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With a looming release date, I thought I’d give you a taste of The Yearning. This is the first chapter. Let me know what you think! (I had to snicker a little reading this again. Eric, my MC, is kind of a dick at the beginning.) Also remember, I plan to give away a free copy when it’s released, so stick around!

*****

Chapter 1

Ever notice that most, if not all, ghost stories center around helping the untethered soul find peace? Cross over? Go into the light? Whatever you want to call it. I’ve noticed, and quite frankly, it ticks me off. Me? My ethereal ass is staying put. I’m already at peace, and it has nothing to do with a tunnel or celestial heavens, thank you very much.

No, my heaven is named Justin.

And here he comes now, wheeling a body, his face studiously composed. That’s the thing about Justin – he always looks respectful in the presence of the dead. Essential skills for a mortician, but for him, it’s not a façade. It’s who he really is, more comfortable with dead people than the living. It’s one of the many reasons I’m so attracted to him. Doesn’t hurt that he’s a fine piece of flesh and bone, with dark hair and eyes, strong cheekbones, and plump lips I can only imagine the feel of in a kiss.

I watch as he locks the wheels on the gurney beside the embalming table and unzips the body bag, revealing the form within. He carefully transfers her, a middle aged woman with hair dyed a shockingly bad red, to the table and begins the process of readying her for eternal rest. Her soul stands in the corner, staring sadly at her body. I sidle up beside her and offer a comforting arm over her shoulders.

“Wh-what’s going o-on?” she stammers, her voice watery and uncertain.

“You’re dead, hon,” I say soothingly, watching Justin’s nimble hands manipulate her limbs as he removes her clothing. “It happens to everybody. Once you’re born, you can’t get away from it.”

I’m not trying to be an asshole to her, but the newly dead take quite a bit of patience and I don’t have a lot to spare. I try to help when I can, but there’s also risk involved. People with every shade of character come to a funeral home, with and without a pulse, and I learned early on to find a balance between helpful and cautious.

Some of the stronger willed spirits have attempted to destroy what I’ve worked very hard to build—namely my link to Justin—in their desperation and ignorance of how things work around here. However, it’s the nature of his profession that puts me in the position of professor of the afterlife. I put up with it because the alternative – finding a different anchor – is not happening.

“But… I have a family, a son about to go to college. My daughter just got her driver’s license. I need to make sure they’ll be okay. I have responsibilities.” She flinches as Justin begins to clean her naked body. His touch is gentle, but it’s intrusive, washing away the unpleasantness of death that remains.

“I know, sweetie. Most people do. The thing about death is it’s the ultimate excuse to lay your responsibilities down, leave them to trusted family or friends.”

She trembles against me, and I smile. The freshly dead have difficulty manifesting their feelings outside the imprint they feel of their bodies, like an amputee feeling a phantom limb. They’ll scratch an itch, pull their hair from their mouths in annoyance, or cry tears that they feel but aren’t really there. Or tremble in fear.

“Who are you?”

“Oh, many apologies. I’m Eric. Died in 1955. Horse accident.” I stick out my hand, knowing it’s what she expects, though my actual hands are long-since decomposed. “And with whom am I having this pleasurable conversation?”

She attempts to slip her hand, small and shaky, into mine, but she fails, her fingers sinking into me. She looks stricken, and I gently grip her wrist and fit her palm to mine, wrapping my fingers around her hand. The niceties must be observed. “I’m Laura. How can you touch me and I can’t touch you?”

“Nice to meet you, Laura. Touching and letting others touch you takes energy. You can walk through objects or people if you wish, or you can let yourself solidify enough to feel and be felt. It’s a matter of will. I’m choosing to let you feel me, and if you were alive, you would. But in this state, for us to feel each other, you have to choose to let me feel you as well.”

She tries again, concentration marking her face. I feel a wisp of air against my hand and at the last second, the scrape of her fingernails. The second attempt is more successful, and she manages the grip. I nod encouragingly. A smile breaks out on her face, but it is short-lived when she looks over my shoulder at her former body.Grief takes hold again and crumples her features.

“How did you die?” I ask gently.

Her warm brown eyes fill with tears, delicate little drips that disappear as they slide down her cheeks, leaving silver contrails that mimic wetness.

“Um, I’m not sure. I heard the doctors say it was an aneurysm, when they told my husband I was… that I’m…” She chokes out a sob. “What am I supposed to do? Is there, like, heaven or something?”

Oh boy. This is the hard part, telling the dearly departed that they had their one shot and there’s not much of an ever-after. Not in the sense that they’ll find eternal contentment or their Great Grandmother Ethel waiting for them within the peaceful arms of some ever-loving creator of all.

“If there is, I haven’t seen it,” I answer delicately. “But I do know that you need to find an anchor soon, or your essence will be in danger.”

She stiffens, eyes darting around the room as if Satan himself will burst forth and claim her. I suppress a snicker. I know I shouldn’t laugh, but come on. The constructs of religion are so ingrained in some people that they have a hard time facing the reality of their surroundings when they’ve just died, despite clear evidence that heaven is the lack of a heavenly after-life presenting itself; heaven is something the living tell themselves in order to comfortably bid the dead adieu.

“What kind of danger?” she whispers.

“I’ll tell you what I know, okay? But I warn you up front, it won’t answer all your questions.”

She nods and I lead her to the window in the room so she doesn’t have to watch Justin working efficiently on her body, inserting the eye cap. It’s a plastic piece a little larger than a contact lens, but with short spurs on the convex side to hold the eyelid closed. Horrific, but not as bad as a body suddenly staring at a room full of mourners.

“You are now what people think of as a soul. Without a living anchor in this world, your soul will begin to dissipate. Part of what makes you who you are is the way you interact with others and that doesn’t stop when you die. Without that interaction, you’ll begin to forget yourself. You won’t have bodily urges to remind you of your existence. No need to eat, sleep, bathe. To remain present, you need to connect with a living body, a reminder that you still exist, if only in thought and attitude, and not flesh and muscle.”

“You mean, like possession?” A shudder moves through her.

“No, you don’t take them over. You just attach yourself to their life force. It’s like a containment system for you, as well as a battery. Their energy feeds yours, and you get to stay together in the form you choose. It’s a very comforting feeling, actually.” I smile fondly at Justin.

“The form you choose?” The confused tone in her voice is beginning to grate, but I swallow my impatience.

“You’re not confined to a set of atoms that are static in form and function. You can appear as whomever or whatever you want. Right now, you look as you’re used to looking, but you don’t actually have a face, or arms and legs.” To illustrate my point, I concentrate briefly and my appearance shifts to that of a child; a smiling, cherubic little girl with pigtails, then into a cloud of mist with little discernable shape. Laura’s eyes go wide and she looks at herself in wonder, a flicker of excitement crossing her features. I coalesce back into my normal form – how I looked moments before I died, a twenty three year old man with blond hair and blue eyes – typical all-American looks that I never had a problem with, so I see no need to manifest any differently.

“How did you do that?” she breathes.

“I just picture what I want to look like, and it happens. I choose to stay in human form. It helps me assimilate to the world I’m still in, even if no one but the dead can see me. My reactions are still human, my feelings, and I find I can handle my environment and what’s happened to me in this existence better if I stay a person. That’s why you see my hair and eyes and I can smile at you. You know I’m trying to be helpful because you recognize my expressions. If I were a cat, it would be harder. It takes practice, and some energy. All you have to do is believe it to be true and it becomes so. But that’s not the point of all this. What I’m trying to tell you is that you need a living person to attach to or you won’t have much of an afterlife to experience.” I turn her around to face her prone form on the table just as Justin cuts into her carotid artery and inserts a cannula. Bad timing, and she trembles against me again, watching her blood drain at the urging of the small pump Justin turns on. “You have to anchor, or this will be the last of you.” I gesture to her figure on the table.

Laura turns to me, fear in her eyes, hands grasping at me as if I can feel her desperation.“How do I anchor to someone? What do I have to do?”

“You get close to someone and mentally reach inside them to feel their life force. Not everyone’s compatible, but you can keep searching if your first one doesn’t work out. A lot of people anchor to their family and friends until they’re all gone. Once you feel their life force, you sort of picture a tangling of your soul with theirs, like fingers entwined. That’s it.”

Laura moves to go to Justin, but I disappear and reappear next to him, blocking her path.

“But you cannot anchor to an occupied person. And he’s mine.” My proprietary tone of voice stops her short. She looks offended, so I soften my voice. “Like I said, not everyone is compatible and it’s often easier to anchor to someone you know at first.”

“How far away can I get when I attach to someone? Do I always have to be in the same room as them?” She’s looking anxiously at the door, and I breathe a sigh of relief. She’ll be on her way soon and out of my hair.

“Generally it’s a good idea to be in the same vicinity, but short trips away, a few rooms or so, aren’t out of the question. Just remember, the further away you go, the weaker your link to them. The weaker your link, the more susceptible you are to losing them either through distance or another soul attaching when you’re too far away to stop it. The more compatible you are to your person, the stronger the link and the more symbiotic your relationship to them becomes. You get energy and a sense of belonging, and they get from you the benefit of a guardian of sorts. Look out for your anchor.”

“How do I do that?” she asks.

“That’s a whole new topic on how to move things and affect your surroundings. Frankly, you don’t have time. I suggest you go home, find your husband or one of your kids, and link up. When they come here for your funeral, I’ll probably be around. We’ll have some time to talk then.”

She nods, impulsively steps close to me, which makes me tense. I think briefly that she’s going to try to link to Justin anyway, but she just gives me a hug and leaves with a breathless thanks. I watch her go before turning once again to Justin, who hums a song I recognize but can’t place until he sings the chorus out loud to himself. It makes me smile.

Jason Mraz, “I’m Yours.”

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