Stacey lay with Cole’s ghost for three nights.
It wasn’t until the third night that she thought to reach out and touch him.
She poked solid flesh with a trembling finger and jerked back in fright, startling her cat, Fuckwit, who lay curled at the foot of her blanket. The feline tossed her head indignantly a few times, before kneading her claws back into Stacey’s toes.
The figure, Cole’s ghost, (or at least the shadow that had slept next to her these three nights, invoking relentless, heart-wrenching thoughts of him), shuffled backward slightly in response.
In the darkness Stacey thought she made out a crooked smile — the inside of his mouth black as hell. He smelled of dirt and a particular kind of grass she remembered from a childhood spent tearing recklessly through nature with her brothers, before her mother realised she was too pretty for such things and sent her to ballet class six nights a week.
“Cole?!” She felt ridiculous saying it out loud. She reached behind her to fumble for the switch on her bedside lamp. “Don’t,” he said slowly, his voice cracked around the edges like a glued-together heirloom vase. She wanted to scream what the fuck, she wanted to slap herself awake. Hellmouth or not, she wanted to lean forward and kiss him.
“Don’t turn on the light,” Cole said. “Trust me, the darkness is better.” Stacey’s fingers swam hesitantly over the fitted sheet until they hit skin. Running them up his torso, she almost yelped when she discovered him warm to the touch. “I thought… I was sure you’d be cold,” she whispered. Fuckwit yawned luxuriously.
The ghost clasped her hand in a rough embrace. Stacey thumbed the familiar callus on the left side of his middle finger. “Where have you been?” she managed finally. She flexed her shoulder blades backwards, making them crack. The human feeling in her weary muscles and uneven bones seemed to confirm she wasn’t dreaming. “You didn’t look hard enough,” the broken vase echoed from Cole’s throat. Stacey claimed her hand back sharply.
“Why are you here, Cole?”, her eyes were adjusting, but damn she wished she had better sight on him. The hair on the back of her neck had started to stand up as the earth-smell of him invaded her olfactory senses. She tasted worms on her tongue. “You think I’m dead,” his reply was delivered like the edge of a blunt bread knife.
Stacey had given up smoking 10 weeks earlier, first with those nicotine patches that gave her crazy dreams every night and eventually cold turkey. The urge was always there, unlike when she gave up drinking and it arose only in the evenings. She’d smoked morning, noon and night, long before she met Cole. The habit was like, well, it was like breathing.
She’d watched Oprah’s doctor’s program about smoking cessation, and decided once and for all to stop. “Cessation” sounded like such a friendly, natural word. Like a faucet ceasing to drip, or the tide slipping back forever from the shore. Cole’s corpse in her bed made her wanted to stop cess-ing. Immediately. She lurched out of bed and went for her emergency stash in the back of the cupboard, half-tripping over her carelessly kicked off boots in the middle of the floor.
Prize lit, hanging out her bedroom window, she breathed deep for the first time in 10 weeks. “Aren’t you dead, Cole? You’ve been disappeared five months now.” When a man like Cole — hellraiser, high-functioning con-man cum shady international goods importer — went missing without a trace for that long, the only reasonable explanation was loss of life. Cessation.
The streetlamp caught Stacey through the window and she was suddenly aware of how she must look to him. Paler and thinner in the face in way that people complimented her on, but looked empty to her in the mirror. Longer hair that she couldn’t be bothered cutting. A new tattoo on her forearm. A dullness in her eyes, once thirsty with want for meaning.
Fuckwit, smelling the cigarette smoke, uttered a quiet meow of protest. She’d been so proud of Stacey quitting. “Somebody has to be here to look after you, Sugar,” said Cole. She saw his figure sit up in the shadows. “Storm’s a-coming. Surely you feel it?”.
Truth; she had been feeling it. An electric crack to the air. Hairs raised, like they were now. Her spine rigid with anticipation. Stacey stubbed the cigarette out on the windowsill and flicked it down two storeys into the garden, breathing once more the deep earth of the room with Cole in it. The cat arched her back, ripe for a scratch.
“What happens now?”, she asked, crawling onto the foot of the bed, and up beside him. Her ghost shadow. Her corpse lover. His hand, surprisingly dexterous, ran its way up her naked thigh. She pressed her pelvis close to his and felt the familiar hardness stir for her. The rigor in his mortis, she thought, tonguing cheek.
“Now, I try to protect you as best as I can,” he said soberly, earth-breath washing over her. “And you… you try to forgive me for not staying with you for longer than I could”. With no word left, their bodies nestled into well-known gulfs and hollows.
For the first time in three nights, Stacey knew she’d sleep. Cole was with her, in their driftwood bed of soil. The tide slipped back forever from the shore, and she let it all embrace her; the storm was coming. Fuckwit purred heavily. It was the last sound Stacey heard as she let sleep take her, into the dark.
Into the earth.