1

The Ghost of You

 

 

PARIS threw open the bedroom curtains, letting in the unforgiving morning light. “You’re going to do it again, aren’t you?” he accused with weary affection.

Roan pulled the pillow over his face and burrowed deeper into the blankets. “What?” he murmured, barely articulating the thought.

“Stay in bed all day, stay here dreaming. Or hallucinating. Is it hallucinating? What’s the difference?”

“You’re asleep for dreaming.”

“Yeah, hon, but you never get up anymore, so how do you know when you’re awake or asleep?”

Roan felt the mattress shift as Paris sat on the side of the bed, reaching down to touch his arm. For some reason, his hand was cold. In these… dreams, hallucinations, whatever, Paris’s hands were usually cold. He had no idea why.

“You need to stop this.”

“I can’t believe I’m being lectured by a dead man,” Roan muttered, feeling the same old catch in his chest he always did when he realized Paris was gone.

“Well, someone has to do it,” Paris replied, exasperated. “And you have a tendency to scare everyone else off.”

“Not fast enough.”

“You know this has nothing to do with me,” Paris said quietly, his voice dropping to a deeper, more disappointed register. “This is self-pity.”

Roan pulled the pillow off his head and looked up at Paris, then immediately wished he hadn’t. Paris was looking down at him with so much pity and sorrow that Roan could hardly stand to look at him. “How can you say that? You were—”

“If you ever really loved me at all, you’d stop killing yourself,” Paris interrupted impatiently, looking away.

Roan woke up to a nascent headache somewhere deep behind his eyes and the smell of cooking coming from downstairs. His stomach rumbled noisily, and he wondered when he had last eaten something. He had no idea; time had become irrelevant after Paris died, and days, weeks, and months blurred into the same empty, wan thing. The curtains were closed, but some fringes of light bled around the edges, letting him know it was daytime.

He rolled out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom—see, he did get out of bed occasionally—and after having a long-needed piss, he caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. Holy hell, he looked like shit. He’d lost a lot of weight, mainly in muscle, as he was no longer testing the bounds of his ability to partially transform. In fact, he looked almost as skinny as Par had at the end; he could see his own ribcage, and the bony knobs of his hipbones stuck out just above the waistband of his boxers. Even though he’d shaved off his beard—a couple months ago, was it?—it was back again, a reddish-golden color lighter than the odd shade of his hair, spreading up the side of his face and down his neck like a fungal disease. It itched in much the same manner, although he thought he’d earned the discomfort. His hair came down to his shoulders and was so shaggy and thick it looked distressingly like a lion’s mane. When was the last time he’d transformed? He could no longer remember his own viral cycle.

His eyes looked out from beneath a thick fringe of bangs, hot and glaring; they were the eyes of a madman, staring out from behind his own wall of hurt. That made sense. Did you know when you were going insane, or did you just wake up one day and suddenly realize that your sanity had packed up and moved away? That was his experience. He didn’t mind either—sanity was overrated.

He smelled bad. When was the last time he had taken a shower? He couldn’t remember. Probably the day of Paris’s wake, which was just a colorful blur. He’d been hopped up on a lot of pills and a couple of beers just to get through the whole thing, and as a result he had few memories of it. He did remember feeling like he was hyperventilating when the DJ started to read a message Paris had written for him. The DJ had burned a CD of Paris’s playlist for him, but he had no idea why. If he remembered correctly, he had thrown it on the coffee table when he got home, and it had been there ever since.

Roan wondered if he should go downstairs and figured he should. Dee had threatened to put him on an IV drip if he didn’t eat occasionally, and once he had woken up feeling strangely groggy and found a strange bandage on his arm, over a vein. Had Dee actually drugged him and hooked him up to a drip? He honestly wouldn’t have put it past him. Why couldn’t Dee be like every other ex-boyfriend in the world and want nothing to do with him? And why oh why did he have to be a fucking EMT?

Roan’s stomach was pretty insistent on eating, though; it growled rather relentlessly, and he wondered if it was responsible for his headache. Lack of food, just like lack of sleep, could be a trigger, and he knew lack of sleep wasn’t responsible this time.

He went downstairs, wondering which of the revolving door of busybodies he’d face, and what month this was, and he still felt not only light as a feather but as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. If he could somehow untether his head from his neck, it would float away, and he would happily let it.

“Oh, hey there,” Matt said brightly, moving about Roan’s kitchen. He’d turned the radio on, but at such a low volume he could barely hear it. Matt’s hair was longer and shaggier than it had been last time Roan had seen him, a calculated bedhead look that indicated a needlessly expensive haircut. He was clean-shaven now too, although he kept his beefier physique up so he didn’t look so much like a twink. He was wearing a burgundy T-shirt advertising Dick’s Drive-In and dark sweatpants, as if he’d come here on his way to or from the gym. “Hope you’re hungry. I saw this recipe on the Food Network and decided to try it out.”

“How the fuck did you get in my house?”

Matt looked at him with grave disappointment and let out a small sigh as he picked up the hot pads and turned toward the oven. “You asked me that last time, remember? Diego gave me a house key.”

“Did he give everyone a house key?”

Matt pulled a pan out of the stove, and Roan couldn’t tell what it was he had. “Me and Randi. That’s it, as far as I know.”

“Seems like too damn many.” He walked over to the couch and collapsed on it, staring at the blank television screen and inactive stereo system. (Matt had brought his own portable radio, at least not feeling comfortable enough here to use his stereo.) “You ever have an ex-boyfriend this fucking annoying?”

He heard Matt put the pan down on top of the stove and then heard him shuffle with some plates and cutlery. Had making him suddenly the subject of the conversation made Matt nervous? Good. “Umm… well, I’ve had annoying boyfriends, yeah, but Diego’s just concerned about you, Roan. We all are.”

“Don’t be. I’m a grown man—I can take care of myself.”

“Really? Is that why you haven’t left your house in almost a year?”

He glared at him. “That’s my business, not yours.” Had it really almost been a year? Wow. Time went by quickly… when you spent most of your time drunk or hallucinating. On some level, he was aware this was madness, that Paris would so kick his ass over this if he were here, but that was the point, wasn’t it? Paris wasn’t here. And it wasn’t just that he loved him, although he did. The point was he had needed Paris. He sort of knew that before Paris had died, but he hadn’t realized how much until he was gone. Paris was like the sun, and now that he was gone, Roan could no longer see anything; he was stuck in a world of eternal night. He hated being that way, he hated having been so emotionally dependent on anyone… but there was nothing for it now. Somehow he had survived before Paris, but he couldn’t remember how to do so now. It was like he’d lost some vital part of his body, and now he had to learn how to walk again, but he didn’t know how, and besides, he almost didn’t want to. What was the point?

Matt cut into whatever it was he had and started loading it on the plates. “Well, I hope you like goat cheese.”

“Paris did,” he replied, and he felt that twinge at speaking his name aloud.

Matt froze, and it took him a moment to start moving again, this time with nervousness tainting his economic movements. “Uh, oh… I didn’t know that.”

“No, you didn’t. You didn’t know anything about him,” he spat, suddenly wanting to beat Matt down with words if not his fists. He had no right to be here. What, did he think this would win him brownie points? That he’d eventually get into his pants this way? It would have been laughable if it weren’t so pathetic. Dee had wanted Paris—that much Roan knew—but for some reason, this stupid, fucked-up kid wanted him. Clearly he had no taste at all.

Matt put a plate down on the breakfast bar, giving him a sad, puppy-dog look, as if that had actually hurt him somehow. Jesus, what a puss. “It’s a frittata. Or it’s supposed to be. Hopefully it came out okay.”

Roan was hungry, but he didn’t know if it was worth standing up. “Fine, you fed me. Thank you. Now you can go.”

Matt sighed wearily and sat on the opposite side of the breakfast bar, picking up a fork of his own. “Not before I have my own breakfast. I didn’t just make it for you, you know.”

Roan leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling. Could you feel an absence in a home even though someone else was there? He could swear there was a constant emptiness that just wouldn’t dissipate. Paris had taken something with him beyond whatever he ripped out of him.

“Not too bad,” Matt said, commenting on his own cooking. “So when did you get that tattoo? I don’t remember you mentioning that.”

He was talking about the one on Roan’s right upper arm. It was a broken heart with a ribbon reading “Paris” draped across it, blood dripping down from it in three fat, crimson tears, and a black rose laid across it. Yes, rather dramatic, but Roan had felt he needed some mark on his body, some outer sign of an inner wound. He was pretty sure he got it the night of Paris’s wake, but he could no longer remember. He still wore his wedding ring; it never occurred to him to take it off. “I didn’t,” he said simply, and left it at that.

The silence lingered for a bit, uncomfortable and awkward—well, for Matt; Roan didn’t give a fuck—although the radio filled it in faintly with whatever mall-approved emo crap the radio played nowadays. Matt ate for a moment and then said, “You might want to get a move on. Mr. Sikorski said someone was coming over at eleven.”

Roan wasn’t sure he’d heard him right, but unless he was hallucinating or sleeping still, Matt must have said what he thought. “Gordo talked to you?”

“Well, no, he talked to Diego who told me.”

Roan took a deep breath and realized he had a bit of a catch in his lungs when he inhaled. He didn’t know what that was about. “Why is Gordo sending someone over here?”

“Diego said it was someone who needed your help.”

“No.”

“He did. I’m not—”

“I mean no. No, no, no. I don’t help people anymore.” Mentally, he added, If I ever did. “Hasn’t my office been rented out yet?”

Matt snorted in disbelief. “Randi’s been paying the rent and has been making sure your electricity bill gets paid, or haven’t you noticed? Paris left provisions for that in his will.”

Roan shook his head but had to stop, as the room kept moving almost independently of it. “I’m not a detective anymore.”

“No, you’re a sad piece of shit who wallows in his own misery,” Matt said with a surprising amount of venom. “You were a fucking awesome detective, man. I know you miss Paris, and I’m not gonna pretend I know what that kinda loss is like, ’cause I don’t.”

“No, you don’t.”

“But you know goddamn well Paris didn’t want you to do this, and he was afraid you were gonna.”

“You don’t know what he wanted!” Roan accused angrily, just wanting this fucking busybody out of his house.

“Yeah, I do!” Matt shouted back, his face flushing red with rage. “He told me before he died, you….” Matt pondered insults carefully and ultimately discarded them all. Was he too afraid to go that far? (Good. He should be.) “He spent his last days worried about you! I didn’t get that at all, but now I do. I thought you were… fuck, man, I changed my life ’cause of you! I wanted to be better than I was, ’cause… I wanted you to be able to look at me and not think of me as just some fucked-up rich kid.”

Roan fixed him with a caustic glare. “I will always think of you as a fucked-up rich kid. Live with it.”

Matt flinched, like he’d hoped he would, but somewhere deep inside, Roan felt almost bad. Yes, that was needlessly mean—true, but mean. Matt looked hurt, but he also looked angry, his eyes shiny with conflicting emotions. “You’re still alive, Roan. Barely, but you are. So why don’t you try and act like it?” He shoved a couple of bites of egg in his mouth but had clearly lost his appetite. He picked up his plate and returned it to the sink. “Diego told me to tell you Sikorski said you were gonna talk to this woman, or he was going to break down the door and make you. He said he doesn’t care that it’s not legal, you’re a fucking train wreck.”

That sounded like Gordo, and he might actually bust down his door out of spite. Shit. Why couldn’t people just leave him the fuck alone?

Matt bustled around for a moment, downing his coffee—from the cups, he’d gone out and gotten them Starbucks—and then grabbed his jacket from the side table where he’d put it. “If you need anything, call. But don’t be a bastard,” he warned, then headed out the door.

As soon as it shut, Paris—whom Roan could only see in his peripheral vision—said, “I don’t think that’s possible anymore.”

“They’re trespassers. I don’t hafta be nice to them. I didn’t ask them to be here.”

“I did,” Paris replied archly, folding his arms over his chest. He looked like he had when he was healthy, wearing black jeans and a royal-blue T-shirt, his ebony hair almost shoulder-length. Still beautiful, still fierce, still the better part of him.

Roan waved his hand dismissively and struggled to get up from the couch, which was more difficult than he anticipated. “I don’t need help.” He staggered to the breakfast bar and almost slid off the stool once he sat down. He was pretty bad, wasn’t he?

“Says the guy who can barely stand.”

Matt had left his radio, but that was okay, as he was probably coming back. Roan switched it off and got down to eating his eggs. It both smelled and tasted pretty good.

“You owe him a big, fat apology,” Paris continued. “You do realize that there was no way I could have left Randi a year’s worth of rent on the office, right? The money must be coming from somewhere else, and you don’t know a lot of rich people. Do the math.”

Suddenly Roan felt incredibly nauseous, but he rode it out—just barely. Had it been that long since he’d had solid food, or was it some last vestige of his guilt? He got down about half the plate of eggs and then couldn’t eat anymore. He shoved the plate aside and gulped down his coffee. Matt had gotten him a double espresso with a shot of caramel; it was quite good and left him wanting more. “Why would he do something like that?”

“Why? Because he continues to have this big puppy-dog crush on you, although maybe you’ve finally convinced him you’re such a dick he shouldn’t bother. Now stop talking to yourself and get upstairs; you have a client on the way.”

“I’m not a detective anymore. I’m crazy, for fuck’s sake. I still think you’re here.”

Paris sighed wearily. “No, you don’t think I’m here; you know I’m not. You just like to pretend I am. There’s a difference.”

“Which is a crazy thing to do.”

“No, it’s a lonely thing to do. You know you’re just talking to yourself, to a remembered version of me. I’m still dead. I never came back. You know that. It’s just easier to pretend otherwise.”

Roan felt his eyes burn with tears, tears he had already shed so many times it felt like he was crying blood. The food felt like a lead ball in his stomach, and he desperately needed a drink. But he was fairly certain he had no more booze in the house, and Dee had taken all the pills, worried he would try and overdose or might do so accidentally. He might actually need to go out, if only to buy some vodka.

He went upstairs, dragging his carcass like it was only half alive, and took his first bath in God knew how long. (He didn’t take a shower because he wasn’t sure he could stand up that long.) He cried for a little bit, then washed the tears and snot off his face and cut off most of his beard with scissors, too tired to find the razor and shave. He cut off big hunks of his hair too, not looking in a mirror, figuring it didn’t matter how bad he looked. He just cut it so it was easier to wash. He expected his appearance to scare the woman off no matter what.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had done his laundry or even worn clothes beyond boxers, but someone had done it, as the clothes he had were mostly clean. He found Paris’s shirts still in the drawer, still mixed up with his, and he could still smell a hint of his scent in the fibers, caught between detergent and fabric softener. Even though it was absurdly baggy on him now, he put on one of Paris’s shirts, just to keep his smell near him. His own jeans barely fit anymore—he’d lost so much weight and muscle mass—so he had to scrounge up a belt. Ironically, it was also one of Paris’s, from near the end, when none of his clothes had fit him properly anymore. Roan had already realized he probably looked like Paris had then; he was probably too weak to sustain another transformation. Did he want to work on that or not?

The funny thing was, the lion in him had already given up on him in disgust. It was like it knew there’d be no more fun to have, so why bother? It would have rather died than wander around an empty basement for another couple of weeks.

Sitting on top of the dresser was a simple gold chain that had Paris’s wedding ring threaded through it like a pendant. Roan didn’t remember ever getting it. Had Dee left it here for him? He must have. He didn’t really wear jewelry, but he put the necklace on anyway.

Searching in his still grandly chaotic “library,” he found an emergency kit Dee had apparently missed and popped a couple of pills. Maybe now he could handle talking to a real person for a little while. It also settled his stomach, at least a little bit. Heading back downstairs, he stood in the kitchen and ate a handful of potato chips and an apple and gulped down an iced coffee. He had no idea who bought these things, but he could almost hear Paris saying, The guy who was cooking your food this morning, dumbass! Yeah, probably. Now he felt really bad for how he had treated Matt. The kid had also all but admitted he’d changed his entire life so he’d be more attractive to him. Weird. Roan wasn’t sure if he should give him a hug or a restraining order.

Roan was shaking and feeling both edgy and slightly ill when there was a knock at the door. He was sure he couldn’t do this, but the drugs cast a comforting pall on his panic. He had nothing to worry about. She’d take one look at the crazy, homeless guy look he currently had going on and run away screaming. Problem solved.

Roan opened the door on a short woman wearing a blue, floral-patterned dress and thick, black-rimmed glasses that were endearing in their obvious ugliness. She was maybe five two, her figure stocky but not completely unappealing, which also described her open, moon-shaped face, which was unadorned with makeup and a bit on the plain side. Her hair was a poufy black halo surrounding her head, the curls tight but natural, and something about her seemed to suggest the word “matronly,” even though she was probably in her late thirties at best. From her dark eyes, which were almost perfectly black, and dusky skin, he had the impression she was Filipino, which was confirmed when she introduced herself. “Are you… Roan McKichan?” she asked warily, blinking up at him owlishly.

He nodded, then forced himself to talk. “I am, yes.”

She held out her hand somewhat awkwardly and said, “I’m Dalisay Dormer. I was told by a police officer that I should hire you.”

He shook her hand, feeling unbelievably awkward. She was a brave woman, which meant he was going to have to think of a way to scare her off. Still, old habits kicked in, and he invited her in before he caught himself. Damn it! She trailed a scent of floral perfume that made him sneeze, even though it wasn’t that strong at all; it was just that perfume never did his nose any favors.

Once she was inside, he gestured to the sofa, and once she sat down, she told him her story. Her husband, Ron Dormer, had presumably been killed two years ago when the Black Lightning Fireworks factory blew up in one of the worst industrial accidents that had occurred in this state in some time. Eight people had been killed and seventeen injured; one man had lost an arm and an eye, if Roan remembered the news coverage correctly. One of the corpses had been burned and maimed beyond recognition, and it was believed that the corpse was that of her husband, a deliveryman who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Eventually DNA testing was done to confirm this, although various bureaucratic snafus and general incompetence meant that the DNA results hadn’t come in until last week (!). The DNA said the corpse was not Ron Dormer—it was the corpse of a man named Jeremy Halva, a man who had been reported missing by his wife five days after the explosion. She had had no idea he was at the factory or why he would be there.

It was at this point that Dalisay started crying quietly, and Roan, really feeling the drugs kick in now, was forced to search his own living room and kitchen for Kleenex.

“So he’s not dead. I should be relieved, and I am. But on the other hand, I’m not. He’s out there somewhere, alive. He must have seen the news coverage, he must have known that he was the suspected corpse, and he never came forward. He never came home.”

Roan found the Kleenex and put the box in front of her on the coffee table. She nodded her thanks and took one. “It hurt so much when I thought he was dead that I didn’t know if I could go on. I thought I was finally getting my life in order, and now… now it hurts just as much as if he’s died again. Why would he do that? Why would he let me think he was dead? Did he hate me so much?” She paused to use the Kleenex and fight to keep her tears under control. Her grief was genuine, palpable, and Roan could feel it resonating with something inside of him.

The death of a spouse was almost unbearable. And it really fucking pissed him off that this asshole had taken advantage of an accident and a mangled corpse to hit the highway. If that was what had happened—it was possible there was another explanation, but he didn’t care about that at the moment.

Was this why Gordo recommended she hire him? Because Gordo knew he’d be sympathetic to a widow? That fucking bastard! See if he ever helped him on a cat case again. “Were you having marital difficulties at the time, Ms. Dormer?”

She shook her head. “No. And please, call me Dalisay. We were fine. I hesitate to use the word content, but… we were. We had no real problems. We even had a barbecue planned that weekend. Ron loved to barbecue.” She grimaced as if holding back a surge of sorrow or rage; Roan couldn’t tell which. “Why would he do this? If he was unhappy, he could have told me….”

“Men disappear all the time,” he told her, which was true. A sizable portion of missing persons cases every year were people—usually men—who just one day decided to walk away from their lives and start over somewhere else or who committed suicide and were never found. It wasn’t as common as, say, extramarital affairs, but it happened enough that civilians would probably be shocked if they knew the number. “The new wrinkle in this is that he knew his ass was covered by some other poor bastard’s corpse.”

She crumpled the Kleenex in her fists and held it in her lap. “Can you help me find him?”

Roan felt bad for her, ached for her, but he wanted to say no. He hadn’t done any investigating for almost a year, not since he’d lost Paris. And what was the point? It had been almost two years; this guy was definitely out of state, probably out of the country if he was smart and had the wherewithal. While it would have been fun to nail his lying, insensitive ass to the wall, it would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack.

So even Roan was shocked when he heard himself say, “I’ll do my best, ma’am.”

Oh goddamn it, that was it. He wasn’t taking those pills ever again.