His first kiss had been quick, and unexpected. He had just glanced up at the call of his name when dry lips pressed against his own. The shock of it made him drop the stick he was using to poke at a beetle and fall to his haunches. “Why’ve you done that for?” he demanded. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand.
“Now you have to marry me,” Lily said. She primly smoothed her dress over her lap where she sat on the dirt beside him.
“I don’t want to marry you!”
“Well you have to. Those are the rules.” Lily shrugged. She didn’t seem bothered by his denial, or concerned over the wedding. She took up his stick and began digging into the earth as before.
He considered. He liked Lily. They played outside every Sunday after the service while the grownups were busy talking. She didn’t mind playing army as long as he allowed her to be the queen of some foreign land giving a rousing speech to the troops. She could count to ten in French. Sometimes her brother let them watch the older boys play. In all, it didn’t seem like a bad deal to marry her. And if those were the rules…
“Alright, I suppose I’ll marry you,” he said. Lily smiled. “But don’t kiss me again.”
“We have to at the wedding.”
“Well, just that once.”
His first real kiss came at 15. Sarah sometimes made deliveries for her father, her basket full of rye loaves and her smock spotted with flour. She smiled at him when their paths crossed; all his friends teased him for it. They insisted he do something about it before someone else swooped in for her heart.
He wasn’t certain he wanted her heart, but she was pretty enough, and kind, and there was a war on. There was no sense in delaying anything when Germans could reach their shores any day.
And so a plan was contrived. Toby helped him draw a map of the village and placed Xs at strategic locations where they might ‘happen’ to bump into each other out of sight from both their parents and the nosy Mrs. Bartholomew.
He tried to put the plan to action the next day. He wandered around the town, sometimes breaking into a jog if he thought no one was looking, to try and intercept her. But it seemed she was a wisp of smoke, always gone from the street as soon as he turned on it. It wasn’t helping his nerves, which were already making him feel he might be sick any second.
In a fit of frustration, he ran to the bakery, skidding to a stop at the end of the road. He would simply wait at the corner until she came back. Sod the plan, sod the pretense of fate. Sod everything. As soon as he saw her, he would tell her he was in love and wanted to get married.
Well. As soon as he saw her, his stomach twisted, his mouth went dry, and all plans of both prepared speeches and spontaneous declarations left his mind entirely.
Sarah asked if he was unwell. He ignored the question and offered to walk her home. She glanced the short way back to the bakery and said, “I think I forgot a delivery. Why don’t you walk me there?” She took his arm.
A few streets later, neither having said a word, he could no longer stand it. He stopped walking abruptly and pulled Sarah’s hand from the crook of his elbow to hold it in his own. It was best to get it over with. “Might I kiss you?”
She blushed demurely, but without hesitation said, “You may.”
So they did. And it felt like nothing. Her lips were warm, and his lips a little wetter when he pulled away. But other than the physical sensation of contact, there was no emotion, no euphoria, no joy that she was his. It was, if anything, disappointing.
Later, he told Toby she was a bad kisser. And later when the rumor had spread sufficiently, Sarah found him outside the schoolhouse and bloodied his nose.
The first time it meant something came two years later.
The war was still on. He tried to join up, but the recruiter denied him.
“Come back when you’ve had another growth spurt.”
He tried to argue he was well within the height requirements, but the recruiter shook his head and said, “Put some meat on your bones. Eat more eggs.”
Eat more eggs! – as if they weren’t hard enough to get! There was no way he could take up his family’s rations, even if it would help the war effort.
“What’s so hard about finding eggs?” Jon said when he’d told him. “Birds lay ‘em all the time.”
“I can’t go taking a farmer’s eggs. It’s not on.”
“Forget about farmers and chickens. There’s more than one kind of bird, you know.”
He wrinkled his nose and made a sound that was a cross between incredulous and disgust. “You want me to go out and eat what? Sparrow eggs? Crow?”
“Quail eggs – people eat that.”
And so the two went out quail hunting though they did not know where to find the natural habitat of the quail and wound up simply walking through the fields swishing the tall grass with sticks and sometimes whistling or hooting what could charitably be considered a bird call. An hour or so later, just when they were about to quit, Jon suddenly grasped his arm and pointed to where a small brown bird was perched on a fallen branch. Jon made a few incomprehensible hand signals, which lead to a silent fight that ended in a frenzy of smacking hands until Jon gave him a shove and hissed, “Go around.”
He crept through the grass towards the target. In his peripherals, Jon came up on the other side. Closer, closer. And then – Jon lunged forward, the bird flapped frantically to the air, and they both jumped to catch it. The bird was quick, though, and they only succeeded in thwacking each other.
“You startled it!” Jon cried.
“I did no such thing!”
“You did; we’re never going to get eggs with you clomping around like a pack mule!”
Eggs! He had forgotten about the purpose of the mission in the excitement. “What have we gone trying to catch the bleeding bird for!”
“That’s where the eggs are, stupid!”
He attacked him, then. Jon went down easily, and they rolled along the ground, trying to stay on top, pinching and pulling and grunting out curses at each other.
“You have – no – understanding – of birds – or eggs – you absolute – pillock!” he gasped out.
Jon got a good footing and rolled himself deftly, straddling his waist and holding his wrists down.
His face was inches from Jon’s. Jon’s eyes were bright. Jon panted above him, out of breath but clearly enjoying himself. And Jon’s lips were inches from his own.
On instinct, he craned his neck forward and closed the gap, pressing his lips against Jon’s, and for a brief moment he felt euphoric with the warm earth on his back and the warm body on his front, perfectly pinioned. His stomach flipped, electricity tingling along his limbs.
Jon pulled back and swung off. He looked at him with confusion and disappointment. He wished he could laugh it off, quip that it was a quick way to win the fight but the rejection weighed so heavily on him that he could move to even speak.
“I known you a long while,” Jon finally said. “So I won’t tell anyone. But you can’t go doing that again.”
For the first time, people would not stop kissing the Captain.
The first time came shortly after his entrance to the afterlife. The people of the house had begun to use the room again. For the first few weeks, like a superstition, they avoided stepping in it, their eyes darting to the spot where his body fell as if they would see a mark on the carpet. But life, for them, went on. The room began to fill, heeled shoes grinding into the floor where his last breath had puffed, and no more care or thought was given to him.
He could not hold the tears back. He sat in the room next door listening to the laughter of the dinner guests and shook. Robin came slowly and sat silently next to him for some time. The Captain tried to compose himself, but Robin placed a calloused hand on his thigh and said, “You cry good while. Feel better after.”
A sob forced itself out and he let himself succumb to it. Robin moved his arm around his shoulders and kissed the top of his head. Nothing was ever said of it.
Kitty liked to stay up late, giggling as if it were naughty of them, as if any rules still applied to them. And when the Captain finally convinced her to go to bed after hours of indulging her gossip of centuries gone by, she would kiss his cheek and go through the wall to her room. The first time was a surprise, but it became habit. On the days when the rest of the ghosts’ antics distracted them and they did not have their ritual, the Captain found he quiet missed it. And when one night Kitty distractedly said, “Goodnight, Papa,” the Captain quickly dashed to his room to wipe the tear from his eye before anyone could mock him for it.
Thomas often sulked about lamenting the state of his poetry. He didn’t care to be disturbed in those moments, but he still managed to take up so much space in the house with his languished sighing and dramatic draping across furniture. All the Captain had done was snapped a synonym at him to shut his whinging, but Thomas lit up, looking almost alive again. He practically skipped to the Captain, grasped both his shoulders, and smacked a loud kiss on his forehead before dashing off.
Even Fanny, on high holidays, would kiss his cheek or at least pat his hand. He did not think he had ever been touched so much since becoming intangible.
There were no things in life he could not have in death.