The ginkgo leaves hadn’t quite started to turn yet, but his heart had.
The tears were back. The waking up with his face wet at three in the morning. The sudden wish to weep in the middle of sanding down an old table, before priming it for restoration.
The aching sense of loss.
Jasper had no idea where it came from.
The sorrow wasn’t his. There was no way it was his.
Jasper was a happy man. At least, that’s what he told himself. And it was sometimes even true, when the ghosts weren’t busting his balls.
“You ever feel like there’s so much shit wrong with the world, there’s no way it can ever be fixed?” Katie asked. The autumn sun poured through the plate glass windows, warming her rounded cheeks and light brown, wavy hair. She wore a black hoodie, black T-shirt, and black jeans, her usual uniform. She looked like a squat crow in the middle of the bright yellow tables and rich blue walls of the Jitterbug Cafe.
It was Sunday, and he and his sister were having their usual once-a-month brunch and catch up session. The restaurant bustled as usual, and the server set down a stack of french toast and berries for Katie and a spinach and feta omelette for Jasper.
“More coffee?” the man asked. His blond hair was swept back from his forehead, highlighting a broad forehead and tapering jaw. He was too thin for Jasper’s taste, but nice looking all the same, and had been mildly flirting with Jasper since they had first sat down in his station. Clearly the man liked bears. Jasper wasn’t even wearing his leather vest today, but the burly-daddy-bear essence never went away.
“Yes please.” Jasper held out his cup. The waiter – Timothy, Jasper read on his name tag – brushed Jasper’s knuckles, steadying the heavy white mug as he poured.
Maybe he wasn’t too thin for Jasper after all. Jasper was still trying to work things out with Steve, a man he’d met in a bar a few months ago. Things were going well so far, but Jasper could tell that the ghosts freaked Steve out a bit.
Couldn’t blame him. They still freaked Jasper out, too, and Jasper was a trained medium and witch.
Timothy poured some more of the dark, fragrant brew into Katie’s cup. She offered a sardonic, “Thank you” and quirked her eyebrow at Jasper as the server walked away.
“Does every young man in Berkeley have the hots for you?”
Jasper felt the heat of a blush creep up his neck. Good thing most of his face was hidden with by his beard.
“Shut up. He’s not into me. I’m too old. And fat.”
“Uh, I think young Timothy likes too old and fat just fine.”
Jasper cut off a triangle of omelette, and almost groaned as the feta hit his tongue. The cook had tucked sun dried tomatoes into the folded egg. Oh. My. Goddess.
“You’re ignoring me,” Katie said.
Jasper took another bite of heaven.
Katie sighed and dug into her french toast.
He finally finished chewing and cleared his throat. She glanced up, chewing happily now. Katie loved french toast.
“So, something has been bugging me lately.”
She nodded, and made a “go on” gesture with her coffee cup.
“I keep feeling…sad. And I don’t think it’s about anything in my life. I mean…I’m not a big cryer, right? But I keep waking up in tears.” He shrugged and took another bite of omelette.
His sister kept making her way through her french toast. She’d learned to wait on his thought processes.
The hum of conversation rose and fell around them as they ate. Someone in the back dropped a cup. The shattering porcelain crashed into Jasper’s ears.
He looked up.
“That’s it. I think something or someone has broken themselves and is asking me for help.”
Jasper was in the workshop in his garage, running his hands across an old desk he was refurbishing for a woman in the Berkeley Hills. Work time was good thinking time, if dead people weren’t crowding around him, clamoring for help.
The garage was relatively empty today, which made work very pleasant.
Ghosts came to Jasper in all forms and shapes, and states of mental acuity or decay. He’d been helping them for most of his life, and often quipped that he became a witch out of self-defense. Really, he had just needed some training. The ghost shit had flipped him out when it started. These days, the only thing that kept him together were the weekly soaks in the isolation tanks. Ghosts hated salt. It was about the only time Jasper got any peace.
Which was funny. Since the sadness came, the whisper and chatter of voices in his head had ceased, as had the faint spider-webby touches on his face and the backs of his arms.
It was as if this particular ghost, or whatever it was, had shoved all of the other spirits aside.
Jasper was pleased with the two coats of turquoise paint on the old desk. It was bright and even, and an exact match for the paint chip his customer had given him. He was free-handing outlines of the greenery and flowers the woman had wanted, enjoying the play of Sharpie on painted wood, imagining the colors to come.
His throat constricted and chest tightened.
“No,” he groaned. “Please. I need to get this order done!”
That’s what he got for not tracing a circle of salt around the damn desk this morning. And it was a cool day so far, so he wasn’t even sweating. He looked around his workshop.
There, over on the workbench, next to the old black vice clamp, was a burgundy and white box of kosher salt.
He walked over to grab it and crumpled to his knees.
Jasper burst into sobs which heaved and wracked his body. All he wanted to do was squeeze into a fetal position on the concrete.
He willed himself to crawl the rest of the way to the workbench. Raising his arm toward the box felt almost impossible. It was as though someone or something was pushing back at his hand.
Shaking fingers gripped the cardboard box just enough to tilt it off the workbench. It fell, one corner smashing his forehead before it bounced on the ground. The spout sprung open, spilling a cascade of rough white crystals on the ground.
Jasper rubbed his aching head, then quickly filled his right hand with salt, and formed a rough oval on the concrete floor around his body.
The tightness in his chest eased. The constriction in his throat loosened. It happened so suddenly, Jasper almost grayed out. He willed himself to take in slow, deep breaths until his vision swam its way back to normal.
His eyes were still full of tears. So the ghost-or-whatever was still affecting him.
“Who the hell are you?” he gasped.
A little boy, shadowy as ash, slunk from behind the turquoise dresser and made his way toward Jasper.
They didn’t always appear so clearly, not at first. This boy must have a powerful essence to manifest so clearly.
Jasper wiped his hands on his flannel shirt, scattering the remaining crystals and crossed his legs, careful to not smudge the circle.
The boy wore loose jeans with holes in the knees, and a flannel shirt much like Jasper’s own. His face was round and sweet. Tears rolled down his cheeks. The boy’s nose was slightly swollen, and a black strand of blood snaked out of his left nostril.
The boy’s small hand reached out across the salt line and touched him.
Jasper felt as though he’d been punched in the chest, hard, by a man much larger than himself. He hung his head and sobbed.
He’d lied to Katie, he realized.
He was a crier.
And this wasn’t a ghost.
It was autumn then, too. Yellow gingko and orange maple leaves lined the sidewalks, and the air was summer warm.
It was sixth grade. Right before puberty hit and Jasper’s growth spurt happened.
It was also the time right before the ghosts arrived, haunting his head, asking him for help.
Jasper’s pet guinea pig had died and he was sad. He’d gone to throw some pellets in Scamper’s dish before school and the hairy white rodent was slumped on the shredded newspaper floor of the cage, lying in a smear of its own excrement.
At school that day, Jasper was crying, he thought quietly, in the bathroom, locked into a stall. He waited until he heard the other footsteps leave, then crept out to wash his hands.
And John Talbot was there. He was older than Jasper. Eighth grade. Big. Blond. A towering boy, muscled from soccer and swim team.
John shoved Jasper backward into the stall, almost knocking him onto the toilet. Jasper threw out his hands, just saving his head from bashing against the wall.
John slammed the stall door behind them, sliding the lock home.
Jasper tried to stand up but there wasn’t any room.
“What do you want?”
Then he saw what John’s hands undo his belt and begin to unbutton his fly.
“No. Stop it!” Jasper said. Not too loudly. He didn’t want anyone to hear.
“Suck my dick, faggot, and I won’t tell anyone I caught you crying in the bathroom.”
The little boy reaching across the salt circle was him. A shade of the man. A small, sliver of soul that had lost it’s way.
Jasper had locked that boy away forever and forgotten how to cry. He didn’t cry when Harley had broken his heart at seventeen.
He didn’t cry when his father had died.
He didn’t cry at all.
Until the sorrow came.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said to Katie. There was no one else to talk to about this, so he had called his sister.
They were sitting in his living room on his favorite, Craftsman style couch, with its broad wooden back and arms, and black leather cushions.
Katie had her feet tucked up beneath her jeans. There was a hole in one of her red socks.
She’d brought wine. A tasty Bordeaux that Jasper would have savored any other time. But this evening he just wanted to drink. The wine may as well have come out of a box from the corner store.
“You ever think of going to a therapist?” she asked gently.
He looked up, startled. “Why?”
“You were raped, Jasper.”
Jasper shook his head. “I don’t…”
“You were forced to have sex against your will. It’s amazing you aren’t more messed up.”
“Thanks a lot,” he said, gulping down more wine. Raped? He could barely even form the word inside his head. Rape wasn’t something that happened to a big leather daddy like himself.
He took another drink of wine, this time pausing long enough to roll the rich, fruity vintage across his tongue.
“I guess I’ve made sure it would never happen again.”
Katie nodded and held her glass up to the light. They both admired the ruby color of it before she spoke again.
“It seems to me you saved yourself by locking that little boy up all these years.”
“So why’s he back now?”
“Maybe he finally feels safe,” Katie replied.
As he got ready for bed that night, he felt the truth of his sister’s words all the way from his chest down to his toes. Hanging up his flannel shirt and folding his jeans, he padded to the bathroom in boxer shorts and a soft, white T-shirt.
Looking at himself in the medicine cabinet mirror above the sink, he liked what he saw well enough. Clear brown eyes that men often called “kind.” Full beard. Broad shoulders and solid chest that gave way to a hard mound of belly.
He could kick anyone’s ass these days, if he wanted to. But he didn’t.
Tears pricked the corners of his eyes.
“Okay Jasper, brush your teeth and get this done.”
Back in his bedroom, he looked around the large, white room. It was a place that pleased him. Made him feel comfortable and a little sexy even, when he needed to. The high bed with dark blue pillow cases and plum comforter had sturdy slats, ready for leather cuffs or gripping fists. The bedside tables with Art Deco lamps, the one on the right side lit up, casting golden light and shadows across the bed.
There was a landscape of the Berkeley Hills next to the window. A dresser for his clothing, one of his own pieces.
And then there was his favorite piece in the room, the altar in the corner, set up on an old dresser he’d remade ten years before. It was burgundy with a tracery of gold leaf shaded with black outlining each drawer. He’d even found black glass knobs for each drawer. It was simple. Beautiful.
On top of the dresser were his blade and wand. A thurible ready for charcoal and incense. A mirror. And a statue of Diana, arrow knocked, ready to fly.
Interesting that he’d chosen a hunter as his matron. She certainly had been helpful in the past.
He got the charcoal going. When it had finished hissing and spitting saltpeter, and the edges glowed orange-red, he carefully dropped three beads of frankincense on the coal, and added some dried rosemary.
The scented smoke wafted upward. Jasper allowed himself to grow still.
“You ready, Jasper?” he asked the oval reflection of his face in the mirror. And then he felt him. The boy with the ripped jeans and the blood running from his nose.
“Good,” he said. “Come closer.”
He felt the spirit bump up against his side and saw the shadowy, pale faced boy.
Jasper opened his arms and held the spirit close.
The floodgates opened and the sobs took hold again. Jasper let them, not tightening up this time, he relaxed and let the salty water flow.
And he held the boy close and rocked him.
“I love you Jasper,” he said. “I’ve always loved you. And I’ll protect you from now on.”
He felt the boy grow solid in his arms. Felt the smaller arms as they tried to wrap around the bulk of him. Felt the boy grow closer and closer, until it was almost as if the spirit could crawl beneath Jasper’s skin.
Jasper took a heaving, shuddering breath in, and tried to relax even more. The rosemary filled his nostrils, followed by the comforting scent of the frankincense. His lips tasted of tears.
Then his arms collapsed.
The boy was gone.
And Jasper wasn’t crying anymore.
He wiped his face with his T-shirt, and looked into the mirror once again.
It had seemed too easy. But he knew that sometimes the simplest acts of magic were the most effective.
And that sometimes, offering a person love and acceptance was really all they needed.
“Are you in there?” he asked his reflection.
There wasn’t any answer, just the flickering of a candle flame.
But for now, that felt like it just might be answer enough.
Jasper extinguished the flame, threw back the plum comforter and crawled into his warm, safe bed.
Then he turned off the beside lamp.
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