Boredom was the hardest part of eternity.
The house had been vacant for so long, too. Three years this time. Three impossibly long years during which there were no toys to move, no dishes to smash, and no one to haunt unless you counted the termites, beetles, and mice residing under the foundation. But they never seemed to care.
He arrived on a cloudy afternoon in spring, before the weather warmed, when summer was a hint but not yet a promise.
She’d been playing under the house, seeing if she could provoke a response from an industrious mole by refilling his tunnel with dirt as fast as he could remove it. His life quickly became an exercise in futility, but he didn’t have the gray matter to notice. It was a shame she couldn’t possess him. She’d never managed anything larger than an ant. She’d tried a newspaper boy once, but within two seconds of sliding under his skin, she’d felt the particles of her spirit breaking apart. And she had fewer and fewer of those to spare.
Bored again, she set out to find a termite to possess—the wood-chewing reminded her pleasantly of eating—when the slam of a car door had her perking up her non-corporeal ears.
Something was new.
Someone was here.
She thought herself to the front yard and in a blink, except she never blinked, she was there.
He parked his silver Toyota in the driveway. She almost did a happy dance. His car was so overstuffed that assorted clothing squished against the windows, contents under pressure.
This was no misdirected delivery van, no third-party lawn care service, no civil servant. This was a living, breathing man looking to inhabit her house. Ava wouldn’t be alone anymore.
No one ever told you how incredibly lonely the afterlife was. But maybe it wasn’t for everyone. Maybe this was Ava’s own personal hell.
She’d only had that thought fifty million times in the last twenty-six years.
He got out of the car and stood looking at the house, rubbing his chin. He was on the slim side with light brown hair and a scruffy jaw. His plaid shirt and jeans looked lived in, weathered. His brow furrowed as his eyes traced the outside of the house. His expression said this was a trade down, not a trade up.
Ava tried to float to him, but the invisible links chaining her to the house extended only to the edge of the grass. She couldn’t reach the driveway itself.
No matter. When he ran his left hand through his hair, she was able to see the band of paler, puckered skin on his ring finger. Divorced or widowed then.
A sinking feeling weighed her down, and she found herself drifting closer to the ground. She concentrated and lifted herself a few feet. She didn’t know why his marital status should make her feel sad for this man she didn’t know, but it was a tiny, effervescent pleasure to feel anything at all.
After another moment of silent contemplation, he sighed and began unloading the car. Ava followed him back and forth from the car to the house and back again, pausing only when she was physically thwarted by the limits of her allotted geography. She was confined to the house itself and only about six feet outside of it in every direction. She knew. She’d tried them all.
It took him five trips to get everything out of his car. Ava wished she could help, but her ability to move objects was limited to what she could do with short bursts of energy. She might be able to nudge a box off a table or smash a glass against a wall or fling some mole’s dirt, but that would hardly be helpful.
Even more than wanting to help, she longed to touch something. She craved the feel of an object. Anything. Without a body, floating free and unshackled, zipping around the house, she ached to touch, to feel, to experience the physical realm. She hadn’t appreciated that enough when she was alive. As a spirit she had no physical boundaries containing her form except for the circle keeping her in the house and immediate grounds. Having no edges to hit against made her feel a part of the air, and increasingly indistinguishable from it. She was losing particles of herself all the time. How long until she wouldn’t exist at all?
That first night in the house, he cried. She didn’t blame him, didn’t even think that it was particularly unmanly. He thought he was alone.
He cried as he heated a paper plate of ravioli he scooped from a can, both as he spooned it onto his dish and afterward, when he’d cooked it too long and meat and sauce exploded in the microwave.
He cried when he opened the new bottle of Jack Daniels and drank it without bothering to look for a glass. He cried when he woke up on the floor, hours after he’d passed out, and walked upstairs to the unfurnished master bedroom with a sleeping bag under his arm.
He didn’t cry in his sleep, though. In sleep his face was smooth, his emotions quiet. Ava’s eyes felt as hungry for him as her hands did. Her gaze roved over his face with the intense scrutiny of an artist, of Michelangelo, before he rendered his masterpiece David.
She lay on the floor next to him. Although she couldn’t feel the floor, she had enough particles of herself to lie on it. The day might come when she wouldn’t be separate enough to do so. For now she could.
After a few days and nights, a rhythm emerged. He’d cry and drink and wallow. Very little else happened.
When his mother called, Ava gathered more of his story. She learned his name. His mother called him Sam as in, “Sam, you’ve really messed up this time.” Ava’s spirit quivered. Sam.
She didn’t learn as much as she’d like, though. Sam’s mother’s conversation was so full of criticism and recrimination that he didn’t stay on the phone for long. What information Ava could glean, though, only layered her sadness for Sam.
He was married. Kicked out of the house for being an alcoholic. His wife never wanted to see him again. And she didn’t want him anywhere near their son.
On the fourth day in the house, Sam went to work. Ava shadowed his movements as he made coffee in the morning and dressed. She walked him to the car, stopping at her barrier short of the driveway.
Even though he couldn’t see her, she waved good-bye to him. Invisible ghost tears squeezed from her eyes. She didn’t want to be alone again. She told him to make today great, because he could. She reminded him that he was the only one in charge of his destiny, the only one who could live his life.
He didn’t hear her, of course, but a small smile came to his lips as he backed out of the driveway, and Ava felt better for having said it.
When Sam came home that night, she spoke to him more. Now that she’d started, she found she didn’t want to stop. She asked him about his day and left pauses for him to answer. He didn’t. She looked for clues revealing the experiences he’d had outside the house, like the receipt she discovered on his dresser for cashew chicken and rice from the Chinese restaurant. She started inventing his side of the conversation, laughing at the answers she imagined.
If he came home from work early enough, they had hours together before he fell asleep. Ava’s favorite part of the evening was when they’d sit on the couch together and watch television. She’d talk to him about everything they saw, and it was almost like being alive again. Television was a whole world. And they were sharing the experience together, at the same time. Like a date. Or a vacation. Or a life.
Ava didn’t know if it was her imagination or wishful thinking, but Sam seemed to drink less the more time they spent together. She whispered words of encouragement to him, telling him he didn’t need to drink, telling him he was strong and brave and could overcome this. She told him he had a beautiful future ahead of him if he would only choose to live it.
After three months, Ava was proved right. Sam was hardly drinking at all anymore. A glass or two after dinner, but no more crying and passing out. And a lot more smiling.
Until the day the papers came.
A large envelope was delivered into Sam’s hands with the return address of Wilson, Dobbs, and Avery, Attorneys at Law. He ripped it open. Ava read over his shoulder. Divorce papers.
It seemed he hadn’t expected them. He called his wife, whose name was Harper, and argued with her to give him another chance. She wouldn’t. Sam and his addiction were not safe for their child. Besides, Harper had met someone. An old someone who was new in her life again.
Sam ended the call, left the house, and returned with more liquor than Ava would’ve guessed he could carry.
Despite her whispered encouragement reminding him he didn’t need to drink his problems, Sam did until he passed out flat.
Ava stretched out beside him, watching him sleep, which was sad and disappointing, but better than being alone and bored.
Until he started to vomit. Until he started to choke.
Ava leapt to her feet, her heart in her throat. How could she help him? What could she do?
A plate flew out of the cabinet and smashed against the wall. A glass sailed from the counter and crashed on the tile floor. Ava’s desperate energy was everywhere, yet she was powerless.
Sam’s face turned purple.
Ava took a deep breath, or pretended to, anyway. She centered her energy, concentrating on that emotion, that contentment, that joy she felt whenever she was with Sam.
Then she lay down into his body.
She blinked her eyes open and physically felt the flutter of her lashes on her cheeks, the roll of her eyeballs as she looked around. She raised her hand, feeling the edges of where she ended and the air around her began because she was separate now. She was solid. She was Sam.
She cleared Sam’s mouth, sat up, and scooted to the wall so Sam’s back was leaning against it.
She breathed, inhaling the air, sweeter than any she’d ever known. Her heart pounded in her chest, and the rhythm pulsed life through her veins. She felt.
Then she hopped out again.
She knelt in front of Sam, already missing the total solidity she’d so briefly enjoyed. Sam’s eyes popped open.
“Ava,” he said with a small smile.
She jumped. “You can see me?”
His smile grew wider. “I can. I do.” His voice was sleepy, but he reached for her. He touched her, his hand solid on her arm. She almost fainted. She goggled at her arm under his hand. How was this possible?
“I dream about you, you know. You’re my guardian angel, my guiding light. I must be sleeping.”
“I’m not an angel.” She shook her head, but she didn’t dislodge his hand. Instead she covered it with hers. “I’m a ghost. And you’re awake.”
“How am I touching you?” He raised his eyebrows in wonder.
“I think I absorbed some of your particles when I was inside you.” She was not as solid as Sam, but she was much more substantial than she’d been. She looked down at the miracle of his hand in hers. Their particles touching.
“They’re yours now. You saved me.” He squeezed her hand, and she blinked, realizing she could now.
She squeezed his hand back.
“You saved me too.”