Updated: Apr 18, 2022
By Kayla King
Kyle’s ghost drops into the kitchen through the ceiling. It’s seven-thirty in the morning, and Natasha is eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch soaked in black coffee over the sink. Kyle doesn’t usually come down for breakfast. It’s a nice surprise.
“This is a nice surprise,” Natasha says.
“Why are you eating that stuff? It’s disgusting.” Kyle’s nose wrinkles. His skin is opaque, pearly, but flushed with color. He looks as alive as the day he died.
“Tradition,” Natasha says. Her mother had eaten it that way all her life, effectively carving the habit into her daughter like a lump of mangled scar tissue.
Natasha lifts the bowl and drains the gritty coffee down her throat.
“Mom, please,” Kyle says. He rolls his eyes. “We don’t have traditions in this family. Unless you count dying early.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Honesty is the best policy or some such bullshit. Remember?” He stands on the kitchen table and stretches until his fingertips sink into the ceiling.
Natasha rinses her bowl and then walks to the bathroom. She brushes her teeth – three times – and takes a shower. Kyle sits on the toilet and reads the newspaper.
“I’ve been dead for three years, five months, and seventeen days,” he says, thumbing through the sports section. Natasha towels off in front of the mirror.
She’s thin – always has been – but the last few years have hollowed her even further, making her knees and elbows stick out at awkward, jutting angles, and her ribs press against her skin like smooth, white hills. Her hair hangs down below her shoulders, thick and tangled. She hasn’t cut it in four years. She’s still not ugly, though, not after all these years, and the thought sickens her.
“I know,” Natasha says because she does. There’s a clock where her heart should be, and it’s been ticking inside her since the moment she got the phone call from the hospital; since she ran barefoot down the driveway with her skirt on backward and her blouse unbuttoned, leaving the man that she’d only met the night before naked and confused in her bed.
“The sex wasn’t even that good,” Kyle complains. “Not worth dying for, anyway.”
Natasha pretends not to hear him as she begins brushing her hair.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” Kyle laughs. “Mother and son both getting fucked at the same time. That’s gotta mean something, right?”
Natasha flinches, and the brush snags painfully on a clump of her wet, matted hair.
“Shit!” she cries, slamming the brush against the marble sink. The handle snaps off in her fist, and the top bounces off the faucet and lands, spinning at Kyle’s feet.
“Shit,” she says again, softly.
Kyle sighs. “You’re still not ready to talk about it.”
“I have a headache,” says Natasha. She walks out of the bathroom and closes the door behind her.
On the drive to work, she calls Rico. He picks up on the second ring.
“Did your sister pack tamales today?” she asks.
He says she did.
“I’ll save you some if Jamie doesn’t want any,” he says.
“Jamie hasn’t eaten carbs in fifteen years.”
He giggles, and Natasha hangs up.
“I like that boy,” Kyle says. He’s sitting in the passenger seat in his boxers, waving and blowing kisses to the oblivious occupants of passing cars.
“He reminds me of you,” Natasha says. She’s sipping milk through a straw. It’s pink milk. Strawberry. The sweetness is thick and buttery and makes her tongue feel like velvet. She licks her lips and grins, and the woman driving the powder blue Lexus in the lane next to her rolls her window up.
“Why? Because he’s young? Or because he’s gay?”
“That explains a lot,” Kyle says. He leans forward, and half of his body sinks into the engine. Natasha feels the car sputter, and a jet of steam shoots into the air from the hood, clouding the windshield. She jerks the car to the side, and the woman in the Lexus lays on the horn.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Natasha asks.
He doesn’t answer. She glances at his seat, but he’s gone.
Jamie is hungover and less pleasant to look at than usual when Natasha arrives at work. He’s not uglier exactly but smudged as if someone’s rubbed their fingertips along all his edges. Natasha wants to be that someone. Rico notices, too, and he offers Jamie one of his sister’s tamales at lunch, but Jamie politely declines and disappears into his office.
“I should bring something else next time,” Rico says. He sits down beside her in the breakroom. “But I like tamales the most. They remind me of home.”
“Mexico?” Natasha asks.
“Arizona,” he says flatly.
A shiver of guilt settles around Natasha’s shoulders. Rico had told her he’d moved from Arizona at least three or four times in the last year, just as Kyle had told her more than once when he was alive about the tingling in his chest every time he ran or worked out.
She passes Rico her last diet coke.
“Thanks,” he says. “Did you see Jamie’s hair?”
“Hard to miss.”
The back of Jamie’s head was greasy, his hair caked in round, flat ringlets against his skull. The front was a little better, still slick with oil, but not as matted, like he’d run a comb through it once or twice. He was also wearing slacks stained with little white bleach splotches around the crotch and knees, topped with a horrible salmon pullover.
“He’s had better days,” Natasha says. Rico has finished the tamales and is sipping diet coke through a straw. “Melina must be out of town.”
“I heard him on the phone this morning. She’s gone to Milan and won’t be back for six months. He’s a wreck about it.”
“Makes sense,” Natasha says. “Losing people is hard.”
She wonders how sad Jamie would be if she told him about Kyle – an absent wife is better than a dead son, after all.
“Don’t you dare,” Kyle says. He’s sitting on her desk when she gets back from lunch, his legs folded neatly on top of her keyboard. “People are allowed to be sad. Your suffering is no worse than anyone else’s.”
“Including yours?” she asks quietly.
He grins at her, and his teeth are as white as fresh bone. Natasha sits down at her desk and stares into his eyes. It looks like she’s looking at the computer – ready to call the next patient, to check their demographics and confirm their upcoming surgery – but she’s staring into her dead son’s eyes. They’re a deep-sea green with yellow fragments like broken glass. She thinks he got his eyes from his father. She’d only seen him once, at a party two towns over, in the basement of some cheerleader she’d met through a friend of a friend at a high school football game. She was sixteen, and there’d been a lot of tequila involved, so everything looked hazy and airbrushed. He’d passed out almost immediately after finishing with her, and then she’d cleaned herself up with his shirt, slipped her panties on, and left without looking back.
“He had blue eyes,” Kyle says softly. “My eyes must have come from grandma.”
“That’s even worse,” Natasha replies.
Kyle was fourteen the day Natasha discovered she knew absolutely nothing about him. She thinks the other boy’s name might have been Jacob. Or Jackson. She remembers feeding them sticky buns and diet coke and hearing their screams and cussing as they crushed each other in World of Warcraft. She remembers Jacob or Jackson had blonde hair the color of cottage cheese and that he was polite and always asked permission to use the bathroom. He was over at the house a lot. He spent a fair few Friday nights with Kyle holed up in his bedroom, playing video games and listening to music, but was usually gone before Natasha got up for work on Saturdays.
When she walked into her fourteen-year-old son’s room in the middle of the night, it was because she’d heard a sound – a whine, a whimper, a groan of pain – and she was afraid someone was hurt. Kyle was on his knees facing the door with cottage cheese boy’s dick in his mouth. His palms were on the carpet, and there was spit running down his chin, and the other boy, Jacob or Jackson, had his head tilted back, gasping breathlessly at the ceiling. Natasha didn’t shout but folded her fingers into a fist and tapped on the wall. Kyle jerked in surprise and accidentally clamped down. Blondie yelped, and both hands went to push Kyle back onto his ass.
Mother and son had a different relationship after that. Natasha didn’t mind having a gay son, but she wished he didn’t enjoy doing that. She tried to explain that most women didn’t bother with it, and he said, “I’m not a girl, mom. That’s the point.”
“I never did that with anyone,” she said.
He shrugged. “Maybe that’s why none of them stuck around.”
They didn’t talk about sex again.
Natasha works the rest of her shift in mostly silence. Around three-thirty, Jamie comes out of his office with swollen and bloodshot eyes, tells Natasha and Rico that he’s leaving early, and then walks out the door. Rico goes after him, and two hours later, Natasha and Kyle go home alone.
“I never loved anyone, you know,” says Kyle. He’s standing on the living room table in socks and a Kiss t-shirt. He’s nine this time. He has little boy eyes and large, wide lips that seem to fit oddly on his face, like pink slices of cantaloupe. Fists on hips. He watches Natasha.
“That’s sad for you,” she says. She’s picking things up and moving them around. She calls it cleaning.
“No, it’s sad for you. I’m dead. Nothing is sad for me anymore.”
Natasha takes his picture off the fireplace mantle and runs her fingers through the dust. He was nine. He’d just come back from a Kiss concert with her boyfriend, Sam. He was angry because Sam bought the wrong shirt. His mouth twisted into a scowl, and he didn’t stand close to anyone. In the morning, the shirt was in the trash, and he wouldn’t talk to her, wouldn’t tell her what was wrong, but she thought Sam might have hurt him, might have touched him, so she ended their relationship and spent the next three months watching for signs of PTSD.
“He didn’t,” Kyle says. He looks bored, looks sad. “I just hated that shirt.”
“He was a good man. A nice man, and he loved us.”
“He loved you,” Kyle says. “But he might have loved me. Eventually. If you’d given him a chance.”
“I was protecting you.”
“No. You were protecting yourself.”
It’s an argument they’ve had before, but today it feels particularly true. When Natasha thinks about Kyle, she thinks about all of the things he’s saved her from. Her abusive mother. A string of bad boyfriends who would have stolen her money and broken her heart. An empty house. A lasting and unhealthy taste for codeine and red wine. The nagging and constant urge to take a long walk off of the tallest building she could find.
Kyle protected her over and over again, from herself and from the world, and in the end, she was helpless to return the favor.
Natasha leaves the house. She gets into her car, and Kyle sits beside her. He’s twenty-four again in his boxer shorts. He smiles at her, but she ignores him.
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” he says.
“I hate when you do that.”
“Where are we going?”
“Again? That’s twice this month.”
“He gets lonely without Melina.”
Kyle nods. “Are you going to sleep with him this time?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe.”
“Why today?” He asks. “Why now?”
She shrugs. “Maybe I’m just tired of you.”
“You wish that were true,” Kyle says, laughing. He taps his fingers against his thigh, a steady pitter-patter that matches the ticking of Natasha’s heart. She turns the radio on, and he taps on the dashboard. She cranks the volume, and he laughs. When she turns to yell at him, he’s nine again, with his bottom lip peeled forward over his teeth. She faces the road.
She’s been to Jamie’s a handful of times in the last year. They’ve kissed twice. He’s had his fingers in her hair, under her dress, splayed across her stomach. She’s tasted the skin on the back of his neck. It was very drunken, very innocent. He was head over heels for Melina. Natasha’s son was always dying over and over again in the corner of the room. It just never seemed right.
It’s been a long time since Natasha has slept with a man. Three years, five months, and seventeen days to be exact. She estimates she’d been enjoying her third orgasm around the time Kyle’s frantic, thrashing heart was giving out.
“It’s not fair, you know,” Kyle says. “I didn’t even get to cum once that night.”
Natasha doesn’t have a response to that – it is unfair. All of it. Everything. Every miserable day he was forced to spend on earth with a mother who couldn’t even be bothered to take him to the hospital when he was sick or ask him the name of his fucking boyfriend. If it wasn’t for how much it hurt, how horrifying it was to see her son die, she would have slept with Jamie on her first try almost a year ago. She would have done anything to make Kyle disappear, to free him from an eternity bound to her side.
She parks in the street about thirty yards down the road from Jamie’s condo. The walk gives her time to breathe, think, and shed Kyle off her back like a peeling sunburn. She loses him somewhere between the magnolia bushes and Mr. Gleeson’s shiny new hummer.
Jamie answers the door in a robe.
“Back again?” he asks, smiling. “I was just getting ready to jump in the shower. But come in. Come in and have a drink.”
Natasha glances over her shoulder. Kyle is nowhere in sight, so she follows Jamie into the house.
“Rico was here earlier,” he says as he leads her down the hall, “but he left when someone named Manuel called. Maybe a brother?”
Natasha says, “No, probably a lover.”
Jamie looks slightly scandalized, then a bit fascinated.
“Is he gay? I had no idea.”
They reach the living room. It’s a small space with a couch on one side and a loveseat on the other, both cherry red and made of tacky faux leather. There’s a small coffee table in the center of the room and a wet bar in the corner. Natasha sits on the couch, and Jamie sits across from her on the loveseat. He offers her a glass of wine, and she takes a polite sip.
“I have no problem with it,” Jamie says, settling back into the cushions. “I just think it’s a little strange. I mean, a bit unnatural. But it has nothing to do with me.”
Natasha swirls her glass. “My son was gay.”
Jamie’s eyebrows peak. “Was he?”
“Yes.” She pauses. Takes a mouthful of wine. “He’s dead now, though.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Jamie’s smile is small, sympathetic. “Was it AIDS-related?”
Natasha sets her glass down. Then she laughs. It’s only a tiny bit hysterical, but it still makes Jamie shift uncomfortably, and he swallows the last of his wine in one massive gulp. Natasha presses her palms to her chest as though pushing the laughter back into her lungs, then she stands and walks to the wet bar. There’s a framed photo that Natasha has never seen before. The picture features Jamie and Melina holding the hands of some small girl who looks like she’d rather be anywhere else.
“Who is this?” she asks.
Jamie takes a sip of wine. “That’s Melina’s daughter, Nelly. She lives with her aunt. Melina is – not exactly the mothering type.”
Natasha goes back to the couch and lies down.
“My mother wasn’t the mothering type either,” she says.
Kyle walks through the door. He’s still in his boxers. He looks between them but doesn’t say anything. Jamie drinks, and Natasha turns her head to face the cushions. She doesn’t want to see it again, the way her son looks when he’s dying.
“Did you love your mother?” she asks.
“Yes,” Jamie says. “She died in a car accident when I was fourteen – but yes, I loved her. A lot.”
He picks up his glass and drains it, then sets it on the table between them.
“My mother died too,” Natasha says, “when I was thirty-four. Cancer.”
“Did you love her?” he asks.
“What do you mean?”
Natasha turns her head to watch Kyle pace around the bar. His arms are folded, and he’s shivering, his eyes jittery inside his head. It’s the same as last time, and the time before that. Natasha can’t get close to a man without killing her son.
“She was selfish,” Natasha says. “She was mean. My dad died before I was born, and I think she blamed me for it. She used to hit me sometimes. Not a lot, but sometimes. I got pregnant when I was sixteen, and she kicked me out. I barely spoke to her after that. She only met my son once when he graduated from high school. She was sick then, and she tried to make up for – everything – for her entire life. I told her to go to hell.”
Kyle cringes and bends over with his arms folded around his stomach. His face is sweaty, and his mouth opens and closes like he can’t breathe. He’s saying something, but there’s no sound, and he stays in that position, folded over in misery while his mom watches. She wonders – not for the first time – if this is how it had actually happened. If he was really in that much pain. Her guts quiver at the thought.
“I need coffee,” Jamie says, standing up. There’s a full pot already prepared in the kitchen, and Natasha wonders if Rico is the one who made it.
“Gotta clear my head,” Jamie says. “Gotta start thinking straight. Want some?”
“Do you have Cinnamon Toast Crunch?” she asks.
“Nothing, never mind.” She smiles. “No coffee for me, thanks.”
Jamie fills his empty wine glass from the pot and swirls it around and around. Kyle is on the floor now with his fingers clawing at his chest. They leave red lines in his skin. Natasha wants to kiss them.
“Rico wants to fuck you,” Natasha says.
Jamie sits on the floor beside her head.
“Do you want to fuck me?” he asks.
She doesn’t answer. She looks into his eyes, and they’re not on her but fixed somewhere over her head. Kyle has stopped moving. She wishes he would roll over, stand up, and start snarking at her again. But she knows he won’t until she leaves the house, and she can’t leave without dooming him further.
Jamie sighs and brushes the back of her hand with his knuckles.
“She’s gone for six months,” he says. “Six months.”
“Imagine how Nelly feels.”
He shakes his head and takes a swig from his glass. Natasha can smell the bitter clouds of coffee as they rise into the air around her head. She lies on the couch for a long time, watching him breathe. He seems delicate somehow, like a paper doll. He’s vulnerable in a way she hasn’t been in nearly four years. He’s never looked that way before, and Natasha is confident – more confident than she’s ever been – that she could easily fuck him now. She imagines plunging her hands through his skin and scraping the walls of his chest until they’re raw and glistening, ready to receive something beautiful.
“I miss my son,” she says, and she’s not really saying it to Jamie; she’s saying it to herself, to the frightened sixteen-year-old girl who paced with her newborn baby in front of the local fire station every morning for a week before ultimately deciding if they were both destined to suffer, they were going to suffer together.
Jamie raises his head to look at her. His eyes are soft, amber fire, and they bleed heat into the air around them.
“How long has it been?” he asks.
They don’t usually talk like this. They typically talk about Melina, about Jamie’s unconditional but inconsiderate love for her. They usually kiss until Natasha can’t stand it anymore – the sight of her baby boy dying on the floor – and then she leaves.
“A little over three years,” she answers. “He had a bad heart. I didn’t know. No one knew. He was having sex with someone – some boy he met in college. And his heart just – stopped. Just gave up.”
“I’m so sorry,” he says, and she believes him.
“The boy – his name is Nathan,” she continues. “He’s lovely. I only met him at the hospital and then later at the funeral. But he’s a very nice young man, and he cared for Kyle. I don’t think it was long enough for anything deeper, but there could have been. There might have been.”
Jamie takes her hand. The touch threatens to warm her, so she sits up and reaches for her glass. She takes a slow sip.
“Do you still talk to him?”
“My son?” Natasha asks, panicked. She looks at Kyle, and he’s motionless on the ground, his eyes open but cloudy and lifeless. She wants to hold him but already knows what that feels like – cradling a magnificent shell.
“No, of course not,” Jamie says, horrified. “The other kid. Nathan.”
“Oh. No, not anymore.” She sets her glass down on the table and lays back against the couch. “He called for a while—a few months. The last time I heard from him was on the first anniversary. He said he still thinks fondly of Kyle. Fondly. I asked him to stop calling after that.”
Jamie tilts his head until his breath brushes her ear, and it feels silky and hot, a stream of feathers against her skin. He looks like he wants to say something, but she doesn’t want to hear it. Nothing he can say is as important as what she wants from him.
“He’s not in a better place,” Natasha says.
“No,” he agrees and then touches her cheek with a fingertip. “The better place is here. The better place is with his mother.”
She shakes her head, and his finger slides across her cheek and touches the corner of her mouth. It traces the seam of her lips. He opens his arms, his body ready to receive her, to take her apart piece by piece and reconstruct her in the likeness of a God. She sees Kyle lying on the ground over Jamie’s shoulder, silent and still, his skin soft and white like fresh seafoam.
She closes her eyes, but her son’s image does not fade. He’s nine and twenty-four and a newborn with colic, and he’s eighteen, awkwardly holding his mother’s hand while she screams and cries and throws an armful of wrapping paper at his grandmother. He’s crying and laughing and shouting and singing – her head is reverberating with all the sounds of her dead little boy.
She opens her eyes, and Kyle is leaning over them both. He is older now, older than he ever was or ever got to be, and he’s crying with his face tipped down, his tears all over everything – cresting the table, souring the wine, burning the corners of her eyes – they’re soaking through her skin and flushing out her veins.
Natasha thinks – I love you, I’m sorry, I hope this doesn’t hurt – and then she threads her fingers through Jamie’s hair and pulls him close until her breath is in his lungs and her teeth sink into his skin, and she can’t hear anything over the relentless ticking of her heart. It doesn’t take long – about half the time it probably took Kyle to die – and when they’re finished, Natasha looks around, and all she sees are their two breathless, sweating bodies clinging to each other in a quiet and ghostless room.
Kayla King is a coffee-addicted, makeup-obsessed, hair dye enthusiast who has been making up stories since her freshman year in high school. She graduated with her Bachelor's Degree in English from Boise State University in 2013 and is currently working on her MFA in fiction at Texas State University. She is a daughter, sister, auntie, and friend. Her work has previously appeared in Voidspace Zine. She can be found on Twitter @kaylaisshining, where her tweets are sometimes as surreal as her fiction.