October entered her apartment and paused. She stood in her doorway, dropped her bags, and sighed. Before her stood a tall, pale, skeleton of a man. He wore a white, long-sleeve gown down to his shins that was way too big for his emaciated frame. He was barefoot. His eyes and cheeks were sunken. Everything about him looked like he’d never tasted food. Which would explain the look of anger and vengeance glued to his face. She’d be mad too if she’d never tasted spices.
But what annoyed her at present wasn’t him, but what he’d done.
In yet another protest to her presence, he moved the stove into the living room, in front of the sofa, making sure if she sat down, she wouldn’t be able to watch TV. “Really, squatter?” she said.
“Get out!” he growled, his deep, gravelly voice echoing off the walls.
“You don’t pay rent here!” Thus ensued yet another argument between the two about who had the right to occupy the space.
October Ember was starting over. New school. New city. New address. Things were going great. Well, things were going well. Well, things were new. Everything was still settling. She still had dishes in boxes. Which was amazing because her new roommate…well, we’ll get to that.
She had found a nice off-campus, one-bedroom apartment. Living off-campus cut her expenses down by 3/4. She was still a short bike’s ride from campus and had no problem living on Ramen, pizza rolls, and Mio for a few years. A job at the campus bookstore helped ensure she had some spending money. The apartment came fully furnished. That was a whole shopping list she could throw away. She had to pay her phone and internet, which was fine. She was still saving a ton just being here.
What wasn’t fine was the “squatter.” That’s what she called him whenever he’d annoy her, which was all the time. The landlords didn’t warn her about a ghost. She found out while she was in the shower. Not like, she got out of the shower and there was a message on the mirror, written in steam. No. She was in the shower. Then he was in the shower. Under the shower head. With that same angry look on his face. The water didn’t touch him. When he said “get out,” she got out. Immediately. Loudly. Was almost arrested for indecent exposure. When she confronted the landlords, they agreed to knock $300 off the rent. “Plus,” they said, “He can’t hurt the living. He’s really more of a pest than anything.”
She still wasn’t excited about living with a ghost, but that $300 would look real good on her internet and phone bills. She agreed to try it out, but if it didn’t work out, she was walking out, and didn’t want to hear shit out of their mouths. Deal!
They were right. He couldn’t hurt her. He could throw things at her, but everything would glide to the left or slide to the right. Nothing ever made contact.
In a disembodied voice, he’d shout, “Get out!”
She’d yell back, “Pay rent!”
Then he’d storm off, slam a door, and disappear. He didn’t move his mouth when he spoke, nor his feet and legs when he walked, or his arms when he moved or threw things. He hovered over the floor, being carried by kinetic energy and rage.
The landlords didn’t know anything about the ghost. He was there when they bought the property. The previous owner didn’t tell them the place was haunted. When they started renting to the college students, they discovered that college kids have big mouths. Once word of the haunting spread, the pair couldn’t get rid of the property. But after learning the ghost was non-lethal, they found discounts were often enough to get tenants to stay. Also, month-to-month helped.
For October, she couldn’t afford anywhere else while she went to school. Give her a year lease. Hell, give her four. As long as the ghost couldn’t kill her, she was going to make this work.
Three months later, the ghost had discovered insomnia. Weaponized insomnia. The ghost couldn’t attack her, but he could attack everything around her. Cups. Plates. Spoons. He’d taken a liking to throwing pots and pans against the wall, dropping them on the floor, slamming them on the ceiling. Turning the TV on, up, and over the decibel barrier in the middle of the night was a favorite of his.
“Can’t you shut him up!” neighboring students would say.
Like, were they serious? If she had that kind of power, she would make him move out. He was especially rowdy on nights she had a test to study for or a paper due. She started falling asleep at the library, in her classes, at work. She barely passed her first semester.
This ghost went from being a nuisance to a full-blown problem. It was time for him to go.
During winter break, October spent her time in the library, studying ghost lore. More specifically, ghost expulsion. She was about to go full pest removal. She was conjuring the spirits of Sam and Dean. Ghostbusters had nothing on her. She talked to priests, rabbis, imams. All of whom figured out pretty quickly where she was living based on the information she’d given. None of whom had any answers. The imam did have one piece of information. Before it was an apartment building, it was a house.
Investigating the house yielded far greater returns. Back in the late 1800s, the house belonged to a man named Benjamin Ellison Doring. Husband. Father of two. Philanthropist. All of that lost in the maelstrom of scandal. He’d been having an affair with his maid, Clarice Mavehaven. His wife found out. Left him, took the kids, and his good name. Leaving him in the house with his mistress, a dwindling fortune, and a rapidly on-set illness that no doctor could name.
Within a year, he was dead, his mistress and his fortune were gone, and his house sold at auction and was turned into a hotel then an apartment complex.
October lifted her head from her book, looked around the library, and took a deep breath. Then dove even deeper into this rabbit hole. There were just too many questions. What was the illness? What happened to Clarice? Where did she come from? Where did she go? Did she murder Ben? Sounded like she did. Was the “illness” poison? And most importantly, where was this man buried? She would need to salt and burn his bones.
There were no bones. He was cremated. There was no money for a funeral. Plus, with his illness, they didn’t want to take a chance on burying him and spreading the disease. Whatever it was. They never found out what the illness was.
There was only one thing left to do. “I have to try to make peace with this man.” She went back to the apartment and saw what the ghost had done. “Move it back!”
“You don’t pay rent here, Benjamin!”
Use of his name froze him.
“Yeah, I know who you are. Thought you were gonna be an anonymous troll? Nope. I pulled your whole record. Now, move the stove back.”
“Benjamin. Doring.” He said it as if dragging it from memory. Made sense. He probably hadn’t heard it in almost two centuries.
“Benjamin Ellison Doring. You lived and died here,” October said, in case his name wasn’t the only thing he’d forgotten. Hell, after almost 200 years of not hearing his own name or story, maybe he’d forgotten why he was such an asshole. She lifted her backpack off the floor. “I have your entire life right here. I will tell you everything. But first put…it…back!”
Second semester went much better. After their talk, Ben’s attitude improved. Turned out, the old guy was just lost. Because he was lost, he’d developed a fear and distrust of strangers. Plus, his looks were frightening. There was no getting around that. Every time someone saw him, they ran screaming for their life. That had to sting. What happened to him in life hurt. The hurt continued after his death, offering no peace.
He was still only speaking in short, clipped statements, but his vocabulary expanded as she talked about his life and his memories returned. When she showed him a picture of himself, he said, “Benjamin Ellison Doring.” When she showed his wife, he said, “Mary Rose. My love.” His face and voice softened. He named his children, Ella and Rosa. Seeing a picture of his house, he said, “Home.” When she showed him a picture of Clarice, he shifted back to his angry form and bellowed, “Witch!”
October waved him off. “Ben, it’s okay. You can call her a bitch. No one’s gonna stop you.” She went back to a picture of him and his family, which calmed him down. She put up pictures of his family and house around the apartment.
The house had been through several renovations throughout the years. At one point, iron bars were added as reinforcements between the apartments, leaving him trapped in one apartment.
Over the next three years, October and Ben had developed a friendship. He was still terrifying to look at and would use his looks to scare off young men and women who’d worn out their welcome or anyone he suspected of being false. In return, she never stopped looking for a way to free him. She wouldn’t live in this apartment forever. Leaving him here just seemed cruel. How long before his name was never uttered again and he returned to throwing cups at strangers? She would never stop looking. Even when she moved.
Clarice stirred tea in a small porcelain cup. Ben sat in bed, propped up against the headboard, watching her. “Anulus sepelitur cum ea,” she whispered into the cup and forced the drink into his mouth and down his throat. Once the cup was empty, she set it on the bedside table.
“You know what’s great about magic?” she said. “It can do anything. Make you kiss me in front of your wife and colleagues. Make you profess your love for me. It can strip your speech and slowly paralyze you. Most importantly, and this is my favorite part, it won’t show up on any autopsy. People die of mysterious illnesses all the time. It’s just another day in the world, really.
“You will be happy to know your ex-wife has no intentions to remarry despite having many suitors, one of them, your best friend Charles. She says she cannot imagine loving anyone but you. She still wears her wedding ring. It’s very sweet. I can’t imagine loving a man that much. Or at all. She married you and look what happened. Divorced with two children. Tragic.” She slid his wedding ring off his finger, fiddled with it, and read the inscription. “‘To Ben, my first and only.’ Cute.” She scoffed and placed the ring in her dress pocket.
Ben was paralyzed from the neck down. He could only speak through grunts and growls. His tongue was useless. A scent wafted up to his nose.
“Oh. You need to be cleaned. Let me call Sylvia.”
Clarice couldn’t even let him die with dignity. Sylvia and her team of nurses rushed in to clean him. Clarice walked out, whistling. When the nurses were finished cleaning him, they left, leaving him behind.