

He pressed his palms to his eyes until his vision sparked better than the sky on the Fourth of July. He'd wasted their precious time. Wasted it on drunken evenings and shooting pool and taking pretty, meaningless girls home. Until suddenly Grant was gone, and there was this gaping hole inside Ben, and he realized what he had failed to see.

In the stuffy motel room, a touch, fainter than a moth's wing, brushed across his cheek. He froze, waiting, but the touch was not repeated. Ben sighed. "Grant, I know you want to help. I know you stuck around because I was so fucking lost without you. And I..." He didn't say I love you, because he'd never said it in life. He was damned if he would start now. "But, Grant, you're a ghost. You know it. I know it. And this...this thing we're doing... It can't go on."

He'd thought he was crazy the first time he smelled that combination of cologne and skin in the darkness, a week after Grant was put to earth in Arlington Cemetery. He'd ignored it over and over, each time he caught a reflected glimpse of a familiar muscular body in some reflective surface, each time a wisp of touch ghosted over him. He'd been shaking and sleepless and about to break down and see a psychiatrist when Grant's ghost had proved its existence.

Ben had been caught up in the violent troubles of his then-girlfriend Miranda. And one night, Grant had woken him from a sound sleep and chivvied him out the window of his bedroom moments before a planted incendiary device had set the place on fire. In the months that followed, as Ben tried to help his new girlfriend survive determined attempts on her life, Grant had proved his worth over and over.

Until finally Ben decided that if he was crazy, it was essential to his survival. And he'd thrown himself wholeheartedly into believing Grant existed. God, at first that had healed his heart, to think that Grant's spirit transcended his death. Then, when the smoke cleared, he and Miranda were still standing, but the shade of Grant Williams was between them.

Not Grant's fault. Ben wasn't sure if Grant even realized that Ben had tipped over from best-buddies-got-your-back to something more. But for Ben there had come the blinding realization that what he wanted was lovers-got-your-ass. With a ghost. With a fucking...make that non-fucking...occasional translucent untouchable remnant of his childhood best friend. And now he really needed a shrink. Except he'd never find one who would believe him.

He'd really tried to make it work with Miranda. And Grant had seemed to egg him on, writing the name of Miranda's favorite movie in the steamy shower mirror, wafting a butterfly to perch on her wineglass on the patio as they had brunch, even steering Ben to find her car keys when she misplaced them. And all it had done was to focus Ben ever more intently on Grant himself. God, he had to love the man, trying so hard.

Ben had broken up with Miranda, as gently as he could, and left town. For two weeks, he'd been travelling, south and east. He'd run from everything that spoke Grant's name to him, from all the places they had shared. And for most of that time, he'd thought it had worked. He'd imagined he'd left Grant and his insane attraction to the man behind. Until yesterday, sitting in his dark car outside the hotel, unwilling to go inside with the marks of tears on his face. He'd felt that butterfly brush of ghost fingers across his cheek. And known that his insanity had followed him. Or Grant had.

From across the room there was the faint sound of paper shifting in a breeze, despite the closed window. Ben sighed and straightened up. Although he couldn't see anyone, a page of hotel stationery had floated off the desk to land on the floor. He walked over and picked it up reluctantly. "Okay, buddy. Give me a second."

With the ease of long practice, he folded the paper in strips and then tore it into small squares. On each square he wrote a letter, completing the alphabet with some extra A's and E's and S's. Then he spread the letters face-up on the slick surface of the desk. "Go for it."

The letters stirred in that small current of air, shifted, slid, until a few lined up in a row: IM SORY

Shit. "No, Grant, not your fault." Automatically, he added some more R's, M's, N's, and O's to the array. "You're not responsible for my bad moods."

MISSNG MRANDA

"Yeah, some. Mostly missing what I hoped we could have had, if that makes sense." He couldn't, wouldn't, admit what had really brought those tears to his eyes.

TRY AGAIN

"No. She wasn't right for me, however wonderful a girl she was." He bit his tongue. Change the subject. "Why are you still here? I'm safe now, crisis over. Shouldn't you be moving on, going into the light, something?"

YOU WANT ME GONE

Ben busied his hands, giving Grant a question mark and an exclamation point. "No, man. I don't want you gone. But this can't be what you are meant to be doing, trailing around after me with no existence of your own."

NOT SURE

"When you...died. Was there someplace else you could have gone? Instead of staying here?" In all the frantic action of protecting Miranda, there had never been time to discuss the hows and whys. Or maybe Ben hadn't wanted to know.

NO CHOICE

Ben sighed. That wasn't quite an answer.

WHY R WE HERE

"Metaphysically?"

IN FLORIDA

Ben shrugged. "No reason. I was just looking for something different, and I was getting low on gas, and this seemed like an interesting town."

THEN WHY HANG ABOUT IN HOTEL

Because I chose to sulk in a dark room mooning after you. Grant would have hated that. Grant was always about the bright lights and the action, having fun at ninety miles an hour and dragging Ben out of his habitual reserve into that warm circle of light.

"Don't know, bro. Maybe we should hit the bars." Ben pushed back the chair and checked his wallet. He had money; he could afford to go out. Maybe getting drunk would make things look better. And if not, the hangover would be an excellent distraction in the morning.

Ben wandered down the main strip of town, eyeing the local bars. A couple obviously specialized in adult entertainment. XXX and Girls Girls Girls signs flashed enticements that he had no trouble resisting. He paused, considering a faux-Irish pub called O'Toole's, when a puff of air on his cheek turned his head. His eye was caught by the dying flicker of a neon tube on its last legs. Chambers.

"There?" he muttered. "You've got to be kidding. That's a dive."

The sharp pain at the back of his neck marked a tug on one hair. Grant had learned that trick when he'd had to wake Ben from a drugged stupor last month. It was not one of Ben's favorites. He rubbed the nape of his neck. "Okay, I'm going. Jesus. Pushy ghost."

Ben waited for traffic to clear and then crossed the road. Up close, the bar was even more disreputable. The outside of the window bore smears of something greasy, incompletely cleaned. The door was painted wood and marred with stains. The step had a strange layer of dust half an inch thick. Ben hesitated, feeling a deep reluctance to go in.

As Ben stood irresolutely, a man stepped forward out of the shadows in the alley beside the building. The man stalked toward him, moving with an almost unnatural smoothness. He was a heavily muscled blond of about thirty, with the cocky air of a fighter. He stopped just a couple of inches too close to Ben and eyed him arrogantly. "You don't want to go in there, man. It's a crap bar. Try Sharky's, five doors down. They'll treat you right, and the women are hot."

Ben drew himself up to his full six-foot height, which still put him about six inches below this guy's eyes. Jesus, what is he, a basketball player? He didn't let himself step back and kept his eyes cool. "Why do you care?"

The man shrugged, something hostile flaring in his startlingly green eyes. "I don't. Just doing a stranger in town a favor."

"You're sure I'm a stranger."

The man smiled thinly. "Oh, yeah, I'm sure. Or you wouldn't be going in the Death Chamber."

Ben couldn't help glancing at the sign again. It still said Chambers, and despite the electrical meltdown in progress, there was no unlit Death to the name.

"Maybe I like to check these things out for myself," Ben said stubbornly. A tiny touch at his back felt like encouragement. "If you really don't care, then you can just buzz off."

The big man snarled, and Ben cursed under his breath. He reacted badly to being coerced, and this wouldn't be the first time it got him in trouble. But just as Ben was bracing for the man to take it personally, a stray alley cat came squalling out of the darkness. The scrawny tom fastened itself around the big man's leg, delivered one sharp bite, and shot off suicidally through traffic to the other side of the road. The blond fell back two steps, cursing and grabbing at his ankle. In the space granted to him-and Ben thought perhaps that was Grant-ed-he pushed open the green door and stepped into the bar.

The light in the bar was low. It came from oil lanterns and candles rather than the darkened ceiling fixtures. There were a few empty wooden tables, a bare stage too small for more than a trio, and a scant few feet of dance floor. Along one end of the room, a big mahogany bar loomed solidly. Behind the bar, shelves of bottles gleamed in the flickering light. Unlike the exterior, everything was clean and polished. The air smelled of cedar and wine and candle smoke.

At first Ben thought the place was empty. But then he made out the shape of a seated figure behind the bar. The man was hunched, motionless, head on his arms as if sleeping. In the heavy, warm atmosphere of the room, time seemed to slow to a crawl. Ben stood still, hesitant to awaken his host. Then a candle wick flared with a soft pop, and the man at the bar raised his head.

He was younger than Ben expected, probably just legal to be selling booze. His hair was sleek and dark, falling in long waves to his shoulders. The shape of his cheekbones and his eyes hinted at some mixed race, and his skin was dark in the ambient light. He stared at Ben with eyes as green as those of the blond outside.

"Um. Are you open for business?"

The bartender smiled. "Hell, yeah. Got anything you want." He waved at the array behind him. "What's your pleasure?"

"Dos Equis dark?"

"Sure. Bottle okay? Cold?"

Ben took two steps closer. "It's beer. Why wouldn't I want it cold?"

The smile became a grin, showing even white teeth. "Lot of visitors from the continent around lately. They drink it warm over there. Heathens." He reached into a refrigerator, pulled out a bottle and a frosted mug, and popped the cap with a practiced twist. "Three-fifty." He set the beer on the bar.

A light push on the nape of Ben's neck made him turn and snarl, "I'm going," under his breath, before he remembered his audience.

But the bartender just tipped the mug at him in question. "Want me to pour it?"

"Sure." Ben went to the bar and slid onto one of the tall stools. He watched as the bartender's slender hands eased the beer out of the bottle and down the side of the glass with smooth skill. When he set the mug upright in front of Ben, only the slightest rim of white foamed the surface.

Ben fumbled out a five, slapped it on the bar, and picked up the mug. The beer was dark and smooth. He swallowed gratefully, wondering suddenly how long it had been since he'd tasted good beer. Miranda's ex had been a drunk, and Ben hadn't touched alcohol around her. Not since that night... He remembered drowning Grant's loss in home-brews at the local bar, until a glance in the bar mirror had shown a familiar face over his shoulder. Back when it all began. He tossed off the rest of the beer and kept his eyes averted from anything reflective.