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Today's Story by Jonathan Deane

"Are you so very captivating that you’ll still hold my interest once we’ve finished getting to know each other?”

Strangers at Sea

My brother Jules didn’t want the divorce, but Megan did, and he could do nothing to change her mind. Afterward, I talked him into taking a month off, and we rented a boat and went sailing in the Ionian Sea. We had elaborate touristy plans, since I thought Jules might need coaxing, but when we actually got there, we were oppressed by the violent blue sky and the water, and just wanted to drink beer and sail aimlessly, talking about women and God and our childhood rivalries. Jules had always been a terrible romantic, and I kept trying to show him it was a waste of time. It wasn’t just his marriage that was the problem, it was the whole sick game.

A few days in, I started to feel sick. It began as a feeling of weakness. Weakness gave way to fatigue and then fever, and soon I was a miserable mess. I used to get the same sickness every summer, and it always knocked me out for at least three days. I also became violently seasick. Jules talked bravely of sailing all the way to the mainland to find a hospital, but I told him not to be stupid and instead we put in at the nearest small island. It was our luck to be off the coast of Myrionichthya, a small green island not far from the coast. Jules said the island had been inhabited since 982 BC. It had no impressive ruins, temples, or particularly old churches, but was dominated by a run-down resort inn from the 1950s. We came ashore and inquired about a room.

I don’t remember the inquiry very well. I suppose I was leaning against the sweaty plaster wall of the inn saying ‘Hi’ in a delirious way while Jules checked his phrase book, grew flustered, gave up, and said, “Speak English?” to the innkeeper, a walrus-mustached man in a duffle vest.

The innkeeper informed us that he was very fluent thanks to all the British vacationers who came each year in August. He asked if we wanted one room or two, and Jules said, “Two. I might meet someone, you never know.”

The innkeeper laughed and said he might. While the innkeeper’s wife changed the sheets in our rooms, I had a cup of tea with Jules on the inn porch. We talked about the divorce.

“I’m glad I never got married,” I said, “I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on anyone—you’re responsible for my happiness! I’m responsible for yours!”

Jules told me I was an idiot.

“No, you’re the idiot,” I snapped. “You played by the rules for six years, did the flowers and the rings and the scented candles, and look where it got you. Bet you feel real smart.”

“I don’t regret anything,” he said. “Except the part where Megan left. I miss her.”

“But if you could do it all again, would you? Knowing she was going to leave?”

He nodded forcefully and drained his tea. “I would.”

I went to bed very early. My fever escalated until I could see scarlet spots when I closed my eyes, and I went in and out of consciousness. Every time I came to, I drank straight from the huge pitcher of icewater on the dresser and then lay back down and faded out. Then, at around three in the morning, I woke up in a hot sweat with someone else in my bed.

She was stroking my thigh (and other things) with a smooth, abnormally cool touch. Her skin was cool and I knew even in the dark that she would be violently pale. I could feel her blonde curls against my cheek, and I could even somehow feel that they were blonde. She was kissing my ear. Feeling me tense, she nibbled the lobe and whispered, “Go back to sleep. You’ll like it if you do.”

She was doing something with her hand that made me think she was telling the truth. I wondered if Jules had hired her; I’d always thought him too much of a square for that, but he sometimes surprised me by being unexpectedly cool. I lay there quietly, luxuriating in the feeling of being touched by someone else. Each touch seemed to brush back my discomfort, pushing the sickness away. I started to lose consciousness again, but before I quite fell asleep, I muttered, “Thank you.”

She started laughing sweetly. “How polite you are. Mm. Now sleep.”

I shut my eyes. But I peeked. Before sleep took hold, I glimpsed two bright grey eyes and a playful, mocking mouth.

“Don’t look, I’m a ghost,” she said.


When I woke in the morning, I was too sick to work out whether it was a prank Jules was playing, or if it was a crazy woman in the hotel, or anything else, so I didn’t try. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d hallucinated during an illness, and it probably wouldn’t be the last, either. Nevertheless, I found myself hoping it would happen again. I spent the whole day fitfully brooding, drinking ice water, and waiting for nightfall.


When she came again in the night, I was alert and waiting for her, hiding under the covers with my eyes on the door. It swung open without a sound and she slipped inside.

She was slim and blonde, tall, with narrow hips and waist, slight breasts, and skin as white as I had suspected. She had the slightest wrinkles at the corners of her eyes which suggested an age closer to thirty than to twenty, but she was very pretty in a mocking, haughty way. Her clothes were unusual. To my eye, they looked Indian somehow: a colorful green sari-like sash wrapped around a long blue tunic-dress. She also wore enormous gold earrings and a rather large silver pendant.

“Who are you?” I asked.

She laughed and crossed to the bed, sitting down next to me and peering down at my face. “You didn’t ask me that last night.” She slipped her hands under the covers and ran them down my belly.

“I’d like to know who’s touching me,” I said.

She smirked. “Take off your shirt first.”

I peeled back the covers and took off my shirt, and she ran her hands over my chest, laughing a little.

“My name is James Lee,” I told her. “I do IT for a telecom, and freelance on the side.”

“I don’t know what that is,” she said. “My name is Eudokia of Syracuse, and before I died I was concubine to a very wicked man. That’s how I learned to do this.” Her hands slipped into my boxer shorts. She toyed with the fly of the shorts, apparently amused at the idea of underpants with holes built into them, then started to tease me with slow, playful touches.

“You’re a ghost,” I said.

“Men don’t usually believe me,” she said.

“What happens then?”

She laughed. “I haunt someone else.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that what’s going to happen to me? You’ll vanish?”

She nodded. “Of course. There isn’t a future in this.”

I told her that sounded perfectly reasonable.

She said that we were going to have fun. She took off my boxer shorts and did things with her mouth that I never thought a ghost could do. Afterward, she brushed her disarranged hair away from her face and gave me a heartbreaking smile and asked, “Am I beautiful?”

She had a small chin, large eyes, a tall forehead, a nose a little too large to be perfect, and a very long neck. I thought she was beautiful and I said so.

Eudokia smirked. “Thank you,” she said, preening and turning in the bed, letting me see glimpses of her breasts through her low-necked tunic dress. “That’s why I do this.”

When I tried to take her tunic off, or her sari-like sash, she drew back. “Save it for later, you impatient man. If we do everything now, we’ll wear out the affair before it’s even started.”

I must have looked hurt, because she gave me a scornful look. “What, are you so very captivating that you’ll still hold my interest once we’ve finished getting to know each other?”

At that, I must have looked very hurt indeed, because her expression softened after a moment, she patted my cheek, and she walked to the door, opening it and slipping through. I didn’t hear footsteps creaking away down the corridor, so I thought perhaps she really was a ghost.


“How did you die?” I asked her on the third night. We were lying next to each other. She had taken off her tunic dress, but still had the sari wrapped around her middle. She had let me kiss her small, pointed breasts and smooth belly, but had denied me access below the waist. I felt like a ninth-grader with his first girlfriend.

“That’s personal,” she said.

“Were you murdered?”

She flung her head back, blonde curls swishing about her face. “I died too young, that’s all.”

“It kept you beautiful,” I told her.

“How old would you say?” she asked, playing with the hair on my chest.

“Twenty-five,” I said.

Her grey eyes narrowed and she caught hold of a handful of my chest hair, trapping it in a fist. “I’m eighteen hundred and eighteen,” she said. “How old do I look?”

“Eighteen,” I said.

Her face softened and her grip relaxed. “Good boy.” She tilted her head, baring her long neck, and gave me a smoldering sidelong look. “Let me show you something fun.”


The next morning my fever was coming down. My brother came to check on me again and told me that he’d just gotten very lucky with an Athenian woman. She was chubby, he said, and she had thick ankles, and she wasn’t particularly pretty, but she was funny, and spoke English in an amusing accent, and peppered her sentences with British street slang, and made him laugh, and it was too bad she was married.

“You’re sleeping with a married woman?” I said.

“The best part,” he said. “Her name: Athena.”

“Is that so?” I said, feeling weak. “Where’s her husband?”

“Be here in a couple of days,” Jules said, shrugging. “We’ll probably want to leave around then, don’t you think?”

I nodded.

I decided not to tell him about Eudokia of Syracuse. It would be hard to explain that I was having an affair with a ghost; that it was purely physical; that we were trying to keep things light and casual; or that she apparently had insecurities about her appearance. It sounded crazy.


I told the ghost about myself the next night. “You look better, walk with me,” she said, surprising me by taking me out of my room and around the island by a small dirt path. The stars sparkled on the black water. Small crickets chirped. It was very dark, the only major source of nearby light pollution being small electric bulbs outside a few fishermen’s houses scattered along the coast.

“I’ve never had a relationship that lasted more than two years,” I said. “I don’t believe in tying someone else down, or being tied down. When people cling to each other, they’re always desperate, always unhealthy. It’s unrealistic to expect someone else to make you happy. If you can’t make yourself happy, you never will be. I’d rather both have fun, share as much as we want, but not have this desperate need to cling to one another, you know?”

“You don’t have that kind of need?” she said, smiling a little.

“No,” I said. “I don’t need to feed on someone else.”

“You’re wrong,” she said. “Men are always desperate for love.”

I told her about my brother and Megan.

She said, “Exactly. Men are so needy.”

I told her about my work as an IT consultant and even about my long-standing interest in history and classical art, but she seemed bored. Finally she said, “I’ve never really cared how people feed themselves, only how they feel and think and treat their lovers.”

“Did you have a lot of lovers?” I asked.

“Dozens.” She frowned and stopped, pointing out across the water. “I thought I’d found a man. He was Roman, rich, doted on me, gave me everything I wanted, but of course that’s not how it stayed. Good things don’t last.”

“Of course not,” I said. “People change.”

She gave me a sidelong look. “Do they?”

It was getting late and people were starting to get up. We went back to the inn and she pleasured me with a sort of depressed expertise, then afterwards asked me her usual question, “Do you find me beautiful?”

“Yes,” I said, and she smiled.

“Well, then, you can do whatever you want tomorrow night. I’ll come early.”


It may sound curiously adolescent to admit it, but I was excited all day. I barely noticed when my brother checked in on me and commented that I looked marvelous, why didn’t I come join him for a drink? He said there would be a party in the evening, and I said maybe I’d show up for it. But I was still in my bedroom when the sounds of music and chatter started to waft up from the inn’s dining room.

She came with the sunset and slowly stripped off her clothes, baring ever more smooth white skin. I saw a wrinkle here and there, a tiny blemish on the outer left hip, and wondered again at the ghost’s lifelike ways. Dressed only in her sash, she slipped under the covers. She batted away my attempts at foreplay and told me to hurry up or I’d be left behind, so I got on top of her. She turned out the bedside lamp and I entered her.

It was marvelous, but the angles were somewhat strange and the passage was tight, and I quickly realized that I wasn’t having intercourse in the usual way. Being an American man, I found the idea thrilling, and it was only afterward, as we lay tangled up sweatily on the blankets, that I asked her why.

She gave me an odd half-smile and said she didn’t have many other options. I was perplexed, so she lowered the blankets and said, “Feel it.” Her groin was as smooth as a Barbie doll’s, though there was a small vertical scar that ran like a seam from pubis to perineum. I didn’t immediately understand, so she gave me a savage smile.

“You’re so stupid. No one used to have such trouble realizing it, but for centuries now, men don’t know what I am,” she said. “It happened when I was little and I don’t remember it. I’ve been like this all my life.”

I must have looked horrified, because she pressed her forehead with her fingertips and looked annoyed. “Do you think I would have chosen this? My mother was a beautiful courtesan and thought she had no need for children, so she sold me to a brothel and they made me what I am with a few knife-strokes and years of pampering and training. Life didn’t treat me badly after that, but do you think I wouldn’t have chosen an ordinary life instead? Being the man with the power, instead of the girl who needs it?”

“You were born male,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me?” It seemed very important at the time, but I must have sounded stupidly slow.

She gave me a hopeless look. “It didn’t last. Because I’m pretty, I was very sought after. Of course when you’re young, you’re doted on. But when you get older—well, some people have children, and raise them to be loyal and good, and then when you get old, you have someone who cares about you despite how you look.” She stood up and put her tunic dress back on, looking at me over her slender shoulder.

“But suppose you can’t have children, and you never have any claim on a man except through your looks—well, then, age is horrible. It’s better to die when you still look young.”

“Did you kill yourself?” I whispered.

“Maybe I did,” she said, shaking her head so that her earrings swayed and glittered. “Look at me. I was almost thirty and it was starting to show. Do you really think I’m beautiful?”

Looking at her again, I realized her hips were slimmer than I’d thought, her breasts smaller and flatter. She didn’t look like a male, but I could see, perhaps, a trace of the boy she could have been, and the thought of it made me hesitate.

Her lips twisted down at the corners into a cruel smile. “I see,” she said.

“No,” I said, “you’re beautiful.”

“I don’t know why I do this to myself,” she said. “I need to haunt a blind man, or someone who won’t ask questions. Nobody quite loves me like they used to.”

“Wasn’t this just a fling?” I said.

She stared at me flatly. “Clearly,” she said, giving me a serrated smile, “I picked you for your looks, not your brains. But in my experience, men have always been incredibly stupid.” She walked to the door. Really, though, she lingered, waiting for a long time, giving me a hateful, smoldering look. It is clear to me in retrospect that she wanted me to come after her, but it was all a lot to process, and I sat there dumbly.

Finally she slipped through the door. As if a soundtrack was being turned up from mute, I heard the sound of drunken Greeks from the main room below. Laughter, male and female. A radio playing Greek pop music, which is not good. Glasses chinking.

I lay awake sulkily for a while, and then I went downstairs and found Jules. He was drinking with a chubby dark woman with big, chunky glasses and sparkling eyes. She looked much younger than her forty years—younger in attitude, at least, and certainly in her appetite for ouzo, which was prodigious. She was royally drunk, and Jules was pretty tipsy.

“Athena,” I guessed.

“I am!” she cried.

“Can I buy you two a drink?” I said. It seemed like a popular thing to say, because they both clapped. We went to the front and Athena said she wanted shots, but the innkeeper said he served full drinks; this was not a mainland bar, it was a resort inn. So we got tall glasses of ouzo and icewater, and we drank and talked about the bad Greek pop music, which Athena maintained was very good. I discovered the local station was playing a marathon of Greek hits from the ‘90s.

I’m not sure when Athena’s husband showed up, but we recognized him by the mottled red look on his face when he caught sight of us. He was smart enough to give himself time to cool off, and me time to whisper to Jules that we’d better pay our bill and leave. The innkeeper helped us slip out of the dining room and collected our payment from us in crisp, freshly-printed Euro bills we’d exchanged in Athens before we flew to Patras to start our sailing tour.

We were very fortunate. Despite our drunkenness, we managed to put to sea in something like good order. Sailing on a broad reach to a stiff southern breeze, we made our way away from Myrionichthya toward the northwestern coast of the Peloponnese. By the time our intoxication wore off, it was late morning, and we both had violent headaches. Jules said it felt like someone had pissed in our mouths.

“I don’t feel bad though,” he said. “I knew things weren’t going to work out long term with Athena, but I had fun. I went for it. And she says her husband isn’t such a bad fellow. She’ll tell him nothing happened—”

“Lie to him?”

“Why not? She cares about his feelings. And he’ll forgive her and everything will be fine. We’ll both remember the great time we had. Or maybe she won’t remember everything—she was drinking a lot of ouzo.”

“Sometimes I wish I were more like you,” I said. “I feel like I’ve missed a lot of opportunities.”

Jules frowned at me. “You’re here,” he said. “In Greece, healthy again, ready to strike up a torrid affair with some giaour’s daughter or something. Be the modern-day Byron, you know?”

I hesitated for about half an hour, pretending to be thinking about his words of advice, and then I broke down and told him about my affair with the ghost of Eudokia of Syracuse. At first he seemed puzzled, and then a frown deepened on his forehead and I knew he knew I was crazy. But all he said was, “You really did miss an opportunity, didn’t you?”

“Huh?” I said.

“I mean sure, you’re probably crazy,” he said. “And I guess this makes you less than one hundred percent straight, though you’re close enough. But forget about all that and think about this seriously. Real or not, dead or alive, she clearly fascinated you, you were attracted to her, and she wanted to have sex with you. She didn’t tell you everything about herself, but so what?”
“That’s true,” I admitted. “But—”

“But what?”

“It was just a fling.”

Jules smiled. “If it really were, she wouldn’t have said that. Think about it, James. Things could have been pretty good with your ghost. She liked you, you liked her; who knows what could have happened? When you get a chance like this, crazy or not, you don’t run from it.”

He had a glint in his eye. He was an incurable romantic, and in the end, so was I. We turned the boat around and returned to Myrionichthya. Athena and her husband were gone—they had left all of a sudden, quarreling furiously and gesturing with their hands, and the innkeeper imitated their gestures for us.

We stayed overnight in the room I’d stayed in, but I had no late-night visitor. The next morning we searched the island for signs of her, following the footpath around the island. We discovered that there were a few more houses on the other side of the island that I hadn’t seen before, and a small chapel on a hilltop.

On the far side of the chapel was a cemetery which I insisted on visiting. I don’t know what I thought I would find there; the earliest tombs in the cemetery dated to the sixteenth century, and were marked with little terra-cotta bricks shaped like bread-loaves and marked with tiny crosses and old-fashioned Greek writing. There were wild olives flowering on the hill overlooking the cemetery, and the pollen made my eyes itch.

We did find a very old pile of stones at the base of the hill, beyond the cemetery. It looked like some kind of cairn to me. A word was scratched in Greek letters on one of the bigger rocks, xenoi, which means strangers, but I have no idea how old the cairn was. I took a pebble from near the base of the cairn as a keepsake. A few hundred yards away, the sea was grinding against the rocky shore, which, near this part of the island, was quite treacherous and sharp.

Jules and I returned to the inn and stayed on for several more nights, hoping that the ghost would appear to me, so I could ask her to give me another chance and maybe introduce her to my brother. But there was no sign of her. I asked some of the locals, hoping there was a legend of some kind that might give me a clue, but they just started looking at me as if I were crazy, which I’ve often thought I may have been.

But I think it happened. I think I had a chance with my ghost—a ghost of a chance—and I missed it. That was four years ago. Since then, I’ve been back to the island six times, but I haven’t been haunted since.


Jonathan Deane attended the the Rutgers MFA program at Camden, where he studied with Lauren Grodstein (A Friend of the Family) and Adam Mansbach (The End of the Jews, Go the F* To Sleep). He served as an assistant editor for StoryQuarterly, and as lead editor for the MFA program’s student anthology Slush.


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