illustrated by olukemi
“I’m so drunk,” Ross says, a smile spreading across his thin lips at the same speed at which his orange-yellow eyes are sliding shut. They’re nearly amber, but I think they’re too saturated with color for that. I only manage to look away once those eyes are pleasantly closed, focusing my gaze on the floor between my feet.
When I was fourteen we moved to the middle of nowhere, Maryland. My mother committed suicide about a year earlier; I was the one to find her. Add in my affinity with ghosts… I couldn’t stay there. I took to spending more nights at friends’ houses than at my own by the time we moved.
But, about Maryland: most things are new, but the trees are especially unfamiliar. None of the evergreens from the west coast and all sorts of hardwoods instead. In the lowest branches of one of the old white oaks, my dad and I have built a tree house– probably a last-ditch effort to settle in and get me to pay more attention to the living than the dead– and for a little while, I play in it. But it’s drafty and wasps make their nests on the ceiling inside, and it’s too much work to go there unless I have a really good reason.
Now I go up to the tree house three times a week, armed with a can of wasp killer, in the company of my provisional best friend. I hesitate to label Ross that because I’ve only known him for four months, but he’s been a better friend to me in those four months than the rest of my friends have the whole time I’ve known them.
Although I’m not honestly sure what would make the title go from tentative to actual, calling him best friend still doesn’t feel right. So I don’t. And Ross doesn’t know the difference.
“Colors?” Ross queries, not using my real name– Graydon– as per usual. Ironic he calls me that, when he’s the one full of color and I’m just plain old pale and dark, but it just goes back to Ross’s odd sense of humor and the day that he decided ‘Gray’ was too drab a name for somebody like me. “Gray, you there man?”
I start; when my gaze returns to him he’s tilting his head to the side, eyes open. His red hair catches in the electronic lantern light, and for a moment the blue-white illumination makes it appear as though he has blond curls hanging about his face instead of great big red ones. “Whatcha thinkin’ ’bout?”
“Ghosts,” I say, not meeting Ross’s eyes. My fingers rub the neck of my beer bottle absently, other hand gripping tight around the body. The condensation is thick, coating the green with pseudo-tears waiting for nothing more than a touch before falling.
“Liar,” says Ross, slurring the word a little. I smile sadly; Ross can somehow always tell when I’m lying, or he’s a good guesser. Or perhaps I’ve become a bad liar.
And, I think glumly, a poet: the teardrops on my fingers make dark splashes on the wood floor, made darker by the harsh lantern light. I have a brief flash, wherein I am watching blood drip from my fingers and splash on the floor; the effect is identical.
I shake my head to clear the vision and Ross leans forward, expression concerned. “What’dya see?”
“Blood,” I say uneasily, looking at Ross now. At the way he holds his bottle by the neck with two fingers, not loosing the tears onto his skin and the boards dry from four years of drought. “Just blood. It was dripping off my fingers.”
Ross sits back, eyes closed, face serious, and I know he’s reaching out with his mind for place-memories: things that have happened here, or near here, that have left traces of energy on the location.
“Oh,” he says, after a little under five minutes by my glow-in-the-dark pocket watch. His eyes snap open and he looks directly at me. “It’s from chickens. The boy couldn’t make the neck snap properly an’ he hadta cut the head off.”
And there’s the reason why I’m closer to Ross than anyone else: he knows about the spirits and the visions, and he helps me understand them. And I help him, too, when he gets glimpses of spirits that won’t resolve and nag at him.
It’s a heavy business, feeling and seeing ghosts, but we make the most of it.
I laugh a little, soft and relieved, shaking my head. It’s good to know that sometimes the visions aren’t as bad as I think they are, or even bad at all. Just things associated with strong emotions.
Not even a little bit absently, I wonder what sort of place-memories I’m making here, with the way my heart pounds when Ross’s lips wrap around the bottle and he chugs the last half of the beer all at once. He finishes with a smile, a flourish, and a burp.
And another smile, brilliant even when the lantern gives off less light than I’d like.
I direct my own smile at my hands; the heat in my cheeks is not entirely alcohol.
She shimmers into view on the dusty road in front of me; I stop abruptly before I reach her, but Ross walks right through her flat gray-and-black form, nearly too transparent for even me to see. He shudders and jumps away, wrapping his arms over his chest and chafing his arms to warm himself up. Were there other people around, they might look at him oddly for rubbing himself that way on a day that’s forecast to reach triple digits, but there aren’t. So no one does.
I look at him with pity, because walking through a ghost is never pleasant, but neither of us say anything. She doesn’t see us, and probably won’t if we don’t speak up. Most likely for the same reason ghosts are more visible to us, they pay more attention to us too. Sometimes, anyway.
She’s a block down the street before either of us move. At that point, I realize that my hand is on Ross’s back, where it had been rubbing when he was cold from contact. The simple touch seems electrified and I can feel the heat and even the moisture gathering in the center of Ross’s back under my fingertips.
Ross smiles at me, as good of a way to disarm my emotions as I’ve ever known, and says “thank you”, soft but not unsure.
“You’re welcome,” I mumble, my voice the complete opposite of his, not looking at Ross to see what his expression might be as I finally break the contact.
We continue down the side of the gravel road, sending up a miniature cloud of dust in our wake.
“You never get drunk,” Ross complains, stretched out on the beat-up loveseat that we wrestled into the tree house last week. He’s holding his beer the way he normally does, but it’s still light outside. Sunset is beginning on the horizon, casting rich pinks and oranges above the treeline.
“I don’t like being out of control,” I say, lying. I get more visions when I am drunk, and I am also more liable to let other things slip. Like maybe some of the things that the sight of Ross wearing nothing but thin plaid boxers does to me. I can’t begrudge him the comfort, though, it’s ninety-six even in the shade of the treehouse.
Ross scowls. He doesn’t say anything; I fear he’s beginning to predict me, and my inability to keep quiet when I teeter on the edge of tipsy the way I am now.
“It’s not fun, okay? I don’t like falling over or, or getting up to piss every five minutes, or… or, I don’t know, just not. I like being in full control. It’s no fun for me to not be.” Now that I’ve reiterated it what feels like six times, I’m positive that the point is across.
“Tell me somethin’,” says Ross, sitting up abruptly, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, letting his hands hang between his half-spread legs. Pale, pretty skin even at the height of summer. At least I tan a little bit; Ross doesn’t. “Is it the fact I’m a boy, or that I’m your best friend?”
“Provisional,” I correct. Five months, now, and best friend still doesn’t feel exactly right. The fit’s a little off, a little tight and a size too small. “You’re my provisional best friend.”
Ross laughs. Light, airy, drunk. Perfectly himself, letting go the way he always does so easily, slapping his thigh as he hoots out the last of his amusement and those eerie fire-eyes come to rest on me again.
I swallow hard, because I’m not sure what he was asking. And I’m not sure I could face it, even if I were sure, because I think it might be both.
He shakes his head at me, sad smile lingering on his lips before he dumps the rest of his beer down his throat and declares me ready for bed. Eager for the escape, I take it, leaving him to walk the half-mile home by himself.
Ghosts like cooking for some reason– especially baking. Every time I bake, they’re there. I usually don’t see them but I still know they’re there. I feel them lurking around me like children, wanting to taste the food before it’s done. Even when it’s not my house; I’m visiting Ross’s by request to make brownies.
“Do you think they can taste it?” Ross asks, sitting at the kitchen table and licking off one of the beaters. The raspberry brownies are cooking, this batch with miniature chocolate chips mixed in and more sprinkled on top.
Judging by the way Ross’s attention is completely on the beater, he enjoys the recipe. I try not to watch too closely, not wanting the memory of the way it looks to keep me up at night. I have enough already.
“Um,” I say, realizing that I’ve been standing still and quiet for a full minute or two since Ross asked the question. “I guess they must. Why else would they always hang around when we’re cooking?”
Ross shrugs. “Maybe it’s the creation thing. They like to be near things being created.”
For someone who spends most of his time drunk or buried in books, Ross can be pretty damned insightful at times.
“Lucky bastards don’t have to worry about cholesterol,” I say, sitting down at the table and avoiding following that thought further by picking up the beater that Ross saved for me. The taste of the mix is richly sweet– decadent. That’s what the magazine had called it and the recipe does not disappoint.
I lick the beater slowly, humming my appreciation of the rich, sweet-and-sweeter taste of raspberry and chocolate. Ross grins at me, and I close my eyes to experience the flavor more strongly.
I don’t realize it at first– not until Ross’s hand closes over mine on the beater, and my eyes snap open and I see Ross. Up close. His tongue on the other side, eyes intent. I try to pull away but he squeezes my hand, just short of the point of pain, and murmurs no and goes back to licking.
Like it’s some kind of normal thing.
Heart pounding in my chest, I force myself to follow his lead. To ignore the electric shock I feel when I join him in cleaning the beater, to say nothing of the low sounds of pleasure he makes in his throat.
It doesn’t last long, of course. The beaters aren’t very large, and we are both experts at cleaning them. He unwraps his hand from around mine, pulling away, pushing his hair out of his eyes; it’s not quite long enough to be tucked behind his ears, due to a recent haircut, but he tries anyway. It flops back out, and Ross gives me a smile.
“Did you set the timer?” he asks, as if nothing has happened. No Earth-shattering events that leave me with a hard-on and no recourse. Damn him.
“No,” I say– squeak, my voice isn’t what I want it to be.
But Ross doesn’t laugh for once, just gets up and grabs the timer and sets it.
And the ghosts stay, silent witnesses to my joy and misery.
“Is he trying to seduce me?” I ask myself– out loud, I can’t imagine why– maybe for the girl I can feel sitting in the corner, a sullen teenager.
No one answers, of course. The dead rarely speak.
“I don’t get what’s so great about being drunk, anyway,” I say; without a doubt at least tipsy, or I wouldn’t be opening my mouth about it. “You just giggle a lot and fall over.”
“Nothin’ s’great about me bein’ drunk,” Ross agrees, his lips shining in the electric lantern-light before he wipes off his mouth with the back of his hand. “You, however, are th’most adorable thang ever when intox’cated.”
“Oh,” I say, at a loss for additional words. What does one even say to that?
Ross touches his finger to the tip of my nose. “See there, Colors. Cute as a fuckin’ button.”
“Am not,” I mutter mutinously, downing the last of the moonshine from the flask that Ross brought for me. Just for me– Ross has been favoring peach schnapps, and continues to, which is good because he’s the only one out of us old enough to actually drink it.
“Are too,” Ross counters, scooting closer. His breath is sickly-sweet with the scent of peaches even though I bet his mouth tastes sharper.
But I don’t try and find out. I just roll my eyes and say, “you’re drunk,” because Ross is.
“Issa usual state a things,” Ross says easily, and kisses me.
I’d like to say I do something admirable, like kiss him back, since it’s what I really want to. But I don’t, because the moment his lips touch mine I’m already pulling away, flailing and ending up falling off of the damn milk crate because I really am that close to drunk.
Ross stares at me for a moment, expression blank, then throws his head back and laughs.
I’m not sure I would take rejection so well, myself.
Also: his lips do taste sharper, and leave their taste on mine; the only proof that anything unusual has happened is the lingering sweet-but-sharp taste of peaches and unfamiliar alcohol.
Two days later we’re up in my treehouse again, watching the sun set in a comfortable mutual silence. We both like the sight, the colors, and the feeling that comes when the orange ball disappears over the horizon and the day can no longer, by any stretch of the imagination, be called such.
It’s night now, or twilight at the very least. Ross rubs the threadbare arm of the couch absently, eyes still on the horizon. He does this, sometimes, retreating into his own mind and leaving me to wonder whether he’s thinking or caught in a vision.
“Do you ever wonder what it would be like?” he asks a few minutes later, breaking his trance so suddenly that I jump.
“Hm?” I prompt, because it is vague as hell, even for Ross.
“To be the sun. Always shining, but never on the entire world at once.”
I shrug, because I’ve never really thought about it. “Being a ghost must be a little like that, too,” I say after a long moment of thought.
“Or a place memory,” he adds, and I nod.
“Or a human,” I say, after another moment, and grin at Ross, who still has that serious look on his face.
“Maybe not,” he says, softly. “Humans can escape. Everything else– they’re stuck there, alone, just being what they are.”
Even considering that this is Ross, the words sound morose. I feel a flash of guilt and anger, because– so many becauses, but mostly because Ross is obviously feeling crappy and I’m doing nothing about it. I can do something, though.
My fingers shake as I reach out, touching Ross’s cheek gently then pulling away as he turns his head to face me. Not that he lets me get away with the retreat: his hand shoots out and grabs mine, fingers lacing through mine with a beautiful sort of efficiency, cutting short my breath and any sort of complaint I might give.
“Ross,” I say, not daring to do more than breathe out the word.
He shakes his head and squeezes my hand, and motions at the treehouse window. “Just watch, Gray. Talking messes things up between us, if you hadn’t noticed.”
I hadn’t thought of it in precisely those terms before, but now that the words are out it’s impossible to deny. The awkwardness comes when I think of explaining things, not when I’m just with him.
It doesn’t feel wrong, not even a little bit, sitting there until the lightening bugs come out in full force and he finally pulls away, stretching his arms up above his head.
“Going to be a long day at work tomorrow,” he says wearily, and I realize suddenly that I’ve never asked him what he does.
And his words remind me that I’m slacking on summer assignments big-time. I groan, shaking my head. “School sucks.”
“Just be glad you can go,” Ross says, words sharp although he softens them with a smile. “I wanted to go to law school, originally, but then I started having the visions…” His thing isn’t something he’s had his whole life, the way it is for me. But he was lucky in another way: psychometry runs in his family.
Determined to be fearless for his sake, I scoot closer and give him a kiss on the cheek. I wonder how long we’ll do this: hand-holding and chaste kisses and pretending nothing’s happening.
Until I’m ready, I realize, as Ross leaves without another word said. The only thing he’s doing now– that he’s been doing the entire time– is waiting for me.
Graveyards are quiet like no other place. They kind of freak me out, but they calm me too. It’s good to know that any time I like, I can take a stroll down the street to the boneyard, find a comfortable place to sit, and be alone.
Completely alone. No spirits, no place memories, no ghosts, nothing but me, myself, and I sitting cross-legged under the ancient white oak at the center of the cemetery long after sunset.
The anniversary of my mom’s death comes before I’m ready. For Ross, for the anniversary, for the nightmares that plague me that entire week. The house, even though it’s not the house I grew up and mom died in, is filled with things that remind me of her. Better than her ghost, by far, but still unpleasant enough.
I end up sleeping in my treehouse, because it’s the only place that has nothing of my mom in it. Everything here is scavenged from garage sales or made by my own hands, and all of it reminds me of Ross by now.
Which is good, because even when I have a nightmare, curled up there on the small couch, it means I breathe in Ross’s smell and do my best not to mind the lingering nightmare-memory of the way blood pools in limbs when a body hangs lifeless from the ceiling.
And there he is, head peeking in from the bottom of the doorway as he climbs up the latter.
I realize that I’m panting, probably sweating. My hands are clammy; it doesn’t go away when I wipe them on my pants and I know better than to blame humidity.
“Sorry,” I say, meaning it whole-heartedly. “It’s just– anniversary of my mom’s death. I haven’t been sleeping well.”
“And sleeping on that beat-up piece of crap is going to help?” Ross asks, sitting down next to me and motioning for me to turn around. “Go on, I’m just going to rub your neck a bit. You look tense as hell; it’ll help.”
It does. The silence helps, too, stretching between us like a rope bridge, swaying and creaking as branches of a tree are wont to do in the wind. By the time he finishes (pressing a kiss against the back of my neck before letting my hair fall back into place) I feel pleasantly like I’ve become part of the couch, drooping under my loose exhaustion.
Even the kiss doesn’t make me tense up again.
I have to bite my lip against words as I turn around, finding Ross’s hands with my own and tangling our fingers together. My heart beats wildly in my chest, but Ross’s smile is calm. Soft, too, caring, almost like a big brother as he gathers me into a hug and says softly, “Sleep, Gray. You need it.”
My eyes are too sore– lack of sleep– to argue, not to mention that it’s far too easy for me to just do what Ross says.
He’s still there when I wake up what must be hours later, if the orangey light of sunset is anything to go by. It was still morning when I fell asleep.
“Ross,” I whisper, not daring or wanting to move from my position with my legs over one arm of the couch and the rest of me stretched over the body, my head in Ross’s lap. One hand rests loosely in my hair; I feel it nudge my scalp as I shift a little to better look up at him.
Ross only makes an adorably half-awake sound, his other hand sweeping down from the back of the couch to rest bonelessly on my chest.
“Ross,” I whisper again, a little louder this time. The sound Ross makes is a little louder this time, too, but he still doesn’t wake up.
I groan softly, pushing myself up and hesitating for a moment before I scoot my bony ass into Ross’s lap. I hesitate again, to my detriment this time: Ross wakes up. His eyes flutter open first, even more vibrant than usual with the way the light from the beginning of sunset shines in on us. Then his lips quirk, and one hand goes up to pet the back of my neck gently while he looks at me.
Just looks. Nothing else, aside from the stroking, which is comforting rather than insistent.
“Okay,” I murmur, and kiss him. Gentle, on the lips, closed-mouth but pressing harder as his hand abruptly presses against the back of my neck. His long fingers are nearly gripping there before the kiss is over. Gripping in truth, after, sending a happy shudder through me.
The fact that I’m hard is nearly an afterthought, and would’ve actually been one if Ross’s other hand didn’t find my crotch and start rubbing. Then it’s the only thing I can think about, the texture of denim and cotton and the way Ross rubs just firm enough to be good but not as firmly as I’d like.
I kiss him again, with tongue this time. It’s not my first real kiss, but it’s the first kiss I really want. The first kiss that makes my blood rush to my cock and a needy sound come to my lips. Ross takes it all, kissing back, rubbing, making sounds of his own as I feel the length of his cock press against the side of my leg.
It’s warm, hot, twitches when I touch it.
“Don’t worry about me,” Ross gasps, his fingers working the stubborn button on my new jeans before they slide inside.
That first touch of skin to skin is electric, makes me shake, shiver, and the hair on my arms stand on end. The following touches soothe the shock and Ross finds my lips again, kissing and kissing.
I disregard Ross’s words and rub him through his jeans. Not much but obviously enough from the way he shakes, the way he shivers and the helpless little whimper that accompanies.
They’re all beautiful, I think. Ross is beautiful, this moment is beautiful, and his hand is insistent, demanding orgasm no matter how much I’d like to hold back. We can do that later, I think, and come. It’s like another shock, more electricity, all the way down to my toes when Ross buries his face in my neck and follows soon after me.
Do you want to go to my room? I think over and over to myself, practicing and steeling my nerves for the moment when I actually need to say it aloud. Ross leans against me, face still buried in the crook of my neck, hands still pushed desperately into my jeans. He’s still panting; I like the way it feels to run my fingers through the strands at the back of his neck.
I nearly expect him to say something like Are we cool? or Just a one-time thing or anything else on those lines, but he says nothing. Swallows and pulls himself closer to me, pulls me closer to him. Hugs me.
There’s nothing to do, nothing I want to do, other than hug him back. So I do, clinging to him as the sun sets. The lightening bugs are out, blinking their availability. A cool breeze makes me shiver; fall is here, and winter is coming. Soon it’ll be too cold, and…
“Do you want to come inside?” I ask, voice only a little shaky. “Go to my room, I mean. My dad won’t mind.” In fact, he’ll be overjoyed– if Ross says yes. Dad always tells me I need more friends. A best friend. Or a boyfriend, which I realize now is the only word that feels right to describe Ross.
“Yeah,” Ross whispers against my neck. He kisses the bare skin and pulls away, gaze coming to rest on me. On my eyes. His eyes are dull in the twilight, light rusty amber. He grins the same grin he’s always had ready and waiting for me. “I thought you’d never ask.”