By Michala Zappia
Darkness, solitude, and calm. The closest I’ve ever felt to non-existence. Quietly unaware of just how peaceful this existence is. The alarm sounds. With tired eyes I reach to silence the irritating noise. My mind hovers above me. That empty, heavy feeling inside my chest when I first awake – when all the pain that I’ve felt dangles above me in a cloud. Untouchable. I levitate above my body, near my pain and my soul remains clear and light… for about thirty seconds. I crash back in; the pain closely follows. My regret falls over me and my stomach sinks. The grief hits. Oh, but how wonderful those thirty seconds were. It’s as if my life reset for a moment and all I remember is the joy and beauty of existence. But life has a serious uppercut, and it hits hard.
Basically, my life is falling apart. Not only have I turned down my dream job and lost my home, I also recently ended my engagement with my fiancé, Sam. These decisions just so happened to be influenced by each other; and this is only the recent list of bad decisions I have made. I used to pride myself on my good decisions but since my grandma passed away four years ago, I seem to have lost that ability; she must’ve been my good luck charm. The best decision I made recently was kicking Sam to the curb after realizing he would rather me be barefoot and pregnant than to follow my dreams. This decision ended badly as well. I didn’t know that Sam’s name was the only name on the lease of the apartment we were renting together, so when I broke up with him, he kicked me out. Now, here I lay, a twenty-four-year-old, single, basically unemployed, homeless woman replaying my painful decisions on loop in my head like a very dramatic, poorly written movie.
I grew up in a small midwestern town and moved to New York when I turned eighteen. The biggest city I had seen before I moved was Indianapolis, yet the city called me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life at that point. All I knew is that I loved to create; so, I moved to New York to major in art at NYU. My parents loved nothing about the idea of their young daughter moving eleven hours from home to pursue a career in art. “How secure could her future be?” they must’ve thought. I met Sam my junior year at the university—he worked in the campus library. I graduated, got engaged, and lined up some paid graphic design internships and prepared to pursue my dream job of illustrating children’s books. Three months ago, a popular children’s author contacted me for a job illustrating her books. It required me to move or commute two hours upstate. My fiancé did not like the idea of me working far from home, and he didn’t want to compromise his university job, so I turned down the offer. We know how this turned out for me, and obviously this isn’t the end of the world. It’s not as if this was the only opportunity that would ever be available to me in my life, but it was an amazing opportunity, nonetheless.
Currently, my friend Matt is letting me live in the apartment above his coffee shop, “Kickstart Coffee,” for free. It’s a cute little shop nestled in between a thrift store and a café. I walk downstairs and find my seat in the corner. Matt brings me my regular coffee, grilled cheese, and tomato soup; free of charge, of course.
“Got some important work to do today, Jenna?” Matt asks.
“Just working on that project for the summer coffee cups,” I respond. Matt has been paying me to do random graphic design projects for the store.
“Have you made any progress on the living situation?” he asks.
“All my friends are either married, living with roommates, or on the other side of the country,” I say. “So, no.”
“You know you’re free to stay here as long as you’d like,” he says as he flashes a grin. I should mention that Matt normally lives in the apartment above the shop but has recently been living with his parents thirty-minutes away so that I have someplace to stay. Next month, however, Matt’s parents are moving to Florida and he will need the apartment back for himself.
“Matt, I’m the one that should be homeless, not you,” I say.
He shrugs. “Have you talked to Kaci? She’s been wanting you to move in for a long time,” he says. I pause and think for a moment and decide that I’m not entirely that desperate yet. I met Kaci through social media about four years ago. I post my graphic design work and she messaged me a few years back to ask some questions about my ‘artistic process.’ We’ve become decent friends and have been talking frequently since. However, I’ve never met her in person.
“Kaci Graves? I barely know her. Don’t you think it’s odd that she even asked me to move in with her?’” I ask, a bit irritated.
“I think you should give it a try. I know you’ve seen her house on Instagram – it’s huge. You probably wouldn’t see her anyway; it would be like having your own apartment” Matt says as he walks away. I pick up my phone and type out a message to Kaci: “Looking for a roommate?”
Three hours later and I get a response from Kaci. She says she is excited and that I can meet her at the house for a tour today at three o’clock. I am currently immersed in my daily routine of drinking way too much coffee in the shop, so I have nothing better to do. I pack up my things, wave goodbye to Matt, and grab the keys to my car.
I drive through the neighborhood of the house. It is a winding road bordered with old trees and dilapidated mailboxes. I arrive in front of the house and make my way up the driveway. The grass is overgrown, and the house is trimmed with plants – rose bushes, lavender, ferns, and potted flowers. The house is a dark purplish-blue color and the windows are trimmed with a lighter purple. There is a hanging swing on the front porch. On the opposite side, four wicker chairs create a campfire-like atmosphere. In one of the chairs sits a small, young woman. She looks up from her book and waves excitedly at me.
“Jenna!” She begins running down the porch to greet me and trips over a stick but catches her balance. “I’m so happy to finally meet you in person!”
Kaci is a very exuberant girl. ‘Must be an extrovert’ I think to myself. This might not work out—is she trying to hug me? Yes. She met me with a hug. I’m not one to hug upon first meeting someone. She pulls away.
“It’s really nice to meet you,” I say. “I hope I’m not imposing.”
“You’re not imposing at all! I’m happy to have you,” she says as she begins walking toward the house. I decide I’m supposed to follow her. “I was just excited you finally decided to move in. I haven’t had a permanent roommate for a very long time; and when I say a really long time, I mean… Well it feels like an eternity.” Kaci gets quieter at the end of her speech. I’m not going to stand here and pretend she isn’t making me uncomfortable. In fact, she is giving me some serious psychopath vibes.
Kaci is talking about something; I’ve completely zoned out. She seems to be entertaining herself, I wonder if she’s even taken a breath. We stop at the front door and she begins to open it and then wiggle it and then she nervously laughs and aggressively begins to wiggle and pry the doorknob. I stand there silently, taking in her eccentric door-opening skills. I wonder if the door always sticks this badly or if this is a bad omen. At least two minutes pass and she is still finicking with the door. Is God providing me an escape? Is it possible on the other side of the door lies my death? She begins kicking the door. This is getting weird. Should I run?
“Oh, my goodness,” she quips. “Silly me.” She reaches down and pulls a key out from under the doormat, then places it in the door – it unlocks. I stare in confusion.
“You would think after all these years I wouldn’t forget the door automatically locks behind me.” Okay, weird. I decide to ignore it. I’ve been talking to Kaci for years now. She’s always been a little… different.
As I enter, I feel as though I’m transported back in time. It is in impeccable condition. I remain silent.
“It’s nothing special,” Kaci says as she leads me up the stairs. “I’ve just never gotten around to updating it.” It looks like the house hasn’t been touched since it was built. We make our way up the wooden staircase; pictures line the wall on the right side – old black and white photos; the faces are indecipherable. I begin to wonder if this house was owned by her family previously. She answers before I get a chance to ask.
“I’ve lived here for quite some time.” She pauses. “I guess you could say it’s like a family heirloom.”
“It’s beautiful,” I say. When we reach the top of the stairway, I look to my left down the hallway. A long narrow space; two rooms on one side, three on the other, and a room straight down the end of the hallway. We begin walking down the hallway – she points out the office space and three empty bedrooms. When we reach the end of the hallway, she points to her bedroom.
“And this,” she points to the last door on the left, “This would be your room.” She opens the door and invites me to step inside. An all-white room with beautiful hardwood floors, a queen-size canopy bed, a large antique bureau, and a desk in front of the window. The room is light and bright. A dream workspace.
“So, what do you think?” she leans forward in anticipation of my response.
“I love it!” I respond almost too excitedly, and without seeing the remainder of the house. “When can I move in?”
It’s my first night in the house; Kaci excitedly cooks me dinner. I’ve barely had a chance to unpack my things when she calls me to the dining room; it is 6 p.m.
“I made my favorite dinner,” she announces. I turn the corner to see the simple meal prepared by my new roommate. “Navy bean chili, grilled mozzarella cheese, and coffee to drink. I know, it’s strange, but I thought you might like it.” She sets the cups of coffee on the table.
I stare in shock. “Actually,” I begin. “My grandma used to make this exact meal all the time when I was growing up. I didn’t know anyone else liked this… or even knew it existed.” I can see a smile creep up on her face as she turns to walk away.
“Weird coincidence, huh?” she says as she walks away. I pick up my grilled cheese, pull off a piece and dip it in my chili. I try to remember if I told Kaci about this meal at some point during our previous conversations. I was sure I hadn’t told anyone but Matt. The last time I had this meal was six years ago – the day before I moved to New York. My grandma made me this the morning I left for school and I haven’t had it since. I’ve always regretted that I never went back to visit her; or learned how to make her navy bean chili. Since she passed, I’ve often regretted that I ever moved to New York in the first place; it seems to be the beginning of my bad decisions. I take my first bite – it tastes exactly like grandma used to make.
Kaci comes back to the table. “So… how is it?” she asks.
Kaci retreated to her room around 8 p.m. to go to bed. I didn’t mind; it gave me a chance to unpack and relax. I find it a little strange she is going to bed so early; I just hoped she isn’t an extremely early riser. It is now 11:30 p.m., and I swear I could hear a pin drop in the house. It’s eerily quiet most of the night, all except for the occasional groaning coming from the old house. The house quickly starts to worry me; the occasional sounds of wood floor creaks and walls shifting become more frequent, and then constant.
I lay in bed and try to sleep. The house starts to screech and groan; I look over and see the clock is at 11:58 p.m. It gets very quiet. I decide the house has finally settled and I try to sleep. I begin falling into sleep. Suddenly, I am jolted awake by the sound of knocking, three knocks, coming from the hallway; it sounds like someone is knocking on Kaci’s door. I look at my clock: 12 a.m. My heart races from being awoken so abruptly. Who would be knocking on Kaci’s door this late? I decide it couldn’t be a burglar; why would a burglar knock? I go to the wall and listen. Silence. I turn to get back into bed. Footsteps – not my own. Is it Kaci? Maybe she is trying to wake me up. My heart still races, the floorboards creak, and I hear whispering. I walk over to the door to see if I can make out what is being said; I can’t. All I can hear is faint, unintelligible sounds. I check to make sure the door is locked; I crouch to look under the door – I see a shadow of footprints but there are no feet.
“Kaci?” I say loudly enough to be heard through the door. Nothing. “Kaci?” I speak up a little louder. Still no response. “Kaci?!” I scream this time. I hear a loud crash. The sound of something breaking – a vase or picture frame? I run over to my bed and hide under the covers. I face away from the door – I don’t want to see it coming. This is it; I’m going to die. I hear footsteps outside my door again.
“Jenna?… Jenna? Are you okay?” I hear in a whispering voice.
“AH!” I scream and pull the covers tighter over my face.
“Jenna, it’s me.” I look up: Kaci. “What’s wrong?” She sits at the end of my bed.
“You didn’t hear those noises?” I sit up.
“What are you talking about? I didn’t hear anything. I was just sleeping, and I heard you scream so I came to check on you.” Her voice is soothing. I begin telling her all the things I heard: the knocking, the footsteps, the loud crash. I withhold the information of the shadow without feet.
“Oh, there’s nothing to worry about,” she says. “This is an old house; it makes lots of noises. Try to get to sleep, okay?” She gets up to leave. I close my eyes and try to get back to sleep. I turn over to look at my clock: 12:37 a.m. Maybe I was just being paranoid. A few seconds later, I sit straight up in bed. I look at my bedroom door; it’s closed. I get up to check it; it’s still locked from the inside and there is no way to unlock it from the outside. How did Kaci get in?
The night is filled with consistent noise, shadows, and house groaning – followed by a vivid dream of my grandma sitting on the edge of my bed singing. My grandma has barely left my mind since I’ve been in this house. I don’t get much sleep. I wake up around 11 a.m. and head downstairs. Kaci is once again in the kitchen, yet this time she isn’t cooking. I find her at the table reading a book and eating her breakfast.
“Good morning. How did you sleep?” she asks. She should know the answer to that.
“You didn’t hear all that noise last night?” I respond with a question. “Is this house haunted? Because it sounds haunted. All the creaking and there were footsteps without feet… I heard three knocks; it sounded like someone was knocking on your door,” I stop myself before I say anything about my own door being locked.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Kaci doesn’t even look up from her book. “This house is like a hundred and fifty years old; it makes noises.” She finally puts the book down and looks me in the eye. “Listen, the first night in a new place is always weird. You aren’t used to the sounds or the atmosphere. I’m sure you’ll sleep better tonight, okay?”
“Sure.” I don’t actually agree with her. I just want to get out of the house. I start to walk away.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” she asks as I walk away. I don’t respond. I grab my bag and walk out the front door. I can’t wait to get out of here. I get to the driveway and go to unlock my car; I don’t have my keys. I set down my bag and run in the house. Thankfully, the door is unlocked. I run upstairs, retrieve my keys and run back outside in record time, and I’m backing out of the driveway before I can even think. As I drive down the road it hits me. When Kaci couldn’t open the front door, she said it locks behind you automatically. So how was it unlocked?
For the twelfth time Matt asks, “So, you’re sure your door was locked from the inside?”
“Yes, I’m positive.” I continue staring off into the distance.
“And the door this morning, you’re sure it was closed all the way?” He looks at me like I’m crazy.
“Matt, we’ve been over this. My door was locked last night, I never heard the door open and boom, there was Kaci. I left the house this morning and I walked right back in the door – it didn’t lock. She said it locks automatically.” I rub my temples and prepare to continue. “And the footsteps with no feet! The knocking! The crash! Be honest, Matt. Am I going to die?” I pause and Matt opens his mouth to respond. I cut him off. “And what about the navy bean chili? No one knows about the freaking chili! How could she know about the freaking chili? And the dream with my grandma? I haven’t stopped thinking about her since I moved into this stupid house.” Matt stares at me like he’s waiting for something. “I’m done talking now.”
“Listen, J, I know you well enough to know you’re missing your grandma. With everything that’s been happening in your life lately, you just want her to talk to. All the noises last night, you could’ve just been stressed, and the door thing – you must’ve missed something. The navy bean chili and the singing dream last night, it’s probably just a coincidence.” He states all of this very matter-of-factly.
“Matt, I know what I heard and saw. I didn’t make that up. Yeah, I’m stressed, but I’m not that stressed,” I assure him.
“Well, J, do you believe in ghosts?”
I’ve never really thought about it. I shrug and take a sip of my double shot.
That night, I get to bed early – ten o’clock – hoping to avoid the same strange occurrences as last night. I lie in bed and quickly drift off to sleep.
I am suddenly awoken by the sound of intense whispering coming from the hallway. I roll over to look at my clock – 2 a.m. With a burst of courage, I bring myself out of bed and approach the door. I crack it slowly and peer out the small slit. I look down the hallway to my right; it’s dark, but I can see Kaci looking down the stairwell, slowly backing up. She is whispering to herself.
“She can’t find out yet. I just need a little more time, okay? This kind of thing is hard to bring up! She isn’t ready,” she pleads with nothing. I creep out of the door slowly to try to hear more. I hear an invisible voice respond.
“You know she’s catching on anyway; she knows something is up. Just tell her. There’s not much time left anyway.” I recognize the voice, a woman’s, but I can’t place it.
“That’s because of your shenanigans last night. You weren’t exactly sly by any means. Why would you go by her door anyway? And then you go into her room?” Kaci begins getting louder. My heart races in my chest; Kaci and the invisible voice are talking about me.
“I wanted to see her. I didn’t think I would wake her up. And it’s your fault she found out. I’m old. You can’t just jump me like that.” I contemplate jumping out of the window or calling the police; my curiosity drives me though. I make my way down the hallway towards the conversation.
“Well if you would’ve just listened to me and waited. We can’t just throw this on her the first night!” Kaci raises her voice.
“Well you should’ve been more aggressive in getting her here. ‘Oh, we’ll just wait until two days before, but don’t worry; she’ll find us on her own,’” the voice responds.
“What was I supposed to do? Kidnap her and drag her here?” Kaci responds.
“No, but you should’ve been more aggressive. And by the way, what was that with the door, Kaci? You know you aren’t supposed to be able to do that. It’s not normal. That’s why she’s suspicious.” The voice sounds irritated. I knew there was something to the doors.
“I know, I forgot. I’ve lived in this house alone for so long. I usually don’t have to worry about it. But either way, Jenna can’t find out until tomorrow.”
“Find out what? And who are you talking to?” I approach Kaci. She looks shocked and she tries to stop me from coming any closer. I push past her; I need to find out who this voice belongs to. I look down the stairwell and see her standing four steps from the top, leaning her arm on the banister: my grandma.
“What the hell?” I exclaim. I start to back up; a full thought refuses to form in my head. “I don’t understand. You’re dead—you’ve been dead for four years,” I almost whisper to myself. Kaci comes up behind me and places a hand on my shoulder. I push her away as my grandma approaches me. I begin to wonder if this is all a very strange dream and I wonder when I will wake up.
“Sweet pea.” She reaches out to hug me. I hesitate, but only for a moment, before I fall into her arms. Whether this is real or not I will not refuse the opportunity to feel my grandma’s embrace. She smells like books and my childhood with a faint whiff of the cigarette smoke she used to pretend no one knew about. Her arms feel like home, the safest I’ve felt for a while. The confusion of this whole ordeal melts away, and I am home… for a moment. I pull away.
“I need to know what the hell is going on here,” I say as Kaci squeezes past me and heads down the stairs. She turns toward the kitchen and I see a light turn on.
“Why don’t we go downstairs and talk this out over coffee, okay?” Grandma says as she grabs my hand and leads me down the stairs.
Grandma places a cup of black coffee in front of me and buttered toast with cinnamon. She sets the same in front of Kaci and herself and takes a seat. We sit silently at the kitchen table, exchanging looks. Kaci looks worried and a bit upset, but grandma simply smiles reassuringly. I look at the clock; it’s 3 a.m.
“I bet you have a lot of questions,” Grandma breaks the silence.
“Really, Jane? You think she has a lot of questions? You’re dead. You realize this usually doesn’t happen, right? If you would’ve just waited for me, I would’ve taken care of it, but no you just had to go and do it your own way. You do realize I’m older than…”
“Kaci, hush. It’s not the time for this okay? I know my granddaughter,” Grandma cuts Kaci off mid-rant. She turns to me. “Ask away.”
“Why are you not dead? Why are you here? How does Kaci know you?” I have so many questions for this situation.
“Well, before you moved to New York, the doctor told me the cancer came back, but I knew if I told you, you wouldn’t come out here and I couldn’t let you do that. I didn’t say anything. I just spent as much time with you as I could before you left.” She pauses. “The day I died was the same day you met Sam; except I obviously didn’t know that at the time; I didn’t know anything about your life. You hadn’t called me for a while.”
“How do you know about Sam?”
“I was assigned Jane when she died,” Kaci chimes in and ignores my question. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. I thought I would finally get to retire, but they said you would really need my help.”
“Let’s just get to the point, okay, Kaci?” Grandma sounds urgent.
“Jane didn’t know about the decisions you were making, but we did. We knew the things you could do, and we kept Jane around in case you needed help. So, I was assigned to Jane to find you and help you.” I want to know who “they” are, but I decide not to ask.
“I still don’t understand why you have to find me, and why now?” If this was about my decision making, now is way too late to try to help me out.
“Jenna, when you were a little girl, you used to be so proud of the decisions you made in your life. What you didn’t realize was that you weren’t making them on your own; I was always helping you. All those times I would cook meals for you, and we would talk things out. You made the decision, but you have to know I influenced you.” Grandma was right, my decisions started going downhill when I moved away from home. She continued, “When I died, they brought me here with Kaci, just in case you needed me. I was kept here to protect you.”
“Where were you then? All those times I messed up and made terrible choices, why didn’t you stop me? Why didn’t you save me?”
“That’s the thing, sweet pea. You saved yourself.” Grandma grabs my hand and smiles. “They knew the result of every decision you could’ve made, and every time, without fail, you made the best possible decision.” None of this makes sense.
“Do either of you care to tell me just exactly how much worse my life could’ve been? I’m unemployed, I broke off my engagement, and I’m being haunted by my grandma and some strange afterlife social worker. Excuse me if I fail to see just how much worse my life could be at this exact moment.” I stand up to leave, but quickly change my mind and sit back down.
“Sweet pea, listen. If you wouldn’t have moved to New York, you would’ve been run off the road by a drunk driver 3 years ago. Sam was cheating on you with your old college roommate. That job upstate would’ve made you so incredibly unhappy, and there’s another opportunity on the way. The decisions you made, as bad as they seemed to you at the time, were your saving grace.” She looked away. “You don’t need me anymore, so I can rest now.”
“What do you mean ‘rest’?” I ask.
“Your Grandma is not supposed to intervene in your life unless you need her, which you don’t,” Kaci chimes in.
“I wanted Kaci to bring you here sooner so that I could finally rest. But I needed to see you one last time before I left.” Grandma starts tearing up.
“What about Kaci?” I ask.
“I’ll be around.”
“Where do I live?”
“Here, you’re about to have this whole house to yourself – except between 12 and 4. That’s when Kaci can visit.” Grandma looks at Kaci and she smiles.
“What about you, Grandma? Aren’t you going to stay?”
“Sweet pea, tonight is my last night here.” She looks sad.
“No! This isn’t fair. I need you!” I feel the tears well up.
“Kaci will still be around if you need her, right, Kaci?” Grandma looks at Kaci and Kaci nods. “I know you’re going to miss me Sweet Pea, but you don’t need me. It’s almost 4. I have to be going now, or I’ll have to wait longer.” I look at the clock: 3:59. She stands up and comes over to hug me. I start crying.
“I love you,” she says. She pulls away and places her hands on my shoulder and looks me in the eye. “You are right where you are meant to be; trust yourself.” She kisses me on the forehead and turns to walk away. She goes out to the entryway and walks straight through the closed door. I turn to look at Kaci; she is nowhere to be found, but I know I will see her later.