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And Cassandra Said

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Thou hast burdened me so cruelly,
O Apollo! Wicked god!

So that I might speak thy tidings
I received a prescient mind,
Why then must I be abiding
In the city of the blind?

http://www.schillerinstitute.org/transl/schiller_poem/cassandra.html

 ~

 

The shop is located in a rundown building that used to be a slaughterhouse sometime 50 years ago: the windows are little more than simple squares cut out in the crumbling brick walls, the dark mouth of the alley behind it seemingly hiding all sorts of unnameable horrors. It’s all meant to add “atmosphere”, Hux supposes, but the only presence he can feel as he steps out of his car is the pungent smell of rancid cooking oil from the burger joint next door. That, and the ever-present desert dust, swirling red and golden in the morning sun and steadily coating the insides of his trachea with every breath he takes.

There is a sign with peeling letters hanging above the door: ‘The Shop’. It’s surprisingly unimaginative – though if he squints he can just make out the faint imprint of the name of the business that used to be there before, ‘Hot Hutt Products’, and thinks that maybe this ‘Kylo Ren’ character dodged a bullet there after all.

Taped to the glass window of the front door is a simple note that looks like it’s been ripped out of a regular notebook. ‘The Shop – Kylo Ren, genuine Medium and Psychic. Sessions booked in advance. Payment required upfront’ and an almost unintelligible phone number is scribbled upon it.

Hux shadows his eyes with his hand and tries to look inside, but is met with darkness. He knocks on the door reluctantly.

He doesn’t particularly want this job, but he needs it, even though he’s only filling in for fucking Mitaka, who somehow secured the coverage of the Palpatine Trial that should rightfully have gone to Hux, the senior journalist. But the Editor in Chief at The Observer, Lor San Tekka, made it quite clear that he believes Hux lacks a certain sense of tact that fucking Mitaka apparently possesses in excess. Which Hux finds very unfair. He can be extremely tactful, has in fact been nothing but since started this job, but…

“I don’t care about your illustrious career at The Empire”, Tekka said yesterday, longingly eyeing his morning coffee. “Facts are, it ended. Rather abruptly. Are you sure you want to bring this up, here? With me?”

Look”, he also said, with a rather tired sigh, wistfully glancing out his window at Jakku in the twilight, “do you want a job or not?” Hux thought of his drafty apartment with the newspaper clippings on the wall and the sad, perpetually thirsty plant on his windowsill, his mounting pile of bills, and said ‘yes’.

Hux knocks again. Nothing happens. No movement, not even the faintest sound from inside indicating a living presence within the shop. Hux checks his watch, frowning. He’s late, but only by a few minutes. He knocks again, more insistent this time, while casting furtive looks up and down the road, hunching his shoulders and hoping that no one he actually knows will walk out of the 7-Eleven across the road and spot him, Hux, anxiously pacing at the doorstep of some local charlatan.

After a long moment, finally, thankfully, there is a shuffling sound from inside and the ancient lock grudgingly turning like that of an old prison cell. The loud jingle of a bell accompanies the door as it swings open with enough force to hit the wall and send a showering of red dust over the porch, and Hux has to stop his lips from twitching as he observes the man before him.

Kylo Ren is slightly taller than Hux and twice as broad, covered in a dark shawl that oozes around his long limbs like black mist. His neck is weighted down by numerous pearl necklaces that clatter against each other like aggravated rattlesnakes when he moves. The heels of his black boots click against the floor, loudly announcing his presence. Hux barely has to tilt his head upwards to meet his eyes – dark, hooded and barely visible underneath the shock of black, curly hair that stands around his head like a dark halo.

In one word: ridiculous.

“Hello, I’m Hux Jr from The Observer. I’m sorry I’m a bit late. I had some issues with my car”. He did, technically: so busy thinking of his past in actual business journalism and having a slight identity crisis in the parking lot outside his apartment complex he lost track of time. “We spoke on the phone?” he ventures when the man who must be Ren continues to simply stare at him, with a sort of intense focus that’s starting to make Hux itch a bit under his collar. “We had an interview scheduled at 11”, Hux says with a forced smile, “I really hope I’ve not mistaken the date too”. He laughs a little, the kind of stiff sound adults make when trying to impress surly teenagers, feeling more and more uncomfortable as the seconds tick by.

Finally, Kylo Ren shakes his head. His voice, when he speaks, is startlingly deep. “Impossible. Mercury is in retrograde”. 

The door misses Hux’s nose by just a few millimetres.

 

*                    

When Hux started at The Jakku Observer five months ago, his desk had been facing the large floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the busy street below. He’s since moved it so he’s sitting with his back to it.

“It’s distracting”, he says to his colleagues, but it’s not for the reason they think. Main Street has changed so much in fifteen years: gone are the airy supermarkets and newly erected apartment complexes, replaced by empty store fronts and closed off warehouses. The used-to-be park is little more than a half-wilted grassland since the water consumption restrictions were implemented, most of the exciting new office buildings and gallerias in the outskirts of town bulldozed over and transformed into flat, identical rectangles of dirt and sand. Even the small grocery store tucked into the corner between City Hall and the newspaper building is struggling to stay open – “People just don’t appreciate local businesses anymore”, says the owner, an old man with a vaguely orange skin tone, to Hux, “They prefer the big shopping malls out east”.

Probably because your bulbous stare scares them, Hux thinks but doesn’t say, but he wonders at the change in Jakku, feels irrationally guilty and wonders if it was the fire at the school gymnasium that acted as the last straw to drive off all prospectors and investors from the sleepy little desert town – or if it all started long before Hux junior set his foot in Jakku Academy.

“It’s the economy”, says a local juryman and levels Hux with a dark stare in between regaling the journalist with the thrilling saga of his career in municipal law and discussing the latest soccer stats. “And all those damn hipsters”.

Hux finally musters up the energy to pick up his phone after San Tekka gives him a particularly meaning glance over his cup of insta-noodles in the lunchroom, instantaneously reminding Hux that he’s here not because of his admittedly solid résumé but because of a favour to Hux’s mother. San Tekka doesn’t actually have any real use for him – Hux is over-qualified, and they both know it.

The dial tone drones on for an agonizingly long moment before the call finally connects.

“The Shop, your guide into the deep mysteries of the Dark side”, drones a deep voice. It was four days since Hux heard it last. “This is Kylo, how can I help you”.

“Hello, Mr. Ren”, Hux says briskly. “This Hux, from the newspaper. We had an interview scheduled four days ago-”

“No, thanks”, Ren says, as if Hux is some sort of telemarketer, and hangs up.

Hux grits his teeth and dials again but the call doesn’t connect, just sort of cuts out, as if Ren’s switched off his phone.   

The next day Hux manages exactly six words – “Mr. Ren, I’d like to reschedule” – before the call disconnects, and normally Hux would leave it at that, but he really needs to complete that article series by the end of next month, and the mind-numbingly boring life stories of local politicians and charity workers will only get him so far. He needs someone like Ren to, to spice things up, loathe as he is to admit it.  

“Mr. Ren-”

“I don’t think so”.

“Wait!” 

Silence on the line, but no click to indicate a disconnected call. Hux holds his breath, waiting to see if Ren is going to say something, anything, but he doesn’t, and Hux tries to keep his voice level so as to not reveal his excitement when he continues, “I’m sorry, but it seems like there’s been some sort of misunderstanding. A week ago, you and I had an interview for The Observer scheduled? I’d like to reschedule that, if that’s okay with you. I would very much like to talk to you…”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about”.

“You don’t- I’m sorry. This is Hux, from The Jakku Observer?”

“As I said, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t talk to journalists”.

“I-”

“Sorry, me no speak no español”.  

What are you-”

Click.

On the fifth day after the first attempt at contact when Hux calls Ren’s Shop, he doesn’t even manage to squeeze in a greeting before Ren rumbles, “It’s twelve o’clock. You usually call by eleven”.

Hux is way beyond the point of confusion by any statements Ren may come up with and just massages his aching temples with cold fingers. There’s a horrid draft in his frugally furnished apartment that has kept him awake all night, despite the dry desert heat reigning the streets outside. “Glad you’re looking forward to our daily chats”, he grits out instead, wishing to just throw the phone into a wall and tell San Tekka that securing an interview with the resident medium is impossible. “I’m sure it would be even nicer to meet in person”.

There’s a brief silence, and Kylo Ren just sort of sighs. “You’re very persistent”.  

Hux perks up a bit, hardly daring to hope. “I’ve been called that before, yes”.

Ren hums. “How’s Friday at 6 a.m. sound for you”.

Six a.m.?!

“I have a lot of customers”, Ren sniffs, “but if you’d rather I pencil you in sometime around, say, oh I don’t know, Christmas, that’s all you get. Would be easier with my schedule, to be honest…”

“Six a.m. it is”, Hux growls, and feels very gratified in violently pressing the end call button.

 

*

Kylo made it sound like he’s a very busy man, but when Hux arrives to the shop the next day the only other living soul he can see in the general vicinity is a scruffy tomcat glaring at him from atop a trashcan. It’s got mean, orange eyes that observe him with deep suspicion as he paces outside the darkened shop for a few moments, not looking particularly bothered even though Hux glares right back. “Fuck off”.

The cat flicks its tail, once, and disappears like steam in the wobbling light of the lamppost standing by the alley. Hux sniffs, huddling miserably in his light summer jacket. It’s freezing before the sun comes up, the warmth having been leached out of the desert earth during the night, disappearing into the cosmos. He’d somehow forgotten that about Jakku.

Suddenly, the lock turns and the door swings open, revealing Kylo Ren, dressed in some sort of gauzy tunic and golden sandals that look like they were stolen straight out of some dance video from the 80’s. Ren barely looks at him before turning on his heel and disappearing back into the dark.

“Come”, his disembodied voice comes floating back. “Close the door behind you”.

Hux obeys, blinking hard as he tries to adjust to the darkness. He follows Ren down a narrow corridor with walls covered in long pieces of cloth, as if the entire house is some sort of weird shroud, welcoming all visitors to eternal slumber.

“Could you- are there no lights?” he asks, cursing under his breath as he hits something with his foot. No answer. He looks up, squinting as he takes a limping step forward, but Ren is gone, swallowed by the dusty shadows. He wonders when someone gave this place a good dusting off last – his nose tickles – and if the strategically placed candles and bundles of frankincense on cluttered shelves and wobbly book towers are really that safe.

Finally, he senses an opening ahead – the corridor seems to widen into a room – and in his haste to sweep the clacking pearl curtain in the doorway aside, he almost trips over something on the floor, a gaping skull with large, bottomless eyes and yellowing teeth. He curses again, gripping his book bag hard, and stares – 87% sure the skull is not in fact real, but plastic.

“Are you coming or not?”

Ren’s voice. Hux turns, hits the heavy curtain face-first and stumbles, trying to spit the pearls out. He untangles his body and finds himself in a small room, breathing hard but not trying to show it as he glances around, taking in the overflowing bookshelves and the round table and the two chairs and Ren, who has folded himself into one of them like a goth Jack-in-the-Box and smirks. He motions to the uncomfortable-looking chair in front of him. “Sit”.

Hux wills the flush off his face, clearing his throat.  Uncertainly, he scoots the gleaming crystal ball on the table back a bit to place his laptop on the satin covered surface, half-convinced he can feel the stare of the (plastic?) skull by the door on the back of his head. He keeps his jacket on. “Well, Mr. Ren”, he starts. “Well. I’m so glad you agreed to meet-”

“No”.

“Sorry?” Hux is sure he can feel his brain melt a little from startled annoyance.

No”, Ren repeats, making a sweeping motion towards Hux’s clunky HP Notebook as if to ward of some evil spirit. “I won’t do this before I’ve read you”. 

Hux stares at him, blinking, the Notebook humming and wheezing like a rheumatic old man beneath his fingertips. “Read?” He regrets the word immediately, hates feeling so off-kilter, inexperienced.

Ren’s solemn eyes are so dark in the gloom they appear to be almost black. “Yes. Palm out, please”. He looks at Hux, expectant, his large hand spread out on the table between them. Hux can feel his eyebrows climbing.

“I- No, thanks. I’m perfectly fine without all… that”.

Ren leans back a bit in his chair. “I don’t think you understand”, he says, something flashing in his eyes before his face smooths out like a pale sheet of crusted snow. “I cannot reveal the great secrets of the Dark and the Light to the unseeing-”

“I don’t want any ‘great secrets’, I’m just here to write your profile…”

“-to the non-believers who refuse to listen to the cosmic voices.” Ren pauses, fixing Hux with a black stare, sizing him up. “Show me a bit of faith, Mr. Hux, and I’ll show you mine”.

Hux’s gaze flickers to the upturned hand in front of him. Ren wiggles his fingers. “It’s your choice”, he says, in the same way Hux’s father said ‘It’s up to you’ when presenting Hux with the already signed admittance papers to the military academy all those years ago. Hux’s lips pucker like he’s tasted something foul but he squares his shoulders – just as he did back then – and slaps his hand down on the table.   Ren smiles, self-satisfied, and grips it hard before Hux can change his mind.

“You have clear lines”, Ren hums, long fingers tracing the cobwebs of creases in Hux’s palm, starting from the heel of his hand and working his way up. Hux shivers involuntarily, wanting to snatch it back – the touch feels oddly like a caress, and he wonders distantly when another living being touched him like that last. He can’t remember.

Against his will, Hux finds himself lulled into a sense of calm after getting over the initial awkwardness, but its shattered almost immediately by Ren’s rumbling voice.

“You’re a hardworking man”, he says, thoughtfully stroking the base of Hux’s index finger. “You don’t believe in luxury”.

“I- no. I guess not”, Hux admits reluctantly.

“Your life line is long, but broken. You have many difficulties ahead of you”, Kylo mumbles, his face horribly solemn.

Hux stares. He can’t believe this is happening.

“There is someone there in your future. A tall, dark stranger… You will argue, but you’re secretly madly in love. And then! An old acquaintance comes between you. Will you ever see eye to eye again?”    

“W-what, wait a minute!” Hux sputters, and that’s when Ren cracks, his face splitting into a big, mocking grin and eyes twinkling smugly. Hux feels his neck heat up. “That’s no prediction! That’s basically the plot of Pride and Prejudice”. He can’t believe this. Ren is having a laugh at him.

“Right!” he barks, maybe a bit louder than strictly necessary, and snatches his hand back. “Are we finished? I don’t have all day, you know?”

Ren leans back in his chair, heavy bracelets clinking together and smothering a smile as he takes in Hux’s flustered expression. “Yes, I can sense you’re a very busy man”, he says a bit meanly.

Hux grits his teeth but settles for forcefully opening up his laptop again, not meeting Ren’s eyes even as the large, infuriating man stares at him brazenly, clearly satisfied that he’s got one over on the nosy journalist. “Right”, Hux says after a moment. “Your full name is Kylo Ren, correct?”

“No”.

Hux frowns. “’No’, your name is not Kylo Ren, or ‘No’ it’s not your full name?” he asks, his headache building.

“It’s a stage name”, says Ren, unconcerned. “Next question”.

Hux sighs, once, through his nose but tries to affect an understanding smile. “Right, I imagine you’d want to protect your privacy”.

Ren gives him a level look. “In my profession, you mean”.

“I didn’t say that-”

“But you meant it. Don’t deny it. I have a very accurate sense of people’s thoughts and emotions”.              

“Oh, really”, is what comes out of Hux’s mouth, and as soon as the words are in the air he wants to snatch them back again because Ren’s face darkens, his generous brow crashing down above his eyes like a landslide.

“I’m sorry”, he backtracks, wincing even as the words leave his mouth, because really. “Never make the mistake of owing someone an apology”, was his parent’s constant mantra, and professionally, it’s worked for him so far. “That was unprofessional. Please continue”.  

“I lost my train of thought”.

Hux hums, nails tapping at the table surface – click, click, click – and chancing a glance at Ren across the table.

“How long have you had your shop, Mr. Ren?”

Ren raises a paw-like hand to brush hair out of his face. “Three years”.

“Hm”, Hux says and Ren raises an expectant eyebrow, daring Hux to comment. Hux smiles politely, no teeth visible, just a bloodless line of pressed together lips. “And why did you decide to pursue this profession? I don’t imagine it’s something they tell you about in student counselling”.

Ren huffs, clearly annoyed, but Hux doesn’t even know where else to start salvaging this train wreck of an interview. These are the standard, go-to questions he usually uses: How long have you done this, what inspired you, tell me about yourself. They’re generally enough to build up some modicum of trust between himself and the subject, and Hux can laugh politely, make some calculated but inoffensive jokes as the subject slowly opens up like a cracked oyster, revealing their secrets.

Though to be fair, he’s never interviewed someone quite like Ren before.

“They don’t, no”, Ren agrees, eyes travelling over the room like he’s bored. “You could say I’m following in my grandfather’s footsteps. Or maybe my uncle’s. Though he was more of a faith healer”.

“Oh?” Hux hums above the sound of the clacking keyboard, slightly curious despite himself. “And how does that work, exactly? Faith healing?”

Ren’s face clouds over. “I don’t know”, he says, blowing a lock of dark hair out of his face, “google it”.

“I’m sorry”, Hux backtracks, willing the frustrated flush off of his cheeks. “I’m just trying to understand you- your work, I mean”.

Ren gives him a look. “In that case, I don’t understand why you’re asking me about my uncle”.

Hux purses his lips. “Right, tell me about yourself, then. You’re, what? Twenty-five years old? Owning and running your own business at your age is very impressive”.

“Thanks”, Ren says, unimpressed. “Though I’m actually closer to thirty. What’s next? Are you going to ask me what my big secret is? Well, let me tell you”. He folds his arms on the table top and leans into Hux’s space. “The secret is to consult your horoscope every. Single. Day. Today for example, it said in Hosnian News that I would meet a tall dark stranger. Since you’re here, I guess it was wrong. Never trust mass-produced stuff like that, word of advice”.

“Well, the day is still young”, Hux snips back. He concentrates on not hitting the keys on his keyboard with too much force as he jots down his notes, silently chewing over his options.

“Aren’t you going to take off your jacket?” Ren asks suddenly, eyes sharp.

“I hope I’m not being rude”, Hux says, though he kind of does, “I just get cold really easily”.

“Hm”, Ren grunts, eyes lazily moving over the walls behind Hux’s head as if he’s tracking movement. Hux glances behind him, but of course the only thing meeting his stare is the grinning (and probably fake) skull by the door.

“Well, then, just one last question before I take my leave”, Hux says after a moment, noting that his time is almost up. Almost up, and so far he’s got no substantial info on Kylo Ren. “What’s the best part of your job?”

It’s a simple question, and usually one that surprises people, makes them smile. Everyone Hux has ever met has loved talking about the things they love, even his no-nonsense father and workaholic of a mother. But not Kylo Ren. Something in his eyes just shutters, and the smile he musters up looks about as genuine as the genuine fake leather in his boots.

“Oh, you know. Communing with the dark forces, definitely”.

Hux stares at him. “Right, thank you for your time”. He packs up his computer, heads for the door. 

“40 bucks”, Ren says behind him. 

“What?”

“Palm reading is 40 bucks. Did you also think I work for free? I’m a business owner, you know”.

Hux stares at him for a long moment before shaking his head, disbelieving. “I’m leaving now”.

Ren smirks. Hux stalks out of the shop with the distinct impression of running away with his tail between his legs.

 

*

It’s been a slow day, so far.

The only visitors were a couple of giggling teenagers around noon, who came in to The Shop looking for “alternative medicine” and blushing so hard at the mere mention that Ben was sure they would spontaneously catch on fire. Tough luck, anyway, because Ben deals in tarot cards and totally legal frankincense, not mysterious powder from nearly extinct animals that force your penis to stand erect like a fucking flagpole for hours on end. He sent them away with a bag of crunched tea leaves that smelt weird enough to convince them of the “powder’s” authenticity, and didn’t feel bad at all for charging them outrageously for what in reality was essentially a 2 dollar grocery brand teabag.

That’s my son”, the Presence of his father whispers. Ben closes his eyes. Last week was blessedly free of otherworldly visitations, Han Solo’s Presence nowhere to be seen. The spirit disappeared around the same time that annoying journalist appeared and hadn’t shown its face since, a fact that Ben was extremely thankful for. Just one day less of gazing upon the bloody mess that remains of his father’s face is like a gift from above.

Your mother’s not going to approve”, Han smirks. Some days, Han seems almost like his old self, but others he’s barely aware that he’s left this life at all.

“She doesn’t approve of anything I do anyway”, Ben says, but Han barely hears him.

Phasma calls around noon. “Do you remember what you promised?” she says without greeting.

Ben sighs. “You know the planets are not really aligned for this”.

He can practically hear her eye-roll. “You always say that when you want to weasel out of something, ‘Kylo Ren’. Be there at seven sharp, or I’m coming to kick your ass”.

Since Ben knows her as well as he does, he makes sure to arrive just fifteen minutes late. Phasma’s neighbourhood is located in what constitutes as the ‘suburbs’ of Jakku, filled with rows upon rows of small shoebox-sized houses with fences and gardens and everything that Ben is not. The street outside Phasma’s house is lined with cars, the faint beat of a stereo and the sharp smell of smoke wafting out over the low garden wall surrounding her house.  

Phasma spots him immediately as he enters the garden. She comes jogging over and presses a beer can into his hand before giving him an once-over.

“Good”, she says, and turns away. Ben’s brow twitches. She’s always like that.

Phasma has a lot of friends. Ben doesn’t, which means that most of the people present at the barbecue party are strangers to him. Everyone except one person.  

“Somehow I’d thought something as ordinary as a barbeque party was too mundane for you, Mr. Ren”, Hux says, and Ben is not sure if it’s an attempt at humour or not.

His father’s ghost snickers once (“Good one.”) before fading out of existence when Hux takes a step closer, the radius of whatever ghost-repelling aura he has apparently close enough to cancel Han out.    

“It’s Ben”, Ben says sullenly, trying not to stare too much at Hux’s flushed face. They’re both hanging around at the edge of the biggest crowd, in a nice quiet spot by the garage with an uninterrupted view of the rest of the street. “My name is Ben. I mean, obviously you can’t write that in your article or whatever, but it, uh, feels weird to be called that when I’m… you know. ‘Off the clock’”.

Hux is looking at him and he wills himself to shut up, pressing his lips to the Carlsberg in his hands and feeling vaguely sheepish, like he’s admitted something mildly embarrassing to one of his parents’ co-workers or something.

“Ben”, Hux repeats, lips tasting the name as if it’s some kind of foreign fruit. “I can see why you chose a more mysterious stage name”. Ben scowls, but Hux’s stance is relaxed, open, like it’s just some private joke between the two of them, which somehow makes the whole exchange not remind him of Han’s incredulous attitude towards the “Skywalker mumbo-jumbo” at all.

“It could be worse”, he says, clearing his throat. “At least I’m not named after my father. I wouldn’t be able to stand someone calling me ‘Junior’”.

Hux narrows his eyes at him. “I can assure you there’s nothing ‘junior’ about me”, he sniffs.

Ben chokes on his beer, and Hux smirks involuntarily. “I can’t believe you said that”, Ben manages after a moment. “Somehow I’d thought displaying humour was ‘too mundane’ for you”.

“I’m off the clock”, Hux says dispassionately.

That surprises a grin out of Ben, still shaking his head kind of disbelievingly as he digs out a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. “You want one, Mr. Comedian?”

A muscle in Hux’s jaw twitches as he eyes the beat-up box cheerily proclaiming “Smoking seriously harms you and others around you”. He shakes his head.

“No thanks. I don’t smoke”.

“Suit yourself”, Ben shrugs, furtively glancing around them trying to discern why the air suddenly seems so heavy. Snatches of laughter and music from the party floats over the lawn, but the shaded space by Phasma’s garage suddenly seems very far-away, like a bubble’s been erected around their small corner of reality. It’s still summer hot and Ben’s sweating a bit in his t-shirt, but he’s suddenly got goose bumps, and when he glances over he can see Hux has them too, the thousands of tiny golden hairs on his arms standing upright and catching the blushing light of the setting sun.  

“Damn”, he mutters, searching his pockets. “I can’t find my lighter”.

“Here”, Hux says. He’s got an old silver lighter in his hand, shining but covered in scratches and obviously worn from frequent use. He offers it to Ben, and the air around him wobbles as he does so, like hot air rising from a warm road.  

“I thought you didn’t smoke?” Ben comments as he fumbles with the lighter, surprised that this prickly man who’s job he’s clearly made infinitely more difficult by deliberately sabotaging his own interview would offer him this small kindness. His fingers linger on the cool metal, something tugging at his mind. The smell of burning gasoline hovers at the edge of his senses, but faint, insubstantial. He draws a deep breath as his cigarette finally flickers to life, filling his lungs with glorious nicotine.   

“I don’t”, Hux says shortly.

“So why do you keep a lighter? Not as a kindness towards desperate smokers like me, right”.

“Sentimental reasons, I guess”, Hux sighs.

Ben gives him a look, filing that away for later, noticing the air around his hand trembling again as Hux smooths a thumb over the scratched logo – some kind of red wheel with jagged teeth – before letting the lighter slide back into his pocket. “You don’t strike me as a sentimental person”.

“Call it a reminder, then”, Hux says, showing all teeth. They’re very square and symmetrical, like rows of white sugar cubes.

Ben blows out a long breath of smoke towards the sky. Small pinpricks of stars are starting to appear behind the thin veil of pink evening clouds. “Most people write down their reminders on notes”, he presses on, not particularly caring if he upsets the journalist, more interested in the way the air around him hisses and trembles silently when Hux works through his responses. Last week, at the interview, he almost thought he sensed something hanging around the journalist. Today, he’s sure.   

“I’m not paying you to psychoanalyse me today”.

“Technically you still owe me for last time”.

“Right”, Hux says, finishing his beer in one large swallow. “I’m leaving”.

“Wait”, Ben blurts before Hux can step back over the brick wall. “I’m… sorry”.

“I’m not offended”, Hux says, clearly offended. “I’m just… out of drink”.

“You can have mine”, Ben says, hastily wiping off the rim of the can on the edge of his shirt. The air isn’t flickering around Hux anymore, no signs of the mysterious Presence in sight. He’s still curious though. “I’m not thirsty anyway”.

Hux looks utterly disgusted. “No thanks. I have no interest in exchanging saliva with you”.

Ben’s cheeks redden. “Right.”

Hux gives him a look. “I’m going back to Phasma’s now”, he informs Ben, totally unnecessarily seeing as he’s standing with one pointy shoe on either side of the brick wall separating Phasma’s yard from the sleepy suburban street.

“I thought you came out here to psychoanalyze me”.

“I don’t psychoanalyze people, that’s not my job”, Hux protests, taking a step back on the sidewalk looking like he’s restraining himself from pointing an accusing finger in Ben’s direction. “And since this conversation was explicitly stated as both off the clock and off the record I don’t see how talking to you is going to miraculously turn that piece of garbage of an interview into an honest-to-god, actual article”.      

Ben stops and stares at him, eyes wide. “It’s not that bad, is it?” he asks timidly, though he guesses he ought to be fucking happy. Guard his privacy and all that. Right?

“I shouldn’t have said that”, Hux says woodenly. “It’s just the beer talking. Sorry. I’m leaving now”. And this time he actually does.        

Ben watches him go, feeling vaguely conflicted as Hux fights momentarily with the low, prickly bushes lining Phasma’s yard. The thorns catch on his jeans leg like little green fishing hooks, and he curses, something flickering in the air around him again, an otherworldly movement that Ben can just barely make out. It’s like watching the shadow of some large animal moving behind a paper screen, knowing that it’s there but not able to tell if it’s a whale or an elephant.  

“What if I give you three questions, free of charge?” he calls out, nervously scratching his neck. “I’ll even answer honestly”.

Hux stops, looks him up and down sceptically. “Alright”, he says after a moment. “On the record”.

Ben sighs, nodding. “Sure. I guess I owe you one anyway”.

“For what?” Hux says curiously, digging out his phone and scrolling through his apps.

“The cigarette of course”, Ben smirks, blowing out a stream of thick smoke in Hux’s general direction. Hux coughs, glaring at him and takes a step out of the bitter cloud, which incidentally brings him closer to Ben. This close, Ben can see the way his hair sticks to his temples in damp, red strands, Hux apparently more bothered by the heat than he wants to admit.

“Right, state your name, for the record”, Hux says, angling the microphone of his banged up Nokia towards Ben.

“I’m heartbroken you can’t remember it”, Ben murmurs around his cigarette, deciding to go for a more direct approach and try to provoke a reaction. The presence seems to react to Hux’s emotional distress more than anything else. “It’s our second date, after all”.

“Noted”, Hux snorts. “Alright, honesty hour: why Jakku”.

“What”.

“You heard me”, Hus says, waggling the phone in front of his face like some sort of weapon. “Why Jakku and not somewhere else”.

Ben huffs, annoyed, running a large hand through his dishevelled hair. He’s tempted to make up something about the general aura in Jakku, metaphysically, but he promised real answers this time. “Because it’s far away. From my family”.

Hux’s brow furrows slightly, eyes dissecting Ben’s flustered face like a pair of lasers, but he doesn’t comment, just nods and moves on.

“Okay, last question”.

“I promised you three”.

“And I’ll save that for another time”, Hux snaps. “Okay, for real this time. What’s your favourite part about your job?”

Ben stops and blinks, staring at Hux, eyes wide. What moves him, though, is the genuine curiosity in Hux’s face, and he feels his cheeks colouring, thinking “Shit”.

“I-I don’t know”.

“Oh, come on”, Hux teases. “There’s got to be something”.

“I guess I sort of like helping people”, Ben mumbles, avoiding Hux’s gaze and wishing he had some more beer. Hux lifts an eyebrow, just a little, and Ben feels prompted to continue, though he doesn’t know why. “I mean, it’s not all wavy hand motions and incense, you know. The people who come to me, they have real problems. Sometimes they don’t even know why they come to my shop, but when they go, they’re always happy they did. I make sure of that. I always want to make sure of that”.

Hux blinks. “I’m not sure what I expected”.

“Well, what’s your favourite part of your job?”

“This is not about me”.

Ben raises an eyebrow.

“Oh, alright”, Hux sighs. “I guess I just like reporting the truth. Not that I’ve had the chance to do that very much at The Observer”.

“Why not moving on to somewhere else, then, if you don’t like it? Why Jakku?”

“I need more beer for this”, Hux mumbles. He drags a hand over his face. “The current editor in chief owes my mother a favour. She saved his career, once. Now he’s saving mine”. His lips turn down. “I never thought I’d come back to Jakku”, he says, even quieter.

“You grew up here?”

“Yeah”, Hux says, looking shifty. “But I had to change school when I was fourteen, so my family moved”.

“I got kicked out of mine when I was eleven”, Ben offers. “I was ‘disruptive’”.

Hux smirks. “Oh, really?”

Ben smiles and takes the challenge. “Let me tell you about that time I had a kid fall into the crocodile tank at a zoo trip when I was ten”.

When Ben’s story is finished, the sun has lowered even more and the sounds from the party are muted.                

“Well, I better get going”, Hux says, his neck and ears flushed red. Ben is not sure if it’s from the alcohol or something else. Hux searches Ben’s face for a second as if he’s gathering words, but it turns out to be just spit – he swallows it down, turns to walk along the low wall, absentmindedly waving to someone on the other side. “Say thanks to Phasma from me, will you?”

“Sure”, Ben says easily, cigarette hanging limply from his fingers. The air around Hux’s feet trembles again, like static, and Ben furrows his brow. It’s usually not this hard to spot spirits who are so clearly attached to a single person, but it’s as if it keeps getting cut out, kind of muted – like headlights trying to pierce mist by the coast.

The presence appears as Hux walks away, emerging as a faint shape in the shadow of the gate post. The spirit takes shape and form slowly, surely, as Hux slips the lighter back into his pocket (it glints in the warm glow from the street light), steps down on the curb, still warm even as the sun slips down behind the horizon.

Ben squints. The spirit flickers once, twice, then: something swishes in the pale evening – a tail, big and bushy – and finally the blurry shape crystallizes, like a TV screen stabilizing. It’s a ginger cat, sitting by the gate. It flicks a large, pointed ear, lets out a soft mrow that registers in Ben’s mind like the opposite of sound – like the silence of a dog whistle – before rising and limping after its master on the warm asphalt.

Ben’s stomach plummets slightly, even though he knows it’s not real. It’s got a broken leg that drags behind in a weird angle, the beans of its toes glowing peachy pink in the dwindling daylight.

The cat stops as Hux jumps into his red car. It stares after him as he drives off, flickers once and disappears again, blinking out like a fever vision.

Stay away from him, kid”, says Han, apparently back again.

Ben doesn’t acknowledge him. He puts out his cigarette, staring at the empty corner where Hux’s car disappeared from sight. The cat is nowhere in sight, but somewhere just out of earshot, he could swear he can hear high-pitched meowing, like an animal caught in a trap.

Mrow.  

 

*

Ben wakes up drowning, caught and thrashing in his bed sheets and gasping for air but it’s not water filling his throat – it's smoke, thick and bitter and stinging, it’s the stink of burning gasoline.

He throws off his covers, breathing hard, and the vision-dream-whatever recedes bit by bit as he stares unseeingly at the digital clock on his bedside table, the blinking, too-bright numbers bringing reality back one crawling second at a time.

After a long moment, he leans back against his pillows again, leaving the covers on the floor in the hope that the chill emanating from the air-conditioner will keep the visions away and reality in as he tries to go back to sleep, squeezing his eyes shut against the darkness.

Slowly, he brings his hand up to fondle his cock through his underwear. He strokes it carefully, softly like he imagines someone else would, then harder and heavier like he’d want them to. The minutes tick by one by one. He shucks his underwear and takes himself in hand properly, breathing hard and moving his hand in long, heavy strokes, trying not to think about anyone or anything at all, fails miserably. He thinks of Hux – his soft hair and cute nose, the red mouth and the long, long legs – and that’s the problem, really, isn’t it.

Something, maybe precognition, is needling him. And it’s about Hux.

He gives a final tug, the universe narrowing down to a pinprick of awareness for a moment as he spills on his stomach, groaning and sweaty and not at all relaxed.

After what feels like an eternity, blinks his eyes open again, staring out into the darkness.  

It’s midnight, the digital informs him. For all that the old sages wax poetic about the powers inherent in the Midnight Hour, Ben has always found it best suited for things that are the opposite of mysterious: eating, fucking, sleeping. He should do that. But when he closes his eyes, he there’s that flash of red again, a low mrow hovering just outside of the range of human hearing.

It’s rubbing him wrong, that cat. People being haunted by the ghost of a beloved pet is not uncommon – in fact, just last year Ben had an extremely difficult case involving a customer being haunted by the spirit of her very angry, very dead cockatiel. The haunting had started as mysterious screams in the middle of the night, quickly escalating to her finding feathers between her sofa cushions and underneath the coffee maker. Finally, small bleeding scratches started to appear on her arms as if left there by a squatting bird. Ben was forced to exorcise the spirit with holy water, finally resorting to burning its bird bath to crumbling ashes in order to free his customer.

Mrow.

His eyes fly open. “Shit”.

He cleans himself with a rag, gets up, sticks his arms in a gown thrown haphazardly on the floor and pads barefoot through his small apartment. It’s just a room with a bed and a small kitchen, really, only separated from the shop by a shimmering pearl curtain.

He ties the gown (it’s not appropriate to consult the mystic forces while in the nude) and rifles through the contents of his desk drawers, assembling his deck of cards before sitting down, shuffling them expertly as he breathes slowly in and out, feeling his thoughts unspool and his heartbeat slow.

Getting into the right frame of mind to open his third eye is like steeping into a hot bath, carefully dipping his toes into the water and assessing the temperature before sliding in all the way. Ben skips the usual elaborate motions he uses when in sessions with clients – no candles, no incense, no dark forbidding mumbling under his breath – and just doles out the cards, arranging them in a half circle on the table. He eyes them for a moment – two cards flanking a fifth on either side – straining his ears to listen for any sounds in the ether, but no external signs are forthcoming, except for the ever-present Presence of Han Solo hovering by his shoulder. Han is still though, existing only as a prickle of awareness in Ben’s subconscious but keeping otherwise silent. Ben grits his teeth. Looks like he’s on his own tonight.

Ben sighs through his nose, frustrated, and flips the middle card, the leading star of the show. King of Spades. He flips the two cards flanking it; to the left, Jack of Spades; to the right, Third of Diamonds. They’re all black.

He knows he’s skipping most of the steps, but he can’t help but gathering them again, cursing, and starting over. Spades, clubs, spades. Black.

“Seriously?” Spades, diamond, spades. Black.

“Fuck!” He pushes away from the table, chair screeching across the floor, and stalks in tense circles around the room, hands clenching and unclenching before giving in and grabbing the cards from the table in two fistfuls, shoving them back into the drawer with enough force to wrinkle them. They scatter like particularly large pieces of confetti, a colourful explosion of black and red against the dark wood. “Fuck!”

He runs his hands through his hair, tugging forcefully and heedlessly of the pain as his fingers tangle and snag in the uncombed black mess. “Ok. Ok. Ben, calm down”, he tells himself, thinks of Hux’s surprisingly light laugh, and the unexpected kindness he’d showed as he’d offered his lighter.  

Ben’s eyes fall to the grinning skull by the door. He stops in his tracks, toes boring into the threadbare mat underneath his feet, breathing hard. “Ok, I give up”, he mutters as Han’s ghost comes to life somewhere by the shelf behind him, looking annoyed and disapproving. “Let’s see if grandpa can help”.

“You know he burned down your mother’s house, right”.

Ben tilts the skull to the side, practiced in the art of ignoring his father, and grabs for the small bag hidden underneath. The leather pouch is old and worn smooth from use, the bones inside even more so, cool and devoid of roughness as if all edges have been smoothed into submission by a calm and steady sea. They were his mother’s, and his grandfather’s before her, well over a hundred years old, and Ben handles them with something like reverence as he cups them in his hand, letting them absorb his body heat before releasing them. The bones tumble down upon the silk table cloth, clacking against each other like angry teeth before stilling, settling into shapes and patterns that speak to Ben like whispers in the dark. Two pieces touching, a third flat piece with a fading X engraved upon it pointing straight towards them like a spear. The rest are surrounding them like a cloud of yellowing starts: disorder, confusion, uncertainty.

Ben snarls, gathers them up again, asks aloud this time, and lets them fall. “Is Hux in danger?”

The pieces bounce off of the table and each other, finally settling under the piercing black stare of the skull by the door. Ben doesn’t have to look at the patterns this time to know the answer. They’re all facing upwards, each and every piece of old bone brandishing fading cuts and marks for the world to see.

Yes.

Ben leans back in his chair, a horrible realisation trickling in and settling cold and uncomfortable in his stomach.

Hux doesn’t have some sort of mystic spirit-repelling aura. Something is haunting him, and that something is scaring all of the other ghosts away.                   

 

*

Deadlines are sure to be the ban of his existence, if the lack of sleep doesn’t get him first.

Hux rubs at his stinging eyes, noting how dry and itchy they are, no doubt from staring at the flickering screen of his old laptop. He wonders if it’s possible to develop allergies to technology – because the itching eyes and wet nose sure feels like an allergic reaction, though that’s ridiculous of course: he hasn’t owned a cat since he was twelve years old.

He rises from his chair with a sigh, stretching a bit before heading for the coffee maker, noting how cold and dark the desert town becomes after sunset: barely any flicker of light from behind drawn blinds for as far as the eye can see, as he surveys the rows upon rows of silent suburban apartment buildings through his window. He peeks underneath the lid of the coffee maker, curses – just a sad puddle of vaguely gooey coffee sludge at the bottom, barely drinkable even during his most desperate late night sessions.

It’s nothing else for it then: he shuts his laptop and stacks of notes into his briefcase, heads for the 24-7 open café around the corner.

He’s barely had time to nestle into his favourite booth located farthest in the back, half hidden behind a giant plastic palm tree that stands ever-green in the dim light, when there’s a soft ping! from his laptop indicating he’s received an e-mail. Curious, he sets his coffee to the side and clicks on the blinking icon, bringing up the message from a “DarkGuideMystrees”. It doesn’t take him long to figure out who it’s from: the message written in a dramatic Showcard Gothic font and extremely informal.  

Hux, it says, and Hux rolls his eyes at the lack of proper greeting before skimming the message. He pauses, blinking, and reads it again, carefully, rereads it just one more time before leaning back in his creaky seat, disbelieving, and just staring.         

 

Hux, I’ve been thinking. I don’t like people poking around my business and I’m not sure I like you either BUT you’re a good journalist. I think. You seem like it anyway. I’m ready to talk. You’ll call me.

- Ben (Kylo Ren).    

 

Hux glances at the time: 2:17 a.m. The e-mail was sent just eleven minutes prior – Hux unlocks his phone, thumbs through his contacts list and hits “call”.

 

*

The Kylo Ren – Ben – who meets him two days later is not the same man who greeted him at The Shop ten days ago. He’s shed most of his stage persona – the flowing robes, the necklaces and the squeaking leather boots – and replaced it with a black polo shirt and a pair of slim jeans that almost makes him look… professional.

“Hello”, Ben says and slides into one of the rickety chairs opposite Hux. They’re at a café close to Hux’s office, and they’re both a bit uncomfortable. The bubbly pop music playing in the speakers is too loud, the people dashing back and forth too fast. Neutral ground.

Ben closes his eyes for a second and breathes in the atmosphere. “This is good”, he says aloud. “Not too much spiritual interference”.

Hux wants to roll his eyes. “And what does that mean, exactly”.

“It means that our subconscious won’t be bothered by outside forces”, Ben says seriously.

“Okay”, Hux says, doubtful.  

“Yes”, Ben agrees with emphasis, leaning slightly closer. They sit in absolute silence for a moment. “Well? Get to it, then”. 

“Right”. Hux clears his throat. Ben is acting strangely earnest today. Better make use of it. “I’m a bit curious. When did you decide to work as a medium?”

And Ben’s off. His family life is interesting, with a faith healer for an uncle and a mother who leads a very successful career as a senator of all things, and Hux’s fingers move at a break-neck pace just to keep up with the stream of details escaping Ben’s mouth.

“I used to have a pet, you know”, Ben babbles on. “Or, well, the dog wasn’t really mine, it was my neighbour’s and I used to dog sit on the weekends sometimes, but I’m more of a cat person anyways. What about you?” he asks suddenly, fixing Hux with a strangely intense stare. “Are you a cat or a dog person?

Hux blinks, marvelling for a moment at the change in the man: a week prior Ben was impossible to force a full sentence out of, today he hardly seems to be able to shut up at all. “I’m- that’s not relevant. Neither. I’m allergic. I-I had a cat, once. It got run over. But back to your family…”

“So you like cats”, Ben says, still staring at him. “And you’re nice to them”.

This isn’t a question but rather a stated fact, but Hux can’t help not nodding, perplexed. “Yes, well, I guess? Look”, he says, frustrated, “is it important if I like cats or not? Will it somehow change the alignment of the stars in favour of this meeting or what?”

Ben snorts. “No”, he says with a disdainful look. “It won’t”.

Great”, Hux says with fervour, rubbing at his temples and willing his pounding headache to subside. “Then let’s get back to the actual interview”. He pulls up the document again, squinting and trying to force his aching eyes to focus. “Now, you were telling me about where the idea to start up the Shop came from?”

“No”, Ben breathes, in a quiet rumble of voice that has Hux looking up from his computer, frowning.

“No?” But Ben looks… off, somehow. All colour has drained from his face and he’s got a faraway look in his eyes, staring off into space just past Hux’s right temple where the epi-centre of his headache resides. “Ben? Hello?”

Ben tears his eyes away from wherever fairy-tale land they went, pinning Hux with an agitated look. “Tell me about your family”.    

“What? No”, Hux snorts.

“C’mon, it’s only fair”, Ben tries with false cheer. He’s got two dusty spots of colour high on his cheek bones. “Your father, for example. How is he? What’s he like?”

“Since you’re asking, my father is dead”, Hux says coldly, closing off immediately. “And I don’t want to talk about it”.

“Okay, great”, Ben says, nodding his head repeatedly. “Just… great. Awesome. And what about your childhood? Any significant events or traumas you’d like to share with the class?”

“No”.  

“Right”, Ben says, “of course. Well”, he adds with a strained smile. “Carry on, then”.

 

*

Ben was nine years old when his parents became aware of his powers. He’d always been fascinated by guns – not the small, sleek pistols of James Bond or Jason Bourne but the large, clunky rifles and revolvers of the Wild West. The old ones.

His mother didn’t much like guns. Or rather, she didn’t like them in the hands of Ben. “You’re too small, hotshot”, she said, ruffling his hair despite his scowling. “The recoil would knock you straight off your feet”.

“Your mother is right”, his father said. The trucking accident that crushed his skull hadn’t happened yet, and his smile was broad and his teeth white and gleaming in the afternoon sun as he looked up from his card game with Uncle Lando to tweak Ben’s ear affectionately. “But I like your spirit. Keep it up, kid”.

Uncle Lando owned a gun. It was an old, heavy thing that he usually carried in a holder by his belt like some sort of old-school smuggler. “It’s our little secret”, he said, winking as he let Ben feel the weight of it in his hand before hanging the entire belt up again on the highest hook by the door.

The gun was too big for Ben’s hands, really, and Leia was right: the recoil knocked him straight off his feet. He hit his head on the door jamb as the force of it made him stumble backwards, but no one noticed that, everyone at the dinner table too busy screaming about the gun shot and the broken window and where did Ben get that gun from!

“I only let him hold it!” Uncle Lando defended himself over the yelling. “I didn’t even show him how to flick the safety off!”

“And you didn’t think even for a second-”

“Stop it!” Ben yelled, the original excitement completely replaced by desperate tears. He squeezed himself in between his parents and his uncle, trying to push them away from each other. “It’s true, he didn’t even show me how to hold it properly!”

“Well, who did, Ben?” his father asked him, cradling the boy’s head in his own large hands. “You stupid kid, never ever fire a gun indoors again!”

“Please don’t be mad with Uncle Lando”, Ben sobbed, the bump on his head throbbing painfully. “It wasn’t him. It was grandpa. He showed me how to aim and said I was really good. Wasn’t I good, dad? I didn’t hit anything important or anything”.

Han recoiled, throwing a wide-eyed stare Leia’s way. And then Ben’s mother was there, looking pale and frightened in a way that Ben had never seen her, and for a moment he was scared she was going to hit him. “What do you mean, Ben? Ben? Your grandfather died before you were even born, baby”.          

After that, Ben started noticing Presences everywhere. Hovering by the rusty swing set in the school yard, lurking in the dark alleys on his way to kendo practice, whispering in the dirty bathroom stalls at the old cinema. He learned that some of them didn’t mean much harm at all, just sort of there and with no clear goal of existence. Others seemed to have more purpose, clinging like a foul smell to certain people, objects, places, even certain weather patterns or dates. You should be wary of those, but not frightened. They’re rarely aware enough to cause any serious harm.

Then there are those that attached themselves to a person and didn’t let go. That reached out and touched. Rule of thumb: the more sentient a Presence appeared, the more of the physical world it could affect, the more dangerous it was.    

That’s why, when he saw an incredibly corporeal Presence of a crying, redhead man leaning over Hux’s let shoulder the other day, clearly the cause Hux’s persistent headaches, he could swear he felt his heart stop. The cat-presence was one thing, but this? It’s worrying.

He’s still mulling it over as he heads for the supermarket. His stock of energy drinks and ginger roots is running dangerously low.

“Aw, c’mon, kid. You can’t be serious”, Han complains, hovering by Ben’s shoulder as he’s perusing the vegetarian aisle. “Not even your uncle Luke has sunk this low. The stuff is vile”.

“Shut up”, Ben whispers, annoyed, pawing a bag of walnuts.

“Communing with the holy root vegetables, ‘Kylo’?”

Ben whirls, clutching the bag of walnuts like a shield, uncomfortably aware that to a bystander it really looks like he was just hissing verbal abuse at a can of bean paste on the shelf. Hux is standing behind him, balancing an almost empty basket on his arm. He’s smirking, looking like he thinks he’s successfully embarrassed Ben.

Ben’s spirits lift a bit – Hux looks well, considering, if a bit tired, but the air around him is blurring at the edges. “Hi”, Ben stammers. “I didn’t know you went here”.

“No, I don’t think that’s come up yet”, Hux offers dryly. “I do, though. And my gym is on Park Street”.

“I- Oh, right”, Ben says, regaining his metaphorical balance. “You look… you look-”

“Tired”, Hux says, grimacing. “My back is killing me”.

“I was going to say you look-” Ben trails off. There, on Hux’s back: a Presence. It takes shape slowly, like a badly tuned television image – skeletal arms wrapped around his pale neck, clinging to his back like a parasite and breathing loudly in Hux’s ear. Ben can feel the temperature dropping from just a few steps away.

“That I look like I don’t work out? Thanks”, Hux snorts, not particularly offended. “Well, I’ve got to hunt down some ravioli”, he says, shaking his basket slightly for emphasis. “See you around, Ben”.

“Hux! Wait!” Ben yells, reaching for his retreating form. The parasitic Presence turns its head 180 degrees to look at him with milky eyes, weirdly aware for a Presence.

“Yeah?” Hux says.

“Would you-” Ben starts, tearing his eyes away from the Presence and frantically looking for an excuse... “Would you like to go on a date? With me?” The Presence snickers, a horrible soundless laugh that grates in his eardrums like a cheese grater.

Hux stares, mouth hanging slightly open. “Are you serious?”

“Yes”, Ben says seriously. “It’s written in the stars”.

“I-” Hux says, looking a bit dumbstruck. “Okay”.

“Okay?” Ben repeats. “I mean- Great!”

“Yeah”, Hux says lamely. “See you, then”. He turns on his heel and leaves. It’s only when the Presence turns its head back to watch Ben as its hosts disappears down the aisle that Ben realizes they didn’t decide on a place and time.

 

*

- I need to drown my sorrows, Hux says over text. My laptop finally gave up its ghost, and took all my files with it.

- My article?

- Gone. Sorry. I might have to schedule another appointment with you.

- Not tonight.

 

They meet at a bar.  

Hux looks good, better than he did at the store. His eyes are brighter, his jeans are… definitely tighter. Ben feels a warm tingle in his chest. But he’s not here for that, not really.

He squints his eyes, noting how the hairs on his arms stands up as if from static as he slides into the booth. Faintly, over the sound of talking and music there is a new sound – a sobbing child. 

“You came”, Hux says, looking pleased. “I thought you might chicken out”.

“You don’t scare me”, Ben says, pressing close. The sides of their bodies press up against each other from shoulder to hip to knee and Hux’s neck is flushed red. He’s already into his second pint. “You’re too noble to hurt me”.

“That’s the thing, Ben. I’m not a good person”. Hux’s face turns so sad that Ben has to crowd in close and kiss him.

“You’re good enough”. They don’t talk for a while. Ben doesn’t notice that there are more than two faces reflected in the shiny table surface under Hux’s glass of ale.

There are five more, and they gather close, close, close to scratch at Hux’s flesh even as the two men tug each other closer still. They are screaming, but they’re also dead, so no one hears them and Ben is too preoccupied to hear them for a long time.

 

*

“What’s that on your cheek?” Ben slurs and presses his palm to Hux’s sweaty face.

Hux turns his face into the cool touch and closes his eyes. He’s pleasantly buzzed, his whole body tingling. He likes the music at this bar. It’s upbeat, happy. Hux is happy.

“Holy shit, you’re bleeding!”

Hux blinks. “What?”

“Fuck!” Ben grabs a couple of napkins and press them to his cheek, just underneath his ear. Hux can’t feel anything, but the Ben looks worried, frightened even, though still drunk and clumsy. The napkins come away wet with blood.

“What- Ben, I’m sure it’s fine”, Hux says, tries to focus. “I just cut myself on, on a branch or something”.

“Here, hold this”, Ben says and presses Hux’s hand over the napkins. “I’ll be right back!” He leaves the booth and disappears towards the counter, leaving Hux blinking confusedly at the table.

“What’s happening?” he asks loudly. His head is starting to ache again. Ben returns after an eternity with a first-aid kit and a frown.

“Sit still”, he orders Hux and starts cleaning his face with something that smells like alcohol.

“This is not how this night was supposed to end”, Hux mumbles. Ben snorts. He’s red in the face. He’s drunk, Hux concludes.

“Off”, Hux says, swatting his hands away. “I told you, I’m fine. Take me to a hospital if it’s really that serious”.

“It’s not that serious”, Ben concedes, looking unhappy. “Tell me, Hux”, he continues, ”do you believe in ghosts?”  

He stares at Hux, looking like he’s trying to hypnotize Hux into doing… something.

“Fuck off” Hux says, snorting. “What?”

He eyes the assembled bottles on the table, (and are all of them really his?) finds that he’s probably had way too much to drink already, he should take it easy from now on, maybe, because Ren is making no fucking sense at all.

“Ghosts”, Ren repeats, his sour breath washing over Hux’s face in heavy gusts.

“I can’t believe you just-” says Hux with a disbelieving laugh. “I thought we were done for today. We’re both off the clock, right? Or do mediums work night too?” He leans back, breaks Ren’s hold of him, a vaguely hysterical laugh bubbling in his throat.

“You know what? Fuck you, Ren. Fuck. You”, he says, something raw burning in his chest as he stands up to leave, digging in his pockets before banging two crumpled 20-dollar bills onto the dirty table. “Here’s your forty bucks for this little mind reading session, now leave me the hell alone”.

He turns on his heel, wobbling a little but determined not to lose his balance as he stomps out of the café, out into the dark stifling desert night, jacket on inside-out, disoriented but angry enough not to care as he picks a direction and just walks.

He doesn’t come far before there’s the sound of heavy footsteps on the asphalt and a large hand grabbing his elbow, turning him around with enough force to make him lose his balance. They fall in a heap of trashing limbs and angry curses in the middle of the road.

They fight for a couple of breathless moments, finally coming to a still as Ren straddles him, strong thighs pinning his arms against his sides.

“You don’t understand!” Ben is practically shouting into Hux’s flushed face. “Ghosts are real, Hux! They’re so fucking real and you’re in such deep shit, okay!”

“Get off me!” Hux yells and tries to buck up, throw him off his balance. “You’re crazy!”

“Shut up and fucking listen to me!”

“Let. Me. Go!”

Suddenly, strong hands grab Ben by his shoulders and drag him backwards, three guys with bulging muscles forcefully separating the two fighters.

“Hey! Hey, calm down, man!”

Hux drags himself to his feet as Ben struggles to free himself from the two strangers.

“I’m fine”, Hux assures the third. “Be careful, he’s a real psycho when he’s drunk”, he bites out and stalks off into the night, faster and faster until he’s almost running to get out of earshot.

“Wait!” Ben yells after him, his drunken tongue clumsily forming the words. “Don’t be fucking stupid, Hux!”

Hux squeezes his eyes shut, blocking all thoughts until the door to his apartment closes behind, until he can finally collapse into bed. He doesn’t (want to) notice the frost appearing on the windowsill and the dark, twisting shadows reaching for him even as the temperature never falls below 20’C.

 

*

Ben wakes up sometime after noon, his mouth tasting and feeling as if something with scales crawled in and died there during the night. For a blessed moment he just lies there, mind blank, but then the memories start to trickle back in, and he has to squeeze the heels of his hands over his eyes.

Fucking Hux. Completely unable to listen, an A grade asshole through and through. Fine. The ghosts can eat him for all Ben cares.

Eventually, he drags himself out of bed, wrapping a towel (the closest thing within reach even remotely resembling a blanket) around his shoulder and padding into the small kitchenette, black hair curling around his face not like a halo but more like a bird’s nest. There’s still dirty pots and pans from yesterday’s lunch (a rubbery omelette he’d scarfed down before running out to hunt down Hux) marinating in the sink. The water has developed a filmy surface, like the milky sheen of a dead eye. He eyes them darkly for a moment before letting the water out and rinsing them off before putting them back into the cupboard, vowing to take care of them… later.

The rest of the small apartment is another matter entirely. Books and the awful green plants his uncle sent him from Guatemala or wherever have been torn of the shelves, dry plant soil covering the floor in dark sprinkles. A chair lies upended on the ground, its broken legs pointing at the ceiling, where a dark mark of water damage is blooming.

“Great job, kid”, Han’s Presence says. “Very level headed”.

You don’t get to say things like that to me”, Ben snaps, voice trembling with anger and… something else as he rounds on the ghost of his father. “Do you hear me, Dad? Leave me alone!” 

But Han doesn’t hear him. He’s lost interest, posing in front of a mirror and admiring his own non-existent reflection, the bloody crater that’s the only thing left of the right side of his face glistening in the half-light. It makes Ben sick to his stomach. It makes him both sad – that Han’s ghost is stuck in this endless loop of acting out half-remembered memories – and guilty that he just wishes Han would leave him the fuck alone. In the next moment he’s furious beyond belief – because it’s not fair. Ben shouldn’t have to be subjected to this, to this mockery of his father. That part of his life is over. Han is over. He’s gone. But the vapour-like impression of a man currently fixing the brown fringe over his gaping eye doesn’t know that.

“Dad, look at me”, Ben says, voice smaller than he’s ever heard it before. “Dad”.

Han doesn’t. He’s only aware of what’s actually going on around him about half of the time, and today… today he smirks at his own reflection, “Ben, I’m taking your mother out for dinner. Don’t wait up”, and disappears. 

When the morning has finally started to bleed into noon, Ben can finally go dress, the apartment at least moderately clean. The dirt has been swept up, the books are back in the book shelf. He’ll leave the chair in the alley outside. There’s always someone out there who might have use of it.        

He only manages to exchange the towel for a robe before there is a rattle of someone tugging at the handle of his front door – Ben scowls and heads towards it, the sash of his robe trailing behind him like a piece of liquid shadow.

He pulls the door open just a crack, glancing out on the dusty street outside. There’s no one there, just a couple of birds investigating the cracks in the pavement on the opposite side of the road. They caw, excitedly, fighting for some worm or food scraps or something caught in the pavement. 

“Down here, silly boy”.

Ben sighs. “Is that really the time”, he says, pushing the door open further with the flat of his hand.  The small, weathered lady on his front porch laughs, her thick glasses flashing in the bright afternoon sunlight. Maz, his annoying neighbour.

“I know you must still be drunk to forget the day of the week! I should have you spanked, because I certainly haven’t seen you down at my waterhole. Who’s stealing my business?”

He feels the prickling sensation of her shrewd stare directed at his back as she follows him inside, tries to stamp down the irritation sparked by her words. She’s in a good mood. She wouldn’t bother riling him up otherwise.  

“I don’t go to you anymore because you bleed me dry”, he huffs. He gestures to his most uncomfortable chair, throwing himself into his own plush armchair by the table, ignoring the cloud of dust sent into the air by the impact.

“Because I know you have money to spare”, she says simply. The small woman takes a seat and places her upturned hands on the table expectantly.

“Why bother?” Ben scowls. “You already know your future”.

“Yes”, Maz agrees with a wicked glint in her eyes. “But I like to see you try predicting it”.

Ben sighs, gripping her wrinkly wrists. The skin is so soft and thin there, and he can feel her pulse clearly. He takes a deep breath, ready to begin. She pays every time, after all, even though she simply laughs at all his predictions. She’s got more of her fair share of Sight herself, and regularly says that if she were younger, she’d also turn her silly gift into something useful, like Ben.

“Right”, Ben mumbles, a far cry from his usual sessions with clients. “I-” 

“Oh! Long time, no see, Maz!”  

Han is back, popping into existence like a soundless explosion. Ben grits his teeth.

“What’s wrong?” Maz frowns. “Release my hands, boy! You’re squeezing too hard”.

“Sorry”, Ben says, fisting his hands. “I can’t concentrate”.

Maz observes the sudden tenseness, his flushed ears. “Ah”, she concludes. “He’s here”.

Ben glances at the Presence. Han is standing by Maz’s elbow, chatting rapidly at her about some chase or another and can she please give him refuge for the night? Important cargo and all that.

“I wish he wasn’t”, he says honestly.

Maz clucks her tongue. “Ben Solo”, she says, planting both her feet on her seat and standing to tower over the table surface. Her arms move straight through Han as she grabs for Ben’s hands. Han doesn’t notice.

“The universe is a mysterious place. He will find his peace when he can. In the meantime… try, Ben. Try to accept his fate for what it is”.

“Right”, Ben says, avoiding her gaze. Han is poking around his bookshelf, as he’s done many times before. “Hey! This is Luke’s!” he exclaims for the fifth time, brandishing a weird contraption made of string and unwieldy bits of metal.

“There is more, isn’t there?” Maz says. “Tell me”.

“People don’t listen to me”, Ben says miserably. “They don’t see, and they don’t listen. I wish this… gift hadn’t come to me. I wish I wouldn’t have to live with it”.

“So do I”, says Maz “and so do all those with strange gifts to bear. But they can't choose what life they are born with. All we can choose is what to do with that life”.

“Are you quoting Gandalf at me?”

“Sort of”, Maz nods. “Gandalf is a very wise man. Listen, Ben. You know what’s right. Just swallow your pride and do it”.

 

*

 

Hux is not answering his phone.

After five hours or restless pacing, Ben grits his teeth and googles the number to his office. The phone rings – one, two, three, four agonizingly long signals before the call connects.

“Hi, this is Finn at The Jakku Observer. How can I help?”

“Uh, Hi. I’m looking for Hux? He’s a journalist at The Observer? He’s not answering his phone and I really need to get into contact with him”.

“Oh, he’s indisposed”, comes the reply matter-of-factly. “Sorry”.

Ben’s stomach clenches. Is…? No, impossible. “I- what? Listen, I’m his… friend and I’m really worried about him”.

Finn’s tone changes. “I’m sorry”, he says with sympathy. “I actually don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s been looking kind of sick for a couple of days now? He mentioned meeting up with a couple of friends at his old high school this morning but I haven’t seen him since. The school that burned down, you know? A couple of kids in his year died, I think, but they’ve rebuilt the whole thing now. Hux seemed really emotional about it”.

Ben doesn’t even bother thanking him as he disconnects the call, feeling numb. His pulse is roaring in his ears.

You’re looking sick, kid. You alright?” Han says as Ben pushes past him out the door.

The high school parking lot is empty when Ben arrives, but there is a light flickering on and off in one of the windows on the top floor of the building. He kills the engine and parks his bike haphazardly on the curb, all but sprinting across the yard. His body is thrumming with energy, and the air gets colder and colder the closer to the angular brick building he gets.

He keeps getting flashes of what happened here: a thick cloud of billowing smoke, the smell of burnt flesh, dizziness from lack of oxygen.

“I’m not a good person”.

He doesn’t even bother checking the doors – a decently sized rock through the window pane, and he’s in. It’s even colder in there: his breath comes out as puffs of white. He shivers in his thin hoodie. He doesn’t even have to check he’s in the right place, he knows.

The lockers whisper at him as he passes, thousands upon thousands of flashes of teenage woe. And underneath all the cruelty and fumbling romance and utter ennui imprinted here – an undercurrent of death.  

We were just dancing”, a whisper comes. “We were just having fun”. 

He’s a freak! They’re all freaks!

I can’t believe someone hasn’t turned them in yet”, someone snickers. Ben grips his bottle of holy water harder. The words are getting louder and louder the further in he comes. He ascends another floor. In the corner of his eye, a flicker of something. A girl in a dress. She disappears again in the blink of an eye, but her voice lingers.

Ugh, not them again. Let’s kick them out”.

He takes the steps two at a time, following his instincts. Up, up, his senses whisper.

There’s light coming out of a door at his left. He throws it open with enough force to dent the wall and storms in. The door swing back and slides shut with an ominous click.  

Ben’s stomach drops. It’s a trap.

Thin tendrils of black smoke rise through the tiles, twisting themselves into the shape of five teenagers. The closest is a girl dressed in red, completely normal except for the flesh of her left leg that’s blackened and cracked, showing blood and oozing with yellow fat. The rest of them are similar: dressed for a party, but blackened and burned.

Ben paws at the lock behind his back, but it won’t turn. His heart is beating hard, urgent in his chest. His senses haven’t been this sharp in years: every time he closes his eyes, he gets an echo of what Hux – Ben’s sole focus at the moment – is feeling right now.

A lighter with a red logo. Fear and shame. I can’t leave.  

He did this”, the girl in red says. “He started it”.  

Ben doesn’t have to ask what “it” is. Gasoline plus lighter equals fire. His heart sinks.

“Let him go”, he says with authority. Sometimes Presences, especially if they are kids, respond well to that.

The teenagers sneer at him. “No”.

Somewhere on the top floor, Hux ignites his lighter.

“Then I’ll stop you”, Ben says, and throws his bottle of holy water at them. The water hisses through the air and evaporates upon contact with the spirits, completely harmless.

“Fuck”.   

The flickering flame of the lighter moves closer and closer each time he blinks, like a silent movie etched on the inside of his eyelids.

You’re one of them”, the Presence says. “A freak”.

Hux’s hands are shaking, somewhere. The intense smell of gasoline wherever he is, is making Ben sick.

“You’re right”, Ben says, mostly to himself. “I am a freak”. And he reaches inside himself, deep into the spaces of his own mind and finds the peace and quiet he needs.

Something tightly wound that he rarely acknowledges unravels, and his mind feels crystal clear, the words spilling over his lips like running water.

With each word, their grip on this existence weakens – they slip. The leader reaches for him with clawing hands even as she fades away.

Why are you helping him?” she sobs. “It’s all his fault”.

“I know”, Ben says. He feels an unexpected pang of sympathy for this dead girl. “But I like him anyway”.

She fades from view with the others, but not entirely from existence – they still have one point of contact left in this world, and Ben has an inkling of where.

He throws himself out into the corridor, shoes slipping on the tiles. “HUX! Hux, where are you?”

Mrow.

Ben stops in his tracks. A flash of red, a swishing tail.

“It’s you”. The cat is squatting on the top of a banister, looking down on him with glowing yellow eyes. Mrow.

“Up there?” Ben takes a couple of steps up the winding stairs. “On the next flor?”

The cat blinks. Rises from its seat and walks away, dead leg dragging behind. It vanishes into thin air.

The corridor above is even darker than the floors below, as if the windows don’t let light through at all. Ben doesn’t dare raise his voice anymore. There is tension in there, like some big beast lurking just out of sight, ready to attack and devour. His shoes squeak against the shiny tiles. His heart pounds. There is an open door at the end of the corridor, the only door ajar in a row of locked and barred classrooms.

Not my son”. The crying man grabs his shoulder. “I’ll do anything. Anything”. His hand connects, if weakly. Like mist. Hux’s father is tall, broad, with grey streaks in his red hair. His eyes bore into Ben’s. Liquid blue.

“I know”, Ben says, focused. “Me too”.

Hux’s father nods, like he understands. He points at the far end of the corridor, commanding. “Anything”. Then he, too, vanishes.

Ben approaches the open classroom a bit hesitantly, his squeaking shoes announcing his approach far and wide. The room looks just like the average classroom he remembers from his own time at high school – benches, a blackboard, a world map on the wall.

What’s new, is the unlit bonfire in the middle of the room. The chairs and desks have been pushed against the far wall, and books and pages from what looks like half the school library have been piled into a formidable snow drift of dusty spines and wrinkly paper on the floor.

Hux is standing in the middle, surrounded by the same spirits that ambushed Ben a couple of floors below. They seem weaker than before – see-trough and flickering and unable to stray far from their chosen anchor. Hux can’t see them, but their influence on him is unhindered by that.

The smell of ink mixed with gasoline is so thick in the air it makes Ben gag.

“Hux”, he calls cautiously. Hux’s eye lids barely flicker. He seems fully concentrated on pushing the open flame of his lighter down on his arm at just the right angle, hovering just a few centimetres above his left bicep.

“Hux! Stop this”. Ben hesitates, but decides to trust his instincts. “Give me the lighter!”

Hux finally tears his eyes away and looks at Ben, hands shaking. His face is paler than Ben has ever seen it, brows drawn together in fear and confusion.

The spirits whisper.

“The lighter!” Ben repeats, hand outstretched. “Don’t listen to them!”

“Ben”, Hux mumbles, barely aware of his surroundings. “I can’t. I have to light it. It’s only right”.

“You were a kid”, Ben says. “Just like them. Kids make mistakes, okay?”

For the first time since Ben found him, there’s a glimmer of awareness in Hux’s eyes. “That’s no excuse”, he says. His arms tense, and Ben’s heart almost stops beating as he moves the lighter and – releases it to the ground with a pained gasp.

It bounces once, twice on the ground, books and paper catching flame as the spirits howl.            

Ben pays them no mind, desperately looking for… He catches a flash of silver on the floor and dives for it, snatching it up in his hand hurdling it the hardest he can into the wall. It splinters into tiny pieces, and there is a deep otherworldly sigh in the ether. The spirits of the dead children disintegrate, disappear like a bad dream. Maybe that’s how ghosts die, Ben thinks vaguely as he dives for Hux, whose pant leg is on fire, he’s screaming.

“Come on!” Ben yells, jumping at him and dragging him out the room, searing his hands and arms in the process. Hit the ground and roll, he recalls dimly, pushing him onto the floor outside and patting at the flames with his open hands as the sprinklers go off in the corridor, soaking them both.

Finally, the flames die out, and for the first time that evening, Ben breathes. For a moment, the only thing he registers is his father: his tired smile, the hunch in his shoulder. He’s looking right at Ben. Aware.

You did good, kid”. He flickers once, twice, before fading completely. Somehow, he knows it’s for good, for ever. “I’m proud of you”.    

Ben is empty inside. He’s full. He doesn’t know what to think, where to turn. He’s all alone now. His mother won’t speak to him. His uncle is gone. His father is… dead.

Suddenly, there’s a cough behind him. A soft voice, a hand on his arm.

“Ben? What happened?”

Ben blinks. Once, twice. It’s like waking from a dream.  

 

*              

 

Epilogue

It’s a Wednesday, lunchtime, when Ben decides to visit the graveyard. He locks up the shop, almost trips over the covered pot balancing precariously on his doorstep – a smell of something hot and spicy wafts out from under the plastic foil and Ben smiles, because it has to be from Maz then, she’s made it a habit the last weeks to leave him something every few days – and starts walking, avoiding eye contact with the few people he meets. It feels like everyone and their pet louse is gawking at him, ever since the article in The Observer hit the streets.

I read about you in the paper, Ben’s mom texted him three days ago, when Ben was working with a client. I’m proud of you. Ben hasn’t replied yet, his immediate response still stuck somewhere in between ‘fuck you’ and gross sobbing. It was the age of the internet, but it rankles him that people as far away as the Illeenium district can know about him, might recognize him, and it makes him more inclined than ever to glare at each and every person who dares to so much as glance in his direction.

The graveyard is always a silent, looming presence in the back of his mind. Located in the outskirts of town, it acts as a sort of homing beacon for all sorts of spirits and ghosts in the area. Today it’s serene almost, filled with bright sunlight and sharp edges. Ben hesitates for a moment with his hand on the wrought iron gate, just trying to sort of breathe through the heavy atmosphere clouding the area. He tried to explain it to Phasma, once, that memories and strong emotions leave an imprint on objects, like a bad smell or a really heavy perfume and that it can be overwhelming sometimes to be in the same room. She nodded like she understood but she didn’t really, confusion surrounding her like radio static.

He steadies himself and pushes the gate open but is, to his mild surprise, not immediately accosted by a horde of uneasy spirits, as if they’re hanging back and just observing, waiting to see if he means any harm. He’s momentarily saddened by the thought, as if the approval of dead people suddenly means a shit to him, but pushes it away has he starts on the raked gravel path, looking for a flash of familiar red hair. Maybe they know, he thinks, looking through the corner of his eye at a small girl with half her face caved in like a crushed berry cake. Maybe they know I can kill them. Maybe you fear death even though you’re already dead.

He finds Hux kneeling in front of a small grave, shaded by a high stone wall. Ben approaches him wordlessly, noting the slight shake in Hux’s hand as he places a bouquet of flowers upon the cold stone.          

They share the silence for a moment, both with each other and the hundreds upon hundreds of souls resting in within these walls.

“How did you know where to find me?” Hux says finally, barely turning his head to acknowledge Ben.

“I’m psychic”, Ben replies.

For once, Hux doesn’t huff or close his eyes in a barely concealed eye-roll. “Right”, he says instead. His new scars, pink and angry and covering his neck like a splatter of paint, gleam in the pale sunlight. Ben looks at the flowers: they’re big and purple, opening up on the grey stone like an explosion of stars.

Hux puts his cold hands in the pockets of his big overcoat, leaning an infinitesimal bit closer. “You know”, he says, “according to my horoscope this morning I’m going to lose my car keys one of these days. Libra. Is it true? Because I really don’t have time for that. I have an interview with a business man out in D’Qar this afternoon”. He glances at Ben from underneath his red fringe.

“Is this the third question?” Ben says, his mouth stretching into a wide, wide grin so large he drops his cigarette. He hardly cares. “Never trust mass-produced crap like that, Hux”.

He grabs Hux’s elbow though the jacket, feels the flesh and muscles and bones under his fingers and Hux is real, real, real.

“C’mon”, he says, leading him out through the gate.  “Let’s see what’s in your future”.

The cigarette butt lays glowing and forgotten on the gravel path behind them, looking after their retreating figures like a red flaming eye.

Then it blinks once, twice, and fizzles out. 

 

Fin.