He phased into view in the middle of the stage, punctiliously dressed in a top hat and tails, his translucence diminishing nothing of his inscrutability.
When I asked for his name, he gave only the Magnificent Benvolio, but after I untethered him from that tumbledown theatre, which he'd been haunting since collapsing there on stage god knows how many decades ago, he said I could call him Ben.
He wasn't my first exorcism—there had been others, though they were over quickly, like casual sexual encounters: delivering that overdue apology, unearthing a lost will, expressing that final I'm proud of you—unfinished business that when completed let their restless spirits dissipate like summer pollen into the great hereafter. But Ben would be trickier. He'd died during the first performance of a national tour—one he meant to finish.
I thought about returning the cheque, but there were rules. Old, unbreakable rules. I'd untethered him; he was my responsibility now.
May I? he asked, his eyes twinkling at me over the rims of his half-moon spectacles.
Taking a deep breath, I acquiesced. I'd never agreed to a possession before, but if I was going to be his vessel onstage, I'd need to get used to the feeling.
I'd assumed it would be marionette-and-puppeteer, and so my heart skipped in surprise when he engulfed me, his thin long-fingered hands overlaying my painfully squat ones. When he flexed his fingers, mine responded, as if adhering to the map of him.
We shuffled the deck and I felt his pleasure as my palms became hiding places, the space between my thumb and forefinger an inglenook where secret acts took place.
Afterwards, my fingers and hands ached so badly, my muscles lacking the suppleness of his years of practice. I flexed my fingers, and they burned like a body burns after making love.
On the night of our first performance, I stood onstage in a spotlight, the cacophony of clinking glasses and the roar of chatter betraying the audience in the dark, like jackals who knew their prey was trapped and had no need to hide their presence now that its doom was certain.
I channelled Ben, and he came to me, wrapped himself around me like the thick impenetrable hide of a large ungulate.
Soon, the crowd fell silent, all eyes on me, all eyes on my hands.
I knew what true magic was: a twisted old thing rooted in blood and flesh and salt and spit. Ben's magic was something different. It was elegant, hopeful. Don't worry, it seemed to say, what is lost is not really lost; it's here, up my sleeve, behind your ear, under this cup.
We'd dine together in greasy spoons and service stations, Ben sitting across from me, and talk in silence, passing our thoughts to each other by thought alone. To everyone else I must have looked like such a loner, content to sit by myself, to eat by myself, a spectral thing—once true, yes, but now only an illusion.
We talked about everything and nothing, of magic, of death, of blackbirds singing in blackberry bushes, of useless football managers, past and present. I never asked him about his family, and he never volunteered. I thought that perhaps they'd never really understood him, and I dared to hope that perhaps I might. I saw, in his pale grey eyes, a loneliness that was all too familiar to me, a loneliness that when I was onstage disappeared in the glare of all those eyes upon me, watching my hands as if every twitch was precious.
One night, the applause was so rapturous that as soon as I left the stage I flung my arms around Ben and pressed my corporeal lips to his ineffable mouth. He flared for a moment, before going colder, becoming more transparent, and then, like a palmed coin, he was gone.
The next day, still absent, he ignored my summons. At night I took to the stage alone, hoping that he would not abandon me like this, would not leave me victim to a wild and unforgiving crowd.
I took the cards in my hand and I waited, but when the boos become deafening I let my muscles take over, let their memory guide what once had been our act, though it wasn't long before the sting of those remembered movements became unbearable, and halfway through I threw down the cards, stormed off stage, found a bar and drank until I could barely walk, until my muscles forgot everything he'd taught me.
When I returned to our hotel room, he was sitting on the bed, muted, barely visible, whereas I was incandescent: "I'm doing this for you." I spat at him. "I'm doing this so that you can finally fuck off. Isn't that what you want? To show the world your tricks and go?"
He sat there, calmly absorbing my vitriol until I ran to throw up in the toilet, his ghostly hands stroking my hair as I heaved the last few hours into the bowl.
I woke with the sunlight pouring through the curtains, with Ben lying beside me, made entirely of dawnlight.
I am sorry, he said, for my behaviour. I feel—he turned his grey-blue eyes on me—so strongly about you, and I am not used to feeling so strongly. I haven't felt so strongly in a long time.
I don't want to go, he said after a pause. I want to stay. If you'll have me.
I tried, in affectionate parody of him, to remain inscrutable; but I am not a ghost; I am alive, and my heart beat so violently in my chest that I knew every hidden part of me was laid bare like a deck of cards before him.
I caught his ghostly hand in mine and, our secrets thus revealed, we disappeared as if by magic into each other's arms.