by MacKenzie Barr
Disclaimer: I just wish I owned these boys, the wonderful Steve & Ghost . A few of the back stories and towns also belong to the lovely and outrageously talented Poppy Z. Brite, along with a majority of the other named characters. The only thing I get credit for is the plot.
Something in the water that summer made Ghost's pale hair crawl all the way down his back, falling like a golden waterfall to his waist. Miz Deliverance had insisted on cutting it, finding Steve cross-legged on the front porch while the small-framed woman pushed her beloved grandson's head forward, taking kitchen shears to his dandelion locks and snipping them up to his shoulders. The two boys had been joking, mostly at each other, as Miz Deliverance hummed softly to herself and showered the old boards with silky strands.
Steve fingered a few felled locks, tucking one discreetly into his pocket. "There," Deliverance chortled proudly. "All done." There was a little golden braid wrapped around her wrist and she tucked it into her apron, ushering the two boys in so she could sweep the porch. Ghost sat at the kitchen table while Steve brought them both a soda.
He shook his hair into his face and combed it with his fingers. "Feels short," he pouted.
Steve pat him on the cheek, grinning. "Looks good."
Ghost pouted again and tucked his hair back behind his ears. "What, you don't like me with long hair?"
Steve made a face in return to Ghost's pouting. "Naw, you're too pretty. I might try and kiss you."
Ghost managed to smile back, but Steve's words triggered a memory from earlier that day, watching his grandmother iron her favorite skirt, his arms crossed over the back of the couch, perched on the sofa like a child. "Gramma?" he'd asked ever-so-sweetly. "Can me an' Steve get a tape player?" She let out a bell-like laugh and met his lovely, pleading eyes with a pair much the same, only far older, heavier, perhaps a little sad.
"You got money, Ghost-child?" She put her iron down carefully, fisting hands on her hips. Ghost made an exasperated face.
"Naw, not really. That's why I'm askin' you!" He gave his sweetest smile, the kind that might just rot his teeth out if he wasn't careful, and she laughed.
"For you and Steve, huh? Child, you gonna give your heart to that boy." Ghost became very quiet and Miz Deliverance only laughed at the statement for a moment before pursing her lips and hanging up her skirt, tucking away the ironing board and iron. "Ghost-child..." She wanted to say so much, had volumes of old advice and cautions to give to the boy that had become more like a son than a grandchild to her. She kept them to herself, instead. "You can have the money for it, if you want, child." It gave her heart a great sigh of relief to see the smile return to Ghost's scarlet mouth as he hopped over the couch and came to wrap her in a hug.
He sat at the kitchen table and mulled over what she might have meant by that. Give his heart to Steve... sure, he loved Steve, Steve was his only friend, only real friend, anyway. He didn't know what he would do without him, always had fun with him around, and most of all, felt safe. But give him his heart? The idea was somewhat alien to him, but intrigued him nonetheless, made him rebelliously curious. Something else quickly caught his attention, however. Deliverance shut the front door and went over to the closet, setting in the broom and leaning on the brass knob for a moment to catch her breath. His chest constricted horribly and he knew with far too much certainty these were her last days. She turned, saw his face. He could swear there were tears in her eyes, but a smile behind them. She set the shears on the side table in the living room and went quietly into her room. Steve was oblivious, ranting about his radio being stolen from his T-Bird.
"Hey, where you goin'?" Ghost practically stormed to her bedroom, blowing through the kitchen, living room, hall, and stopping dead at Deliverance's door, the one that would become Steve's room later, and drew in the hardest breath he had ever had to take.
"Don't you dare," he croaked softly. "Please, no." Deliverance nodded gently and set her old, tired body down on the bed. It was a little late and she had been going to bed earlier and earlier each night. He came to the bed and sat down as she laid out over the sheets.
"Tired old woman, Ghost. You gonna make me stay up with you and Steve all night?" She laughed a little at her own joke, but Ghost did not, stared down at her with eyes raining sorrow down his face. She licked her dry lips and took his hand. He squeezed back so hard he might have broken her little hand. "Can't stop this, child. Can't dare stop this. I promise you, my baby, it's OK, though. I ain't scared, no sir, not me." She gave him a smile that said she was a little afraid after all, but not enough. Not that scared, it would be alright. He offered a little smile for her sake.
"Why, though? Are you sick? Should I call a doctor, could I--"
"No use, my baby. A few days, a week, what does it matter? I'd have to go eventually. It would only hurt you worse, my child, Ghost-child, my earth angel." She took out his braid of hair from her apron and stroked it reverantly. "Maybe this will buy me a nice spot up in heaven, or as a life next time as a river. Always too restless to stay in one spot, me. I'd make a good, swift river." Ghost hung his head, pulled her hand to his cheek and cradled it for a long, long time, or so it seemed, until he felt Deliverance shifting, motioning for Steve, who stood dumbstruck and unbelieving at the door, to her side.
He stepped carefully across the room, like maybe if he turned around and left it wouldnt be happening, but he arrived at the bed at last, sitting behind Ghost, one hand strong on his shoulder, the other taking Deliverance's hand. "Are you--"
"Shush, child, you'll scare me. Come 'ere, sugar." She pulled him down to her, leaned her face into his thick, wild hair. "You make a promise, ya hear? You take care of my baby, you watch my baby. Love him good for me." Steve nodded. He hadn't asked to become a part of this magic family, but it happened anyway. He may not have asked to, but he was lucky he had. "Promise me," she insisted.
"I swear," he whispered. Steve had broken a lot of promises. This one was a vow. He hadn't broken one of those yet. If this were his only one, he never would.
She smiled, then laughed the sadness off. She was never a woman to let tragedy linger. "Good. Now get on out'chuh so I can talk t' my Ghost-child." He did as he was told, went to lay down on Ghost's bed and dream slow, technicolor dreams about swimming in a river of gold. Deliverance held Ghost's hand until it was completely dark outside the house that would soon be his, telling him as many herb remedies and magic secrets as she could. "Ain't never taught you my magic, boy. Damn shame, too. You's as magic as they come. Damn near an ingredient." He shook his head and tried to speak, but did not. Her old finger touched his lips and she turned her head, long, silver hair fanning out around her like a snow storm. "My earth angel. Oooh, child, you gonna be real pretty for a long, long time. Somebody real strong gonna take yo' heart. Don't ever think love ain't enough, my baby, specially when love is all you got. Love always gonna be enough."
- - - -
Ghost couldn't feel his legs or backside anymore, the gravel over the grave digging into his skin through his jeans, but he didn't care. Sometimes, if he was very patient here, she would talk to him. He hugged his knees to his chest and stared at the stone. "You were right," he whispered to her, rocking back and forth to keep warm. "You were so right. I gave him my heart, Deliverance. I gave him damn near everything I had. So what now? You told me someone strong would love me, but Steve... is this it? He loves me, but is this all I get? Do I never get to feel his kiss again? Do I get to die a celibate old sensitive with love for the one person that might not know how to return it? I guess I could do that as long as he's with me, but is this really what you meant would happen?" He sighed, frustrated. She wasn't here today, or was not answering. She had done this in life, as well. There were certain things she made him find out for himself. "I love him, you know that. I love him real good. I wouldn't mind giving myself to him. I want to. I want to have that, and I never did before. It's just... sometimes your words give me hope. And other days... other days they make me feel real damn alone."
He fell quiet when he heard loud footsteps crunching through the graveyard. Steve stepped up behind him and gave him a little toe to the back. "Surprised you're not frozen." Ghost caught a thought, Are you alright? When he stayed silent, Steve knelt down beside him. "Y'know, I miss her, too." Ghost sighed and Steve raked hand back through his hair, thinking maybe that was a dumb thing to say. "You two talkin' bad about me?" Ghost let a short laugh escape.
"Naw. She ain't talkin' today, anyway."
"Just as well. I put your bike in the trunk. Let's get home before you turn blue." Ghost felt himself warm a little already at Steve's second-nature care, following him back to the T-Bird with a silent goodbye to Miz Deliverance. The drive home was quiet. Supper of TV dinners was quiet. Watching a little TV was quiet. Steve didn't prompt Ghost to talk, despite wanting to, and Ghost didn't offer that he wanted to share. After a while, however, Steve Finn's curiosity got the better of him and he shook Ghost by the shoulder. "Are you OK, Ghost?"
Ghost closed his eyes. A lot had been plowing through his head all at once. A lot he felt was stupid, and a lot of it hopeless. He let out a long breath and allowed himself to lean into Steve a little. "No." He pushed up off the couch and went to grab a bottle of anything. The fridge left him unsatisfied and when he turned around to go to the cabinets over the stove, Steve was standing there with his arms crossed over his chest, looking about as gloomy as Ghost.
"You been actin' a little strange today. Ain't never known you to leave me in the dark." He bit his lip and stepped a little closer. Ghost could feel Steve's mind screaming at itself to hold Ghost to him, but Steve did not. "Are you mad at me or somethin'? Did I say anything stupid lately?"
Ghost showed him a little smile and shook his head. "Not mad. Just got a lot on my mind. Sorry. I didn't mean to push you away."
Steve was going to fucking cry. Ghost got real scared when he realized that much, Steve Finn was about to break down into tears. "Good," he started against his better judgement, but once the first step was done, he couldn't stop. "'Cause I couldn't stand it if you were mad at me, if you didn't want to be around me. I know things have been tough, and that we got on each other's nerves drivin' an' all, but... goddamn, Ghost. I get this sick feeling in my stomach anytime I think about something being wrong with you, or hurting you. The things that... those things have blown over, and it's water under the bridge, but it still hurts and I'm scared maybe it scarred you in a way I can't see, that you wont let me see.I'm too damn close to you, Ghost. It scares me how much I need you. But I don't ever want to find out if I could live without you." He pushed his face shamefully into Ghost's throat, letting out quiet sobs.
Ghost stood stunned for a moment, then put his arms around Steve, whose own arms were still locked across his chest. He held onto Steve good and tight, stroked his back and hair. The year on the road had left a lot in the way of turning over and over again with the previous year's turmoil. It had put a lot in between them, too, things they knew were there, but now keenly aware of them, building their strength. But being home now, it all felt surreal. Ghost guessed it had slapped Steve in the face pretty hard, and maybe this one good cry might help. Steve felt warm in his arms, and he could tell he felt safe, and if Ghost could help it, he always would.
After a good cry, the long night passed with deep, dreamless sleeps, new dawn kissing Ghost passionately, a sweet promise of the first few days return all by washed away.