David managed to buy me some time with Miles and Constance. I needed time with David, time to deal with all of the changes before I moved, and time to try to piece myself back together.
The first few weeks were the most excruciating. Most of my time was spent barricaded in my dad’s room, tormenting myself with the mementos of our once reasonably functional family. Photos of us together on vacations, trinkets he’d collected over the years, and a picture box full of ticket stubs from every movie, museum, and ball game we ever attended. At night I lay in his bed listening to his favorite classical music. I would curl up with a pillow pressed against my stomach, swathed in the sheets that were still lightly scented by his cologne.
I always thought of sadness and grief as fleeting moments that eventually just worked themselves out. I wasn’t prepared for the most basic involuntary functions to also be the most devastating. Every breath was punished by a stabbing pain that cut through my ribs. Every heartbeat radiated an achy throb through every muscle and bone until the emotional misery had me searching for any other kind of pain.
Sleep, when it finally found me was of little solace. It distracted me for a while, but didn’t offer the peace I’d hoped it would. Nightmares intruded on my unconscious mind, most of which I forgot the instant my eyes flashed open. Some days, I didn’t sleep at all, purposely forcing myself to stay awake, hoping to exhaust myself to the point of simply passing out into a dreamless slumber.
David would check on me every few hours. I was grateful that he wasn’t the type to hover. He would peek in the door to see if I was still sleeping when really I would just pretend; keeping my eyes shut and exaggerating my breathing for effect. As soon as he left the house, I would dress and run on the new treadmill in my dad’s room. He meant it as a gift for when I returned from Camden. I left the red bow on it.
I ran until it hurt. I ran until either exhaustion, or the blisters on my feet made me give. Either way suited me just fine. Before it was time for David to check in again, I would shower and return to my dad’s bed.
Based on what little I did see of David, growing scraggly facial hair, whiskey on the rocks and staring in to a vacant television screen ranked pretty high on his to do’s. I tried a few times to get him to talk about what happened in Afghanistan, but he would just stare off into empty space and shake his head. So I just held him, hoping it was of some comfort, hoping he didn’t blame himself, hoping he knew that he was needed, but mostly that he was loved.
The only thing I got from him at this point was that he didn’t care much for the Hamlin’s. “I don’t trust ‘em,” he warned. “And I don’t think you should either.” David’s gut feelings were usually right on; he got that from my dad. I couldn’t help but to wonder where my dad’s intuition was when he needed it the most. Where had it been when his life depended on it?
I lay with my head in David’s lap. We stared together at the pendulum hanging motionless behind the etched glass of my dad’s grandfather clock.
“Dad used to say that you could set your heart by that clock,” David reminisced.
When you grieve, time doesn’t seem to pass in regular increments. It lurches forward. Each hand stumbling ineptly after the last in search of a meaningful rhythm.
“So what do we set our hearts by now?” I asked.
He shook his head slowly, pursing his lips. “I don’t know.”
The ice clinked against the edges of his glass as he swirled his whiskey. Of course David didn’t know, he was as broken and lost as I was. I felt helpless, perhaps hopeless even in that there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to ease his suffering.

We sat quietly for several minutes. When I was sure he was asleep, I slowly slipped out from under his arm resting over my shoulder, and placed the empty glass on the table.
I hadn’t been in my dad’s office since just before I left for Camden. I smiled as I entered. The spacious room was exactly as he left it. This was my favorite place in the whole house. The semi-sweet aroma of dried fig and maple leaves still hung in the air. He always burned candles that reminded me of my favorite season. Autumn.
This is where I came to find peace–where I played my cello. It rested gracefully in its stand, waiting patiently for me to bring it back to life. I stood next to it, tempted to pluck the lonely neglected strings, but instantly recoiled my fingers when I caught myself reaching. I didn’t want to touch anything or take anything from its place, afraid it would somehow change my memory.
Cello was our thing, mine and my dad’s. He bought it for me when he was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where I was born. I found the gentle giant sitting alone in the corner of a music shop where we went in search of a guitar for David’s sixteenth birthday. The old man who owned the shop watched me plucking the strings as I pretended to perform for an audience. He placed a bow in my hand and showed me a few notes. I’ve been addicted ever since. My dad didn’t buy it that day, but it was waiting for me in the living room on the morning of my eighth birthday. He was always my biggest fan. I don’t think I could ever play for anyone else. I sighed, thinking that David should just pack the thing away.
I drifted around his office, leaving a pristine path through grey dust as I traced my fingers over the smooth finish of the bookshelves. I glanced at all of the framed photos as I passed. My dad was so sentimental. He took pictures of everything, it irritated me to no end. “Dad, quit,” I remembered scolding him, obscuring his view with an extended hand. I hated having my picture taken, but he insisted that I would appreciate the memories later. I should have let him have his way more often. Without complaint. One more thing to add to my growing list of regrets.
His desk was cluttered as always. Stacks of papers and folders littered the dark wood surface.
I took a seat in his soft leather chair, spinning myself in slow circles with my head back and eyes closed. I let the image of the last time we were in this room together seep in to my consciousness.
I envisioned him picking up a framed photo from his wedding day as he leaned back in his chair.
My mom was stunning in a wispy, fairy-tale of a dress. Adorned by tiny flowers, her brown tresses were elegantly pinned at the nape of her graceful neck. Dad of course, wore his dress blues, decorated with polished medals that scintillated in the light. It was all very Cinderella-esque, minus the happily-ever-after.
I remembered watching him as he wandered away with his thoughts. He never did get over my mom. Sometimes, late at night, I would hear him talking to her, or at least I imagined it was her. Their talks always started the same way–“I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.” I left when I heard those words, feeling intrusive for listening any longer.
My dad never got to say good-bye to her. I worried that he was waiting for a ghost to return. He never dated or so much as entertained the idea, and wore that beat up old wedding ring until the day he died. Now, I wondered where it was. His ring and dog tags were nowhere to be found amongst his other personal belongings that returned with him to the States. Anger boiled through my veins when I thought of the soul-less thief that pillaged them. Some sorry excuse for a human being who didn’t give a rip that his family would be heart-sick to be robbed of such priceless mementos.
From the pocket of my sweat pants, I pulled out the letter my dad wrote me, and read it again for the millionth time. Holes were already worn in the creases of the linen parchment where it had been unfolded and refolded. I could have recited it by heart, but wanted to feel the softness of the paper and trace the curves of his letters.

It’s different between fathers and daughters. With our little girls we tend to be over protective and overbearing, and then inwardly crushed when you cry from a scraped knee or a wounded heart. Reflexively, we want to set those wrongs right and keep you out of life’s cross-hairs. I’ve tried to shield you, perhaps from more than what was necessary.
There were many things I needed to tell you-to explain to you, but the timing was never right.
Katherine, not everything in this world is as it seems, and I regret not being your rock when it will count the most. But if there is one thing I can do right by you now, it is this: a little advise. Trust what you feel. You may doubt what your eyes have shown you, but your instincts will never fail you.
Not everything you discover along the way will make sense or even appear to be possible, but trust that I have seen what others can not, and that I have placed you among those who will understand you best. I need you to be strong for David; he lacks your resilience.
In time, a story will unfold–a fairy tale of sorts. The ending is entirely up to you, but make that decision only after exploring all possibilities and their consequences. You deserve all the best this life has to offer so accept nothing less than everything.
I have never been more proud of another. You have untold potential, and the capacity for great love. I have seen that in you–in your unconditional acceptance of who I am, and the sacrifices my choices have forced you to endure. You truly are your mother’s reflection. For these, among many other reasons,
I love you dearly,
I disagreed with his conclusion whole-heartedly. Aside from my dad and David, there couldn’t be any other person on the planet that would understand me better. Especially a family that has spent next to no time with me. But I gave up attempting to de-code the letter’s cryptic message, and learned to just cherish the final words he left me. I set the letter on his desk and draped my legs over the arm rest, settling deeper into his chair. I closed my eyes and began humming the last melody I played for him. I remembered how the bow felt in my hand, the strings digging into my callused finger tips, the way the richness of each chord reverberated in my dad’s smile. The melody was achy and sweet, like a lullaby. I hummed the notes softly until my eyes gave to the heaviness of sleep.

I shot straight up, falling out of the chair in the process. My breathing was strained, like I had just finished a distance run. I didn’t know how long I had been asleep, long enough to have a kink in my neck, I guess. As I picked myself up off of the floor, I recalled the thing that woke me in the first place. The deep growl of the C chord on my cello being plucked. I peeked over the top of the desk expecting to see David shaking his head and quietly laughing at me. But he wasn’t.
I rose slowly, undecided on how to respond to Alex standing in front of my cello, flipping through my sheet music. Anger might have been an appropriate reaction, but I couldn’t scrounge the emotional energy to care.
“So we’ve progressed from stalking to breaking and entering, huh?” I walked to the office door to check for David’s snoring.
“He’s still asleep,” Alex assured.
I turned to find him regarding me quizzically. “You’re not surprised to see me.”
“This wouldn’t be the first time you’ve popped in unannounced,” I muttered frostily. “So, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m fresh out of surprised. Thanks for not vaporizing this time, though.”
Alex smiled gloriously in spite of my cutting sarcasm. His eyes burned into me like they were in search of something, and I suddenly wished there was something left to offer him. The gaze grew uncomfortably intense as we stared at each other wordlessly. The devastating green still had that dazzling effect on the tremble in my chest, forcing my eyes to avert to anything else.
I shuffled towards my cello to turn the sheets of music back over.
“What?” I finally demanded.
His grin was a mix of bemusement and smugness. “I don’t stalk, I merely observe.”
“Under the guise of invisibility?” I rolled my eyes. “Please. You’re a prime candidate for a restraining order.”
I didn’t bother hoping to conceal my mortification at the recollection of how exposed I felt when I realized he had been there while I showered. We stood awkwardly silent again before I turned back to him.
Alex rubbed the back of his neck as he whispered insistently, “I would never dishonor you like that.” He pulled in his bottom lip, and then slowly released it. Any hint of jovial was traded for sobering. “As tempting a notion, I swear I have never set my eyes on your bare form, and I’m very sorry for any discomfort my…presence caused you.” It had been a while since his English accent slipped into his speech. I flustered him. Good.
I glanced down at the floor, partly wishing I never brought the subject up, and partly flattered that anything about me could tempt him.
“So, are you going to tell me why you’re here, or are you going to insist that I’m imagining this whole conversation?” I asked, forcing a subject change.
His expression was not his usual brooding. It was more like he was torn by some inner wind as to how he was going to tell me, rather than if he was going to tell me.
Alex reached into his pocket, hesitantly taking from it a black satin pouch. I stared curiously at his long slender fingers tightly gripping the bag as if it contained a most precious item.
He took a timid step towards me, focusing uneasily at my clenched fists dangling at my sides, and then lifted his eyes to my face.
“I was worried,” he answered at last. “You don’t answer your phone, return calls, e-mails. I needed to know that you were okay.”
My stand-offish-ness began to melt under the concern echoed in his voice. I wondered why he cared how I was. I certainly hadn’t deserve it, especially after I displayed such little regard for how he felt when I stabbed him in the hand. I cringed at the thought of what I had done, feeling remorseful for it still.
My eyes pricked as I blinked the tears back. “I am as fine as I know how to be right now.” I turned and walked back to the desk, wiping a traitorous tear before he could see it. “Is that really what you came all this way for? To scrutinize my lack of communication?”
“Not entirely. I came because I need to explain. There are things about me you must understand.”
I agreed. I froze where I stood in front of my dad’s desk, breathless, with Alex on the brink of revealing what I pressed him so hard for. But, to my own ghastly surprise, I wasn’t ready to hear it. At least not right now. My own cowardice made me snicker.
His voice softened like warm caramel.
“I–I was… ” he began stammering.
I cut him off.
“Is that all you think I care about? What you are? How you do what you do?” I turned to face him, my breath picking up it’s already frantic pace. “Well, I don’t. Whatever it is you have to tell me, it won’t change anything, so I don’t even want to know. Don’t tell me.”
It was evident from his bewildered expression that he hadn’t prepared himself for that particular response, but an argument began to take form on his lips anyway. I suspected that only more disappointment would follow his words, so I resorted to the only thing I had in my arsenal–pleading.
“Just not today,” I said, my shoulder slumping. “Not like this, the way I am right now. Look, I know you’re not entirely human, I know you were with me the day I was pulled under, and I understand why you lied about it. And I know that this all probably equates to danger on some level too. But I also know that you saved my life. If you meant to hurt me, you would’ve already, or at least let me die when the opportunity presented itself.” I took a deep steadying breath, wiping my damp palms on my sweats. I closed my hands tightly again until my nails dug into the skin. I sounded more confident than I actually was. “You’re here now. Just let me have that for a little while longer. Please?”
I could tell that he would yield to my plea. His eyes narrowed into a sultry, hypnotic gaze and his lips parted slightly as he closed the distance between us.
Alex was silent for several excruciatingly long seconds, then extended his hand in invitation.
“May I?” he asked.
Confusion, anticipation, and an unsettling need to be held ached within the confines of my chest as I considered his offer.
At times his formal gestures and cadence were reminiscent of gallantry from days long passed, which only lured me deeper into his curious charms.
A corner of Alex’s mouth curled up, then he tugged lightly at the piece of red rope Evie had tied around my wrist the morning of my dad’s funeral. I couldn’t remember if he knew that I collected the knotted pieces of art he left lying around the house. I had strangely hoped that he did it intentionally.
I unballed my fists and let him run his cold fingers over my trembling hands. Ripples of controlled tension clenched and released the muscles of his jaw as he softly slid a finger between the rope bracelet and the sensitive flesh of my wrist. A ravenous tingle weakened my knees and any objection to his proximity that I might have normally conjured. I swallowed hard as my eyes flickered closed, unable to suppress the heaviness caused by a craving I never knew existed. Alex continued to trace a cool path with his finger tips up my arm to my shoulder. Neck. Jaw line. Cheek. Each advance more intoxicating than the last.
With a measured caution, he pulled me in closer until I could smell the faint lavender of his breath. I bit my lower lip and leaned my face in to his cold palm. In my hands I had his soft cotton tee-shirt clutched at his lower back to keep them from misbehaving or wandering off. With all I had left in me, I tried willing time to stop where it was. Alex drew a jagged, pained breath and held it as he pressed his forehead to mine. Unremitting flutters conquered my heart and stomach, pumping untold amounts of adrenaline through me.
Heat consumed my entire body like a brush fire does an open field. “You left it on the piano,” I muttered breathlessly through my heady fog. I hadn’t realized that I was holding my breath too.
Alex wrapped his free arm around to my lower back while he slid the hand on my cheek to the nape of my neck and pressed my cheek against his cool marble chest. Not even light could pass between us now.
A shiver rattled from my shoulders to my bare toes–an involuntary reaction to the drastic temperature difference of our bodies as they remained pressed together. He was unfamiliarly cold; a foreign chill I couldn’t associate to him. And the scent that usually electrified every nerve ending, was completely absent. But I didn’t care. He was here. With me. This phenom of a boy had me securely wrapped in his arms, and even though it was only for a little while, he was mine, and mine alone for that moment.
“Not tonight, then,” he breathed against my ear. “Not tonight.”
I exhaled a faint sigh of relief against his chest and listened for a heartbeat that had not yet come.
“Have you ever lost someone who took so much of your soul with them, that you couldn’t remember how to breathe or take your next step?” I whispered.
“How did you move on? How did you get your heart to stop hurting so bad?”
“I haven’t,” he said. I leaned away from him slightly to look up at his face, but it was vacant of the anguish I expected from such a confession. Alex stiffened and pulled away from my embrace. “David’s awake.”
I wasn’t ready for him to leave. I wanted to be selfish and hold on to the impossible, fearful that I would never have another moment like that with him again.
“Wai…” But he slipped away, leaving a sting of disappointment from yet another vanishing.
The office door creaked as it opened, David leaning on the knob as he peered in. His eyes were bloodshot and heavy with drink, and his hair was mussed from the substantial growth since his return. With the exception of high school, I had never seen him with anything other than a high-and-tight. Any baby like features that once softened his face had since been replaced by defined fissures from stress and depression and anxiety.
His weary, bloodshot eyes suspiciously scanned the room.
“I thought I heard you talking to someone,” he said.
“Just to myself,” I lied.
“Hmm,” he muttered, turning a corner of his mouth up in contemplation. “Dad did that too.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, looking down at my feet.
“I’m hittin’ the rack. I don’t want you up too late either, got it? And FYI, Mr. Hamlin has the movers coming to pack up your room tomorrow, so grab what you’ll need for the next few weeks.”
“Gnite. Love you,” David said, warily scanning the room one last time.
“Love you too.”
The first round of movers signaled the nearing of my departure. I hadn’t kept any real measure of time since I left Camden. The grandfather clock stopped working sometime before David and I came home, the calendar pages hadn’t been turned since before we all left, and I wasn’t entirely sure where my phone was. The only event that marked any passage at all was the fireworks show the base put on weeks ago. David wore headphones until the last rocket took to the sky. The slightest noise resembling an explosion or gunfire sent him through the roof. I had to disconnect the dryer buzzer before David brought the place down.
Wide awake after my visit with Alex, I was scratching for something to occupy my mind and time. Packing wasn’t an issue. Most of what I needed from my room was moved in to my dad’s weeks ago. When I finally worked up the nerve to walk through his bedroom door, I basically moved in and refused to leave.
Watching television was out of the question. My dad had the cable turned off the week before we left and I wasn’t about to watch the local channels; too many updates on the war. Having read everything I owned at least twice, sent me searching through my dad’s modest library for something of interest. Nothing. My dad was a huge history geek, so unless I considered battle tactics and biographies a welcome distraction, there was nothing there for me.
Flopping back into my dad’s chair, I drummed my fingers on his desk top while staring into a blank computer screen. At the time, I meant what I said to Alex about not wanting to know what he was. It was also true that regardless of whatever supernatural abilities he possessed, it wouldn’t change how I felt about him–I was already in too deep. I was irrevocably and unequivocally consumed by this exquisite, mysterious boy. But now, in the silent loneliness of this house, where fragments of unremitting grief were free to surface at will, I was in urgent need of a diversion. So I opted for a little internet research to absorb the time. I pressed the power button and watched impatiently as the green light blinked at me. Once. Twice. Three times before the blackened monitor flickered to life, splaying program icons across it.
I pulled up my favorite web browser, releasing a deep breath as I did, and behind the cursor entered the first word that came to mind. It wasn’t very creative, I had to admit. Nevertheless, it was the single most word that occurred to me whenever Alex would suddenly dematerialize, a word for when he would become nothing more than air, nothing more than a ravenous sensation left flooding my blood stream like a virus.
I tapped out the word as I spoke it aloud. “Ghost.”


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