Love in the Afternoon
During the entire course of his forty-one-year-old life, Jake Kaine told only one person that he could talk to ghosts.
It didn’t go well.
When he was seven, he’d told his mother as she was tucking him into bed. She’d paused, her expression serious. He was a precocious child, socially awkward and far smarter than the other children in his class, which worried her. His mother used to say he was a “too” child—“too smart for his own good and too much of an introvert to care what that meant.” Even at his young age, he was already a serious loner and the object of some brutal teasing, which pained her far more than him.
So when Jake told his mother about the ghosts, her mouth had tightened and she’d said in a firm mom-tone, “Don’t call your invisible friends ‘ghosts.’ The other kids will laugh at you.”
When he’d started to argue that he didn’t care about the other kids, she’d added sharply, “If you call them ghosts, they won’t come back.”
He liked his “invisible friends” and refused to do anything that might chase them off. Being smart, he’d also learned his lesson, and he never told anyone else about his visitors.
Later on, long after he was old enough to realize that his mother hadn’t believed a word he’d said but had attributed his comment to an overactive imagination, he’d realized how unfairly ghosts were portrayed in fiction, especially in the horror genre. In his by-then vast experience, ghosts were rarely angry, they were never mean, and they certainly weren’t scary. Instead, for the most part, they were occasional, drop-in-when-they-felt-like-it, nonjudgmental friends. They couldn’t have cared less about the current political state of affairs, were only mildly curious about what he thought or did, and rarely stayed longer than a few days.
As friends go, he thought they were rather perfect.
Over time, the visits got to be such a part of Jake’s life that he didn’t think about them. They were as normal to him as having the occasional case of hiccups. Or rather, he didn’t think about them until Doyle Cloyd showed up in Jake’s tub still wearing the now-infamous blond wig, a small washcloth floating in the ghostly water over his nether regions. For some reason Jake couldn’t fathom, Doyle’s visit was unlike any of the others.
For one, Doyle didn’t just linger a few days. Instead, he stayed for weeks. For another, unlike with the other, quieter ghosts who’d visited Jake over the years, death seemed to have loosened Doyle’s tongue. He now had an opinion about everything, and he wasn’t shy about sharing it.
When Doyle was alive, Jake had thought the old man was the perfect next-door neighbor. He never had parties, rarely needed anything, and only spoke when he had reason to. Whenever he and Jake saw each other, they’d nod. And since Doyle liked to sit on his front porch after his wife, Barbara, passed away, he and Jake had nodded at each other often.
People from town might have been shocked that Doyle had died wearing the long, golden-blond wig, but Jake hadn’t been
the least surprised. In the months before the old man’s death, Jake had frequently caught sight of his neighbor through his den window, sitting in his big green recliner in front of his TV, wearing that very wig. Jake had no idea exactly when or why Doyle had picked up that particular habit and couldn’t have cared less. After all, a man’s home was his castle, and whatever he chose to do within his own four walls was his business and no one else’s. Thus Jake, respecting Doyle’s privacy, hadn’t mentioned a word about the guy’s odd TV-viewing garb.
So it was a bit of a surprise when, five years after his death, Doyle’s ghost showed up in Jake’s guest bathtub, leaving Jake in a dour, waspish mood. To be fair, his normal mood was remarkably close to dour and waspish anyway. He’d grown from a precocious child into a taciturn, curmudgeonly man, so good-natured wasn’t a term that applied to him on a day-to-day basis. But Jake had been particularly cranky in the months since his fiancée and self-proclaimed soul mate, Heather, had left.
Jake hadn’t been surprised at Heather’s departure. In his experience, women (especially pretty ones) rarely stayed with a work-from-home IT specialist and game developer who, while a programming genius, was more comfortable sitting in the silence of his own living room than making small talk over a meal out in public. But Heather had been different from the other women he’d dated. She’d talked a lot, but as she’d only wanted the occasional nod or murmured “Really?,” that had worked well for them both—she’d talked, and he’d pretended to listen, and she’d been content with that. She was also flighty, reveling in her lack of knowledge with a stubborn abandon he could only admire. She’d had a flair for the dramatic, too, and had liked being in charge. In fact, she’d planned her own proposal, buying her ring with his credit card and then making reservations for a fancy dinner so that all he had to do was show up and say the words
she wanted to hear.
Most men might have found that a sort of overreach, but Jake was perfectly happy to let her plan both their lives. In return for this unprecedented control, Heather had accepted his social liabilities and didn’t mind that he didn’t enjoy going out. She’d been perfectly happy to venture out without him and spend time with her friends, which had suited him just fine. He’d liked that she was so independent, and thought that one of her most attractive traits.
What he didn’t realize was that Heather’s “friends” were really just one friend, an inked-up tattoo artist from Asheville named Klaus with a thick beard and a penchant for muscle T-shirts and craft beer. And so Jake had been unprepared when, one ungodly early morning, while he was still rubbing sleep from his eyes, Heather had stood up from the breakfast table and announced in the deathly quiet tone she reserved for her more dramatic moments, “I’m leaving.”
Jake didn’t believe her at first, because she’d played this scene before. It wasn’t until he’d followed her to the driveway and had seen the boxes and suitcases piled up in the front and back seats of her car that he’d realized that, unlike the two hundred and ten other times she’d said the words, this time she meant it.
She was really going to leave.
While he was digesting that fact, she’d thrown open the car door, informed him that she’d be back as soon as possible to get her dog, Peppermint, and to please remember to feed the poor animal. And then, without another word, she’d left.
It wasn’t the first time a woman had left Jake. To be honest, he was rather used to it. Once they got past his quiet demeanor, women tended to be attracted to his wry sense of humor, stay for his steady companionship and financial security, and then leave when he didn’t fall wildly, passionately in love with them. They
never seemed to understand that he wasn’t that sort of man. Not once in his entire life had he been wild or passionate about anything, much less love.
What was really, truly surprising about Heather leaving was that even though he’d been 100 percent certain that she would eventually do just that, and he was nowhere close to being wildly in love with her, he found himself lost. Deeply, utterly, and bone-chillingly lost.
His mother told him it was for the best, that she’d never liked Heather, who’d had a tendency to dislike anyone who took his attention from her. His dad told him to “get back out there and find a real woman.” His two friends Nate and Conner, both of whom he’d met in college and who occasionally stayed at his house, where they’d alpha test his latest game, breathed a collective sigh of relief and told him how much they’d not-so-secretly disliked Heather and her controlling ways.
Jake wasn’t surprised by any of this. He’d known his relationship with Heather wasn’t good, but even knowing that, he found himself unable to move on. To let go. To start over. Somehow, in living with the demanding and dramatic Heather, he’d lost some part of himself, and he couldn’t seem to find it, whatever “it” was.
And so he’d retreated into his own safe world. He used his sleepless nights to focus on his work, going from nine-hour days to fifteen-hour days. In doing so, he cut himself off from his parents and his friends and their perpetual and unwanted advice and sank deeper into his own world, where things were calm and orderly and made sense.
For eight months, it was just him and Peppermint, Heather’s fat, sleepy bulldog that she’d left behind. Despite what she’d said, Jake hadn’t expected her to return for the mutt. She’d paid a fortune for the animal—or rather, Jake had paid a fortune for it
during one of Heather’s depressed spells. She’d fawned over Peppermint when he’d been an adorable, wrinkly-faced velvet puppy, overfeeding him and spoiling him rotten. But as soon as Peppermint lost his puppy cuteness and entered his teenage stage of shoe chewing, trash eating, and face burping, Heather’s affections had cooled. Jake supposed that he should have seen that as a sign, but at the time, he’d been too mesmerized by the astonishing ups and horrible downs of their relationship to see much of anything.
So now, here he and Peppermint were, alone together and just as lost as ever. Or they had been alone until Doyle’s ghost had shown up in Jake’s tub a few weeks ago. Of course, Doyle didn’t stay there all day, every day. Ghosts tended to wander in and out, and Doyle was no exception. The only difference was that he kept coming back.
Over. And over. And over.
So much that it was beginning to get annoying.
“I didn’t ask to come here!” Doyle yelled from the tub, his deep, gravelly voice rumbling from the guest bath down the hallway to where Jake sat at his desk in the corner of his living room.
He’s back. Great. Jake ignored Doyle, refusing to get up from his computer. He was neck-deep in developing a new game, a fast-paced battle-royale game called Strategy X, and the deadline to deliver it to his publisher was looming.
“He can wait,” Doyle announced loudly, as if that settled everything.
Jake sat back, trying to remember the line of code he’d been getting ready to enter before Doyle interrupted. But for the life of him, Jake couldn’t remember it. Why, oh why, does he keep coming back?
“Ha!” Doyle hollered. “I don’t come back for the fascinating conversation, that’s for sure!”
Peppermint, woken from where he’d been sleeping under the desk, snorted noisily. Jake, who’d grown to love the bulldog since Heather’s dramatic exit, reached under the desk and tucked Peppermint back into his bed with his special blanket. The dog gave Jake’s hand a fond sniff and then snuggled deeper into his bed.
“You know you can’t ignore me!” Doyle’s gravelly voice cracked through the silence once more.
Jake rubbed his forehead where an ache was beginning to grow, and leaned back in his chair, staring out his window. Not that he could see much because thick leaves blocked most of the late-afternoon sunlight.
When Heather had first moved in, she’d announced that she loved roses and wanted the yard full of them. He’d protested, because he liked his simple, Craftsman-style home and its large, square yard the way it was—neat, clean, and uncluttered. Of course, that had led to a scene that had begun when Heather’d claimed he didn’t care about her and then ended when she’d looked at him with tears in her eyes, her lips quivering as if he’d yanked out her heart and stomped on it.
He’d never been able to say no to a crying woman and so he’d lost the argument. Over the ten months he and Heather lived together, he’d lost a lot of arguments.
All of them, in fact.
After Heather left, his peace still shattered, he’d decided to hack down the roses and burn them in a pile in the backyard. But they’d seemed to realize his intent and had fought back, scratching viciously and ripping at his clothes. After a two-hour battle, which had left him bleeding and his clothing in shreds, he’d left them alone, thinking they’d die over time without any
care. But, as if determined to thwart his dark wishes, the roses instead began to grow at a shocking, unfathomable rate. Over the course of the past few months, they’d grown into a thorny thicket, surrounding his house, climbing up the walls and covering the windows, nearly cutting him off from the world.
As much as Jake hated the roses, he liked that a shield now grew between him and the rest of the world. In fact, he’d decided that his mower would remain in his garage forever, unused and unneeded. Let everyone pass him by. He and Peppermint didn’t need people. They were fine where they were, as they were.
The sound of water splashing made him glare in the direction of the guest bathroom. Doyle always appeared in the tub, and while the water he sat in might look ephemeral, somehow it still soaked the floor.
The splashing sound increased, and Peppermint, stirring under the desk, snorted in his sleep.
Damn it. Jake got up and went to the bathroom, stopping at the door. “What do you want?”
From where he sat in the tub, Doyle said, “A good steak would be a nice start. I miss food.”
The ghost was a sight to behold. When he’d been alive, Doyle had never been what one would call a physically fit specimen. The best one could say was that he was taller than he was wide. But that was about it. Added to his roundness and the accompanying folds, he was as hairy as a chimp and, except for his wig, every bit as naked. Every time Jake saw the old man in the tub, he said a prayer of thanks for the small washcloth and puddles of bubbles that floated on the water and hid the worst parts from view.
Doyle propped his foot on the side of the tub. “You’re lucky I can swim. I could have drowned in the time it took you to get here from the living room.”
“You’re already dead. Besides, I have a job. You remember those, don’t you?”
“I try not to, but yes, I do. I daresay you need a break, so come on in and sit down a bit.” He nodded toward the wicker hamper that sat in one corner. “Take a seat and let’s chat.”
“I have to finish coding this section. I’m on deadline.” Besides, the last thing Jake felt like doing was talking, now or ever.
“Come on. You can take a break.” Doyle sent Jake a sly look from under his shaggy gray brows, where the fringed bangs of his blond wig rested. “Or should I say another break? What was that YouTube video you watched about an hour ago? Something about Batman, I think.”
“It was an exposé on superhero origins,” Jake said stiffly. “And yes, Batman was included. I was stuck on something, and it helps if I do something distracting, like watch a video.”
“Or have a chat with your neighbor.”
“Ex-neighbor, who is now a ghost hanging out in my tub while wearing a ridiculous blond wig.” Jake eyed the wig now. The ends of it clung to Doyle’s hairy shoulders, a few curls floating on top of the water. “Do you have to wear that thing?”
Doyle grinned. “Why? Are you jealous?”
“Hardly.” Jake sighed, his shoulders aching. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m really busy and I need to work. Can you keep the splashing down to a minimum?”
Doyle tucked a strand of his wig behind one ear. “Nope.”
“You—” Jake clamped his mouth over the rest of his sentence. “I don’t understand. Ghosts have been visiting me since I could remember. Some stayed a few days, sure, but none of them ever returned like this.”
Doyle leaned back against the tiled wall and nodded thoughtfully. “It is different, isn’t it?”
“Very. And I want to know why.”
“Don’t look at me.” Doyle rubbed his chin where gray stubble grew. “I just do what I’m told.”
Doyle arched a heavy brow at Jake.
Jake scowled. “Fine. Still, you’re interfering in my life. Surely that’s a no-no.”
“I don’t think there are any no-nos.”
“What? You guys don’t have rules?” Jake’s programming soul was rightly outraged. Rules were everything.
“Not that I can tell, but then again, I’m new to this whole ghost business. I’m learning the ropes, you might say.”
“New? I hate to tell you this, but it’s been over five years since you kicked the bucket.”
Doyle looked shocked. “Five years? Are you serious?” At Jake’s nod, Doyle shook his head. “Huh. Doesn’t seem like it. Wait until I tell Barbara about that.”
That caught Jake’s attention. He wanted to ask so many questions, but the last thing he wanted to do was encourage Doyle.
Jake’s curiosity won. “You get to see Barbara?”
“When she’s not busy, sure.” Doyle twisted a strand of blond hair around his finger. “She never liked you, you know. Said you were odd.”
That stung a little. Everyone had liked Barbara, including Jake.
“But,” Doyle added, “I told her you were a good neighbor for me once she’d gone. Quiet, kept to yourself, didn’t cause any harm, and you were very sympathetic.”
That made Jake feel a little guilty. “We didn’t speak often.”
“No, but after she died, you got my newspaper every day and put it on my porch.”
Jake shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. “I didn’t think you’d noticed. I made sure you weren’t up yet.”
“Oh, I saw all sorts of things. I don’t know much, but I do know that these other ghosts you’ve seen wandering through, they’re on their way somewhere else, so they don’t stay. But me? I’m here because I’m supposed to be.” Doyle lifted his feet out of the water, crossed them, and rested them on one corner of the tub, water dripping on the floor. “I’m just guessing, but I think I’m here because I’m to make sure that something that might happen does happen.”
That was alarming. “Like what?”
“Lord, I wish I knew. I haven’t figured all of this”—Doyle waved his hand in a vague circle—“out. But I will.” He settled down a bit and closed his eyes, the wig slipping to one side as he rested his head against the wall. “Barbara says it takes a little getting used to, having an assignment. And you’re my first.”
“I’m your assignment? Are you kidding me?”
Doyle opened one eye. “Why would I do that? Do I look like I like being here?”
Nate eyed the steam curling up from the water. “You don’t look like you hate it.”
Doyle sighed and opened both eyes, although he didn’t sit up. “I suppose it could be worse. I could be sent off to someone I don’t know.”
“Dad said he used to work with you.”
“A long, long time ago.” Doyle raised one eyebrow. “How are your parents, by the way? You should visit them more.”
“I see them plenty when they’re not out RV’ing around. They don’t stay in one place long, now that Dad’s retired.”
“Rick always had an itch to travel.” Doyle eyed Jake for a long moment. “I guess I should be grateful I got you and wasn’t assigned a total idiot. It’s a plus that you can see me and we can
talk. Barbara says that’s unusual. Apparently not many people can do that.”
“Great.” He couldn’t keep the sour note from his voice. The whole thing was irritating. The last thing he needed right now was a ghost “assigned” to him.
“Yeah, and about that girlfriend of yours.”
“Fiancée,” Jake corrected absently.
“Whatever. What was her name again? Pester?”
“Heather. ‘Pester’ isn’t even close.”
“It’s a better name for her than Heather.” Doyle made a face. “I don’t know what you saw in that one. I mean, she had a nice ass, I’ll give you that, but she talked a blue streak and made no sense at all. I don’t get it.”
Jake’s face heated, and the familiar lost feeling weighted down his shoulders. “I don’t want to talk about it. I need to get back to work.” To prove it, he turned on his heel to leave.
“You do that,” Doyle called after him. “And say hello to those new neighbors of yours, too, while you’re at it.”
Jake stopped and turned around. “New neighbors?”
Doyle’s thick brows rose, disappearing behind his blond bangs. “You didn’t know? Ava Dove rented my old house, so you have new neighbors. A woman and a kid.”
Ava Dove was one of seven daughters of the family that had founded the town of Dove Pond a long, long time ago. After Doyle’s death, Ava had bought his house and two acres for her landscaping and herbal tea business. She’d turned the small house into an office and had built two huge greenhouses out back, which meant cars and trucks came and went all day long. Jake hated that. Even worse, the smell of her herbs drifted into his house every time he opened a window.
It wasn’t a bad smell, even he had to admit that. But it was different and thus irritating, and Jake hated change. About a
year ago, flush with success, Ava had purchased a larger tract of land on the other side of town, where she planned to grow even more herbs. The new place had a bigger house on it, so she’d moved her office there and had put Doyle’s old house up for rent, although there were no takers, which had suited Jake just fine. He didn’t need annoying neighbors, especially one with a kid.
He realized Doyle was waiting for a reaction, so Jake hid his irritation behind a shrug. “I hope they’re quiet.”
“They’ve been there for two whole weeks and you didn’t even notice.” Doyle shook his head. “You’ve become a hermit, you know that?”
Two weeks? Doyle must be mistaken. “Are you sure it’s been two weeks?”
“Hell yes, I’m sure. You’d know that, too, but you can’t see outside your own windows because of those damned rosebushes. You’re like Sleeping Beauty in here, surrounded by a thorny wall and waiting for your princess to come. Well, she ain’t coming, so you need to get a grip, boy, and move on.”
Jake’s jaw ached from clenching it. It stung to be ordered to “move on” when he’d been trying to do just that.
Doyle’s gaze suddenly moved past Jake, and the ghost tilted his head, one end of a long tress of golden wig dipping into the water. “Oho! That’s unexpected.”
“It looks like you’re about to meet your neighbors.”
“I’m not going over there, if that’s what you’re—”
A staccato knock sounded on the front door, five sharp raps.
Peppermint, instantly awake, bounced into the hallway and barked.
Doyle smiled. “Sounds like someone has come calling.”
“Damn it, I don’t want to meet anyone right now,” Jake
snapped over Peppermint’s barking. “I have work to do.”
“Too bad. Go answer your door.”
The knock sounded again, more insistent this time.
“What happens if I don’t answer it?”
“Hmm.” Doyle scooped up a handful of bubbles and blew them into the air. “I guess whoever it is will come back.”
The knock repeated, accompanied this time by the doorbell.
Peppermint barked another time and then came to the bathroom door, where he looked at Jake as if to ask what the heck he was waiting on.
“Even that dog knows you should answer that door. Now go.” Doyle waved Jake away. “Fate wants a word with you.”
“I don’t believe in fate.”
Doyle looked at the ceiling. “Oh, Barbara, you were right. He’s every bit as stubborn as I was.” He turned his watery blue eyes back to Jake. “Look, son, it’s like this. Life will happen whether you want it to or not. So answer the door or leave it closed, it doesn’t matter.” Doyle shrugged. “Maybe next time, fate’ll come busting through a window. Or maybe it’ll run you down in a car. I don’t know how it will catch up to you, and neither do you. But it will, and in the meantime, you’ll have lost precious time.”
“I don’t want to meet ‘fate’ or anyone else. I just want to be left alone.”
“Alone? Jake, Hanker left you because—”
“Whatever. She left you months ago, almost a year, in fact. You get to grieve one week for every month you were in your relationship. And that’s it.”
“?‘Get to’? I don’t want to grieve at all!”
“We don’t choose grief. It chooses us. But the time has come for you to pick up the pieces, glue those suckers back together,
and get on with your life.”
The doorbell rang, this time in five sharp consecutive rings, echoing the knock from before. “Go on,” Doyle said. “Meanwhile, I’m due a nap. I’ve done my work here for the day.” He tugged the shower curtain closed, and disappeared behind it, although Nate could still hear the old man muttering to himself, “Stubborn idiot. Reminds me of myself when I was a youngster.”
Jake turned on his heel and went to calm Peppermint, who’d gone back to the door and was alternately growling and barking.
The doorbell rang again, five times in quick succession. There was something about that staccato ring that caught his attention. It was precise and firm and it made Jake think of the binary code.
He edged a little closer to the door, curious about the person on the other side.
Damn it. The one thing Jake hated worse than being wrong was being told what to do and yet here he was, about to answer the door just the way Doyle had ordered him to.
Peppermint barked as the bell rang again.
Scowling, Jake unlocked the door and swung it open.