Originally published October 28, 2018.
Contains: accelerated weight gain, supernatural encouraging, direct encouraging. It also contains a character who, in life, was an alcoholic, and depictions of the mess he left behind. If addiction or heavy drinking are triggering for you, please use your discretion.
In my third-anniversary ask-me-anything video, I mentioned that one thing I’d wanted to do with my stories that I hadn’t yet was include a transgender character. I do aim to include diversity in my stories as often as I can, so obviously I would want that to be as true of gender as it has been of anything else. But up until now, I’ve avoided doing it.
The main reason is that, with rare exception, the genitals of my characters generally don’t come up in my stories. As such, you could claim that almost any of my characters are trans, and there wouldn’t be any textual evidence to say you’re wrong. And if I’m not out here pointing out that every one of my cisgender characters is cisgender, then making a trans character just for the sake of diversity felt… token. Which I know is a fucked up way of thinking about it, because no one expects me to justify making a character cis. Why should I have to justify making a character trans? But I’m not above falling to this mentality.
So I wanted a story where the character’s trans-ness is impactful to the plot. At the same time, I didn’t want this to be a story that centers around the character’s trans-ness. There are enough of those around; in fact, probably too many. I wanted this to be a story that would work with a cis protagonist, but is still informed by the protagonist’s trans-ness.
All of those excuses kept me from writing a story with a trans protagonist for a long time. That was, until Trump announced that he wants to legislate trans people out of existence in the U.S. And that was the kick in the ass that I needed to tell me, trans people don’t need my excuses. They need us to listen to them and fight with them. They need to know we stand with them.
I don’t consider this story some kind of grand protest against transphobia. I don’t think it’s going to alter the course of this country in any way. That’s not what I wrote it for. I wrote it in the hopes that it might help a trans person in the gaining community feel seen, and less alone. I wrote it in the hopes that it might help a cis person who thinks they don’t know any trans people empathize with trans folks more, see them as less of an abstract concept and more human. If it can do either of those things for even one person, then I’ve done my job.
But I still faced those hesitations that kept me from writing before, so I returned to some comfortable stomping grounds: gaining ghost stories. Apparently it’s something I have a reputation in the gaining community for. I’m not complaining; I’m honored to have a reputation at all. That gave me the plot I was looking for: one that’s informed by the protagonist’s trans-ness, but doesn’t revolve around it. His trans-ness is consequential, but not all there is to him.
I hope I’ve done a good job by the trans community with this story. If you’re trans and have input on how I could have done better, I’m more than happy to hear it. Please send me a note letting me know how. My ears are open.
And if you think me saying “trans people are people and should be treated as people” means I’m “getting political” or makes my stories “harder to enjoy”, drop dead.
Synopsis: After his biological father, Charles, dies, Ash inherits his house, due to being his only living and non-estranged relative. When he gets there, he finds it riddled with beer cans and bottles, before running into hid dad’s ghost. Though Charles doesn’t recognize him at first, having given Ash up for adoption while he still went by the name Ashley, the two have a bittersweet reunion once he does. To try to make up for lost time, Charles suggests a barbecue out back, where he makes lunch for both of them. What follows is Ash trying to work through his feelings of abandonment, Charles trying to work through his feelings of inadequacy, and several burgers that help Ash attain a frame that makes him more comfortable taking up space.
Ash gripped the steering wheel a little harder than usual as his favorite hardcore punk album played over his car’s stereo. His whole life, he’d been conflicted about wanting to reunite with his biological father. With his mother having passed on before he was even put up for adoption and no siblings to speak of, his father was the only link to his bloodline that Ash had, due to Charles’ estrangement from his own family. And now, even that link had been severed, cut off like the abrupt endings of the songs that raged out of his speakers.
And since Charles was so estranged from his family, Ash was first in line to inherit the tiny house he called home in his final years. Given what his adoptive parents had told him about Charles, and how little of it was positive, he was expecting an utter mess when he stepped inside. And he fully expected his emotions to be part of that mess. His parents had insisted that the best thing Charles ever did for Ash was put him up for adoption, knowing he couldn’t take care of a kid. To Ash, it felt like a abandonment in gift wrap.
It could have been worse, Ash supposed. Given what he knew about Charles, his adoptive parents were by far more qualified to do the job. They’d taken care of him, housed him, clothed him, fed him, supported him, and loved him, which was more than Charles had ever done. He supposed his parents would call giving him up an act of love. To Ash, it still felt like abandonment, even if he was being abandoned to a better home. And now his biological dad had abandoned him to the mortal plane, forcing him to deal with all the requisite legal proceedings at only 25. It was just like him.
It took three albums to get Ash through the hour-long drive to Charles’ house. Toward the end, he found himself in the part of the state where even a no-good bum like his dad could afford a small piece of property. The kind where even the cheapest houses came with backyards, because the houses were far enough apart that they had to have yards. It was also the kind of place covered with campaign signs for conservative political candidates, which made him wince as he drove. He wondered: even if he’d had the chance to visit his Charles while he was alive, would he have been welcome in a town like this?
When Ash finally arrived, he found a tiny house that couldn’t have had more than four rooms. The car outside was riddled with scratches and dents, making Ash wonder if those charities that took cars would make a house call this far out, so he didn’t have to drive it. The house itself was in better condition, largely because it couldn’t be moved from its spot, with the paint chipping a bit but mostly intact. But after getting out of the car, Ash saw all the empty bottles and cans that riddled the front yard, which had him less than confident about what the conditions would be like inside. With a deep breath, he pulled the key out of his pocket and unlocked the front door.
Immediately upon opening the door, Ash was hit by a wave of beer odor, making him reel his head back and cough. Once he’d steeled himself to take a look inside, it was worse than he thought. Beer bottles and cans were strewn about on every available surface, badly enough that he kicked a few as he walked through the house opening windows. Soon the kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedroom all had windows open, much to Ash’s relief as he smelled the fresh air wafting in. Now that he wasn’t running around opening windows, he supposed he could look around a bit more.
The kitchen didn’t have much in the way of perishable food, thankfully, as it would have probably all rotted by the time Ash got there. What little food Ash found was of the simple variety, like bread and peanut butter. The kind of staples that could sustain even a man who seemingly would have lived entirely off of beer if he could. Upon opening the fridge, he was greeted by the sight of rows and rows of cans of beer. Wincing, he closed the fridge, resolving that when he cleaned up the place, he’d pour it all out outside.
The living room wasn’t much better. A few books that were covered in dust and some DVDs that looked like they’re barely been touched any more recently occupied the one shelf in the room. A plush recliner, covered in stains, sat facing toward an old box TV. The remote was the only thing in the room that looked like it had been touched recently. It seemed even popping a DVD in the DVD player was too much effort for Charles.
As Ash turned around to check out the rest of the house, he was stopped in his tracks by a figure standing in the doorway to the living room. He was a man on the shorter side, about Ash’s height. Unlike Ash, he was translucent and gave off a blue glow. He wore raggedy clothes and bore an angry facial expression. Upon looking more closely at him, though, Ash realized they looked quick alike, from their lanky frames to the bone structure of their faces. He even had a curly beard just like Ash’s. In Ash’s case, he’d let it grow out because he wanted to keep all the facial hair that his body would grow. In this man’s case, it seemed to be more due to neglect.
“What are you doing in my house?” the figure finally asked, his voice echoing more than the walls could have possibly made it. It seemed that was just what happened when ghosts spoke.
“Are you… Charles?” Ash asked, his voice quaking. “Charles Rogers?”
“Yeah, what’s it to you?”
“I… I think you’re my dad… or, were, anyway.”
“Pft, not likely,” the ghost grumbled. “Unless I knocked up someone else, but one of the reasons I drank alone was so that wouldn’t happen.”
“I… don’t think so. My mom died while I was still young, and then you put me up for adoption. That’s what my parents told me, anyways.”
“But… my…” A look of recognition seemed to be spreading across the man’s face. His eyes slowly opened wider, his mouth opening more, and he stepped a bit closer to Ash. “Ashley?”
It had mercifully been years since anyone had called Ash by his deadname. When it left Charles’ lips, he almost didn’t recognize it. But that familiar wince of pain was still there. “It’s… Ash now.”
“So it is…” the man said more quietly, the anger in his voice gone. “My child… my… boy…” After standing still a little longer, the man rushed up to Ash, making Ash step back. But it seemed he wasn’t in any danger: the ghost hugged Ash as best he could, while Ash felt a cool, misty sensation where he was wrapped in the ghost’s arms. “I never thought I’d see you again.”
“Yeah,” Ash said, a bit confused. “I never thought I’d see you… period.”
With a chuckle, Charles said, “Life’s funny like that, sometimes. Death can be too.” After pulling away, Charles kept his hands on Ash’s shoulders. Though Ash couldn’t feel any weight or pressure on them, he could feel that cooling mist having moved to them. “God, look at you. All grown up, and exactly the person you were meant to be. The… man you were meant to be.”
Ash’s shoulders weren’t the only part of him getting misty, as he wiped a tear away from his eyes while smiling. He was at a loss for words, but for now, that was okay.
After looking at Ash, Charles looked around the room a bit and his smile faded. “Sorry, uh, that the house is such a mess.”
“Well, I suppose there’s not much you can do about it now, huh?”
“Nope. Death may have brought with it the clarity of sobriety–and no withdrawals, to boot–but it has left me tragically unable to clean up the mess I left behind. If I could, I would have gotten rid of all of these bottles and cans as soon as I knew someone was coming here.”
“It’s a shame you couldn’t get rid of all the bottles and can, full ones too, while you were alive,” Ash said begrudgingly, looking to the side where he couldn’t see Charles’ reaction.
He could hear it, though, in the form of a pained, frustrated exhalation. “Easier said than done…” After a moment, Ash turned to look at Charles, and he saw the ghost looking to the side. “Look… I can’t take back what I did in life. But… maybe I can make it up to you.”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
After a moment, Charles looked at Ash with a looser expression. His eyes were more open, less angry, and his eyelids were raised in a way that made him look less threatening. “Maybe I could barbecue you something. We could have some dad and… son time. Like we never got to.”
“I mean, that’s a nice thought. But if you can’t even pick up the cans and bottles, how do you expect to barbecue?”
“Why don’t I show you?” Charles asked with a smile, beckoning Ash to follow. Charles stepped toward the door and, to Ash’s surprise, walked right through it. Ash followed suit, opening the door and following Charles. The two stepped off the porch and kept walking around the house, with Charles appearing a little less visible as the sunlight passed through him. Ash had assumed Charles wouldn’t be able to leave the house, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
Once they got around to the back, Ash could see more bottles and cans on the ground, but also a grill. And with the snap of his fingers, Charles seemed to have fired up the grill, at least on his side. A light, pale blue smoke rose from the embers, and soon they were glowing even more brightly than Charles. Beneath the blue glow, they seemed to still be cool on Ash’s side. Holding his hand out, Ash confirmed he couldn’t feel any heat off the coals.
“You probably won’t be able to feel the coals, but you should be able to eat the food I make.”
“You really think that’ll work?”
“Only one way to find out,” Charles said, as he reached out and grabbed two burgers, seemingly out of thin air, and tossed them on the grill. Ash could hear the echoes of their sizzle, reverberating like Charles’ voice. He certainly hoped he’d be able to eat the burger; it sounded like it would be delicious. “How do you like your burger cooked?”
“You take after your old man,” Charles said with a smile, before pushing the patty down on the grill. The sizzle echoed and reverberated, like all the other sounds Charles, sounding more like radio static than meat. “So,” he said assertively, “what are you up to these days? You graduated?”
“Uh, yeah,” Ash answered hesitantly, not sure he could catch up with his dad so casually when just a few minutes prior, he’d never exchanged a full sentence with the man. The fact that he was a ghost didn’t make matters any simpler. “Yeah, I graduated in graphic design, and now I work for a startup helping them with their promotional materials.”
“Oh that’s cool. You got a job where you get to be creative.”
“Eh, to an extent. At the end of the day, I have to draw what they tell me to draw. It’s not like I’m drawing for fun all day. But, it pays the bills, can’t complain about that.”
“No sir,” Charles muttered, keeping his eye on the grill. “You draw in your own free time?”
“I try to, but sometimes work leaves me burnt out on drawing, and I just want to go home and game or something.”
“Gotcha. What do you like to draw?”
“Oh, portraits, I guess you could say.” Ash wondered whether it was worth it to tell Charles they weren’t realistic portraits, that he tried to capture an emotion more than reality. About how many of his pieces aimed to capture the treachery of image of a body that didn’t match who he knew he was. But that seemed a bit heavy for first-time conversation.
“I don’t suppose you have any you could show me? Like on your phone or something?”
“‘Fraid not.” That was also a lie. But if Ash has a hard time explaining his artistic motivation, he certainly wouldn’t have an easier time dealing with the questions Charles would ask about his actual paintings.
“Mmm,” Charles replied, before flipping both of the burgers over. “So how does it feel?” he started to ask, before a pause indicated trouble finding the right words. “Being a man?”
“I, uh…” Ash hesitated himself, wondering just how nuanced he could get in this conversation. Charles had reacted to the news better than he would have expected–if he could have expected to have the chance to come out to his dad after his death–but how cool would he really be with it? Taking a deep breath, Ash answered, “I think I was always male. All that’s changed is now the world recognizes that.”
“Mmmm, alright, alright. So how does it feel now that the world recognizes that?”
“It’s…” Ash let out another sigh, this time because the question wasn’t an easy one. “It was scary at first, wondering how people would react, if it was even worth it.”
“Was it worth it?” Charles asked, a bit more softly this time.
“Oh, abso-fucking-lutely. I would never go back to the way things used to be. But… I don’t know, sometimes I feel like I’m not… man enough, you know?”
Ash looked at Charles, only to be met by a blank stare. Of course he wouldn’t know. How could someone who’d never doubted his own gender identity know what it’s like. “I don’t think I do know,” he said, making Ash feel like his doubts were justified. “You seem more than man enough to me.”
“Heh, well, that’s nice. I just… before I came out, I ate pretty lightly and worked out a lot, hoping to… de-emphasize my curves. And it worked. But now that I’m out, I feel like that’s making me look like… less of a man. Like, a man is supposed to be confident taking up space, and I’m still… not there yet.”
“Have you tried lifting weights?”
“I’ve been lifting for a while. I guess I’m just more predisposed to put on lean muscle mass,” Ash lamented with a sigh.
“Hmmm,” Charles muttered contemplatively, looking down at the burgers. “What about a gut?”
“What about a big, round gut, to make you take up more space? Something nice and circular and manly? Sounds like you already have the muscle to carry it.”
It hasn’t occurred to Ash to try, though he wasn’t against the idea. “I guess it could work, but how much would I have to eat to get that big?”
“For starters? Just this burger,” Charles said. And it made, sense in a way. If Ash was going to eat enough to get that big, he didn’t have to eat it all at once. Just finishing that burger would be the first step on his journey. Whether he’d be able to eat the spectral burger, though, that was another matter. “It’ll probably help your muscle gains too. Can’t get big muscle without eating a lot.”
“True,” Ash said with a shrug.
Soon the burgers were done. Reaching into the void from which they’d come, Charles also pulled out two buns, and all the topping he wanted. He asked Ash about his topping preferences, and made his burger according to his specifications. Soon he had a burger in his hand made exactly to Ash’s preferences. “Go ahead,” he said, holding the burger out toward Ash. “Take it. It’s yours, after all.”
Ash looked at Charles with pursed lips, but he supposed he had nothing to lose by trying to take the burger from Charles’ hand. He expected his hand would pass right through it, the burger no more material than smoke from a grill. But to his surprise, his fingers stopped upon hitting the bun, feeling the bread underneath, soft and warm. He saw burger materialize in his hands, starting from where his fingers had touched it and spreading out from there. Once Charles took his hands off the burger, it materialized even faster, until Ash held in his hands a real burger, made exactly how he liked it.
“Uh… wow… thanks.”
“You didn’t think your old man could cook a decent burger?” Charles asked with a smug grin.
“No, I just… didn’t think I’d be able to hold it, let alone eat it.”
“Ah, yeah,” Charles said, sounding a bit defeated at the reminder of his less-than-corporeal state.
Still, he cheered up upon seeing Ash take a bite of the burger, and smiled even wider when Ash went, “Mmm!” After swallowing, he continued, “This is really good!”
“See? Told you your old pops could do it.”
“I never doubted your cooking skills,” Ash insisted through a mouth full of meat and veggies and condiments. Though he admitted to himself that after seeing the state of the house, he wouldn’t have expected a man who lived like that to be able to cook like Charles could.
But the burger was delicious, and Ash wolfed it down like it was the first thing he’d eaten all day. Bite after bite was taken after he’d barely had enough time to chew and swallow the previous one, such that his cheeks were always pudged out. It was so filling and satisfying that he could feel the food baby growing in his stomach from just one burger, and he didn’t mind at all. He just wanted more, and he kept eating until the whole thing was gone.
“Well? What do you think?”
“I think we’ve established that it’s delicious,” Ash mumbled through a mouth full of burger.
“That we have, which is why I wasn’t asking about the burger,” Charles said with a modest smile, before his eyes traveled downward.
Ash was confused at first, until he followed Charles’ eyes down and saw what had happened to his body. It seemed that when Charles had said “just that burger” for starters, he meant it more literally than Ash realized.
Gone was the lanky frame that Ash awkwardly navigated the world with. Instead, it was now wrapped in a cozy layer of flab, softening out Ash’s hard edges and making him feel more filled out. With his beard now hanging from what must have been a rounder face, he assumed he looked more approachable too. But in addition to more filled out arms and legs, he was especially thankful for two changes. For one, his chest hadn’t pudged out much, barely growing beyond its original size. And for another, his belly was now the clear centerpiece of his body. It stuck out nearly like a basketball under his shirt, like he was a college student under the effect of the freshman 50, with most of his new weight going to his gut.
It was then that Ash realized: in spite of his growth, his clothes felt like they still fit fine. He felt at his short-sleeve button-down shirt and realized that it still fit comfortably, not having tightened around his midsection, nor were the buttons straining to hold him in. His pants fit comfortably too, with even his belt loose enough that he could stick his thumb inside it and pull at it. “How do my clothes still fit?”
“That’s what you’re confused by?” Charles laughed. “Not the 50 pounds you suddenly put on?”
“Well… you prepared me for that. I just didn’t expect my clothes to grow with me.”
“You believe putting on 50 pounds by eating one burger, but the fact that your clothes stretched to fit you is just too much for you to buy?”
Looking down at his newly rounded belly, Ash pondered the question a while longer, before he admitted, “Yeah, you’re right. I guess I shouldn’t underestimate your ghost powers, or whatever. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, you did just conjure a burger out of thin air.”
Looked at Charles out of his peripheral view, Ash could see that he seemed displeased at the mention of his ghostly state. Perhaps he had yet to come to terms with his own death. Perhaps that’s why he was hanging around as a ghost. Whatever the reason, Charles sighed and looked back at the grill, before turning to Ash and asking, “Would you like another?”
“Will it put this much weight on me again?”
“If you want it to,” Charles said. “I’m also happy to just cook you up a regular burger.”
Looking down as his burgeoning belly, Ash knew that he was already happier with his body as it was now than it was before. But he couldn’t help but wonder: would the effect keep increasing as his weight increased? He supposed there was only one way to find out. “As long as my gut stays as round and imposing as it is now.”
With a chuckle, Charles said, “Oh no, it’s going to get even more imposing. Another burger, coming up.”
With an impressive amount of dexterity, Charles pulled all the ingredients he needed out of the ether and slapped the patty on the grill, keeping the veggies, condiments, and bun on a tray on the side. Of course, once they’d reached the point in the cooking process where all they could do was wait for the patty to grill–it seemed Charles’ ghost powers couldn’t bypass that part of the process–it left Charles standing in front of the grill awkwardly, twirling his spatula as he tried to burn off that extra enthusiasm. “So…” he finally said. “How did you parents… adoptive parents… react when you told them you’re a guy?”
“Um… not too badly… they were more confused than outright hostile, but they came around, which makes me one of the luckier ones–”
“Well, yeah. They didn’t kick me out or force me to keep acting like a girl.”
“And that makes you lucky?” Charles asked. Ash wondered if he could truly be so naïve, but the sound of genuine woe and worry in his voice let him know there was no pretense to Charles’ question.
“You don’t know much about what it’s like for trans people, do you?”
“I… I guess not,” Charles admitted as he poked at the patty with his spatula. “I just… how does any parent not want what’s best for their kid? That’s all I wanted. That’s why I gave you up.”
Ash was ready to answer with an, “I guess they think what they’re doing is what’s best for their kid.” But the reminder of Charles giving him up for adoption brought up too many bad feelings for him to answer the question. With all his resentment swirling around him like a dark glow to match Charles’ blue hue, he couldn’t give an answer. If giving Ash up for adoption was Charles’ version of wanting what’s best for his child, Ash had to wonder: what did he know about what was good for a kid?
“I guess I shouldn’t ask you to answer that. Those parents should be answering for their behavior, not you.”
“Yeah,” Ash agreed, his anger subsiding as he felt like he and Charles were on the same page again. “I think my parents just… didn’t know a lot about trans people before I came out. Bless their heart, they researched it though. I could tell they were trying. I guess that’s all I could expect of them.”
“You could expect them to succeed too. They’re your parents. It’s not enough to ‘try’ to take care of your kid. They gotta succeed.”
“You’re one to talk.” The words shot out of Ash’s mouth like a spitting cobra cornered by a predator. But once they’d left his lips, Ash covered his mouth like he could possibly take the words back. Which felt strange in a way: he meant every word, and had been thinking that thought his entire life. Why was he so hesitant to say it now?
Looking to his left, Ash saw Charles looking down at the grill and nonchalantly flipping his burger. He seemed like he was trying to play off like he wasn’t affected by Ash’s words, but his refusal to look up said otherwise. As he kept pressing down on the burger, he took a long inhalation, before he said in a quiet, defeated voice, “I know.”
Those two words, coming out at a higher pitch than Charles usually talked, somehow left Ash feeling more hollow than he was ready for. His whole life, he’d resented his dad for abandoning him. And now, with his dad having admitted guilt for that, he didn’t feel any better.
“I know, I left you behind, because I couldn’t take care of you on my own. I had to pick between the lesser of two evils: abandoning you, or…” Charles was quiet for a bit, before he continued, “Honestly, I don’t want to think about what would have happened if you’d grown up in my house. That was my mistake, for agreeing to have a kid when I wasn’t ready to take care of one. Especially not without your mom.”
At that, Ash felt a lump in his throat. He didn’t even have any memory of his mom to allow him to miss her, but Charles certainly did. “Do you… get to see her? Now that you’re both… you know…”
“No,” Charles said, regretful but certain. “It seems she was able to move on after she died. Something… I haven’t been able to do.”
“What do you think keeps you tethered here?”
“Wondering how my kid is doing,” Charles said, which made Ash perk up just a little bit, only to lose that feeling when Charles continued, “And if… he resented me for abandoning him.”
In the silence after Charles stopped talking, he flipped the patty onto the bun and put the burger together just as lovingly as he’d put together the first one. Sheepishly, he held it out toward Ash. “If you still want it.”
“Of course I want it,” Ash said softly. “You made it especially for me. How could he not want it?”
At that, Charles smiled just a little bit, enough to make Ash smile back as he took the burger and it materialized in his hand. This time, he ate it more slowly. In part because he was now more satisfied by the first burger, allowing him to savor the flavor a bit more, and in part because he wanted to experience the changes as they happened.
Thankfully, more mindful bites brought more mindfulness of the effect the burger was having on him. With each delicious bite of the burger he swallowed, he could feel his stomach push out a little bit more, like he was flexing his abs to expand them. But when he breathed out and relaxed his muscles, his gut stayed in place, sticking out a little farther than it did before. After savoring the new size he’d already attained, he’d take another bite and enjoy the growth yet again.
Ash repeated this process until the entire burger was gone. As he licked his fingers clean, he wasn’t exactly surprised by how big he was now, having dwelled on and enjoyed his growth the entire way. But when he compared his current size to the size of his starter gut just a few minutes earlier, he was rather impressed by just how much he’d grown. And yet again, he was even more impressed with the fact that his clothes still fit him.
Ash no longer had a freshman-50 ball belly like he’d carried before. His belly had gone from a feature of his frame to its undeniable centerpiece, wide as a truck tire and just as round, a sphere big enough to put any inflatable sports ball to shame. As Ash rotated his torso to experience his newly grown protrusion, he was excited by the amount of inertia it had, a clear and undeniable mass on his torso that he now commanded. Best of all, it had totally retained its rotund shape.
Ash was just as happy with the changes to the rest of his body. Though he struggled to see his legs, he could feel that they’d become stronger to hold up all the weight he’d put on. His arms looked brawny with the added layer of fat, like his hugs would be amazing now. In addition, they were adorned with darker and thicker hair than what had grown from them before, another change Ash was happy with. And his chest had mercifully grown only enough to keep him from looking like he’d been inflated with a tire pump.
“You like it?” Charles asked.
“It’s amazing,” Ash nearly gasped, his breath taken away by just how burly he looked.
“Good. I’m… glad I could help you somehow,” Charles said, keeping his smile but looking like it was a struggle to maintain it. “To become the person you’re meant to be. The man you’re meant to be.”
Ash looked at the ground in front of Charles for a while, letting his emotions swirl around him as he tried to figure out the best way to describe them. The resentment was there, but diminishing. He also felt bad for Charles, knowing he’d spent the last couple of decades stuck in this house, not getting to see his wife. And he felt, dare he say it, greatful?, that Charles was trying to make up for lost time in what little time he had. His feelings were… complicated. Which was probably a step up from pure resentment. “Me too,” Ash said quietly, prompting Charles to look up with slightly surprised eyes. “Me too.”
The surprise on Charles’ face melted into a more content expression, with a palpable sense of relief. “I don’t suppose you want another one?” he asked half-jokingly.
“Well, if you’re offering,” Ash said with a smile.
That put Charles in a good enough mood that he delighted in taking the ingredients for the burger from wherever in the ether he was retrieving them, and cooked up the third burger with extra care and attention. The ghostly sizzle of the patty now sounded appetizing to Ash, making him wonder if the sizzle of a mundane patty on a mundane grill would sound flat to him. Either way, he looked forward to seeing what effect the third burger would have.
“You know,” his father started, “if I’d known you were coming, I would have tried to clean up at least a little.”
“I thought you said you couldn’t clean up at all?”
“That was… not entirely true. I can interact with the… mundane world, but it takes a lot of effort. That’s why you usually see hauntings where only one thing is moved or affected at a time. It’s exhausting. And when I thought no one was going to be coming by the house, it wasn’t worth it.”
Ash nodded slowly. While he still didn’t look forward to the prospect of clearing the entire house of cans and bottles, he understood why Charles wouldn’t have bothered doing it himself.
“But… maybe I’ll give it a try after this, before you come back next time.”
“That’s assuming I don’t help you move on before then.”
At that, Charles looked at Ash with an expression of surprise. “You mean that?”
“Look… if I can be honest, it seems the end of your life was… not the best. Having to spend it without your wife sounds terrible. But in spite of everything you were going through, you cared enough about me to want to not drag me down with you. After that, helping you move on is the least I could do.”
Ash could see tears starting to fall from the corners of Charles’ eyes. Charles stepped forward and hugged Ash yet again, and while Ash still couldn’t feel the comforting physical embrace of a regular hug, that cool, misty feeling where Ash touched him had never felt so warm. Ash found himself tearing up, and lifted his arm thoughtlessly to wipe away the tears. In doing so, his own arm passed through Charles’, causing Charles to let out a self-deprecating chuckle. “I guess a hug from your old pops ain’t what it could have been if I’d gotten my act together sooner.”
“Maybe not. But I bet your burgers wouldn’t have been this good.”
With a smile, Charles returned to the grill and flipped the patty over.
It wasn’t long before Ash’s third burger was ready. Charles put extra care into putting it together, handing it off to Ash with a smile, saying, “All yours.”
Returning the smile, Ash took the burger, which materialized in his hands almost instantly. Somehow, he never got tired of these burgers, though they were all made the same way. They were too delicious to lose their appeal. And knowing this would be his last burger that his dad made, Ash focused on the taste of it this time. On how perfectly cooked and juicy the patty was. How all the toppings and condiments perfectly complemented each other while the flavors danced across his tongue. Even the bun, which Charles had put on the grill just long enough to lightly toast it, perfectly performed its roll. And after swallowing the last bite, Ash looked down and was delighted to see what had become of his body.
His arms were still brawny, but now even bulkier, like a powerlifter who hit the buffet extra hard after workouts. Moving his legs underneath him, he could feel that they’d grown in a similar way Upon stroking his chin, he discovered that his facial hair had straightened out too, giving him more apparent length and a better shape to his beard. Once again, his chest had remained proportionally humble, before giving way to his proudest feature of all: his gut.
Ash’s gut was nearly as big as an exercise ball, making him look like a biker who never got into fights because no one dared challenge him. He had to lean back to accommodate just how big it had gotten, which only caused it to push out farther and round out more. As he tried walking around, he now felt like he was being led by his gut, like it was so imposing that even he had to bow to its will. It was perhaps not the most common of ways to become more confident, but for Ash, it was certainly working.
“This is… perfect.”
“Good,” his dad said with relief in his voice.
“So, what do you think folks will say when they see me?”
“Good question,” Charles chuckled. “But if this… ghost magic, I think you called it?… works as well as it’s supposed to, I think they’ll believe you’ve always been this big.”
“Ah. And my other clothes?”
“If I can enlarge one outfit, I can enlarge them all,” Charles said with a smile. “You’ll be fine.”
“Then… this really is perfect. You’ve done an amazing thing for me. Thanks, dad.” Dad. The word fell out of Ash’s mouth almost like a glass accidentally pushed off a table, like a hiccup, like a stutter. But unlike his mistaken words before, he had no desire to take this one back.
Looking down, Charles took his time before looking back up at Ash with a smile. “You’re welcome, kiddo. You know, I, uh… I think I feel a bit lighter, myself.”
“What, in comparison?” Ash asked with a chuckle, before he turned around and saw that his dad’s ghost had faded bit, looking a little more clear than before.
“No, the… the burden… the tether… I think I’m… free.”
In a way, it was bittersweet. This was the only chance Ash would have to see his dad, and they’d barely caught up on everything that had happened to Ash. But knowing everything he knew, Ash couldn’t bring himself to beg his dad to stay. “Go, then. It was… good to get to meet you at least once.”
“You too, kiddo. You too.”
With a smile, Ash turned around and left the ghost of his father in the backyard, before he started hobbling toward his car. With a much bigger belly to carry, he swayed side to side as he walked, making sure he could keep himself upright. It certainly took him more effort to make each step, but all the muscle he’d gained along with the fat helped him move at a steady pace. If anything, he was just more aware of how big he was, of how much space he took up. And for once, he didn’t mind at all.
It was another week before Ash could return to the house. In that time, just like Charles predicted, a few people felt like there was something different about him, but no one could pinpoint it for sure. Some just said he seemed more confident. Some asked if he’d done anything with his beard, about the closest anyone came to guessing the true cause. But all-in-all, he was able to just go about his life, in a body he was more comfortable with.
But that didn’t make him any more enthusiastic about going back to the house to clean up all the beer bottles and cans. With several boxes of heavy duty trash cans in the back of his car, he drove back to Charles’ house the next Saturday. It was, without a doubt, the last thing he wanted to be doing on a Saturday.
But it seemed this visit to the house would not be like the last one. As Ash pulled up, he was greeted not by the sight of a yard riddled with empty bottles and cans, but instead, a single white garbage bag, filled to the top, and a single black garbage bag, nowhere near full but definitely containing something. Upon hauling himself out of his car and making his way on over, Ash could see easily that the white bag was filled with cans. Upon getting closer to the black bag and spreading his legs to bend down as best he could, he discovered that it was full of bottles.
With his eyebrows furrowed, Ash strode toward the door, pulled the key out of his pocket, and unlocked it, still bracing to be hit by the scent of beer once again. And when he opened the door, he was. But it wasn’t nearly as strong as it had been the previous week. And that wasn’t even the biggest surprise.
Looking around the house, Ash saw that the empty bottles and cans that had covered every surface were gone too, replaced by several garbage bags in each room. The living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom were all can- and bottle-free. About a dozen bags had been filled with the empty containers instead. The only trash he found was in the kitchen, where the boxes of trash bags had been dragged out from under the sink and were still sitting there, noticeably depleted. While the house still looked like a mess, it at least looked like a mess that Ash could do something with.
“Hey Charles! Did you do this!” Ash called out into the empty house. No answer. “Dad?” he called out again, with more conviction this time. Still no answer. Just the mundane echo of his voice against the walls. It seemed that, as his last act on earth, Charles had cleaned up the house for Ash, and that had allowed him to finally move on. Knowing that, Ash couldn’t help but smile.
A thought then occurred to Ash, who turned to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Pulling out his phone, he took a photo of the full cans of beer inside, before taking several photos of all the bags around the house. He then went on Facebook, posted the photos, and added the caption:
So as most of you know, my biological dad passed away recently. It seems before he passed, he bagged up all the empty beer bottles and cans that riddled his house, minus the full ones that are still in the fridge. Any of you want to come and help me take these bags to recycling? You can raid his beer supply in return.
After hitting post, Ash pocketed his phone again, and looked out over the parts of the house he could see from where he stood. His dad’s ghost might have been gone, but with all evidence of his vice cleaned from the apartment, he’d created room for his spirit to remain there.