In nineteen ninety-five, someone else came to live at my apartment, even though I hadn’t asked her to. I had moved into North Star Heights by then, a poured-concrete sort of affair that flooded a little whenever it rained. My landlord, Mr. Alan Veitner, used to look up the hill in both directions (North Star Heights was, ironically, in a valley) and say “It’s just not fair that all of those people get to live so much higher up.” But for all his complaining he never left.
I never left, either, but that was because there wasn’t anywhere to go. 331 North Star had been the cheapest place I could find, and that was after months and months of searching. But it was only a short bus ride away from Sanders and Thurston LLC, the law office within which I was trying to work my way up diligently. From the very bottom, in fact: Mr Thurston had me alphabetizing his file cabinet. It had previously been “chronological,” which was the grandiose term for tossing all relevant papers inside as soon as a case was over, then allowing them to accumulate over twenty-seven years (twenty-eight if you factored in Mr Sanders). It was slow, slow work. And at the end of the day I hated how all the paper dust tasted, and how all the manila folders felt on my fingertips.
And, like a monk in some Trappist order, I awoke in my tiny cell, ate sparsely and occasionally, and set to work at my menial task without speaking a word to anyone. Then I came home, just as silently, slept in the relative quiet of gurgling pipes and arguing couples, and opened my eyes to another day I hadn’t asked for and couldn’t ever bring myself to want. And often I wanted to talk, but I didn’t have any chances up until she came. I don’t remember when that was exactly, though I’m positive it was the tail end of a weekend. I sensed her at first before I saw or heard anything. I guessed I could have left the door unlocked; I’d grown sloppy about checking in those days. There wasn’t really very much I was worried about being stolen. Anything important and work related was at the office; my phone was a few generations behind the latest (in the same way you could say the Italian Renaissance was a few generations behind today).
First there was that peculiar weight of another person at the limit of my senses—a kind of soft continual touch—so I glanced up, slowly, from my laptop and let all the brightness fade from my vision. Funny how hard it was to look directly at her. Not that I couldn’t, physically, just that something very profound and basic in me didn’t want to. I remember she was dark—not in color, I think the concept of color was too gaudy for her. She wasn’t any shade at all. It was like where color went to die. I don’t remember anything about her face. I couldn’t tell you for certain that she even had one.
Slight vertigo. A kind of clamminess. I swallowed against my flattened windpipe and looked down again. So here she was. That was fine. I only had to look away. It never occurred to say anything. What language could the two of us possibly communicate in, I thought? No use wasting breath—there really wasn’t enough in the room to begin with. Sleep was ruled out immediately, that was obvious. So I sat on my bed and looked, not at, but near her, and listened vaguely to the very early morning traffic. After a time my head felt like it was underwater so I got up to open the window. This left me with my back turned towards her. She hasn’t moved in an hour—why would she now? I reasoned, but then, why should she do or not do anything? I still didn’t know if she was a person.
But she was still there. Just at the end of my dresser. Seated on a bookcase like it was her own dusty electric chair.
I cracked the window and felt the stale air rush away and it was like paradise to, for a second, taste the cold certainty that life outside my apartment went on. I didn’t sense anything from her. No disapproval. No hate. Ruthless confidence, maybe, but that was it. I closed the window and lay down again.
“But I’m not sleeping with you here.”
She hadn’t asked that. I had.
“Because,” I answered myself “I don’t know why you’re here.”
“Oh.” That couldn’t have been me, could it? I wouldn’t have invented an answer like “to guide” right? Would I? In my tiredness I wasn’t sure.
At some point I looked at my clock and it said five thirty so I decided to get to the bus stop early and go in to work. Any hour I could spend away out of her gloomy shadow was fine with me. But as I opened the door and stepped into the hallway, she glided without really ever moving from her perch on the bookshelf onto the stained carpeting of the hall.
“No. You don’t come.” I said, wondering where I found the authority to command her.
She looked impassively on at me. Strangely, though the rest of the world seemed to present no interest, and no obstacle (she’d gone through a wall to get to me) I couldn’t argue that she was looking through me, or just over my head. Her eyeless face—the face she didn’t have—was trained directly on me.
So she sat at the long-shadowed bus stop and stood over me on the bus. If I only looked at her, I couldn’t tell what direction was up: where her head was, where her legs were, and so no matter what spot I picked if I looked too long I could have sworn I was falling…falling…asleep in bed, maybe, and dreaming…but this was my stop, and dreaming or not I didn’t need to go further into the city than this.
No, I wasn’t dreaming. The elevator felt real enough, and pressing my floor worked the way it should have, and my head ached with tiredness and I wished I’d been smart enough to buy a coffee. The office was deserted, predictably, and I crept through all the still cubicles with their unseen family photos and slightly ajar drawers. And what happens to a picture when you don’t look at it anyway? Maybe her face appeared in all of them.
So I sat down and answered my email in terse, broken sentences while she sat opposite the window and let her shadow reach the heavy door of the office.
I guess the first thing I should have assumed was that I was going crazy, and so for the rest of the morning I tried to believe it. But aside from a deep sense of unease, which had settled over me ever since I first saw her, there was nothing particularly crazy about me. Anyways it would have been too much work to hallucinate merely a single person and nothing else. Wouldn’t it? If I were crazy, there would be some other sign, surely. I stared hard into the silence and tried to hear some voices. But nothing so comforting happened. The office remained a cool, air-conditioned quiet, and I couldn’t even convince myself that she was after me: much less work up a sense of paranoia about the rest of the world.
“I don’t think I’m crazy. Do you?” I asked. It seemed only right that I should get her input every so often. But there was still no response.
If I turn around and face the window, I can see a psychic, a pastel sign almost totally outshined by “Cheque’s Cashed” in gaudy neon. Sometimes, in the past, I used to smirk at that sign, and the door that never seemed to admit a single client. I checked my watch. It was still only six, so no one would expect me to be at work for a few hours. Psychic it was, then.
Behind the door was a narrow, warping table with very organized stacks of things I didn’t recognize. She sat behind, un-phased by my unannounced entrance. Well, that was a good sign.
I didn’t want to be the first to speak, but neither did she. “Do you see it?” I asked, pointing with my wrist to the ghost (so I’d decided to call her) sitting listlessly on a radiator.
The psychic gave a confused wandering look around her office. “Of course I do.”
“What is it?”
“It is your aura.”
She nodded rapidly. Guesswork. I suppose that probably worked on most people who walked in and asked “do you see it” but I wasn’t most people with most problems. I told her so. “I don’t really care if I fall in love soon, and I have no fortunes I expect to gain, and I don’t plan on meeting any strangers, either. I need to know who, or what, THAT is.” This was accompanied with a longer point, right at where I imagined her heart could have been.
Our psychic was professionally interested in a case that didn’t involve money or love. I could feel her perk up, as in fact she stood up and padded towards the radiator. I heard her make a noise, though what it meant I couldn’t tell.
“What do you think it is?” She asked, guardedly.
I frowned. Not a good sign. “I think she may be a ghost.”
She brightened, visibly, and wheeled around. “Oh but of course. I meant, who do you think it is.”
“I can’t think of anyone.”
She tried to look back, but missed her by about thirty degrees. So the “ghost” stared at me, I stared at her, and she stared into an empty corner of the room.
“She feels nurturing and maternal. Have you lost a mother?”
“No.” She didn’t feel anything like that.
“Oh. Maybe someone else’s mother.”
“It’s possible.” It wasn’t.
The psychic sat, job completed. But I could tell from her eyes that she had never really seen it, because I am certain that if someone would have really laid eyes on her they would take a little bit of her with them, and carry it around between their irises and pupils like a tiny dark souvenir.
I got up to leave, and paid her in cash for a morning wasted.
On the way home (there was no way I could work) I decided to shoot her. I had to end this, purely for my sake, for though I had previously deemed myself “not crazy” those things are subject to change, and she was wearing my sanity down fast. She watched me pull the firearm from its case with interest; I think she liked it in some way. But approval from her felt to me worse than disapproval would have.
I sat in my bed, the same place I had first discovered her, and placed the gun carefully by my side. The whole morning had an element of ritual to it, and I felt impelled to preserve it even now. She glided in and sat in her usual seat, on my bookshelf. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I raised the gun and fired. All at once the tiredness from my long night awake crashed down on me and I fell asleep with my hand still wrapped around the sweaty grip.
Alan Veitner was less than thrilled with the new décor. “This your gun?”
I could hardly deny that.
“This hole made by you?”
“Yes, with this my gun even,” in my state of delirium I thought I’d save him the time and give the complete story.
He scowled, not expecting me to go along so easy. “I’m not sure there’s a clause in the contract per se about shooting your own room, okay, but I will absolutely charge you for the damages.”
I fell back on the pillow, waves of nausea cycling quickly through me, and considered. What does it mean to charge someone? Money…what was that? Some stupid system of painting cloth in beige and then Americans can tell you “it’s worth fifty dollars” but an alien wouldn’t prize it over a palm frond. I didn’t really care about paying for damages, just in that instant.
“What, okay? Just okay? What do you want me to do? Just add it to last months rent? Or what about most of the month before that’s rent? You already owe me your fucking firstborn–”
“Well, no, not literally, you fucking moron…hey: what’s got into you, anyways?”
My head felt fuzzy and hot, like someone had stuffed every white noise dead channel in my ears. “There was an intruder. And I shot to scare her away.”
“Oh, an intruder, huh? And you wanna know how come there was an intruder? Cause you never fucking lock your doors!”
I considered that. I had very much wanted to know why there was an intruder, but this answer didn’t satisfy me. “Okay, Alan. I’ll keep that in mind.”
He took a last, long, incredulous look at me, and started to leave. “Go to work, okay? Go to work, because it’s already three in the fucking afternoon and I need every penny you can get. Trust me, this is me being kind. Go to work.”
That sounded like an excellent suggestion just then, so I got up, and, realizing that I was already in the work clothes, I headed out again. Everything was fragile, but painful at the same time.
I was talking to no one in particular about I can’t remember what, but it brought Steve, our payroll manager over to me. Steve’s loud shirts always bothered me: The man in charge of keeping me in poverty shouldn’t also mock me with Hawaiian shirts.
“I guess you’re wanting your pay, right?”
I thought for a long time, and then decided I did. He took my hesitance as sarcasm and frowned at me.
“Well there’s been a problem with our banking system. A big error. It’s affected everyone. I’m afraid I can’t give you anything this week.”
“That’s okay,” I said. I wondered, for a moment. Was it okay?
“Good man. How’s the alphabetizing coming?”
“Nearly at H.”
He nodded gravely. “You’re doing a very important service for us all.”
I shook my head. “No one will never see these files again: I am certain of it.” I went in towards the office, simultaneously angry and confused. A payroll manager, I figured, could probably always be counted on to pay himself first and foremost, and did that give him the right to patronize me and wear his loud Hawaiian shirts?
So consequently, it was nearly five o’clock when I remembered her—and all my hazy invincibility crumbled to nothingness. Hard to believe I had forgotten so easily.
I closed the cabinet and stepped out into the main office. Clearly some sort of break had been announced, because everyone was down in the little kitchen, standing around a table with something on it. I wondered dimly why I hadn’t known. Somebody’s birthday.
It was close enough to five thirty, so I left. On the sunny frontsteps my phone lit up with a number I only recognized vaguely.
It was a cousin, as it happened, but one I rarely ever saw. He told me that his father had recently passed and the funeral was that weekend. I wondered if it would be altruistic of me to get there early and console them, though I knew practically not a single thing about consoling anyone. Just to be on the safe side, everything I owned went in the car. I wasn’t sure if/when I would be able to bring myself to work at Thurston and Sanders LLC again, and without that I imagined Alan Veitner would move someone else in, perhaps while I was still occupying it. Maybe he already had.
I looked at her and smiled my first real smile in a long time. “Let’s travel, you and I.”
I pulled open the passenger side door for her, knowing full well she didn’t need it. Closed with a flourish, then I slid in the driver’s side. I’d only been to the house once recently four or five years ago; I remembered it as a solemn, pretty sort of house, with a marked smell of old trees and wooden furniture. As a child I’d been all the time, but childhood never learns directions to things.
“Would you like to pick the music?” I asked her, before turning the radio on myself. Of course she didn’t answer. I didn’t think she would. But the highway whipped by and I began to only feel right when she was in my periphery. How did I do long drives before?
His wife was doing remarkably well. Carla was her name, and she spoke in simple, matter of fact sentences about his last few weeks, and I nodded and made comforting noises that she didn’t seem to hear. Their daughter was coming up from college, so every room of the house held its breath in an expectant sort of way. I walked through hallways aimlessly, opening and closing doors at random. She (not Carla) looked quite at home among the colonial design, and I wondered again if she might be somebody’s ghost. In the end, I decided she couldn’t be. There just wasn’t anything human about her.
Carla’s sister Jeanne arrived about an hour after me, and we ate dinner in an unlit kitchen. Something Jeanne had brought with her—that was smart. Why hadn’t I thought to do something like that?
I slept well, that night, because all the New England high rafters and dark wood window sills made seeing a ghost the most perfectly normal thing in the world, if that’s what she was, which she wasn’t.
In the morning, then, she looked all the more horrifying. I suppose she thought she had to stand out somehow. I woke up and grimaced at the sheer, cold, shock of it all, and tried to go back to bed. No luck. Her new appearance had so worsened and changed, I couldn’t help but consider it bad news, somehow. She’d never looked any different before that day.
I couldn’t seem to erase the image from my eyelids. Like a shrill, piercing scream that left you partially deaf. I didn’t have a choice but to open my eyes and stare. And get out of bed, and get dressed, and brush my teeth—all the while warding off what I’d seen of her face so I didn’t throw up. Downstairs, there was nothing to do. Upstairs neither. Jeanne was sitting on a sofa, coldly, straight-backed, and she didn’t seem very interested in talking to me. Poor, grieving Carla—where had she gone? Why hadn’t I thought of her before now? In a blind, befuddled panic I asked her sister if she was alright. Yes…gone shopping…well, that was fine then.
At that instant I glanced over my shoulder and saw that She was there, face back to normal at last (the relief was palpable) gesturing towards the door. I passed over soft carpet and up a few stairs. Not totally ever sure why I was obeying her, except that I didn’t want her other face to come back.
Jeanne was calling after me. “Are you alright? Where are you going?”
“I’m going to the lake,” I said, and after that, decided that was exactly where I was going. I had remembered, suddenly, that my uncle’s house sat just next to a large beautiful lake, only slightly bigger than a pond, and I used to play on the gravelly strip that passed for the shore.
I traced the steps as I remembered them, surprised that I could autopilot so well. She was hovering back behind me, I thought, making the autumn reds and golds several shades darker. Stopping breezes where they loped through treetops.
So then why was she already at the lake when I walked up to it? She came into view and I suddenly felt unsettled again, like things had converged without my knowledge. Behind me, maybe, there might be two of them? No, of course not. I had wanted to sit down and stare out over the lake: I still did, partially, want to see the violets and purples ringed by fir trees and the miniature waves drowning algae and lily pads. Something in me felt like an alarm bell, I think it was my heart hammering through my ribs.
She was bending over the water, now, standing about waist deep which I knew to be only a few yards in: after that it dropped off quite suddenly, almost vertically down to whatever maximum depth it hit. That was why no one had let us get in the water as kids, the shallows only lasted a little bit farther out.
Her palm was pressed against the surface of the lake, and I got the sense she was looking at something, but it seemed to take intense concentration. Against every particle of common sense in my body, I had to know what engrossed her. I had to know who she was—and seeing her here, against the lake, I almost thought I’d figured something out. She looked more natural here, like the water might be her home.
Into the water, then, and immediately the chill hit me through my socks. I swatted dragonflies and half-submerged twigs out of the way as I fought my way to her. Slow progress in the sandy, sludgy floor. If I stopped, I started sinking. So don’t stop. Water up to my ribs. This better be worth it…
Who are you? I wanted to ask, but before I could get the words out a single phrase presented itself in my brain, as clear as another voice.
I paused and looked up at her. Unmoving. Right, she had said that before, I recalled. She seemed to confirm that it had been her speaking to me just by immobility. A guide it was then.
She stepped out just a little farther, and I had been about to warn her that the shallows dropped away, before I thought to myself how silly that would be. She dropped down the lake like an anchor and I followed.
It was lucky we were close when she started swimming down, otherwise I don’t think I would ever have seen her. The water was murky, full of dark shapes some of which moved, and some of which only appeared to move in the ripples of light. She was moving quickly down, and it was taking all my strength to push after her. The salt stung my eyes but there was no way I could close them and still see her well enough to follow. There were ossified trees, here at the bottom—a submerged forest, maybe? They certainly didn’t look like water plants. Maybe this whole lake had been a valley millions of years ago…
Down, down, down I pushed water out of my way with muscles screaming at the effort. Compounding the difficulty was my breath, starting to run out. My whole chest hurt, and only now did I consider how far we’d descended. There wasn’t much light anymore, and instead of schools of minnows I only saw the occasional large, ugly fish, the kind who effortlessly fade from vision by camouflaging among rocks. Rocks—we must be nearly at the bottom?
I finally caught sight of her again, sitting against a large rock on the very bottom of the lake. Three more strokes, I guessed, then I’d be about even with her. I hoped she had some sort of plan to get me back to the surface. I needed to take a breath desperately.
With every rush of water that passed by my eyes she rippled and faded from view like a trick of underwater light refracting off of something. I started paddling madly towards her—I couldn’t let her leave me alone here of all places! But the closer I got the less real she seemed, before a final stroke brought my arm right through her.
I grabbed a clump of rock and mud, letting the smaller grains trickle through my fingers and the rest float up, obscuring where she had been.
“NO!” It was worthless to shout against the salty water, which roared into my mouth, bent on conquering my lungs. Coughing, I turned my eyes up to where the land ought to have been. I couldn’t see the sun at all, just greenish-gray swirling all around me, no beginning or end, and no clear shapes either. Maybe I could try to push off the rock and paddle furiously towards the surface, sure, but I knew it was a waste of time and energy. I had barely seconds left of oxygen, my vision was already beginning to blur and disintegrate, I was watching it all happen like a spectator. My lungs were being torn in two: a quick and clean rip as my airless brain became suddenly clear. Great rolling clouds of tar were sealing off my vision, and there hadn’t been any answers to anything, in the end. Maybe she was a guide, or maybe she had never been real in the first place but she had lead me faithfully either way exactly to where she wanted me to be.
Image: Volatile by Sofia Dimitridoy ’20