where ghosts live

Lovely’s room, which was at the far end of the house, had the best light. The curtainless window stretched from floor to ceiling right in front of the bed, allowing sunshine to pour in uninhibited. Today, however, there was no sun. Snow fell instead, gentle but insistent, and the light that trickled through was dying. These days, a fire roared in the hearth to keep Lovely from getting chilled.

“Good morning,” Ethan said, setting down Lovely’s customary breakfast tray next to the bed. Lovely’s eyes were closed, and Ethan carefully brushed his limp bangs from his forehead. The bedridden boy’s skin was cool to the touch and almost translucent – pale blue veins could be seen running just beneath his fingertips while bleached-bone antlers protruded from his silver hair. Ethan loved those antlers. They grew outwards like the branches of a tree, and Ethan liked to imagine them wreathed in garlands of flowers. Maybe I can make some when spring comes, he thought.

Ethan couldn’t remember when he’d moved into the house. It was a grand old thing reminiscent of a castle, set deep into the hillside and surrounded by residual trees from the forest’s edge. It had stone walls and huge floor-to-ceiling windows in all the rooms, though most of these were permanently covered by curtains. (He had vainly tried, one bright summer afternoon ages ago, to remove those heavy drapes. They refused to budge. After extensive exploration of all the rooms, he found only one with bare windows. The first Lovely moved in a week later.) Ethan felt like he’d always lived in the house, the intricate layouts of both the dark hallways and winding garden paths ingrained in his memory since day one.

Lovely lived in the house as well, but he spent most of the day sleeping, so Ethan passed the time by taking long walks through the forest. The world was still here, save for the light crunch of leaves beneath Ethan’s shoes. It reminded him of a poem, something simple yet stirring. Something about the woods, dark and deep. He couldn’t recite exact lines, though. It felt like certain hours dropped from his day and created gaps in his memory while his ability to recall details dwindled, too. One moment he’d be at the house, in Lovely’s room; a minute later, he’d find himself in the middle of the woods, following a path he knew intimately for unknown reasons.

 

“Ethan.”

He looked down. A boy’s face, ghostly and wide-eyed and brown-haired, stared up at him from the snow. The tip of what looked like bone protruded a few inches in the ice above the boy’s head, close to Ethan’s foot. Ethan forced himself to stare back at him.

“Why aren’t you at the house, Elliot?” he asked, keeping his voice level. He stooped down to brush flecks of ice from Elliot’s cheeks, then spent the next few minutes digging out the rest of his body. Ethan was familiar with this routine. His fingers gripped the fabric of Elliot’s jacket, which was nearly frozen solid, and he cursed himself for not bringing gloves. He forgot them every time.

Elliot tried to wipe at his mouth with one shaking hand. “Ethan, I’ve come – to make – atonement,” he managed to say. “None of this is – I’m sorry. I abandoned you.”

This, too, Ethan had heard before. He had never understood what Elliot meant, but by now it didn’t matter. Elliot was merely delirious from the cold. He took the shivering boy’s hand and began leading him back towards the house. “You mean, I’ve come to get you out of the snow,” he replied, not looking back at Elliot’s face. Their fingers intertwined, and Ethan relished the way Elliot’s grip tightened. “It’s freezing! How did you end up here?” Elliot didn’t respond, but Ethan hadn’t expected an answer, anyway. He focused instead on what to do next.

The first time he found Elliot in the snow, he’d deliberately avoided taking him to Lovely’s room even though it was the warmest in the house and Elliot was half-frozen. At the time, he treated Lovely’s living space as something sacred. But when Ethan checked on Elliot that night, his hair had already turned silver. Lovely’s bed was vacant; all that was left was a pair of white antlers.

(Now Ethan had a full closet of antlers. They gleamed in the dark and looked beautiful in the spring, when he strung flowers over each branch.)

Since then, Ethan had learned the pattern. Elliot – or at least, ghosts who looked and acted and spoke almost exactly like Elliot – would find him. They’d argue with him and try to convince him he was dreaming.

“It’s my fault. I created you and this house and – all of this! I still don’t know why, but you got stuck here. I’m sorry, Ethan.” Each Elliot would cover his face with his hands. “Your body’s nearly gone. I wish I had stayed with you, back then.”

But why would Ethan believe them? The house was all solid wood and stone. He knew each step in the staircase and every ridge in the wall. One time, he’d stuck his hand close to the fire in the hearth – just to prove Elliot wrong – and nearly burned himself for it. The proof for reality was definitely there.

“But the seasons aren’t changing!” the latest Elliot insisted now. He stood by the couch. Ethan tugged at his hand, but the antlered boy didn’t sit. “Think about it. When was the last time it wasn’t winter? When was the last time there wasn’t snow?” His cheeks flushed red.

“I don’t keep track of those things,” Ethan said patiently. “I don’t particularly care for time.” And I’ve seen spring, too, he added silently, because Elliot was too confused right now to understand. Winter would end, as all seasons inevitably did, and spring would come. The sun would shine. Elliot would be Lovely, and petals would tumble into his hair when Ethan finished making his flower garlands. Maybe this time Elliot wouldn’t leave him. Ethan thought of the pair of detached antlers lying on a cold pillow upstairs, waiting for him to collect.

“I have a spare room,” he told Elliot. “There’s a fireplace, and I can grab some extra blankets. Why don’t you spend the night here?”

(more…)