After filling me in on the night’s drama, Henry led me into the living room where Gina jumped out of her seat.
“Hey, you,” she said. “About time you got here!”
She’d been sitting at H’s funky bar-height table, where her glorious and clearly hand-made Ouija board had been set up. And speaking of glorious, a very nice looking, very jacked, very obviously gay man of color was still sitting at that table, eyebrows slightly raised as he watched Gina hug me. The two of them were all that remained of Henry’s Halloween extravaganza—everyone else had already gone home. It was, after all, a work night.
“Henry says the Ouija board just spelled cake,” I said. “And… you brought him an actual orb from the spirit world…?”
“And Carl,” Henry added. “Gina also brought Carl. Carl, Malcolm; Mal, Carl.”
Carl—the man still sitting at the table—held out his hand, so I shook it. Strong, sure grip. I liked him instantly. But then, maybe I didn’t. Had Gina brought this extremely attractive man for Henry…?
“Carl just moved to LA from New York,” Gina informed me. She was petite and Asian American and effortlessly pretty, with a warm smile and deep brown eyes. She’d been friends with Henry for even more years than I had—since third grade, I think. So that meant that in the ongoing Who’s Henry’s Best-Friend Contest that was Gina v. Mal (i.e. every time we occupied the same real estate), she won. Always. And she made sure I knew it. But she loved Henry fiercely, so I was okay with that. “I couldn’t leave him alone on Halloween.”
“Yeah, you really could’ve,” Carl said.
Gina wrapped her arms around his massive shoulders in a hug on her way back to her seat. “No, I could not’ve. Besides, we need an even number for the Ouija board to work.”
“Yeeeeah,” Carl said, drawing the word out this time, “I’m gonna hafta object to a sentence that includes both Ouija board and work.”
“Carl’s a skeptic.” Henry’s warm smile wasn’t just for me, it was also for Carl, and my entire world stuttered in a weird panic, God help me. Which was stupid, since it had been far too many months since Henry had broken up with his last boyfriend—a tragic twink-shaped mistake named Brian who was a lying little shit of a cheater.
I took a deep breath, and forced my face into a smile. This was a party. We were having fun! Yay! And the truth was, I desperately wanted Henry to be happy. And if Carl entered our lives already thoroughly vetted by Gina, that was a good thing. Right?
I managed to ungrit my teeth as I choked out a noise that was vaguely laughter-like. “Okay. Help me out here, people. What’s not working about a Ouija Board that spells cake?”
Henry laughed, and gestured toward the side table where—oh my God, I actually gasped aloud—a full half of his traditional Halloween cake, with its orange and black frosting, had survived the hungry hoard.
I couldn’t help myself as I helped myself, knowing that Henry had probably stood nearby and said Let’s make sure we save a piece for Malcolm to every one of his guests. “Thank you, Henry and baby Jesus! I was sure I’d missed your epic candy corn cake.”
Henry was health-conscious, as always. “Did you skip dinner?” he asked me. “I saved you a plate.”
“Oh, thanks,” I said through a mouthful of sugar-filled deliciousness, “but I grabbed a sandwich a few hours ago.” I turned back to the table with the Ouija board. And the too-attractive man still sitting there. Attractively. Henry’s future husband. I thought it might help if I mentally called him that, but nope. “So. Carl. Do you work with Gina…?”
Henry answered for him. “Yeah, but they were also roommates at NYU.”
“Ah!” This was that Carl. “Henry and I met back in college, too,” I said, as I sat down across from Gina.
Carl nodded. “That’s impressive. You two’ve been together for, what, twelve years?”
What…? Together…? I laughed wildly as I looked over at Henry to share the absurd joke that we might actually be a couple, but his back was to me—he’d begun organizing the leftover food.
“Oh God, no, we’re not together, like together,” I said, my voice sounding a bit too loudly jocular, even to my own ears. “I mean, we’re friends, yeah… For…” I mentally did the math. “…more than twelve years. Wow. That is a long time.”
“It is,” Gina agreed, then told Carl, “They have the most amazing meet-cute. Malcolm was the RA in Henry’s freshman dorm.”
Henry did glance up at that. “Meet-cute. Are you kidding?” He told Carl, “We met in the bathroom after my first-ever college party. I was throwing up.” He winced as he met my eyes. “I’m still so sorry.”
I held up my plate. “You’ve long since paid me back.”
“It’s the fact that Mal stayed in there with you, all night long,” Gina told Henry, “that makes it so damn cute.”
“Just doin’ my job, ma’am,” I said, pretending that I’d pulled similar all-nighters with the other freshmen on our floor, when in truth I had not.
Gina huffed at me, which was generally a sign that I was doing something wrong, so I checked to make sure I wasn’t wearing chocolate frosting as an accidental Halloween accessory, but nope. Nothing on my shirt. Still, she was giving me her stank eye.
I’m pretty sure I hadn’t farted, so…
Ohhh… Shit, maybe I’d messed up Gina’s carefully-planned romantic evening for Henry and Carl by getting here so late. Oops, and I’d planned to ask H if I could crash on his sofa tonight—I had an early morning meeting in Studio City. A potential new client—I could not be late. That was going to be awkward, asking to stay over, but… no. Nah. Come on. I mentally slapped myself upside the head. Henry wasn’t going to have a romantic evening of the sleepover variety with a guy that he barely knew, and Gina knew it. We all did, except maybe Carl, who was going to have to earn the precious gift that was Henry’s love, goddamn it. He couldn’t just show up and help himself like he was at some $9.99 buffet…
So now I was sitting there, eating my cake and giving a far more subtle stink eye to Carl, when Gina pointedly and deliberately changed the subject. “Oh, hey, Henry, I’d been meaning to ask you. Any recent sightings of Hot Neighbor Guy?”
What…? I’m pretty sure my head snapped up at that. Who…?
Henry cleared his throat. “I may have seen him again this morning.”
Okay, so he wasn’t talking about Hot-Dad-of-Joey, who he’d seen just minutes ago… Now I cleared my throat. “Um, I don’t believe I’ve heard about Hot Neighbor Guy.”
Gina was grinning at me in gleeful delight, and when she first started to speak, I got confused, thinking she was talking to me. “You gonna make a move on him? Kiss him passionately?”
But no, she was asking this of Henry, in reference to this so-called Hot Neighbor Guy. She finally turned toward him as she kept going. “Throw him to the ground? Fuck his brains out…?”
Henry was “cleaning up” a nearly empty bowl of candy corn by polishing off the remains, and he nearly choked.
“That escalated rapidly,” I said, ready to leap to my feet to Heimlich him if he needed it.
But he didn’t—he was able to speak. “He’s just… a new neighbor who’s… hot,” he told me, then shot Gina a look that was filled with WTF…?
She widened her eyes back at him and made a triumphant face that shouted See! I was right! But what exactly was she so victoriously right about? I was a little lost. If she’d brought up this mysterious new Hot Neighbor Guy to attempt to get Carl, I don’t know, jealous…? It hadn’t seemed to work. He was following the conversation with either one or both eyebrows raised, but other than that…? He didn’t seem particularly perturbed. Of course Gina knew him far better than I did, and may have been able to read his interest in Henry in ways that I could not.
But then, weirder and weirder, I got even more confused as Gina looked over at me, caught me studying her, no doubt looking a tad perplexed. As she met my eyes, she immediately, instantly went blank. Completely expressionless. Like, deviously innocent.
No doubt about it, I was clearly missing something here.
She leaned closer to me, as if sharing a secret, and said, “I saw him last week. His real name should be Red Hot Neighbor Guy.”
“Red is the color of the recently deceased!” Henry and Carl spoke in perfectly timed unison, and then all three of them cracked up.
“Oh-kay,” I said slowly as I looked from Carl to Gina to Henry. Clearly, I’d missed something besides an orb from the spirit world and the hangry Ouija Board’s message of cake. “You gonna share, or are you just gonna private-joke me to death?”
Henry had finally finished fussing with the food, and he joined us at the table. “Gina went to a séance last week,” he informed me.
“Really.” I looked at Gina. She’d always brought her Ouija board to Henry’s Halloween events, but I’d always thought it was a holdover from her childhood, rather than a sign of some crazy belief in the unknown. It was a toy—a weird toy, sure, but…
“It was research for a segment I’m producing,” she explained, smiling at my disbelief. “I got the orb while I was there. It was fun. Right, Carl?”
I glanced around. Where was this oft-mentioned orb…?
“So much fun,” Carl deadpanned. “The ‘Spirit Guide’ was named Pat. And every other word out of her mouth was…”
This time both Henry and Gina joined him: “Red is the color of the recently deceased!”
“Pat was a little over-the-top,” Gina admitted.
“Any… thing… red show up?” I asked.
Carl looked at me. “You are adorable.”
Gina ignored him and was shaking her head, answering me with, “Sadly, no. We didn’t make contact with the spirit world because the dimensional portal failed to open.”
Now Carl gave her a look. “You didn’t make contact because there’s no such thing as a ghost.”
“That we know of.” Gina clearly loved tormenting Carl. “And they prefer to be called spirits.”
She got up from the table, and I glanced over to find Henry watching me, his expression somewhat pensive.
I gave him a What…? look—because something weird was definitely going on with him, but he just smiled and shook his head.
And then Gina distracted the crap out of me by putting something round and glass down onto the table.
“Boom!” she said. “The orb!”
“That’s the orb?” I asked. It didn’t look like much. Yeah, it had a glow that was vaguely blueish, but… As I picked it up, though, it turned bright green. “It’s… like a… giant mood ring.”
“That’s exactly what I said.” Carl nodded. “Orb from the spirit world, my ass. It reacts to the heat from your hands. Case closed.”
I looked at it more closely and even shook it, holding it up to my ear, but it was silent—no rattle.
“Malcolm, show a little respect!” Gina chided me. “It’s not a snow globe!”
Except as abruptly as it had gone green, it now turned a smoky white.
“That’s weird,” I said. “My mood ring never did that.” I grinned at Henry. “Oh shit, am I dead?” I put the so-called “orb” back onto the table, hands up as I pretended to shy away from it in B-movie horror.
Shaking her head at my blasphemy, Gina gently picked it up and put it onto Henry’s bookshelf where it glowered at us—an oddly ominous, angry white.
“Although, really, I shouldn’t be worried unless it turns red, right?” I continued. “Kinda like Red Hot Neighbor Guy. Oh my God, maybe he’s dead.”
“Only if you kill him in a jealous rage,” Gina said. Again, she was looking right at me, with this innocently sweet smile on her face, but her words didn’t make sense. Was she talking to Henry again? Kill him in… Or maybe Carl…?
“What?” I asked, looking to Henry for help.
He was glaring at Gina again. “I’m pretty sure Gina got possessed by an idiot at that séance.”
But Gina was oddly undaunted. In fact, she grabbed her handbag and her jacket and swept toward the door. “Will you look at the time? It’s the bewitching hour! Carl, we must go!”
Wait, she was taking Carl with her…?
Carl sighed, but he got to his feet. He knew not to argue. “Nice meeting you,” he told both Henry and me as he followed Gina out.
Henry scrambled after them, to walk them to the door, leaving me sitting at the now empty table, with the still-white orb glaring at me from its new home on Henry’s bookshelf.
“What just happened here?” I asked it.
It didn’t answer, so I had more cake.
From Out of Body
Copyright 2018 Suzanne Brockmann