Chapter 4 – Real Ghosts

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Esther woke once more to bright light streaming through the sheers. This dawn of another day practically blinded her. Rest had been elusive. The erotic fantasies that had kept the darkness at bay on his first night were laced, this time, with other dreams. Nightmares of smoke and fire, loud moans rending the heat.

After they had eaten last night, the Master Sergeant had washed and dried the dishes while Esther worked on the Marshmallow Treats. They chatted, planned the work for the coming day. It would be the last chance they had to get most of it done. Monday was Halloween, and Esther would be at work all day. She would barely have time to come home and change before the Trick-or-Treaters started to arrive.

The haunted house needed decorating; the other ornaments must be hung up about the porch and yard; there were cookies to bake and goody bags to assemble. Esther wondered how she would get it all done, even with his help. She was double-checking her mental to-do list as she reached for her robe that lay at the foot of the bed. Her hands froze in mid-air when she heard a soft knock on the half-open bedroom door.

“Good morning, Master Sergeant,” she blushed. She knew how bad she must look to the man. Her eyes red and swollen, dark circles beneath them. The long curls that were her crowning glory and proudest statement of her mixed heritage would be nothing more than a tangled mess about her face.

And this faded blue cotton nightgown was so thin with age that it would be practically as sheer as one of those lace things that they sold at the malls in Houston despite its demure nature. She yanked the robe from the foot of her bed at that thought. She clutched it about her ample chest like a shield.

The Master Sergeant stepped into the room. His eyes looking down at the floor, he held out a steaming cup of hot coffee towards her.

“When I heard you stirring, I thought you might like some of this.” That husky tone always sent tingles racing up Esther’s spine and through every intimate part of her body.

“There’s breakfast in the kitchen when you’re ready. Nothing as special as chocolate chip pancakes, I’m afraid. Just bacon, scrambled eggs, and toast. But I figured I’d give you a break from the cooking for once.”

Esther smiled weakly at his words. More like he figured he would force-feed her again, but there was too much to be done this day to argue. Reaching out, she took the cup from his hands. Their fingers brushed during the exchange. His touch was more scalding than the dark liquid inside the old china.

She nodded her head, bringing the cup to her lips for a sip. “Just let me grab a quick shower, and I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”

He nodded and disappeared back the way that he had come, leaving Esther alone to her thoughts. She gathered her clothes, underwear, jeans, and an old Texas A&M t-shirt that had been a Mother’s Day present from Tommy. Aggie Mom, it boasted.

She crossed the hall to the tiny bathroom and turned on the water, adjusting it until it was slightly tepid. A cold shower was more like what her body needed this morning. The dark brown nipples ached against the softness of her cotton gown. Now was a hell of a time to develop a libido. Perhaps this strange and new sexual awareness was nothing more than perimenopause?

She tore the gown over her head, tossing it in the laundry basket. But even the warm mist seemed to rise and circle about her, tormenting and taunting her mature body like her fantasy lover. What would it feel like to have his hands move over her skin as intimately as the steam?

She moaned softly at the thought as she stepped into the tub. Flipping the switch, water from the showerhead began to pound her tight muscles. But rather than relaxing them, the stream of massaging water only heightened her desire. She practically cried out at this new sensation.

“Fuck.” She picked up the bottle of shampoo that sat on the edge of the tub. She poured some of the sweet-smelling liquid into the palm of her hand. Putting the bottle back, she began to massage it into her hair. Her fingers brushed a little too roughly over the knot from last night, and she moaned in pain this time.

But not even the pain was enough to dampen the unexpected desire that coursed through her. She stood beneath the pulsating showerhead and watched as trails of water and bubbles wound their way down her skin.

She did not dare breathe when one bubble lodged itself on the tip of her erect nipple. She stared at it, watching the pearlescent play of colors, pinks, blues, purples, and the rest of the rainbow dance across its taut surface. When it finally popped with deafening silence, Esther’s knees buckled at the intense feeling of pleasure that radiated from the sensitized point.

“Damn it,” was her only frustrated response as she picked up the bottle of conditioner and began lathering her hair once more. This time as her fingers wove their way through the tight curls, straightening and loosening the tangles as she went, her mind filled with the memory of how his fingers had felt instead. As she tugged one stubborn snarl out, she imagined it was her fantasy lover pulling her hair, demanding her submission as those pink lips moved over hers, his tongue dancing a slow Texas two-step with her own.

As she stood beneath the spray, rinsing the conditioner from her hair, Esther made a decision. There was no way she was going to make it through another couple of days like this. Picking up the bar of soap, she began rubbing it softly across her body. She closed her eyes and imagined it was his callused hands touching her tenderly, intimately like the phantom lover he had been for the past two years.

If those other erotic dreams had been sweet, offering her relief from a lifetime of loneliness, then this was something far more intense. The fact that her fantasy was even then sitting in her kitchen sipping coffee and eating breakfast, the dozens of casual touches that they had shared, her new understanding of this man of honor; they all combined into a heady broth that deepened her level of fantasy.

By the time that her fingers danced and circled about her throbbing clitoris, she was already upon the edge. It took only a couple of small circles, the pounding heat of the water and the slippery wetness of the soap combined with the slickness of her body, and she sailed over the edge of the precipice like a diver jumping from a cliff into the foaming water far, far below.

Esther clutched the walls, and her body hung in mid-air. It seemed to go on forever, this dive into the unknown. Her knees threatened to give way, and she held tighter to the safety of those walls as, about her, everything churned and broke upon the sharp rocks.

“Ma’am, is everything alright in there?”

Esther’s eyes flew wide at the husky sound of his voice muffled by the thick door. Her mind rifled through the possibilities. What had he heard? Had she cried out, completely unaware of herself? Her cheeks stained in mortification at the prospect.

Quickly she cataloged explanations and chose the most likely. “Sorry, Master Sergeant. That bump was still just a bit sore.”

“You sure you’re alright? You need any help? I’ll keep my eyes closed. I won’t look. I swear.”

Esther chuckled softly at her chivalrous knight once more. “I know you won’t, Master Sergeant. That’s the problem,” she said under her breath.

“What’s that, ma’am?” She heard the soft turn of the knob.

“No, Master Sergeant. I’m fine. I promise. I’ll be out in a couple of minutes.” Unprepared on so many levels for the man to barge into her bathroom like the cavalry racing to the rescue.

Everything was silent for a moment as Esther reached for her towel hanging from a hook near the tub. She clutched it to her just as she had the robe earlier. Prepared to greet her rescuer if necessary.

“If you’re sure then. You were just in there so long that I got nervous. Your head and all. I finished my breakfast, and I’m going to head out and work on the haunted house some more. Your breakfast is in the microwave. Join me outside after you get dressed and eat.”

Esther nodded in silence at this man, who was accustomed to giving orders and expected them to be followed without exception. When it dawned on her that he could not see her head, she responded verbally. “Alright, then.”

The last thing she wanted was this man barraging into her bathroom when she was naked, nothing more than a towel as armor. Her body still thrumming with perhaps the most powerful orgasm of her life, the wetness between her thighs only partly from the shower. Most definitely the last thing she needed.

Or was it? Some deep part of her mind questioned.

Mike reached up to suspend another old white sheet from the PVC pipe that formed the haunted house’s framework. He attached it with the lengths of string until it would fool almost anyone, at least in the dark. If only real ghosts were nothing more than white apparitions.

But Mike knew well what real ghosts were. Faces and voices of friends that fill your dreams, sometimes even your waking moments. They comforted and accused by their mere presence. And he lived with them every moment of every day. If he but focused, he could almost see Tommy laughing as he worked alongside him.

Mike blushed at that thought. If Tommy were here, he would be in big trouble. At least, if the man had any idea of Mike’s kinky thoughts about his mother. Mike chuckled as he imagined the tussle that might follow, knocking this whole monstrosity down. Would she come racing out of the house? Admonish them both for acting like schoolboys? They would both, ‘yes, Ma’am,’ and rebuild the whole damned thing to please her.

That was how this should be. It should be her son that was here now. And Mike would give anything if it could be. How many times had he replayed that morning in his mind? If he had been the one to take the lead? If it had been him, that stepped on the damned IED? It was not like anyone would give a damn. His only family was gone so long that he could no longer even remember what her face had looked like.

No wife or girlfriend either. None that mattered anyway. Not one that would mourn him the way that Brenda had Billy or Rachel did Manny. Mike could not decide whether it was better that Tommy left no wife, girlfriend, or children behind? Or did that only intensify her grief? Having no one to share the loss with.

He sighed as he remembered other stories that Tommy had shared with him. Less happy memories of growing up in this place. It still shocked Mike’s sensibilities that in this modern world, not having a father, being a ‘bastard’ could still hold such meaning in places like Sebida and Honour. Hell, Mike wished he had been so lucky as to have never known the sorry bastard, not that meaning but the proper one, that had sired him.

Thoughts of the isolation Tommy had described growing up here, knowing the hateful things these people said about you and your mother behind your back, being taunted with them sometimes on the playground, it did not seem fair.

Mike frowned, he wondered about Tommy’s father, just as the young man had. One thing he was confident of, the woman was not ‘easy.’ So, how had she come to be a single mother? Some true love that she still pined for, perhaps? That would certainly explain why a woman as beautiful, intelligent, and caring as Esther had not married and had more children.

He knew that Tommy had never fully given up on his mother finding someone that would love and care for her as she deserved. They had talked about it a couple of times. But the thought of another man, any man, touching her, loving her, giving her the future he did not have to offer, had always made Mike so uncomfortable that he had changed the subject as quickly as he could.

Mike swallowed hard as he thought about the moan that he had heard while standing outside the doorway. If that was how she sounded when she was in pain, he might have to revise some of those fantasies and dreams because it did not bear thinking the way she would moan with his tongue and fingers buried between her legs.

“Fuckwad.” He had to keep his mind from going to such places. As hard as that was, he had to. At least for a couple more days. He had work to do. He was here to help her out, not lust after her, make a fool of himself, and pile up kinky memories for the road. But he knew that was precisely what he was doing.

And that damned nightgown that he had glimpsed was a hell of one. How could something that was supposed to be old-fashioned and demure be sexier than the lingerie that he had always dressed her in those fantasies? But it fucking was. Of course, he had only caught a brief glance before she clutched that damned robe to her chest.

It was enough, though. The way her dark brown nipples stood erect against the faded material that had probably once been blue but was more sheer white these days. He had wanted so badly to lay her back on those pillows, to take those peaks into his mouth, nightgown and all. He had wanted to suck on them, first one, then the other until she was writhing and pleading beneath him. Then he would…

“How’s it coming?” That sweet Southern drawl twisted like a knife in his gut.

He looked up to see her standing on the porch. She was fully dressed now. Jeans and a t-shirt. Entirely respectable, but it was not. The way those jeans hugged her thighs.

He gave into temptation, just this once. “Can you hand me that ghoul over there?” He pointed to the one he had left lying on the ground. He watched as she bent to retrieve it. He fought to hold back the moan that tightened in his gut. Damn, she had the most gorgeous ass he had ever seen. What would it feel like, his hands on those hips drawing her back to meet each hard thrust as…

She smiled at him as she stood and turned, passing the plastic and cloth creation to him as she surveyed the progress. “Wow, it is coming together.”

Mike choked, ‘coming together’ was not the words he needed to hear from this woman. Not after the sounds he had heard from that shower. Not after seeing her nipples through that fucking nightgown. He caught his eyes wandering to the front of her t-shirt. It was not translucent, so maybe it was just his imagination, but he would have sworn her nipples hardened as he watched.

He turned away before she could see the lust in his eyes, or the bulge in his jeans. Damned traitor. Just a couple more days of this hell, or this heaven, depending upon how he viewed every stolen moment with the woman he loved. And the clock was ticking way too fast. “Better get back to work,” he groaned.

He fought back a deeper one as he felt her hand on his shoulder. “I just wanted to say thank you, Master Sergeant. I don’t know what I would have done without you. This means a lot…”

“It’s what Tommy would want,” they both said at the same time as he turned and caught those tears glazing over those brown eyes once more. He placed his hand over hers and squeezed it.

They stayed like that for a long moment before she cleared her throat. “What do you say? Another cup of coffee while we finish up?”

He nodded, grateful for the reprieve as he watched that ass retreat back inside the house once more. This time he allowed himself the luxury of releasing the groan. “Damn, this is gonna kill me,” he chuckled as he returned to work. Trying to stay focused with her around was not an easy task.

The rest of their morning had gone surprisingly well. They had quickly dispensed with the final touches on the haunted house, ghosts, goblins, and spider webs all hung ready for the big night. Only last-minute preparations, like blood made from Karo corn syrup and red food dye, spaghetti worms covered in oil for that extra layer of slime or peeled grape eyeballs, awaited the children’s delight.

By early afternoon the day was even hotter than the one before. They had eaten ham and cheese sandwiches and drank tall glasses of iced tea with lemon in the shade of the front porch. As they sat eating in the porch swing, Esther found it hard to believe that the intimacy they had shared in the darkness was not just another of her carefully crafted flights of fancy.

Although he was perfectly cordial and every bit the gentlemen, there was a shift in the Master Sergeant that she could sense. The coldness that never leftthose blue-gray eyes darkened their depths even more. They were finishing off the last of their lunch when Joey ran up the walkway. Only then did she see the genuine warmth and caring once more light their depths.

“Miss Esther, Miss Esther. You’re really gonna do it. We’re really going to have Halloween after all?”

“Yes, Joey. I told you we would.”

The little boy looked down at the ground. “I know you said. But Mama said that you was too sad about Tommy. That you didn’t have time for it this year.”

Only at that moment did Esther fully realize precisely how much this once a year celebration meant to Joey and the other children. Oh, she had logically recognized its importance. It was that head knowledge that had driven her to the linen closet even before the Master Sergeant arrived. But this was different, a knowing of the heart, something precious and unique, a rare gift of life that was not to be questioned or second-guessed.

She knelt on the bottom step, eye to eye with the boy. Her hand reached out to grip his arm and reassure him that she would always be there for him, but he drew back. His tiny face contorted in pain at the touch.

Esther brushed the sleeve of his shirt back to stare at deep red and purple bruises. The design was apparent. Four foul lines were running in one direction, and a single thicker line was going the other. Where they met on the underside of his thin limb, five deep crescent moon scratches were marring his skin. “What happened, Joey?”

“I fell against the old heater again, Miss Esther,” the boy stared at the ground as he choked out the lie.

“We’re going to have to do something about that heater soon.” She lowered his sleeve.

She forced a smile to her lips, “How about those Rice Krispies Treats I promised you? You’re my official test-tester, you know. I can’t be serving inferior products to the children.”

“Inferior? What’s that?” He looked up, a bright smile lighting his face at her simple words of praise and the thought of the sweet, crunchy treats.

“Inferior means not good enough,” the deep voice answered from over her shoulder.

“Oh, like me?” Joey’s words tore at her heart.

“No, Joey, not like you. Little boys and girls are never inferior. But sometimes the big people are,” Esther wondered at the depths of Mike’s simple words and something more in his tone. She could hear the pain in his voice, see it in the stiff way he held himself. And those eyes, they seemed to be seeing things that were not there, places or people long forgotten.

Some part of her wanted to reach out, to take this man in her arms, just as he had her last night. To comfort him as she had Joey a moment ago. But she knew that she did not have that right.

She knew too that words alone would not be enough to heal the bruises on this child’s body and soul. Or on the man’s. So, she offered what comfort was hers to give. She held out her hand to the child, “You ready to test them out? Tell me what you think?” If she could not comfort the one she longed to the most, then she would settle for the one that she could most easily appease.

The child nodded and smiled as they went into the house. For the moment, pains were forgotten, decisions delayed as she turned to see the man frown as he returned to the work of straightening up. Her throat tightened; this victory seemed hollower somehow, knowing that sweets were all she had to offer the boy – for the moment.

And the man? What did she have to offer him? She knew how she wanted to comfort him, but that was nothing more than a selfish fantasy. No, men like that would never notice the old maid schoolmarm.

Mike lay awake on the couch again. But this time, it was not erotic visions of the woman he could never have or the smoke and blood-filled dreams of friends he could not save or even the lifeless faces of the men and boys he had killed that kept sleep at bay. No, this time it was the pleas of little boys that echoed in his mind.

Had Joey begged and pleaded for one more chance? Promised that he would be a ‘good boy,’ that he would never again do whatever minor and inconsequential infraction that resulted in such a harsh punishment? Worst of all, had he come to believe that he deserved it? Mike choked on that word… ‘inferior.’ How could such a cute little kid think that he was ‘inferior’?

His hands fisted on top of the blanket. He had seen his father beat his mother often enough, he had sworn as a boy that he would never lay a hand on a woman, and it was a promise he had kept. But damn, if there was ever a woman who deserved a good beating, Sandy Monroe was it.

He remembered the pain in Tommy’s voice the one time he had spoken about her. About what she had done. The way she had used him and then not been satisfied to cast him aside, she had gone out of her way to destroy him, spreading horrid rumors about the one thing that every guy held sacred – his manhood.

Mike had tried to be generous. They were just kids in high school; that sort of shit happened. He was sure she had not meant anything by it. She probably regretted it. After all, she had come onto him while he was back home. That must mean something, right?

But after meeting the woman yesterday, the way she had practically thrown herself at him. And not even the direct offer that Kay had made. Then this – harming an innocent child. Her own child? It boggled his mind. He could not even begin to imagine what it must feel like to the child.

Mike’s betrayal at the hands of his drunk and abusive father still haunted him over thirty years later. At least he had his mother to protect and defend him, even when she paid the ultimate price for it. How much worse it must be for the little boy who had no one? And Mike was still trying to figure out what could drive a mother to such a thing.

He turned over, closing his eyes and trying to banish the demons that skirted the edges of his mind this night, but he could not. It seemed as if he could hear her cries. His mother’s as she clutched her distended belly, trying to protect the baby sister that Mike had been so looking forward to holding. Her eyes were almost swollen shut already as she pushed Mike towards his room, determined to face his father’s rage alone.

But this time, he would not go. He had to protect them – his mother and sister. Though what could a little boy of seven do against a grown man, he was not sure as he lunged at his father, grabbing his arm just in time to prevent him from landing another blow to his mother’s head. But the man had merely shaken him off, so powerfully that he had been thrown across the hall, hitting his head as he landed against the wall.

She had lunged for him then and…

Mike’s thoughts came to an abrupt halt. The cries were not memories of some long ago and very real nightmare. No, they were very much at this moment. And they were hers.

He lay there for a long moment. His chest was so fucking tight it hurt. It was not like an elephant was sitting on it, more like a whole fucking herd of them. He had stood outside that door yesterday listening helplessly to those sounds. He had walked away then. Sat for hours swinging and waiting for her. He had not felt so fucking helpless since that long-ago night.

He had failed his mother. His unborn baby sister too. He had not been able to keep them safe from the man that should have been the one to love and protect them. He had failed her yesterday too. He had just left her, alone with all of that pain.

And maybe like that night, there was not much he could do. The one thing that he could have done he had failed at – kept her son safe, sent Tommy back home to her. He, of all people, had no right to comfort her. To go to her and scoop her into his arms and hold her while she cried.

But he was the only one here. His choice was simple. Leave her to face those demons all alone as she had been for months? Or go to her? It might not be enough. Hell, he knew better than anyone that it never could be, but wasn’t it better than nothing at all?

Mike threw back the covers and padded barefoot down the hallway. He did not bother to knock this time. Instead, he merely opened the door and crossed the room. He did not even hesitate, though common sense said that he ought to. No, he simply climbed into the bed next to her and gathered her shaking body to his. His fingers wound through those long and so fucking soft curls as he brought her head to his chest.

Esther slipped beneath the crisp cotton sheets. The day had been an enormous success. The haunted house, front porch, and yard were ready to go. She had spent the evening mixing the batter for the cookies. Four sheet pans of freshly cut pumpkins, witches, and ghosts chilled in the refrigerator. She would slide them into the oven the moment she came home tomorrow so that they would still be warm when the children began to arrive. She had even mixed the orange Kool-Aid with pineapple juice and poured it into ice trays for the witch’s brew cauldron tomorrow.

As they sat swinging on the porch, she and the Master Sergeant had carefully gone over the few remaining items to be done. Dried ice to be picked up, grapes to be peeled, blood mixed, and the goody bags assembled. They had divvied them up. Esther would bring home the dry ice from school. Charlie, the chemistry teacher, was more than happy to order a bit extra for her each year. Mike would prepare the goody bags and peel the grapes. The cookies, punch, and blood they would work on together once she got home.

Then she would slip into the gypsy costume and transform into Mistress Mystique, the fortune teller. The hard part had been deciding what to do about the Frankenstein costume in the box next to the gypsy. She knew that the haunted house would not be the same without the monster to jump out at the very end, frightening and delighting the children.

But since he had been fourteen and decided that the annual event needed a ‘more adult’ element like a haunted house, that job had been Tommy’s. Those first few years, she had made and remade the costume, as he seemed to outgrow it each year. This one had been in use for the past eight years since he finally stopped growing in his senior year of high school. Last year, he had joked about packing it in his duffel bag and taking it back with him to entertain his friends and the local kids with his monster.

It had been hard for Esther to ask Mike to play that role this year. She barely pushed the words past her tight throat as she thought about the way her son laughed and played with each child as they emerged from the plastic sheeting. For some, he rose to his full height, arms spread wide, his face contorted in mock anger as he roared. For others, he tickled them until they giggled. He seemed to know what each child needed.

This year, she would have left that costume in the box was it not for Joey’s innocent words that morning. The tradition’s weight and significance forced her hand as she made herself do what was best for the children, asking this stranger and friend to fulfill the role.

In his quiet and understanding way, the Master Sergeant had merely nodded his head and said, “If you’re sure about this, ma’am, then I’d be honored.” She knew that he meant it.

Esther closed her eyes then. Sounds of Tommy’s laughter ringing in her ears blended with dark bruises on tiny arms. Threaded through it all was strong muscles playing beneath cotton t-shirts and iridescent bubbles popping so loudly. Then those popping bubbles turned into the bang of an IED and smoke that ended her life as well as her son’s.

She bolted straight up in bed. Her mind stunned for a moment, unable to remember why she woke. Then it all came crashing back. Tommy’s death. Halloween. Joey. Him.

Her thin nightgown and the sheets were damp. Sweat and tears blended with cool night air made her shiver beneath the covers. Esther pulled the quilt to her chin as she lay back down and tried desperately to get back to sleep.

But her mind would not give her even that respite. Tears began to track softly down her cheeks again. Her pain so deep that tears alone were insufficient to assuage the hole in her soul. At first, it was just an occasional gasp here and there. She brought her knuckles up to her mouth as if to trap them inside.

Even those were not enough as images flashed through her mind. Tommy’s smiling face against a truck. The Master Sergeant and a couple of others posed with him in front of tents. They ran like one of her slide show presentations through her mind. Each slide dug the hole in her soul deeper.

She was not even aware of the loud sobs echoing off the walls. Until she felt the warmth of his hand on her shoulder.

His words were husky as he turned her, drawing her into his arms. “It’s alright. Let it out. It makes it better.”

Her fists pummeled the bare steel of his chest. “That’s a lie. It doesn’t. Nothing makes it better. Nothing ever will.” She cried in anguish. Her body shook and quivered from the tears, the cold, and his presence so close.

How many times over the past two years had she dreamt of this? The Master Sergeant naked, well, half-naked, in her bed. But not like this. Not with her in the middle of one of her crying jags that nothing could stop until the hiccups came. Tears continued to fall as her body trembled.

“I know,” that deep voice offered. She could feel that his barely audible admission was torn from his heart with as much pain as she was feeling at that moment. That admission stilled her in his arms. The tears continued to track wayward paths down her cheeks, but the fight left her. The sobs softened, not quite to hiccup level, but enough that a new awareness swept over her.

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