tagNonHumanHow to Exercise a Ghost

How to Exercise a Ghost


She was there again. Ian sighed and poured the last of the coffee into his cup before turning around. Behind him, standing, staring, without a word, was a petite woman. She was pretty, in a prim, librarian sort of way, her dark hair up in a careful bun, full lips, wide green eyes, and a figure that, from what he could tell, was incredible. It was hard to tell, because she was wearing a dress straight from Victoriana; almost like a modern sheath, long sleeves, but with a substantial bustle on the back, framing the ruffles down the front. She wore long gloves, and had a cameo hung on a ribbon around her neck. He could see all that, even as he could see the rest of the kitchen through her form.

He'd always thought ghosts were washed out and pale, white and pale blue. But apparently, this one was full-color.

Ian didn't know her name, because she couldn't speak. Well, she could speak, but he couldn't hear her. She'd stopped trying a week or so ago, and now contented herself with standing and staring. And wrecking his dates. Every time he'd brought a girl home since she appeared, she'd show up and freak him out.

He was a good-looking guy, over six feet tall, a swimmer's body that hadn't gone to seed yet despite being in his late 20s. But since he'd graduated from college a few years ago, he hadn't had time for swimming. Combined with his auburn hair, grey eyes, and ready smile, he wasn't hurting for dates. But this . . . ghost-woman was seriously making things far more difficult than he'd hoped when he moved into this place.

Moving to a new town was supposed to wipe the slate clean from him, after his breakup with Angela. All right, it was only a different suburb of Springfield, but it was still supposed to be a new start. And now, hauntings. Ian leaned against the counter, his legs crossed, and studied the pretty apparition as he sipped the hot beverage. "I'm sorry, sweetheart, but things can't keep going like this. I've got a medium coming today, and we're going to see about moving you out."

Her eyes widened, and her face registered mild panic. Her eyes darted around, as though trying to find a way out. Then she sagged in place, resignation all over her posture. Ian felt kind of bad, seeing her give up like that.

He headed into the living room, knowing she'd follow. She always followed him when she was around. Ian sat down on the couch and picked up a pile of papers that he still needed to grade, trying to ignore her. She sat down on the chair opposite him, another find from his thrift shopping shortly after moving in. It was a shame that she couldn't talk to him, maybe he wouldn't need to waste hard-earned money on paying someone to talk to her, and maybe get rid of her.

The first time she'd shown up, it had nearly scared him senseless. Ian and Charlotte, a girl he'd seen a few times before, had been on the couch. She'd had her top off, and he was working on her bra when suddenly the room got cold. He looked up, and jumped back as though . . . well, as though he'd seen a ghost.

Charlotte had been concerned that she'd done something wrong, or that he'd seen the mole that she was self-conscious about. But he couldn't explain something she couldn't see, and she'd left, the translucent woman clearly scolding her, claiming that he could just be honest with her if he didn't want to be with her. Ian had then spent the rest of the night talking with -- or trying to talk with -- the ghost and getting more and more frustrated with their lack of communication.

He'd finally fallen asleep on the couch, with her sitting primly on the chair across the room, watching him with a pained expression on her face. And he'd woken up to the same thing, her expression somehow sad and wistful.

He graded, she stared, for about an hour. Then the doorbell chimed, and they both looked up together. Ian stood and opened the door, looking over his shoulder at her, sitting there morosely. He sighed again, then putting on a smile. "Hi. You must be Jane."

The tall, middle-aged woman standing there nodded. "That's me. And you must be Ian McCormack." She smiled, and the expression made her face light up. "Let's get started on your haunting. A young woman, correct?"

Ian stepped aside, letting her in, and she looked around the room. "Oh, there she is." Ian shut the door behind her, and followed her into the living room. The medium took a seat near the pretty ghost and faced her. "I think this will be fairly simple, Mr. McCormack." Jane turned to face the ghost and smiled encouragingly. "Hello, dear. What's your name?"

The ghost made a gesture towards her throat, then to her ears. The meaning was clear. "Oh, come now. I'm a spirit medium. I can hear you." Blinking, the ghost smiled slowly, her lips moving. "Jennie. All right, Jennie, it's nice to meet you. Now, can you tell me why you're staying here with Ian?"

Silent words that the medium could hear. Ian sank down to the sofa, his eyes wide. He'd fully expected this woman to be a charlatan, only calling her because one of his mother's friends had seen her on a TV show. When she hadn't been able to do anything, he'd planned on calling the local church, to see about an exorcism. Maybe that wouldn't be necessary. Maybe he wouldn't be wasting his money after all.

As she "spoke", Jennie seemed to become more and more animated, her emotions clear on her face. But it was almost amusing, this one-sided conversation. "Well, that's just terrible. I'm so sorry to hear that you've been through so much, after death and everything."

"And he got married, with you right there? Some people have no sense of etiquette!"

"Now, that's harsh, dear. They didn't know any better, and certainly not about your feelings."

After about twenty minutes, Jane nodded firmly and turned to face Ian. "Mr. McCormack, have you purchased any men's jewelry from a thrift shop in, say, the past month?"

"Uh, yeah? I bought this pocket watch around the same time I bought the furniture in here, right after I moved." He dug into the watch pocket of his jeans, holding the brass timepiece by the chain. "Why?"

Jennie was nodding enthusiastically, and Jane's gaze flickered over to her before going back to him. "That's what her spirit is attached to. I . . . as near as I can tell, it's a complicated sort of . . . well, glue, if you will." She held out one hand. "May I inspect that?"

Ian handed the watch over, unclipping the slender chain from his belt. "Of course. Do you think . . . we can help her move on?"

"Mmm. Probably. Fascinating." Jane clicked open the watch, and was studying it. Then she snapped it shut, and handed it back. "I think we can, but it may take some sacrifice on your part, Mr. McCormack."

Blinking, Ian looked back at her. "What kind of sacrifice? I mean, I won't kill a chicken or anything, but . . . ."

Jane shook her head. "Not that. You see, what's going on is that she's trapped by tangled, unresolved feelings. She died the day before her wedding, and her fiancé eventually married someone else." She sighed. "The lingering resentments and unfinished ending to the romance have anchored her to that watch, that she gave him before their wedding."

He looked at the watch, a little amazed. "This? I thought it was the house." He tucked the watch into his pocket again and rested his elbows on his knees. "Tell me what I have to do."

The medium's face colored, her dark complexion turning ruddy. "Well, you see. Because it's linked to love, there are . . . certain manners of reaching closure. Consummating, you would say. Since she never got her wedding day, or night . . . ." Her face reached new colors of red, and she trailed off.

Ian stared at her for a moment, then blinked and blushed himself. "Oh. Oh, well." He glanced at Jennie, whose face was also, he thought, bright red as she stared her feet. "Um . . . I guess if it will help her, I'd be willing, but . . . ." Jennie's head snapped up, and she looked, incredulous, at him. He smiled gamely at her, but then looked at Jane again. "I can't even talk to her, how am I supposed to be able to . . . touch?"

Grinning, the older woman said, "That's no problem! It's only three weeks until Halloween." She opened her handbag and began rummaging in it. "That's one of the days when the line between the spirit world and ours is thinner than usual. Then, you'll need to perform a simple ritual," she pulled out a linen-wrapped package, "then build a fire and throw these herbs on it. Then, um, follow where nature takes you. Or the supernatural, I suppose."

She plopped the package on the table and stood up. "I'll have the ritual instructions emailed to you before the week is out." Jennie looked at her, spoke and gestured in a way that conveyed gratitude even to Ian. Jane smiled. "Of course, dear. It's the least I can do, and you need to have closure." The older woman turned her smile on Ian. "I'll let you get back to your work, then."

He stood up as well. "Of course, thank you so much for your help. Here, I'll walk you out."

The next three weeks seemed to fly by. Or drag, depending on Ian's mood when he thought about it. Jennie spent the time wandering around -- when she was visible -- looking alternately terrified, shy, and excited. It also seemed like she was changing how she was dressed, but he couldn't be sure. It seemed like the cut and color of the dress changed slightly, the neckline varying a few inches up or down, or the number of ruffles or amount of lace changing from day to day. He did know that she was changing her hair. Sometimes, it would be in the usual bun, but other times, he'd look at her and her hair would be loose down her back in long, translucent, chestnut waves. Other times, she'd have two long braids hanging over her shoulders.

If she was nervous, he was as well. His students noticed, and asked him if someone he cared about was ill. He couldn't focus on work either, and kept having to reread assignments as he was grading them, because he was half-heartedly reading and watching her fidget. She was cute when she was nervous, chewing her lower lip as she thought whatever thoughts ghosts had.

He'd gotten the ritual instructions from Jane and printed them out late at night when no one else was in the computer lab. They seemed pretty easy and straightforward, but he was going to have to buy a few things. He didn't own any incense, and was pretty certain that none of his kitchen knives would do as an athame. Thankfully, there was a new-age shop in town that was able to fill in what he didn't have, including a bundle of wormwood that he was supposed to mix with the incense.

Thankfully, Halloween was on a Saturday, so he didn't have to worry about staying up late and heading into work the next day. The timing of the spell was pretty specific, so he'd have to start it at the last stroke of midnight starting Halloween. Ian had things ready to go, the circle drawn and the incense burning, at 11:55, waiting for the time to be right.

When the clock tower a few blocks over started to ring the change of day, he drew in a deep breath. Twelve chimes later, Ian started speaking in Latin, grateful that he'd had time to brush up the little he remembered from high school. The spicy, licorice scent of the wormwood mixed with the sweet smokiness of the incense made him feel a little dizzy.

Ian pitched the packet of herbs that the medium had left into the small fire, releasing more smoke and a bitter aroma. As the leaves curled and smoldered, he felt Jennie appear. She sat across the room in a low-backed chair, hands clasped lightly in her lap. This time, her hair was down with a pale flower tucked behind one ear, and the dress she was wearing was pale gold -- not quite white -- with a neckline that was almost daringly low, but covered the ground between her chin and chest with sheer fabric.

He stood up from where he'd been kneeling in front of the circle he'd drawn. "Jennie? Can you hear me?"

She looked at him, a little amused, and said in a soft, clear voice, "I've always been able to hear you, silly. Can you hear me?"

"I . . ." Ian looked at her, startled. He hadn't really expected this whole rigmarole to actually work, but they'd clearly progressed at least a little. "I can hear you. I . . . huh. This is crazy, I can't believe this worked."

Jennie stood up, her hands twining nervously together. "Well, we don't know that it's worked totally. I can talk to you now, but the rest of this plan sort of hinges on," her cheeks colored prettily, and he had to suppress a grin, "more than us talking." She took a step towards the circle, then another, her foot crossing the line Ian had drawn.

As her foot crossed over, she took a deep breath, and the smoke shifted -- the smoke from the small fire in the fireplace as well as the incense stopped their leisurely travel towards the ceiling and shifted as though a strong wind blew them towards Jennie. Her breath was filled with the smoke, and Ian could see it inside of her form, opaque and changing color to match what she was wearing. It didn't stop, the smoke filling her as though she were a glass chimney. It swirled, spinning around inside of her as she stood there, her breathing now in gasps, hands clasped to her stomach.

When she straightened again, Jennie was no longer transparent. The smoke had -- somehow -- turned her solid, at least visually. She looked down at herself and smiled delightedly. "I look like me again, anyhow!"

Ian smiled back. "You're right, though. We have to, um, touch to give you the closure you need to move on." He extended a hand to her. "Take my hand, Jennie. And then we'll see about letting you move on."

Jennie looked at his hand for a moment, equal parts scared and hopeful, before extending her own hesitantly. When it finally reached Ian's, both of them looked a little surprised by the feeling of actual, solid contact that they had. "Well," she said weakly, "we know that it worked."

"Yes," he murmured, "we certainly do." He tugged on her hand a little, pulling her closer to him. The skin of her hand was pleasantly cool, and soft. He lifted it to his lips and kissed it gently. "Come with me."

The lovely girl followed him down the hall to the bedroom, where he'd set up as romantic an atmosphere as he could. A white tablecloth draped over his nightstand, an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne, two glasses, a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries, and a single rose in a crystal vase he'd borrow-stolen from his mother's house. The room was lit with candles, enough of them scented to have the room smell faintly of roses and vanilla. It was, hands-down, the girliest his room had ever, ever looked or felt.

But it worked. She paused just inside the door, eyes wide, and sighed happily. "It's lovely, Ian. Is this why you left the watch in the kitchen for a few hours this afternoon?"

He smiled at her, squeezing her hand. "Yes. I thought it might be easier for both of us if we had a more . . . conducive feeling." An idea crossed his mind, and he felt like a cad. "I didn't even think if you could eat or drink like this, though."

She walked over to the small table, reaching out hesitantly for one of the berries. "I think so. I mean, I can touch . . . you know, you and the house, so . . . let's try." She lifted one of the chocolate-dipped fruits and raised it to her mouth. A delicate, sensuous bite that he watched with eager eyes. She chewed and swallowed, then looked at him with a bright smile. "I can, and these are delicious!"

That broke his stasis, and Ian stepped forward, popping the cork on the champagne and pouring a bit into each of the glasses. "That's great! I'm glad you like them. Here, try some of this -- you are," he said swinging the glass out of her reach for a moment, "over twenty-one, I hope?"

"Yes, of course! I turned twenty-two last . . . er, I mean, the March before . . . you know." She blushed a little, and took the glass when he swept it back to her grasp. "Anyway."

He watched as she gulped down the champagne in one swallow, then cradled the glass in her hands. "Hey, Jennie, no." She looked up, eyes wide. "Don't feel bad about it. Don't think about it, not tonight, okay?"

"Well, it's sort of hard not to," she retorted as he poured her another glass of champagne. "I mean, that's the whole point of tonight, isn't it?"

"Nope." He sipped his champagne, watching her expression. She was startled, then confused. "Tonight is about making you forget the past, and letting you move on with your future." He took her free hand and laced their fingers together. "So. Drink your champagne, have some more berries, and relax."

It took a little while for her to relax, but he could tell when the nervousness left her. Her grip on the glass of champagne loosened a bit, her eyes sparkled a bit more. Finally, they both sat down next to each other on the bed, the nightstand in front of them. "Here, wait," he said as she reached out for another chocolate-covered strawberry.

"What?" She watched, a little confused, as he picked up one of the fruits, removed the leaves, and held it up to her mouth. "You're . . . going to feed it to me?"

Ian's smile was slow and a little wicked. "That's the plan." He waited as she leaned forward slightly, wrapping her lips around the sweet confection. Then, as her mouth closed over it but before she bit down, he leaned in and kissed her around the strawberry. Her eyes flew open for a moment in startlement, but she didn't pull away.

Jennie kissed back, hesitant at first, but with growing interest and want, but Ian broke the kiss after a moment, biting through the strawberry before pulling back slightly. She chewed her piece of fruit slowly, then swallowed hard and asked, "What . . . I mean, what was that for?"

"Well," he said, smiling at her and putting one hand over hers, "that's why we're here. It's not just for me to hear you, and be with you -- though that's very nice. It's to make sure that you have the best time you've ever had," he'd narrowly avoided saying 'the time of your life', which would have killed the mood in an instant, "and I thought that might be a good way to start."

"Oh." Her cheeks turned a pretty shade of pink, and she nodded. "I guess that makes sense." Shyly, she leaned toward him, one of her hands going to his shoulder, and kissed him herself. Her lips were, like the rest of her, cool and soft, but delicate in their exploration of his mouth. She seemed to gain confidence when his hands slipped around her waist, and let her other hand go to his hair.

He let her run her fingers through it, and kiss him at her own pace for a few moments before his arms tightened around her and pulled her closer. It was amazing, how real, how solid she felt. His hands roamed over her waist, a little frustrated by the layers of fabric and the corseting that kept him from feeling her skin. The light taste of strawberries and champagne on her lips alleviated that frustration and replaced it with another type.

Ian pulled back slightly, his eyes opening to look at her flushed cheeks and pouty lips. "You look amazing, Jennie." Touching her face lightly, he kissed her again gently, before trailing his hand down to her shoulder, slipping one finger between where the fabric of her dress met her skin. "But you're wearing a great deal too much right now."

Her cheeks colored even more brightly, and she licked her lips. "I . . . yes, you're right. I'm very warm." Her arms bent around her body, and started to work at the fastenings of her dress, and then she paused. "I wonder . . . ." She concentrated for a moment, her eyes squeezing shut, and the dress itself shimmered before vanishing.

Blinking, Ian grinned at her. "That's a useful ability. We'll have to remember that for later." He put his hands on her waist again, feeling more of her body through the shift and corset without the stiff material of the dress over them. "But I still feel like you're over dressed," he whispered pressing a kiss to the side of her neck.

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