ALEX was so glad to be getting home he could cry. His feet hurt, his head hurt, and he had that sterile hospital smell about him that was so unpleasant. Better than smelling like vomit, he supposed, but still, not great. Unfortunately, today hadn’t been the first time he’d been thrown up on. It wasn’t even the fifth. As a male nurse, not only did Alex have to contend with witty, stereotypical, emasculating jibes from his annoyingly straight friends, but finishing a shift with spatters of blood, vomit—and even, on occasion, shit—on him was a regular occurrence. But hey, it was a small price to pay for saving lives on a daily bas—oh wait, no, that was the doctors.
No, Alex Tanner was a twenty-seven-year-old male nurse who earned eighteen grand a year, lived in the crappiest flat in Camden Town imaginable, and had never really saved anybody’s life. But if you needed a catheter inserted or your balls shaved, he was your guy.
“Ugh, shower, shower, shower….”
He was pretty sure he’d washed clean at the hospital, but he still had that lingering disinfectant scent on him, combined with the stale, muggy, pollution-like odor that was unavoidable when taking the underground. A shower first thing when getting in from work was a strict part of his routine, a routine he rarely deviated from.
He dumped his backpack on the kitchen counter (if a nook with an oven and microwave counted for a kitchen) and pulled the scrub shirt off over his head as he headed to his bedroom. There, he stripped off the rest of his clothes and shoved them into his bathroom hamper. Turning the nozzle to the shower, he stepped under the water that alternated between scalding and sub-zero, sighing as he dipped his head back and wetted his hair.
What a day. What a fucking day. He’d started the day out okay enough, not too tired, and early enough to make himself a coffee and to find fridge space for his cream cheese bagel, but it had kind of gone to shit after that. A little boy had come in with a broken wrist after falling down the stairs; he’d been trying to cheer the little guy up when he noticed how stiffly he was sitting. A quick look under his Pokémon T-shirt revealed a large boot print that, if he remembered correctly, seemed to look about the same size as the father’s DM’s. The kid had cried like his heart was broken when Child Services intervened.
“Crazy Bitch” in the mat unit had taken being very pregnant and uncomfortable out on him at every available chance. He’d managed to make himself look like a simpleton in front of one of the doctors by clumsily bumping into him and spilling his tea. Then there’d been the vomit which… never mind. And worst of all, “Old Guy” on 3Z had refused to have his blood drawn by a “poof”, afraid he’d get “those nasty Aids”. The head nurse had told him to shake it off and not to mind the cranky old git, which he’d appreciated, but it had made him no less pissed.
He hated that there was something about him that announced he was gay. He wasn’t effeminate, but he couldn’t really claim to be particularly macho, either (so what if he’d seen Pride and Prejudice twelve times?). And that bugged him. It bothered him to be perceived as such, because that was the kind of guy that he personally just wouldn’t be attracted to. He liked the Matthew Macfadyens out here. The Clive Owens, the Gerard Butlers and the Russell Crowes (despite the latter being a bit of a twat). But buff guys attracted other buff guys and… guess what? He wasn’t buff.
Alex stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel. Absently rubbing his head dry, he looked in the mirror. Oh please, buff? He should be happy with whatever he could get. Or so his oh-so-sensitive mates kept telling him. Fuckers.
No, he was hardly the depiction of masculine beauty, which made him feel like a hypocrite for setting his own standards so high to begin with. He flung the towel into the hamper, looked at his reflection with a sigh, and then snorted. His hair stuck up in thick tufts gone dark with the damp. Dry, his hair was a light blond, which didn’t look like it’d be receding any time soon. Thank God for small mercies. He considered himself to be pretty plain. Blue eyes, a scattering of light freckles across the bridge of his nose that made him feel like he was thirteen, and a somewhat shy smile that hid teeth that could stand to be a little straighter.
He’d have loved to have broader shoulders and thicker biceps, but lifting weights bored the hell out of him. He’d like to be a little taller than his five foot eight inches, but Cuban heels made him look daft. He’d swap his slight belly for a six-pack any day, but simply could not be bothered to get his arse down to the gym. He turned to his side and sucked in the curve of his stomach, then let it go with an unhappy grumble. He touched his stomach and looked down at his toes.
“Well, as long as I can still see my dick when I look down, I guess it isn’t too bad.”
He pulled on his sweats, padded back into the living room, (a whole three feet away) and threw himself onto the couch. He shimmied into his favorite corner, and pulled his feet up under him. Reaching for the remote and flicking on the TV, he pulled a cushion to his chest and went through his TV planner.
“I’ve been yelled at, embarrassed, and regurgitated on today. God help my Sky planner if it hasn’t recorded Grey’s Anatomy again.”
Finding the show in question, he settled down to watch before going off to bed to rest up for another fulfilling day of being underappreciated and underpaid. Roughly twenty minutes later he hit pause and went to pour himself a well-deserved glass of very cheap wine. Curling back up on his spot, he reached for the remote and took a sip of his Lambrini.
“They should so make Shepherd gay; they’d earn themselves a whole new demographic.”
“I always liked O’Malley, personally.”
“Oh please, why wo—” Alex froze.
He looked to the end of the couch where the voice had come from, and very nearly swallowed his tongue in shock. Sitting there, casually watching his TV was… some guy. Just… some guy. Sitting there on his couch. He tried to speak, to say something, but could only stare wide eyed at the sight of the complete stranger so casually sitting there beside him. The man sitting on his couch glanced at him briefly and then back at the TV, and then snapped his head back at Alex.
They both let out terrified yells of surprise and scrambled off their respective ends of the couch. The stranger stood against the wall, his shoulders sagging as he clutched at his heaving chest. “Oh God, you scared me!”
“So you can see me now?” He didn’t finish his sentence and instead winced as Alex suddenly remembered how to speak.
“What the—who the—what the fucking fuck?” Alex yelled and backed further away, shaking and holding his now empty wine glass in front of him like a weapon. The guy was big, a good foot taller than Alex and a perhaps a little on the podgy side. He stood with his hands out in front of him, looking equally as startled. He had on thick-rimmed glasses and had his hair tied back; he wore a ratty T-shirt, checked PJ bottoms and—of all things—big fluffy bunny slippers.
“Oh wow, you really can see me, can’t you?”
And he apparently had a Bristol accent. Alex squeezed his eyes shut and quickly rubbed his free hand over them.
Nope, still there.
“How the fuck did you get in here?” Alex managed to get out, only sounding slightly less like a hysterical woman.
“Ah, well, I don’t rightly know that.”
“I—I’ve been here all evening. How’d you sneak in?” he demanded, edging away and toward the phone, but keeping his eyes on his unexpected guest.
“I—I just kind of appeared, odd as it sounds. Been here since last night, actually.”
The guy winced, and took another step back, his shoulders hunching slightly. “I tried to talk to you, say hello,” he gave a silly little wave, “but you couldn’t see me.”
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“You sure do swear a lot when you’re surprised.”
“Have you been stealing from me?”
“What would I steal?” The guy frowned, and then sputtered on quickly, “Not that your home isn’t lovely….”
“You’ve got ten seconds to explain yourself before I call the police!”
“Uh, well… let’s see, where do I….”
Alex gaped at him for a second, and then dropped his glass to dive for the phone. He couldn’t get his hands to stop shaking enough to hit the nine.
“No, no, please don’t do that,” the guy implored. “You’ll just embarrass yourself and then I’d feel dreadfully guilty.” He approached Alex.
Alex saw this and backed up against the wall, pointing the phone at the man. “Back up! Back the fuck up! I—I know jujitsu!”
The man held his hands out in front of him. “Maybe if we could sit and talk, take some deep breaths….”
Alex reached for the nearest object, a snow globe, and threw it at the guy. The man ducked out of the way and the globe smashed against the wall. Alex went for the next nearest item and the guy gasped.
“Oh no, not the flowers, they’re lovely. Throw a shoe or something, if you have to.”
It was at that moment that Alex lost the feeling in his fingers, and the vase of lilies crashed to the floor. The man winced.
“G—get out of my flat!”
“I can’t do that, I’m so sorry.”
“Oh God.” Alex’s hand went up to his throat. “You’re going to kill me; you’re going to kill me and chop me up into tiny pieces and use me for potpourri, aren’t you?”
“You’re some mental patient that’s followed me home from the hospital and been hiding in my closet. Oh, God. Oh, Christ.”
“Honesty I’m not. I’m just…” The guy bit his lip anxiously and shrugged. “I’m a ghost, I think.”
“Oh for—just take what you want and get out! I won’t report it to the police, I promise, please just get out!”
“I told you I can’t, I’m….” He gave Alex an apprehensive look, and walked over to the low coffee table that had a lamp sitting on it. “Look.” He swiped his hand straight through the lamp. “See? I can’t hurt a fly. I also can’t go anywhere.”
Alex stopped breathing. He’d just watched a man put his hand through a solid object. Now that he looked at him, he looked a little… translucent-ish. As soon as he was able to draw breath again he ran to the door, bending and nearly falling over as he snagged up the nearest shoes and grabbed his parka before whipping open the front door.
“Wait!” the man called.
Alex slammed the door closed, and dashed down the stairs and into the street. If he received any funny looks whilst running down the street in his crocs, his sweats and parka, and nothing more, then he didn’t notice. By the time he got to his friend’s front door, which was, thankfully, only two streets away from his own, he was panting and as wild eyed as a startled animal.
“Andy! Andy, open up, open the fucking door!” He banged his fist against the door, and nearly stumbled as it whipped open to reveal a very rumpled and annoyed looking man.
“Alex… what the fuck, man?”
Not pausing to give any sort of explanation, Alex shuffled him back and closed the door.
“Alex you know I’m on early shifts; I was fucking sleepi— What the hell?” He broke off, looking at his sweaty, slightly hysterical looking friend. “Alex, you’re not even wearing a shirt!”
“Andy y—you’re not going to believe… there’s… he’s… and… fucking bunny slippers!”
“Have you finally lost it?” He looked down at Alex’s feet “Are those crocs you’re wearing? Christ, you really are gay—”
“Listen to me!” Alex took him by the arms and shook him; Andy easily pulled out of the grip and glared at him.
“No, you listen, you crazy shit! I have to be at work in less than three hours to take over the security shift at the—”
“Andy!” Alex yelled, wringing his hands a little. “Please just listen to me!”
Andy gave an almighty sigh. “This better be worth it. I mean it, Alex, I’m dead on my feet. Make it good.”
After wincing at his choice of words, Alex took a steadying breath, and pressed his still trembling hand to his chest. “Andy,” he began, “there is a ghost, in my flat.”
Andy stared at him, and for a second he thought he was about to be taken seriously, but then he was being shuffled back towards the door.
“I’m serious!” he nearly shrieked.
Apparently the hysterical note in his voice gave Andy pause, and the taller man sighed and ran his hands through his already mussed hair. He seemed to notice something, and his eyes narrowed as he looked down at Alex’s pants, he leaned close and took a sniff.
“How much have you had to drink?”
“I’m not drunk,” he protested indignantly.
“Well, either you’ve been slinging back a few, or you’ve pissed your pants.”
“Oh fine, I had one glass of wine before noticing the ghost sitting on the couch beside me!”
Andy gave him a disbelieving look. “What was it doing, then?”
“He was watching TV with me.”
“What were you watching?”
“Grey’s Ana—what does it fucking matter what we were watching?!”
Andy snorted, finally seeing some humor in the situation. “Alex, mate, any chance you got a little tipsy and nodded off?”
“This was not a dream, and I have a broken snow globe to prove it.”
Andy shook his head and made to escort Alex out the door, but Alex pushed his hands angrily away.
“I did not imagine this!”
“Oh my Christ, you did not just stamp your foot. And in pussy Croc shoes, no less….”
“Andy, be a fucking friend and give me the benefit of the fucking doubt!”
“Kiss your mother with that mouth?”
Andy looked at him evenly, and then sighed as he walked down the short hallway. “Come on.”
“What are we doing?”
“Well, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m standing here in my boxers, and you…” he glanced back over his shoulder, “…look mental. I’m getting us some clothes, and then we’re going over to your place so I can check for ghosts and then tuck you into bed like a good little retard.”
Andy gave an “oof” as Alex threw himself at his back, wrapping his arms around his middle in a tight hug. He grinned begrudgingly and patted the arms around his middle. “Alex?”
“Yeah?” He sounded oddly choked up.
“What did we say about the spontaneous hugging thing?”
Alex pulled back and sniffed. “Right.”
Andy couldn’t help but snort in amusement, and turned to pull Alex into his bedroom. “Come on, I’d rather not confront Casper in my underpants.”
“KEYS.” Andy held his hand out to Alex who shuffled nervously behind him as they stood outside his flat door.
“Well, I was kind of in a rush….”
“You left your door unlocked? Alex, come on, that’s just asking for it!”
“I wasn’t wearing a shirt, what made you think I’d have my keys?” He was still wearing his sweats, parka, and yes, his Croc shoes, and Andy had lent him a sweater that looked ridiculously big on him. He didn’t think it made him look any more presentable, but… whatever.
“You know what the crime’s like in this area; my mate John got his place broken into not a week ago, and he lives… what, ten minutes away? You gotta—”
“I don’t need a lecture, Andy.”
“Sounds to me like you do!”
“Well forgive me for not setting the alarms and sprinklers before leaving, but there was a fucking poltergeist in my living room!”
“That’s a bit overboard isn’t it?” Andy laughed.
“It was scary!”
“I thought you said it was wearing bunny slippers?”
“I can leave, if you like.”
Andy grinned and opened the door. “You bell-end.” he chuckled, and walked through to the living room. “What the hell did you do?” He stepped carefully around the broken glass and lilies on the floor.
Alex sighed. “Dropped it, I was going to throw it at him.”
“What, and then you remembered what a massive homo you are and that you can’t throw worth a shit?” Amused by himself, Andy gave him his best shit-eating grin.
“You know the gay jokes are extremely offensive.”
“To anyone else, yeah.”
“To me too!” Alex replied tersely, surveying the room carefully as he dared to edge closer to the couch.
“What do you mean ‘nah’?”
“It’s your own fault. We’re mates, so I get to be as offensive as I like.”
“And if we weren’t friends?”
Andy pulled back a curtain, and then turned to bend and look under the coffee table with exaggerated caution. “Well then I wouldn’t dream of speaking to you in such a way.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“It’s me being affectionate, actually.”
“That’s even more fucked up.”
“Do I need to remind you of why I’m here?”
Alex crossed his arms and remained quiet. He looked around him. His TV was still on, and the wine glass he’d been drinking out of lay on its side on the floor. Other than the broken glass from the vase, and the mark on the wall from where the snow globe had smashed, it all looked normal. He was beginning to feel mighty foolish.
Andy came back out of the bathroom. “Not in the shower.” He gave his head a scratch and turned to Alex with an eyebrow raised.
Alex sighed and flopped down on the couch, dejected. “I swear it was real. I saw something, I know it.”
Andy sat himself on the other end of the couch. “Had a tough day?”
“I guess. Though it’s never made me hallucinate before.”
Alex groaned and waved his hand at him in a dismissive gesture. “The usual. I got puked on again.”
Andy laughed and then quickly smothered it. “I think getting chucked up on, on a regular basis is enough to make anyone lose it.”
“Some old guy was… never mind.” He shrugged. It wasn’t like it mattered.
“He called me a poof.”
“You’ve been called a lot worse,” Andy joked, shrugging.
“Thanks for the support.”
“Ah, come on. Old people can be like that some—”
“He wouldn’t let me touch him. He didn’t want to get Aids.”
The teasing grin slowly disappeared. “Oh, I see.” Andy shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “Well, fuck him—old bastard. He doesn’t know you.”
Alex shrugged his shoulders again. “It doesn’t matter.” He played with the sleeves of Andy’s sweater where they overlapped his hands. “It was just embarrassing—made people look at me differently.” Alex looked to his side at Andy when he heard him clear his throat.
“You need like… a hug, or something?”
Alex snorted and shook his head, going back to fiddling with his sleeves. “That’s alright; I’m a big boy and all.”
Andy sighed again. “Oh, for fuck’s sake, come here.”
“What?” Alex asked in amusement.
“We’re hugging.” He shuffled closer to Alex, slung his arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. “You like this hugging crap, and I’m trying to be a good friend, so just go with it.”
Alex laughed as he received the manly thumps on his back. “Thanks, man, I know what a sacrifice this is.”
Andy ruffled Alex’s hair roughly, and let his arm fall away to rest on the back of the couch. He looked around the room, and then back at Alex. “Alex, there’s nothing here, mate.”
“So what does this mean?”
“I guess it means you’re bat shit crazy.”
“Maybe… I mean it was a long day-”
“And you did get puked on again.” He pointed out helpfully. “I’m surprised you haven’t gone on a killing spree, to be honest.”
“What an interesting insight into the way your mind works.”
“Hey, I couldn’t do your job. There’s a reason I like to work night shifts as a security guard.”
“Minimal excretion of bodily fluids?”
“That and I’m an anti-social bastard.”
“You’re not anti-social.”
“Oh, but I’m a bastard?”
“Yeah, but in an oddly likeable way.”
“That’s something, I guess. If you could just let everyone else know I’d be awfully grateful.”
“Other people….” Alex began to object, then paused, squinted and then shrugged. “Some people like you.”
“If you could just tell the ladies, then.”
Alex nodded in agreement. “You do need a girlfriend.”
“So do you—evil homosexual.”
Alex shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, I like the cock.”
Andy winced and then laughed, shoving Alex—who was grinning proudly—by the shoulder. “Man, it’s like there’s nothing different about you, then you go say some shit like that that totally throws me off.” He laughed. “Fucking funny.” He sighed, wiping tiredly at his eyes.
“Ahh, the enlightened twenty-first century heterosexual.”
“That’s me; just don’t try and talk to me about taking it up the jacksie.”
“You’re the most politically incorrect person I know.”
Andy puffed out his chest. “That makes me so proud.”
Alex snorted and shook his head; he looked at Andy thoughtfully for a second, a small smile playing across his lips. “You know, you should meet my friend Jackie.”
“She politically incorrect too?”
“No, but she is single, and wonderful, and—”
Andy held up his hand to stop him. “She sounds fat.”
“What do you mean she sounds fat?” Alex asked, affronted.
“Well, if she was a looker, that’s what you would have started off with.”
“Jackie is pretty, and she’s smart—”
Up went Andy’s hand again. “Whoa there, strike two.”
“Oh so now you don’t like smart women?” Alex asked, exasperated.
“They’re okay, but now you’re just compensating for the fat. Unless there’s something else wrong with her. What is it, bad teeth? Annoying laugh?”
“You know what? Forget it. You’re not good enough for her.”
“Probably.” Andy laughed, and then grinned crookedly. “Hey.” He shoved Alex’s shoulder gently.
“Enough with the fucking shoving,” Alex snipped.
“Oh come on. I’m sure she’s real nice, but do you really want to try and fix her up with someone like me?”
“When you’re not being a dickhead, you’re a nice guy, and she’s a great person.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fix up two people you care about.”
“You care about me, huh?”
Alex shrugged begrudgingly. “Despite common sense, yes.”
“And not in the ‘I wanna make friends with your balls’ way?”
“I might have thought you were semi-good looking when I first met you.”
“But then I got to know you.” Alex laughed. “That killed any potential attraction.”
Andy swiped his hands over his face and looked around the place. “What time is it?” He craned his neck to look at the clock on the wall behind him. “Shit, I’ve gotta be at work in like an hour, I better get going.” He looked at Alex, actual worry showing in his expression. “Are you going to be okay?”
Alex sighed, “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I’m sorry for being a massive freak.”
“Don’t worry about it. Kind of why I like you.” Andy patted his shoulder and stood, stretching his arms over his head.
“Bed,” he ordered, and Alex raised an eyebrow in question. Andy pulled him up by the arm and pointed him in the direction of the bedroom. “I can hang around for a few more minutes. Or long enough for you to fall asleep, anyway. Go on.”
Touched, Alex said his thanks, and fought the compulsion to hug him again before heading off to bed. Knowing his friend was in the other room somehow put the evening into perspective. He had no doubt that his fear had been real, but whether or not it had been brought on by a long, crappy day and nodding off in front of the TV, or early onset dementia, he now found it difficult to believe that he had run from his apartment in a blind panic. Thinking about that and knowing that the sounds coming from his living room were of Andy sweeping up broken glass, his weird and terrifying evening didn’t prevent him from dropping off the second his head hit the pillow.
Andy discarded the broken glass, and dumped the now dead flowers into the kitchen bin. He glanced again at the time and silently tiptoed to Alex’s bedroom door. Hearing soft snores, he let himself out of the flat and made it halfway down the hallway before mentally slapping himself. Going back to the flat, he let himself in and quickly scanned the place. Finding Alex’s keys on a worktop in his tiny kitchen, he quietly closed the front door behind him, tested it to make sure it was securely locked, and then posted the keys back through the letterbox.
Back in the flat, when all was quiet save for the sounds of Alex’s breathing, the ghost heaved a sigh of relief.