There’s not really much erotica in this one, but I wouldn’t want to scar the tender-hearted for life, so I went ahead and flagged it as such. Those looking for steamy romance will probably be disappointed.
“Come on!” Cindy hissed, leading her friends through the woods.
The moon shone dimly through the trees, and a lonely wolf call was the only other sound besides the crunching of leaves and twigs as the kids raced as quietly as they could through the underbrush.
“Wait up!” Paul whined. The branches scratching his arms made his skin sting.
“Come on, you wimp!” Cindy urged, “Or we’re gonna miss it!”
“I dunno about this,” Maggie said uneasily.
“Aww, come on, you chickens!” Nick said, doing his best to keep up with Cindy.
“Guys, we’re gonna get lost,” Paul said.
“Fine, then go back!” Cindy retorted over her shoulder. “You can miss it, and Nick and I will see it all by ourselves!”
“No, stay,” Maggie said, patting Paul’s shoulder reassuringly. “I’m sure it’ll be worth it once we see it!”
“Ghosts aren’t real,” Paul said for the hundredth time.
“Shh!” Cindy practically threw herself on the ground behind a fallen log, and the others quickly followed suit.
“What is it? Is it them?” Paul asked nervously.
“Shh! Do you want them to see us?” Cindy hissed.
The four peered up over the log. In a moonbeam through the canopy were two ethereal figures, a horse and a man. The man put his head against the horse’s neck and petted her, his lips moving as if talking to her, yet all the children could hear was the breeze lightly rustling the leaves around them. Although their expressions were wildly distorted, they seemed comfortable with each other yet deeply sad.
“Whoa!” Nick whispered excitedly as the others hid behind the log again. “Cindy, that’s awesome!”
“I told you!” the blonde girl beamed.
Suddenly, the color drained from Nick’s face and his jaw began to tremble.
“Nick! What is it?” Maggie asked.
But Nick was too afraid to say anything. His eyes wide, all he could do was point.
The children gulped and looked over the log.
Just inches from them stood the man. The horse stood just behind him, her mane and tail made entirely of smoky moonlight.
“What are you doing here?” the man demanded, his voice ethereal, distorted, and chilling.
Now all the children’s faces matched Nick’s as they looked up at the man.
“Leave this place!” the man glowered, pointing off to his right. “Never come back!”
When the children hesitated, he yelled in a shrieking voice, “Get out!”
The children were on their feet and running blindly in the direction the man pointed, screaming in terror. Nobody ever spoke of it again, and nobody dared venture there again.
Until one day.
Maggie had gone along for Paul’s sake at the time, but now she went for her own sake. For years, her curiosity worked on her mind. Who was that man? Who was the horse? Why did they seem so content together yet so sad? Why couldn’t she find anything online, in the library, or in old copies of the local newspaper about them?
Cindy had discovered them entirely by accident. She was out catching nocturnal animals—her favorite pastime—when she saw them. At first she thought they were just her mind playing tricks on her, but even as she rubbed her eyes, they were still there. She was so excited, she’d quietly slunk away to go get her friends, and that is how they all ended up getting run off and frightened half to death. Until she stumbled upon them, nobody had ever heard of them.
Finally, her years of youth and adolescence behind her, Maggie finally gathered up her courage to go and ask the man the questions she had so badly wanted to ask for over a decade.
Now as she quietly picked her way through the underbrush—much thicker thanks to years of unhindered growth—she began to wonder if she was out of her mind.
As mean as he was back then, why would he want to talk to me? Obviously he doesn’t like company! This is stupid. I should go back I—
Her thoughts were interrupted as she looked up just in time to see them only fifteen feet in front of her. But she was too shocked by what she saw to hide; she could only stand and gape.
The man stood behind the horse and slowly thrust into her. Her neck brought her head as close to him as she could, and he caressed her face tenderly. Distorted though the ghostly faces were, Maggie could feel such warmth and love from them that it made her chest hurt. Both seemed so engrossed in what they were doing that neither noticed her.
With what looked like a sigh of contentment, the man took a step back and then walked around the mare to wrap his arms around her neck. She lowered her head and pressed her chin into the small of his back. Both of their eyes closed, and the outlines of their eyelids were just slivers of moonlight.
There was a snap as Maggie’s weight shifted and broke a twig. The horse’s eyes went wide and stared straight at her, and the man turned, his face a snarl.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“I—I…” Maggie stuttered. Just like last time. What did you expect?
No! Say something! “I wanted to talk to you,” she managed, her voice barely above a whisper.
The ghost’s eyes narrowed. “Talk?” he said suspiciously. “Who are you?”
“I’m Maggie,” she said nervously. “My friends and I snuck up on you many years ago.”
“I remember you now,” the man said flatly. “I told you never to return. Why have you come back?”
“Because I wanted to talk to you,” Maggie said again.
The ghost raised his eyebrow, and he and the horse exchanged glances. She moved up alongside him, and he leaned on her, looking at Maggie expectantly.
“All right,” he said. “Talk.”
“Well, I—who are you?” Maggie asked.
The ghost scoffed. “What business is that of yours?”
Maggie pursed her lips. “Look, I… It’s just bothered me ever since you ran us off,” she said. “Why are you here? Were you having sex with your horse?”
The man shrugged. “I’ll answer the second question first,” he said sharply. “Yes. She and I have loved each other for many years. What I do with my loved ones in my woods is really none of your concern.”
His tone softened a little bit. “It’s a sordid tale, the reason we’re here,” he said, “and sad, too.” He turned and ran his hand along the horse’s neck. She cocked her head slightly, her eyes half-closing in enjoyment. They seemed to forget entirely about Maggie.
“I’ve got time,” Maggie said, finding a small boulder to sit on and looking at them hopefully.
The man turned his head as if startled and looked strangely at Maggie. He turned back to his horse, and from the expression on her face, the horse seemed to be communicating telepathically with him. He turned to face Maggie, took a few steps closer, and sat with his legs crossed. His horse lay down beside/behind him, and he leaned against her neck, wrapping his arm around her to mindlessly play his fingers through her mane.
“The year was 1740,” he said. “All this land was mine.” He gave a wan smile. “The forest wasn’t here back then. I planted it myself. We planted it.” He inclined his head towards his horse. Things were good. Starlight here was my favorite, but I had many horses. The forest was to give them shelter from the fierce winds that used to blow through here. The oldest trees show it.” He pointed out a few large trees that all leaned in the same direction. “As the trees grew and procreated, they made a better and better windbreak.”
“But why are you a ghost?” Maggie asked.
“I’ll get to that,” the man said patiently, his demeanor completely different from what it had been before. “As far as you could see in any direction belonged to me. Aside from planting the forest, I had a nice crop going that produced all kinds of good food for me and for my animals.”
His face clouded, and he leaned in against the mare, and she leaned in against him. “We were very close, my animals and me,” he said, his voice choking. “They were all such good friends.” He swallowed hard. “I loved on them the way you saw me loving on Starlight,” he said. “The villagers didn’t like it. They said it was an unholy abomination, a perversion.” He clenched his jaw. “Well I say what they did was far more perverse!” he yelled, raising his fist. His whole body glowed with flaming moonlight.
He sighed. “They came at me with pitchforks and ropes. I was completely unarmed. I had a pen for keeping the animals at night—they tied me to a post in the middle of it and rounded up all my loved ones, driving them into the pen with me.”
He swallowed hard, moonlit tears forming in the corners of his eyes. “They made me choose,” he said, is voice hollow. “One by one, they put a knife to each of my loved ones’ necks and watched my reaction. Despite my pleas to spare my loved ones’ lives, the villagers took no pity, and one by one, they slaughtered them, dropping them right in front of me, and I watched the terror in their eyes turn to sad acceptance before the life drained out of them.” He put his hand to his face and rubbed his eyes, trying to hide the tears. “They didn’t deserve to die,” he said, giving up the fight and letting the tears flow. “They were innocent. All of them.”
He sighed. “But when they went to do the same to Starlight, I completely lost it. I yelled, screamed, and fought hard against the damned ropes that held me. Had I been able to break free, I would have slain them all. But I wasn’t strong enough. And I had tipped my hand: they knew who my favorite was.”
He turned and hugged his horse. “I am so sorry, girl,” he said, petting her neck morosely. “You should have died of old age long ago and been at peace, not stuck here, doomed for eternity.” He looked back at Maggie. “Having figured out who my favorite was, they bound her next to me, whispered accursed words and set her on fire.” He gripped her mane tightly, his whole body tensing as he relived it. “She screamed in agony, and they made me watch her until she could suffer no longer. Then they turned the torch on me. At first I was afraid, but having seen everyone I loved slaughtered at my feet and my beloved burned alive, I sought the flames’ purging powers to end my suffering, to cast me into sweet death, where I would not have to see and hear my loved ones’ death rattles one by one and Starlight’s screams of pain. But that accursed curse…” He shook his head.
“I have relived that night over and over again,” he said, his posture sagging. “I am tired, tired like no mortal can ever comprehend. I have mourned their deaths and my own powerlessness to save them for almost 300 years.”
“Accursed fire,” he murmured, “had I known what you would do, I would have fought much harder.” He shook his head. “I had hoped that it would get easier with time, that the sadness would eventually dull, but it hasn’t. And I cannot imagine what eternity is like, even after 300 years.”
Maggie’s eyes were wet, and she instinctively reached to put her hand on his. “You mustn’t blame yourself!” she urged. Of course, her hand touched nothing but air as if passing through a hologram. She set her jaw in frustrated empathy. “Those villagers were terrible to you, and you do not deserve this!” She desperately longed to be able to touch him, to give him reassurance.
He snorted. “Oh, we got back at them for the first thirty years or so. What they didn’t realize is that they’d be able to see and hear us after they cursed us. With no way to stop us, they just got to watch the show.” He gave a faint, twisted smile. “Starlight and I rubbed it in their faces. We made love often, flaunting their inability to do anything to stop us. It’s the least they deserved. And the asshole who lit her on fire—we fucked in his bedroom every night, keeping him awake. He’d move, and we’d follow him. The villagers say he died of a heart attack. I hope he died of exhaustion, that our impotent attempt at revenge paid off. The night he died, we made as much noise as we could. I hope he burns in hell, seared by that mental image.”
He sighed. “But that was over two hundred years ago. They’ve long since gone, leaving us here to”—he shook his head—”fuck and watch the trees grow.”
Maggie sighed. “But they are beautiful trees, aren’t they?” she asked, looking around her. “And you’ve gotten to watch the seeds you planted grow, become strong, and have their own children, haven’t you? Who else can claim that?”
The man smiled. “You do have a point,” he said, nodding. “The villagers did spare me the misery of losing my forest. And we protect it fiercely,” he said. “I’ll be damned if somebody is going to come and tear down hundreds of years of history to put up some ugly house!”
Maggie shook her head. “I’m not here to tear anything down,” she said. “I just came to see you.” She pursed her lips wistfully. “Starlight is such a beautiful horse,” she said. “I wish I could pet her.”
Horse and owner glanced at each other. Starlight seemed to nod slightly.
“You—could,” the man said slowly.
Maggie frowned. “But when I tried to touch your hand, I passed right through you!”
“We can make ourselves solid,” the man admitted. “I have not done it in many years. She, on the other hand”—he inclined his head towards Starlight—”does it with some regularity.”
“Let’s just say she has more opportunities for pleasure out here than I do,” the man said. “When she becomes solid, she can eat. She has no need to do so; her body does not require food, but it’s a diversion for her, and with all of eternity in front of us, I figure she might as well enjoy herself as much as she can.” He gave a wry smile. “And then there’s that stud the neighbors bought… I’m sure she wreaks havoc with them when she sneaks into his pen, makes herself solid so he can breed her, and then sneaks right back out unhindered.” He laughed, actually looking happy for the first time since Maggie had met them. “But as mischief goes, I figure it’s innocent enough. It’s not like we’re over there breaking their stuff or shaking chains and threatening them.”
“The neighbors?” Maggie asked, frowning.
“They moved in from some other state,” the man said. “They bought the property where that asshole used to live, and much to my delight, the first thing they did was razed his ugly house to the ground!” He gave that twisted smile again. “I haven’t bothered to introduce myself as the ghost next door. They don’t bother me, they’re not encroaching on my land, and Starlight tells me their horse is quite the ladies’ man, so I leave them alone. I’d hate to scare them and Starlight’s only equine companion away.”
He shook his head. “But I digress. Yes, if you want to pet Starlight and she’s up for it, she can become solid for you.” He looked over at the mare. “Would you like that, girl?” he asked. She seemed to smile. “All right,” the man said, getting to his feet. “Up we go.”
The mare threw her front legs out in front of her and clambered to her feet, shaking off. Then she stood and faced Maggie.
“Are you ready, girl?” the man asked.
Starlight tossed her mane.
“All right, girl. Ready when you are.”
Before Maggie’s eyes, the darkness contained in the horse’s moonlit outline began to grow texture and color. She was a beautiful horse, muscular, black with a white star, and her face looked almost grandmotherly in its gentleness and wisdom. Although her innards filled in, her moonlit outline never faded, giving her a whitish halo.
Her transformation complete, Starlight nickered softly at Maggie and nodded her head almost imperceptibly.
The mortal woman stared, her jaw slackened by what she’d just seen.
“It’s all right,” the man said gently. “She won’t hurt you.”
Maggie rose slowly and carefully extended her hand. She felt a strange tingling as Starlight’s outline passed over her, and she gasped when the horse’s very real lips brushed against her palm. “Wow…” she whispered as she ran her hand along Starlight’s jawline and over to her neck. Sure enough, Starlight felt as solid as anything she’d ever touched. There was even a hint of warmth.
Maggie began to scratch the horse’s neck, and Starlight leaned into it, cocking her head to give Maggie better access. Maggie giggled and scratched harder, using both hands.
“She loves that,” the man said, quietly watching them from behind Maggie.
Maggie turned, hearing his voice. “She is very sweet,” she said.
“Don’t stop,” the man said, smiling and gesturing Starlight, whose facial expression almost perfectly resembled a pout.
Maggie laughed and quickly resumed her scratching. “You’re spoiled, aren’t you, girl?” she asked.
Starlight just rolled her eyes, and Maggie and the man both laughed again.
“That’s a pretty neat trick,” Maggie said, “pouting, rolling her eyes—those are very human things. Did you teach her those?”
The man nodded. “Some,” he said. “She’s a smart girl, and we’ve had a few centuries to work on it. If nothing else, it helps me know what she’s thinking.”
“If she were human, she could just say what she was thinking,” Maggie mused, stroking Starlight’s withers and watching her face.
“Ah, but would she?” the man asked. “Having the capacity for something and actually doing it are two very different things.”
Maggie grinned wryly. “I suppose you’re right,” she said.
She gave a glance over her shoulder at the man, who cocked an eyebrow most adorably. She blushed and turned back to Starlight and then scoffed indignantly as the horse rolled her eyes and looked right at her. “Oh, hush!” Maggie laughed.
“I didn’t say anything,” the man said, frowning.
“Oh, uh, not you, Mister—” she trailed off and then stopped petting Starlight and turned. “I don’t know your name,” she said.
The man hesitated a brief moment, sizing her up. “Henry,” he said at last.
“I’m Maggie,” Maggie replied, smiling and extending her hand.
To her dismay, Henry shrank back, looking nervous.
“It has been a hundred years since I have touched a mortal,” he said.
Maggie frowned, lowering her hand. “But why?” she asked.
“Making contact is just the first step,” Henry replied. “First it’s a kiss on the hand, then it’s a picnic, then it’s romantic, and then…”
He sighed. “…And then you die and leave me here, missing you.”
Maggie tried to stifle a laugh, but it came out anyway. “I’m sorry—I’m sorry!” she said to be the bewildered-looking ghost. “I don’t mean to laugh at you, but don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself? What if I don’t like picnics?”
Henry closed his mouth and then grinned sheepishly. “Okay, okay, maybe you’re right,” he said. “It’s just—well,”
“I know, eternity is a long time,” Maggie finished for him. “But, look, because eternity is a long time, you have to choose how you want to spend it. There are millions of people who wish they could live forever!”
“I’d invite them to try it for a century or two and see how they feel then,” Henry challenged.
“But they want to because they can’t get enough of life!” Maggie continued. “Look, just because something is passing doesn’t make it bad. You can live your life dreading making connections and drowning in self-pity and loathing, or you can go out and live—well, sort of!—I’ve seen you reminisce on things and how happy you looked. You are capable of happiness if you will go and get it!”
Henry seemed unconvinced, but he seemed to be considering her words very carefully.
“I’m just saying,” Maggie said gently, standing next to him, “It looks like they cursed you when you were in the prime of your life: healthy, young, and strong. To get to live like that forever…that’s a blessing, Henry, not a curse!”
Henry blinked and gave a gentle huff, suddenly wondering if the last three hundred years had been wasted.
Maggie looked at him questioningly. “Can we start with a handshake?” she asked. “Nothing more than that; I just want to see and feel the real you.”
Henry hesitated, and Starlight nickered and snorted.
“Oh, sorry, girl! I’ve been neglecting you, haven’t I?” Maggie said, turning to pet her.
“No, that was addressed to me,” the man said, shaking his head with a faint smile. “She’s telling me to quit being such a—pardon the expression—chicken shit. Her words, not mine.”
Maggie turned again and raised her eyebrows with a grin. “What could it hurt?” she asked lightly. “It’s a handshake.”
“Very well,” Henry replied.
He closed his eyes, and soon the darkness inside his outline began to change colors. He wore a tan outer jacket with large wrist cuffs over a matching vest. Beneath that was a grayish shirt tucked into dark tan trousers. Faded black boots protected his feet. His face was surprisingly tanned, rugged, and handsome, covered in a few days’ growth of brown facial hair that matched the thick hair on his head.
But what caught Maggie’s attention more than his looks was his smell. She hadn’t expected to be able to smell him—she hadn’t really noticed smelling anything with Starlight—but his was an intoxicating mixture of outdoor smells—pine needles, earth, and hay—with subtle hints of masculine musk and the pleasant smell of sweat produced by hard work.
Maggie gasped and smiled. “You should stay solid more often,” she said by way of compliment.
“Why?” the man asked, cocking his head and frowning.
“Oh, nothing,” Maggie said hurriedly. Behind her, Starlight shook her head and rolled her eyes.
Taking it in stride, Henry extended his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Maggie,” he said sincerely.
Maggie did a double-take as she extended hers: the man’s hand was huge and very calloused from years of manual outdoor labor. But she didn’t have time to reminisce on that long. Henry took her hand, brought it to his lips, and kissed it gently, his whiskers tickling the back of her hand. She felt her heart flutter just a little bit.
“The pleasure is…mine,” she said, looking into his eyes.
Before he solidified, his eyes were expressionless moonlit outlines, but now she saw that his brown eyes were the window to a complicated soul. She did see his fiery hatred of the villagers, but it was only a distant ember in the back of his pupils. Far more than that, she saw a loving, gentle, intelligent man pained by his past…but there was a faint speck, an almost imperceptible sliver of hope.
“If eyes are the window to the soul,” he said, “your soul must be very beautiful.”
Maggie blinked and shook her head. “Huh?” she asked, surprised.
The man smiled. “Your eyes: they’re very beautiful.”
“Oh,” Maggie said, blushing. “Thank you.” She smiled.
She jumped suddenly as an alarm went off on her phone.
Henry frowned and took a step backward. “What on earth is that?” he demanded as Starlight’s body quickly dissolved into darkness.
“Oh, geez,” Maggie said, fumbling to get her phone out of her pocket and silence it. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s just telling me I have to go.”
She looked at Starlight. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” she said, holding her hand out to the horse, who glanced suspiciously from her to Henry and back before slowly turning solid again. “There’s a girl,” Maggie said, stroking the horse gently before turning Henry. “I have really enjoyed talking to you,” she said. “I hope that we can do it again?”
Henry smiled. “Mortals and their timetables,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “But yes, I—well, we”—he gestured to Starlight—”would enjoy that very much,” he said. “It was a pleasure.” He extended his hand, and Maggie offered hers for him to tickle with his mustache again.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Maggie said, swallowing shyly and smiling. With a wave, she turned and disappeared back the way she came, looking back and waving again as man and horse faded into the darkness.