Haunted Hearts: A Ghost Story
Up until the night he died, Ethan Abbot’s tenure as a Vermont State Trooper had been blissfully uneventful, which was how he liked it. A creature of habit, he took comfort in the uniform and the regular hours, the ritual of climbing into the patrol car and cruising down the same stretch of highway four nights a week, forty-six weeks out of the year. Sure, he’d dealt with his share of reckless drivers, equipment violations, and DUIs. But when Ethan promised his wife he’d be home for breakfast, it was safe to assume he’d be back in time for a quickie in the shower before she could set foot in the kitchen. It was this presumption of security, this lack of variation, that made Ethan reluctant to take his wife seriously when she said, “If you leave tonight, you won’t come back tomorrow.”
Ethan kissed the sweet spot behind her ear. “You can’t know that, Rosie.”
But she did. She knew it as well as she knew the man inside her.
Having loved one another since they were children, they were well aware of each other’s quirks, like Ethan’s blind trust and Rose’s hunches—one of her many eccentricities. Everyone in Craftsbury considered Rose peculiar. Everyone except Ethan, who never raised an eyebrow when her spice cakes came out chocolate, or when all the dogs in the neighborhood took to howling that time she burned her finger on hot caramel.
“Ask Ted to cover for you,” she said. “He owes you one for the shift you took last month.”
“Even if I wanted to, it’s not enough notice. I have to be at the station by six.” He caressed her cheek. “Am I doing something wrong?”
“Because we’re having sex and all you can think about is how I’m going to die.” He pressed a kiss to her neck. “Nothing bad is going to happen to me. And even if something crazy were to come up, Death himself couldn’t stop me from getting back to you.”
Rose covered her face with both hands. “Don’t even joke about that.”
Unable to find her lips, Ethan kissed the backs of her hands. He reached between her thighs to stroke her clitoris, cracking her resolve wide open, like a book he’d read backwards and forwards and never tired of.
“I promise.” He guided her hands away from her face, pinning her wrists to the sheet; it wouldn’t be the first time she’d levitated during sex. “I will come home to you.”
They moved together like two kids on a swing set, racing to see who would fly high enough to jump first. Pleasure simmered in the cauldron of Rose’s pelvis, tangy and dark as molasses. When she came, she came in swallows, her inner muscles gulping like a throat.
"If you don't come back—" Her voice shook. “—I'll never leave this house again.”
Ethan cursed, his arms taut from holding himself above her. “Rosie, nothing is—”
“I mean it.” She wrapped her legs around him, feet crossed at the ankles. “Take damn good care of yourself. No unnecessary risks.”
He touched his lips to hers and whispered, "You’re so fucking beautiful.”
Then, he swallowed her response.
Rose Abbot’s grandmother always said a spoon knocked off the table was a sign of trouble. That afternoon, the bottom of the utensil drawer gave out. Later, when she stood on the porch to wave goodbye to the man she loved, she noticed all the leaves on the ancient oak had browned and fallen. Unusual, given that it was barely June.
All evening, Rose ignored the omens. The cats throwing up their dinner, doors sticking in their jams. Dead flies littering the windowsills in the den. Like the prickle at the back of your throat before the flu takes hold, Rose sensed the incoming call long before she heard it.
For all the not-so-subtle signs, the news might as well have flown in out of nowhere for how unprepared she was.
Ethan had been killed sometime after midnight in a hit-and-run.
His funeral was held next door at his mother’s house a week later. The whole town of Craftsbury was in attendance.
Rose endured the smiles and sympathies, a far cry from the abuses they used to hurl at her in school. Witch, they would call after her. It was true that Rose’s grandmother had been a healer of sorts. She'd taught Rose all about tending a garden and brewing teas that could cure the common cold in a matter of hours. But apart from the strangeness that trailed Rose like a stray cat, she never thought of herself as magical.
Rather than stay with Ethan’s family after the funeral, Rose retreated to the emptiness of her own house. She didn't come out the next day, or the day after. As the weeks passed, the whole town began to wonder if she would ever leave home.
On the Fourth of July, Rose dreamt that she was buried beneath a pile of glittering fluff inside a snow globe. It filled her ears and mouth and the caverns of her nose.
That night, in the town of Craftsbury, it began to snow.
All summer, children spent their days building snow forts instead of sand castles, and ice skating down at the local pool. Leaf buds, encased in ice, armed the trees like cactus needles, and residents with snow plows made more money that summer than any winter before.
In all that time, not once did Rose Abbot leave her house.
On rare nights when she woke, flushed and aroused, her skin burning with the memory of Ethan's fingerprints, she would try and touch herself. But beyond the momentary contact rush, she could find no release. It was as though her capacity for pleasure had gone dormant, along with her ability to feel anything but grief.
If it weren't for Rose’s mother-in-law coming by twice a week to drop off food and toilet paper, she wouldn't have seen another soul.
“Have you eaten today, Rose?” Lenore asked as she parted the living room curtains. Though it was overcast, Rose still squinted against the light. “I thought maybe you’d like to come over tonight, have some dinner, help me hand out candy. Though I’m not sure how many trick or treaters we’ll get with all the snow.”
Hand out candy? Rose counted the weeks on her fingers.
Four months had passed in what felt like a fortnight. It was already Halloween, which meant it was also Samhain, the Gaelic holiday marking the end of the harvest and the start of winter. It was a night when the boundaries between worlds became hazy and easier to cross—if you believed in that sort of thing, as her grandmother had.
Rose nestled further into the couch. “Thanks, Lenore, but I think I’ll sit this one out.”
Ethan’s mother patted her shoulder. “Ethan wouldn't want you to live like this, Rose.”
Then he shouldn’t have left me to die alone.
The words on Rose’s tongue were sharp as glass. It cut her throat to swallow them. Lenore sighed and left the room, returning a moment later with a wooden box.
“I thought you might like to have some of his ashes here with you.” She set the box on the coffee table, then swept a lock of coffee-colored hair from Rose’s face. “Think about coming over. Your cats miss you. We all do.”
Rose certainly missed her cats. Lenore had graciously offered to look after them when it became clear Rose didn’t have the energy to keep herself clean let alone three litter boxes. But Rose couldn’t bear the thought of sitting across from Ethan’s sisters, both of whom had been vocal in their suspicion that Ethan might still be alive today had he not shacked up with the town witch.
Alone again, Rose drew the box of Ethan’s ashes into her lap. It was a simple dark wood box with a bronze latch. Not heavy, but substantial enough that she couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there. Unable to reconcile how a man who had been larger than life could be made to fit inside such a small vessel, she began looking for a place to set the box down. First, she tried the mantel, but that didn’t feel right. Then Ethan’s trophy case, but that wouldn’t do either.
Cradling the box, Rose wandered the house, making streaks in the dust on the furniture with her fingers. She skimmed her hands over Ethan’s clothes and their shared bookshelves, until a spark like a carpet shock zapped her as she touched one particular volume.
Her grandmother’s grimoire. A heavy tome bursting at its covers with spells and recipes for all manner of ills. She pulled it from the shelf.
Setting the box on the big oak desk, Rose leafed through the well-worn pages until she found what she had unknowingly been looking for: a spell to summon a spirit to you. The instructions, scrawled in her grandmother’s looping hand, said to bundle five sprigs of thyme, twelve strands of the deceased’s hair and one other personal item into a small pouch to be worn around the neck of the caster from noon until the sun went down.
Rose glanced at the clock. It was already half-past eleven.
Acting quickly, she fetched her husband’s hairbrush from the bathroom cabinet. As for the “other item,” she reckoned it couldn’t get more personal than one’s own ashes. For the pouch, she scrabbled together a small drawstring pocket tied with a leather cord. Then, she hurried downstairs to the attached greenhouse, praying the cold outside hadn’t weaseled in and strangled the herbs.
In the kitchen, she got to work threading thyme sprigs with Ethan’s honey-blond hair. Careful not to tear the stitches, she eased the bundle into the drawstring pocket. The ashes dusted her fingers as she gathered up a handful. Careful not to spill, she sprinkled the sandy cremains into the pouch.
With the charm around her neck, Rose parked herself in Ethan's favorite reading chair and waited.
She waited all afternoon.
As the last of the sun’s rays disappeared behind the garden fence, so too did Rose’s optimism. What had she expected? A phone call from the great beyond? She wasn’t enough of a sucker to believe in Heaven, though she’d been fool enough to think that her strangeness could actually be useful for once.
Ethan wasn't coming back. That should’ve been obvious.
Tearing the pouch from her neck, Rose marched through the living room and threw open the French doors. Cold air pricked the parts of her not shielded by her nightgown. With a howling snarl, she hurled the pouch out into the snow.
Rose slammed the doors and then slid to the floor, curling in upon herself like a dying spider.
Having sobbed herself to sleep, she didn’t notice the breeze on her skin or the strong arms that carried her up to bed like a child. It wasn’t until she woke, squinting into the darkness of her bedroom, confused and disoriented, that she sensed the heat against her back and an arm around her midriff.
Lips brushed the nape of her neck. Fear seized like burnt chocolate in her stomach as hope ballooned in her chest. Sliding her hand under the covers, Rose traced the length of the arm across her belly until she found fingers.
“Say something,” she whispered.
The hand on her stomach slid to her breast. She shivered. If this wasn’t Ethan, then it could only be a stranger. Had she forgotten to lock the doors after she’d thrown the pouch into the snow? She couldn’t remember.
Bracing for the fight of her life, Rose balled her fists and turned to confront her silent bedmate.
Moonlight spilled onto the other half of the bed. It was empty.
The spell had worked.
“Wait.” She pawed at the sheets but found no trace of Ethan. “Come back. Come back, I’m here!”
Had she dreamt the feel of his hands and lips, or worse, lost her only chance to reunite with her husband?
No. He had to still be around. She just needed a way to make contact.
Rose ran to the kitchen for a shot glass and a marker. Back in the bedroom, she folded up the threadbare rug to reveal a strip of hardwood on which she scrawled an arching alphabet, plus the words YES and NO. She laid the upturned shot glass on the floor and placed her finger on top.
“Ethan, are you still here?”
Nothing happened, not for a good long while. Though the air around her felt charged and leaden. As if pushed by an invisible hand, the shot glass slid across the floor to YES.
Rose stared in amazement as the glass spelled out, HELLO ROSIE.
Tears clouded her eyes. It was him, her husband, come back to her.
“Hi, baby.” Her voice trembled. “I’ve missed you so much.”
MISSED YOU TOO.
A warm gust tousled Rose’s hair.
She laughed for the first time in months. “Yeah, well, if I’d known I was going to be conjuring you tonight, I would’ve showered this morning.”
“Thanks.” Rose smiled, gliding the shot glass back to neutral. “How the hell is this even possible?”
DON’T KNOW. DON’T CARE.
“You know what? Me neither.” Rose couldn’t see her husband, but she could feel him and talk to him, and compared to the pain of losing him, that was enough. “I want you to touch me again, baby. Can you do that?”
TURN OFF THE LIGHT.
Rose switched off the lamp and then spread out on the bed and closed her eyes. Her heart pounded like horse hooves. Another draft swept across her skin, and the air began to feel weighted, warm and solid, until the distinct impression of a hand manifested on her cheek.
“I feel you. Holy shit, I can feel you.”
Ethan caressed her face and neck, coming to rest above her heart.
Rose arched her back. “Keep going.”
Fingers hooked into the front of her nightdress, drawing the straps down her shoulders. Rose reached out expecting to find nothing but air and gasped when she encountered skin. Ethan kissed her jaw and cupped her exposed breasts.
“God, I’ve missed this. You have no idea how mu—”
Ethan’s mouth closed over hers as if to say, Yes, I fucking do. She choked back whimpers as he pinched and strummed her nipples, her own hands tentatively exploring him. He felt so alive, her Ethan, her husband in-the-flesh, more or less. She broke their kiss to touch his face, tracing the lines of his jaw and the points of his cheekbones.
He wedged his body between her legs so he could push against her. He was naked—gloriously so—and very excited to see her.
“Oh, thank god.” She rounded her palm over the head of his cock. “I was hoping you could still do that.”
Rose peeled away her nightgown so they could lie skin-to-skin. She wanted to feel him everywhere, taste every part of him, touch him in all the places she hadn’t been able to since he’d passed. It was overwhelming, her need for him. She didn’t know where to start. As if sensing this, Ethan grasped her wrists and placed her hands on his chest so she could map him, kiss his nipples and taste the salt of his sweat.
Easing down his body, Rose took her time massaging his inner thighs before licking his shaft. As she wrapped her mouth around him, Ethan’s hands came down to cradle her head. He tasted the same, as good as she remembered.
She sucked until her jaw ached, until Ethan’s fingers tightened in her hair. She missed his verbal cues, how he called her honey just before he came. There was no semen, no salty gush at the back of her throat, but she knew the shudder that rocked his body meant he’d finished.
Rose crawled up Ethan’s body to place a kiss on his waiting lips, just as his hand found its way between her legs. He spread her, dipped two fingers into her wetness, then proceeded to palpate her clitoris, in a press-and-release motion rather than a rub, just how she liked it. Rose moaned as Ethan’s tongue swirled around her nipples, his fingers continuing to work their magic down below. She felt her orgasm rush through her body like floodwater, filling her cracks and crevices and spilling out her mouth.
Car alarms sounded across three blocks as Rose twitched and trembled. Ethan was still hard against her thigh, and she urged him to thrust inside her while her inner muscles still pulsed. The headboard groaned as though Ethan were gripping it to brace himself above her. More than anything, Rose wanted to open her eyes and see her handsome husband’s expression as he moved inside her. But she feared losing him altogether if she chanced a glance, like when she’d turned earlier to find nothing but moonlight in an empty bed. She supposed Ethan was like Schrodinger’s cock, both there and not there, until she reached for him.
Another orgasm sliced through Rose’s pelvis and threatened to tear her apart. Ethan held her together, his love like gravity looping her into orbit, keeping her from flying off in a thousand different directions. She couldn’t tell whether he, too, had finished, since he seemed capable of fucking her forever. But as soon as she went limp, he pulled out and pulled her close.
As Rose succumbed to the inevitable pull of sleep, Ethan kissed her. From the top of her head to the soles of her feet.
She woke the next morning afraid that the previous night had all been a dream, until she saw the letters on the hardwood.
“Ethan?” she called, and a gentle draft responded, making her nipples tighten. She dropped back onto the sheets and grinned. “Good morning, baby.”
After a long shower and a big breakfast, Rose parked herself in Ethan’s reading chair and spent the next two hours playing with herself. Knowing he could see her made it feel like a joint effort.
She wanted to see if he could manifest in the daylight, so long as she kept her eyes shut. He couldn’t, but by the time night fell, Ethan was so wound up that he had to have her where she stood. This time, on all-fours in the dining room.
The next night, Rose tied a scarf over her eyes and let Ethan lead her around the house. He ate her out for hours on the kitchen table, fucked her from behind on her way up the stairs. He made her come so hard and often she was sure her pelvis would implode, and she relished every aching second.
“What was it like where you were?” Rose asked as they lay tangled in bed in the dark. Always in the dark. They’d worked out a simple communication scheme wherein he traced messages on her skin.
NO PAIN. NO WORDS. NO WALLS.
When Ethan’s mother came to visit the following week, she remarked that something felt different. “You’re certainly looking more like yourself, sweetheart.”
“I feel a lot more like myself,” she said.
As Lenore turned to leave, Rose felt Ethan’s yearning to keep her there a bit longer, so she invited her to stay for tea so that Ethan could spend some time around his mother.
There was no denying that Rose was doing better. She had her husband back, so to speak, and she’d gotten used to sleeping in the afternoon. She asked Lenore to bring the cats back, and started making early-morning trips to the market. Now and then, she even picked up the phone.
But as the weeks passed, Rose sensed a growing restlessness. She could feel Ethan’s frustration like a rock in her shoe, his desire to be seen and listened to. He grew jealous when she left home for more than five minutes, and couldn’t stand being spoken about in the third person. When his mother came around, he removed himself to other areas of the house. And he was growing less and less patient with their limited means of communication.
“Wait, slow down,” Rose chided one night when his messages on the spirit board were coming out muddled. The glass skated across the alphabet faster than Rose could read, and the few letters she caught weren’t spelling much of anything.
“Ethan, I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
The shot glass flew from Rose’s hand and shattered against the wall, just as the full-length mirror splintered into a vein-like fissure, cutting her reflection in two. Panes of glass cracked inside their picture frames. Lightbulbs shorted and burst.
Glittering flecks carpeted the floor like frost in the moonlight. Rose hugged her knees to her chest, afraid to take a step in any direction, lest she cut her feet. She shuddered at the swipe of a finger across her shoulder blade. It spelled out the words SO SORRY down her back.
“Why did you do that?”
DIDN’T MEAN TO.
He petted her hair and kissed the back of her head.
“You could’ve hurt me.” She held her face in her hands as she cried.
Rose refrained from speaking to Ethan for three days after the incident, though she could smell him as he drifted through the house. The stench of sulphur and dead flowers, shame and regret.
Come December, they were barely conversing at all.
Squinting at the stark light of day at her kitchen table, Rose found herself once again missing her husband. Not the ghostly presence in her house, but the man as she remembered him. Quick to laugh, eager to help, always bursting with things to talk about.
It was this same longing that had pushed her to call Ethan back in the first place. Now he was here—part of him, anyway—but at what cost?
Coming to her like a phantom in the night and pushing around rubber balls to amuse the cats could hardly be considered living. It was barely existing. What kind of wife was she to want that for her husband? Not the wife he’d married, and certainly not the friend who’d made sure he didn’t fall behind in school the year his father died, and Ethan could barely muster the strength to get out of bed.
Months ago, Rose would have done anything to have her husband back, but although the presence in her home felt like Ethan and kissed like Ethan, it wasn’t Ethan. Not all of him. And if keeping a part of him meant condemning her larger-than-life husband to a half-life without laughter or the stretch of the open road, then Rose wasn’t half the wife she thought she was.
That night, Rose made love to her husband for the last time. In the shower, with the lights off. Using Rose’s loofah, they took turns soaping one another, enjoying the feel of their slippery bodies pressed together. Ethan held the shower massager to Rose’s clit as he moved inside her from behind. She had to brace herself against the tile, her mouth open and brimming with water as she came.
After, as they clung to each other in bed, Ethan spelled out messages on Rose’s back.
I CAN STAY.
Tears burned in her tired eyes. “No, baby, you can’t. It’s time.”
DON’T WANT TO LEAVE YOU.
“I don’t want you to either, but you have to.”
Her heart cracked like an egg in her chest. “Because you have a big heart and an even bigger spirit. And you don’t deserve to spend another minute trapped in a life that’s too small for you.”
NEITHER DO YOU. Ethan kissed her with the hunger of a man savoring his final meal. PROMISE.
He smoothed her hair and kissed her forehead.
YOU WILL LIVE FOR BOTH OF US.
She buried her face in the crook of his neck. In the end, Ethan had kept his promise. He’d come back to her. It was time for Rose to return the favor.
“I promise,” she said. “I will.”
Just before sunrise, Rose took a satchel of birch bark, sage, and pine needles out to the front garden. Years ago, when they were children, Ethan would spy on her through the fence—too scared to enter—as she munched rhubarb and planted garlic with her grandmother. As they grew older, Rose had but to picture Ethan standing at the gate for him to feel the sudden urge to go and wait there, dressed in his coat and pajamas.
Rose had a hunch he would wait for her forever if he had to.
She dug a small bowl in the snow a few yards from the ancient oak, into which she laid the birch bark, sage, and pine needles. With a long-stemmed lighter, she set fire to the dry materials.
A soft breeze whirled around her, rustling her cloak.
“I’ll see you on the other side, my love. Take care of yourself.”
Rose watched the flames eat through the pine needles, leaves and bark. As the fragrant smoke drifted up from the garden, so ascended Ethan. Past the broken gutters and the bedroom window. Between the branches of the ancient oak, whose copper leaves burned like embers with the sunrise, as Rose Abbot bid farewell to her husband’s ghost.
Rachel Woe is a forbidden love junkie who probably watched too many inappropriate movies as a teenager. A longtime lover of risqué fiction, she used to smuggle Story of O and The Sleeping Beauty trilogy to school, folded inside brown-bag book covers. On the rare occasion when she’s neither reading nor writing, you can find her camped out at the back of the cinema or on the hunt for a perfect Irish eggs Benny.