[Fiction] ‘The Ghost of You’ — Christopher Moore

You know you’re giving up when you stop caring about personal hygiene.

Or, at least, you feel little more than a tremor of disquiet, before mentally shrugging your shoulders, and carrying on with it.  That’s essentially what I’m doing tonight.

I know as soon as he walks through the door.  I can sense it, smell it on him.  No aftershave, no extra effort to impress, instead only a faint whiff of manure that, along with the dried streaks of mud caked along the bottom of his trouser legs, gives away his profession.  This is ‘bi-curious’ at its most stark.  A man utterly un-initiated into any of it, into the habits, the routines, the unspoken ‘must-do’s that go along with meets or hook-ups.  He’s brand new to all of this in the worst possible way, and if I’d been expecting someone freshly-showered and aromatic to walk up the stairs with me, I’d be bitterly disappointed right now.

But, like I say, I’m not caring like I used to.

He sits down on the bed after an awkward exchange of pleasantries and small talk, no more interested in how my day was than I am in his, and roughly opens his jeans, his knuckles hard, the lines on them filled with dried soil, before pulling them down to his ankles, sitting back, and with an expression somewhere between nervous and smug (the worst kind), looks at me, waiting for me to start.

The taste is every bit as challenging as I expect.

He certainly hasn’t showered.  Possibly for a couple of days.  Occasionally, that would be a turn on.  In a guy I wanted to explore every inch of, someone who got me excited just by setting eyes on him.  Someone I wanted more than air.  But, that’s not the case here.  This is a fulfilment of basic need.  So, I take a deep breath, steady myself, mentally detach as far as I can from the reality of the moment, and lower my head.

He doesn’t last long.  It’s a relief, really.  Not just because it gets the encounter over with, but because it almost certainly means he won’t be contacting me again.  For guys like this, it takes a certain amount of time, a certain amount of thawing of ice, the emergence of a spontaneous, natural, even friendly rapport in the middle of the hook-up, for it to leave a lasting impression.  For them to want to come back for more.  That won’t happen here.  And, as I see him back to his car, and run immediately back upstairs to clean my mouth out with Listerine, I’m glad of that.

Or, as close to glad as I can be.  As close to any emotion as I can be anymore.

The one thing that does surprise me, as I lie in bed two hours later and leaf my way through my book, disappointed by how long it’s taking me to feel sleepy, is how much it’s preying on my mind after the fact.  It shouldn’t be.  I’ve done this before.  Several times in as many months.  Meeting my need for physical contact, tiding me over for a few weeks before I need it again.  Rinse and repeat- often literally.  But, this time, with this one, it’s sticking.  Refusing to disappear, to evaporate away, like most of the others do almost instantly.  It’s staying on the fringes of my consciousness, seeping through every time I try to concentrate properly on the pages in front of me.  Demanding to be paid attention to.

Eventually, I have little choice but to set the book down, and ponder why.  Is it because the hygiene was so bad?  Certainly, it wasn’t what anyone could have called great, but I’ve had worse in the past.  Not often, but sometimes.  And they never ate away at me like this one is.  Was the chemistry, or lack of it, particularly awkward tonight?  No, I don’t think so.  Again, I’ve had worse dynamics than that.  Truly, toe-curlingly, painfully shy men.  This one was passable.  Did I find him particularly unattractive?  Not really.  He had a certain rugged appeal, at least to look at, someone who probably would have had his pick of men if he’d come out just a few years earlier.  So, what, then?

Why is this time proving so difficult to shift from my memory?

My mind drifts back.  Unbidden, unwanted.  To the last time I had the misfortune to go down on a guy with questionable personal cleanliness.  The public toilets in the university gardens, with a visiting salesman who couldn’t accommodate, and so wanted somewhere quick, cheap and cheerful to get what he needed.  I’d been in the library, bored out of my skull trying to absorb something, anything, for my Victorian literature exam, when he’d messaged me on Grindr and quickly won me over with a combination of impressive photos, and a barrage of flattery about my own looks.  Already craving an excuse to, if nothing else, get outside for half an hour, I’d agreed to the risk of rendezvousing in such a public place, and five minutes later, had nervously walked into the cubicle where he’d been standing half-hidden behind the door, waiting for me.

My first thought, as I’d eagerly opened his trousers after a series of clumsy kisses that I’ve since learned to understand is usually a bad omen, before lowering myself to my knees and staring up at him, was relief that the cubicle door went right down to the ground.  The only risk of us being caught, so long as we were quiet, would come from trying to leave afterwards.  But, that relief didn’t last long.  From the second his pants came down, I knew he hadn’t showered recently.  And, given that they say smell is eighty per cent of taste, I knew I’d be in for a bit of an ordeal as I moved to close my mouth around him.

I sometimes wonder why I did it.  Why I went ahead with it.  Why I didn’t just stand up, apologise, make some sort of excuse, and slip back out into the gardens, and back to the library.  Maybe I was so bored, so frustrated, that pleasuring someone who tasted sour was better than returning to the monotony of study.  Maybe my hormones overtook my common sense.  But, it was an ordeal.  Not a lengthy one, thankfully, but long enough for me to be desperately glad when he gave an involuntary moan, and took himself out of my mouth to release himself in what I assume was meant to be the direction of the toilet bowl, but which ended up being the seat, wall and floor instead.  I had just enough time to pity the cleaner who’d come in to find this waiting for them later, before he zipped up, muttered a polite thank you, and opened the door again, peering out to check we were alone, and darting quickly outside.  Not bothering, I noticed, to wash his hands.

I remember kneeling for another few moments more than I should have.  Not just because the ground was filthy, and would be destroying the knees of my trousers, cobwebs clinging to the greasy wall behind me, but because if anyone walked in at that moment and saw me crouching, with ropes of semen staining the ground behind me, I’d have a job trying to explain myself.  Maybe I needed a moment to mentally adjust.  To push the disappointment of the encounter out of my head and resolve to forget about it before leaving.  But, eventually, I snapped back to myself, quickly got to my feet, and emerged back out (after a hand wash) into the afternoon sunlight.

And, now, I realise why tonight’s hook-up is playing on my mind so much.  That time in the toilets, five years ago now, was the last before I’d met Florian.  After I’d got back to the library, sat back down and re-opened my books, I’d made a deal with myself.  To not compromise myself like that again.  To not settle for hit-and-miss casual sex, after such a bad experience of a miss.  I resolved to see myself as worth more than that from then on, and had got myself off Grindr and onto more romance-oriented apps- if any dating apps can really claim that status.  But, in one of those weird and wonderful quirks of fate, I’d met him on a night out the following weekend.  Caught him staring at me from the other side of the dancefloor, slightly shy smile, wavy hair flowing out towards his shoulders, endearingly bad dancing, and I’d become his slave within minutes.  Belonged to him, completely.  Thoughts of anyone else but him gone the second he kissed me.  I thought I’d known infatuation before.  What it felt like to really like a guy.  I hadn’t.

I rub my hands over my face, and hear myself groan, trying in vain to banish the memory.  It won’t do me any good, can’t do me any good, and yet there it is, laughing at me, from all that time ago.  Where it can’t help me anymore.  Scorning me for ending up back in a position I’d vowed never to be in again just before I’d met him.  On my knees for a total stranger who refused to even wash, and lowering every standard I should set for myself.  I’ve regressed, and my mind is excoriating me for it.  Hissing of betrayal, of weakness, of capitulation.  Back to square one

It can go to hell.  It’s bad enough that I had to deal with all these things when they happened, without them bleeding into my present as well.  I’ve had enough.  I refuse to let unwelcome memories dominate me anymore.  Not tonight.  Not now.  So, I pick up the book again, open it at the page I left off, and determinedly start to read.

Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  One of my favourites, even long before uni, though the childlike wonder over the more supernatural elements had given way to other reasons for delight once I’d started studying it and Dickens’ other works for my modules.  Chief among these had been a surprising fascination with the middle section of the novella, the Ghost of Christmas Present setpiece, where the spirit presents Scrooge with a banquet to marvel over.  I remember finishing that passage, and thinking I’d never read anything so mouth-watering in my life.  Vivid, salivating descriptions of every type of food and drink imaginable, meats and fish and fruits and candies and wines, everything appealing to the human tongue, outlined in exquisite detail for the reader.  The words there to taste as much as see.  I remember thinking I could never have had the willpower to not dive into the offering right there and then, and had always admired Scrooge’s restraint.

I find that I’m back at that passage again, skimming over the descriptions and sentences that blew me away all those years ago.  It’s still beautiful.  The writing, the imagery, the wordcraft.  But, as my eyes finally start to droop, and I feel a wave of welcome fatigue, the sweet relief of exhaustion, at last beginning to descend over me, I find myself thinking, just before I go under, and feel the book slipping out of my hands, that it hasn’t woven quite the spell it once did.  And I have just enough time to feel the disappointment of that.

It’s the heat that wakes me up.  Reaching out, caressing my cheek, my ear, my neck.  Something closer, something more tangible, than central heating.  My eyes start to open, and as they do, I can see a flickering effect in the landing outside the door.  A dancing, fluid movement.

A fire.

I jolt up in bed, suddenly fully alert, and, my chest tightening in panic, I climb out and onto the floor, before stumbling to my feet and hurrying out into the hallway.

And, I find it isn’t my hallway at all.

I blink.  Rub my eyes.  Blink again.  Turn, and stare back into my room.

It’s still the same.  Just as it ever was.  Single bed pressed against the left wall.  Posters more reminiscent of a teenager’s living space.  Shelf after shelf of books, many of them dusty.  Cluttered and busy, barely any room to move.  I stare at it a moment longer, for reassurance, for familiarity.  Then, I turn back around.

The hall is still transformed.  Where there was once a narrow landing, a gargantuan space looms before me.  A grand foyer, like something more akin to a museum than a house.  Ceiling impossibly high.  Ornate chandelier hanging above my head.   A fireplace down the room, from which gorgeous, full, searingly warm flames cast their heat across the entire hall.  A table before me, that seems to run on for half a mile.

And one laden with every kind of foodstuff imaginable.

I blink again, staring in disbelief.  There’s a series of full, cooked, roast chickens, lined all along the table in its centre, guarding a majestic turkey in the middle.  Pheasants, and duck, and geese, salmon and cod, plates of bacon and German-style sausages, bowls of scrambled egg, side plates of whole bread, apples, and pears, and strawberries, and oranges, goblets of wine and spirits, crystal glasses of ice cream and sweets, steaming potatoes, and turnip, and cabbage, glasses of whisky.  Everything the human taste buds could grow excited for is there before me.  Waiting.  Calling.  Tempting.  Begging to be lifted and devoured.  I feel saliva start to pour into my mouth at the sight of it all.

I’m just starting to come to the realisation that I must be in a dream, when a sudden movement behind the parade of cooked birds startles me, and I see a shape rise from a sitting position on the opposite side of the table.  Rising from shadow, and into the full light of the fire.

A giant of a man, reaching halfway to the ceiling, no mean feat given its height.  Flowing red locks of hair, and a beard hiding half his face, forest-green robes hanging from his bulging frame.  Eyes fixed on me as he stands, boring into me as I see something like a smile form behind the facial hair, and brace myself for the booming voice that must be about to come, as he opens his mouth to speak.

‘Not sure where to start?’ he asks, nodding to the banquet.

I swallow.  ‘Something like that.’

‘Personally, I find a good drink helps steady the nerves,’ the spirit smiles, pointing to the goblet closest to me, full to the brim with blood-red wine.  I swallow again, and, still with half an eye on the impossible figure looming over me, edge my way towards the offering, peering down into its depths.  There’s enough in the chalice to knock me out for days.

‘Perhaps just a sip,’ the spirit suggests, as though reading my thoughts.  I manage to nod my head, my legs suddenly weak, and carefully raise the cup to my lips, struggling at first to even hold it steady, given its size.  I peer down at it again.  Not prepared for anything except the present moment.

And, without warning, without any preparation, I remember.

I remember sitting opposite him in the restaurant, an Italian in the city centre I’d never tried before, making conversation on our first proper date.  Still in that stage of wondering: does he like meWas it just a one-night thingIs there chemistry here?  I remember, as we both drank from our wine, a particularly sweet edge to the restaurant’s house bottle, our eyes meeting more and more as we both started to become tipsy, the initial shyness on both our parts fading away the more inebriated we got.  Our stares starting to speak greater, rawer truths to one another than we’d ever be bold enough to say sober, with mere words.  Alcohol swimming to our brains, and stripping away inhibitions, revealing our core selves to one another.

And, we clearly liked what we saw.

Because I remember us both, with unspoken agreement, hurrying through the remainder of our meal, declining a dessert, and rushing out to hail a taxi the second we’d paid up.  Within ten minutes, we were back at my place, and his body, his lithe, beautiful, perfect body, all smoothness, and toned muscle, and golden tan, was naked against mine, seeming like it wanted to press right into me, to merge into me, and make the two of us one.  I remember telling him how incredible his skin tasted, my tongue flicking at his neck, his in places I can hardly bear to think about now.  I remember him standing up to get us refills of wine, and me reaching for him through the bars at the end of the bed, pulling him back to me, and pleasuring him through the gaps in the bed frame.  He looked and sounded like he might die from the euphoria of it.  It was a night I never wanted to end.

I’ve never tasted a wine as sweet as the one we shared in that restaurant.  Though, I’m not always convinced it’s an objective opinion.

This one comes close, though.  Perhaps because it’s imaginary, and my brain is therefore allowing it to be, perhaps because I’m thinking so vividly of him as I drink it, more deeply than I’ve allowed myself to for months.  I set it back down on the table after a couple of sips, and feel the spirit’s eyes on me as I step back and examine the rest of the feast.

‘Now you’ve whetted your appetite, perhaps an early breakfast?’ the spirit suggests, indicating, with a huge hand, one of the plates stacked full of bacon of every kind, from streaky to back, and every type of cut in between.  I swallow as I study it, not just because of how sumptuous the meat looks, how perfectly cooked, how golden and crisp the rind is without being overdone, how gorgeous the whole thing smells, but because of another memory it triggers.  A memory, again, that I’ve scarcely allowed myself to have ever since he left.

Our second date.  Outside a Patisserie Valerie in the morning sunshine, a beautiful day drawing out crowds of tourists and fellow eaters, my ongoing glow after sleeping with him clearly having an effect on how the people around me behaved, because the waiter was more attentive, more playful, more friendly, than any I’ve met before or since.  Frequently checking to make sure our plates packed full of sausages, bacon, egg, beans, mushrooms and toast were satisfactory, that everything was to our pleasure.  I felt, that morning, like royalty.  A beautiful man staring at me across the table like he wanted to taste me as much as the food, a delicious breakfast fry that felt twice as filling as any normal meal, and several cups of tea, each more refreshing than the last as I squinted at him against the sunlight, and, I hope, told him with my eyes how content he was making me feel.

Perhaps we gave off an aura, some sort of vibe, to the people around us.  It would certainly have accounted for how we seemed to find ourselves being treated that morning, that day, and for months, ultimately years afterwards.  It was as though the surrounding world was somehow ‘happy’ for us, pleased that we’d finally found one another, and wanted to help us celebrate by having everything around us come to life in vivid colour and sound, the very buskers in the street seeming to aim their songs at us, the dancers seeming to put on extra-special performances just for us, the baristas in the cafes and the staff in the shops all seeming eager to make our day the best it could be, down to every little detail.  More than likely, I was imagining most of it.  But, it was a spell which, that day, I was more than happy not to break.

***

Which makes me all the more reluctant to bring myself back to the moment, and set the plate back down on the table.  For the second I do, as it did when I replaced the wine goblet, the memory fades away.  Disappears, down into some deeper, subconscious place, an odd feeling of lightness as it goes, despite the initial rush of regret.  I wonder at the feeling.  Of the sense, however small, of a burden being lifted.  Some tiny little relief, one less knife, however small, for my heart to stab me with amidst so many others.  It’s like a sense of loss and relaxation all at once.  A deeply peculiar feeling.

I don’t need the spirit to direct me to the next dish this time.  My eyes flit straight to it, just as I feel his on me, following me as I walk slowly down towards the cooked duck just crying out to be tasted.

‘An improvement,’ he says, his voice seeming to reverberate through the very walls of the room, ‘on the pieces of fried scrap you find amongst the noodles in your weekly chow mein, I think.’

He’s not wrong.  I’ve enough intelligence to know the reason my body is addicted to takeaways every Saturday from my local Chinese has little to do with their nutritional value, and everything to do with the additives and flavourings poured into them.  And, more than likely, lowness of spirit, and a need for comfort food.  But, this bird, by contrast…  This is meat.  As alluring a dinner as I’ve ever set eyes on, the skin glistening in the light of the fire, succulent and crisp, golden brown and lightly coated in orange sauce.  There for the taking.

I reach a hand towards it.  I feel the spirit’s eyes on me.  And, sure enough, my mind races back.

***

We were meant to go to a Chinese restaurant outside of town for our third date.  A place I’d always wanted to try.  Somewhere that came highly recommended, with some dishes not offered at my local, and I’d been looking forward to trying the menu.  We’d resolved that we wanted this time, this third meal, to be different from the others.  No sex, no ‘afters’, none of that.  Just a chance to spend time together, to spend an evening as a burgeoning couple, and truly get to know one another away from the temptation of a bedroom.

But, we made the mistake of getting ready in the same room.  Him checking his hair and fixing himself up in front of my mirror at the same time as I went to my wardrobe and retrieved the good shirt I’d bought myself for my birthday, stripping off my t-shirt in order to try it on.  When I caught him looking at me behind him in the glass, I knew the game was up.

He may as well have fucked me into the mattress, he was so possessed with it.  With lust, with desire for me, with the utter need to have me, far beyond casual want.  I was like oxygen to him, a sustenance he needed to have right there and then, just from that one glimpse of my bare back, before we so much as stepped foot outside the house.  He went for what seemed like hours, and could well have been, because I remember it being pitch dark outside by the time we got dressed again, and left.  Both of us barely saying a word throughout, in contrast to the laughing, flirting, joking conversation we’d carried on almost the whole time we’d been doing it that first night after the Italian.  Afterwards, as he collapsed onto me, he murmured that it may have been the best time of his life.  I tried to argue I hadn’t done much other than lie still, to which he’d countered that I hadn’t had to.

The menu at the new place was good.  It definitely proved to be worth the hype I’d been bombarded with, the staff fantastic, the interior full of rich oranges, and reds, and warm colours.  But, all I can remember as I first bit into the duck, coated with ginger as part of a recipe unique to that restaurant, is how nothing else for the rest of the night, perhaps ever, could compare with the feeling of him finishing against me only hours before.

It’s more difficult to let that one go.  For obvious reasons.  But, it does eventually trickle away, and I hear the spirit give a gentle laugh, as if he knows exactly what I’ve been remembering, and has been there with me through every last detail.  Perhaps he does.  He’s a construct of my own mind, after all.  I imagine he knows every thought I’m having.

The poor bastard.

Ice cream next.  A glass dish full to bursting with scoops of vanilla, chocolate, honeycomb, mint.  Still perfectly cold and un-melted, despite its proximity to the fire.  Kept immaculately still by the same illusion holding this whole room, this whole experience together.

‘Days in the sun,’ the spirit says quietly, and there’s a greater softness in his voice this time.  I glance over at him, and see an earnest, somewhat sympathetic look in his eyes.  He can feel the particular poignancy of this one.  This memory.  Which makes sense.

Because I certainly can.

Days in the Sun.  That was the name of one of the new songs in the film.  The live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast.  An addition halfway through the movie, comprised of haunting turns from most of the main characters.

It was still on my mind that afternoon, a mere couple of hours after watching it, as Florian and I had lain on the grass at the top of the park, arms across our eyes to shield us from the light above, our free hands lightly brushing together.  I’d known even then that I’d always associate that film with him.  With the feeling of being with him, of watching it with him, of us sharing those moments together, sharing a bag of mixed salted and sweet popcorn between us, sipping at slush puppies and fizzy drinks, completely abandoning any dietary discipline in the dark of a cinema screen.

There were other disciplines I’d wanted to abandon there with him, too.  And, if the cinema hadn’t been so full, I might well have chanced it.

I was keenly aware, as we lay there in the park in the aftermath, enjoying just being beside each other, of just being close to one another, that this was the first time I’d ever publicly done this with a guy.  So out in the open, so visible to other people, to passers-by.  Clearly, being intimate with another man, clearly on a date, clearly something more to one another than platonic.  But, it didn’t matter.  For the first time ever, any nervousness about the situation didn’t even come into my head.  All that mattered was him, there and then, and how he was making me feel.

And, as I ignored a passing dog-walker, and declined to even look to see what his reaction was, instead rolling over towards Florian and drawing him into a deep kiss, I understood that how he was making me feel was starting to get very serious indeed.

And there, beside the ice cream…

Strawberries.

I almost tear up.  I can feel my eyes starting to sting, the dream obviously so well constructed by my mind that I feel it on every sensory level.  For a few seconds, I’m certain I’ll cry.

But, I don’t.  I hold back.  Perhaps for the spirit’s benefit, perhaps because I know that if I start, I won’t stop.  That the outpouring of sorrow will go on for hours.

And, I can’t face that level of pain.

‘Have one,’ the spirit says gently, pointing to the bowl in which they sit.  Neatly sliced, stalks removed, ready to eat.  Lightly dusted with sugar, the granules sparkling like diamonds in the light of the fire.  ‘You’ll feel better,’ he adds, when I gaze at him reluctantly.  I stare back down at them.

What the hell, I figure.  It’s worked so far.  I take a deep breath, reach for one, and slowly place it in my mouth.

Nooo,’ he moaned, burying his face in the pillow as he realised what I’d done, while I set about laughing myself silly, delighted with his reaction.  As he thrashed his fists against the mattress in mock outrage, I simply carried on eating from the carton, making my way through the strawberries one by one, and enjoying every second of his embarrassment.

‘You’re way too easy to fool,’ I smirked, as he finally lifted his head again to face me.  ‘I’m going to have far too much fun with that.’

‘I really believed you,’ he moaned again, running a hand through his hair, and sending a shiver of excitement through me just from watching him do it.  ‘That was scary.’

I’d tricked him into thinking I’d been offended by one of his jokes, putting on a convincing display of annoyance and hurt, sulking into my strawberries as he, with increasing panic, tried to placate me, his voice almost growing tearful at the extent of my apparent irritation, when I’d finally cracked, and grinned at him.

‘I’m sorry,’ I laughed as he sat back against the pillow, fully recovered, holding up a hand to decline as I offered him the carton.  ‘That was mean.’

‘I’m just gullible, I guess,’ he’d answered, his voice growing quiet, distant, and I’d stared at him, frowning.

‘What’s up?’

‘I just…’  He trailed off, before shaking his head.  ‘Sometimes, I just don’t feel like I’m good enough.  For anyone.’

Now, he really did sound tearful.  Immediately, I set the strawberries down, and edged closer to him, touching his shoulder.

‘Hey,’ I nudged him.  ‘Where the hell did you get that idea?’

‘I don’t know, I just…’  He shook his head again, and he didn’t really need to continue.  He’d told me by then about the fraught relationship he had with his family.  His parents.  Always feeling like he’d disappointed them.  I hated to think of him feeling that way.  Either before, or now.  He brought out the most fiercely protective instinct I’d ever felt towards anyone.  And, I wanted him to know I was there to look after him.

We made love, then.  Slow, intimate.  Fused together as much in soul as in body.  A world away from the drunken fumbling of the first night, or the half-crazed lust of the third.  Something far deeper, far more profound.  More magical, and vulnerable, and intense.  As close to another person as I’m sure I’ll ever feel.  Or want to feel.

We both cried at the end.  I could taste the tears on his lips.  The traces of salt and sweat that formed the taste of him.  I stared into his eyes, and told him that it was okay, that I had him.  That he was safe.  That he was valued.

He held me to him, and told me he never wanted me to let him go.

***

A tear is escaping now, running its way slowly down my cheek and over my lips, leaving behind a hint of salt that will never be anything close to what his tasted like.  The spirit watches me with sympathetic eyes for a moment, before clearing his throat and looming large before me again.  All serious, all business.

‘I told you,’ he declares.

And, he’s right.  It’s been painful to relive it, of course, my soul crying out in protest at the moment I remembered our climax, but now that I’ve had it, now that it’s drifting away, now that it’s leaving, I feel…  Better.  Better than I have for a long time.  Lighter, freer.  I might even venture to say healed, but I don’t want to jinx the feeling.

‘It just seems…wrong, though,’ I say to the spirit, fully convinced now that he can indeed understand what I’m thinking.  ‘When I said that to him, I meant every word.  As far as I was concerned, it was a promise.  But, he’s made it one that I can’t keep.’

‘Can’t you?’ the spirit replies, lifting an eyebrow.  ‘You still think about him every day.  You still want to protect him.  You’d still take him in your arms if he ran to you.  Right?’

I blink, realising it’s true.  Every syllable.  ‘Yes,’ I nod.  ‘I would.’

‘Well, then, you haven’t truly ‘‘let him go’’,’ the spirit smiles.  ‘Even if he doesn’t realise it.  You’re keeping your promise just by keeping him inside.  Just by wanting it.’

I consider it.  Consider the words.  It’s certainly not a way I’ve ever looked at it before, but…  Yes.  Yes, he’s right.  It’s as valid a way to see it as any other.

‘But, what if he never does come running?’ I ask.  ‘What if I never get to make him understand?’

A sound echoes through the hall, then.  A strange, buzzing noise.  One that’s vaguely familiar.  Like something from a far-off place, a dream, a memory…  It grows louder as we both listen to it.

‘Then, you still get to be happy,’ the spirit smiles, staring at me again.  ‘You still get to live your life, and see, and hear, and smell, and taste, and touch all that the world has to offer.’

The sound grows louder.  I start to recognise it.

‘So, promise me,’ the spirit says, his gaze insistent.  Eyebrow arched in expectation.  ‘Promise me you’ll wake up, and smile.’

The buzzing becomes deafening.  I know what it is.  A surge of hope floods through me.  Butterflies erupting in my stomach.

‘Whoever it is,’ the spirit says.  ‘Whether it’s him, or not.  Promise me you’ll smile.’

I stare at him.  I nod.

‘I promise.’

The spirit smiles at me again, before slowly sitting back down on his side of the table.  Reaching for one of the bowls of fruit, and looking away from me.

‘Merry Christmas.’

Everything disappears.

My eyes open.

It’s day.  It’s morning.  An eerie stillness in the air, a muted quality to the light filtering through the curtains.  I know what it means before I open them.  But, as I step out onto the carpet and pull them apart to look outside, I still feel a rush of childlike wonder at it.  At the sight of the grass, the fence, the trees, all coated in a thick lair of unspoiled snow.  A robin hopping about in the branches of a bush.  A snowman already built in one of the neighbours’ gardens.

The buzzing starts up again.  I glance towards the bedside table, and see my phone light up once more, vibrating against the wood.  A new call coming through.

I swallow.  Step towards the table.  Lift the phone, and prepare to stare down at the screen.  Not daring to hope.

Promise mePromise me you’ll smile.

I realise I don’t have to promise.  I’m standing.  It’s Christmas.  It’s snowed.  There are children playing outside.  I’ve just dreamt about one of my favourite books.  And, I can still taste strawberry on my tongue.

I get to be happy.  Either way.

I take a breath.  I stare down at the screen.

And, I smile.

*

Christopher Moore is a graduate of English from Queen’s University Belfast, and of the MA in TV Fiction Writing at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is also an alumnus of the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course, and the Fireworks programme for young writers with Tinderbox Theatre Company.

Alongside a number of playwriting successes, Chris has had short fiction accepted for the Octagon Theatre’s ‘Best of Bolton’ day (2017 and 2018), Pendora literary magazine (2018), Flash Fiction Armagh (2018), including a published anthology of that event’s stories, ‘The Bramley’ (2019), Nightingale & Sparrow literary magazine (2019), The Mark Literary Review (2019), and Naked Frank Theatre’s ‘Tales of the Monsters in my Head’ event at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London (14-16 August 2019).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s