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by Peter Haynes

When you glided near and asked me to spare a breath, I might have made a noise like a startled cat. I didn’t see you in the doorway. It was dark but for the light of the ATM screen glowing through your shifting, smoke-like body.

“Spare a breath,” you said again and reached a hand toward me. I reacted, swatted it away to a fine mist. Traceries of ice veined my glove.

“You’re a ghost. Right?” I felt foolish asking.

“I am. But you can bring me back a moment. Just for a moment. All it takes is a breath.”

I gathered myself, saying, “But I need all my breaths.”

Your face scowled, a face that before had seemed not proud, not serious, just lonely.

“You can spare one,” you said. “You won’t even remember the giving. You’ve offered more to strangers in night clubs, abandoned them in running for the bus you missed anyway. Give me the one you held on to when you watched that scary film. That’s the one I want.”

The ATM beeped at me. “Sorry,” I said, offered a thin smile, wouldn’t look at you, pushed buttons deliberately.

“I could give you wisdom,” you whispered, and the chill of train station platforms passed through me. “I have much to tell of what you are missing. I could tell of my life, one who by sunshine lived. I could tell how I learned to pity those who live a life of gifts, of being drunk, of being high, of an inheritance, for where do they go?

“I could tell of the truest love and how to live well amongst its ruins and relics. I could help you find what it is inside of you that turns this dream city into hell. What is it you wish to know?”

“Nothing,” I replied. The machine spat out a wedge of notes so thick it wouldn’t fold into my wallet.

You asked for a heartbeat.

“What’s it to you?” you said. “You won’t miss it. You don’t miss all those you spent today or the day before on doing nothing. You won’t miss the beat you skipped when you met your wife; when your baby boy was born. For me that one heartbeat is life anew. Please?”

“I’m sorry, friend,” I said and that was enough. A sadness visited your face, was rendered invisible by passing headlights.

“Then listen now. To fools I say only this: if you wish to learn what is said by the river, go to the river.” You became a thing that trembles with the weather, and continued. “If you wish to learn something real, spend a whole minute of silence in a room with another person: breathing, heartbeats, everything.”

And with that you became a thing that turns in on itself and was gone.

To the ghost of the homeless man I saw by the ATM last night, I’m sorry it’s winter.

If it had just been money you’d needed I could have helped.

Peter Haynes lives and writes in Birmingham, UK. His work has appeared online at Unsung Stories, Litro USA, Hypertext Magazine, Change Seven and EveryDayFiction.com. Links to his work can be found at friendofcarlotta.wordpress.com.