"Your hair smells very strong."
It was midnight and Whitney was crouching behind a tombstone, trying to pretend a malevolent spirit was not patrolling the cemetery at that very moment, eager to possess her soul and possibly end her young life forever. She had more pressing matters to attend to.
Morty, whose family managed the cemetery and who was regarded as a creepy ghost-lover by his peers, was huddling beside her and smelling her shampoo. There was also the small matter of her will, which required a living witness to carry it out in the event that she died tonight, which was becoming more and more likely. Unfortunately, due to her inability to predict the near future, her only witness (aka Morty) was most likely to die with her. And knowing his friendly relationship with ghosts, Morty probably already wrote out his will years ago and did not need a witness.
If she'd known her life would be ending tonight, Whitney would have used her entire college savings to buy the world's fastest helicopter, or possibly even a time machine. But as she didn't have the foresight to do either of these things, Whitney chose the next best option.
"Morty? Can you run out and get the spirit's attention?"
He paused. "Why would I do that?"
"So I can escape."
He turned to face her and asked, "You want me to sacrifice my soul?" Whitney peeked over the crumbling tombstone to see where the spirit went.
"It doesn't want your soul, it wants mine," she reminded him. "You can communicate with ghosts. Make a deal or something. Be a hero."
There was a sudden gust of icy wind as the evil spirit came closer to their hiding spot, shaking the skeletal trees and almost drowning out Whitney's frantic hiss, "Go on! Run!"
Much to her surprise, Morty stood up.
"And if I made a deal to offer your soul for mine?" he said wryly.
She couldn't believe this was the same boy that everybody avoided at school. Then again, she of all people knew Morty's true personality. "I am very disappointed," Whitney declared, forgetting to keep her voice down. "And after I let you smell my hair, this is how you thank me?"
"You're the one that got us into this mess," he pointed out, choosing to ignore the last remark. "If you'd stayed home I could have sealed the spirit so it couldn't come back out."
"It was manipulating me through my dreams!"
His violet eyes found hers in the moonlight and Whitney was struck by how eerie and non-human he looked. "It found your weak points," he told her calmly. "It took advantage of those gaps in your defense and then controlled parts of your subconscious. If your barrier was more solid it wouldn't have been able to enter your mind at all."
"Are you saying I've got holes in my mind?"
"I sleepwalk," she declared. "I probably just walked all the way here."
He gave her a look that said he didn't believe her, and Morty continued, "You have recurring dreams about me and the cemetery. You feel strong urges to come here at night. These are all signs of the spirit's manipulation of your mind. Because of your weakness, you are an easy soul to possess."
Before she could respond, he unwound his scarf and draped it over the tombstone. Morty grabbed her hand and pulled her up, saying, "Hurry. The decoy won't last long."
They rushed away from their hiding place, and Whitney swore she could see a dark mist whipping towards the abandoned scarf.
"Where are we going?"
The town's church was a small building only a few minutes away from the cemetery. Whitney was on the track team, but she was still dressed in her sleepwear and Morty's legs were longer, so he pulled her down the empty streets. To her surprise, his hand was dry and warm, not cold and clammy.
But again, she already knew that, didn't she?
"We'll be safe in here," he said as they walked into the unlocked church. "I need to prepare some materials. Wait here and don't go outside."
"I'm not that stupid."
She puffed from the exercise and ambled down the aisle, familiar with the contours of the old building. At the altar, somebody had replaced last week's plants with colorful flower arrangements. The sanctuary smelled heavily of lilies.
Morty went over to the light switch and asked, "Are you cold?"
"Nope. Thank goodness it's summer. How about you?"
"I'll be fine."
Whitney watched him head over to the pulpit. It was strange seeing him without that purple scarf, and suddenly she recalled his grandmother making it for him before she passed away. A guilty pang made her wish for the umpteenth time that she'd ignored the strange urge to visit the cemetery tonight.
"What were you doing at the cemetery anyways?" she asked him, not having had the chance to do so before the evil spirit tried to possess her.
Morty had disappeared behind the pulpit. "Looking for you," his voice replied. "I had a feeling you were in trouble."
"Oh." Somehow she was not surprised. "What are you doing?"
"Finding a Bible."
Whitney nodded, seeing the sense in that. She had heard of people being possessed by spirits or demons, but she didn't think it would happen to her.
"How long do we have to stay here?"
He was either being deliberately vague or she was expecting too much. It was probably both. Plopping down in the front pew, Whitney decided to throw out the questions. "Hey Morty. Why are there holes in my mind?"
There were rummaging sounds before he responded, "I don't know."
"What exactly is that spirit?"
"It's a spirit."
"Am I the only one in this city that has Swiss cheese for a brain?"
"No." He stood up and walked down from the pulpit, carrying a Bible and a small silver vial the pastor used for baptizing. "Everyone has weaknesses. Yours is just easier for spirits to manipulate."
"They know I'm allergic to kiwis?"
Morty sat down next to her with an audible sigh. "I believe it's more subtle than that. The mind has weaknesses that we might not be aware of ourselves. Stress, guilt, fear… there are many things in our subconscious that can leak out and manifest into the physical world. Spirits are more sensitive to such conditions than we are."
"That's like psychoanalysis," she realized. "Holy crap, Freud's ghost is out for me."
He chuckled a bit, the sound tired in his throat. She felt relieved that her lame joke had made him relax slightly, because it was 1 o'clock in the morning and he seemed to be more exhausted than Whitney. Peeking sideways, she took in his tousled blond hair and pale skin, and felt another guilty pang.
"Thank you," she said. At his questioning glance, Whitney explained, "For coming out tonight. I don't know what I would have done if you weren't there with me." She remembered the fear that seemed to choke her scream when she was unable to stop her feet from walking towards the dark cemetery. She couldn't forget the relief that flooded her veins when Morty came to her rescue. Whitney didn't know how grateful she was for his presence until right now, sitting together in the safety of the church.
He was always there for her when she needed him.
"You're always cheerful at school," Morty remarked quietly. "But nobody is happy all the time. Everybody has something they need to deal with, something they're struggling with. And judging by this spirit, you've been struggling with something for quite a while."
She gazed down at her hands, small and strong, and said, "I won't pretend I'm okay. I've been stressing a lot lately. You know, with graduation. Finals. Finding a job. Life."
"Those are normal worries," he pointed out.
"I know." She hesitated, squeezing her hands absently. "Maybe I'm secretly worried about my future. Maybe I'm sick of being single and lonely. Maybe I feel guilty about ignoring you for the past eight years. I don't know."
He stared at the pulpit for so long she thought he hadn't heard her. But then he said mildly, "Nine years."
Whitney paused, recalling the vivid dreams that plagued her every single night for the past month. They were mostly dreams about her and Morty, back when they used to be childhood friends and didn't know how other people looked at him. Morticians carried a stigma wherever they went in society, and her town was no exception. She shouldn't have cared, but she did, and nine years later she was still trapped in a never-ending cycle of nostalgia and guilt.
She shouldn't have abandoned him, even if it was for his sake.
Outside the church, a strong wind shook the trees. The lights flickered once, then twice. Whitney didn't notice; she barely registered the pain when her nails dug into her hands.
"I've always regretted not talking to you," she told him quietly. "It was my fault. I had low self-esteem. Your family's really traditional. I felt like I was annoying you. So when my parents told me to stop hanging out with you because of our image, I said okay. I thought it was great timing, because you were probably going to get sick of me anyways." Whitney chuckled ruefully, lowering her head to hide her face. "Its nine years too late, but I'm sorry for hurting you. It was my fault."
The wind was really picking up. The lights seemed to be dying, flickering at a rapid pace.
Morty inhaled lightly and she heard him stir in his seat. Perhaps he was moving away, disappointed and angry at her. He had every right to be upset, she reasoned glumly. At least she had summoned the courage to confess to him. She had finally let it all out. Nine years of holding it in, repeating the memories like a broken record player, and wallowing in her childhood guilt like a romantic fool.
"You never change," he said quietly. "Your logic is as confusing as ever." He didn't sound upset or happy, and despite being prepared for it, Whitney felt her stomach plummet.
"I don't expect you to forgive me or anything," she continued, forcing her tone to be light. "I'm just glad you listened to me." The windows seemed to rattle slightly from the force of the wind. "You probably don't want to be friends anymore. But I just wanted you to know that I regret losing you as a friend, and that it really was my entire fault."
Morty turned to face her, but she refused to look. "Are you crying?" he asked.
He sighed. "Whitney—"
And then the lights went out.
"Oh great," she babbled in relief, "the power's out. I'll go look for some candles or something."
She was about to stand up when he grabbed her arm. "It knows we're here," Morty muttered close to her ear. "You lowered your defenses again."
Whitney froze. "What do we do?"
Before he could answer, the church suddenly became colder, as if the AC turned on by itself. There was an odd buzzing noise around them, like static electricity, and Whitney swore she could hear something banging on the windows.
As her eyes became adjusted to the dark, she could see the slight frown on Morty's face. Fear clenched inside her as she realized they were in trouble again.
"It won't stop until it possesses me, right?" Whitney asked. Beside her, she could feel Morty's warm breath hit her skin.
"You'll be fine," he assured. "I'll take care of it."
That wasn't right, Whitney thought. An evil spirit was trying to possess her soul for whatever reason and she was dragging Morty with her. If anything, she should be the one taking care of things. It occurred to her that Morty's safety meant a whole lot more to her than anything else, least of all her own safety.
Whitney leaned over and hugged him.
It sounded like a storm outside, the wind was blowing so hard. She could feel him stiffen from the sudden contact. The angle was awkward, but her arms wrapped around his neck and she buried her face where his scarf would have been. "Your shirt smells good," she told him.
He sat very still under her embrace. "Are you scared?" Morty asked calmly.
She groped blindly on the pew beside him and her hands found the Bible and the vial. She had absolutely no idea what she was going to do with them, but it had to be better than doing nothing. This was her problem and her problem only. Nobody else needed to be involved.
Morty felt her move away and he snagged her wrist. "I said I'll take care of it," he said sharply.
"But it wants me, not you," she insisted. "I'll try to ward it off while you run away. I don't want you dying because of me."
He squeezed her wrist almost painfully. "Whitney," he said in a low tone she recognized. Morty was angry. "Don't be stupid. I don't need you to put yourself in danger for me."
"It's not stupid," she flared back, ignoring his tightening grip. "I'm saving lives. I'm saving you."
"No," he corrected. "You're killing yourself."
"You have any better ideas?" she retorted. "If I die, it can't possess me."
He abruptly shoved her down on the seat, pinning her arms so she couldn't get up. The Bible and vial dropped from her hands. She tried to sit up but he was stronger. Anger and frustration exploded inside her like a hot furnace. "Do you want to die?" she shouted at him, struggling to free herself. "Get off me, Morty. You're going to get hurt if I don't do anything!"
She felt him drop his head in the junction between her neck and shoulder. His voice came out just barely above a murmur, and yet she heard him.
"I'm not losing you again," he said.
Whitney slowly registered his words as though they came from miles away. She grew still, realizing the hands holding her down were trembling as well. She turned her head and pressed her lips to his hair. "You never really lost me in the first place," she told him calmly. "We were just on hiatus."
Morty laughed softly. His breath tickled her skin something fierce.
"Don't ever say you're going to die," he ordered quietly. "Not for something like this."
"I guess I should save it for some nobler reason," Whitney agreed wistfully, wishing they could stay like this forever. Then she realized it was suddenly very quiet in the church. "Hey," she said, "I think the spirit's gone." Right on cue, the lights flickered back on, and she squinted at the windows. Not even a stir.
"It's still out there," he replied, helping her sit up. "But it won't come back as long as you remain strong."
She paused in the middle of straightening her hair. "You mean… did it disappear because…?"
He smiled at her. It was a beautiful smile, and she felt her heart do a loop. "You became stronger," he confirmed. "There was no other way to defeat it except by overcoming your own weakness."
"Then we didn't need these things?" Whitney gestured at the Bible and the vial, dumbfounded. He shook his head. "And what about your scarf? Did we even have to come to the church?"
"As long as you believed it worked," he explained, "it would work. The spirit's power is only as much as you give it."
She stared at the pulpit, feeling kind of foolish. "You're very clever," she told him grudgingly.
"And you're very brave," he returned with a smile.
"We make a good pair," she said thoughtfully, and promptly became horrified. "I mean, as friends," she hastily added, feeling herself blush again. "Wait, are we friends? Sorry, I'm still kind of dazed from what just happened." Whitney couldn't look up at him. She could feel his gaze on her and wondered what he must be thinking.
After a very long pause, he finally spoke.
"As you said, we were just on hiatus."
Whitney looked up in surprise, and he gave her a different smile from before. The lights must have flickered because suddenly he was closer to her than he was a second ago, his arm sliding behind her shoulders on the pew. She could smell his shirt again, a pleasant scent that made her want to hug him and never let go. And Morty was steadily getting closer.
"Your scarf," she blurted out, edging away.
"I'll get it later," he answered, the expression in his violet eyes making Whitney suddenly wonder if her breath smelled.
"Does my hair really smell that bad?" she asked him hesitantly.
His hand went up to her hair, brushing the pink strands before cupping the nape of her neck. She wasn't sure what was warmer, her skin or his hand. "Let me check," Morty said, and leaned forward a few inches.
And being brave, Whitney closed the remaining gap.
After nine years the hiatus was officially over.
Author's Note: Instead of writing about it, the author should visit the nearest cemetery at midnight and find her own handsome mortician. Social stigma be damned.
Note to self: There was no evil spirit. It was just the author trying to get the two together.