Kastor and Jokaste lived in a picturesque, two-story double-gallery house that was set back far enough from the street for there to be a small but well-maintained front yard in between it and the sidewalk. A wrought-iron fence surrounded the entire property, as did a much taller hedgerow that was just as immaculate as the rest of the yard's greenery, parting cleanly at a right angle directly behind the fence's single gate. Everything from the house's clapboard to the intricate, neoclassical box columns that supported the two covered porches along the house's façade had been painted a soft, eggshell white. The only exception was the house's shutters, which were a dark navy blue.
Although Damen was hardly an expert on architecture, it was plain to see that Kastor and Jokaste's home, like practically all the other houses in New Orleans' historic Garden District, was old—very old; likely at least a hundred years old, but probably more than that. Nikandros, Damen's best friend since childhood, would probably have a better idea—being an architect and all—but he was over 1,000 miles away in New York City and probably had better things to do than make an educated guess as to how old this house was.
Not that it really mattered to be honest. The fact that Kastor and Jokaste's house was old was more than enough for the hairs on the back of Damen's neck to stand on end as an acute sense of dread fluttered in the pit of his stomach.
Damen hated old buildings.
Admittedly, this was more than a little bit weird for someone who was currently pursuing a Master's degree in history, but Damen had good reason for his dislike.
For as long as he could remember, Damen had been able to see ghosts; a unique privilege—if it could even be called that—that no one else in his family appeared to share. As a result, Damen had spent most of his childhood seeing a whole host of different child psychologists because from his father's perspective it wasn't normal for a young boy to carry on hour-long conversations with his dead mother.
Needless to say, Damen had learned to hide his abilities very quickly after that; not that it was always easy. Apparently being able to see (and hear) the dead made Damen especially attractive to ghosts because despite having made it a general point to avoid cemeteries and other places spirits tended to favor—see: old buildings—they always seemed to find him. Unfortunately, when they did, it was usually without warning. So while Damen had certainly gotten harder to spook over the years, he was hardly made of stone. Every now and then a ghost would materialize out of nowhere and startle him, leading everyone who happened to be around him at the time to conclude that he was just a weirdly jumpy person, which he was not.
However, that wasn't the worst part about Damen's ability. No, the absolute worst part about the whole thing was the fact that practically every single ghost Damen came across would ask him for help. Sometimes they asked him to deliver a message—not all of which were as heartwarming and polite as Damen would have liked—and sometimes they asked him to complete some other task—the weirdest one to date being that one time some guy who evidently really liked s'mores-flavored Pop-Tarts asked him to deliver ten boxes of the stupid things to his grave for some inexplicable reason because it wasn't as if he could actually eat them.
Obviously, Damen certainly had the option of saying no even though ghosts tended to get a little testy when their requests were refused, but he could honestly never bring himself to. After all, if these requests were important enough that whoever was making them couldn't move on to wherever it was people went after they died, Damen figured that the least he could do was offer a helping hand.
However, that didn't mean that Damen enjoyed playing errand boy for the dead; hence his long-held practice of trying his best to avoid ghosts as much as possible. Unfortunately for him, there really wasn't much he could do about his current situation.
His previous place of residence, a tiny studio apartment that practically screamed 'hi a grad student lives here,' was scheduled to be torn down within the week. Evidently, the big shot developer who had purchased the property from Damen's former landlord was very keen on getting his luxury, high-rise condo project started as soon as possible. As a result, Damen—and the red duffle bag he'd stuffed full of all his worldly possessions—really had nowhere else to go; at least not right at that moment.
Kastor and Jokaste had done him a huge favor by allowing him to move in with them in exchange for his babysitting services, which, as far as rents went, was pretty much a pittance. There was no way he could turn down their offer at this point without appearing completely ungracious. Plus, with campus only a ten minute walk away, this was by far the closest he'd ever lived to school, and Damen was almost willing to concede that he'd happily deal with a few ghosts in exchange for that kind of convenience.
Still Damen sincerely hoped that Kastor and Jokaste's house was free of ghosts; so much so that—despite considering himself firmly agnostic—he even silently mouthed a prayer to whatever higher power there might be as he made his way to the glass-paneled front door and pressed the doorbell.
Not even a full 30 seconds had passed before Kastor was opening the door with a grin.
"Damen!" he said as he pulled his younger brother into a near-bone-crushing hug. "We were expecting you sooner. I was starting to think you'd gotten lost on your way here."
Damen felt himself flush. "That was one time, Kastor," he protested. "Besides, it was my first day going to campus, and I hadn't even been living in New Orleans for a week at that point."
"True enough," Kastor said after he'd finally released Damen. "Now come on in. Jokaste has been dying to see you. You won't believe how huge she's gotten—you'd think she has triplets in there!"
Although Kastor hadn't been exaggerating about the size of Jokaste's belly, unfortunately for him, Jokaste had come up behind him and, therefore, had been well-within earshot when he'd made his comments. It was clear from the way she smacked him in shoulder—none-too-gently if the way Kastor winced was any indication—that she wasn't happy in the least.
"Yes, dearest husband," she said icily, her blue eyes narrowing as she fixed Kastor with withering look, "please continue telling your younger brother all about how huge your wife, who is nearly seven-months pregnant with twins, has become."
Still rubbing his shoulder, which was no doubt smarting from the slap Jokaste had given him, Kastor offered her a sheepish smile and said, "Sorry, sweetheart. It's just that, well…" He trailed off, apparently thinking the better of whatever it was he was going to say.
"That's what I thought," Jokaste said before turning towards Damen with a warm smile. "Hello, Damen. How have you been? It's been so long since we last saw each other."
"Hi, Jokaste," Damen said with an equally warm smile of his own as he pulled her into a gentle hug, careful not to put too much pressure on her protruding stomach, which, like Kastor had said, really was quite large—larger than what Damen had expected at least.
"I've been good," he said when they pulled away from one another. "What about you? I thought the doctor said you should be on bed rest."
Stepping aside so that Damen could come inside the house, Jokaste gave a rather nonchalant wave of her hand and said, "Dr. Paschal is a worrywart. The only thing I can't do at this point is go for longer than an hour without a trip to the restroom."
Kastor only shrugged when Damen looked over at him. The words 'you try telling her what to do' left unsaid between them.
"Oh! Before I forget," Damen said, suddenly remembering the small gift he'd picked up from the mall last week.
He then swung his duffle bag off his shoulder onto the ground and unzipped it. It took a few seconds of rummaging before he pulled out a small package from the bag's depths.
"Here," he said, holding out the package towards Jokaste. "This is for you and Kastor. It's not much, but I hope you both like it."
"Thank you, Damen," Jokaste said as she accepted the gift. "Should I open it now?"
"Sure," Damen said, zipping his bag up so that he could sling it back over his shoulder.
Jokaste started to carefully peel back the earnest-but-admittedly-ugly wrapping job Damen had done, using her long, neatly-manicured fingernails to pick apart the varying lengths of translucent scotch tape keeping the whole thing together. Beside her, Kastor had the look of someone who wanted to snatch the present out of her hands so that he could divest it of its wrapping paper with a couple of well-placed rips. As always, patience was not one of Kastor’s strong points.
However, Kastor managed to restrain himself—likely because he knew that he’d face Jokaste’s wrath again if he didn’t—and Jokaste eventually unfurled two tiny, pastel-green onesies from the center of the still-mostly-intact square of shiny, blue wrapping paper. Each one had a smiling, cartoon dinosaur appliqued to the front, and despite the cashier’s continued insistence that these were meant for boys, Damen was satisfied that they were sufficiently unisex. Kastor and Jokaste, after all, had elected to keep the babies’ sexes a surprise until the birth.
“Aw, Damen,” Jokaste said, smiling as she lifted up the onesies so that Kastor could get a better look at them. “They’re adorable. Thank you so much.”
“Yeah, thank you, Damen,” Kastor said with a smile of his own. “The twins will be happy to know that they also get to partake in the Damen tradition of dinosaur-themed baby clothes.”
Damen laughed. “Did I really buy Alex a dinosaur onesie too?”
“I think it was more than just a onesie,” Kastor replied, obviously amused. “I’m pretty sure Alex grew up with a whole wardrobe full of cartoon dinosaurs thanks to you.”
Alex, who was now nearly ten years old, was Kastor and Jokaste’s first child, born when Damen was still in high school. Although Damen’s only source of income back then had been the modest allowance his parents had given him every week in exchange for completing his chores, the prospect of becoming an uncle had excited him to the point where he’d practically become a VIP at the Baby Gap thanks to the sheer volume of baby clothes he’d purchased, all of which had apparently prominently featured various kinds of cartoon dinosaurs.
“Alex was always especially fond of the stegosaurus shirt you bought him when he started pre-K,” Jokaste added. “He once tried to wear it for a week straight and cried when I told him he needed to wear something else so that I could wash it.”
“You just didn’t want people to think he only had one set of clothes,” Kastor said fondly, his expression soft with affection.
Jokaste sighed. “It’s exhausting doing laundry every night! I needed a break! Plus there was no way those marker stains he’d gotten on there were going to come out without a good, long overnight soak.”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
“Anyway,” Jokaste said emphatically, clearly wanting to change the subject. “It’s time for me to make my hourly trip to the restroom. Kastor, why don’t you go show Damen around the house? The last time he came by to visit we were still living in our apartment, and I’m sure he’ll want to see where he’ll be staying.”
“Ah, yeah. You’re right,” Kastor said with a nod. He then turned to Damen and added, “You’ll find that we’ve definitely had an upgrade—more space than we know what to do with, really. We were lucky that one of Jokaste’s clients just happened to be looking for tenants when we found out that we needed to find a bigger place to live.”
Damen nodded. “Yeah. I can imagine that a family of five in a two-bedroom apartment would get a little cramped.”
“More than just a little,” Jokaste said as she walked past them on her way down the hall. And while it was more a waddle than a walk at this point—Damen supposed seven months of pregnancy would do that to a person—it felt wrong to put Jokaste and the word ‘waddled’ in the same sentence; she was too graceful for that.
With Jokaste making a beeline to the nearest restroom, which turned out to be at the very end of the hall across from an artfully-furnished living room that had obviously been decorated by Jokaste and not Kastor, Kastor gave Damen the grand tour of the house.
Although there was no peeling paint or wallpaper to corroborate Damen’s suspicions regarding the house’s age, Kastor confirmed them soon enough, explaining that it had been built during the mid-1840s by one of New Orleans’ most illustrious families, the de Vères. The current owner, a wealthy land developer most people had taken to calling The Regent for some reason or another, was a direct descendant of that family, and, as a result, he had gone to great lengths to keep his family’s home, the last tangible piece of the legacy they’d left behind in New Orleans, as well-preserved as possible. This meant that apart from the usual bits of maintenance typically associated with homeownership, the house hadn’t undergone any serious renovations since The Regent had acquired it, which, according to Kastor’s estimation of The Regent’s age, had likely been at least a quarter of a century ago.
The Regent’s careful upkeep of the house, however, had not been for nothing, as it was just as beautiful on the inside as it was on the outside. The walls had been painted a pale buttercream yellow; except for the ornate crown and base moldings, which had been left white. This contrasted nicely with the newly-stained, dark hardwood floor, and Damen silently wondered if the wood was still the original wood that had been used in the house’s initial construction. Judging from the way it creaked loudly beneath their footsteps, it probably was.
After showing him around the house’s first floor, which contained—in addition to the living room and the bathroom Jokaste had been occupying—a kitchen, a study, a second sitting room, and a dining room that boasted a sizeable crystal chandelier, Kastor led Damen upstairs so that he could finally see his bedroom.
Damen’s room turned out to be at the end of the hall right at the front of the house. Alex’s bedroom was right beside it, and Damen could see Alex, who was still very much the spitting image of his mother, with his blond curls and light brown skin, building something—Damen couldn’t quite tell what—out of Legos as they walked past.
Although friends and relatives alike had speculated that Alex would probably grow to look more like his father as he got older, Alex’s dark eyes were still the only indication that Kastor’s genetic material had ever been involved. This was, objectively-speaking, fortunate for Alex because while Kastor was by no means ugly, anyone with eyes could see that Jokaste was the more attractive half of the couple by far.
“Your room was originally the master bedroom,” Kastor said after they’d said hello to Alex, who had been too engrossed in his Legos to really notice their presence much less respond. “But Jokaste and I only managed to stay in there for a week before we made the decision to move into the guest bedroom instead. There’s a draft in there or something because I swear the temperature in that room is at least a good ten degrees colder than the rest of the house.”
“Oh. Weird,” Damen said tonelessly despite the sinking feeling in his stomach.
Evidently, Kastor’s words hadn’t really instilled much confidence in him regarding the ghost-free nature of the house.
“Don’t worry. Jokaste made sure to give you extra blankets just in case. Though I told her you’ve always been pretty good at dealing with the cold; better than me in any case.” Kastor shrugged. “Anyway, here we are,” he said as they came to a stop in front of Damen’s bedroom door, which, as it turned out, was deceptively innocuous.
Because just as Damen had expected, Kastor and Jokaste’s house was decidedly not ghost-free, as evidenced by the young man sitting at the edge of the perfectly made-up, queen-size bed Damen assumed was to be his.
The young man, like all the other ghosts Damen had previously encountered, looked much like a regular, living person in many ways. First, he was hardly the translucent spectre people tended to think of when they heard the word ‘ghost’; in fact, he appeared to be very much solid from Damen’s point of view. Second, he didn’t have any visible wounds on his body, and this had nothing to do with how he’d died because contrary to what Hollywood horror movies had popularized over the years, people’s spirits didn’t look exactly like their lifeless corpses. Damen was grateful for this because he knew that if they did, his ability to see to dead would have made his life a hell of a lot scarier.
So what exactly tipped Damen off that the young man sitting at the edge of his bed was no longer among the living? Well, besides the very obvious fact that Kastor couldn’t see him of course.
One of the things all ghosts had in common with one another was that they had an almost greyish glow to them—like someone had used Photoshop to desaturate them in what Nikandros had always criticized as a weak attempt at being ‘artsy.’
However, despite looking just as ashen as every other ghost Damen had ever encountered, the young man’s hair was still a startlingly bright shade of yellow, comparable to the color of freshly-bloomed buttercups or even sunflowers. It contrasted sharply with the dark navy blue of his single-breasted morning coat, which he had left open, revealing a flashy, gold-colored, lapelled waistcoat that had probably been exceedingly fashionable during his lifetime along with a neatly-pressed, white, cotton shirt that featured a turnover collar under which sat a black four-in-hand necktie. His grey trousers were, in light of the rest of his ensemble, more or less forgettable, but it was clear from the way they fitted his body even while he was sitting down that they had been impeccably tailored; likely made to order Damen suspected.
All in all, the young man was dressed impeccably; even by 21st century standards, which Damen supposed wasn’t saying much considering most people—himself included—tended to wear a t-shirt with jeans most days. Whatever was clean, really.
Although the young man, who had apparently been contemplating the grain in the floorboards prior to their arrival, had initially seemed completely disinterested in them, his entire demeanor changed when he saw Damen. He blanched, looking—ironically—like he’d just seen a ghost, his blue eyes going wide with surprise as he stared openly at Damen.
Given that Kastor was still in the room with him, Damen pretended not to see the young man and pointedly looked in the opposite direction. The young man, however, apparently took that as his cue to approach because Damen heard him slide off the bed and take several, almost cautious-sounding steps towards him.
“So what do you think?” Kastor asked, completely oblivious to the ghostly young man now standing right beside Damen. “Pretty amazing, right?”
“Yeah,” Damen said, his voice tight as he suppressed as shiver, the air around him having gone unnaturally cold.
Kastor had apparently also noticed the sudden change in temperature because he let out loud ‘brrrr’ and quickly attempted to rub some warmth back into his upper arms, left bare by the short sleeves of his t-shirt.
“There’s that weird draft again,” he said, his dark eyebrows knitting together as he glanced around the room in confusion. “I honestly have no idea where it’s coming from.”
“It’s okay,” Damen said, forcing a smile even though he could see the young man peering at him curiously out of the corner of his eye. “Like you said, I’m pretty good with the cold. Plus, considering how hot this summer’s been so far, it’ll be a relief to have a bit of a draft in here.”
Kastor laughed. “I suppose that’s true. It’s really been hot this year hasn’t it?”
“Y-yeah,” Damen replied, nearly choking on the word because the young man at his side had decided to reach up and gently brush his knuckles against the side of Damen’s face—like a lover’s caress.
Thankfully, Kastor didn’t seem to notice that anything was amiss, and he continued to prattle on about the room for another minute or so before he said, “Well, you must be tired. I’ll let you get settled in. If there’s anything you need, you can find me in the kitchen.” He then grinned and added, “We’re having fish tacos tonight. Your favorite.”
“Sounds great,” Damen said, forcing his smile just a little bit wider even as a pale, unnaturally cool thumb pressed softly against the corner of his mouth.
Needless to say, Damen had experienced a lot of things in his many years of communicating with the dead, but sexual harassment had certainly not been one of them. At least, not until now.
“Dinner’ll be at 6,” Kastor said as he started towards the open doorway. “Do you want me to close the door?”
“That’d be great. Thanks, Kastor.”
The door then shut with a soft click, and Damen listened as Kastor’s footsteps faded away into relative silence.
“Okay,” Damen said once he was certain Kastor was no longer in earshot, jerking bodily away from the young man. “Who are you, and what the hell was that?”
The young man, apparently very much used to not being seen by the living at this point, glanced behind him as if to make sure that Damen wasn’t talking to someone else. Then, realizing that Damen was, in fact, talking to him, he asked incredulously, “You can see me?”
“Obviously,” Damen said, knowing full well that he probably sounded incredibly rude, but he couldn’t bring himself to care given the circumstances.“Now who are you and what are you doing in my brother and sister-in-law’s house?”
The young man’s expression, which had previously been one of surprise, immediately darkened at that, his lips pinching together into a thin line. “I am Laurent de Vère,” he said as he crossed his arms over his chest, “and this is my house.”
Damen tried not to scoff. “Yeah, maybe 150 years ago,” he said as he set his duffle bag down on the bed, much to the relief of his shoulder, which had started to ache from the weight of all his belongings.
“155 years,” Laurent said stiffly, his arms still crossed over his chest.
“What?” Damen asked, his face screwing up in confusion.
“It’s been 155 years,” Laurent said, “since I died.”
“Oh good. So you do know you’re dead.”
Damen knew he was being snotty, but he was still pretty peeved about how Laurent had touched him out of the blue like that thinking that Damen would be completely oblivious to it, which somehow made the whole thing that much worse.
Laurent’s expression soured further. “Of course I know I’m dead,” he snapped, his tone like acid. “What kind of idiot wouldn’t realize he’s dead after 155 years?”
“You’d be surprised,” Damen muttered. “Now back to my earlier question, why were you touching my face like that?”
Laurent regarded Damen silently for a moment, his expression unreadable.“You truly have no recollection of who I am?” he asked, sounding fragile, as if his voice was made of fine, wafer-thin glass.
Damen gave him a weird look. “Why would I know who you are? First of all, I’ve never seen you before in my life. Second of all, my parents weren’t even born when you were alive. How could we have possibly met before?”
Laurent’s mouth twisted as a curious expression of sadness flitted across his face; so brief that Damen couldn’t help but wonder if he’d simply imagined it.
And then, like the sad look that Laurent may or may not have actually had, Laurent was gone, vanishing without so much as another word and leaving Damen alone in his new bedroom with a duffle bag full of clothes he needed to unpack.