Fiction • Kelly Link
Ainslie doesn’t rip open presents. She’s always been careful with her things, even the things that don’t matter. Immy is a ripper, but this is not Immy’s present, not Immy’s birthday. Sometimes Immy thinks that this may not be Immy’s life. Better luck next time around, Immy, she tells herself.
Ainslie scores under the tape with a fingernail, then carefully teases the pink wrapping paper out from under the coffin-shaped box.
Ainslie’s new Boyfriend is in there.
Ainslie’s birthday, this year, is just Ainslie and her bestest, oldest friends. Just Ainslie, Sky, Elin, and Immy. No family allowed. No boys.
Earlier there was sushi and cake and lots of pictures to put up online so that everyone will know how much fun they are having.
No presents, Ainslie said, but of course Immy and Elin and Sky bring presents. No one ever means it when they say that. Not even Ainslie, who already has everything.
It’s normal to want to give your best friend something because you love her. Because you want her to know that you love her. It isn’t a competition. Ainslie loves Elin and Immy and Sky equally, even if Immy and Ainslie have been friends longest.
Immy’s heart isn’t as big as Ainslie’s heart. Immy loves Ainslie best. She also hates her best. She’s had a lot of practice at both.
They’re in the sunroom. As if you could keep the sun in a room, Immy thinks. Well, if you could, Ainslie’s mother probably would.
But the sun has gone down. The world is night, and it belongs to all of them, even if it belongs to Ainslie most of all. Ainslie’s brought out dozens of pillar candles, a small forest of mirrored candelabras, both of her Boyfriends. They both wear little birthday hats, because that’s the thing about Boyfriends, according to Elin, who has a lot of opinions and isn’t shy about sharing them. You can’t take them too seriously.
Of course anyone can have an opinion. Immy has plenty. In her opinion, in order not to take a Boyfriend seriously, you have to have a Boyfriend in the first place, and only Ainslie has one. (Two.) (Three.)
Creatures of the night in silly hats, Vampire Boyfriend (Oliver) and Werewolf Boyfriend (Alan) lounge on candy-striped settees and gaze with identical longing at their girlfriend, Ainslie. Immy decides against having a second piece of cake. One piece of cake really ought to be enough for anyone.
And yet, there on the floor, right under the cake (plenty left, Immy, why not have another piece, really?) and the candelabras, right there under everyone’s noses, the new Boyfriend has been waiting all this time. Immy knew, right away, as soon as she came into the sunroom, exactly which Boyfriend it would be.
It’s dark inside the box, of course. Night wrapped up in pink paper. Are his eyes open or closed? Can he hear them talking? Love will wake him.
Love, oh love. Terrible, wonderful love.
Ainslie lifts the lid of the coffin, and white rose petals spill out, all over the floor, and—“Oh,” Sky says. “He’s, um, he’s gorgeous.”
Real rose petals, real and crushed and bruised. Probably not the best packing material, but oh what a smell is filling the room.
Not night after all.
The Boyfriend’s eyes are closed. His arms are folded across his chest, but his palms are open and full of rose petals. His hair is dark. His face is very young. Maybe a little surprised; his lips parted, just a little, like he has just been kissed.
“Which one is he?” Elin says.
“The Ghost one,” Immy says.
Ainslie reaches out, touches the Ghost Boyfriend’s face, brushes a piece of hair back from his eyes. “So soft,” she says. “So weird. Fake Boyfriend, real hair.”
“I thought they weren’t selling those anymore?” Elin says.
“They’re not,” Immy says. Her chest feels very tight, as if she’s suddenly full of poison. You have to keep it all inside. Like throwing yourself on a bomb to save everyone else. Except you’re the bomb.
Why does Ainslie always get what she wants? Why does Ainslie always get what Immy wants? She says, “They don’t. You can’t get them now.”
“Not unless you’re Ainslie, right?” Sky says without a trace of discernable malice. She scoops out handfuls of petals, throws them at Ainslie. They all throw rose petals. When Immy reaches into the coffin, she tries very hard not to let her hand brush against Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend.
“What are you going to call him?” Elin says.
“Don’t know,” Ainslie says. She’s reading the instructions. “So there are two modes, apparently. Embodied or Spectral. Embodied is just, you know, the usual thing.” She waves a hand in the direction of her Vampire Boyfriend, Oliver. He waves back. “In Spectral Mode it’s like a movie projection and he floats around. You can hang out with him like that, but it’s random or something. Like, he comes and goes.”
“Huh,” Sky says. “So you can’t see him all the time, but maybe he’s watching you? What if you’re getting dressed or on the toilet or something and all of a sudden he’s there?”
“Maybe that’s why they did the recall,” Elin says. She is tearing a white petal into littler and littler pieces, and smiling, like that’s her idea of fun.
“You can customize him,” Ainslie says. “If you have a thing that belonged to somebody who died. There’s a compartment somewhere. Ew. Inside his mouth. You put something in it. I don’t know. That part seems kind of dumb. Like, you’re really supposed to believe in ghosts or something.”
“That’s not supposed to be a good idea,” Immy says. “That’s the reason they did the recall, remember? There were a lot of stories.”
“People are so impressionable,” Ainslie says.
“So turn him on already,” Elin says. “No pun intended.”
“What’s the rush?” Ainslie says. “We have to come up with a name first.”
They debate names for the new Boyfriend while Ainslie opens friend presents. They take more pictures. Ainslie holding the bottle of absinthe that Sky made from a recipe online. They throw rose petals at her, and so there are petals caught in her hair. It’s very pretty.
Oliver and Alan in their hats, Ainslie sitting on Oliver’s lap. They change out Alan’s boy head for his wolf head. He can’t talk with the wolf head on, but he’s still very cute in his tuxedo. Cuter than most real boys.
More pictures. The new Boyfriend in his box, Ainslie leaning over to kiss him. Ainslie wearing the red suede boots her grandmother sent. Ainslie holding up the tickets that Elin got her to some show by some band they’re both into. Two tickets, one for Ainslie and the other for Elin, of course.
Immy isn’t really into music. Sky isn’t really into music either. Music is Elin and Ainslie’s thing. Whatever.
Immy’s present for Ainslie is a beaded choker with an antique locket to sit right over the hollow of Ainslie’s white throat.
The beads are cut glass and jet.
There’s a secret in the locket.
The choker is in a little box in a pocket in Immy’s purse, and she doesn’t take it out. She pretends to search for it and then she says to Ainslie, “Uh oh. I think I left your present at home, maybe?”
Ainslie says, “Whatever, Immy. Give it to me at school on Monday.”
She passes around the homemade absinthe and they all drink straight from the bottle. That way, Immy figures, it’s harder for everyone else to tell if you’re only taking little sips or even only pretending. It’s a little bit herbal and a little like toothpaste.
“You could call him Vincent,” Sky says. She’s looking at baby names on her phone. “Or Bran? Banquo? Tor. Foster, um, maybe not Foster. But it ought to be something old-fashioned, ghost names ought to be old-fashioned.”
“Because nowadays no one ever dies,” Ainslie says, and swigs from the absinthe bottle.
Fake-swigs, bets Immy. Let’s all get fake drunk and have fake fun with Ainslie and her fake Boyfriends. Because she’s fairly sure that all of this is fake, this whole night, the way she finds herself acting around Ainslie and Elin and Sky tonight, maybe this whole year. And if it’s not fake, if it’s all real, this fun, these friends, this life, then that’s even worse, isn’t it?
Immy has no idea why she’s in such a horrible mood. Except wait, no. Let’s be honest. She knows. She’s in a horrible mood because she’s a horrible friend who wants everything that belongs to Ainslie. Except maybe Ainslie’s mother. Ainslie can keep her mother.
Immy has wanted a Boyfriend ever since they came out, even before Ainslie knew about them. Immy was the one who told Ainslie about them. And then Ainslie had Oliver and Alan, and then you could buy the limited edition Ghost Boyfriend, and then there was the recall and you couldn’t get a Ghost Boyfriend anymore, and so that was okay, because then even if Immy couldn’t have a Ghost Boyfriend, Ainslie couldn’t have one either. Except now she does have one.
Immy wants a Ghost Boyfriend more than she’s ever wanted anything.
“What about Quentin? That’s a good name,” Sky says.
“What about Justin?” Elin says.
Then they are all looking at Immy. She stares right back at Elin, who says, “Oops.” And shrugs and smiles.
“Ainslie can call Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend whatever she wants,” Immy says. She knows what kind of friends she is with Elin. Sometimes a friendship is more like a war.
Ainslie can keep Elin, too.
Anyway, Immy is the one who broke up with Justin. And Justin is the one who can’t get over it, and anyway anyway Elin is the one who still has a thing for him.
Immy’s been there, done that.
Ainslie says, “I’m going to call him Mint.”
They all laugh and Ainslie says, “No. Really. I’m going to call him Mint. He’s my Ghost Boyfriend, I can call him whatever I want.”
“Weirdish,” Elin says. “But okay.”
“Come on,” Ainslie says. So they all go over and stand around the box, and then Ainslie leans down and sticks her fingers into the Ghost Boyfriend’s hair, moving them around until evidently she’s found the right place.
His eyes open. He has really pretty eyes. Long lashes. He looks at them, each in turn. His lips part, just a little, like he is about to say something. But he doesn’t.
Immy is blushing. She knows she’s blushing.
“Hi,” Ainslie says. “I’m your girlfriend. Ainslie. You’re Mint. You’re my Boyfriend.”
The new Boyfriend’s eyelids flutter shut. Eyelashes like black fans. Skin just like skin. Even his fingernails are perfect and so real, as real as anything Immy has ever seen.
When his eyes open again, he only looks at Ainslie.
“Okay, so, we’ll see you later,” Ainslie says.
She straightens up and says to Immy and Elin and Sky, “You guys want to put on some music and dance or something?”
“Wait,” Elin says. “What about him? I mean it. Are you just going to leave it in there?”
“It takes them a while to wake up the first time,” Sky says. Sky has a Biblical Handmaiden. Esther. Sky’s parents were kind of religious for a while.
“Oh yeah,” Ainslie says. “There’s one other thing. We have to choose a mode. Embodied or Spectral. What do you think?”
“Embodied,” Elin says.
“Embodied,” Sky says.
“Spectral,” Immy says.
“Okay,” Ainslie says. “Spectral. Might as well.” She reaches back down, runs her fingers through her Boyfriend’s hair again. “There. Now let’s go out on the deck and dance in the moonlight. Come on, Oliver. Alan. You too.”
Ainslie and Elin deejay. The moon is perfectly round and bright. The night is warm. Ainslie tells Oliver and Alan to dance with Immy and Sky.
Which is the kind of thing Ainslie does. She isn’t ever selfish. You have to have things in order to be generous with them. Right?
Immy and Oliver dance. She’s in his arms really, his hand on the small of her back. It’s sort of a waltz that they’re doing, which doesn’t really suit whatever song this is, but Oliver can do either the waltz or the tango—or a kind of sway-y standing-there dance. Sky bounces around with Alan, who still has his wolf head on. Alan is actually more fun to dance with than Oliver is, although the bouncing gets tiring after a while.
“Are you happy, darling?” Oliver the Vampire Boyfriend says, so softly Immy has to tilt her head up and ask him to repeat himself. Not that this is, strictly speaking, necessary. Oliver always asks the same questions.
“Sure,” she says. Then, “Well, I don’t know. Not really. I could be happier. I’d like to be happier.” Why not? If you can’t be honest with your best friend’s Vampire Boyfriend, who can you be honest with? Vampires are all about secrets and unhappiness. Secret unhappinesses. You can see it in their black and fathomless eyes.
“I wish you were happy, my love,” Oliver says. He presses her more firmly against his body, nuzzles her hair. “How can I be happy if you are not?”
“Ainslie’s your love. Not me,” Immy says. She really isn’t in the mood. Besides, sometimes it’s just really too weird, playing pretend eternal love with a borrowed Boyfriend when what you really want is your own Boyfriend. It would be so, so much nicer to have your own. “So, I mean, don’t be unhappy on my account.”
“As you wish,” Oliver says. “I shall be unhappy on my own account. How happy it makes me, oh delicious one, to be unhappy together with you.” He clasps her even tighter in his arms, until she has to ask him to ease up just a little. It’s a fine line between being cuddled and being squeezed like a juice box, and Vampire Boyfriends sometimes cross right over that line, maybe without even noticing.
There is also the endless hovering and the endless brooding and all the endless talk about how delicious you are and eternity and they like you to read poetry at them, the old-fashioned rhyming kind, even. It’s supposed to be educational, okay? Like the way Werewolf Boyfriends go on and on about the environment, and also are always trying to get you to go running with them.
Immy doesn’t get music. She doesn’t want to get it. The way it wants to make you feel something. Just because it’s a minor chord, you’re supposed to feel sad? Just because it goes faster, your pulse is supposed to speed up? Why should you have to do what the music wants you to do? Why shouldn’t it do what you want? She doesn’t want a soundtrack for her life. And she doesn’t want somebody’s pretty lyrics getting in the way of what she’s really thinking. Whatever it is that she’s thinking.
Immy doesn’t want a Vampire Boyfriend. Or a Werewolf Boyfriend. Not anymore.
“I want more absinthe,” Ainslie says. “Somebody go fetch the absinthe.”
“I’ll get it, darling,” Oliver says.
“No,” Immy says. “I’ll go get it.” If you send a Boyfriend off for a bottle of homemade absinthe, likely as not he’ll come back with a bottle of conditioner. Or a lamp.
“Thanks, Immy,” Ainslie says.
“No problem,” Immy says. But maybe you can’t trust a friend, either, because instead of going straight back with the absinthe, she finds herself lingering in the sunroom, looking down at the new Boyfriend. His eyes are closed again. She reaches down and touches his face. Just one finger. His skin is very soft. It isn’t actually like skin at all, of course, but it isn’t like anything else, either. His eyes don’t open this time; he’s still not all the way awake. And anyway, Ainslie set him for Spectral Mode. His body will just lie here. His ghost will do whatever it is that ghosts do.
He could already be here, she supposes. He could be watching her.
She doesn’t feel as if she’s being watched. She feels all alone.
So it’s an impulse, maybe, that makes her reach inside her purse and take out Ainslie’s present. She rips off the wrapping paper and the ribbon, not carefully.
Inside the locket is a braided ring of human hair. Victorian, according to the online seller. Probably their own kids’ hair, but never mind.
Two pieces of the braid of hair are jet black; one is ash blond. Black for Ainslie, blond for Immy.
The ring doesn’t fit over any of Immy’s fingers. Maybe she has fat fingers. She goes back to the coffin, crouches down beside it. “Hey,” she says softly. “I’m Ainslie’s friend. Immy.”
She puts two fingers on his lips. She takes a breath and holds it, like she’s about to jump off a bridge into very deep water. Well, she is. Then she sticks her fingers inside Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend’s mouth. There are the teeth, and okay, here’s the tongue. How weird is this? It’s very weird. Immy’s not saying that this isn’t weird, but she keeps on doing it anyway. Her fingers are where they really shouldn’t be.
It’s not wet like a real mouth and a real tongue would be. The teeth feel pretty real. The tongue is weird. She keeps thinking how weird this is. She slides a finger under the not-a-real-tongue, and there, underneath, is a place where, when she presses down, a kind of lid thing opens up. She fumbles the hair ring into the compartment there, and then presses the lid back down. Then she takes her fingers out of the Ghost Boyfriend’s mouth, studies that face carefully.
Nothing about it seems different to her.
When she stands up and turns around, Elin is there in the doorway. Elin says nothing, just waits.
“I thought I saw him move,” Immy says. “But he didn’t.”
Elin gives her a long look. Immy says, “What?”
“Nothing,” Elin says. She looks like she wants to say something else, and then she shrugs. “Just, come on. Oliver keeps on asking me to dance with him, and I don’t want to. You know how I feel about Ainslie’s Boyfriends.” What she is really saying is that she knows how Immy feels about them.
Immy grabs the absinthe. “Okay.”
Elin says, “Immy? Can I ask you something?”
Elin says, “I don’t get it. This Boyfriend thing. They’re creepy. They’re fake. They’re not real. I know how much you want one. And I know it sucks. How Ainslie gets everything she wants.”
Immy blurts out, “Justin has no sense of humor. And he uses way too much body spray. He kisses like it’s arm wrestling, except with lips. Lip wrestling.”
“Maybe he just needs more practice?” Elin says. “I mean, Ainslie’s Boyfriends don’t kiss at all. They’re just really big dolls. They’re not real.”
“Maybe I don’t want real,” Immy says.
“Whatever it is you don’t want, I hope you get it. I guess.” Elin takes the absinthe bottle from Immy, takes a long slug from the mouth. A real one. Apparently Elin wants real, even if real isn’t all that great. Immy suddenly feels very fond of her. Elin isn’t always a good friend, but okay, she’s a real friend and Immy appreciates that just as much as the way she really, really didn’t appreciate it when Justin wanted to lip wrestle.
They go back to the dance party and the real friends and the fake Boyfriends. They leave Ainslie’s Mint all alone with the ring of hair in his mouth. Immy doesn’t feel guilty about that at all. It was a present for Ainslie and Immy is giving it to her. More or less.
There’s only a sludgy oily residue left in the absinthe bottle by the time they go to bed. Oliver and Alan are back in their coffins in the closet downstairs in the rec room, and Ainslie has blown out all of the candles in the sunroom. They’ve eaten the rest of the cake. Sky is already passed out on a couch in the living room.
Is Mint around? Ainslie says he probably is. “The Ghost Boyfriends are supposed to be kind of shy at first when you put them in Spectral Mode. They don’t manifest much right at the beginning. You’re just supposed to see them out of the corner of your eye, once in a while. When you aren’t expecting them.”
“Is that supposed to be fun?” Elin says. “Because it doesn’t sound like fun.”
“It’s supposed to be real,” Ainslie says. “Like a real ghost. Like a real ghost is falling in love with you. Like, he could be here right now. Watching us. Watching me.”
There is something about the way she says this. Ainslie is so sure of being loved.
“On that note,” Elin says. “I’m going to go crash on your mom’s bed. Your new Boyfriend better stay the hell out of there.” Elin doesn’t like to sleep in the same room as everyone else. She says it’s because she snores. “When is your mom getting back, Ainslie?”
“Not until two or three tomorrow. I made her promise to call before she shows up.” Ainslie is swaying on her feet. She keeps putting her hand out to balance on things: the side table, the back of a settee, the lid of the coffin. She stumbles and almost falls in, catches herself. “Goodnight, Mint. God, you’re cute. Even cuter than Oliver. Don’t you think so?”
The question is for Immy. “I guess,” she says, her heart burning for just one beat, with that hatred, that poison. She watches Ainslie lean over precariously and plant a noisy kiss on Mint’s forehead.
“I slept in Oliver’s coffin once,” Ainslie says to Elin and Immy. Immy isn’t sure what to say to that, and apparently Elin doesn’t know either.
Immy feels lit up and inside out, her hands and feet heavy and slow as lead, her skull and her ribcage all airy and hollow. All that poison dried up. Her blood turned to powder.
Or maybe this is just the way she thinks getting drunk on absinthe should feel. She should probably go drink some water, take some Tylenol.
Immy always sleeps in Ainslie’s bed when she stays over. She has her own toothbrush in Ainslie’s bathroom, borrows Ainslie’s T-shirts to wear to bed. Immy even has a favorite pillow, and Ainslie always remembers which one it is. In the morning, she’ll wear Ainslie’s clothes home if she wants to. Ainslie never minds.
They brush their teeth and they get dressed for bed, and they turn out the lights and get into bed, and all of that time Immy can hardly breathe, she doesn’t even want to blink, because maybe Mint is in the room with them. Maybe he is coming. Perhaps she will look up and Mint will be there. He will be there and then he’ll be gone again. She knows Ainslie is thinking the same thing. Ainslie is watching for Mint, too.
“This has been a really, really good birthday,” Ainslie says in the dark. “It’s everything I wanted it to be. I got everything I wanted.”
“I’m glad,” Immy says. She means it, too. “You deserve everything you’re getting.”
Immy doesn’t think she’ll be able to go to sleep. She doesn’t want to sleep, she wants to stay awake. She could wait until Ainslie is asleep and go back to the sunroom. Maybe Mint will manifest there first. After all, his body is there. She tries to think of what she would say to him, what he might say to her. And soon enough Ainslie’s asleep and then Immy’s asleep too.
When she wakes up—she is in the middle of a nightmare, something about a garden—someone is standing beside the bed. A boy. Mint. He’s looking down at Ainslie. Ainslie asleep, Ainslie’s mouth open, and Mint is touching Ainslie’s mouth with his thumb.
Immy sits up in bed.
Mint looks right at her. He looks at her and he smiles. He touches his fingers to his own mouth. Then he disappears.
Immy doesn’t see the Ghost Boyfriend again for two weeks. Ainslie says he’s around. She thinks he’s exploring the house. She sees him, just for seconds at a time, in different rooms, then he’s gone. He shows up almost every time Ainslie watches TV. Usually during the commercial breaks.
“He likes to watch commercials?” Immy says. They’re at the yogurt place, loading toppings on their plain frozen yogurt. Blueberries, raspberries, mochi.
“I think he’s being considerate,” Ainslie says. “He doesn’t want to interrupt what I’m doing, so he waits for the commercial breaks. Like, I never see him in the bathroom or when I’m getting dressed for school. So I think it’s the same thing with the TV.”
Over in the corner of the yogurt shop a middle-aged woman sits and moves a stroller back and forth with one hand while she eats with the other. Immy keeps looking over. She can’t tell if it’s a real baby in the stroller or a Baby.
“So he’s there for a few seconds and he does what, exactly?” she says.
“He watches TV with me. The commercials. He seems to like the commercials where a man and a woman are driving somewhere in a car. You know, those ones where there’s a road going alongside the ocean? Or a hill. He looks at the commercials on TV and he looks at me,” Ainslie says. “He just looks at me. Like no one has ever looked at me before. And then he goes away.”
There’s something about the way Ainslie says this, about her face, and so Immy does what the Ghost Boyfriend does. She looks at Ainslie as carefully and as closely as she can. Ainslie looks like she had a very bad night’s sleep. Her lips are chapped and there’s lots of concealer, poorly applied, under her eyes. As if she’s keeping secrets there, under the skin. “Do you ever see him at night? In your bedroom?”
Ainslie blinks. “No,” she says. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Good,” Immy says. “Because that would be creepy, if he was there looking at you while you were asleep.”
Ainslie’s face crumples, just a little. “Yeah. That would be creepy.”
School is school. Why can’t it ever be something else? Immy can’t believe she has two more years of this. Two more years of equations and sad books where bad things happen to boring people and Justin giving her wounded looks. Okay, so maybe he’ll get over it faster than that. If she ignores him. Two more years of unflattering gym shorts and Spanish that she’s never going to use and having to be the person that she’s always been, because that’s the person that everyone thinks she is. That everyone assumes she’s always going to be. Everyone thinks this is the real Immy. And what if the Immy they see is the real Immy, and the one on the inside is just hormones and chemicals and too many little secrets and weird jumbled thoughts that don’t mean anything after all?
Maybe she should shave her head. Maybe she should take her classes more seriously. Maybe she should give Justin another chance. Maybe not.
She has a dream that night about driving a fast car along a curving road. The ocean is far below. The Ghost Boyfriend sits in the passenger seat. They don’t say anything to each other. The moon is high overhead.
She texts Ainslie in the morning: i dreamed about your Boyfi. weird right
Ainslie doesn’t text back.
That afternoon Immy and Sky go over to Ainslie’s house to study for a Spanish quiz. Elin takes AP Latin because, Elin.
They mostly don’t study, though. They ransack the cupboards for the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Little Debbie Spinwheels and bags of Oreos that Ainslie’s mother hides away in soup tureens and behind boxes of rice and cereal. Once they found a little Baggie with weed in it and they flushed it down the toilet.
Ainslie says they’re doing her mother a favor eating the Oreos and Reese’s. They’re teenagers. They have higher metabolisms.
Sky says, “Dónde está Mint?”
Ainslie says, “He’s downstairs. In the rec room with Oliver and Alan.” She’s decapitating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Ainslie only eats the insides. Like a spider. Spiders only eat the insides. “I turned him off, actually.”
“You did what?” Immy says.
“I turned him off,” Ainslie says. “He was kind of freaking my mom out. I can see why they did the recall. It’s not romantic, having a Boyfriend pop in and out of existence all the time. And it’s not like Mint ever said anything romantic. He just stared. And, you know, after a week it felt like if I was looking in one direction, maybe he was right there behind me. I got a sore neck because I kept jerking my head back to look up at the ceiling because once I looked up and he was there. And once I found him under the kitchen table. So I kept having to look under things too.”
“Just like a real ghost in a movie,” Sky says. Sky loves scary movies. No one will go see them with her.
“What about Embodied? Did you try him out in Embodied Mode?” Immy says.
“Yeah,” Ainslie says. “And that was also no fun. He said all the right stuff, the stuff Oliver and Alan say, but you know what? I didn’t buy it. Like, not that it was fake. Like he was lying. Like he was making fun of me. I don’t know. Maybe we’re getting too old for Boyfriends.”
“Let’s go turn him on,” Sky says. “I want to see. I want to see him float up on the ceiling.”
“No,” Ainslie says. Ainslie never says no. They both stare at her. The little pile of emptied Reese’s Cups. She says, “Here. You want the chocolate?”
Later Ainslie wants to show them something online. It’s an actor they all like. He’s naked and you can totally see his penis. They’ve all seen penises online before, but this one belongs to someone famous. Sky and Ainslie go looking for other famous penises, and Immy goes back to the kitchen to study. But first she goes down to the rec room.
The rec room is full of Ainslie’s mother’s abandoned projects. An easel with a smock still draped across it. A sewing machine, a rowing machine, bins of fabric and half-finished scrapbooks with pictures of Ainslie and Immy when they could still run around the yard naked, Ainslie and Immy and Sky when they had their first ballet recital, Ainslie and Immy and Sky and Elin graduating from middle school. Back before Ainslie’s parents divorced, and Immy got boobs and Ainslie got Boyfriends. All those Ainslies and Immys, with their dolls and their princess dresses and Halloween costumes and Valentines. Immy’s always been the prettier one. Ainslie isn’t a dog, isn’t hideous, but Immy’s much prettier. If Boyfriends worked the usual way, Immy could get one like that.
But maybe then she wouldn’t want one.
There are three coffins standing up inside the closet of the rec room. No room for a fourth, is Immy’s first thought. They used to spend hours playing with Oliver and Alan. Now they hardly ever do. That’s her second thought. And it’s not like Immy can just suggest bringing them out. They belong to Ainslie. It’s not like playing dolls. It’s more like telling your friend you want to hang out with some fake people she keeps in her closet, and anyway they’re only nice to you because Ainslie wants them to be nice to you. If Immy had a Boyfriend she wouldn’t keep him in a closet in her basement.
The first coffin she opens is Oliver. The second one is Mint. It’s a ridiculous name. No wonder he’s been acting weird.
“Hi, Mint,” she says. “It’s Immy again. Wake up.”
Then she holds her breath, and turns around to look for him, but he’s not there, of course. He’s just a fake boy in a fake coffin, right? That’s what Ainslie thinks, anyway. What Immy thinks is you shouldn’t be able to just turn your Boyfriend off, just because he’s not the way you want him to be.
She sticks her fingers into his hair. It’s incredibly soft. Real hair, which should be creepy, but it’s not. It’s like she’s petting him. If he were Ainslie’s real boyfriend, she couldn’t do this.
She finds the little soft place behind the ear and presses down. Once for Embodied, twice for Spectral Mode. She presses down again. She wakes him up.
When she closes the lid of the coffin and turns around, this time the Ghost Boyfriend is perched on an exercise bike. He’s staring at her like she’s really there. Like he knows her, knows something about her.
Like he sees the real Immy, the one she isn’t sure is really there. Right now, though, she’s real. Immy is real. They both are. They’re making each other realer the longer they look at each other, and isn’t that what love should be? Isn’t that what love should do?
“I’m Immy,” she says. “Imogen.”
She says, “I wish you could tell me your real name. Ainslie doesn’t know I did this. So be careful. Don’t let her see you.”
He smiles at her. She puts out her hand, moves it to where she would be touching his face, if she could touch his face. “If you belonged to me,” Immy says, “I wouldn’t keep you in a box in a closet in the dark. If you were my Boyfriend.”
The rest of the night is penis GIFs and Oreos and Spanish vocabulary. When Ainslie’s mother gives Immy and Sky a ride home, Immy looks back and she thinks maybe she can see a boy looking out of the window of Ainslie’s bedroom. It’s kind of a gas to think about Ainslie being home all alone with her Ghost Boyfriend. Immy falls asleep that night thinking about Ainslie, and ceilings, and kitchen tables and the way Mint’s hair felt when she ran her fingers through it.
Immy doesn’t know if Ainslie knows she’s being haunted. She seems out of sorts, but that could just be Ainslie-and-her-mother stuff. Meanwhile, Sky and Elin are having a fight about some boots that Elin borrowed and wore in the rain. All Immy can think about is Mint. She keeps having that dream about the car and the highway and the ocean. Mint there in the dark with her, the moon above them. Maybe it means something? It ought to mean something.
Friday night is Elin’s birthday present to Ainslie, tickets to see the O Hell, Kitty! play at the Coliseum. Sky and Immy are going to have a movie night without them, except then Elin gets Sky a ticket too, an apology for ruining her boots.
Whatever, Immy doesn’t want to go anyway.
The idea comes to her when she hears about Ainslie’s mom, who was going to be the ride to the concert, and who, it turns out, has gotten a ticket for herself after watching some videos on O Hell, Kitty! YouTube channel. Embarrassing for Ainslie, sure, but this is Immy’s chance to see Mint.
Immy knows where Ainslie’s mom keeps a spare house key. She knows the alarm code, too. One of the benefits of a long-standing friendship: it makes breaking and entering so much easier.
She tells her parents she’s been invited to dinner at Ainslie’s house. She gets a ride from her dad. Her mother might have waited around until someone opened the front door, but that’s why she asked her dad.
She waves—go, it’s okay, just go—and he drives away. Then she lets herself into Ainslie’s house. She stands in the hallway and says, “Hello? Mint? Hello?”
It’s early evening. Ainslie’s house is stuffed with shadows. Immy can’t decide whether or not to turn on the lights. She’s made peace with what she’s doing, it’s for a good cause. But turning on the lights? That would be making herself at home.
She looks up at the ceiling, because she can’t help it. She goes into the kitchen, and crouches down to look under the table, and is, despite herself, somehow relieved when Mint isn’t there, either.
It gets darker second by second. Really, she needs to turn on the lights. She goes into room after room, turns on lights, goes on. She has the sense that Mint is there ahead of her, leaving each room as she enters it.
She finds him finally—or does he find her? They find each other—in the rec room. One minute Immy is alone, and the next Mint is there, standing so close that she takes a step back without meaning to.
Mint disappears. Then reappears. Standing even closer than before. They’re nose to nose. Well, nose to chin. He’s not much taller than she is. But she can see through him: the couch, the exercise bike and the sewing table. He shouldn’t stand so close, she thinks. But she shouldn’t be here.
None of this is okay. But it’s not real. So it’s okay.
“It’s me,” Immy says unnecessarily. “I, uh, I wanted to see if you were, um. If you were okay.” He blinks. Smiles. Points at her, then extends his arm, so that it goes right through her middle. She sucks in her tummy. He disappears. She turns around, and there he is again, standing in front of the closet.
He disappears again when she reaches out to open the closet. Is there, inside the closet, standing in front of his coffin. Is gone again. She opens the lid, and there is his body. It’s pretty clear, now, what he wants her to do. So she reaches into his hair, finds that button.
She’s still standing there like a freak with her fingers in his hair when his eyes open. And this is the first thing Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend, Mint, ever says to Immy. “You,” he says.
“Me?” Immy says.
“You came back,” Mint says.
“I had to,” Immy says. She backs out of the closet in a hurry, because she doesn’t want to have a conversation in a closet with Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend, standing next to the coffins of Ainslie’s Vampire Boyfriend and Ainslie’s Werewolf Boyfriend. Mint follows. He stretches, arms above his head, flexing his neck, the way Boyfriends do—as if they are real boys who have, regrettably, spent too much time stored in coffins.
“I did something to you,” Immy says. “The ring.”
Mint puts his fingers up to his lips. Opens his mouth in a wide yawn. Can he feel it in there, the hair ring? The thought makes Immy gag. “You did this,” he agrees.
Immy has to sit down. She says, “Okay, I did something. I wanted to do something, because, well, because Ainslie. I meant to do something. But what did I do?”
“I’m here,” Mint says. “We’re here. We’re here together.
He says, “We shouldn’t be here.”
“Why not? Because you belong to Ainslie?” Immy says. “Or, like, we shouldn’t be here here? In this house? Or because you shouldn’t be here at all? Because you’re a ghost. A real ghost?”
Mint just looks at her. A real ghost in a fake boy? She did this? That look in his eyes, is that something real? He has the most beautiful eyes Immy’s ever seen. And okay, so they’re molded out of silicon or they’re bags full of colored gel and microelectronic components, but so what? How is that really any different from vitreous humor and lenses and rods and cone cells?
Boyfriends can even cry, if you want them to.
Immy wants to believe so badly. More than she’s ever wanted anything. She says, “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I shouldn’t be here,” Mint says again. “I should be with you.” He touches his mouth again. “I belong with you.”
“Oh,” Immy says. “Wait. Wait.” Now she’s sure that someone is playing a trick on her. Maybe Ainslie knew, somehow, that she was coming? Maybe she booby-trapped Mint, told him to say all of this, is hiding somewhere with Elin and Sky. They must be here, they’re watching all of this, watching Immy make a fool out of herself. Aren’t they?
“I love you,” Mint says. And then, as if he’s agreeing with himself. “I love you. I belong with you. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me here alone with her.”
Everyone who is alive has a ghost inside them, don’t they? So why can’t there be a real ghost in a fake boy? Why can’t a real ghost in a fake boy fall in love with Immy? Justin did. Why can’t Immy get what she wants, just for once?
Why can’t Mint get what he wants?
Immy comes up with her plan sitting on the couch with Mint, so close that they’re practically touching. Immy can hardly breathe. She studies Mint’s fingers, those half moons at the base of his fingernails, the ridges on the tips of his fingers. The creases in his palms. The way his chest rises and falls when he breathes. It would be creepy, staring at a real boy like this, the way Immy stares at Mint. A real boy would want to know why you were staring at him.
She wants to ask Mint so many questions. Who are you? How did you die? What’s your real name? What is it that made you love me?
She wants to tell him so many things.
They’ll have time for all of that later on.
Her dad texts to say that he’s about two minutes from Ainslie’s house. So time’s up. When Mint gets back in his coffin, and Immy is about to put him back in Spectral Mode, she can’t wait any longer. She kisses him and presses that button. It’s her first real kiss, really. She doesn’t count Justin. Lipwrestling doesn’t count.
She kisses Mint right on the lips. His lips are dry and soft and cool. It’s everything she ever wanted a kiss to be.
Her dad’s car is pulling up in the driveway as she comes up the stairs, and before she reaches the door, Mint is there again in front of her in the dark hallway, a ghost this time. This time he kisses her. It’s the ghost of a kiss. And this kiss, too, is everything she’s ever wanted, even if she doesn’t feel it at all.
On the ride home, her dad says, “How’s Ainslie?”
“Ainslie’s Ainslie,” Immy says. “You know.”
“It would be pretty strange if she wasn’t,” her dad says. “Is she still big on those Loverboy things?”
“Boyfriends,” Immy says. “She got a new one for her birthday. I don’t know. Maybe not so much anymore.”
Her dad says, “How about you? Any boyfriends? Real ones?”
“I don’t know,” Immy says. “There was this guy Justin, but, uh, that was a while ago. He was, you know. It wasn’t serious. Like, we hung out some. Then we broke up.”
“True love, huh?”
The way he says it, jokingly, makes Immy so mad she wants to scream. She pinches her arm, turns and leans her forehead against the cool dark of the car window. Shivers and it’s all okay again. “Dad? Can I ask you something?”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Never seen one,” he says. “Don’t really want to see one either. I’d like to think that we don’t just hang around here after, you know, we’re dead. I’d like to think we get to do something new. Go places.”
“Can I ask another question? How do you know? If it’s love, I mean.”
Her dad turns to look at her, then nods as if she’s just told him something she didn’t even realize she was saying. He looks back at the road. “That kind of night? Who’s thinking the big thoughts about love and death? You or Ainslie?”
“Me. I guess.”
“You know what love is, Immy.”
“Of course you do. You love your mom, you love me and your mom, right? You love Ainslie. You love your friends.”
“Sometimes I love my friends,” Immy says. “But that’s not the kind of love I mean. I mean, you know, boys. I mean love, like the way love is in books or movies. The kind of love that makes you want to die. That makes you stay up all night, that makes you feel sick to your stomach, that makes everything else not matter.”
“Oh Immy,” her dad says. “That’s not real love. That’s a trick the body plays on the mind. It’s not a bad trick—it’s how we get poetry and songs on the radio and babies—and sometimes it’s even good poetry, or good music. Babies are good too, of course, but please, Immy, not yet. Stick to music and poems for now.”
“God,” Immy says. “I wasn’t asking about sex. I was asking about love. If that kind of love is just a trick, then maybe the whole thing is a trick. Right? All of it. The friend stuff. The family stuff. You and Mom need to love me because otherwise, it would suck to be you. Stuck with me.”
Her dad is quiet for a minute. He hates to lose an argument, and Immy loves that he never tries to bullshit her. “Some pretty smart people say that it is all a trick. But Immy, if it’s all a trick, it’s the best trick I know. Your mom and I love you. You love us. You and Ainslie love each other. And one day, you’ll meet a boy or, I don’t know, you’ll meet a girl, and you’ll fall in love with them. And if you’re lucky they’ll love you back.”
“Sometimes I don’t love Ainslie,” Immy confesses. “Sometimes I hate her.”
“Well,” her dad says. “That’s part of love too.”
It’s funny. Immy likes her own house better than Ainslie’s house. She wouldn’t want to live in Ainslie’s house even if she didn’t have to live there with Ainslie’s mother. But part of Immy is glad that everybody ends up hanging out at Ainslie’s house almost all of the time. She doesn’t like it when everyone comes over to her house. She doesn’t like when her dad jokes with Ainslie, or when her mother tells Sky how pretty she is. She doesn’t like the faces Elin makes when she looks through Immy’s parents’ CDs. Once at dinner Immy asked her parents if they didn’t think it would be nice to build a sunroom off the kitchen. Her parents just looked at each other. Her dad said, “Sure, Immy. That would be nice.” He didn’t even sound sarcastic.
Immy is in love. Immy has a secret. Ghosts exist and the world is magic and there is an unreal boy whose real name she doesn’t even know with a ring made of hair in his mouth, and he loves Immy because she put it there. He loves Immy even though Ainslie is the one he is supposed to love. Guess what? Immy finally has a Boyfriend. And guess what? It’s exactly as awesome and wonderful and amazing and scary as she always thought it would be, except it turns out to be something else, too. It’s real.
Last night she hardly slept at all. The school cafeteria is too loud and the flourescent lights are too bright and the sandwich she made for lunch leaves her fingers smelling like old lettuce and mayonnaise.
All Ainslie and Elin and Sky want to talk about is the lead vocalist of O Hell, Kitty! and the hot guy who spilled his beer on Sky’s shirt and Ainslie’s mom, who is the worst.
“You should have come,” Sky says. “They were like, amazing, Immy.” So Sky is going to be all about music too, now? Apparently.
Last week Elin told them all that not liking music was one of those signs, one of the ways you could tell if someone was a sociopath. Of course they all remember when they were just kids and Sky used to pee the bed. That’s another sign, but fine. Immy will be a sociopath all by herself.
Ainslie says to Immy, “And nobody’s even told you the really creepy thing! So we get back to the house last night, and I just wanted to kill my mom. Like, what I really want to do is defenestrate her or chop off her head and put it in the microwave for a few hours, okay, but you can’t do that and so Elin and Sky and I had this other idea, which was to turn Mint on and I was going to tell him to go scare her. But guess what?”
“What?” Immy says. She knows what.
“He was already on! Spectral Mode! Which is impossible because I turned him off, remember? I told you that? I did it a while ago, so how was he back on? That’s creepy, right? Like real ghost-stuff creepy.”
“Maybe your mom did it?” Immy says.
“Maybe it was the butler,” Elin says.
Sky bugs her eyes out and says, “Maybe Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend is a real ghost boyfriend.” Sometimes Immy isn’t sure about Sky. Are you supposed to take everything she says at face value? Or is she actually the most sarcastic person Immy knows? Unclear.
“So what did you do last night?” Elin says. “Anything interesting?”
It might be worrying, this question, except that Justin is eating lunch two tables away from them. He keeps trying to catch Immy’s eye. Elin has noticed and you can practically hear her teeth grinding together. Maybe she can sense how happy Immy is? How loved she is? Immy deliberately looks away from Elin as she answers; sends a little almost smile in Justin’s direction. “Well,” she says. “You know. Not really. Nothing worth talking about.”
Ainslie says, “What do they put on this pizza? It’s not cheese. I refuse to believe this is really cheese.”
Carrying out the plan, rescuing Mint, is actually pretty simple. Spring break is coming up and Ainslie and her mother are going out to Utah to go skiing. The hard part is the waiting.
Immy can’t ask her dad to drive her over to Ainslie’s house again, because Ainslie has already come over for dinner and couldn’t shut up about black diamond slopes and polygamy and bison, and even if Immy’s dad forgets, her mom won’t. But she’s already done the research to find out how much a cab would cost. Definitely affordable. And she can go during the day while her parents are at work.
Or wait, she can bike over. She’s done it once or twice. It’s doable.
Then call a taxi when she’s ready to leave Ainslie’s house. Simple plans are good plans. Buy a duffel bag big enough for Mint to fit in, and remember the blankets to pad out the bag. The thing is, Boyfriends don’t weigh as much as you think they would, and the taxi driver will help.
Remember enough money for the tip.
Over to the You-Store-It where Ainslie’s mother has a storage space big enough to have a circus in. Immy’s been there a few times with Ainslie, bringing over lamps or rugs or ugly pieces of art whenever Ainslie’s mother redecorates. There’s at least one pretty nice couch, and some boxes of books. There are outlets in the wall so Mint can recharge.
The key to the You-Store-It locker is hanging up in the laundry room at Ainslie’s house. All of the keys at Ainslie’s house are labeled. (Just like how Ainslie’s mother keeps all her online passwords on a sticky on her screen.) It’s as if they want to make things as easy as they can.
And the You-Store-It isn’t all that far away from Immy’s house. A mile or two, which is absolutely bikeable.
It’s not a long-term solution, but it will do until Immy figures out something better. She isn’t sure how any of this is going to work. She’s trying not to let that bother her. Over spring break there will be frozen yogurt and dumb movie nights and thrift stores with Sky and Elin, and then there will be Mint. If he were a real boy, he could come along too for all the other, real stuff. But he isn’t, and he can’t, and that’s okay. She’ll take what she can get and be happy about it, because love isn’t about convenience and frozen yogurt and real life. That isn’t what love is about.
Immy sees Mint twice before spring break. It makes the waiting easier. The first time is when Ainslie asks her over to help with her hair. Ainslie’s mother has decided that Ainslie can put in a streak of color, just one streak, for spring break. Ainslie can’t decide between green and red.
“Stop or go,” Immy says, looking at the squeeze tubes of Manic Panic.
“What?” Ainslie says.
“What do you want to say with your hair?” Immy asks her. “Go is green, stop is red.”
Ainslie says, “I’m not trying to make a statement here. I just want to know which one looks better, okay? Is green too weird?”
“I like the green,” Immy says. “Goes with your eyes.”
“I think I like the red,” Ainslie says.
While they’re waiting for the bleach to work, Ainslie takes Immy down to the rec room. The whole time Immy has been trying not to think about Mint. And now that’s where Ainslie is taking her.
“I just need to check,” Ainslie says. “I check every single day now. Sometimes I check a couple of times. He’s never on. But I still have to check. Last night I woke up at 3 A.M. and I had to come down here and check.”
She jerks back the coffin lid, as if she thinks she’ll catch Mint up to no good. His eyes are closed, of course, because how can he turn himself on?
Where is he when he isn’t here? It hurts Immy to see him like this, turned off like he’s just some dumb toy.
The bleachy part of Ainslie’s hair, wrapped in foil, sticks practically straight up. It looks like a handle and Immy imagines yanking it. Hearing Ainslie shriek. And Mint still wouldn’t wake up. So what’s the point?
Ainslie stabs at Mint’s head like she’s killing a spider. Turns and shrugs at Immy. “I know I’m being an idiot. He’s just a semi-defective Boyfriend or something. He’s not even that cute, right? Oliver is much cuter. I don’t know why I wanted him so much.”
Maybe if Immy said something Ainslie would just give her Mint.
Ainslie says, “I asked my mom if we could sell him on eBay and she had a fit. Acted like I was the worst person in the world. Kept telling me how much she paid for him, how hard it was to get him, that I didn’t appreciate everything she did to make me happy. So I had to pretend I was just kidding.”
Immy says, “Come on. I think it’s time for the bleach to come out.”
She gets one last look at Mint before Ainslie shuts the lid again. And Ainslie changes her mind, chooses the green, then the red, the green, and then the red again. They both like the way it looks when it’s finished, like a long streak of blood.
At school two days later Ainslie tells them about how her mother went and put a streak of red in her own hair. She’s so angry she cries. They all hug her, and then Immy helps her cut all the red right out with a pair of scissors in the art room. All Immy wants, at that moment, is for Ainslie to be as happy as Immy is.
The next time she sees Mint it’s two days after that. Four in the morning. She’s done a stupid thing, biked all the way over to Ainslie’s, six miles in the dark. But she did it for love. Call it a trial run. She lets herself into the house. She’s a shadow among shadows. She’s a ghost. She almost goes to Ainslie’s bedroom, to stand beside Ainslie’s bed and watch her while she’s sleeping. Ainslie’s almost pretty when she’s asleep. Immy’s always thought so. But she’s seen Ainslie asleep before.
She goes down the stairs to the rec room and she turns Mint on in Spectral Mode. He’s there immediately, watching her from over by the couch.
“Hi,” she says. “I had to come. Everything is fine. I just had to come see you. That’s all. I miss you. Today is Friday. I’m coming back on Monday and everything is going to be fine. We’ll be together. Okay?”
Her Ghost Boyfriend nods. Smiles at her.
“I love you,” she says. He says it back silently.
She really ought to turn him off, but Immy can’t do it. Instead she goes back to the closet and she opens the lids of Oliver’s and Alan’s coffins. She finds their buttons, one with each hand, and she turns them both on, shutting the closet door as quickly as she can so they won’t see her, know who’s done this. She’s back up the stairs and out the door, the key is under the rock again, and she pedals madly away. When she gets home the sun is just coming up.
She thinks with satisfaction, that’s going to surprise Ainslie.
But Ainslie doesn’t mention it. Ainslie is kind of a wreck since the thing with her mom and the hair. Or maybe it’s all the Boyfriend stuff. Either way, what Ainslie really needs are her friends. Immy and Sky and Elin take her out for yogurt after school. Tomorrow Ainslie and her mom go to Utah. Immy wants to get up and dance on tables. There’s a song on in the yogurt place and it’s kind of a good song. Immy really ought to find out who sings it, except if she asks, Elin or maybe everybody will look at her like, you like that song? Really? But she does. She actually likes it. Really.
She hardly sleeps at all Sunday night. Goes over and over the plan in her head. Tries to work out all the things that might go wrong so she can fix them before they happen. A horrible idea lodges itself in her head: what if after Immy turned on all of the Boyfriends, Ainslie did something crazy? Like, finally get her mom to take them all to Goodwill? Or worse? But all the coffins are right where they should be. Alan and Oliver and Mint are all off. The taxi drops her off at the You-Store-It and she puts Mint in his duffel bag on a pallet mover and the key works just fine and so what if the storage space smells like dust and mold and there are random things everywhere? She unzips Mint and pushes the button for Embodied.
And it’s just like it was in the rec room. The first time they were alone together. It’s just so easy to be with him. Immy has already cleared off the couch, plugged in one of the nice lamps, put in one of the bulbs she brought from home. She even has a blanket for them in case the storage space is cold. Well, for her. Mint probably doesn’t get cold.
That’s one of the things she wants to ask him, now that they can finally talk. Not about getting cold. About his name. She doesn’t have to be home for hours.
They’re facing each other on the couch. Holding hands just like boyfriends and girlfriends do. It isn’t really like holding hands, exactly, because he’s made out of silicon and plastics and tubes of gel, metal rods, wiring, whatever, and his hand feels weird if she tries to think of it as a real hand, but that doesn’t matter.
And of course he can’t really feel her hand, she knows, but it must mean something to him, her hand in his. The way it means something to her. Because he’s just as real as he isn’t real.
It’s good enough. Better than anything she ever imagined.
She’s asked him about his name. His real name.
“I don’t remember,” he says. “I don’t remember many things. Just you. I remember you. Only you.”
She’s a little disappointed, but doesn’t want him to know it. “Is it okay if I keep calling you Mint then?” It’s just a stupid name that Ainslie came up with, but when she thinks about it, Immy realizes that Mint is how she thinks of him. Maybe it would be weird to try calling him by another name.
“Do you remember anything about when you were alive?”
He says, “I remember I was alone. And then you were there. We were together.”
“Do you remember how you died?”
“I remember love.”
Immy doesn’t want to know about other girls. Girls he knew when he was alive. Not even if they’re dead and gone. She says, “I’ve never been in love before. I’ve never felt like this before.”
That awful hand flexes, those fingers curl around her own. She wonders how he knows how much pressure to exert. Is it Mint who does that or is it some kind of Boyfriend basic subroutine? It isn’t really important which one it is.
“I can stay for a while,” she says. “Then I have to go home.”
He looks at her as if he never wants her to leave.
“What will you do when I go home?” Immy says.
“I’ll wait,” he says. “I’ll wait for you to come back to me.”
She says, “I promise I’ll come back as soon as I can.”
“Stay,” he says. “Stay with me.”
“Okay,” Immy says. “I’ll stay as long as I can.”
She says, finally, when he only looks at her, “What do you want to do? You’ve been stuck in Ainslie’s closet for what, a month now? Where were you before that? Before Ainslie turned you on and I put the ring in your mouth? Is it weird, talking about this?”
“I’m yours. You’re mine,” Mint says. “You can say anything you want to me.”
So Immy tells him everything. Everything she’s been feeling this year. About Justin. About Ainslie. About how she’s not sure, sometimes, who she is. They hold hands the whole time. And then, before she leaves, she turns Mint back to Spectral Mode. That way he can investigate the You-Store-It if he wants to while she’s gone. Spectral Mode has a range of 3,000 square feet, which is one of the cool features of the Ghost Boyfriend. Immy has been reading everything she can find online about Ghost Boyfriends. She’s read it all before, but now it’s different.
There’s a lot of discussion online about the uncanny valley, dolls, how characters are drawn in video games. Things that look like too much like real people: that awful gap between the real and the almost real. Vampire Boyfriends and Werewolf Boyfriends and Ghost Boyfriends, supposedly, don’t fall in the uncanny valley. People have an average of forty-three facial muscles. Boyfriends have the equivalent of fifty. They’re supposed to be more realistic than real people. Or something. Their heads are slightly bigger; their eyes are bigger too. To make you feel good things when you look at them, like how you’re supposed to feel when you see a baby.
Immy has joined two separate listservs for people with Boyfriends. She imagines what it will be like, posting to the listservs about the cute things Mint says, the fun things they do.
It’s the best week of Immy’s life. She hangs out with Elin and Sky. Ainslie texts them to tell them all the horrible things her mother is doing. And Immy spends as much time as she can in the storage space with her Boyfriend. Her boyfriend.
The storage space is dark and awful, but Mint doesn’t seem to care. Well, he was living in a coffin in a closet before this. He doesn’t have much to compare it to. He tells her about the things that other renters have in their lockers. A lot of pianos, apparently. And textbooks. Mint is perfectly happy to list everything he’s discovered. And Immy is perfectly happy to sit and listen to him go on and on about empty aquariums and old dentist chairs and boxes of Beanie Babies.
When she and Justin were hanging out he kept talking about video games he liked. She’d played some of them too, is pretty good at some kinds of games, but it wasn’t like they were having a conversation. Justin didn’t leave any room for her to say anything.
Immy manages to find that song from the yogurt place and downloads it onto her phone. She plays it for Mint and they slow dance in the extremely small space not taken up by all of Ainslie’s mother’s crap.
“I really like this song,” she says.
“It’s a good song,” Mint says. “You’re a good dancer. I’ve been wanting to dance with you for so long.”
His hand is on the small of Immy’s back. He’s a good dancer too, maybe even better than Oliver, and she leans her head against his shoulder.
“Which hair was yours?” she says.
Mint says, “I’m yours. Only yours.”
“No,” Immy says. “The ring. Which hair was yours? The blond hair or the black hair?”
“The blond hair,” Mint says. “The black.”
“Never mind,” Immy says. She kisses his shoulder, hugs him a little tighter. It’s a little weird, how Mint doesn’t smell like anything. It’s a good thing, probably. If you kept a real boy in a storage locker, you’d need to figure out how he could take showers. Plus you’d have to feed him. Although maybe Mint is starting to smell a little like the storage space, a little bit like mildew. Maybe Immy should buy him some cologne.
He’s still wearing the black funeral suit he came in. Maybe she could buy him some T-shirts and jeans at the thrift store. She can’t picture Mint in a T-shirt.
Ainslie comes home in two days, and Immy isn’t sure what happens after that. It’s not as if Ainslie is going to think Immy took Mint, why would she think that? But it’s still going to be complicated. And then there’s the storage space, which isn’t going to work for long. And anyway, when spring break is over, it’s not like Immy can just come over and hang out in the storage space all day.
When she tells Mint all of this, he says nothing. He trusts her to figure something out.
He says, “Stay with me. Never leave me.”
He says, “I’ll never leave you.”
That night she can’t sleep. And so she decides she might as well go and see Mint. They’ve never spent the night together. Maybe the time is right. They can lie on the couch together, and she can fall asleep on his shoulder. She can wake up in his arms.
It’s bitterly cold. Immy on her bike coasts down empty streets. No one sees her pass. She could sneak into a house. Cut off a lock of someone’s hair while they’re asleep. Pour drainkiller in a fishtank or put salt in a sugar jar. What couldn’t she do? She could go places, do things. Have adventures.
The You-Store-It after midnight is a palace. A mausoleum. Gothic, satiny black, full of other people’s secrets. But her secret is the best.
When she gets to the storage locker, she hears voices. A voice. Someone is talking. Mint is talking. Mint is talking to someone. She recognizes everything that he’s saying.
“I love you. Only you.”
“I love only you.”
“Stay with me. Don’t ever leave me.”
“We’re together now. I’ll never leave you.”
“I love you.”
It’s peculiar, because Immy set Mint to Spectral Mode. And who is he talking to, anyway? Everything that he’s saying, it’s everything he says to Immy. All of this is wrong. Something is wrong.
She unlocks the door, lifts it up. And something is definitely wrong, because there is her Ghost Boyfriend, standing in the dark, in Embodied Mode, and there is her Ghost Boyfriend in Spectral Mode. Except the ghost isn’t her Ghost Boyfriend. It’s a girl. Barely there, less there than Mint ever is. The beam of Immy’s flashlight pins the ghost girl there in the air. Holes for eyes. Light hair.
The ghost’s hand is reaching out to Mint. Her fingers on his mouth.
Immy may be an idiot, but she’s not an idiot. She knows, instantly, the mistake she has made. The mistake she has been allowed to make. Those three lengths of hair, the two black pieces and the yellow. Apparently Immy isn’t the one who gave Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend a real ghost—she’s the one who gave Ainslie’s Ghost Boyfriend two ghosts.
No one is in love with her. She isn’t anyone’s girlfriend.
This isn’t her love story.
She goes right up to the Ghost Boyfriend, Mint, whoever he is. And that other girl. That dead girl. Who cares who she is, either. It’s not like she can do anything to Immy. But Immy can do something to her. Body or no body.
“Immy,” Mint says.
“Shut up,” she tells him. And she sticks her fingers right into his traitor’s mouth.
He bites down. And then his hands are up and someone’s fingers are around her throat. Mint’s fingers.
She thinks, they aren’t supposed to do that! She’s so angry she isn’t even scared.
Immy’s fingers are under that wriggling tongue and in that compartment and she’s got hold of the hair ring. She yanks it out of Mint’s mouth and like that, the girl ghost is gone and the Ghost Boyfriend is just a thing standing there, its hands loose at her neck, its mouth slightly open.
Immy sticks the hair ring in her pocket. Her fingers are really throbbing, but she can bend them, so not broken. They’re just a little mangled.
She’s alone with the Ghost Boyfriend looming there, like he’s just waiting for her to turn him on again. And those two lovebirds? Those ghosts? Are they still around? She gets out of there as fast as she can.
She rides her bike through the dark streets crying the whole time. Snot all over her face. What an idiot. Worst of all, she’ll never be able to tell anyone any of this. Not even Ainslie.
Is this what love is supposed to be like?
She washes her hands thoroughly once she’s home. Takes the nail scissors and a pair of tweezers out of the cabinet in her bathroom. She holds the hair ring under the magnifying glass and uses the tweezers to tease out the blond length of hair. Cuts it with the scissors, and tweezes out every last strand. Now she has a ring of black hair, and a very small pile of blond hair. The black hair goes back into the locket on the choker she got for Ainslie. Next she goes through her jewelry box, looking for the necklace she used to wear all the time last year. A kind of medicine bag thing on a leather strand. The blond hair goes into that.
After that, she gets in bed. Leaves the light on. When she falls asleep, she’s in that car again on the moonlit road. Mint is in the passenger seat. Someone else in the back seat. She won’t look at either of them. Just keeps on driving. Wonders where she’ll be when she gets there.
In the morning, she explains things to her dad. Not everything. Just the part about the Ghost Boyfriend and the storage locker. She tells him it’s all part of a joke she and Elin and Sky were going to play on Ainslie, but now she’s realized what a bad idea it was. Ainslie would have really freaked out. She explains that Ainslie is really fragile right now. Going through a bad breakup.
He’s proud of her. They drive to the You-Store-It and retrieve the Ghost Boyfriend. When he’s back in his coffin in the closet in the basement in Ainslie’s house, her father takes her out for frozen yogurt.
Ainslie comes back from her ski trip with a tan because Ainslie is a multitasker.
At lunch they all sit out in the sunshine in their coats and scarves, because it’s hard to be back inside, back in school again.
“Here,” Immy says. “Happy birthday, Ainslie. Finally found it.”
It’s a little tiny box, hardly worth it, but Ainslie does what she always does. Unwraps it so carefully you’d think what she really likes about presents is the wrapping paper. She takes out the choker and everyone oohs and ahhhs. When she opens the locket, Immy says, “It’s probably not true, but supposedly the hair is Bam Muller’s hair.” Bam Muller is the lead singer of the O Hell, Kitty!. She checked. He has black hair.
“Kind of gross,” Ainslie says. “But also kind of awesome. Thanks, Immy.”
She puts on the choker and everyone admires how it looks against Ainslie’s long white neck. Nobody has noticed the little bruises on Immy’s neck. You can hardly see them.
“You’re welcome,” Immy says and gives Ainslie a big hug. “I’m so glad you’re back.”
“Be more lesbian,” Elin says. Sky has spilled the beans on Elin and Justin. The weird thing is that Elin doesn’t seem that much happier. Probably the whole kissing thing. Although the way it turns out, Elin and Justin are still together when school gets out. They’re together all summer long. And when Halloween rolls around and Ainslie has a party at her house, Elin comes as a sexy Red Riding Hood and Justin is a big bad wolf.
Oliver and Alan and Mint are all at the party. Ainslie brings them out for the first time in a long time. Immy dances with all of them. She dances with Mint twice. They don’t really have anything to say to each other.
It’s a great party.
Sky has made another batch of absinthe. She’s a cowgirl. Ainslie’s mother is a sexy witch, and Ainslie isn’t in costume at all. Or if she is, nobody knows who she’s supposed to be. At some point, Immy realizes that Elin is wearing the choker, the one Immy gave Ainslie. So maybe she borrowed it. Or maybe Ainslie got tired of it and gave it to Elin. Whatever. It’s not a big deal.
Immy’s wearing her medicine bag. She wears it a lot. Take that, ghost girl. Immy is looking pretty good. She’s a succubus. She has to keep explaining what that is, but that’s okay. The main thing is she looks amazing.
Justin, for one, can’t take his eyes off her. She looks at him once in a while, smiles just a little. All of that practice, she bets Elin has taught him a thing or two about kissing. And he was Immy’s boyfriend first.
Kelly Link is the author of the story collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners (both Small Beer Press), Pretty Monsters (Viking Juvenile), and Get in Trouble, which includes the story in this issue and is out now from Random House. She lives with her husband and daughter in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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