The first time he saw the man, he almost didn’t see him. Kevin and Paul walked right by the stranger without appearing to notice, and he would have too if he hadn’t felt a weird shiver pass through him. A shiver of warning, but not of danger. Frowning, he’d slowed his steps to look around for the source, and seen a man dressed all in black, with hair bleached white-blond, watching him from several feet away with an unreadable expression on his face.
That first time, Connor merely frowned and continued on his way across the campus, but the solitary, intent figure didn’t leave his thoughts for the rest of the day. His thoughts even wandered during the day’s lecture in one of his favorite classes, meaning he would be forced to ask Paul for the notes for the first time in his entire academic career. He didn’t know why he couldn’t get the strange man out of his mind, but his instincts were telling him there was something…unnatural about him. Or supernatural, rather.
Supernatural…the thought made him laugh. College was making him superstitious.
The second time was about a month later. The man wore the same clothes, and the same intent, almost hungry expression. And again came the shiver of something not quite right with the natural world, with his enigmatic watcher the source of the blot.
“I wish he’d go away,” he muttered under his breath.
Paul lifted his head from contemplation of the sidewalk to look around, then frown. “You wish who would go away?”
“That guy over…” he started to point in the stranger’s direction, then noticed the confused look on his friend’s face. “You don’t see anyone?”
The other freshman shook his head with a sidelong glance. “Why, do you?”
Taking a deep breath, Connor looked deliberately in the direction of his black-clad watcher. He was gone, and so was the strange chill he felt every time the man was around.
Not sure whether he was lying or not, he shook his head. “I thought I saw someone…out of the corner of my eye. Guess I was wrong.”
The third time, he didn’t even bother to try to draw anyone else’s attention to the problem. Instead, he dismissed himself with a suddenly-remembered errand, and crossed the wide lawn of the quad to confront his Billy-Idol-wannabe stalker.
“What do you want?” he demanded. “Money, is that it?” he dug in his pockets to pull out a much-crumpled twenty-dollar bill and held it out. “‘Cause I can get my dad to pay you off a lot more than that if you’ll just go away.”
The stranger looked at him, at the money, then back at him, amused. “I can’t accept that.” His accent was English, specifically a London gutter drawl.
“Then what the hell do you want from me?”
“You’re not hearing me,” the blonde man corrected. “Even if I wanted your money, I can’t take it.” To illustrate his point, he made a sudden grab for the twenty…
His hand passed right through it, and through the fist it was clasped in, leaving nothing but that same cold chill only stronger and localized in the tips of his fingers.
Connor fell back a step in horror. “You’re a ghost.” Since when was he able to see–and worse, feel–ghosts?
Shrugging black-leather shoulders, he continued. “Bloody amulet’s got me tied with some sort of metaphysical cord to the Poof. I took a chance I might be able to visit you too, seein’ as how you’re his kid. Blood ties and all. Guess I was right.”
Connor blinked at him, still bewildered. “What are you talking about?”
The stranger studied him for a long moment before letting out a long-suffering sigh. “Right. Should’ve known he did the forgettin’ thing on you too. Did it to the rest of his mates. Fortunately for me, I didn’t come around until after all the voodoo was worked, so’s all it took me to figure out the truth was a well-timed eavesdrop on him ‘n Eve.”
“If that’s supposed to clear things up, it’s failing. Miserably.”
The ghost smirked broadly. “Never said I was here to clear anything up.”
Before Connor could ask any other questions, he vanished.
Months passed with no sign of the troublesome spirit, months in which reality seemed to fluctuate like rippling light. Months in which he called his father time and again to ask him if and why he was being haunted by a ghost who looked like a failed relic of the eighties, but always lost his nerve and made up some other excuse before the words actually came out. Months in which he started to notice things about himself. Things about what he perceived, and what he could do, that didn’t fit with anything he knew or believed.
Like the look his Phys Ed professor gave him when he was both the first to finish the mile and the best performer in the weight-training unit, despite a build that still couldn’t be described more favorably than ‘lanky.’
Sometimes he thought the strange encounter had been a waking dream, and the world around him settled back into its comfortable normality. But sometimes he would feel like he was looking through other eyes, perceiving a not-so-normal world that lurked just beyond the veil.
On those days, despite himself he wanted to see the man again. Just to know that he was gaining something, not losing his mind.
The fourth time was just before school let out for Christmas, just after sunset on the last day of finals with a flight home to warm Southern California in the morning hanging like a carrot on a stick before him. He felt him before saw the man, standing in the snow in the same thin leather coat, but it was a different feeling. Not the frozen-fingered chill of a ghost, but something even less–and at the same time more–familiar…
The snow was settling on the shoulders of the coat and on the stranger’s bright yellow hair and he made no move to shake it off, earning him odd looks from passers by.
“Okay, now that’s what I call a freak,” Kevin remarked, pulling his own winter coat tighter around him. “Stand there like that letting it snow on you? Crazy, man.”
Connor shivered, but less with cold than with realization. His ghost had somehow come back to life.
“Look, I still have a lot of packing to do before I fly out tomorrow. See you next semester?”
Kevin nodded. “K. Have a great one, man.”
The snow-covered ex-ghost didn’t move as he approached him, just quirked one lip upwards into a devilish smirk. “If you’re waitin’ for me to wish you Happy Christmas, save your breath.”
The younger man just shook his head. “You’re alive.”
“Not alive. Corporeal–there’s a difference.”
For a hesitant moment, he considered breaking the eerie silence to ask what he meant by that, but realized any answer would probably be as cryptic as what the man had given him before. But he had to say something–the quiet that always hung around this stranger like his black coat was unnerving.
“Your heart’s not beating,” Connor realized in a moment of terrifying, mystifying epiphany. It had taken the absence of the sound to realize the nature of the low, rhythmic thrum of sound that had always surrounded him.
It was the sound of beating hearts.
“Who the hell are you? What the hell are you? And why are you here? You implied you know my father…”
“It’s not about Angel. Well, okay, it was, but it’s not now,” he corrected himself. “Though I admit it’d still be damn funny to see the look on his face when I spill his precious secret. Let Percy and the rest know he got in and messed with their heads.”
Suddenly the dead man looked Connor straight in the eyes. “I made the mistake of deciding I wanted to see for myself what a son of Darla and the Ponce would look like. So now, like it or not, I’m here for you. Call it a Christmas gift if you like.”
“A gift of what?” Connor felt even more confused than ever. The stranger seemed to be talking about a life he’d never lived, and yet the names…Angel, Darla…especially Darla…he knew them somehow. Deep in a part of his soul he hadn’t known existed, he knew them.
“Advice,” the blond shot back. “Don’t believe your eyes. Trust your heart. Deep down, you know this isn’t your life.”
The younger man shivered again. “Why are you telling me this?”
“‘Cause I’ve been watchin’ you for a while,” he reminded him. “Even before you know–it took you some time to see me, don’t know if you knew that. And I know you’d rather have the ugly truth than a whole mess of pretty lies.”
Dumbfounded, Connor just stared at him, a horrible conviction of the truth of his words growing in him.
The dead man grinned. “Now, I best get me back ‘fore the Poof figures out it was me as ran off with the company jet. But when you find your way home…look me up. Name’s Spike.”