by A.S. Mara
illustrated by beili
Someone was ringing the doorbell. Loudly.
Hamzah groaned and rolled over, squinting at his phone. The glare of his screen told him it was far too early to be up on his day off, but that certainly wasn’t stopping whoever was at the door. He put his phone back down and shut his eyes.
On the other side of the bed, Raziq said, “There’s someone at the door.”
“I know,” Hamzah answered, refusing to move.
After a pause, Raziq said in a rather pointed tone, “Go see who it is.”
“Why don’t you go?”
“Can’t,” came the easy reply. “I’m dead.”
Hamzah resisted the urge to punch him; it was too early for violence. Anyway, it wasn’t like Raziq had said anything untrue. Hamzah pushed himself up and turned to his side; Raziq was lying with his back to him, completely still. Only the bones of his neck were visible, and they glowed a faint red in the morning light.
The doorbell rang again.
Hamzah dragged himself the rest of the way out of bed and headed for the door. He peered briefly through the peephole and pulled the door open.
Blinking blearily against the light, Hamzah said, “Yes?”
“You’re that necromancer boy, right? Azman?”
Fully awake now, Hamzah stared at his guest: the small, shivering form of Nek Su, his elderly neighbour from several floors down. “Nek Su,” he said, surprised. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, it happened so suddenly. She was so well last night, she ate plenty for dinner. She even played with me a little afterwards, tossing that little ball of hers that she loves so much around. Ran all over the apartment after it. I never thought this would happen today, it happened so suddenly.”
“Nek,” he interrupted, “what happened?”
“It’s my Milly,” she near-wailed. “Oh, my poor, darling Milly.”
“What happened to Milly?” Hamzah repeated, as calmly as he could.
“She’s dead,” Nek Su blurted out. “This morning I woke up on my own and wondered why Milly hadn’t woken me, so I went to check on her and she wasn’t moving. Just lying curled up next to her water bowl, all still and cold.”
Hamzah paused. “I’m so sorry, Nek.”
“Can you help me? That Taufiq, you know, the lawyer from down the hall said you work with demons, keeps going on and on about how you’re a danger to everyone here, but I’ve never believed it. Never. But can you bring her back?”
“It’s…a little more complicated than that,” Hamzah started, choosing to ignore the mention of that damned bigot Taufiq, may he trip over his feet today. “We have to check with her spirit, her body–”
“But you can do it?” Nek Su seized his arm, her eyes going wide. “You can bring her back?”
“Don’t worry about payment. I’ll pay any fee you have.”
“It’s not just–Anyway I’m not–”
“Whatever you need, I’ll find it.”
“Nek.” Granny, he wanted to say, I’m not working this week. It’s my time off.
“Please,” she said, her eyes tear-bright, voice wobbling. “Now I have no one left.”
Hamzah looked again at Nek Su’s lined face, her trembling lip, her normally impeccable hairbun pulled into a loose, wispy ponytail, her hands shaking even as she leaned her weight against her cane for support.
“Please come in,” Hamzah said.
Raziq was up and properly cloaked–”Like pulling on your favourite pair of jeans,” Raziq had once said, right before his bones disappeared beneath skin, stitched together from spiritual energy–for company by the time Hamzah showed Nek Su to the living room. Hamzah left him to get Nek Su settled in while he headed for the kitchen. There, he mixed some sirap cordial with water in a jug, topping it off with a squeeze of sliced lemon. Skipping the sugar, he found matching floral-patterned cups, the lightest kind he had, set them all on a tray and headed back to the living area.
Nek Su was still gripping her cane, gaze downcast. There was quiet chatter from the television from the other room; Raziq must have turned it on to help fill the silence. Hamzah appreciated the effort, even though he doubted it brought much comfort.
Raziq excused himself while Hamzah poured their drinks, disappearing into their shared bedroom. As the door shut with a click, Hamzah placed Nek Su’s cup in front of her. “Please have some.” Good for calming the nerves, he thought to himself.
Nek Su lifted the cup to her lips with trembling fingers, taking several distracted sips before setting her cup back down. “I just noticed the time,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry to have come and bothered you so early in the day. I know you young lot don’t like to get up until after noon.”
Hamzah carefully suppressed a wince. “It’s fine.”
“I shouldn’t have bothered you, Azman,” she went on. “I’ll leave right away.”
“No, please,” Hamzah said hastily. “I mean, my name is Hamzah, but I’m the necromancer and I’d like to help.”
He saw Nek Su waver, torn.
“I want to help,” he said more firmly.
Nek Su closed her eyes briefly, and straightened a little in her seat. “It’s about Milly.”
Milly, Nek Su told him, was her beloved feline companion of over eleven years, and had kept Nek Su company long after her husband passed. It was for Milly she got up in the mornings, and Milly who stayed with her all day and all night. Milly, her affectionate, attentive cat whom she had found still and lifeless earlier that morning.
At this point, Nek Su was clutching at tissues. “Please,” she sobbed. “Please help me get her back. I can’t go on without her.”
Hamzah leaned forward in his seat, and met her gaze. “Of course I’ll help you, Nek. We’ll get Milly back.”
After he saw Nek Su safely to the elevator, with firm instructions on how to care for Milly’s body coupled with promises to visit her later that evening, Hamzah returned to his apartment to find Raziq decloaked, bare-boned once more.
Raziq cocked his head to one side, a gesture he had adopted post-death, when Hamzah was still having trouble reading his emotions just from his aura. “Are you heading out?”
“Yeah,” Hamzah said, rummaging through the drawers for his car keys. “Need to get some stuff from the store.”
“I’ll come with you.” Raziq reached past him and snatched up the car keys. “Shouldn’t you eat something first though?”
“Nah,” he said, just as his stomach sealed the moment with its opportunistic rumbling. Covering his stomach with an arm, Hamzah shot Raziq a sheepish look.
Raziq’s jaw was hanging open slightly, even though he tried to cover it with his hand, and his hunched shoulders were shaking; Hamzah recognised being laughed at when he saw it.
“You’re a terrible boyfriend,” Hamzah told him.
“For not letting you leave the house on an empty stomach?” Raziq countered, stalking into the kitchen.
“Yet at the same time, a great boyfriend,” he added and followed. “I love you.”
“Obviously,” Raziq said, coming up from the fridge with two eggs balanced expertly on the bone of his fingers. He shot another look at Hamzah, his aura flaring bright. “You brought me back, didn’t you?”
Hamzah grinned back, and reached for the pan.
After stopping by the store, Raziq insisted on dropping by the supermarket as well. Hamzah carried the basket and followed his lover as Raziq drifted amongst the vegetables, picking things up seemingly at random. Even though Hamzah was the only person who ate nowadays, Raziq still insisted on doing the shopping. His excuse had been that Hamzah would just have gotten whatever was cheapest–which was true–instead of what he actually wanted to eat. Personally, Hamzah figured Raziq missed being able to taste his own cooking, and this was one way of filling that gap. It wasn’t much, but by the time they walked back to the car, Raziq was humming, his-faux lips stretched in a smile. That was enough for Hamzah.
Back at the complex, Raziq gave him a cheery wave as the elevator doors closed, arms loaded with grocery bags. Hamzah chuckled as he turned away, walking down the hallway and scanning the door numbers for Nek Su’s place. He stopped in front of 3A-28 and rang the doorbell. After a long silence, Hamzah lifted his hand to ring the bell again, but just then the door creaked open, revealing Nek Su’s anxious face.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Hamzah. I’m so glad to see you. Please come in.”
Hamzah followed her into the apartment, the air of a recent death already prickling his skin. The force of it always varied–with the passing of time, the situation of death, the emotions of the deceased as they passed–but Hamzah had always been able to sense it, even back when he was a child. It was one of the reasons he had made this his life’s work, after all; if he was going to notice the presence of the dead no matter where he went, he might as well learn to make use of it.
In this case, the scent wasn’t strong, a mere gentle tugging on his senses; Milly hadn’t died a violent death, but she was lingering in the area, so Hamzah could already feel his hopes rising. The most important requirement for bringing back the dead was convincing them they wanted to come back, and if Milly was already hanging around, Hamzah’s work was halfway done.
Nek Su led him into the kitchen and paused. “Should I–would you like something to drink?”
“Oh that’s alright,” he said, gesturing to his bag. “I’ve already prepared some drinks for the both of us. It’s part of the ceremony,” he added at Nek Su’s puzzled look.
“All right,” she said and hesitated again. “Do you want to see her?”
Milly’s body was lying next to a still-full water bowl, wrapped loosely in a thin white cloth.
“I did exactly as you told me to,” Nek Su was saying. “White cloth only, you said, so I used some pillowcases. And I didn’t move her from where I found her. Like you said.”
“Yes,” he said, putting his backpack down. “Thank you, Nek.”
“And now? What do we do now?”
“Now we have to find her spirit,” he said.
Hamzah asked Nek Su for two cups, which she brought over. He unscrewed the cap of his water bottle and poured their drinks. For this part, he had prepared some kedondong asam boi juice to strengthen their spiritual energy–his own, to better find Milly’s spirit, and Nek Su’s, to help Milly find her. He downed his drink easily, and while Nek Su worked her way through her share, he dug out the spray bottle he had packed earlier. Next, we clear the air, he thought to himself, spraying the room liberally with his own mixture of serai wangi. He could feel Nek Su’s curious gaze, but it was quiet, and Hamzah was grateful for the lack of questions. It was hard to work through all the extra chatter; this way he could concentrate on keeping his breathing even, clearing his thoughts as the world slowly dimmed, going grey.
The soul never strayed too far from the body, not without outside influence. Hamzah knew this, and since Milly’s body was as lifeless as Nek Su herself said, that meant her spirit was somewhere nearby. In the house still, he hoped.
He looked around the house, tracking the residual aura. There were two colours, one he traced to Nek Su, who was carefully setting her cup on the counter. The other, he saw, left a trail from the lovingly wrapped remains of the beloved Milly.
“Is she here?” came Nek Su’s whisper, and even her voice sounded further away.
Hamzah took a moment to process her question. “Yes,” he answered, gaze still roaming the house, trying to pinpoint the other end of the green aura. Milly’s spirit had roamed all over the house since that morning, washing the apartment in a soft green glow, making her hard to track.
He began walking, making a slow circuit of first the kitchen, then the living area, all the while searching. He could feel Nek Su following him, her spirit flickering on the edge of his attention, but he pushed that away. Instead, he let his feet guide him, taking him past the empty rooms until he was standing in front of a closed door. On the other side, there was a steady hum of energy tugging on his senses, and he knew he had found her.
“Nek,” he asked without turning around, gesturing to the door. “May I go in?”
She was surprised by the question, Hamzah could feel it. “Of course,” Nek Su said. “Is she…is Milly in there?”
“I think so,” he answered, pushing the door open to Nek Su’s bedroom. The room was glowing green, Milly’s aura coating the air in a thick, heavy layer. This was where her spirit had been drawn to, Hamzah knew. The tugging sensation grew, and Hamzah walked further into the room, taking slow, sluggish steps until he reached the bed, the air heavy in his lungs.
Hamzah sank into a crouch and peered under the bed.
Milly was curled up in the shadows, nestled in a bundle of faint orange energy–traces of Nek Su’s own spirit–watching him.
Hamzah shuffled a few steps back and turned to Nek Su. “She’s here.”
Nek Su let out a gasp and immediately went to crouch down next to him. Hamzah wanted to tell her not to bother–she she wouldn’t have been able to see Milly anyway, not at this stage–but by then Nek Su was already peering under the bed, her hopeful gaze bleeding into disappointment.
“I don’t see any–” she stopped, swallowing hard. “Is she really there?”
“Yes,” he said.
Nek Su turned back to the bed, gazing unseeing at Milly.
“Milly?” she called, so, so softly. “Milly, dear. Are you there?”
Hamzah heard the answering mewl and said, “She’s answered you. Can you ask her to come out?”
“Milly, if you’re there, please come out. Come and talk to Hamzah? Please?”
It took a few tries, with Nek Su growing more and more desperate. At the end of it, Nek Su sounded close to tears, and maybe that was what finally moved Milly. She crawled out, her wispy green form emerging from the darkness, until she stood by the foot of the bed, glancing between Hamzah and Nek Su.
Hamzah stood up and moved to help Nek Su as she slowly got back to her feet. He led her to the kitchen, Nek Su’s trembling grip on his elbow as they returned to where Milly’s body waited. Hamzah didn’t have to look back to know Milly followed, her heavy presence pressing close on the edges of his mind.
They stood by Milly’s body, Nek Su refusing to sit for even a short rest. Hamzah turned to Milly and waited until he had her attention. “Will you come back, Milly?”
“Please come back, Milly,” Nek Su whispered.
Milly chirruped softly and rubbed against Nek Su’s legs.
Nek Su gasped, staggering slightly into him. “Is that her?” she asked. “Is that Milly?”
“Oh, Milly,” Nek Su murmured. “You’re really here, aren’t you?”
Another soft meow and Hamzah exhaled. The hard part was over.
What comes from the earth must go back to the earth, and so they burned Milly’s body to ashes on the rooftop. The smoke rose high into the evening air, the smell of burning flesh was strong, suffocating. Nek Su stood next to him, hacking her way from one coughing fit to another.
“Nek,” he tried again, “won’t you please wait by the door?”
“No,” she rasped stubbornly. “I’m waiting right here with Milly.”
Milly lay curled up on Nek Su’s feet, watching the small pyre burn.
When the small corpse in the flames finally burned away, leaving nothing but bones, Hamzah felt it–the connection between body and earth severed, the debt repaid. He let out a short breath and turned to his side. All eyes were on him, Nek Su’s hopeful gaze, and Milly’s eerie undead stare.
Hamzah knelt by the fire, swept one hand through the now-sated flames, his skin passing unburned. He thought about how often he’d done this, giving the dead a way to stay on with their loved ones; he thought about doing the same thing for Raziq, watching his lover’s body burn in an alley, Raziq’s spirit a mere wisp clinging to his shadow.
“Milly,” he called out. “Are you ready?”
Without so much as an answering mewl, Milly got up from her sprawl on Nek Su’s feet and trotted over to him, glancing between him and the flames. When Hamzah gestured again, Milly paused and cast one last look back at Nek Su.
As if sensing Milly’s gaze, Nek Su nodded encouragingly, folding her hands over the top of her cane. “I’ll be right here,” she said, smiling faintly.
Milly dropped into a crouch, tail swishing almost playfully, and leapt into the flames.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Nek Su said again, her arms wrapped protectively around Milly’s skeletal body, the orange and green glow of their spirits bleeding into each other.
Hamzah smiled at her. “It’s fine. I’m just glad I could help.”
“And help you did,” she said, pressing a quick kiss to Milly’s cheek, who chirped in return. “Oh, I’m so glad she’s back. My lovely Milly, I’ve missed you so.”
Hamzah ducked his head to hide his growing smile, his chest light. This was the other part he enjoyed about his job: reuniting loved ones with each other. He finished packing his things and straightened, distracting Nek Su from where she was fondly petting Milly’s head.
“Is there anything else you’d like to ask me before I go?”
“Oh, no, I don’t have anymore questions,” Nek Su answered. “But are you sure there’s nothing else I need to do? I don’t have to feed her?”
“No,” he said. “She won’t need to eat anymore.”
“And she won’t disappear? Really?”
“As long as she wants to stay, she’ll be here,” he said. “And from the looks of it, she’s planning to stay for a while.”
Nek Su beamed down at Milly, who leaned up to nuzzle her chin. “And her–what did you call it? Her cape?”
“Her cloak,” Hamzah corrected. “It’ll be like her second skin, something she can wear outside if she wants to. Or if you ever have company over.”
“Oh yes,” Nek Su said, nodding. “She’ll need that.. Can’t keep my poor Milly cooped up inside all day.”
“I’ll come back and help her with it in a few days,” Hamzah promised. “It’s probably better to give Milly some time to get used to her new body.”
Nek Su laughed. “Well, it’s not exactly new–”
Milly leapt out of her arms and made a dash for the bedroom. Nek Su gasped, but before she could try and follow, Milly was already trotting back their way, dragging a large red sweater with her, the edges of it glowing a faint orange.
“My sweater!” Nek Su exclaimed. “I didn’t even realise it was gone.”
Hamzah watched as Nek Su reached down slowly, wrapping the sweater around Milly before scooping her back into her arms.
“This one’s always been your favourite, hasn’t it?” Nek Su asked, rubbing the back of Milly’s skull, laughter in her voice, tears glistening in her eyes.
“A happy ending then,” Raziq said from his sprawl over their couch. “Good for them.”
“Yeah,” Hamzah answered, depositing his bag by the wall. Raziq pulled his legs up, and Hamzah sat down, reaching over to tug at Raziq’s foot. Making a soft, pleased noise, Raziq stretched his legs over Hamzah’s lap. Hamzah ran his hands up and down the bones of Raziq’s leg, felt the chill of Raziq’s presence seep into his skin. “I was worried things might get complicated. I mean, it didn’t sound like it would, but I thought it might.”
“You always worry,” Raziq reminded him. “Your best and worst quality.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Hamzah waved a hand at him, and they fell quiet as Raziq returned his attention to the television. From what little Hamzah had caught, the woman was guiding her viewers to a shortened version of her family’s secret recipe for rendang, keeping up an effortless commentary even as she churned the contents of a huge pot.
Leaning back against the couch, Hamzah said, “Thanks for coming back.”
That caught Raziq’s attention again. “Where did that come from?” he asked.
Hamzah shrugged. “Nowhere. I was just–thanks. I’m glad you’re here. With me.”
Raziq reached out and tugged at his arm, coaxing him down until they were squeezed next to each other on the couch, face-to-face. “I wasn’t in any hurry to leave, Zah,” Raziq said. “Thank you for bringing me back.”
Hamzah couldn’t help it. He laughed. “And now we’re being sappy.”
“Hey, you started it,” Raziq said. “And please, you’re the sappier one in this relationship.”
“I am not.”
“Says the guy who cried enough for both of us over my pyre.”
Hamzah punched him in the shoulder, and suffered for it when his knuckles throbbed in protest.
That only made Raziq wrap an arm over Hamzah’s waist, tugging him closer. “Sorry, sorry. You know I love you.”
“Let me make it up to you?” Raziq asked, rubbing circles against Hamzah’s back.
Hamzah pretended to think it over. “Depends,” he finally said. “I mean it has to be something really good.”
“Oh, it’ll be good,” Raziq replied, his voice going low.
Hamzah felt the brush of fingers on his stomach and laughed. “That’s a pretty abrupt change in tone,” he began.
Then Raziq slipped his hand past the waistband of his pants, pressing firmly against him through the cloth of his boxers, making him gasp.
“Are you complaining?” Raziq asked.
Now it was Raziq’s turn to laugh, the bones of him shaking faintly against Hamzah even as Raziq wrapped his fingers around Hamzah’s cock, his grip firm.
With a sigh, Hamzah let his eyes drop to better focus on the sharp bony press of Raziq’s grip on his cock, his hand as cold as the day he had died. It had been strange at first, for there to be bony joints where there had once been warm skin. The sensation had been jarring enough that Hamzah had worried it would be a problem between them.
Of course, Raziq wasted no time showing him that it didn’t have to be. Now even the biting cold of Raziq’s bones pressed up against him only encouraged Hamzah’s arousal, his cock firming in Raziq’s firm, assured strokes.
Hamzah shifted closer, throwing one leg over Raziq’s hip and bringing their bodies as close as he could. He tucked his head under Raziq’s chin, panting against Raziq’s neck.
“Is this any good?” Raziq asked, all faux-innocent. Hamzah inhaled deeply, ready to reply in the same, uncertain tone–two can play that game–except then Raziq slowed his strokes, letting his touch hesitate instead.
Hamzah muttered under his breath. “Jerk.”
“Sorry?” he asked, still in the same tone.
“Could be better if you kept going.”
Raziq chuckled, because he really was a jerk. “So impatient,” he said, but happily took hold of Hamzah’s cock once more, stroking him faster now.
Hamzah growled, opened his jaw wide and bit down on Raziq’s collarbone.
Raziq yelped, his aura flaring bright enough that Hamzah saw it through his closed eyelids. Hamzah felt a brief surge of satisfaction, before Raziq wrapped his fingers around the base of Hamzah’s cock, and squeezed. Hamzah gasped, all the breath in him lost in one go, but Raziq was relentless; he just tightened his grip, bony fingers digging into vulnerable flesh until Hamzah was shuddering against him, fighting to catch his breath.
“God, yes,” Hamzah panted.
He felt Raziq shifting, and then the bones of his free hand were sliding along Hamzah’s cock, jerking him off in quick, fierce strokes. Hamzah choked on a whine, clutching at Raziq’s shoulders, thrusting desperately into Raziq’s grip.
“That’s it,” Raziq rasped, heavy and full of intent. “Come on.”
“Close,” Hamzah gasped. “Just a little–”
Raziq dug one fingertip against the tip of Hamzah’s cock, cold and sharp against his slit.
And Hamzah came all over his hands, shaking apart with the force of it.
Raziq held him through it, slowing his strokes until Hamzah went limp against him, panting heavily. Then he moved his hands away, wrapping one arm around Hamzah’s waist once more.
When Hamzah finally caught his breath, drowsy and sated in Raziq’s bony embrace, Raziq asked, “So, we good?”
He started to laugh, and yawned instead. “Yeah, I think we’re good.”
Raziq pressed his teeth against Hamzah’s temple in a kiss, and Hamzah, already half-asleep, didn’t need to see Raziq’s face to know he was grinning.