There are things I don’t do, as a magician. I don’t see ghosts if I can avoid it, and I never answer phones. The kind of people who call me aren’t the kind I want to talk to, and I very much include family in that. You don’t become a magician without hurting others, even if you never mean to. Perhaps especially if you never mean to. You learn quickly that sorry doesn’t mean a damn thing at all, or you learn nothing that matters at all.
Which is why waking up to a ghost at the foot of the cheap motel bed I’m sleeping in isn’t anything I expected to happen. I have wards about me, and Jay is in the other bed: he is from far Outside the universe, and unbinds ghosts from existence just by walking through them since to him they don’t exist at all. I could wake him and end this, but I recognize the ghost and get out of the bed, pulling shoes on and walking outside; it floats through the wall after me.
“You sleep clothed.” The ghost’s voice is a dry whisper of dead paper.
“It saves time.” I pull out a cigarette from a pocket, light it with a thought. Showing off, but I can’t quite stop myself. The smoke drifts out with my breath, binding the ghost. He doesn’t notice, which means he’s newly dead. “Ben.”
He says my name. His eyes are dark as they were when he was alive, his smile a flash of crooked teeth. I’d fallen in love with him for the smile; his father had made enough money to fix his teeth a dozen times over. Ben had refused every time. He was the first guy I slept with, and the first one I’d kissed and wished for the moment to last. Binding us together without even noticing, because I was so new to being a magician and so alone away from home. Stupid, but everyone is young and stupid at seventeen, and magicians aren’t an exception to that.
“What do you want?”
“You’re dead, and you came to me. That means you want something.”
Ben stares down, through his hands and then up to me. “My heart gave out during a workout.”
“Huh.” He looks as he did when we knew each other: chubby, with a smile that came quick or not at all, and a face that couldn’t hide secrets. He’d known I was going to leave long before I did, and needed no magic to do that. “I can’t undo that.”
“I know. I just – I wanted to say goodbye.”
“We did that.”
Ben hesitates. “I don’t think we did entirely, if I am bound to you?”
“Magicians are bad at letting go of things.” I let out a breath, and undo every binding to him. They are old and it is not without pain, but I hope he doesn’t see that at all.
He tells me nothing of his life. I say nothing about mine.
“Your smile is different,” he says finally, and even he does not seem to know if that is a judgement. I just nod, and the ghost is gone between one moment and the next. I light a second cigarette, using its smoke to undo the binding against harm I’d done earlier. Not that I’d expected him to harm me, but one can never be sure.
I don’t say I’m sorry, even if his sprit is somehow listening. I just smoke a third cigarette and let it burn down to my fingers until even I am not sure if I am judging myself. I go back inside and wait for sleep that takes too long to come.
I don’t dream.
I try not to think about what that says about me.