Victor Pence gestured around the kitchen. “I put the countertops in myself about a month ago. The refrigerator’s only a few years old. In fact, all the appliances are pretty new.”
The woman nodded a few times.
“How many square feet?”
“Twelve hundred,” Victor said. “The backyard’s a good size, too. My daughter and I used to set up a tent out there sometimes when she would visit.”
She smiled and fiddled with her handbag. “That’s sweet. It’s two bedrooms?”
Victor nodded. “There’s the master, of course, which would be yours, and—”
“Help me! Oh, God, please help me!”
The woman stiffened and looked up. Victor sighed.
“I’ve turned the second bedroom into a study,” Victor said, despite the wind having left his sails. “It’s a decent size. Right across from the bathroom, but the master has its own. I’m putting a futon in there.”
“What on earth was that?” the woman asked, her eyes wide.
Victor sat on one of the barstools. “I must’ve left the television on or something.”
“No, please! I’m not the television! Please help me!”
The woman stared at the ceiling again, and turned her terrified gaze to Victor.
“Don’t suppose you want to see the second floor?” he said.
Without another word, she turned and ran from the house, leaving the front door open behind her.
Victor sat there for another minute. He looked at his watch. Two-fifteen. Close enough. He walked to the cupboard and took out a bottle of bourbon, poured a generous glass, and drank it standing there.
By the time he sat down with his second glass, there was laughter from upstairs.
She floated down through the ceiling, translucent and smiling, her black-and-green striped dress, with a bloody hole in the chest, at least thirty years out of style.
“Goddammit, Kimmy,” he said. “You have to stop.”
Kimmy stuck out her lower lip and crossed her arms, levitating upside down. Her brown hair, matted and rough, hung in pigtails.
“Don’t be such a poop. I didn’t like her. You know how particular I am.”
“Third one this week,” Victor said. “I need a roommate. You have to like someone. You have to.”
She rotated into an upright position, settling her transparent posterior on the counter.
“We need somebody fun, Vic. Somebody happening. No squares. You want a square in this joint? Nuh-uh. Not me, chum.”
Victor opened the cigarette box his late father had made and pulled a matchbook out of his pocket. He smoked in silence for a moment.
Then: “Does it occur to you, Kimmy, that there may be a better way of voicing your displeasure than scaring the daylights out of every prospective renter?”
He pointed back at the front door. “I’d bet anything the cops show up here again requesting to search the place. How long do you think before they drag me downtown?”
Kimmy giggled, sounding like a child. The only way she would ever sound.
“Don’t bet anything, Vic. You haven’t the cheddar to back it.”
Victor stared back at her, through her, the smoke from his cigarette rising around his eyes, and despite himself, he laughed. Kimmy responded with her childlike giggle, and the two went on for nearly a minute.
When he’d composed himself and finished wiping his eyes, Victor stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray.
“It’s a real concern,” he said. “If I’m going to quit my job, I have to get a roommate. Residuals from the book won’t be enough to cover everything.”
Kimmy blew a raspberry at him. “Makes you wish the old lady hadn’t taken your kid and split, yeah?”
Victor didn’t say anything at first. He took out another cigarette and fiddled with it.
“Surprisingly,” he said, his inflection dry, “there’re numerous reasons I wish she hadn’t done that.”
Kimmy spread her arms and floated upside down.
“Well, I wish I hadn’t been murdered. We all got a prob, Bob.”
And with that, she giggled away, floating through the ceiling.
Victor sat at his desk, reviewing what he had of the story.
Jemma was twenty-seven. Newly divorced with no kids, and both circumstances suited her fine, thank you. She liked to paint, drink wine, walk in cemeteries, and she hoped to own a pet spider one day.
Ben was thirty-two. His bio was empty.
They found each other online, as is the way, and after a week of messaging back and forth and exchanging Snaps, they decided to meet in person. She was wearing a plaid skirt with fishnet stockings, black heels, hoop earrings, and a white turtleneck. Her black hair was cut short. He wore a green polo, skinny jeans, and checkered Vans. He leaned against his Accord as she walked up.
“Hi, hi, great to meet you in person,” she said, and if she noticed his erection when she hugged him she didn’t say anything.
“You’re new here,” she said once they were both in the car. “You haven’t had water ice. You have to have water ice. We’re getting some. Turn left at the sign.”
Ben did, and a few minutes later they pulled into a Rita’s. Jemma ordered a medium raspberry and after tasting the blueberry Ben ordered blueberry. He reached for his wallet, but Jemma pushed past him.
“Nope, this is me.”
“Come on,” Ben said, trying to get around her. “I want to pay. Let me pay.”
“Nope, nope, nope.” She playfully elbowed him away. “My treat. Welcome to New Jersey.”
The girl behind the counter was blonde and had very white teeth.
“Oh, are you new here?” she said to Ben.
Ben nodded. “Arrived last week.”
“Houston,” Ben said.
The girl made their orders.
“Did you guys date long distance?”
Jemma laughed. “I just met this fella today.”
The girl smiled and handed them their cups.
They leaned against Ben’s car and ate.
“Isn’t this so good?”
“Yeah, it’s okay,” Ben said.
“No, it’s good. Real good.”
Jemma held out her spoon to him. “Want to taste mine?”
“No, thank you.”
They finished their water ice and Ben reached for Jemma’s cup, but she shook her head and took his.
“I’ve got it.”
Ben watched her from behind as she walked to the trash can.
She came back.
“What are we doing?”
Ben held up his keys. “A drive? You can show me the backroads.”
“I know them well.”
The phone rang and Victor picked it up in a flash.
“This is Victor . . . Yeah, I’m looking at it now . . . No, I sent those out yesterday . . . They’ll require a signature . . . I’m still working on that. If I don’t send it prior, I’ll bring it out with me . . . No, I don’t have that figured out yet. Hopefully within the next few days . . . Oh, no idea. She won’t keep me from her . . . I’ll figure it out.”
He hung up as Kimmy floated into the room, one hand on her hip.
“Who was that?”
“My editor,” Victor said, his eyes on the manuscript.
She hovered near Victor and put her hand on his shoulder, sending a cold chill down his spine.
“What does he want?”
“My story for the anthology,” Victor shivered and, despite himself, pushed back at Kimmy pointlessly. “Jesus, stop. You know I hate that.”
Kimmy didn’t say anything, but floated a few feet backwards and crossed her arms.
“I thought you sent him all your work yesterday, chum. He couldn’t have gotten it yet. Why is he calling?”
Victor turned to her and sighed.
“I’m not finished yet, Kimmy. The creative process takes time, something I haven’t had much of with my attempts to find a roommate. You know,” he said, pointing at her, “that thing you’re making much too difficult.”
“Oh, quit with the boo-hoo, you. What, I’m supposed to live with just anyone?”
Victor slapped his palm against the desk, standing fast, his face red.
“You were killed in nineteen fifty-four, you brat! You aren’t supposed to be living at all!”
Kimmy rocked back as if she’d been slapped, still floating several feet off the floor. She stared at Victor.
“What a thing to say. How . . . I . . . oh, how dare you! How dare you!”
Victor’s jaw was clenched. He gripped the back of his chair and took several deep breaths.
“Kimmy, you have to think of how this is for me. I can’t keep derailing my life plans on the whims of a ghost.”
“I’m not a ghost, you bully,” Kimmy said, arms behind her as the memory of tears filled her eyes. “I’m a spirit!”
She turned away from him, floating through the door as fast as she could—but still taking a moment to jerk the knob, pushing it open so she could slam it behind her.
They drove through wooded areas and passed a farm with a sign for hay mazes and caramel apples, but it was too late in the evening.
“Have you ever been married?” Jemma said.
“How long ago did it end?”
Ben put on his turn signal. “Pretty recent. She flipped out one day, and that was that.”
Ben shook his head. Jemma nodded as if that confirmed something very real for her.
“My husband surprised me with it, too. Complete ambush. He called me at work one day and said we were done. Just like that. I was shocked. We’d had sex two days earlier. Good sex. I was completely shocked.”
“Not sure I’ve ever heard of bad sex,” Ben said.
Jemma laughed. “Well, of course not. You’re a man. Whole different ball game.”
“Yeah, it’s definitely a ball game.”
Jemma laughed again. Ben grinned. They drove past some cows.
“There’s a security in marriage, though,” Jemma said. “You know? Like, it feels as if whatever happens, your partner will still be there. I mean, of course you can’t cheat on him or punch him out or anything, but outside of that you can generally just expect he’ll always be there. He’ll always come back.”
She was quiet for a moment.
“That’s what I thought, anyway.” She shrugged. “I guess that’s the lie of marriage.”
Ben nodded. He didn’t say anything.
Jemma pointed to a dirt lot up ahead.
“Want to pull over up there?”
“I do,” Ben said, putting on his turn signal again.
Victor sat in the medium’s shop, scented candles and incense coming together in a concerted effort to overpower his sense of smell.
“I’m at my wit’s end,” he said. “The whole thing’s out of control. Eight renters have come through—eight, fucking eight—and she’s scared every last one of them away.”
The medium—Madam Flay, skilled in her craft with more than thirty years experience, prominently featured on some flyers that were thrown away behind the Taco Bell—rested her elbows on the table and put her hands together under her bony chin. Several metal bracelets jangled around her thin wrists, the sleeves of her multicolored gown hanging wide. The crystal ball between them reflected her large eyes.
“And vat vould you haff me do, Fictor? How vould you haff me fix it?”
Victor rubbed the back of his neck. “Get rid of her.”
“Again, I ask how,” Madam Flay said. “Zis girl you speak of—zis ghost—she does not show herself to me. She does not speak.” The medium shrugged. “Vat am I to do, Fictor?”
“There must be some way to expel her,” Victor said. “To cleanse her from the house.”
Madam Flay stretched her arms and smiled.
“Fictor, Fictor, Fictor. Do I tell you how to write your little stories?”
“It’s hardly the same thing.”
Madam Flay clucked her tongue. “Just like a man, Fictor. American pride.
“Tell me, vat haff you done to solve your dilemma? Have you spoke to zis ghost?”
Victor rolled his eyes. “Yes, of course. You know I have.”
“Vat does she vant?”
“Me to stay,” Victor said. “She wants everything to stay the same.”
“Zat doesn’t leave space for a roommate.”
Victor didn’t say anything for a moment, staring at the table. He looked up at Madam Flay.
“How do I change her mind?”
Madam Flay smiled again.
“No idea, Fictor.”
They made out for a while and Ben put his hand on Jemma’s breasts, over the turtleneck. She nibbled on his ear and wrapped her fingers around the back of his neck. He moved his hand off her breasts and started to wiggle his fingers into her skirt.
Ben kept his hand in place. “Yeah?”
“Come check this out. I want to show you something. Check it out with me.”
Ben didn’t say anything, but he got out of the car with her. She held her hand back and flexed her fingers, and he took it. They walked ahead and over a fence, and beyond that was a gate leading into a cemetery.
“Right,” Ben said. “This is a thing for you.”
She turned back to him with a grin and her eyes were alive.
“It is,” she said. “It’s absolutely a thing for me.”
They walked past headstones—some wide, some chipped, all final—and Ben looked at the weeds growing around the low rock wall beneath the metal fence. Jemma stopped at a grave near the back and looked at the headstone.
“Here lies Theodore W. Buckwheat, beloved husband and son,” she said, reading. “Wow, eighty-eight years old.”
She turned to Ben. “Can you imagine being so old?”
“It feels like something so far away,” Jemma said. “That’s what age really is, really. A long, winding path, something we all run down in our terrible hurry to get where we’re going. As if getting there is going to do anything. There’s no prize for being old, other than your very own dirt.”
Ben looked at the headstone.
“These always crack me up.”
Jemma smiled. “Why?”
He rolled his eyes. “Beloved husband and father. Yeah, but you know he cut people off and cheated on his taxes and thought dirty about the neighbor’s kid. That never makes the grave marker, though. It’s all bullshit.”
Jemma crossed her arms. “Why would you put that on a headstone?”
Ben shook his head. “It’s all bullshit.”
Jemma didn’t say anything. She uncrossed her arms, did a little spin, and sat on Theodore W. Buckwheat’s grave.
“Have any cigarettes?”
Ben took a pack of Reds and a lighter out of his pocket. Jemma took one from him and he lit it for her. She inhaled deeply and looked at him, smoke coming out of her nose.
“Won’t you smoke, too?”
He sat down next to her and lit his own cigarette and the two of them smoked in the darkness.
Kimmy floated into the room as Victor closed his second suitcase. She raised a translucent eyebrow.
“Where you going, chum?
Victor sighed, picking up the suitcase and leaning down to grab the other one.
“California,” he said, straightening. “Seeing my kid.”
Kimmy crossed her arms and frowned. “Were you going to tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
He started for the doorway and Kimmy floated in front of him.
“Vic, what’s going on? Why so cagey?”
“Move, Kimmy,” he said. “I don’t want to walk through you.”
“What? Stop. Can you at least tell me when you’re coming back?”
“That’s only fair, I guess. I’m not coming back.”
Kimmy blinked a couple times. “What do you mean, not coming back?”
“It’s pretty self-explanatory, Kimmy. Can’t imagine the phrase held a different meaning when you were alive.”
He gestured past her with one of the suitcases. “Now, move.”
“Wait.” Kimmy put her hands out in front of her, palms up. “What are you talking about? You were looking for a roommate. The plan was to get a roommate. How did this turn into leaving?”
Victor laughed, sharp and loud in the small space.
“Oh, now you give a shit about me getting a roommate? Funny how that goes. Hilarious.”
He threw both suitcases down. “Kimmy, I was never trying to find a roommate—I was looking for a tenant. Someone to be here when I move. Maintain the house, sure, but also make sure you weren’t left alone. But you shit all over that. You made it impossible. Impossible!”
Kimmy’s eyes teared up.
“You were going to leave me,” she said, the memory of her teeth gritted. “You were going to abandon me all along.”
“Well now I’m not going to abandon you.” Victor picked up his suitcases. “I am abandoning you.”
And with that, Victor walked through Kimmy—shuddering slightly—and started down the hallway, the rug kicking back a little under his steps.
“You can’t just leave!” Kimmy said, staring after Victor. “This is wrong!”
“What’s wrong,” Victor said without turning around, “is giving up my life plans for a goddamn ghost.”
He reached the far end of the hallway and had one foot on the top stair when Kimmy soared forward, grabbing her side of the rug and yanking on it. Victor flailed for a moment, dropping both suitcases in a failed attempt to grab the railing. With a scream, he toppled down the stairway, the sound of his suitcases clattering open to scatter his clothes in every direction only slightly masking the crack of his neck breaking as he landed.
“Hey,” he said.
Jemma turned to him.
“Have you ever had sex in a cemetery?” he said.
Jemma shook her head. “God, no. That’s incredibly disrespectful.”
Ben laughed and snubbed out the butt of his Red. “How? It’s like doing it with a baby in the room.”
“But everyone’s dead.”
Ben shrugged. “Sounds like they wouldn’t mind.”
“Do you have a kid?”
“No. We talked about that.”
“Have you ever had sex with a baby in the room?” Jemma said.
Ben shook his head. “No.”
“Okay.” Jemma finished her cigarette. “Well, that’s a weird comparison. May I have another cigarette?”
When her cigarette was lit and she had smoked it some, Ben leaned over to her.
“Can you make out in a cemetery?”
She took a long drag and let it out before turning to him.
They kissed, Jemma’s cigarette held to the side. Ash dropped onto the grass. Ben put his hand on her cheek, and she leaned into him. He put his hand on her breast and she moaned softly, running her fingers along his arm. He lowered his hand from her breast to her stomach, and then to the waistband of her skirt. She let him linger for a moment before gripping his arm.
“What?” he said, still kissing her.
“I don’t want to do that here.”
Ben kept his hand in place. “Why does it matter?”
“I already said why.”
“Then let’s go back to the car.”
“No,” Jemma said. “I don’t want to do that at all right now.”
“Because I don’t want to.”
Ben pulled his face back and frowned. “Don’t you like it?”
“That’s not the point. I’m not there yet.”
“Come on,” he said, moving back to her. “I’ll get you there.”
Ben didn’t move his other hand and started kissing her. Jemma tried to pull away, and Ben squeezed her breast with his free hand. Jemma smacked him with her cigarette hand, catching him on the arm with it.
“Goddammit, Ben, get off me.”
Ben glared at her. Jemma tried to push herself away, and Ben released his hold on her breast in exchange for her forehead, slamming her skull back against the headstone. She gasped, and he hit her against the headstone several more times. The cigarette dropped from her fingers and she slumped against the grass.
Ben looked down at her, breathing heavily, red in the face. He picked up her cigarette and took a long drag on it, hunched over her. A cold chill filled the night. Ben finished the cigarette. He stood up, took a step back and stumbled over her foot. Flailing for balance, he fell forward and slammed his head against Theodore W. Buckwheat’s headstone and didn’t move again.
“It’s two bed, two bath,” Mr. Eichmann said, walking them through the kitchen. “Twelve-hundred square feet. The countertops were put in a few months ago. In fact, most of the appliances are new.”
Georgia rubbed her enlarged stomach as she looked out the window. “It’s a nice yard. What do you think, dear?”
“Very nice,” Allen said. “We could set up a fire pit.”
When she turned around, Mr. Eichmann gestured at Georgia.
“This your first?”
She smiled and put both hands on her stomach, nodding.
“Congratulations. You must be very excited.”
“We are,” Georgia said.
“Very excited,” Allen said.
From the stairs, Kimmy put her translucent finger in her translucent mouth and gagged. She floated up to the top floor.
“There’s two of them this time, chum, and the lady’s pregnant. Like, for sure for sure.”
Victor floated in the corner, arms crossed, back to her.
“Oh, come on. You’re not still mad?”
Victor didn’t say anything. Kimmy floated upside down and giggled.
“Be real with me, Vic—are you angry because I killed you or because everybody thinks you tripped and fell down the stairs?”
Victor turned around. His neck was bent to the side.
“I’m angry because you killed me, Kimmy. No question.”
Kimmy shrugged. “I dunno, chum. Falling down the stairs like that? You weren’t even old. Quite the show, anyway. No one saw me hit the last page except my killer. Christmas Eve is a terrible day to die.”
Victor didn’t say anything. He looked at the floor. Kimmy floated closer.
“Come on, Vic,” she said. “Be mad at me later. You want a newborn living here?”
Victor stayed silent for another moment. He floated head-over-heels a few times.
“No,” he said, “I really don’t.”
Kimmy spread her arms, smiling.
“Shall we get to it, then?”
“Yeah,” Victor said, and the two of them floated through the floor and into the kitchen.