I didn’t know about the family of ghosts living in my apartment until after the landlord gave me the key.
I thought I’d gotten a deal. The place was old, sure, and small, definitely, but it was my first apartment in the city, and the view from the fire escape was impeccable. Then three of my new roommates decided to say hello.
“Why didn’t you say anything during the walkthrough?” I asked crossly, after the initial shock faded.
“You have bad manners,” remarked one—an elderly gentleman who left wisps of gray behind when he moved.
“What Hector means to say,” apologized the filmy old lady I presumed to be his wife, “is we didn’t think you’d have moved in if we told you.”
They watched me calmly, floating over the paisley linoleum floor tiles as 21-year-old me battled the urge to throw a temper tantrum worthy of 4-year-old me. I’d graduated college this past May. I was about to embark on that long and treacherous journey, Adulthood. And I did not want to live with dead people.
The third ghost, a suit-clad man with a smoker’s larynx, was the first to grow impatient with my silence. “Well, it’s much too late to do anything about it now,” he said, extending one translucent hand. “You signed the lease. Welcome to 405B.”
I briefly hallucinated blue ink, chewed pen-caps and a stack of official-looking papers I hadn’t really read, but then I gave up and reached for the ghost’s hand. My fingers closed around air, but he looked pleased nonetheless.
We spent the morning introducing ourselves. Hector was the oldest, a former history professor born in 1905, during his beloved Russian Revolution. While I unpacked, he lectured me about the October Manifesto, and the old woman Loretta looked on with a pleasant smile. She was indeed Hector’s wife, and in the 50s she was president of the neighborhood Hat Society For Ladies Over Forty—which explained the extravagant monstrosity atop her head. In 1982 she’d had her first stroke, Loretta told me brightly, right where I was setting up my bed.
I decided to sleep on the couch.
The business-type was their son Paul, a lawyer who inherited his parents’ lease. He died in his sleep from an illness he didn’t know he had. “Lung cancer?” I asked. “Heart disease,” he said, giving me a funny look.
Late in the evening, right after I finished setting up the T.V., Loretta informed me that there was a fourth ghost in residence. I glanced up as Paul shushed his mother. “You know she hates it when you talk about her to strangers,” he scolded.
“I’m not a stranger anymore,” I said, putting batteries in the remote. “Tell her to come out.”
“Ha!” Hector spat.
“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” Loretta returned gently.
“She wouldn’t like you,” Paul stated, crossing his arms over his button-down shirt.
I raised an eyebrow. “Me?”
Paul nodded and Hector sniffed. I looked helplessly to Loretta.
“Leave the poor boy alone,” the old lady chastised her husband and son. Hector muttered phrases in Russian to himself, and Paul rolled his eyes, announcing that it was time for bed anyway. Before I could ask if ghosts really slept, the two of them had already disappeared into the walls of the living room.
“It’s nothing personal, dear,” Loretta told me. “She’s Paul’s sister, and they never played well together.”
“What happened to her? Why wouldn’t she like me?”
“I’m afraid it’s not my place to say.”
“Can I at least know her name?”
The lady glanced anxiously toward the wall, the feather in her hat fluttering like a standard on a flagpole. “Orie,” she replied.
Orie did not show herself the next day when I arranged my old baseball trophies on the mantle, or the next, when I had canned tuna for every meal because I forgot to go grocery shopping. Orie didn’t come out when Hector asked me to play him a tune on my guitar, looking wholly perplexed when I began to strum a Bon Iver chorus. She didn’t even appear in the following two weeks when I started doing Tae Bo in the living room.
I started feeling anxious, knowing there was a girl in my apartment I’d never seen. Orie’s family seemed completely comfortable with following me around the fourth floor walk-up, commenting on everything I did. I’d never repelled anyone before. I didn’t know how to handle it.
So in retrospect, I might have gotten a little obsessed.
Loretta never said anything around Paul or Hector, but she helped me whenever she could. She told me Orie’s favorite food and I tested seven recipes for red Thai curry, setting off the fire alarm twice. At Loretta’s suggestion, I bought a pot of forget-me-nots and suffered Paul’s heckling as I watered it in the kitchen sink. I rented all the Charlie Chaplin films I could find and played one every day until I ran out.
But for all my efforts, Orie was nowhere to be found.
“Why are you still here?” I asked Paul while we were watching City Lights on the couch.
“What, in the living room?”
“No, I meant why aren’t you… you know—”
“Dead?” Hector shouted from the kitchen.
“—at rest?” I said.
“Dad, can’t you see we’re having a private conversation?” Paul grumbled. Hector faded into the ceiling. “My sister got lonely. We came back to keep her company.”
My thoughts raced—Paul never talked about Orie with me. “So she lived here after you… You know?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Used all my old stuff, too.”
Before I could ask anything else, Paul sank through the couch, leaving behind hoary traces of his tie on the back cushion.
Then Loretta squeezed out of my VCR, coming to hover over the pile of videotapes I had yet to rewind. “Orie used to love music,” she conspired. “Maybe you could play your guitar for her.”
“I’ve already tried that,” I sighed. “Look, Loretta, she’s not coming out.”
“Oh, but you can’t give up.” The old lady looked so sad that she began to sink through the floor. I felt guilty, so I agreed to try again.
That night after the other three had gone to bed, I sat on the edge of my bed, staring at my acoustic guitar. It stared back at me, offering no advice.
Picking up the instrument, I started playing an old Italian piece I’d learned in high school, but stopped when I realized I didn’t know if Orie liked that kind of music. Uncertain, I frowned up at my bedroom walls and noticed that the wallpaper was peeling at the corners and around the edges of the crown molding. My landlord had sworn he’d just had the walls redone.
Setting my guitar down, I examined the wall, running my fingers over the places where the paper puckered from the air bubbles underneath. Then I glimpsed something underneath the paper—a flash of color, a bit of paint. I squinted until I realized that it was a small portrait.
A little painted girl with pink cheeks and black dots for eyes. And a boy, dancing with her.
Intrigued, I peeled back the paper until a whole strip came off in my hands. Another portrait—the same girl and boy lying on a couch. A third—the couple sitting cross-legged on a pair of stars, soaring over an ocean.
I picked up my guitar.
And I played something I’d never played before. An odd melody that tripped along like a goldfish in a stream, curious notes that purred like a circus cat… It was only after a good ten minutes that I glanced up and saw that the paintings I’d uncovered were moving.
Twirling in time to my tune, the painted couples flitted across the baseboards in a wallpaper jig, their heads thrown back and their mouths opened in silent laughter. I blinked rapidly, thinking I must have fallen asleep and yet hoping I hadn’t. When I strummed the last chord, the wallpaper people bowed and froze again.
I sat in silence, transfixed. My watch beeped midnight. Had I imagined it? I waited a few minutes more, and when nothing happened, I shook my head and started to put away my guitar.
“Wait.” The soft voice came from over my shoulder, and I almost dropped the instrument in my scramble to turn around.
A girl. The girl. She was peeking out over the top of the peeling wallpaper, but the sharp contours of her ghostly face were enough to explain everything.
Orie was a skeleton.
She nodded to my guitar, her jawbone clicking faintly as she whispered, “Again?”
I sank down onto my bed. When she ducked her head, I realized I was staring. “You painted these?” I breathed at last.
She began to retreat beneath the wallpaper, but I begged her to stay, lifting my guitar and plucking the first chord that came to mind. She stayed.
I played for her all night. I never asked what happened to the rest of her body. I never asked if she noticed the food, or the flowers, or the films. When the sun came up the next morning and she disappeared into the bedroom wall, one of her tiny painted people blew me a kiss.
“Orie was an artist, wasn’t she,” I said sleepily to Paul over breakfast.
“How did you know that?” he said, suspiciously.
“I think you’re wrong, about her not liking me.”
Paul just laughed. The next night, I waited up for Orie, and when I began to play her song, she poked her skull out from the wall.
“Orie,” I said as I strummed, “do you like me?”
Her empty eye sockets were trained on my fingers. “I don’t like anybody,” she replied.
“Because,” she said, “nobody likes me.”
I stopped playing. “I like you.”
But the music had faded, and so had she.
We went on like this for many more nights, and when I thought she had at last warmed up to me, I asked her why she was a skeleton. But this was the wrong question, and Orie clenched her teeth and shook her head hard, her bones rattling like a vertebrae wind chime.
“I’m sorry,” I called after her, trying to convince her to reemerge. But I didn’t see Orie again for three days.
“I feel terrible,” I confided to Loretta on the second afternoon. “I didn’t mean to upset her.”
“She’ll be alright, dear,” her mother said “She’s just… sad.”
She still wouldn’t tell me why, and so in my frustration I stopped waiting up for Orie every night. I stopped trying new curry recipes and buying forget-me-nots. I stopped watching Charlie Chaplin and playing her song on my guitar. Then one night, I woke up to the sounds of someone crying.
“Hello?” I said blearily, rubbing my eyes and sitting up in bed. “Loretta? Hector?” No one answered, so I ventured, “Orie? Is that you?”
“No,” came her hostile reply.
“What’s wrong?” I said to the empty room, throwing my sheets off.
“You are,” answered her voice. Then I spotted her, hovering near the doorpost. I tried to smile at her. She crossed her bony arms and said, “You stopped playing.”
“Because you stopped showing up.”
“You insulted me.”
“I’m just interested in you,” I protested.
Her scapulas slumped. “I disgust you.”
“No, you don’t.” We faced off, glaring at one another until I caved. “I’m sorry. Okay?”
She uncrossed her arms, but didn’t reply. Still looking at her, I reached for my guitar. Orie seemed to brighten, and drifted closer to the foot of my bed to listen. “You’ll make them dance, won’t you?” I said, nodding at her paintings.
Orie was silent, and then she said, “I don’t make them dance.”
My brow furrowed. “But… they move. Every time I play your song.”
“It’s not the song,” she said. “It’s you.”
“What happened to you, Orie?” The question popped out of my mouth like a hard candy I’d been sucking on all day. At first, I thought she might leave again—this time, never to reappear. But instead, Orie floated across the bedroom and let her fingertips hover over one of the painted girls.
“These were self-portraits,” she said. “Memories. He was different then.”
I watched her. “Who?”
She pointed to the boy in the paintings.
And then she told me why.
When Orie worked late, he used to bring her Thai food takeout in brown paper bags. They watched and rewatched Charlie Chaplin films on the couch together, because he insisted he only liked the classics. He decorated the apartment in forget-me-nots before flying overseas, but the postcards he’d promised to send never came. And in the first weeks of his absence, Orie began to notice the change. She was fading away.
She started painting the walls to remember him, but it was too late. She’d given him everything—her heart, her soul, her body, her breath—and when he left, he took it all with him.
“And you.” Orie turned to me. “You’re just like him.”
“Me?” I stammered, taken aback. If Orie had eyes, they’d be looking daggers at me. Then I remembered what Loretta told me. “I didn’t do that,” I said. “That wasn’t me.”
She put her hands on her hips, her ten digits clattering against her pelvic bone. “Just like him,” she repeated, and it was then that I knew—I could hear it in her voice. So I stood up and carefully reached out my hand, knowing I wouldn’t feel anything, but hoping it wouldn’t matter.
“I don’t think he knew what he had,” I said.
She didn’t answer for a long time. Finally, she asked me to play for her, so I did.
The next morning at breakfast, Orie came out to join us. I almost choked on my Cheerios in surprise. Loretta beamed. Hector mumbled something about the fall of the Bolsheviks.
“Would you look at that,” Paul muttered to me out of the side of his mouth, but I barely heard him. Because inside Orie’s once empty ribcage, a fleshy new heart pulsed to the rhythm of her song.