Dean the Wisp was thin and slight and had no idea how he got that way; he moved like a bedsheet in moonlight, flowing in a wind he couldn't feel. Somehow he was only aware on certain nights of the year, making the years seem as weeks and the human world all around him a jittery fireworks show of lives briefly bright, bursting into existence and just as quickly withering back. He was the legend that got broccoli et; 13-year-old girls stared into candlelit mirrors and chanted his name; creepy old men invoked him in rings of glowing campfire faces; but he was different from the rest. Unlike loch-stranded plesiosaurs or big-footed country cousins of Man or almond-faced anal-probers Dean the Wisp was the real deal—a ghost story with a real motherfucking ghost.
Sometimes he was rooted in a vast blackness populated by dimly pulsing motes of drifting ash that twinkled like Christmas lights glimpsed through a blood-filmed eye—or maybe just stars. With the proper effort he could separate one out from the rest and, compressing himself down through strange orders of magnitude, envelop that single bit, with a sensation not unlike pulling your head through a wet, heavy sweater, popping into sudden light and noise on the other side.
It was there that he saw her for the first time, making that face with a chain coffee, a cigarette and a purply-striped scarf, of all things.
J did not want you to call her Janet—ever—she hated the sound of her name coming out of the mouths of children, warped in just three third-grade tries to "Janetor", just another word for a pedophile with a mop. So just J was fine, either the letter or J-A-Y but never J-A-E because that's not pronounced "jay" anyway.
J, as it turned out, had a magic ring—though she didn't know it. She bought it at an estate sale with the crisp 50 her grandmother had just sent her inside a yellow birthday card with a kitten holding a cupcake on the front (such needless detail for something so trivial but that's the stupid shit that sticks after the fact when you've fucked ghosts and seen bodies explode into loops of meat—the mundane is the floatie you cling to in insane seas) because cash is lame and the ring looked old.
It was. The ring was constructed at great expense and mortal peril in 221 by Li Feng, a learned master who drank mercury and never ejaculated—to conserve his vital essence—until his death in 398 by demon possession where he vomited a surfeit of the stuff from his mouth and eyes. The event was said to have impregnated every maiden within earshot of the thunder crack of torn worlds, giving rise to a generation of difficult, wild-eyed children and mystic hobos.
So the bearer of this ring was ethnic or indistinct or whatever you want in non-ironic high-tops, bangs and pigtails, the result of generations of questionable decisions. She stuck her gum under furniture, furtively, and worked a job job far beneath her Perfect World potential.
She also had a ghost boyfriend. The first time she had been slightly charmed, the second, suspicious, but lonely. She googled it after that but it wasn't a thing so it couldn't have been fake. Besides, the third time he might have looked different but he sure did fuck the same. The fourth time she called him on it point blank: "You're the same dude, aren't you."
"What? Hey, that's crazy," he said, shifting off of the cooling wet spot.
She made the face. "How do you even know what I'm talking about?"
"I—I really don't."
"It's cool. Girls are into supernatural relationships these days—we're programmed for it. I mean, Prince Charming is about as unreal as you can get; sparkly blood-drinking corpses are somehow sexy, and boy wizards are fuckable."
He snorted. "Well, fuckable by old wizards."
"I know, right? But it's okay. I know it's been you the last couple times." She snuggled into the crook of his arm, molded along the length of his body. "Not only do you fuck the same, you keep using the same pick-up line."
"What? No. I'm smoother than that."
"'Hey, baby—ever fucked a ghost?'" She shrugged. "But hey, it works, so at least one of us is awful."
"The same line every time?" His eyes defocused, searching. "Dammit."
Her breath was hot on his neck. "When can I see you again?"
"Don't be in such a hurry—we have until dawn. After that, I dunno. You'll know when I find you."
"Cool." She hummed contentedly. Then, "Hey—next time I could go for some warm, brown eyes. And actual abs; pecs like dinner plates. And a good dick."
He arched an eyebrow. "Uh—I'll see what I can do?"
• • •
It took years for the Chinese ghost-hunters to find them. Years filled with an on-again/off-again pairing that suited them both and saw Dean settle into an institutionalized fitness buff and apparent escape artist like an ass into familiar jeans. Snug and flattering, even in the places worn thin from overuse.
The black Humvee came across the night lawn at an odd angle, no lights as it slammed into the porch and killed the engine. Doors popped and low voices muttered.
J woke with a start and Dean was already up, naked in striped street lights. "Do you have a baseball bat," he asked, voice flat with resolve.
J coughed. "No, I have a gun."
Dean shook his head. "No good. They invented gunpowder—they know all the bulletproof charms. Do you have a toolbox."
"I have a katana," she offered, pointing to a display above the bed.
Dean was already banging around in the closet. Downstairs the front door unbolted itself and creaked open. "Claw hammer's better."
"If you say so."
"You'll see so. Chinese vampires can't be cut." He stood up, the claw hammer in his fist. "They have to be smashed." Dean hefted it claw-forward, then flipped it back hammerhead-first.
J blinked. "Wait—this is gonna be bad, isn't it."
Heavy footfalls in the hall.
"Get under the bed."
A mouth of lightning ate the door, soundlessly, followed by the seeking tendrils of a Sumerian revenant hex. Dean was impressed. These guys did their homework—poorly. The tendrils ignored him and the first man through the door ate three rapid hammer-blows, his look of infinite surprise decrementing into a gory underbite. A second man pushed the first aside and tackled Dean, they hit the floor and came to grips, Dean rolling him over and jerking the hammer free to bring it down into his indistinct head when a Word of Power stunned him cold and still.
He woke to ritual dismemberment, like wearing a suit of disconnected clothes, sleeves drooping down arms, pants falling to ridiculous pieces with every move. J was duct-taped to a folding chair, one eye swollen shut, blood all over her sleepy shirt.
There were six of them left. One taller, older—much older—than the rest, with one crazy eye and one puckered hole in the front of his skull. They wore black turtlenecks and ill-fitting Carharts and had snub-nosed revolvers to keep the action simple in order to thwart gremlins. One of them had a mummified baby in a sack.
Dean dropped the ruined body and went for the others, but they were all spheres of stone. The only one open and soft was J, her bones thin pencil lines undulating in a haze of æther-blown tissue paper.
The older, taller, one-eyed one spoke. "You know what we're here for—we will not spare you or your demon-lover."
J snorted blood out her nose. "Then why are you even talking? None of this matters. Kill us, ransack the house and fuck off." J had never been taped to a folding chair before, or beaten, for that matter, but she was finding it liberating—if she was gonna die, she could say whatever the fuck she pleased. Besides, it was buying Dean time. Right?
The ghost-hunters squinted at her through gemstones and broken pieces of colored glass, muttering amongst themselves.
The one-eyed Magus paused. "That's a—peculiar thing—for a girl to say," he murmured. Then, "Shoot her."
Without hesitation one of the men executed a flawless cross-draw and straight-armed the gun at J's head, squeezing the trigger fluidly with the extension—
Dean seized one of the ghost hunters with everything he was and hurled him at the gun as it flashed—
The bullet flattened against the ghost hunter's face as he was flung and fell, bulletproof after all. "Hey," he said petulantly, finding his feet and scratching at the slug.
The Magus threw mystic signs, cursing in forbidden tongues. The others cast about wildly with their gems.
"Dean," J breathed, "Who else is there with you?"
The Magus produced a tiny book of splintered pages and began flipping through it with long, vice-yellowed nails.
"I know you said it, that Hell is a solitary thing, but I don't believe you."
Someone had the mummified baby out, waving it around.
"Dean, who else is there?"
His thoughts intersected hers, not for the first time, not as completely, but just as familiar, like sunlight or a favorite pair of boots. There's... something here calling itself "Nine-Rings-and-Thirty-Ribbons".
"'Nine-Rings-and-Thirty-Ribbons'," she repeated.
The ghost hunters, as a unit, took an involuntary step back.
"That's the one!" J yelled, "Let him through!"
I can't, Dean wavered, You're the only one, it has to be you.
J grinned bloody teeth at the Magus. "Like I said—let him through!"
The Magus covered his good eye and there was a sudden rush, an impossible widening of everything as Nine-Rings-and-Thirty-Ribbons happened.
It was less an entity than an event—Nine-Rings tore the chi from a man and whipped another to death with it; with a word it detonated bones as the Magus ate a pound of salt, they wore halos of their own exposed brains lapped by kittens, saw their fathers consumed by dogs at the point of ejaculation, their mothers wailing and barren, the mummified baby cackling and dancing on their tessellated graves the whole time.
It was the kind of stuff you can't go back to holding hands from.
• • •
In Florida, you can fuck forever. It has an infinite supply of the nearly dead, long lives lived until threadbare, then seized in the last gasp, miraculous, and ridden those final few miles until the grave demands its due. Repeat with high-tops, bangs and pigtails, Viagra and golf carts, and fuck the kids who never call.
She snapped her gum and made the face, stuck it under the dash while looking him square in the eye. "I'm drunk," she said matter-of-factly, "Let's go back to the condo and, you know."
He complied and the cart jerked and whined in the shadows of wind-fluffed palms. Presently, he spoke. "I just can't get it out of my head."
She scooted a high-topped foot and wrinkly gray leg onto the hood. "What."
"Baby, baby, baby," she sighed, "That was a one-time thing. You and me, we're forever."
He knew it was true.