We were young and poor and the apartment was six hundred and fifty-five dollars a month with heat included. Yeah, the refrigerator and oven were small and outdated. But there was a large window made for growing plants and looking out into the park across the street when feeling wistful. I could already see myself holding a cup of hot chocolate and watching gray sky and snowfall on a January afternoon. I would have deep thoughts about light and color and be inspired.
“I do have to disclose the following as per state regulation 970,” our potential landlady said.
Anna and I exchanged a glance, wondering if the other knew what state regulation 970 was. I lifted a shoulder, made a huh face. She smirked.
“About ten years ago we had an old woman die on the grounds. She slipped on the ice and fell. It happens.” She spoke with her hands as if she were a magician trying to distract us from the true mechanics of the trick happening around us. “No one’s seen her or anything. There’s a ghost cat or two wandering the hallways. I also have to disclose the apartment below you is occupied by at least two ghosts. But they’re great tenants. And they might even offer to split internet with you.”
The landlady’s eyes were on the park. I turned. A pack of young men were throwing around a yellow Frisbee and trying to tackle the person holding it. One leapt over a black bench in an attempt to get the Frisbee. He fell and the landlady and I laughed.
“Ghosts are fresh. Very right now,” Anna said. She had the smile of someone who was considering whether her bedroom would look better with swimming pool blue or pistachio ice cream green walls.
“Are they? The ghosts. Are they?” I paused trying to think of a way to make the question reasonable, but not rude.
“Have they ever hurt anybody?” Anna blurted out. She wasn’t embarrassed by the question like I was.
“Well, honestly I don’t know. I mean the most we’ve ever heard them doing is making the cable go out or making objects float.” The landlady’s wrinkles reminded me of a colander full of spaghetti. “But I have to admit we don’t watch the news much anymore. Too depressing.”
If she had watched or read the news, the landlady would’ve known ghosts can cause someone serious harm by materializing in a person’s vital organs. She would’ve learned about how some are repulsed by the living and have moved to Antarctica to create a new ghost country. That’s why so few were actually around. And she would’ve known some ghosts are attracted to the essences of young people. The smell of fresh organs is like a perfume to them. They feel more alive than ever after contact with the young. She would’ve known scientists are still studying who gets to return and who remains dead forever.
I should have recognized what the landlady meant by state regulation 970; my mother had advised me never to live in an apartment where the rental company had to disclose this. I had only half-listened to all her advice. My mother’s warnings about places to live made everywhere out of my price range, made the only suitable place to live my childhood bedroom.
I also had a half-formed, romantic idea, probably because of multiple viewings of the live action Casper movie, of meeting a ghost who just wanted to fall in love once. He would fall in love with me, let the joy of romance re-ignite his heart and move on to whatever was next. I could already imagine telling people stories. The way they would ask me what it felt like to have a ghost hand on my own and what it felt like to be so loveable I could give someone else peace.
We were supposed to look at one more apartment. It was ground level. We knew it would have centipedes. In the advertisement, I saw a small greenish blur in one of the pictures. The night before I’d dreamt I’d written one hundred legs on a wall with black lipstick. I was terrified of centipedes, but Anna had insisted we at least tour it. I was more scared of centipedes, something I could smash into green mush with a heavy book, than I was of ghosts.
I looked at her. Anna was looking at the high ceilings, opening cabinets.
“We’ll take it,” she said. I nodded and wondered if I should even tell my mother I now lived above an indeterminate number of the undead.
* * *
The night we moved in, Anna heard screaming.
“Please,” two voices screamed from what sounded like the park. “Please.”
We set down the items we were holding on the long kitchen counter. Crept to the window. The streetlamps lit up the whole, tiny park. It was empty. No one was even standing across the street from it.
“If it keeps up, I’ll call the police,” I said.
“It’s probably just drunk guys,” Anna said. “Corner Bar is across the park and that way.”
“Maybe it’s.” I pointed to the apartment below us, raised my eyebrows.
Anna shuffled off to bed, but I stayed up late looking up ways to ward off evil ghosts. Most took me to crackpot-style websites filled with bad grammar about using witch hazel and crucifixes and tulip bulbs hanging from windows. There were news sites about how we could hire an exorcist to walk through our home waving palms and chanting and smearing the doorway with holy water. And a few were for old men volunteering their time. We could get a third old man roommate. Apparently, the smell of his impending death might disgust the ghosts, but we would also run the risk of him dying in the night and becoming one of them. I clicked over to some Ghostbusters fan fiction websites—Egon plowing Ray, Slimer making love to a young woman who was obviously the author at a very strange Halloween party—and read until I almost fell asleep.
* * *
After living there for a week, we decided they weren’t interested in us. I wondered sometimes while putting my makeup on before work if we just didn’t smell young enough. Maybe Anna’s lungs were already fifty-nine from all the pot she smoked. I was twenty-three, but hereditary gray hairs were appearing along my hairline. My new boss told me when I was forty-five, men would call it a sexy stripe and it would make me feel awesome. I laughed, but vowed to dye my hair before it got that far.
Anna and I had hoped they would knock on our door at midnight, introduce themselves, and bring over some dead flowers and a bottle of ancient wine. Maybe if we were lucky a cursed set of earrings that belonged to one of their wives. One of us would be possessed by her spirit, our eyes would turn an eerie green, and we would start floating and writing in old-fashioned cursive. Not even a post-it on our mailbox asking if we wanted to split Wi-Fi appeared.
We were bored. I answered phones for a university department, made coffee, ordered office supplies, compiled an alumni newsletter and in a few months would organize graduate admissions materials for the faculty members to go over. I spent most of my time GChatting people and looking at adoptable pets from the Humane Society. I was doing nothing creative and although I’d only been an administrative assistant for a week, talking to my friends who had actually moved out to LA to try to make it made me feel like a failure. They were mostly answering phones at talent agencies and getting yelled at by more experienced people on film sets, but at least they were there, doing something. Even Anna, between working as a part-time cashier at the food co-op and as an occasional drug dealer, was still creating collages and taking photos.
* * *
“We’ll do this for like a year, man,” Anna said. She held the last speck of her joint out to me. “We’ll save our money and then start it up.”
“What it?” I asked. I took the joint, inhaled deep, and then coughed so hard I almost dropped it on the couch. I looked at Anna’s legs. She had drawn and written on them in different colored magic markers, made them look graffitied.
“I’m taking pictures of them. Starting a new series. I’m trying to talk about blackness and how sometimes the only representation of a black community becomes what we write on other people’s walls. Our walls. And like this time the walls are my legs and maybe if I get high enough, my stomach and tits.”
“I love it,” I breathed. I could already imagine how great they would look hung in a gallery, blown up huge, and with tasteful lights shining around them.
“If I like it, I might ask you to leg model. But I’m not sure how good this idea is.” Anna still stared at her legs. “I think it would be better if we had left Whitesville, MI. Gone somewhere where there was real color. I can’t tell if this is a good idea or if I’m just reacting to here.” Anna called everywhere in Michigan with the exception of Detroit, Saginaw, and Flint, Whitesville, MI. She looked out the window and yelled, “I hate you, money.”
“Sallie Mae, you fuckwad.” I joined in.
I stopped laughing when I felt a diving underwater pressure in the room.
I looked around hoping to see green or silver blobs, a blurry man I didn’t recognize. But all I could see was Anna. Then a blast of music from behind my ear. A saxophone I couldn’t see. Our TV screen lit up, a bright blue colored static, then shut off.
We grabbed hands. It felt as if our faces were joined together, each one half of a giant red-lipsticked smile.
A piece of pink chalk zoomed above our heads toward the chalkboard in our kitchen. We stood up and watched as the chalk wrote: Lena and Anna! Party at our place. Tomorrow Night. BYOB.
* * *
We walked downstairs and let ourselves in. Their apartment was larger and better maintained than ours. They had brand new appliances. That seemed unfair. I turned to complain to Anna about it, but she was already talking to someone. Their wood floors, what I could see of them through the crowd of people, were freshly stained. I wondered how they paid their rent; I had never heard of ghosts getting jobs, but figured it was too rude to ask. All the furniture was folding chairs and some barstools set up in front of what looked like a professional bartender’s station.
“You made it,” a voice said in my ear.
I turned my head, but no one was beside me.
“Sorry, I made myself small enough so I could go in your ear and not have to shout. I’m Sylvan.”
I imagined my ear glowing with misty blue light.
“Nice to meet you.”
“There are a few beers in the kitchen. Cocktails in the living room. Have fun. And P.S. You look great.”
A ghost smelled me and said, “Oh my god, you smell so fresh.”
Before I could ask if she was talking about my organs or my perfume, the ghost blobbed away. There were more people there than I expected, but there were still a lot of ghosts. I wasn’t sure what to do—I had never been to a ghost party—so I grabbed a drink and hoped I looked cool. After a while, I realized the big difference between a ghost party and a regular party was some of the ghosts thought it was hilarious to float chairs and make them slam into each other when “Taking Care of Business” came on.
Sylvan materialized in front of me. While his feet were a blurry gray area, his face was still distinct. His hair and eyes were black and after three drinks, I started wondering what it would be like to move close and try kissing him. We tried dancing together, but it was hard to feel in synch. It was like trying to dance with the electric sparks of a garment fresh from the dryer. He touched my hand. His fingertips had the feel of watery peeled grapes, but I kinda liked it.
I hadn’t seen Anna in hours. I wanted to talk to her and get an idea of what I should do.
“Sylvan, I’ll be right back.”
He smiled and kept dancing, zigging around the room.
I turned and there was an old woman. She smelled of ice salts and rot.
“You kids need to keep it down,” she said. I thought she might be the old woman who died in front of the building, finally awoken by the party sounds. But she seemed completely whole and I wasn’t sure how to say it better than, “Yo. Are you dead?” I walked away.
“I’m not dead,” she called after me.
I squirmed around people and ghosts until I found Anna. She was kissing a ghost-woman with long hair. As they embraced, the color drained out of Anna’s face. Her lips and eyes blurred. The ghost woman gained color as they kissed and stroked each other. Her hair was dark brown, her cheeks were rosy again, and her hands solid around the blur that was once Anna’s head.
They stopped kissing and looked at each other. Anna nodded and whispered something. Her face unblurred.
I pushed closer, scared their embrace could have lasting effects. Anna kissed the ghost again, her hair turned white. They pulled apart and it was back to being dark brown.
“You kissed me so hard, I had teeth again,” the ghost said. Her voice was a creaking floorboard.
Anna turned and saw the obvious fear on my face.
“Be cool,” she said. “This is Opal. She died almost two hundred years ago. Wait, was that rude?”
“It’s fine,” Opal said. She acted as if they had known each other forever. Her face was see-through. Making eye contact with her was strange: I could see the blue-gray of her eyes, but I could also see the apartment’s white wall. What there was of her body had the outline of curves. I glanced over at Anna. Her eyes were wide as she looked at Opal; she seemed completely sober, as if attraction had made her wake up.
“Lena.” I pointed at my chest as I said it. I realized how drunk I was and put my finger down.
“I saw you dancing with my brother. Isn’t he great?” Opal put a hand on my arm. Her fingers went slightly into my skin. It was cold enough to make me wince a little. I nodded, knowing I was going to be seeing a lot of her, at least as long as she kept Anna interested.
* * *
I learned in the weeks that followed that most ghosts don’t actually long for bodies. They fluctuate between oversized dandelion flowers of light and blurry human shapes. “You wouldn’t believe,” Opal related as she watched Anna and I eat eggs, “how freeing it can be to be bodiless. You don’t have to worry about your weight. You can see the bottom of the ocean or the insides of car engines.”
Most ghosts spent their time seeing all the things they didn’t get to when they were alive. Sylvan and Opal talked about leaving for Antarctica in a few months to see the penguins and explore the ghost cities that had formed there. I wished I had the money to follow them. I imagined the glow of indistinct ghosts among a heavy snow and felt almost inspired.
It was rude to ask ghosts how they died. The information for them was hard for to consider. Death leaves a mark on the brain, Sylvan said once, while I sat in their empty apartment to get away from the loud sex happening in my own. He explained it in long halting sentences, but summed it up as being like a brick wall you bashed up against when it was mentioned. The thought of it knocked you backwards, made your brain rattle, and there was no way to make running into it stop hurting.
Once we talked about how people become ghosts.
“I wish I knew,” Opal said. She became a light green mist. “Like I was young, but I don’t remember feeling unfulfilled.”
“You’re such a liar.” Sylvan looked more solid than ever in his annoyance. “You’re just trying to sound cool.”
She and Sylvan had died the same winter of influenza. Opal was nineteen. He was twenty. When I sneezed sometimes, they exchanged this is how it starts looks. I hated it.
“I read,” I said, “that some scientists in Sweden think they’ll be better able to understand the universe and how life works by studying the particles of ghosts.”
“Who do you think would make better ghost material?” Anna asked. She finished packing her bowl and looked up at us. “Me or Lena?”
“Lena,” they said in unison.
I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment and looked down at my feet.
“You always seem like you’re looking into the distance,” Sylvan said. “And thinking about something more.” I like it, his eyes added.
Since the party, we had been flirting a lot, but nothing more had happened. I liked the attention. The popsicle feel of his fingers slightly sinking into mine while we watched a movie. But I wasn’t sure if I really wanted a ghost boyfriend. And I didn’t feel like dealing with the awkwardness of sleeping with someone, things falling apart, and having forced conversations for the next year of my lease.
“And Anna is always fulfilled,” Opal said.
Anna grinned and flicked her lighter in response. The orange and blue flame could’ve been a new ghost returned to Earth from whatever was next.
* * *
Sometimes after Anna and Opal fucked, they switched matter states for an hour afterwards. While Opal had to figure out how to walk again and staggered around our apartment, Anna zoomed around the air. She figured out how to become a bright pink light and would bob next to our window looking out at the park. Opal always seemed relieved to return to ghost form, ping-ponging around, staying hazy and immaterial for several minutes. More and more, Anna seemed disappointed to be stuck back in her body.
“I want to be a cloud,” Anna said when we trudged to the grocery store.
“I wish I were faster like Opal,” Anna muttered when she came home from work.
“Wouldn’t it be great,” she said while we bought pens in the art store, looked at dyes, and stroked the tips of squirrel-hair paintbrushes, “if we could make art forever?”
“You should sleep with Sylvan at least once so you can feel what being a ghost is like,” Anna started saying to fill the growing lulls in our conversations, knowing we had only held hands a few times while talking or watching a movie. “It’s the best. I feel so inspired afterward.”
She had stopped her graffiti project and was now taking black and white photos, then painting and collaging different blurs on them. She and Opal talked about colors and how they lined up with ghost sensations, blurs and materialization. In every piece Anna showed me, I thought I could see some aspect of Opal: her light, small eyes, the wild hair, the outline of her thin neck.
I was jealous of how inspired Anna was. The closest I had come to starting a new project was buying some 16 mm film from an antique store and coloring on some frames with purple and green crayons. When she asked to see what I was working on, I would shrug.
Once I said, “The alumni newsletter is going to be a short experimental film featuring car crashes intercut with a list of accomplishments. Joyce Perkins ‘14 was first AC on a film that’s being screened at Sundance. A car flies off a cliff.”
“That might be a little Warhol derivative,” Anna replied before realizing I was joking and moved onto talking about her next piece.
* * *
Anna was trying to get Opal to allow her to film their lovemaking.
“We could have the first big deal, human-ghost sex tape. We could be more famous than Kim Kardashian,” I could hear Anna saying through our too-thin, shared bedroom wall. “We would just need to plan some really freaky stuff.”
They giggled. The bed creaked. I put a pillow over my head, hoped they would at least wait until the next day to start up again.
* * *
We walked home alone from a bar. Anna’s hand guided me along the sidewalk. I had drank too many vodka tonics and walking was like being ant-sized and trying to walk on a highball glass rim.
“I wish you and Sylvan would get together,” she said.
I looked up at the sky. Even the stars reminded me of ghosts now. I thought vague sentimental thoughts about light and how some of the stars we still saw were already dead.
“Then we could all be together forever. God, imagine getting to live even just five hundred years.”
She grabbed my hand and smiled. Her eyes were soft and happy.
“Alive for all time,” Anna said. Her exhale was a birthday cake wish.
Once as a child, I went to a friend’s birthday party at Michigan’s Adventure. All my friends from school were there and they convinced me to ride Thunderhawk. My friends laughed and screamed as we barrel-rolled at fifty miles per hour. I cried. I’ve never ridden a rollercoaster again. I was happy with carousels, cotton candy, and the everyday ground. They kept urging me to try again and I ignored them to sit on a wooden unicorn and slowly eat blue cotton candy. As the months passed and Anna and Opal’s relationship deepened, it was starting to feel like the same situation with Anna.
* * *
I decided to go home and visit my mother. I hoped being in my old bedroom and being away from Anna and Opal would help me get a good night of sleep. I helped her weed the garden and check on her pumpkins, and make dinner. I didn’t say much, but I could tell just having me around made my mother happy.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. Still up on the walls were the film posters I’d hung up as a teenager: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Blow-up, Blue Velvet, Love and Basketball, The Shining. My bookshelves were filled with mostly books about movies or old DVDs I was embarrassed to take with me to college. Still on the wall above my desk was a goals list I had written at fifteen. By twenty-five, I was going to write and direct my own movie. At thirty, have a showing of my paintings and photographs. Thirty-two, have a film at Sundance. Underneath the goals and deadlines I had written: make art all the time.
I was trying to sleep in a monument to who I thought I should be. I burrowed myself under blankets, even though it was too hot, until I felt completely alone.
* * *
“Isn’t it nice to be home?” my mother asked the next morning while pouring herself a cup of coffee.
I wanted to tell her everything as she handed me a bowl of sliced fruit and dolloped yogurt on top for me. I wanted to complain about not having made a movie or even filmed anything substantial since I graduated. How so many people had said I was going to be great, but now that I wasn’t a student, nobody cared. I wanted to talk about Anna and Opal and what it was like to have to essentially live with a too-happy couple. I wanted to ask her why she hadn’t dated anyone since splitting up with Dad. I wanted to tell her I was scared about how Anna was changing. How uncomfortable the idea of living forever made me. But I knew if I told her my problems, she would only add to them. She would try to use those as excuses to get me to quit my job. Stay home. I could see how lonely she was in the way she kept bringing me food and touching my shoulders. Her laughter was different. There was a hint of surprise in it as if she couldn’t believe she was laughing again.
“I think I’m fighting something off,” I said. I filled my mouth with yogurt and gestured for a magazine. I looked at the leaves changing gold and brown on the trees.
If she were paying attention, my mother would’ve seen how different I was after years away. She would’ve noticed how tired I was or the silences as we cooked and ate dinner. But she was only seeing what she wanted.
* * *
When I came home, Sylvan was waiting for me outside my apartment door.
“I missed you,” he said. Sylvan kissed me on the lips. My mouth and lips were melting snow. I was surprised, but it felt good. I kissed him back. His lips felt firmer. My teeth liquefied and I couldn’t feel my nose anymore. Who needed eyebrows? Hair? I still had a tongue. He stroked my back. His hands felt firm and real.
“Lena.” He said my name as if it were a synonym for lovely. With my head a different shape, the hallway’s brown carpet became a color I had never seen before. I kissed him again. I thought I could see the electricity running through the wires inside the walls. Time was transparent plastic I could see through: there were layers and layers of indistinct people standing and walking and talking in the hallway. I wished I could record it.
“Do you want to go inside?” I asked while simultaneously wondering how much further we could actually go. His torso on down seemed mostly indistinct still. I realized I was hovering two inches above the ground.
I opened the door and floated through it. It smelled strange: like metal and a vet’s office. I flicked on the lights with my free hand. Anna was lying on the couch, an empty bottle of vodka at her feet. I dropped my bag. One of the couch cushions was no longer floral and pink, it was stained deep black red with her blood. There was spray on the back of the couch, on the window. Floating made me faster. I felt for her pulse on the uncut wrist. I thought I could feel something. She still felt a little warm to the touch. I took my shirt off, wrapped it around her wrist, tried not to look at the cut.
Opal materialized. Sylvan rushed to her. They brushed my cheeks, made them cold. I wasn’t sure why they weren’t trying to help.
I called 911. Detailed what I saw, what I had done, purposefully didn’t mention Opal or Sylvan’s presence. My feet touched the floor.
“There’s a note on the counter,” Sylvan said.
“She wants to be young and with you forever?” he said to Opal. The TV lifted off its holder, clung to the wall with a stretched tight cord. Silverware rattled in the drawer.
“I never promised her anything.” The cupboards opened and shut. “I did say imagine what a great artist you would be after two hundred years.” The kitchen lights burned brighter, then flickered. As two light blue dots they chased each other through the air.
I looked at my friend’s face, studied her chest. I didn’t think she was breathing. I wondered if I should try CPR, but I had never learned how to do it. I knew doing it wrong might only make things worse. Anna’s eyes were closed. I heard sirens getting closer. She had lined her eyes with dark green eyeliner, what she called her Cleopatra look. The red and blue lights pulled close.
* * *
The landlady offered to let me out of the lease, no penalties.
“I actually think I want to stay,” I said, “at least for a few weeks.”
She nodded. Her eyes were obscured beneath her glasses, but it felt like she wanted to tell me something. Maybe ask me why. Or ask how I could deal with it.
It was hard to deal with it when I heard through the grate in my bedroom the half-sounds of Opal and Sylvan talking. When I thought I saw a speck of blood beneath the window and it turned out to be jam. When I saw a hair in the bathroom sink and couldn’t tell if it was hers or mine.
My mother helped me move the couch out of the apartment. Someone, despite the bloodstains or maybe because of them, took it before the trash collectors could come. We scrubbed the blood off the floor and window. We made the apartment smell like lemons.
After the landlady left, I went to the park during sunset. I watched as a starling murmuration flew closer and closer to me. I recorded them as a black cloud, a spiral, a line on the orange and silver blue sky. If I had shown the videos to Anna, she would’ve called them some basic Instagram-style nonsense. Some of the starlings were blue and gray and indistinct, but were still in communication with the rest. I looked up at my apartment window, even though I knew she wasn’t there. The starlings burst apart, making their own wind, and settled in the tree branches above me. Small wings brushed against each other. Their weight bent the branches and shook dead leaves into my hair. I kept filming.
Megan Giddings is an MFA student at Indiana University and the Executive Editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. Her flash fiction chapbook, Arcade Seventeen, will be published by TAR: The Atlas Review’s chapbook series in August 2016. She has stories forthcoming or that have been recently published in Crab Orchard Review, Passages North, New South, and Big Lucks.