The tall, westward-facing window in the spired nook offered one of the best views of the city. From the comfort of her grandmother’s reading chair, Thalia could gaze out at the simmering summer sunset every evening. The seat was worn and stained from too many cups of tea drunk sideways, legs akimbo over the armrest.
Twenty-year-old Thalia had moved into her first home—a quaint, one-bedroom flat on the third floor of a dilapidated row house that had been converted into apartments. With its peeling, meadow-green wallpaper and grimy oven, the adjacent kitchen was modest but sufficient. Four, amber-tinted bulbs glowed dimly from brassy, cage-like sconces above the stovetop, the one farthest left from the burners flickering with a faint buzz whenever Thalia flipped the switch by the entryway.
It wasn’t much, but it was hers. It didn’t matter that the roof rattled with the sky’s every breath or that she could hear mice scuttling through the attic above; the third-floor flat was Thalia’s own little world, and she was proud to call it home.
Then one night, something cold and lonely coiled around her ankle and pulled.
It started as a hiss in the dark. Windows squealed and walls groaned. The storm shook the delicate wood frame encasing tawny, smudged glass, and the bellowing gale swallowed up every whisper from the other world.
Thalia wished she could tell the voices apart—the wind, the rain, the disembodied sputter that slithered beneath the covers. They fused like miscellaneous limbs stitched together, the howls deafening until Thalia could barely hear the cars barreling past in the street below.
She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed the pillow to her ear. It helped until an icy, withering grip encircled her ankle and tugged. Breath hitching, she kicked ferociously and flew upright.
“Stop it!” she shrieked at the foot of her bed, the space cold and empty.
The noise halted. Stillness rose up like a thick fog, and all Thalia could hear was the pitter-patter of rain and the occasional rustle of swaying branches.
The storm would soon pass.
“Perhaps you’re spending too much time alone,” Dr. Malik suggested the following afternoon.
Thalia shifted uncomfortably in the armchair across her therapist. She tucked a thick strand of her dark, wiry curls behind her ear and said, “I love being alone.”
The doctor gave her an appraising glance, then returned to her notes. “Sometimes, people who love being alone don’t notice when they’re isolating themselves. When was the last time you grabbed coffee with a friend? Or went to see a film?”
Thalia’s sigh filled the room. “This morning, I found my slippers strewn across the floor. I swear I left them at the edge of my bathmat.”
“Maybe you absently kicked them as you were passing by?” Dr. Malik allowed the diversion. “I do that quite often if I have my headphones on.”
“But,” Thalia relented, “pennies will roll of the counter for no reason. Books topple straight out of the shelf. And last night, when I felt something…”
“It’s an old house,” Dr. Malik smiled, brushing stray lint from her navy skirt, “and our minds are clever tricksters. They always know exactly what we want to hear or see.”
“Are you saying the thing that grabbed my leg is just my subconscious telling me to make friends?” Thalia asked.
“Perhaps,” Dr. Malik answered. “The trouble is, we’re not always aware of what it is we want to hear and see. Our minds just fill in the gaps without our say-so.”
“So much for mastery over the mind,” Thalia mumbled as her eyes absently drifted over the titles on the doctor’s bookshelf.
“Not mastery,” Dr. Malik corrected. “Awareness.”
Thalia sat on a warehouse rooftop she could spy from her spired nook. It poked out from between the silhouettes of aspens lining the local dog park, inviting her closer to the sunset.
A night out was just what the doctor ordered. A night out, and a tall, ginger-haired boy with arms and legs like string beans, warm, honey-brown eyes, and a lopsided grin that outshone the stars in the midnight sky.
Dr. Malik had never specified what kind of night out she was supposed to have, so she’d decided to spend it with the moon. That is, until he startled her out of her skin.
“I’m Seth.” He offered her a hand and a crooked smile.
Thalia hadn’t heard him sneak up behind her. After cursing his soundless footsteps, she gave him her name and squeezed his fingers.
“You uh—you normally chill on top of abandoned warehouses?” he asked as he ambled closer, his coppery hair catching the moon’s silver glow.
“Normally,” said Thalia, “I don’t venture outside.”
Seth chuckled. “Honestly, you had me a bit worried. Saw you from the parking lot down below and thought you might be a jumper.”
Thalia wrinkled her nose. “What? Why would anyone jump off a warehouse? It’s not nearly high enough.” She sounded offended. “You’d just break a leg or two and sob until morning. Then some poor warehouse worker would find your pretzeled ass, and you’d spend the ride to the hospital thinking about what an idiot you were.”
Seth burst into laughter and raised his hands in mock defense. “Hey, I’m sorry. I’m not really an expert on that sort of thing.”
“You don’t have to be an expert,” Thalia grumbled. “Just takes some common sense, I guess.”
“Fair enough,” Seth conceded. “Mind if I sit with you?”
Thalia canted her head and considered him. “No. But don’t you have anywhere else to be?”
“Don’t you?” he shot back.
She shook her head. “Just trying to get some fresh air.”
“Well, me too, then.”
Thalia reckoned this was precisely what Dr. Malik would have wanted—her, face to face with another human, engaged in conversation. Seth seemed nice enough, and she liked the way his eyes warmed when he smiled, like baked apples and cinnamon on a cold winter’s day.
“So, you sneak up here through the back?” he asked as he settled down next to her.
Her lips teased a smile. “I’m not the only one who comes up here to get air, huh?”
“I was just curious who found my spot. You’ve got a good eye.”
Thalia’s brow arched. “But you still thought I was a jumper?”
“You never know, right? Better safe than sorry.” He stretched his gangly arms and fell back against the roof’s metal sheets.
“I sure as hell hope you weren’t thinking of jumping,” Thalia pried.
“Nah.” He turned to her and smiled—this time not like the stars but like a secret lost to the wind. “I just know there’s a lot of pain in the world.”
Seth dropped the box in the doorway and wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Is that all your stuff?” asked Thalia, that one kitchen light flickering as she flipped the switch. She pushed the box with her foot, surprised when it barely moved. “Damn, you’re strong for such a skinny guy.”
“I’m lean, thank you very much.” He flexed his wiry arms. “That’s all muscle, babe.”
Thalia pulled the alligator clip from her hair and shook out her springy tresses. “So is this.”
He laughed and ruffled her dark mane, then pulled her into a tight hug. “Thanks for letting me move in.” The light shorted again, shadows briefly passing over them before the bulb flashed back to life.
Thalia willed the hammering in her chest to subside. She’d never been in love before, never even thought it was possible. Seth had opened a window to her dark little world and filled it with light. Not the blinding, golden gleam of the sun, but the calm, gentle glow of the silver-clad moon.
Yet she never would have asked him to move in had his circumstances been better. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him; rather, she’d grown so accustomed to solitude, even the stream of moonlight through her newly opened window felt like an all-too jarring change. His recent unemployment, the fallout with his roommates—those were nothing more than well-timed excuses.
“So, where do I put my things?” He pulled a utility knife from his back pocket and slit open the box, then grinned playfully. “Hope you emptied a drawer out, at least.”
“Of course I did!” she scoffed. “Who do you take me f—”
She was cut short by a blaze of light and the sudden snap of shattering glass. Hot, jagged little blades pelted Thalia’s arms and ricocheted off the oak floor and laminate countertop. The entryway dimmed, and Thalia became aware of her ragged, uneven breaths. Her hand stung. She raised it to the faltering light, only to see a thin point embedded in the back of her hand.
“Don’t move!” warned Seth. “There’s broken glass everywhere.”
“What the hell? How did that even happen?”
Seth shrugged, stepping carefully over the mess. “Wrong sort of bulb, maybe?”
“I haven’t changed them since I moved in!” She grabbed a dishcloth and carefully clasped the shard, wincing as she pulled it from her trembling hand.
Seth poked around the storage closet, then returned with a dustpan. Crouching, he swept around Thalia’s feet. “Who knows? It’s an old house.”
Thalia tossed the bloody point in the garbage and sighed as she stepped clear of the remaining shards. She glanced up at the sconce. All that remained of the bulb was a white spade, jutting out from its brass cage. “That’s what everyone keeps saying.”
“I mean, it’s true, isn’t it?” Seth called after her. “That’s why this part of town is so cheap. You try to rent one of those shiny new condos, you’d be paying out of the ass.”
“I like my place. I don’t care that it’s old and crummy.”
Seth emptied the pan into the garbage and shook out the brush. “Nothing wrong with that. Just sayin’, old places are cheap for a reason.” He frowned. “Your hand’s dripping.”
“Shit.” Thalia disappeared into the bathroom. The faucet squeaked on and she ran her hand under warm water, wincing as it rushed over the open wound. The water swirled red, the white porcelain tinted with blood. Yet no matter how much disappeared down the drain, more kept churning around the bowl.
“What the hell,” Thalia muttered as the blood rose, lines of red trickling down the sides of the sink like veins pumping life into something beneath the darkening water. It twisted and shuddered, expanding and contracting like a mercurial substance. Then, the crimson pool swelled, and the blood began to undulate.
Thalia drew back and backpedaled to the wall. “Seth!” she called for her partner, her voice frantic.
Seth appeared by the door with wide eyes, dustpan still in hand. “What is it?”
“The sink,” Thalia nodded, “there’s something in the sink!”
Mouth tugging into a frown, Seth cautiously approached and twisted the faucet off. The drain gurgled back to life. Seth peered after the water, his brows knotted in anticipation.
“There’s nothing here,” he said, his gaze questioning when he turned back to Thalia.
Thalia pushed herself from the wall. “What?” she gasped, eyes searching the sink, but all she found were faint traces of orange.
“What exactly did you see?” Seth ran a comforting hand up and down her back.
“I-I swear I saw…” she trailed off, unsure of how to explain it. “Blood. Lots of it. It was like…a mass…moving around.”
“A mass?” he raised a brow, then broke into a wide, toothy smile. “Come on, Thal. These pipes get backed up all the time. I’m sure it was nothing.”
“No!” She pushed his arm away with her elbow. “I really saw something!”
The glee melted from his face. “Okay, I’m sorry. Are you sure it wasn’t your mind playing tricks on you? Maybe just adrenaline?”
“Maybe,” Thalia sighed. It sounded crazy; she knew what she’d seen was impossible, but she could have sworn the blood had thickened and coalesced into something…solid.
“Let’s just get that hand wrapped up and go cuddle on the couch, okay?” Seth opened the medicine cabinet and retrieved a roll of gauze. Gently taking her wrist, he wrapped the white fabric around her injured hand and secured it with the accompanying safety pins.
Thalia followed him into the living room, head spinning. Should they move? How? They couldn’t afford it. Seth plopped down on the worn, earth-brown cushions of their felt couch and spread both his arms and legs. “Come ‘ere!” he beckoned, wiggling his fingers as though threatening her with the tickles.
Thalia’s morose visions faded away. How could she stay upset when there was a giant, ginger puppy waiting for her? Besides, Thalia wouldn’t allow the spectres of her home—or her own mind—to come between her and Seth. If she crumbled, it would be over. He would leave. It was the reason the shadows on the walls felt more real than her own family; she was oversensitive and hostile to reason. At least, that’s what they’d said before they gave up on her.
But Seth was different—understanding, patient. He wasn’t like them. Crawling into his lap, she wedged herself between his legs and burrowed her face into his chest. He smelled like clean laundry and lazy Saturdays. What more could any sensible, modern woman ask for?
“It just…shattered?” Dr. Malik raised a perfectly arched brow.
Thalia nodded emphatically. “Like it had taken a bullet to the face!”
“Light fixtures don’t have faces, Thalia.”
“You know what I mean.” Thalia rolled her eyes. “Like, when you see faces in everyday objects?”
“I do,” Dr. Malik chuckled, nodding. “It’s called pareidolia; it’s a well-recognized phenomenon.” She looked up, eyes twinkling. “You seem to be doing better.”
“I think I am,” Thalia agreed, albeit reluctantly. “Seth has really been good for me, you know? He’s patient, understanding, washes the dishes, and takes out the garbage when I don’t have the energy. He’s my best friend.”
“That’s excellent!” Dr. Malik sounded genuinely pleased. “It’s so important to find someone who makes you feel seen.”
Thalia rubbed her knees and smiled to herself. “That’s a great way to put it. I feel seen. I don’t think I ever had that with my family. They always thought I was lazy or entitled—oversensitive was their favourite adjective. They thought I didn’t want to be happy. But the kind of ‘happy’ they wanted for me wasn’t the sort of ‘happy’I wanted. Seth really wantsme to be happy, and he sees me trying, too.”
“It sounds like he understands that happiness is particular. He doesn’t try to tellyou what’ll make you happy but gives you space to figure it out.” Appearing satisfied, she scribbled something down.
“Hey,” Thalia went on, “this…pareidolia thing. Is it just faces? Or can you see other things, too?”
Dr. Malik’s expression turned serious. “It can be anything recognizable. It’s the mind’s tendency to perceive patterns and meaning.”
“And is there ever any truth to these perceptions?”
“No,” Dr. Malik shifted in her seat and crossed her legs, “they’re misinterpretations. We incorrectly perceive things that are familiar, but they aren’t really there.”
Thalia felt her heart sink as the image of rippling red came back to her. “What if we see something we don’t like?”
“Perfectly normal. People with phobias see what they fear projected in everyday objects quite frequently.” Her eyes drifted over her patient. “What did you see, Thalia?”
Thalia fiddled with her fresh gauze. “It…looked like the blood was moving in the sink. Like it had life of its own.”
“Hm.” The sound of pen on paper punctuated the silence. “Something tells me you’re not satisfied with pareidolia as an explanation for that.”
“I guess,” Thalia sighed. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m not afraid of blood or gore. How do I know it’s not connected to all the other strange things I keep hearing and seeing in my apartment?”
Dr. Malik looked contemplative, as though considering the possibilities. “Well, it could be a number of things—”
“Am I crazy?”
“No, you’re not crazy,” said Dr. Malik. “We’ve discussed your coping mechanisms quite extensively—your preference for suppressing your feelings and racing forward, hoping to leave painful experiences behind. But they always catch up, like ghosts coming back to haunt you.”
“So you think the ghost in my apartment is just…my feelings coming back to bite me in the ass? Because I didn’t deal with them?” Thalia threw herself back into the leather armchair. “But, I thought I was happier now.”
“Well, you are, it seems. And that might be the problem.” Dr. Malik capped her glossy, blue fountain pen. Clasping her hands in her lap, she looked her young patient in the eye. “Being happy is wonderful. But it’s also outside your norm. It pushes the boundaries of your comfort zone.”
“Are you saying I don’t want to be happy because I’m not comfortable with it?”
Dr. Malik canted her head and drummed her fingers against her clipboard. “Not quite. Do you have concerns that your happiness is temporary?”
“Well, sure, all the time,” Thalia nodded. “I’m always scared Seth will get tired of me and my issues. What if I get too sad or too weird around him? What if he’s expecting me to become a normal, happy person one day, and I can’t? Who’d want to be with someone like that—someone like me?”
“These thoughts are perfectly understandable. They represent that discomfort with your newfound happiness.” Dr. Malik smiled warmly. “You might feel like it’s too good to be true, like at any moment someone will pull the rug from under your feet.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel,” Thalia confessed. “Like one day, he’ll see me for what I really am: a sick person who’s never getting better.”
“Has he ever given any indication that he sees you that way?”
Thalia shook her head.
“So, then, these are your beliefs about yourself, and not Seth’s beliefs about you.”
Thalia muttered, “I guess so. But what’s that got to do with the ghost?”
Dr. Malik uncapped her pen and scribbled something down. “How do you feel when you talk about the ghost with Seth?”
“Like I’m…” Thalia shook her head and fixated on some invisible point beyond the walls, “…crazy. Like I’m not making sense. Like I’m pushing him away.”
“Is that maybe the point? To self-sabotage?”
Thalia snorted. “I don’t need a ghost for that. I could just act psycho on my own.”
Dr. Malik leaned back and regarded her patient. “But that would make you responsible. The ghost, however—you can’t help what you hear and see that others don’t, can you?”
Thalia had always wondered if she was meant to be alone—if it was simply the way she’d been made. Where other children appeared drawn to one another like magnets, Thalia imagined herself as a jagged piece of lead. She reckoned she’d been broken away from a greater whole—an object she’d never know the shape of or be able to find. All she knew were those uneven edges, reminding her of what was missing. And anyone who ventured too close to a piece of sharp lead risked getting hurt, or worse, poisoned.
Thalia watched, huddled on the couch, as Seth carefully extracted the white spade from the sconce. Her eyes trailed the long muscles of his arms and back as he reached overhead and screwed a brand-new bulb into the socket.
She hoped for both their sakes there would be no more freak accidents.
After hopping back to the floor, Seth flipped the switch, and the new light beamed whiter than snow. The others remained dim and yellow, the glass smudged from wear.
“Looks good!” Seth grinned at his handiwork and pushed the stool back into the corner with his foot. He then filled the kettle with hot water and set it to boil.
“Hey, how are you feeling?” Seth placed a mug of tea on the coffee table and sat down next to Thalia, draping the pale-pink throw over her shoulders. “Was therapy okay?”
Thalia nodded and reached for the mug, cradling its radiating warmth between her palms. “A bit intense, but probably for the best.”
Seth rested his elbows against his knees and stared at the spot between his feet. “Did Dr. Malik believe you? About the ghost?”
“What?” Thalia fought back her sarcasm. “There are so many other explanations, aren’t there? You said so yourself—it’s an old house.”
“Okay. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to rationalize it away. If you really think something paranormal happened, I believe you.”
Thalia threw him a narrowed, sideways glance. “Right.” She took a cautious sip of her Earl Grey tea. “So it’s all on me, huh? You didn’t see a thing?”
Seth’s smile faded. “What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” she sighed. “I’m wrecked. Gonna take a nap.” Shrugging off the throw, she clanked the mug against the stained chestnut table and disappeared into the bedroom.
Stripping off her jeans, Thalia crawled into bed and rolled herself into the blankets. Her pillow smelled like Seth’s hair, the scent as soothing as it was intoxicating. Lulled into familiarity, she closed her eyes and let the pull of sleep take her.
Thalia awoke in a cold sweat, teeth chattering and body quaking. It was well after dark, the moonlight peeking through the gaps in the blinds. A deep, uncontrollable chill had settled into her bones, rattling her from head to toe. Barely in control of her own limbs, she sat up, her heart squeezing painfully in her chest.
“What the hell?” Thalia patted the mattress around her. It was soaked through with sweat. Her t-shirt, heavy from the drench, clung to her shoulders and breasts.
Soft but persistent murmurs echoed from the kitchen, drawing Thalia’s attention away from her body’s peculiar state. Sliding off the bed, she padded over to the door, the floor creaking in protest.
Drawing the door open a crack, Thalia glimpsed Seth, standing by himself in the kitchen. He appeared to be speaking to someone, presumably on the phone. But as he turned around, she saw that his phone was nowhere in sight.
“How do you know my name?” he asked no one. His voice lowered to an inaudible mumble.
Thalia stepped into the light.
“Who are you talking to?” she asked, her ribs itching beneath her sweat-soaked shirt.
Seth spun around, his eyes wide with surprise and…something else. Like a child caught with the toys he’d accused his sibling of stealing. “I—” he stammered, fumbling for words. His eyes darted to the right, and the single, white-shining bulb flickered.
Thalia’s mouth dropped open, and she strode forward, planting her hands on the laminate counter. “It talks to you?”
Seth dropped his gaze and slumped his shoulders. “I’m not sure. At first, I thought I was just hearing whispers from the other apartments. But then they got closer…like someone was talking right in my ear.”
Thalia threw her arms out in disbelief. “And you were acting like I was the crazy one!”
Seth’s eyes snapped up. “Don’t exaggerate, Thal. I was as skeptical about this as I was about anything that’s happened to you. But now it’s just too close, too real.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Thalia pleaded. “You made me feel like I’m alone in this, like you might believe me just to make me feel better!” Why hadn’t he validated her? Why did he let her think she was losing her grip on reality?
He whispered, strained, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to spook you, just in case I was…paranoid, or something. But, the voice, it keeps calling my name, keeps asking me if I’m there.”
Thalia paced the cold kitchen floor. “Sure. Well, maybe you are paranoid,” she challenged. “Maybe you need therapy.”
She turned on her heel and thundered back into the bedroom, slamming the door shut behind her. Seth didn’t follow. She heard his body sink into the couch, his sigh filling the room in place of all that had gone unsaid between them.
Dr. Malik’s brows were more severe than usual. Her face was painted with concern—something that didn’t often bleed through her stoic demeanor.
“I just want to confirm, Thalia, that you have never heard these voices?”
“I have not,” Thalia spoke with conviction. “I researched ghost hunting. Bought an EVP recorder. Tried it at all hours of the night, in every corner of the apartment.”
Dr. Malik glanced up from her notes. “Did your investigation yield any results?”
Thalia’s hands clasped tightly together, her knuckles paling from the pressure. She shook her head. “Nothing but white noise. I amplified the recordings on my computer, but I couldn’t hear anything.”
“Thalia,” Dr. Malik sighed.
“It’s not psychosis,” Thalia insisted. “There’s no precedent, no family history.”
“Sometimes, these things just happen, without rhyme or reason.”
“And what if I did this to him?” Thalia’s eyes brimmed with tears, her mouth twisting in a grimace. “I must’ve driven him crazy! It’s what I do to everyone! It’s why my family gave up on me, why my sister never responds to my emails. I’m a psycho, and I drive away everyone I love. That is the truth.”
A painful, oppressive silence clung in the air.
Dr. Malik asked softly, “Which is it then, Thalia? Is it you, or the ghost?”
“Does it matter?” Thalia wiped the moisture from her face. “I introduced him to the idea of the ghost. I was the one who insisted it’s real. Now it’s talking to him.”
“Do you think it’s real?”
“I don’t want to,” Thalia whispered. “God, I don’t want to. But if I don’t believe him—that the voices aren’t just in his head—then I’m a hypocrite.”
“But you never heard voices,” the doctor reasoned. “You felt something grab you. You saw a light bulb shatter, a shadow move across the wall. You experienced pareidolia, a well-recognized phenomenon. Simple tricks of the mind—nothing resembling auditory hallucinations.”
Thalia was shaking her head through every syllable. She’d given up swiping at tears with her hands and reached for a tissue as Dr. Malik offered her the Kleenex box. “I just don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“Has Seth started medication for this?”
Thalia sighed and nodded. “It’s not helping. Just makes him…fuzzy. Like he’s not all there.”
Dr. Malik leaned over and placed a reassuring hand on Thalia’s arm. “Give it time.”
Thalia scrunched up the tissue. “I’m trying to be patient. It’s just so hard watching him like this. I feel like I’m grieving already.”
“Grieving what, exactly?”
“I don’t know!” Thalia threw her hands up. “Him? Our relationship? He’s not the same person anymore. He’s…quiet, withdrawn. When I ask him how he’s doing, he lies or tries to distract me.”
“Distract you, how?”
Thalia picked at the edges of the tissue as she searched for words. “He turns it back on me. Tries to remind me that I’m the one who’s supposed to need his help.” She laughed, dropping her hands to her sides. “I’m supposed to be the depressed one, so he washes the dishes and takes out the trash even when I don’t need him to. I know he’s not doing it for me anymore. He’s doing it for himself. To feel normal.”
A heaviness settled over the room as Dr. Malik regarded her patient. “I’m so, so impressed, Thalia. It takes a lot of work to recognize when someone’s intentions aren’t in the right place. It’s hard, and I want you to know that your grief over the potential loss of this relationship is normal and healthy. I would encourage you to sit with that feeling. Let yourself process it. However, I would like to understand why you think these changes in Seth’s personality are your fault.”
“Because if they’re not my fault,” Thalia whispered, “then life is cruel. I can’t deal with believing that all this is just…the universe’s whim.” Her voice rose, agony warping into anger. “At least tell me there’s a cause, a reason for all this.”
“I don’t know,” Dr. Malik replied. “None of us does. All we can do is learn to cope, and to accept when we don’t have control.” She hesitated. “Thalia, you can’t force Seth to become his old self. Blaming yourself isn’t going to change what he’s going through, either. What you can do is take care of yourself. Don’t fight your grief. If you are in a good state—and that can only be achieved by being honest with yourself—then you will be a far better support system for your partner. Nothing can be gained by ignoring your own problems to fix someone else’s.”
“That’s exactly what Seth is doing,” said Thalia, “ignoring his problems and focusing on mine.”
“Yes,” Dr. Malik nodded, “and you know how that feels.”
“It feels like shit.”
“So don’t do the same to him. Give him time,” the doctor reiterated. “And give yourself time. It’s your greatest ally when all seems hopeless.”
Seth spun on his heel, humming as he danced into the kitchen. “Hey Thal, you want pancakes?”
Thalia shuddered as she stretched her cranky muscles. She blinked the sleep away and sank over the counter, arms dangling off the ends. “Sure, I’ll take pancakes.” She glanced up at Seth, noting his unusual pep. He hadn’t looked this happy in weeks. She watched as he beat two eggs into a steel bowl and stirred in the flour with newfound gusto.
“Hey,” she probed, glancing at the time on the microwave. “Have you taken your meds?”
His arm slowed. “I’ll wait until after breakfast. They make me nauseous on an empty stomach.”
Thalia’s posture stiffened. “You said that last time, and then you never took them.”
As Seth clanked the bowl down on the counter, a loud thud shook the ceiling. The light fixture trembled, white particles flaking loose from where the brass met the wall. It sounded like stamping, steel-toed boots, but the only thing between the apartment and the roof shingles was an unexplored attic.
Thalia watched as the mask of contentment slipped off Seth’s face. He gnashed his teeth together and stared right through the ceiling, at something beyond it—something that was still speaking to him.
“Who are you?” Seth bellowed. “Why do you keep calling my name? How do you know me?” His body drooped like something had sucked the life from him. “Damnit, just tell me.”
“Christ, Seth!” Thalia ran her fingers through tight, tangled tresses. “You’re scaring me.” Her voice quivered, “This is just too much. You won’t take your meds, you’re yelling at the walls, and you won’t even tell me what’s going on! I’m sorry, I just—I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
“I told you! Someone keeps calling my name! Do you think I’m lying?” Seth’s jaw tightened, his face contorting with pain as he squeezed his eyes shut and curled in on himself like a frightened animal. “I keep hearing it. The voice. The buzzing. It just won’t stop! It sounds so sad, but I don’t know what it wants!” Crippled one moment, he straightened in the next, eyes fixed on the flickering light. He flung the bowl towards it.
Stainless steel flew at break-neck speed and clipped the sconce, then crashed against the whirring, milk-coloured bulb. The bowl and its contents plummeted to the floor, followed by sparks and glass shattering all around them. Batter splattered on the drawers and cupboard, embellished by tiny, opaque fragments.
Thalia backed away, fear sticky in her throat. She broke free from Seth’s anguished gaze, eyes flitting to the light fixture.
It was the same socket as before; all that remained of the bulb was a white spade, jutting from its brass cage.
Everything was the same—the way it splintered, how the jagged, little shards scattered to the floor like glistening flower petals. Thalia rubbed a shaky thumb over the scar tissue on her hand.
Was the first time a warning? Was her injury meant to be instructional?
Seth fisted the fabric of his shirt and clutched at his chest. He let out a stifled groan, his body crumpling to the hardwood with a weak thud.
“Hey! What’s wrong?” The minefield of broken glass forgotten, Thalia rushed over.
Seth was turned on his side, covering his eyes as tears streamed down his face. He coiled into a fetal position, but his shoulders wouldn’t stop shaking. “I’m sorry,” he managed between gasps. “I didn’t mean for things to turn out like this.”
“It’s okay!” Thalia placed a hand on his arm. Pushing aside every ounce of gnawing uncertainty, she willed herself to placate Seth’s all-consuming horror. “You’ll be alright,” she mumbled repeatedly, ignoring the sting in her other hand as her palm pressed against the broken fragments littering the floor. She felt wetness between her fingers but disregarded it; her own pain suddenly seemed so trivial, so insignificant.
“I just don’t know what it wants from me.” Seth dared to look at her, shadows clinging to the hollows of his eyes and cheeks.
Thalia helped him sit up and gave him a once over, noting several small cuts along his forearm. Smudges of red had smeared over the floor where he’d fallen, but he was otherwise unharmed. “Maybe it doesn’t want anything at all.”
“I doubt that.” With Thalia’s support Seth found his feet again. “It sounds so urgent, so—” his mouth dropped open. “Crap, Thal, your arm!”
Thalia glanced down. The cuff of her sleeve was soaked red, blood dripping from her hand onto the old oak floors. She examined the wound and groaned. There were tiny shards embedded in her palm, each one burrowed like a crystalline seed. “This—just after my other hand healed.”
Seth grabbed the dustpan. “Go clean up. I’ll sweep.”
Thalia watched as he gathered up the glass a second time. Her mind wandered back to the moment it happened—the bowl flying towards the sconce, the aching thought that perhaps the repetition wasn’t coincidence.
Retreating into the bathroom, Thalia twisted on the tap and let the water run hot. The fingers on her injured hand were beginning to tremble from adrenaline. She opened the medicine cabinet and retrieved her tweezers.
As the mirror fogged up, Thalia began her excavation. She clenched her teeth and winced as she dug through raw, bloodied flesh, then dropped the red-tinted glass into the sink. Each piece chimed against the porcelain—a delicate reminder of Seth’s violent outburst. She blocked it out, her singular focus on removing the shards—even if it meant leaving open craters all over her palm.
Each pluck grew more vicious. With mounting frustration, Thalia’s surgical precision waned as she removed both flesh and glass alike. Her eyes stung with tears; she didn’t know if it was from the pain in her hand or in her heart.
Clink. Clink. Clink.
With each ricocheting fragment, the sink filled with a little more blood. Thalia glanced down, watching as white disappeared under a pool of red. Her hand still bled, but the sink was almost full up. The liquid wasn’t draining.
From under the sink came the slow, measured beat of a heart. At first, Thalia could count her breaths between each thrum, but as her gasps came quicker and heavier, so too did the thuds lurking in the cabinet below.
She all but ripped the faded birch doors from their hinges but found only drain cleaner and extra hand soap in the shadowy cavern with snaking pipes. Rising, she backed away, but the sound didn’t stop. Like a war drum building to a frantic climax, the heartbeat thundered all around her, pounding faster and faster until the hammering became unbearable, inescapable.
It was everywhere: pulsating beneath her feet, slamming inside her skull, stuttering through the walls.
The drain’s warble cut through the stygian melody, and Thalia inched towards the sink. Her eyes fixed on the center of the disappearing puddle, and as the bloody water swirled away, the ominous rhythm slowed and faded along with it.
All that remained was a sticky, orange residue staining the white porcelain, and a few stray beads of glass clinging to the grooves of the sink.
Thalia never told Seth about what she saw—and heard—in the bathroom. After wiping everything clean and wrapping her hand, she cancelled her therapy session and silenced her phone. Dr. Malik would just try to convince her that everything was normal, that her terror was well-documented phenomena, and that the voice following Seth could be drugged into oblivion. None of that would help them now.
Thalia was determined to gather up the scraps of her relationship and salvage what remained. Every day she cooked hot meals, watched Seth’s favourite movies with him, and curled up on the couch to read together. She still let him wash the dishes and take out the trash, but she ensured that every moment was spent occupied. It left no time for voices in the walls.
Thalia still found her slippers strewn across the floor. Pennies still rolled off the counter, and books continued toppling from the shelf, but she ignored it all with stubborn belligerence. She shook off the chill that seeped into her bones at night, waking her like an icy hand around her throat. Without any fuss, she slipped on an extra sweater and a warm pair of socks, then quietly waited for the shivering to stop.
But the menace grew too loud. As the days filled up with distractions, the nights became longer and colder, birthing new time for sinister things to sprawl in the dark. She’d wake up sobbing Seth’s name, the dregs of sleep sweeping her anguish into the leering walls. Yet Seth was always there, fast asleep while her nightmares taunted her with his absence. On and on it went, the fears from her waking hours playing out when the noise outside subsided with the moonrise.
That night, Thalia was awoken by a scorching scream. Seth was sitting on the edge of their bed, sobbing. The lamplight was on, the dim, amber glow casting a large, amorphous shadow on the wall next to him.
The dark shape extended overhead and consumed the ceiling with sharp, jagged edges that looked more like teeth than the silhouette of a man. Thalia crawled across the bed, unable to tear her eyes from the giant, snarling beast.
“Seth?” she groped for his arm and caught his sleeve, her gaze still turned upwards. “Seth, what is it?”
“It won’t stop. It just won’t stop.” He shook his head, grasping at his hair with closed fists. He was muttering nonsense, his lips shaking too violently to form words.
“Seth, I don’t understand. What won’t stop?” She gently shook his shoulder. “Hey, come on, it’ll be okay.”
Like a viper, he turned and grabbed her by the arms, his fingers digging in deep enough to bruise her. “It won’t be okay!” His voice cracked, eyes wide with terror.
The lamplight wavered and the shadow warped like a storm cloud. It crawled up behind Seth, looming in the curtains like a phantom from another world—there but not, solid yet wraithlike.
“I keep hearing it!” Seth abruptly pushed her away, the gesture a crushing blow. “I hear it right now, asking me the same damn question over and over again!”
“Hearing what?” Thalia grasped desperately at Seth’s rigid fingers.
His jaw was locked, his face frozen in twisted agony. The shadow lurked closer, long, rake-like claws passing over his face and chest like a dark embrace.
“Who are you?” Seth whimpered to the voice only he could hear, his eyes searching the ceiling as he sat frozen on the edge of the mattress. “Why do you keep calling my name? How do you know me?”
The shadow held him tighter, its spindly fingers locking around his torso. His eyes widened as he strained for air, the veins in his neck bulging painfully. Then, he collapsed, toppling from the mattress and hitting the floor with a heavy thud.
“Seth!” Thalia cried as she dropped down next to him. “Shit, shit, shit.” She fumbled for her phone, her fingers trembling as she dialed 911. Seth’s eyes remained fixed on the ceiling, round and unblinking, his chest juddering.
The operator came on as Seth’s gasps grew quiet, and the light in his eyes waned. He reached for Thalia’s hand, squeezing her bony fingers.
Thalia squeezed back, willing her strength into him, but all he could return was a fading smile.
Time slowed as the lamplight guttered once, then twice, before blackness devoured the room. With the dim, amber glow snuffed out, Thalia sat alone in her lightless cell. It was silent, save for the fading beat of a weak, dying heart.
Cause of death: arrhythmia-induced cardiac arrest, triggered by undiagnosedarrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC).
Thalia could barely pronounce the name of the thing that had killed Seth. It was printed on his death certificate, but she couldn’t be bothered to expend so much time and energy learning the name of a murderer. When Dr. Malik had asked, Thalia had simply said, “undiagnosed heart condition.” She figured it was self-explanatory.
Psychosis didn’t run in Seth’s family, but apparently, this did. He just hadn’t known about it. His parents had gotten divorced when he was six years old, and his father—the generous donor of the illness—died from a heart attack several years later. Of course, someone had failed to mention that the cause—thought initially to be a poor lifestyle—was, in fact, ARVC. No one bothered to find out more, so Seth remained undiagnosed and untreated.
Thalia folded up the certificate and filed it away for safekeeping. She didn’t know what else to do. When she’d returned to therapy, there was no talk of her cancelled appointments, no interrogation for why she hadn’t reached out when all was at its worst. It took her too long to realize that judgment wasn’t in her therapist’s job description. Thalia had enough of that for the both of them, anyway.
She never mentioned the shadow stalking the walls the night Seth died. She didn’t care for medical jargon explaining “completely natural” phenomena. All she cared about was preserving the memory—the unaltered experience and nothing more.
Thalia sat on the floor of her bedroom—suitcase open, belongings packed. She hadn’t bothered folding her clothes; she just wanted to get out. The glass had been swept away, and the blood had been washed off the floors, but she couldn’t get rid of it all. Some of their blood had already seeped into the wood, and a few grains of glass had wedged themselves into the cracks, becoming one with the floor. What remained of them had coalesced with the house where Seth died.
Thalia reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out her EVP recorder. She hadn’t used it in weeks, but there was just too much left unspoken between her and the walls of this tomb she once called home. She switched on the recorder and held it up to the room.
“Seth?” she reached out to him. “Seth, are you there? Please tell me you’re with me. Please, Seth.”
Her thumb squeezed the stop button. Rewinding, she held the device to her ear and hit play.
The tape clicked.
There was nothing but white noise—the rustle of empty air.
“Seth? Seth, are you there? Please tell me you’re with me. Please, Seth.”
A painful pause, filled only by static, but then, from somewhere beyond the hissing, she heard a voice, desperate and laced with panic.
“Who are you? Why do you keep calling my name? How do you know me?”
It was undeniably Seth’s. It wasn’t the pitch or the quality of the voice that gave him away. It was the words he spoke, the utter despair in them, and their gutting familiarity. Not long ago, she’d heard those words ringing clearly as he stood across the kitchen counter. The last time she’d heard them, he was sitting beside her on the edge of their bed.
With shaking hands, she rewound the tape and played it again, hearing her words from moments ago, “Seth? Seth, are you there? Please tell me you’re with me. Please, Seth,” and Seth’s response bellowed from beyond the veil, “Who are you? Why do you keep calling my name? How do you know me?”
The EVP recorder fell from Thalia’s hand and clanked to the floor. Seth had never been crazy. He’d only been answering the persistent, sorrowing call of a girl trapped in painful memories of loss. Memories that had seeped into the walls and given them life. They played with time, warping it into something unseemly.
“Who are you? Why do you keep calling my name? How do you know me?” The words echoed louder, reverberating in the hollow chamber behind Thalia’s ribcage.
Perhaps her grief had been the ghost all along. And neither grief nor ghosts could be ruled by time. Grief, it seemed, kept its own cadence.
She dropped to the knees and reached out to play the tape back again.
“Seth? Seth, are you there? Please tell me you’re with me. Please, Seth.”
“Who are you? Why do you keep calling my name? How do you know me?”
No response followed. All that remained was a hiss in the dark, a disembodied sputter in the silence.