By Eloise Faichney

Stassi lay with Cole’s corpse for two nights.

It wasn’t until the third night that she dared to reach out and touch him.

She poked solid flesh with a trembling finger and jerked back in fright, startling her cat, Fuckwit, who lay curled at the foot of her blanket. The feline rose, stretching her back and circling indignantly a few times, before settling back down. She kneaded her claws into Stassi’s feet.

The corpse shifted his weight on the bed, shuffling back slightly. In the darkness, Stassi thought she made out a crooked smile—she could swear the inside of his mouth was black as hell. He smelled of dirt and grass. Of earth.

‘Cole?’ she said, reaching behind her to turn on her bedside lamp.

‘Don’t,’ he replied. His voice cracked around the edges, echoing as if filtered through a glued-together heirloom vase. The urge rose to scream, or slap herself awake. Hell-mouth or not, she wanted to lean forward and kiss him.

‘Trust me, the darkness is better.’

Stassi’s fingers swam hesitantly over the fitted sheet until they hit skin. Running them up his torso, she discovered him warm to the touch. “I thought―I was sure you’d be cold,” she whispered. Fuckwit yawned luxuriously.

The corpse clasped her hand in a rough embrace. Stassi thumbed the familiar callus on the left side of his middle finger. She pressed his hands to her lips. They, at least, smelled clean as a bone.

‘Where have you been, Cole?’ she said. Tense, she flexed her shoulder blades back and her sternum cracked loudly; a sickeningly human sound. It seemed she wasn’t dreaming.

‘You didn’t look hard enough,’ he said.

Stassi claimed her hand back abruptly. ‘Why are you here?’ she said.

The hair on the back of her neck was begin to stand, like tiny snakes charmed by some unseen force. The earth-smell of him invaded her mouth. She tasted worms on her tongue.

‘You think I’m dead,’ Cole said, bluntly.

Stassi had given up smoking 10 weeks earlier, first with the help of those nicotine patches that gave her crazy dreams, and, eventually, cold turkey.

The urge was always there, lurking. It was unlike when she gave up drinking; that thirst arose only in the evenings. But smoking had been her vice morning, noon and night, even before she met Cole. Giving up the habit was like giving up on a bad love, and she’d never been good at that.

Still, she’d watched the doctor on Oprah, talking about “smoking cessation”. It seemed like such a natural way to describe the process; like a faucet ceasing to drip, or the tide slipping back from the shore.

The appearance of Cole’s corpse made her want to turn back on the tap, as hard as she could. She lurched out of bed, heading for her emergency stash in the back of the cupboard, half-tripping over her discarded boots in the bedroom’s gloam. Stumbling to yank the window open, she lit her prize and breathed deep for the first time in ten weeks.

‘Aren’t you dead, babe?’ she said, finally.

In this town, when a man like Cole Carver—hell-raiser; hustler; high-functioning con-man — went missing without a trace for five months, it was only reasonable to assume he wasn’t coming back.

The streetlamp touched Stassi through the open window. Suddenly, she was aware of how she must look to him. Paler and thinner, in an empty sort of way. Her ice blonde hair almost waist-length from neglect. A new tattoo on her forearm. A dullness in her once-thirsty eyes.

Fuckwit, smelling the cigarette smoke, uttered a quiet meow of protest. She’d been so proud of Stassi quitting.

‘Somebody had to come and warn you, sugar,’ said Cole. She saw his figure sit up in the shadows. “Storm’s coming. Surely you feel it?”

Truth—she had felt it. An electric crack to the air; her hackles raised, like they were now. Stassi stubbed the cigarette out on the windowsill and flicked it down two storeys into the garden, breathing once more the deep earth of the room with Cole in it.  The cat arched her back, ripe for a scratch.

‘What happens now?’

She crawled onto the foot of the bed, and up beside him, the ghost shadow. Her corpse lover. One hand—surprisingly dexterous—ran its way up her naked thigh. The other encircled her to him, close. She pressed her pelvis to his and felt the rigor in his mortis stir.

‘Tomorrow, you’ll go to my old office in Brunswick,’ Cole murmured into her hair. ‘The safe code is 7845. You’ll find everything you need to get out.’

“And then?” she whispered.

‘Then, you take the cat and you leave. Never come back here, promise?’

She promised him.

‘And after that,’ he said. ‘If you can… try to forgive me for not staying longer than I could.’

The crack in his voice was fully formed now.

At the foot of the bed, Fuckwit purred heavily. Stassi’s fingers dug into the earth of Cole’s back, breathing in his soil scent like smoke. He nestled his flesh into her familiar gulfs and hollows.

For the first time in two nights, Stassi knew she’d sleep. And she’d need it.

The storm was coming.