Dyer is doing a conference call with the people who run CASPER. The kind of people who say ‘ghosts are real, but convince everyone they aren’t’ and can’t explain who figured that was the best solution to the problem or even why the Department of Education is funding it. Government people, in other words. He’s been working with them for years, and he has a lot more patience than I do. Being a ghost for a hundred years does that, even if he isn’t like any other ghost in the world. For one, he can eat them. For another, he’s been banned from the grey lands where ghosts reside. Without ever having been there or done anything to it, probably proof they have a government as well.
I’ve gone for a walk, because that is better than listening to suits talk about stuff they don’t know squat about. Some of them even refuse to admit I exist, so I’m not quite sure what they budget me under for the pittance CASPER pays us. I’m not a ghost or ghost-eater. My names Charlie, and I’m a god-eater with a god inside me. Because that sort of things happens when you run into magicians and because if there is anything better to do with the monster that lived under your bed and in your closet than to become part of it, I don’t know what that is.
Dyer is – nice. It’s probably on his tombstone somewhere. ‘Died of wasting sickness, nice boy. Didn’t complain as his body ate itself from the inside out. Which was nice.’ I’m not nice, but I get the job done when he can’t. Make the kinds of choices he’s not good at making, or that CASPER doesn’t actually allow us to make. I’ve been working with them for a few months, and I’m pretty sure my life is at least five times as boy as Dyer’s, if not more. Rules are good, up until they let monsters get away with terrible things or let people be monsters. At which point I step in and deal with shit. Hard. Doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets, just means I find there’s other things a lot more important than that.
I’m on my second coffee, wondering if every city is the same once you remove the tourist traps when my phone rings, playing the theme from Jaws. I answer without even looking. “What?”
“Honcho ith buthy,” Jay says on the other end, “Doing some magic in dreamth. I thought we could vithit?”
“Did it occur to you that I might be busy?”
“Yeth, but you’re not,” he says firmly.
“And you know this how?”
“Becauthe I’m right here,” he says. Behind me.
I pause, then turn my phone off and turn. Jay grins, beaming with pride. He looks human, a pale kid of about ten but he’s really from far Outside the universe, bound into the service of the wandering magician. They’re friends, in the complicated senses of the word. You can only travel with a magician for so long before it’s just too much. He hurt Jay, and Jay refused to blame him for it.
“Where are you and the magician right now?”
“Over there,” he says, waving a hand westward. “I ran, becauthe Honcho wanth me to practithe moving fatht and thought we could catch up on thingth!”
“And you want me to buy you food.”
“Running far ith hard,” he says shamelessly.
I buy the kid three subs and he wolfs them down, finishing with pop and sits back in the cheap subway chairs with a happy sigh. “So. In the months we’ve been away, we have talked –.”
“Once you unblocked me on your phone,” he mutters.
“And caught up on things.” I let the god inside me leak into my eyes, hints of red flickering. “You’ve never ran across at least one entire state for a visit, Jay. So talk.”
“I am talking. That’th what we’re doing right now!”
I don’t raise my voice, but he flinches back and bites into his lower lip. His body is tough enough that he can’t break skin, but he does try anyway. “I want to know why you hate me,” he says finally.
“Why you hate me. I didn’t have a thingle eth at all.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Then you’d be travelling with uth,” he says.
“It didn’t occur to you that I might hate the magician?”
“You don’t; you’ve talked to Honcho a lot and you’re hith friend.”
“And we’re not friends?” I say slowly.
Jay’s eyes widen at that and he says: “I didn’t mean – I meant –.” And then he shoves his right thumb into his mouth and begins sucking on it.
I force myself not to look away. “Jay. Stop that.”
He shakes his head, not looking away. “It helpth me when I’m thcared.”
“I haven’t done anything for you to be scared of,” I snap.
“You’re breaking bindingth with me and you don’t thee them and it hurtth,” he says. “Thith is part of me and Honcho did it but he didn’t know it would happen and it’th not hith fault and you don’t like me and we were friendth!” The last word is flung out like an insult and he’s trembling in the seat as he stares at me, tears streaming down his gace.
“We’re still friends, Jay.” I keep my voice calm with an effort.
He shakes his head. “You don’t even want to look at me. I can thee bindingth, Charlie, all the time and you keep breathing them with me right now and – and it’th painful and I want to make it right and I don’t know how!”
People are staring; Jay ignores them, eyes locked on me with frantic desperation.
I reach over and pull his thumb out of his mouth. “You’re not a little kid.”
“I’m not even a kid,” he snaps, trying to yank his hand free. I don’t let go, and then a moment later my fingers open, pulled by unseen force as he shoves his thumb back into his mouth and glowers up at me. “And I can undo bindingth too! You care about thith and it’th not important, Charlie. It’th thomething I am doing, but it’th not me.”
“You were damaged; that’s why you’re doing that and I don’t like it and I don’t like that it was done to you. That’s it.”
“You were damaged too when Honcho put a god inthide you,” Jay says.
“You’re claiming this is good for you, that he did this to you?”
The sarcasm misses him entirely. “It’th letting me bind mythelf, tho I am learning to do that and it maketh people underethtimate me even more and that ith always good. I could get mad at Honcho but he’th my friend and you don’t hurt your friendth for real and I’m uthing it to be thtrong!”
I take a few breaths, pull the god back entirely inside me; Jay relaxes a little at that. “You mean that?”
I stand, and head out of the Subway. Jay follows, still suckong on his thumb as we walk down the street. “You’re just doing this to bug me right now, aren’t you?”
“Yeth.” He grins, and removes his thumb. “You can thcare me a lot, with being you and having a god in you and thith ith the betht I can do to thcare you in turn.”
I stare down at him. “All right, see it like this: if you’re strong, you can use that strength against your enemies. Sucking on your thumb isn’t going to scare anyone.”
“I can’t not do it,” he says. “If I’m thcared, it – it happenth and not doing it ith really hard and Honcho is okay with that and you’re not and it hurtth, Charlie.”
“Friends hurt each other; everyone does that.”
“Not alwayth, not over a thmall thingtlike a thumb,” he says. “Pleathe?”
I let out a breath. “I’ll try. Okay?”
He nods, and then is simply gone a moment later, probably returning to the magician. I keep walking. I would tell him how far my mom went to stop me from sucking my fingers when I was four, but it’s not that. It’s that the magician hurt Jay and Jay can’t see that, refuses to see that. Refuses to let it be that, and I find myself wondering, slowly, if that is a kind of strength even if it isn’t a human kind. To make his own truth, to refuse to hate his friends for hurting him. To keep the bindings between us whole. I’m not a nice person, but sometimes – just sometimes – I’m like that because it’s the easy option. And Dyer has pointed that out in his diffident way a few times.
I text him, just one line: ‘It takes a lot of strength to not hate someone you possibly should hate.’ I don’t get a reply; Dyer is probably busy with the government-types still, or thinks it is my version of a pep talk. Maybe it is. I don’t know.