Somewhere in the bowels of a dimly lit stairwell a young woman sat alone. She was slumped against the railing, her shoulder length, dark brown hair falling off to her side and through the gaps. She stared dejectedly at her phone, its blue light painting the wrinkles of her gray oversized hoodie with sickly streaks of white. She had eight missed calls and an unread text, all from the same number. She unlocked her phone and opened the text.
Anak, call us back when you get a chance. We just want to check in on you. Dad and I love you so much, Mel.
She let out a heavy sigh. A week ago Melanie had told herself this move would be the change she was looking for. The place was cheap and in a relatively safe part of Samsara–a fairly safe New England city to begin with from what she had read about it–and not far from her new job at a studio downtown. Then the days started to pass. While she had managed to settle into the apartment and adjust to her commute, she was struggling to make friends. She hardly went out outside of work, and at the studio she preferred to focus on her projects, as did her coworkers.
There were people she had been fond of; men and women she met at a bar she frequented on the way home from work, but it was never anything more than casual. Momentary highs from quick wits and bad jokes. Even worse sex. It came and went with the wind. She told herself this week would be better, but she came home to find the lock to her door jammed and her parents trying to call her again and started to reconsider.
It wasn’t that she had any problems with her parents, their relationship had always been close. They were just tied up in a town she was trying to put behind her. Tied up in mistakes that were still haunting her. And she couldn’t bring herself to tell them she was lonely, that she was burning through her mid-twenties mostly alone and without direction. So she kept putting off the conversation, hoping they would just think she was just busy with work like she always had been.
The sound of heavy footsteps on metal echoed from below her. She looked down to see the maintenance woman trudging up the steps. The heavy set middle-aged woman greeted her with a deep frown, the wrinkles around her dark brown eyes tightening as she scowled. “Melanie?” she asked dryly.
They made their way up to the third floor where the fluorescent bars hummed as weakly as they were lit. The chipped paint on “309” shined like rusted metal in a dirty mine. The lock whined before giving into the maintenance woman’s master key, snapping open with a click. “Thanks..” Melanie said timidly.
The maintenance woman nodded and took her leave before she could mention the locks on the windows inside were having issues too. Melanie stood at the doorway and watched her disappear down the stairs. This was exactly why she hated asking for help from anyone.
A haggard old face peeked out from the corner of her eye. Her neighbor, an elderly man, was leaning out of his doorway with a look of concern. “You alright?” she asked him.
“Are you..?” he answered.
She stared at him, blindsided by the question. “I’m uh.. I’m doing alright.. Why are you asking?”
“It’s that apartment…” he looked somewhere behind her, “You know what happened there?” She shook her head.
“It’s a sad story.. The girl who lived there before you had a rough go of it. Never knew her real parents. Kicked around the foster system until she was nineteen. Flunked out of college not long after. She came here for a fresh start. Started picking up the pieces, but.. It didn’t last..” The old man paused and scratched the gray stubble around his chin.
“What happened to her..?”
“..Overdose,” he answered sadly. She gripped the doorknob tightly.
“Why are you telling me this..?”
The old man looked around anxiously before replying. “I just.. I just don’t want to see anyone else get hurt..” he said quietly, “This place has bad energy.. You should find somewhere else to live.. Somewhere better.”
“I appreciate the concern, but I think I’ll take my chances..” She watched the old man nod and fade behind the door.
Melanie did believe in ghosts. She considered herself spiritual; raised Catholic, converted pagan, but she was more afraid of the metaphorical kind of ghost than the literal ones. The kind that haunts you from inside and stays there until your last heartbeat. What her neighbor told her was upsetting, but she was content with succumbing to a vengeful spirit one night rather than a bottle over a lifetime the way she’d heard many of her older family members had gone. If nothing else, it would at least be a nice change of pace.
The studio apartment felt bigger than it was thanks in large part to the folksy decor Melanie brought with her from her parents’ house. Her vine pattern throw pillows splashed a nice mix of green and brown on the otherwise bland, gray sofa in the middle of the room. The bookshelf against the wall across from it was completely filled with her collection of mystery and horror novels, the dark colors of the spines like pools of ink between the light toned wood. The queen sized bed on the other side of the room was left decidedly plain with white bed sheets and pillows, but next to it on the side table were a small selection of family photos in brass colored frames. A handful of bright moments she didn’t want to leave behind.
What qualified as the kitchen consisted of your standard sized refrigerator and one lonely white counter with a microwave connected to an oven and stove with a matching cabinet above it, her houseplants basking in the sunset on the windowsill in between. The fridge doors were covered in a random collage of old souvenir magnets, each from somewhere she visited when she was little. The memories they represented were worn down over time into vague, jumbled scenes stripped of context. Only scraps of emotion defined their significance, and not all of them were happy memories.
She emptied a to-go container of pork sisig and brown rice–her favorite dish growing up–from the Filipino restaurant down the block onto a paper plate and set the microwave for one minute. The old CRT TV in the living room nearby relayed some news to her while she waited for her dinner to finish heating. Another wildfire was ravaging Northern California. Protestors in Iran were being arrested and imprisoned en masse. A little girl in a sleepy, midwestern town was crowdfunding for her own cancer treatments.
She shoveled spoonfuls of pork and rice into her mouth as a commercial for antidepressants ran for the third time that evening. Hers were generic and covered by insurance, and didn’t have condescendingly inspiring music attached to them. She wondered if the one in the commercial worked any better.
She finished the rest of her meal and yawned. The clock above the TV read half past ten, half past her bedtime. She sighed and got up off the sofa.
The microwave chimed in the kitchen. Her blood ran cold. She didn’t have a roommate. She walked over to it slowly, trying and failing to make out anything in the dark other than the dim glow of the microwave’s buttons. The light switch was a little ways down on the other side of the wall next to her. She took a deep breath and reached for it. She fumbled around through stale air until the cold plastic met her fingertips.
She stifled a gasp and pressed herself as close to the wall as she could. Somewhere in front of her she heard what sounded like fabric rustling. Her blood ran cold. She tried to slow her quick, sharp breaths and focus. There were knives in the drawer under the switch. She just needed to be quick. She pressed down.
Her vision was flooded in white as she felt the rubber handle of one of the knives slide into her palm. She swung it forward, and cut through nothing but air. She staggered back against the counter and looked up.
The girl in front of her was somehow unscathed. Wide eyes the color of a clear morning sky looked down at her between shoulder length, jet black hair. Her hands were up in surrender and her expression was a mix of confusion and fear. “W-Who the hell are you?” Melanie shouted, pointing the knife forward.
“Eileen,” she answered shakily, “I.. This is my apartment..”
“Bullshit!” Melanie took a step forward and the girl took a step back.
“P-Please! Don’t hurt me!” the girl pleaded, “Just look! Look, I’ve got nothing on me! I can’t hurt you!”
That much was true. She was dressed like she had just gotten out of bed, in a white t-shirt and white shorts. There was nowhere she could be concealing a weapon, but Melanie refused to lower her guard. “Eileen..?” she asked.
The girl nodded, hands still up in the air. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I swear to you I’m not lying,” she answered.
Melanie pulled her phone out of her pocket and opened up Facebook. She looked up “Eileen Holm” and stared in shock at the first result. Her mysterious stranger stared back at her on the screen, smiling in front of the Golden Gate bridge. She glanced back up at the girl, then down to the picture and back again. “You know the old man next door..?” she asked the girl, barely able to breathe.
“George..? Yeah, I do..”
“He told me you overdosed..”
The girl paused and squeezed her eyes shut. “I did..” she answered in a strained voice. “The last thing I remember was being on the floor.. Right where you’re standing…”
Melanie looked down at her feet. She felt her grip on the knife loosening as she imagined Eileen’s body crumpled against the counter. She looked back up at the girl who was still standing with her hands up, but her eyes were now filled with tears. “Eileen..” Melanie said, lowering the knife, “How..?”
“I.. I don’t know..” Eileen cried and dropped her hands. “I don’t know what’s happening to me..”
They sat together on the sofa. Melanie leaned forward and rubbed her face against her palms, trying to process everything that was happening. She felt Eileen moving next to her, and looked up. She was pressed against the cushions, holding her knees to her chest, and something about her looked off. Melanie could see through her and into the kitchen. Her pale skin was fading into a thin mist, and her face was sunken and sickly. She looked fragile, like a light gust of wind could blow her away without a trace. “I’m sorry..” she whimpered. “I wish I could leave, but I can’t..”
Melanie reached for her hand, but passed through it into cold air, the chill wrapping around her fingers like melting snow. “Hey.. You have nothing to apologize for. You didn’t choose this..” she said gently.
“I did.. I did choose this..” Eileen looked up at her and stammered. “I chose to take all of those pills and now I’m stuck like this..!”
Melanie shook her head. “No one’s ever done that to themselves for no reason,” She looked into Eileen’s eyes. I had my reasons. “We’re going to figure this out, okay? I’m not leaving you like this.”
Eileen sniffed, her eyes red and tired but grateful. “Okay..” She rubbed her arm, and her eyes wandered around the room for a moment before returning to Melanie. “I don’t know how you’re so calm about this.. About me..”
“Oh believe me I’m not.. I think I just got most of the anxiety out swinging that knife at you earlier,” Melanie smiled weakly, trying her best to be reassuring. “And if you were going to toss me around or possess me, you could have just, you know…done that.”
Eileen let slip a giggle. “True.”
Attending to other people’s feelings was a skill Melanie had unwillingly developed from a young age. This time though, using it didn’t feel so bad. “Oh, um.. It’s Melanie, by the way. Mel for short.” She gestured awkwardly at the space around them. “I uh.. I hope you don’t mind what I’ve done with the place..”
That one got a laugh out of Eileen. “Nice to meet you, Mel. And no, I don’t mind at all. It’s very…” She took a moment to look around one more time. “Cozy.”
Melanie laughed, grateful she somehow missed–or wasn’t bothered by–her whole shelf of true crime books and serial killer biographies. She sat up straight, brushing a loose strand of hair back into place. “Right, well..” she cleared her throat. “Now that we’re both feeling ‘cozy’, maybe we could try retracing your steps? It doesn’t have to be from that day either, just whatever comes to…” She trailed off, noticing Eileen fading more and more from view.
Eileen broke into a coughing fit, the mist making up her form scattering into the air around them. “I’m sorry..” she responded weakly, “I think that’s gonna have to wait..” She leaned back and sank into the sofa. “I just need to…rest for a bit…”
She closed her eyes and vanished, first into a thin fog and then into nothing. Melanie stared at the space where she had been, taking in the silence. Did that actually happen? She sighed and fell back against the armrest, her gaze wandering along the floor leading to the kitchen. Eileen had left a trail of dusty footprints all the way back to the microwave. Well, shit.
It didn’t really matter how believable the situation was or wasn’t. She wanted to believe it. It gave her something important to do, something more than just going to work and the bar and paying her bills on time. She was going to help a ghost find peace, and maybe in the end there would be some for both of them. That’s what she hoped at least. The thought of that carried her to bed and into the first peaceful sleep she had since she moved in.