It was creepy at first, the way it’d stare at me at the end of the hallway. The day started with heavy boxes, two of which were filled with pizza for the movers who helped with the pieces of furniture. It was a frustratingly shy roommate, causing me grief when others weren’t around. I would open a door, any door, and notice that something was a little off in the room. A drawer ajar. The lighting wrong. My breath visible.
My bedroom was at the very end of the hallway, my bed placed precisely before the door. Given the small, Victorian dimensions of the room, it was the only place my apparently lavish mattress could properly fit. It liked to perch itself on the opposite end of the hallway, and I considered sleeping in the living room instead. The idea was quickly forgotten, as I’d be inadvertently closer to the shadow. My first night in the apartment, and I had already forgot how to breathe.
My roommate took hasty advantage of my bed’s positioning, standing at the other end of the hallway and just staying there, waiting until I woke up from its stare. I didn’t dare move the first night. Small breaths left me panicked as my eyes strained in the dark of the apartment, watching the unnatural shadow as it watched me. When it mixed into the dark of the hallway surrounding it, and my eyes couldn’t find its tall outline, I managed sleep again only to be awoken once every few hours. The nightly incident had continued now for eleven days.
It’s not the apartment that’s haunted. It’s just that something has taken residence there long before I ever did. It scratches the insides of the walls as I try to type at my desk, it lingers just out of my peripheral vision when I go about my day. It throws my shoes out from the closet, it turns the porch light on when I leave.
It was creepy at the beginning. But now, as it stares at me from down the hallway, I’m more aggravated than disturbed.
Mom visited when I had Zachary last weekend. Entering the place, she braced her elbows, caressing them like a lost pup, all the while muttering “cold, so cold”. Zach didn’t mind the old place, in fact he entertained himself by trying to shove bony fingers into the cracks in the wall, racing his toy cars on the wooden floor in the living room, and sometimes he was content enough to just stare at a corner of a ceiling, impersonating a statue until I announced lunch was done. Mom had to leave just after a few hours on the first day, body shivering despite a coat.
The weekend went by too quick. I barely recalled my aloof roommate and how it left my sleeping schedule alone. I was more concerned with the smile that rarely left Zachary.
Less than an hour after watching the kid hop into the back seat of his mom’s sedan, I heard a retro ringing from the kitchen. It was jarring in the quiet apartment, loud enough to mask the creaky floorboards as I walked to investigate. There, on the wall beside the sink, was a landline which shook with each ring. Society had dictated it was more efficient and functional for a cell phone to take any calls, but as the phone danced, hanging from its perch, I knew immediately who it was. The woman insisted she use the thing when getting in touch with me, claiming “it’s just less personal that way”. Whatever the hell that meant.
“How was Zachary when you had him?”
My hand gripped the phone tighter. I already felt drained enough from the impending conversation to lean against the wall. “Oh, hey Sharon.”
A blow of air. “Hey to you. How was Zachary when you had him?”
“He was great. I’m sure he told you about the park, right? And the geese he tried to follow?”
“Yes, he mentioned the geese, the toys you bought him, the movie you guys saw.”
“Okay.” I paused. If Sharon’s impatience was a taunt wire, I was the scissor that always managed to cut the thickest spot. “So, what? Isn’t he behaving with you?”
“He mentioned George, Joel.”
My gaze mindlessly focused on a bush outside a window. “What, like he misses him?”
“Joel, I swear to god- I told you I don’t want your brother around him. You know how he smokes like a goddamn freight train.”
“Whoa, whoa, what? What are you on about? George wasn’t here.” I looked around the room I was in, as though expecting the loon to pop his pot-belly out from under a table or outside a cabinet, laughing his ass off.
“Well, ask your son then, Joel. That’s the first thing Zach kept talking about in the car. George this, George said that, George knows a trick, George don’t touch the ground, George, George, George.”
The phone’s plastic crunched as I gripped it harder. “He was not here all weekend. You think I’m that stupid?”
A moment of enrapturing silence. Then, “Do you remember forgetting Zach’s inhaler last month?”
“Goodbye, Sharon. I’ll talk to you later.”
Both hands met the cool linoleum of a countertop, and my eyes again scanned the kitchen for anything that could possibly give me an explanation. A few bags from the grocery store still laid lopsided and careless on the table nearby. Shopping with Zach for dinner supplies had been a little less than chaotic the passing Friday, but I did recall a particular purchase.
I reached into a bag, pulling out the magnetic, colorful letters that Zach insisted were “baby toys”.
“Well, bud, they’re also toys for ghosts too.”
I set the collection of letters on the refrigerator, picking out specific few until, quite clearly, the question, “IS YOUR NAME GEORGE” was spelled out on the freezer.
For minutes I waited. I stood in front of the fridge with pinched lips, my head filled with a glaring white noise until, finally, I did what I always thought was just a fictional gesture and threw my arms in the air with a scoff. I couldn’t help but finish the spectacle with a bitter, “I give up.”
Later that same night, as I poured a warm brandy, I noticed the letters had changed to spell out “NO.”
I stayed up late that same night and sat in the hallway. With a flashlight in my lap, I pushed aside memories of a campfire with Zach up in the Whitney Mountains last spring.
“I can’t do this,” I announced. “When I saw the ad, it said seeking quiet roommate with a regular sleep schedule. I thought-” a cheeky laugh was unavoidable “-I thought that would apply to you too. Look, this is a nice place. I won’t lie. But you, you know, if you’re living here, you should pay rent too. Maybe I wouldn’t mind you as much. I just…my sanity isn’t worth this.”
The house rumbled. I grunted from my tailbone smashing against the wall behind me, but within seconds it stopped. The lamp in the living room flickered.
“Right,” I called, “okay then.”
It was nice at first, the way I’d get enough sleep at night and wake up early each morning. I was clean-shaven again. A coworker mentioned I seemed chipper. Kimberly Jenson, a savvy secretary with nice legs, struck up conversation in the elevator. I felt better, began to drink a little less, wore a lazy smile a little more. The cracks in the apartment went away, and I began to paint each of the rooms something brighter, expunging the last of the paranormal my roommate forgot to take with him. I spent a lot of time in the apartment. I fixed old faucets, cleaned up the cobwebs, made a switch from the vintage Victorian era to something a little more modern, a little more bright and a lot less gloomy.
But despite the attempts at making the place something more than walls and furnishings, there was still a strange itch I could never quite get to. The air itself, it seemed, needed a revamping. Loneliness was lofting off of my skin, wafting throughout the place, tainting it pathetic and forlorn.
My apartment wasn’t a home, anymore. It felt insurmountably empty, walls cooler than a lone castle on a Germanic hilltop. I considered a cat, some sort of pet able to take care of itself and keep me company, but I didn’t want to block Zachary’s chance of fresh air and hinder my chance to see him more. The house was a vacuum of sound, death seeping through the vents instead of cool air. I was unbearably hot throughout the nights. My hallway vacant.
On the fifth day, as I readied a drink to celebrate another week of survival at the firm, I caught a shadow from the corner of my eye. It appeared shorter in that small moment, and when I looked over to where I had noticed a black mass of limbs, I realized it had been by the kitchen’s table. The chair adjacent to mine had been scooted back a few feet. My gaze slid over to the refrigerator in one fluid motion from the table, curious, as the drink warmed in my hand.
The plastic letters, shinning dully under harsh bulbs, had been alphabetized it seemed, the three sets of columns aligned neatly across the board. I looked back at the empty chair. I looked down at my drink to gently slosh it around, the amber suddenly captivating against the crystal glass. What does a ghost do when its bored? When it’s trapped in a house with lame company?
The other day, having arrived home with an exasperated sigh, the living room looked a bit off. The couch cushions were loose, as though an earthquake in the springs upset them. Large balls of dust stained the floor in front of the sofa, and it took all but a moment to realize it was molded pennies and faded quarters.
“You’re about $120 dollars short.” I had glanced back at the clutter before shrugging off my coat. “And that’s my money anyway.”
The day before that, my roommate had switched all the clocks forward in lieu of Daylight Saving Time, which, I had to admit, was impressive as it was intuitive.
The strange shadow hovering along the walls consumed me, and I flipped through recent accounts of the creature experimenting with hobbies like a recipe ring.
Maybe I missed the excessive scratching as much as it yearned to scratch.
“Hey, listen, you can…you know…make noises again. Move things around.” I took a swallow of the drink, looking back at the empty chair. “Just, I don’t know, let me get at least six hours a night?” The words hung in the air, but sensing dissatisfaction, I sighed. “Five hours?”
The house abruptly shook, dust falling on me from cracks in the ceiling I didn’t even know I had. The lamp in the living room went out, as did the ones in the kitchen, shadows quickly encasing me. “Right,” I called, “okay then.”
*Originally published 2015, The Fallout Shelter