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Story: “The Fourth Housemate” (June 2024)

by April Grant

“Archie put the séance on the calendar for 7:00 p.m.,” said Juniper, edging past me on the stairs as I scrubbed. She was wearing her pastel green running shorts and singlet, which I would have admired if I hadn’t been seething with resentment. “Do you think I have time to run around the neighborhood?”

What I meant to say was that she had time to run, shower, and change first. As I was hunched over the bloody footprints with a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle of Seventh Generation cleaner, both of which we could ill afford, wondering how we were going to make rent without a fourth housemate, the words that actually came out of my mouth were “Just go!” It didn’t make anybody feel better, including me.

“You could leave that for me and I’ll do it when I get back?” ventured Juniper, her eyes huge.

“It’s FINE,” I said.

We were having a hard time keeping a fourth housemate. We needed one in order to afford rent on the apartment, which took up half an old house in Somerville. Half a house sounds huge until you factor in four people and their stuff. Three people with decent jobs could have shared the place with minimal anxiety; we were not those people. Juniper had a decent job with a pharma company. Archie gave tarot readings online and sold secondhand books in order to fund his true calling as a ritual magician. I worked as a public historian in Boston, which involves some of the same downsides as being a stripper (no respect from the public, you receive a lot of cash in small bills). Having a fourth person splitting the rent made the difference between peace of mind and overdraft fees. For years, that person had been Aidan, a barista who moved serenely through life and made us all a little calmer whenever he came into the room.

Aidan had moved out on the first of September, to rejoin the wheel of rental dharma in another city with his new boyfriend. I was genuinely happy for them despite what I’m about to describe. Since then, we’d shown his old bedroom to a parade of potential housemates and praised it to the skies, with increasing hysteria in our voices. It was the warmest room in the house; it had a fresh teal-blue paint job and built-in bookcases and a walk-in closet and a sleek wood floor, and it was right across from the bathroom. We had interviewed eleven potential new housemates so far. They were a variety of ages and genders and income strata; some were Juniper’s friends looking to change households, while others were my workmates who were new in town and highly motivated to find a place, and still others were women occultists who presumably wanted to move in because they had crushes on Archie. However, their visits all followed a similar pattern.

We would make the potential new housemate a big dinner and chat about the fine print and the rent and the day-to-day, and we’d all start to make friends. Then they would want to see the room and we’d troop upstairs. The new person would step inside and get hit with a visceral reaction that was completely lost on the three of us. Some of them spoke of columns of cold air scattered in the room, others of bad smells (“a dead rat? Rotting wiring? How can you not smell it?”). One woman wouldn’t speak at all. She staggered out of the room with her fingers in her ears, ran downstairs and out of the house barefoot, came back for her boots a minute later, put them on without speaking or making eye contact, and sprinted off down our quiet residential street. I was so consumed with curiosity about what had happened that I did some stalking. I found her on Reddit under a screen name, sharing the paranormal experience that had just befallen her, including off-putting descriptions of us three and the house. Apparently she had heard a “flat, dead voice” whispering her guiltiest secret in her ear. (From the hints she let fall, it sounded like the secret was about how she’d first discovered masturbation as a kid, so I think she was overreacting on the guilt front, to be clear.)

We were dealing with an accursed room. Archie took the batteries out of the smoke detector and hotboxed the room with sage. I vacuumed and then mopped the floors with salt water and then mopped them again with Murphy’s Oil Soap. Juniper spent the night in the room, on a camp mattress, and slept fine, without even a dream that she could remember. We even tempted Wellington, Juniper’s big black cat, to chase his wind-up mouse and eat treats in the accursed room. He seemed to have a great time: no bristling, no spitting, no staring at invisible beings. Never for a moment did any of us sense what was terrorizing other people.

“It’s deliberately toying with us,” said Archie, frowning the frown of an occultist who knows there’s a ghost present and can’t talk to it.

After all this, we had made it as far as inducing Archie’s latest candidate to take the room and sign the lease. She was a sensible-looking woman who only seemed to feel a draft, and asked if she could put a throw rug over the floor vent. I’d been limp with relief as we emailed the lease to our landlord, just in time to avoid covering one more month of the higher cut of rent.

When I went upstairs to pee the night the new woman moved in, I heard her sobbing. I didn’t even turn on the hall light as I usually would, for fear it would let her know I’d heard her. I tiptoed to the bathroom and back in the dark. Halfway down the stairs, something soft and furry brushed my ankle. It was Wellington, kindly and ponderous and devoid of awareness that humans couldn’t see in the dark. I was moving slowly enough that I managed not to trip on him.

In the early morning I re-emerged from my own room to start my day.

There were several large round spots of blood, and a diminishing series of bloody footprints, soaking into the wood of the stairs. They didn’t seem to belong to our new housemate; they were large, with a high arch. There were only four prints recognizable as footprints, all pointing downstairs and growing fainter as they went, as presumably the blood wore off the person’s feet. The bedroom door was open and our now-no-longer-housemate wasn’t in there.

Half an hour later, she sent us all a furious email from a friend’s house, accusing us of gaslighting her but also apologizing for the fact she was about to break the lease. She said that every time she had lain down to sleep, someone had come into the room, taken her books off the shelf, flipped through the pages and then stacked each book on the blanket by her legs. Then she had switched on the lights, but no one was there. Then she’d found bloody footprints on the stairs, and she had left the house immediately, and would like us to return her first month’s contribution to the rent, and leave her possessions on the front porch for her to pick up, please and thank you.

We all huddled in the kitchen later that morning.

“We aren’t paying her back,” I said. “That asshole can die mad about it.” I belatedly remembered she was one of Archie’s work friends. “Uh. Sorry I called her names.”

“Swear away,” said Archie, who was drinking a Newcastle Brown Ale and looked even paler than usual. “It’s the least of our worries.”

“Not to jinx it,” said Juniper, chugging coffee, “but the reason I haven’t suggested moving into that room myself and renting the one I’m in now is… well, what if the thing starts haunting my old room?”

“We know it’s toying with us,” said Archie. “And now we have proof it can get out of Aidan’s old room and run around the house. There’s no reason it should not do exactly that.”

I lost control of myself and marched upstairs and yelled “Use your words, you piece of shit!” into the room, in all its sunlit splendor. Our erstwhile housemate’s futon was stacked with books, which would have looked cozy except for what we knew. A copy of The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody was face down with the spine splitting.

“That’s not always possible for them,” said Archie, trying to calm me down.

“If it can terrorize people with this much skill, then it can tell us what it wants so we can cooperate and make it go away,” I said. “Archie, I want to have a séance. What would you need if you were doing this professionally?”

He stammered for a moment and then said, “Assurance that you’ll be OK with the outcome, if it isn’t what you want to hear, is what I would need.”

“Do it,” said Juniper. “I assent to whatever we hear. We just need to hear it.”

It was settled. The plan sounded fresh and definitive and like the answer to all our problems in the middle of the morning; in the evening, after I’d gone into Boston and given uninspired monologues about local history to tourists, I felt more dubious. It didn’t help that the focus of the afternoon’s history tour was “Ghosts And Phantoms of Boston’s Back Bay” and that the tourists got interested in the part about Margery the Medium being debunked. I fielded their questions about her method of making fake ectoplasm and spirit hands, and my hopes for positive results from our séance trickled away. Between my day at work and my attempts at cleaning when I got home, I was a sweaty bundle of resentment by seven p.m. By then, Juniper had showered and changed into a dress printed with little witches riding brooms, in honor of the occasion, but she seemed more skeptical and silent than when I had last seen her.

Archie, though, was in his element. He was wearing a white linen dressing gown, he had unbraided his steel-gray hair, and altogether he looked like a character from a tarot card.

“Should we be dressed up too?” I said.

“Only if it helps you get into the swing of things,” said Archie.

We all sat down in the middle of the bare wood floor, in the accursed room, with the door and window both open. The sun had almost set, but there was still a lot of ambient light from the window. Archie lit a cake of charcoal in a clay burner, and put cedar incense on top of it. Then, looking increasingly prophet-like in the rising curl of smoke, he invited the being that was invisibly present in the room to make itself known to us. Juniper and I echoed his words, sentence by sentence. I noticed that none of us knew where to look, because of course the presence in the room was invisible. Archie talked to the glowing coal, Juniper to the floor; I directed my lines to the picture rail in the far corner.

Then we offered food and drink to the Presence (as I had begun to think of it). Archie had prepared bread and butter and dried cherries, and we took little pinches of them and burned them in the charcoal and nibbled a little ourselves. We flicked drops of wine onto the flames, where they smelled briefly sour. Then we all sat and held hands, in some degree of embarrassment, with our eyes closed. Juniper’s hand felt trembly and Archie’s hand was stiff.

“Make yourself known to us,” said Archie, over and over again, and we echoed him. “We are here to listen.” Every time we finished a repeat, we paused, until the silence became oppressive.

Juniper screamed at the top of her lungs, and leapt from sitting to standing with no in-between phase. Archie and I were dragged partway up, because we reflexively kept hold of her hands. My knee hit the incense burner, but it was too stable to tip over.

“It touched me!” yelled Juniper. “Oh God, it’s soft!” She clawed at her own forearms to wipe off a feeling.

Then we all realized Wellington was standing between us, looking up with huge yellow eyes and hoping for treats. He had wandered into the room and brushed against her arm. Juniper realized what had happened, and went straight from mortal dread to holding Wellington like a baby and giving him kisses on the top of the head. It was dark outside by that point, and Archie switched on the soft yellow lamp that our erstwhile housemate had abandoned. I thought he looked discouraged; I certainly felt that way.

“How long do we keep doing this for?” I said. I’d meant it to be neutral, but I heard myself sounding like Eeyore.

“As long as our energy lasts or till they start communicating,” said Archie.

“It doesn’t seem like they’re meeting us halfway.”

“If you have an alternate tactic, I would welcome your adding it,” said Archie. In his polite way he was telling me to come up with a better idea or else shut up.

A stray memory of those charlatan mediums crossed my mind.

“Hang on, I do actually think I can offer something,” I said. I ran downstairs and got a fistful of scrap paper from the bin under the printer, and a mechanical pencil. On my way back, inspiration struck again and I got my black satin sleep mask.

Juniper didn’t quite buy it, even after I explained the concept of automatic writing. “That sounds like the equivalent of a Ouija board. Surely the mediums were writing out words, even if they didn’t consciously know it?”

“Well, maybe they were, but I won’t be. My idea was just to make things as easy as possible for the Being,” I said, laying out the paper on the floor. “Maybe it can’t make sounds, or maybe all three of us are, like, spiritually deaf and it’s been shouting at us the whole time, so we need to go another direction.”

Archie looked uneasy as well. “You can try it if you want, but in effect you’ll be making yourself into a medium. Are you OK with letting the presence get close to you?”

“I don’t know! It hasn’t happened yet.” I was so desperate for results of any kind that I laughed. “If I do this, is a ghost going to possess my body and march me around like a puppet?”

“I think if that was possible it would already have happened,” said Archie. (I had been hoping for a flat “no” and was regretting my bravado.) “I was thinking more low-stakes stuff, like it making you slightly uncomfortable. Please promise me that if you start feeling queasy or dizzy or like you’re being crowded, you’ll tell us, drop it, and leave the room.”

I promised.

We had to tape the paper to the floor, in the end, so that it wouldn’t wiggle when I flailed with the pencil. Then I lay down on my stomach with my legs in the air, like a teenager on her bed writing in her diary, and I positioned my right hand at the upper left corner of the first page, and blindfolded myself with the sleep mask.

“Is there anyone here who wishes to speak?” Archie intoned. “Let them form words on the page.” Juniper repeated the words, embarrassed but firm.

I tried to move my hand in tight squiggles but refrain from any letters. It struck me that this method of communication relied on the ghost being able to read cursive, and we would get nowhere if the ghost had gone to school after longhand writing stopped being taught in the early 2000s. I nearly wrote out “2000s” as the thought passed through my mind. Or had I already written it? To stop myself from picturing numbers and letters, I pretended I was making an outsider art project by covering the paper evenly with small spirals, and shaking things up from time to time by jiggling my right elbow with my left hand. When I hit the bottom of the first page, I felt the slight ridge formed by the strip of tape, and moved to the second sheet.

Archie and Juniper were in a rhythm now, the meaning getting blurred behind the sound of the words (ANYonehere WISHestospeak, let them FORM wordsonthePAGE), and it helped me slip into a detached state where my hand moved over the paper but my mind drifted in a gentle waking dream of reading a big old hardback book with unevenly cut edges to the pages. A golden light filled the room. I wasn’t really aware of my body or my surroundings otherwise, just taking pleasure in the excitement and tension of the chapter I was finishing – and it was a great book, I knew that even though my waking self would not have recognized it. Dismissed as a pulp thriller in its day, revered in our day for its psychological realism, with something to offer everyone: sarcasm, bitter social satire, hairbreadth escapes, people swearing eternal fidelity, people betraying their own principles for reasons that were so understandable they hurt. It was laid out in two-column pages and I was just finishing a chapter on a right-hand page turn where the heroine opened the door and found it was the police, there to arrest her. I wanted to turn that page so much. I wanted it the way I remember wanting to eat a chocolate-covered strawberry when I was six.

Archie paused in his chanting to gulp and say, “Holy shit! Look at that!”

“Keep going! Keep going!” gasped Juniper. “ ‘Is there anyone here who wishes to speak?!’”

But the rhythm was broken. I jolted out of the reverie, ripped off the mask and looked at my squiggles.

They started out as uneven loops and zigzags. Halfway down the first page, they turned into words, in big loopy cursive script:

dash dotdotdotdot dotdot dotdotdot dotdot dotdotdot dashdash dashdotdashdash dotdashdot dashdashdash dashdashdash dashdash

There were a lot more dashes and dots, all written out as words, filling the rest of the page and all of the second sheet. I could tell when there was meant to be a space because the pencil trailed on in a straight line.

Juniper looked me hard in the face. “Did you know you were doing that?” she said. There was a slight quaver in her voice.

I shook my head. I was full of a suspicion that brought all my earlier anger rushing back with interest. “Someone’s here and screwing with us. Isn’t that right, shitheel?!” I added, speaking to the space between the paper and the point of my pencil lead, nearly worn down to the metal nib. “You won’t speak because you don’t want us to record you. You won’t write unless it’s coming out of my hand, so I look like a liar or a nutbar. You can’t even make my hand do dots and dashes because that would be too easy for us to read. You know what I think of that? I think you’re a lousy, cheating coward, and you can take your plausible deniability and stick it up your ass.”

Juniper had her phone out. I wondered if she was googling “psychological problems fake mediumship symptoms.”

Archie wordlessly slid the half-full glass of wine and the dish of dried cherries towards me, and I dug in to keep myself from crying. All the satisfaction of proving to myself that there really was a Being in the room had vanished behind my rage at its continuing to dick with us.

“Got it,” said Juniper. “Online translator for Morse code. I love living in the future sometimes. Can you read those dashes and dots out to me slowly, please?”

I did. We were only a few syllables into the process when Juniper gave a shocked little laugh. She kept on laughing and chortling in an uncomfortable way, all the time I was dictating, but she didn’t stop typing till I reached the end. Her cheeks were red.

“Wait, before you read this out loud,” I said, feeling more generous now that my blood sugar was replenished. “Do you want to keep it secret from me, and then Archie can do some writing and we’ll see if it happens again and says similar things? Maybe that can be like blinded testing in science.”

Juniper shook her head and held out her phone to me. I read:

This is my room no more people none I just want to read I want to be left alone to read my book leave me alone

“You wouldn’t talk like that,” said Juniper, still halfway between laughter and tears. “Even if you were trying to convince me you were channeling someone else. You’d be like ‘Beware, reprobates, a hideous doom shall befall thee.’”

I let that pass and ran downstairs for paper.

“Ask him questions,” I said, throwing myself on the floor again with more blank pages, pencil at the ready. “Ask him what his deal is and why he never popped off like this during all the time Aidan lived here.” I glared up at the ceiling, hoping that the Being was standing over me already, poised to grab the pencil I held. “And write it in words this time, not in dot dashes,” I said to him. “You’re just being difficult.”

I blindfolded myself and squiggled away, trying to go no faster and no more loosely than before. I didn’t drop into a trance of reading a dream-book, this time, without the chanting; I felt only prickly excitement.

“Who are you?” said Juniper.

“Why do you not wish to pass on?” said Archie, much too quickly.

“Give him some time to answer!” I barked out, feeling my way to a new sheet.

After some seconds, “What’s it like being dead?” added Archie.

“God, don’t ask him that! I don’t want to know!” said Juniper. “Uh. Ghost. Mister Ghost. What do you think is going to happen if you keep doing this?”

My pencil lead broke.

The Being had given us more dots and dashes. I read them aloud to Juniper until we hit one two-letter phrase, dotdotdotdot dotdash, over and over, filling up a page.

“I get the picture, don’t bother reading them all,” said Juniper. She read aloud:

The young man only came here to sleep and never noticed me and I could do what I wanted bring him back or else leave me alone my name is Philly stop rushing me death is wonderful dont need to drink dont need a body all I want is to absorb books forever amen it is perfect you should try being dead I think that answers your dumn questions (The Being spelled it “dumn” as if fusing “dumb” and “damn”) about why and what and you will run in circles like chickens with your heads cut off and I think that is funny ha ha ha ha ha

I looked at the entire page of repetitions of “ha” that the Being – Philly – had seen fit to transcribe, and I rubbed my hand, which was beginning to hurt.

“You realize we’re renters,” said Archie. “You must. You’ve heard us worrying about how to make ends meet. If you keep on driving out new roommates, you won’t reach a state where you can sit and read forever.” He was pouring with sweat. “You’ll never know peace again. We’ll all be evicted and the landlord will probably flip this place and make it into condos, and you’ll have new everybody instead of only one new person. Is that the way you want it?”

I dropped to the floor and set my hand racing over the pages. It was stiff and cramping. I felt myself write a line and then grind to a halt. There was no touch, no sense of anything guiding my hand. It just wanted to be done.

“How did you die, anyhow?” said Juniper.

“Let him finish,” said Archie.

“He did finish! I’m keeping him talking!” Juniper protested.

My hand raced over the paper. It took little enough concentration that I could also gather my words to say, “And when you’re done, tell us how you did the bloody footprints on the stairs. Can you just make blood out of nothing, like ectoplasm?”

For a moment I re-entered the dream I’d had earlier, reading a book I didn’t know in waking life, except that this time I was sitting on the floor reading in the light from the window in this very room. I looked up from my book and met the eyes of a square-jawed, butch woman. She was seated on a pillow, staring at me. The look on her face was hard to read, but I think she was struggling not to laugh. She had pitted skin from acne but she was young, younger than I was, and I felt like a jerk and wished we could leave her alone. Then I remembered she had very much started this whole battle herself, and said, “Quit that!”

Forcing myself to speak threw me out of the dream. I slumped on the floor, with my arm limp and hurting, on top of a sheet of more Morse code.

We read: Ill cross that bridge when I come to it Im a woman not a man my full name is Phyllida so stick that in your pipe and smoke it I drank too much it was the only way I could have peace of mind nowadays they make drugs for that I think and the footprints werent me that last idiot was menstruating and didnt know it and leaked blood on the floor when she got up to pee and then you walked through it in the dark

“I’m so sorry,” said Juniper. She seemed to mean it. “I wish things had been better for you.”

I was overwhelmed with an idea. It would be scuppered instantly if Philly could read my mind, but the idea was growing and complicating itself with sub-headings and side notes. I buried it under my feeling of embarrassment at my poor personal hygiene, having walked through blood in the dark and not noticed it even the next day when I’d put my socks on.

“This is a lot,” I said in a faint voice. “I need to stop now. Can you two please help me get outside? I feel like I’m going to throw up. Philly, I’m sorry for what happened to you. I swear I am not running away from difficult conversations, but my hand just hurts too much to continue right now. Let’s talk again later.”

“Wait!” said Archie as I started to stagger from the room. “Reclaim your body after all that channeling.”

“How do I do that?”

“Declare it. Use your own words.”

I grabbed my right hand in my left, held both aloft, and proclaimed, “These hands are mine and no one else’s and Philly can’t use them again unless I invite her to.”

“That was pretty good for the spur of the moment,” said Archie as I dragged him downstairs. Juniper didn’t need to be dragged. She had realized I was up to something and was holding the doors.

The three of us made it down the street and across the nearest intersection. Fortunately there were no cars coming. In front of a Little Free Library, I stumbled to a halt and leaned on the chain-link fence. “OK,” I gasped. I’d been half-holding my breath as if that could keep my thoughts in. “I don’t know if she can read my mind when I’m not zoned out, or how far outside she can hear us, but I am betting that at some point she runs out of range.”

“Spill,” said Juniper. “What are you thinking?”

“We sell tickets,” I said.

We’ve had five paying customers so far. I’m the contact person for this unique ghost encounter, and I think I’m making it into a decent experience. We are advertising through An Online Service Most Often Used For Porn (I can’t be more specific without doxxing us) and following a set of conditions that we worked out together, over several further evenings we spent talking in the park with no one close enough to eavesdrop. We accept only cash – a lot of it, payable up front and not refundable – and the visitor has to pretend to be our new housemate and talk about how much he’s looking forward to getting to know us all. Even under these restrictions, I’ve found five different men willing to cough up a huge amount of money and trust us to provide a ghost. They did not all look like they had ghost-encounter money, but they still paid and you can’t judge a book by its cover.

And we deliver on the ghost experience, it seems. Every one of them has left looking deeply bothered, at minimum. One left in the middle of the night and never contacted us to say why. (I was worried he’d steal something on his way out, but nothing was missing afterward. He genuinely seemed too distressed to stay one second longer.) They’ve also all been very circumspect about it afterwards. I was sure this would stop being a viable side job at some point, because one of our customers was bound to either have buyer’s remorse and leave us a bad review, or react badly to fear by getting hostile with us. But they’ve gone quietly away. The only downside is that we can’t get any of them to leave us five-star reviews either, so word spreads slowly. (I have asked.)

I also emailed the last real housemate applicant to tell her that we’d figured out it had been her menstrual blood on the hall floor, in case she had fibroids or anemia or something she should go to a gynecologist about. I never got a response, but reluctantly have to conclude I’ve done everything possible.

And Philly?

I haven’t dreamed about her or fallen into a trance or tried to contact her again since the day of automatic writing. Part of me wants to get her writing again, because I have questions. The haunted bedroom is partly above my bedroom and partly above the stairs, so I lie awake at night wondering how she inhabits the space and what it’s like to be a ghost. Do you expand till you fill the whole volume of the haunted area, or does your soul stay in a bundle the shape of a body? How does she move the books around without physical form? How does she make people feel cold or smell bad things? I want to go back up there with thermometers and cameras and one of those meter things they use on ghost-hunting shows, but I have no idea what Philly can do to me and I don’t want to make her hostile.

We’ve had enough applicants that I could have sold twenty haunted nights to customers by now, but I’ve kept the rate of entry low, in hopes that Philly won’t realize we are scamming her. We’ve managed to keep the dialogue naturalistic when we welcome the fake housemate in; all of us get so nervous around new people that we sounded overwrought with the actual housemates anyhow, so there wasn’t a huge difference in our line delivery with the fake ones.

The last time I escorted one of our fake housemates to the door after his night in the room, he looked at me like he was scared of me. He’d looked pretty depressed even before his experience, but on his way out, it seemed personal, like he’d heard I was an axe murderer and he was determined to stay out of arm’s reach.

Based on vibes alone, I think Philly knows what we’re doing and is having fun telling her victims terrible things about me. This suggests to me one of two things. Either she hates my guts – why wouldn’t she? In effect, I’ve put her in a sideshow – or she’s decided she likes me and wants to play along. In the past, therapists have urged me to consider the possibility that everyone doesn’t automatically dislike me, so I know I should consider the second option. I usually want people to like me, but in Philly’s case I’m scared of her friendliness as well.

And I keep thinking about that book. It’s not physically in the room; I’ve been through everything in there. I haven’t been able to track it down based on the wording, and I never saw the title. Even the exact words in which the heroine opens the door and comes face to face with a police officer have now escaped me. I just keep thinking about how much fun Philly was having with that book. It felt like her own treasured memory. I haven’t enjoyed reading anything that much since I was a child. At some point, I’m going to lose my self-control and go back up there and just ask Philly what it was, and then she’ll know that she has something I want (besides the whole room). It’s like a physical itch.

Oh, well. I can ignore itches. I surprised myself by feeling glad she had the ability to enjoy reading. I also dread the day when I have to interact with her again because I’m afraid she’s going to tell me what it’s like being dead. But it can’t be all bad if you can read.