The stranger hopped around him, going through Billy, the walls around them, and everything that represented a solid mass, without a problem.
“Man, we have so much to talk about. I mean, do you even know me?” the stranger asked, stopping for a moment.
Mason shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked straight ahead.
“You can’t ignore me,” the stranger pointed out. “There must be a reason why you, of all the people around us, can see me.”
“Just shut the fuck up,” Mason said under his breath.
“Did you say anything, Arnie?” Billy asked.
“No. I was just wondering what the hell those two could talk for hours.”
“Hours? They’ve been in there for forty minutes, tops,” Billy replied after checking his watch.
“Yeah? It seemed longer.”
“You’re more of an action guy, right?” Billy nudged him in the ribs playfully. “What kind of jobs have you had until this one? I bet they were some hot action ones. Can you tell me about them? No names, just you know, the hot bits.”
Great. Now, Mason had to deal with two chatterboxes, not one.
“I understand, man, I understand,” the stranger said. “I can’t have you neglect your duty since you seem like you’re guarding the president on a romantic rendezvous or something. So, I’ll keep my mouth shut. For now. After this, I’m coming home with you. You have to tell me where you know me from.”
“I don’t know you,” Mason whispered angrily.
Billy turned toward him again. “You don’t know me? Man, that hurt. C’mon, I know we’ve been partners for only a day, but I feel like we’ve known each other for longer. Don’t worry. You’ll get to know me plenty. I promise. We will be the best of friends.”
Mason could feel a headache coming up. So, he was seeing ghosts now, and Billy thought they could be friends forever. And he was bodyguard to a guy who could make the heavens sigh, with a golden voice that could turn stone into hot lava. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing at all.
There was movement behind them. Finally. Mason offered Billy a curt smile just so that the guy didn’t think he didn’t like him or something. As expected, Billy beamed back at him.
“Did you guys at least had a drink from the bar?” Rhys asked them as soon as he was out. “We’ve spent an awful lot of time inside. You must have been bored out of your mind.”
“Rhys, darling,” Levine cooed, “they’re on the job. They’re not allowed to drink.” He placed a hand on the small of Rhys’s back.
“Well, whose bodyguards are they?” Rhys asked.
Mason noticed how Rhys moved discreetly in such a manner so that he could shake off Levine’s touch. Whatever feelings Levine had for Rhys, they weren’t reciprocated, just as he thought. That was a fair point in Rhys’s favor. What celebrity didn’t want the attention of a billionaire?
“They are yours,” Levine replied. “But that doesn’t mean that you should let them run around like they have nothing better to do.” The producer’s voice was a tad sweetened over what Mason had heard him talking to others, but there was steel in it, nonetheless.
Rhys offered Mason and Billy a strained smile. “Are we ready to go home?”
“Sure,” Billy replied. “Wherever you want to go, Rhys, we’re down with it.”
Rhys laughed. “You make it sound like I’m inviting you to some after-hours party. I’m sorry if I’m so boring.” Rhys looked around. His eyes stopped at a point behind Mason, and then he frowned for a second.
Mason followed his line of sight and noticed that the bleeding stranger was right behind him. Could it be that Rhys had seen something right at that moment? He couldn’t just ask outright.
Rhys shivered slightly, and then he wrapped one hand around Mason’s left arm. “Will you take me home, my knight?”
With some satisfaction, Mason noticed the small grimace of envy on Levine’s lips. How would it feel to have the world on a silver platter, except for one thing? Or, better said, one person? It looked like Rhys had no intention to return Levine’s advances.
“Don’t be so friendly with the help, darling,” Levine said and pulled Rhys by the elbow toward him.
To his and by the looks of it, Billy’s surprise, Rhys stood his ground and wrapped his arm around Mason’s firmly. “I think it’s good to have a good relationship with the people working for me,” he replied. “And I’ll never forget where I came from, Lev dear.”
Despite the nickname and the term of endearment, Mason could swear Rhys had not much-lost love for his producer. Whatever was there, it was one-sided like hell.
Levine offered a paternal sigh in reply. “Which is what makes you you, love,” he said. “But I wish you would rise above your station and humble beginnings. You’re a star now.”
“I used to be nothing but a half-decent indie singer and songwriter with a few thousands of wonderful listeners until yesterday.”
“Until I found you.” Levine pushed one strand of rebel hair behind Rhys’s ear in an unhidden gesture of affection. “And I intend to make you as big as you can be.”
“Thank you, Levine,” Rhys said politely. “I appreciate everything you’re doing for me. I really do. So, please forgive me if I sometimes behave like a spoilt, ungrateful child.”
“How couldn’t I forgive you? Of all my children, you’re my favorite. And don’t worry. Everything will come to pass. You’re young, and you’ll forget.”
Mason felt Rhys turning rigid by his side. There was a missed beat, and then, his answer. “Let’s hope so,” he said, but his voice was strained, and there was forced enthusiasm where none was felt.
“Trust me. I’ve lived a little longer than you,” Levine said with a small laugh. “You’re going straight home?”
“Yes. I need to get my beauty sleep,” Rhys replied.
Rhys talked a lot about beauty sleeps. It was barely past nine, and Rhys had slept earlier for more than two hours. It didn’t matter. Whatever Rhys’s habits were, they were none of Mason’s business, unless they interfered somehow with his job. Maybe the guy woke up at four in the morning to make his music. What did he know?
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow,” Levine said and placed a small kiss on Rhys’s cheek.
It was funny to see the hotshot billionaire producer struggling to get on his toes to do that, as Rhys didn’t care to accommodate him by offering his cheek.
“Have a nice evening, Mr. Goldman,” Billy said in a loud voice.
Levine stared at Billy for a brief second. “You, too, boys,” he said with a forced smile like it hurt him physically to reply to something as innocuous as that.
“Billy, will you give me your arm, too? Since I have two handsome bodyguards, I don’t see why I shouldn’t parade both around,” Rhys said, as soon as Levine was out of earshot.
Billy hurried to stand by Rhys and offered his arm gallantly.
“Well, sure thing, now I feel very much protected,” Rhys said with a small, musical laugh. “So, I hope you guys aren’t tired.”
“Didn’t you say that you wanted your beauty sleep?” Mason pointed out.
“Oh, please, it’s only nine. And that was for Levine so that he would leave me alone, finally. So, let’s have some fun.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Where are we going? What are the possible challenges?”
“Challenges? I don’t know,” Rhys seemed to ponder for a second, “maybe how much champagne can you pour down your throat? Something like that.”
“You want to get drunk?” Mason questioned.
Rhys tsked. “If you spent as much time with Levine as I did, you would need a drink, too. But I see you’re no fun at all. Billy, what do you say you and I should go partying and leave boring Mason here go home?”
“That’s a great idea,” the stranger intervened.
Without thinking, Mason turned toward his right.
“Look at him. He’s not paying me any attention anymore,” Rhys said, pretending to be upset.
“Yeah. Ditch these two and let’s go home so that you can tell me everything you know,” the stranger said.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” Mason shot back at the stranger.
“Oh,” Rhys said, and his hand began to slide from Mason’s arm. “You surely don’t mince words, Arnie. If you cannot stand me that much --”
In the blink of an eye, Mason caught Rhys’s hand and wrapped it around his own arm. “Sorry. I wanted to say that I’d go anywhere with you.”
Rhys sighed. “You’re such a bad liar, Mason. But you’re handsome, so all is forgiven. Now let’s get some drinks and have some fun. And of course, I don’t need to tell you, I hope. Levine doesn’t have to know about this. He’s watching me like a mother hawk.”
The guy was a hawk, all right, Mason thought. Not a mother hawk, though; just a predatory bird on the prowl.
“Oh, man, now I have to go with you wherever this pretty guy wants?” the stranger complained. “Not that I blame you. I’d so love to change places with you so that he could hang off my arm like that. I think he wants you bad, man.”
Mason set his jaw hard. Why the hell was he seeing ghosts? As much as he needed to get to the bottom of that, he also had to make sure that Rhys and Billy and anyone else didn’t suspect that he was going cuckoo.
For now, he needed to ignore the ghost and focus on ensuring that Rhys was properly protected. There was no way he would get drunk tonight. That was the last thing he needed.
“Would you like to dance?” Rhys asked him, staring at him through his eyelashes as he stretched lazily on a comfortable sofa in a fancy club where every drink seemed to have a different decoration.
“No. I’m working,” Mason said shortly.
“You haven’t touched your drink,” Rhys said, pointing at Mason’s full glass.
“I’ve only ordered it because you wouldn’t stop about it.”
“Billy had some. How you feeling, Po?” Rhys drawled as he turned his attention for a second on Billy.
Billy raised his full glass. “This club is liiiit,” he said with enthusiasm.
Mason frowned at Billy, but his partner didn’t seem to take the cue. It didn’t matter. If anything happened, Mason was ready to intervene. At least, the ghost was silent. Apparently, he liked to mingle as he passed through the people on the dancefloor without being seen and felt by anyone.
“Then I’ll dance with Billy,” Rhys said with determination and tried to get to his feet.
Rhys had downed at least three glasses of champagne, and he looked like a lightweight, too. It was clear as day that he wasn’t in complete control of his body. Mason stood up. “You two are both drunk. We’ll go home.”
“We just got here,” Rhys said stubbornly. “And I’m not going home until I’m dancing.”
Mason sighed. Just the kind of stuff he needed; a spoilt celebrity. He took Rhys’s hand and dragged him to the dancefloor. The funky beat could hardly count for something they could dance on without looking like epileptic dummies, but if Rhys wanted to dance, Mason would show him dancing.
They were barely on the dancefloor when the music changed to a slow tune. Rhys wrapped his arms around his neck and pulled him close. Mason knew it had to be a horrible idea, but now there was no escape. He placed his arms on Rhys’s waist and stared ahead.
“Don’t play the stoic, Mason,” Rhys said into his ear, sending eddies of warmth down his spine.
Mason hadn’t drunken one drop of alcohol, but Rhys’s soft voice had the effect of a shot of the strongest stuff. He needed to get a hold of himself. “Just shut up and dance so that we can go home.”
Although he was taller than him, Rhys placed his head on Mason’s shoulder. He relaxed in Mason’s arms, leaving him no option but to embrace him properly just so that he could support him.
Now that was hell, Mason thought. Rhys smelled so good, and he was sure that it wasn’t only because of the expensive cologne he wore. His body was warm, and his soft breathing blew over Mason’s neck, making his blood hot.
“Do you think I did it, Mason? Just like them?”
“Did what?” Mason asked.
“Don’t make me say it,” Rhys mumbled. “I can’t bear it. Just hold me.”
“Man, aren’t you supposed to be this guy’s bodyguard? Is this how you do your job?” The ghost was suddenly next to them.
Mason ignored him.
“I mean, I get it that he’s so pretty and all, but you’re all over him,” the ghost said.
“And? You jealous or something?” Mason whispered.
“What?” Rhys asked and tried to move his head. Mason moved one arm to catch him and push him back with his head against his shoulder.
“Nothing. I’m just talking into the earpiece with Billy,” he lied.
“Okay,” Rhys said.
“Maybe it’s time to go home, man. A little more slow dancing like this, and I think you’ll be out of your job.”
Mason was starting to get pissed at the ghost. He was a bit of a prick. What business did he have with anything? “Let’s go home, Rhys,” he said.
“But it feels good like this,” Rhys replied.
“You need your beauty sleep,” Mason said.
“What he needs is for you to stop pawning him,” the ghost said.
Mason took Rhys gently by the shoulders and guided him back to where Billy sat. “I think we’re ready to hit the road.”
Rhys didn’t protest, but he continued to hang on his arm until they were back to the car. Billy was the designated driver, but Mason was sure as hell not going to let him behind the wheel tonight.
He helped Rhys get on the back seat, and then he moved to climb in front. Billy stopped him. “It’s okay. I got this.”
“You got pissed drunk inside,” Mason protested right away.
“Ah, you mean, the plant behind me got pissed drunk. Just smell my breath, man,” Billy said and blew into Mason’s face.
Mason grimaced and waved in front of him. “You should chew some gum or something, though. What do you know? Po here actually makes a good bodyguard,” he said jokingly and punched Billy in the arm in a friendly gesture.
“I just wanted Rhys to feel less alone in there,” Billy explained his behavior.
“Why should he feel alone?” Mason asked with a snort. “He’s rich, beautiful, and sings like an angel. What gay dude wouldn’t want him?”
“It’s not about who wants him, though, right?” Billy said back. “It’s about who he wants, and that’s tough, man.”
Mason was about to ask him what the hell he meant by that when Rhys dropped the window on his side and called for them. “Are you guys coming, or did you change your mind? You want to party now? I know a place --”
“No place. We’re taking you straight to bed,” Mason said.
Rhys snickered. “It’s a promise? No offense, Billy, but it’s Mason I want to take me to bed.”
“None taken, Rhys. I like you to the sky and back, but I have a girlfriend, and she’s keen on not sharing. She just wants all this,” he made a gesture, patting his belly, “for herself.”
Mason rolled his eyes. “Aren’t you the funniest thing since standup was invented? Billy, drive. And you, Rhys, get your head back inside. No need for your boss to suspect you’ve been out drinking when you meet him tomorrow.”
“The one and only,” Mason explained. “Levine Goldman.”
“He doesn’t own me,” Rhys said sharply for a man who was supposed to be drunk.
“All right. Whatever you say. But he’s still in charge of you, and you answer to him. And so we do, too. Let’s just get you home and in bed before he gets the crazy idea to call and find out where you are.”
“He thinks I’m sleeping,” Rhys said petulantly.
“Maybe, maybe not. You’re not that good a liar, either,” Mason replied.
In the backseat, Rhys rested his head against Mason’s shoulder. There was nothing to do but help him. He was about to relax one inch when he noticed the ghost standing next to him. Despite his training, he couldn’t suppress a small jolt. Rhys moved, and Mason froze. Under his breath, he whispered, “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Did you say something, Mason?” Billy asked from his seat.
“I’m just repeating something. I need to do some math, and it helps if I mumble to myself,” Mason explained.
“Don’t mind me.”
The ghost moved and crouched in front of him, part of his immaterial body swallowed by the front seat. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
Mason just sighed. He made a small gesture with one hand.
“I just need to be alone with you so that we can talk.”
Mason observed the stranger. He was quite attractive. He could have passed as charming if it hadn’t been for the blood oozing wound on his left temple. The light inside the car was on, after Rhys had insisted over hating the dark, even if he was half-asleep, so now Mason could make the stranger’s features better.
From under well-defined eyebrows, intelligent brown eyes were staring at him. It appeared that the ghost was running an assessment of his own, as much as Mason was, of him. The arch of his upper lip curved enticingly, but Mason’s eyes were drawn to the wound, more than everything.
“You might wonder how I got this,” the ghost began talking and pointed at his head. “I’m wondering, too—a lot. I have no idea for how long, I’ve been wandering about, not recalling a thing. Do you have any idea how it is to discover you’re a frigging ghost or something?”
Mason shook his head just a fraction and frowned.
The ghost sighed. “I can tell you this. It sucks. I mean, why not a zombie? At least, then I could have fed on brain or something like that.”
Mason could feel his lips twitching. The ghost had a sense of humor.
“But no, when I kicked the bucket, I had to become this,” the ghost said while pointing at his body. To make it even clearer, as if there was any need, he moved one hand in and out of his chest. “And it’s not as fun as I would have thought when I was five. Going through walls, peeking at what people do behind closed doors, and all that, I can tell you, man. It’s overrated.”
Mason had a thousand questions to ask, but he couldn’t talk at the moment. As the initial shock was wearing off, his mind was trying to make sense of the ghost in front of him. There had to be an explanation, albeit not one that could be considered reasonable by any living person.
A small memory flared in his brain. A finger following each letter on the page, as the young mind guiding it was trying to make sense of it. Those things were long in the past. Mason pushed them away.
The ghost scratched his head. “I’d tell you more about me, but, hell, I know squat. The thing is, at first, I felt every crap.” He began counting on his fingers. “Hunger, cold, pain, you name it. It’s better now. I guess I got used to it. Imagine my shock while trying to bite out of a hamburger.” The stranger made a gesture with his hands and mouth, pretending to munch on imaginary food.
“How did you get a hamburger?” Mason asked, forgetting, for a second, that he was talking to a ghost.
“Hamburger? Did you say hamburger?” Billy asked excitedly. “Can we stop by a fast food place before we get home?”
“Billy, I’m not your dad. Just go ahead and stop wherever you want,” Mason said, much in the mood to bite his tongue over talking freely with his ghost. Wait, it was the wrong way to put it. That stranger was not his ghost. He was just a ghost. A ghost like many others in the world who probably tormented other people like him. But this one saw him, so, somehow, he could call him ‘his’, in a very liberal sense of the term.
“Thanks, dad,” Billy joked. “What would you like?”
“I’m not going to eat a hamburger right now.”
“Man, can you believe it? I don’t recall how a hamburger tastes like,” the ghost said. “And I didn’t exactly get one. I just tried to have a bite from some dude’s hamburger while he was holding it.”
Mason cocked his head.
“Well, I couldn’t hold anything in my hands, so I tried different approaches,” the ghost explained. “As you can easily imagine, it didn’t work.”
Mason shook his head. Maybe he was in a dream. He didn’t dream often, but that seemed like a logical explanation because there was no way he was having a conversation with a ghost about hamburgers.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything?” Billy asked him as he pulled the car in front of a drive-thru.
“Eh, it must be that’s why you keep that body, and I get to keep mine,” Billy said with a sigh.
There was no real regret there, Mason could tell. He didn’t like people much, especially guys he barely met, but Mason had a good feeling about Billy. It looked like there was not a bad bone in his body.
“Is it far? Your home?” the ghost asked.
Mason made a small gesture to make him cut it off. If he was starting to appear in front of other people as someone who spoke to himself, he was just the right candidate for a straitjacket. For now, he needed to play along, but not too much. Did crazy people entertain their apparitions, usually? The evening had happened too fast. Once he was alone, he could clear his head.
Rhys shifted and sighed in his sleep. Damn, he was a lightweight. A few drinks, and he was gone to the world. Mason enjoyed the weight of his head on his shoulder, their bodies so close that they fed on each other’s warmth. He sighed, as well. One day into his new job and all sorts of weird things were happening.
“Toby,” Rhys called in his sleep and shifted again.
Mason tensed. Rhys was getting agitated, so he moved his arm to embrace him and pull him close. The agitation subsided. Who was Toby, and why was Rhys becoming frantic in his sleep over him? Billy was busy munching on his hamburger, so he must have missed Rhys moaning that name while still asleep.
Whoever that was, it was not Mason’s business.
It took a bit of skill to take Rhys to his room, but in the end, they succeeded.
“Are we going to let him sleep in his clothes?” Billy whispered.
“I’m not going to undress him,” Mason protested.
“But he will sleep badly if we leave him like this.”
With a sigh, Mason grabbed Rhys’s shoes one by one and pulled them off. Skillful manipulation helped Rhys out of his shirt, too, but Mason wasn’t going to take things further.
“We should take his pants off, too,” Billy suggested.
“We?” Mason turned toward his partner. “I don’t see you doing any heavy lifting.”
Billy shrugged. “You already seem better at it than me.”
Mason shook his head and went for Rhys’s belt. It took him longer to struggle Rhys out of his pants, too, but, finally, they were off, along with his socks. Rhys turned on his belly, and Mason pursed his lips at the minuscule underwear that barely covered one of the loveliest behinds he had seen in a long while. He grabbed the blanket and pulled it over Rhys.
He reached for the bedside lamp to turn it off.
Billy stopped him. “Don’t. Rhys hates the dark.”
“Yeah. When he’s awake or almost. It’s not healthy to sleep with the lights on like this. And he’s not five.”
“He’ll wake up if you turn it off.”
“And how do you know that?”
“He said it in an interview that he always sleeps with a light on.”
“Fine, number one fan. Let’s get some sleep. Tomorrow, we need to bring this place up to speed.”
“Okay. Goodnight, Rhys.”
“Hush, not so loud. And he’s out, don’t you see?”
“Goodnight, Po. Arnie,” Rhys murmured and turned on one side, pulling the blanket over his shoulders.
“You have to be kidding me.” Mason felt his jaw pulling tight. Rhys must have had a lot of fun, while Mason had struggled with his clothes.
Celebrities. What did he know about them? Now, he had to live with one, so he needed to get used to their shenanigans. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to feel really mad at Rhys. There was a light burning bright inside him.
Mason rolled out his shoulders. He wasn’t the type of guy to think of poetic stuff like that. Rhys was pretty, and Mason liked pretty guys. There wasn’t anything else to it.
Mason couldn’t even say he was surprised when the ghost emerged from the shadows. “Look, man, I don’t know you.” He began to get ready for bed.
“That’s impossible. Why are you able to see me?”
Mason shrugged. “I have no idea. Maybe it’s some glitch in the matrix.”
“Yeah, right. I’m just a ghost, man, not a ghost in the machine.”
“I’m pretty sure you’re not using that expression correctly.”
“Okay, so you don’t know me,” the ghost said. “But maybe you see me because you can help me.”
“Sorry to break it to you, man, but it looks to me like you’re beyond any help.”
The ghost remained silent for a moment. Then, he suddenly began singing out of tune and very loudly.
“What the hell are you doing?” Mason asked.
“I’m trying to convince you to help me.”
“Really? How is that supposed to work?”
“I would bribe you, man, but I have nothing to give. So, I’m going to prevent you from sleeping until you promise you’ll help me. I must warn you. I don’t know any songs except what I happened to hear on the radio this morning. I’m sorry if I’m a bit rusty and sound out of tune. It’s probable that I wasn’t a singer before I kicked the bucket.” He began singing again.
Mason sighed. He would have kicked the guy’s ass, but that wasn’t possible, right? Then an idea came to him right away. “Hey, hey, stop it for a second.” The ghost obeyed. “There’s nothing I can do right now. But, tomorrow, I promise, I’ll start searching for who you are. What do you say?”
“Yay, that’s great!”
“Good. Now I really need my sleep.” Mason had the hope that a good night’s sleep would make the ghost disappear. If whatever was happening now was nothing but a dream or a hallucination, the chances were that it would be gone by morning.
He climbed on the bed and turned off the light.
“Are you really going to sleep so fast? I thought maybe we could sit up late and get to know each other.”
“You know nothing about yourself. You practically depend on me to find out who you are.”
“Right. But what should I do until you wake up? I’m fed up walking the streets.”
“Then don’t walk the streets.”
“Still, what should I do?”
“How should I know? Just play dead.”
The ghost laughed wholeheartedly. “Good one, man.”
“Yeah, yeah, now shut up.”
“Okay, shutting up. Goodnight. And thanks, man.”
Mason offered a grunt in reply. A good night’s sleep was bound to make the ghost disappear.
Okay, okay, so maybe there is a bit of comedy in there, somewhere, although when I thought about this story and starting it, I fretted over whether it may be too dark for people who have read other things written by me before. Now, please feel free to tell me what you think of the ghost and of Mason's reactions! You can also speculate as much as you want. I intend to make a puzzle out of this story, so there will be clues left all over the place, in the hope that they won't be too evident, but not too obscure, either.