“The Old Lady from Apartment 3B” is the third-place winning story in SNHU’s 2017 Fall Fiction Competition.
by Caitlan Honer
Most twenty-something singles spend their Friday nights out with friends. Ben’s never really fit the mold, so it makes sense that instead he’s at home, wrapped like a burrito under blankets with his laptop, his cat Moby, and the ghost of his upstairs neighbor.
He’s waiting for his google search to load when a crash sounds behind him. “Seriously, Helga?” A pile of books and his lamp are now on the floor.
“I told you to stop calling me that. My name is Catherine,” huffs the old, nearly transparent, woman. Thin white hair, a hideous yellow floral dress. As if dying wasn’t bad enough, she’s stuck in that dress for eternity.
“I don’t think I should let my hallucinations name themselves.” He reaches for his mug. Five minutes and his cocoa is already cold. Ghosts are not conducive to warmth, he’s learned.
“I’m not a hallucination!” As if to prove her point, she tosses a pillow at him. “And you’re avoiding my question.” Question? Oh yeah. The ‘Why are you smiling at your phone? Who is David?’ question.
“Cause it’s none of your business,” he mutters, straightening in his chair when the search page loads: How to get rid of a ghost.
“Oh goody. Only eighteen million results.” He sets his chin in his hand, clicking through the links. “You think that lady at the farmer’s market will give me my twenty bucks back?” The incense supposed to clear the house of bad juju only made him sneeze.
“I think you should stop googling how to get rid of me.” She pauses beside him. “Isn’t David that boy from 6B? He’s got pretty eyes.”
Pretty? Eyes the color of honey, specks of green. Dark curls hanging just over his brows.
“Pretty doesn’t do David justice,” he says without thinking. Helga grins. With a groan, he drops his face to his hands. “Maybe you should try going to the light again.”
She floats across the room, sets about fixing his bed, tsking at the Captain America sheets. “He’ll never come over to such a mess.” She waves a hand at the dishes on his desk, the clothes strewn over his chair and haphazardly chucked into drawers and a closet.
Ben scans another article. “This one says I shouldn’t even talk to you. I guess it gives you some kind of power.” He glances sideways. She doesn’t look any stronger than when he first saw her. Still see-through. “And I’m not inviting him over.”
“Why not?” she asks, arms crossed. “He’s lovely. Brought by my newspaper once.”
He laughs, leaning back in his chair. “Great idea, Helgy. I’ll subscribe to a newspaper and wait for him to bring it to me.”
“Can’t be any worse than what you’re doing now. Moping in your room. Stalking his…insta-something.” He does not stalk. That often.
“Maybe I should just rent Ghostbusters again.”
“I’ll block your Wi-Fi.”
His jaw drops. “Did you do that last time?” She shrugs, ever innocent. “Why?”
“Ghostbusters won’t help your nerves.” She closes her eyes, then, a dreamy smile on her ashen lips. “I remember how nervous I was to talk to my Edward. Like a schoolgirl.”
He’s talking about his crush with a ghost. At least it’s not with his cat, right?
He clicks onto the next article. Salt and burn. He’s not too confident with fire, and even less confident about practicing cremation with table salt and matches.
“Tell you what,” she starts, pushing his laptop shut, “if you go talk to that nice boy, I’ll try going to the light. You still have that light up app on your phone?”
“The flashlight app?” How old was she when she died?
“Just go,” she mumbles, “and take him a flower. Boys love flowers.”
“Fine,” he says, rolling his eyes as she cheers, the best a ghost of eighty can manage.
Ben leaves, plastic flower in hand. It’s the only one he can find. A dull shade of blue, and a sad attempt at romance.
He doesn’t start panicking until he’s in the elevator. And it only gets worse when he stops outside David’s door. What if David doesn’t like him back? What if they never talk again? He’ll be left with a ghost and a cat for company.
His chest is too tight. He glares at the flower. At his shoes. David’s welcome mat. This is a bad idea. He’s not ready to tell David how he feels yet. He should just go. Come back when the flower in his hand is red and real and beautiful.
Decision made, he turns around, only to backpedal into the door.
“You okay?” David asks, all smiles and dark curls. “You were, like, not having it in the elevator.”
The color drains from his face. “You were in the elevator?” Maybe he should go to the light with Helga.
David laughs again. “I waved and everything. You didn’t see me?” He steps up and unlocks his apartment. Ben follows on wobbly legs. “I really thought this sweater made my eyes pop, too.”
Ben chokes a little. “Oh, yeah.” The royal blue, the checkered white button down beneath it. “It, uh…Does.”
David, still grinning, drops his bookbag and keys. “So, who’s Helga?”
Had he mentioned Helga in the elevator? He can’t remember. “My grandma.”
“I thought your grandma’s name was AnneMarie.” The comment shouldn’t cause butterflies. But it does.
David continues, “How’s that sweater she was knitting you?”
“Tacky and full of holes.” Why does he talk so much about his grandma?
David hmms. His head tilts, eyes narrowed in on the sad little flower. “Is that for me?”
Almost on autopilot, Ben’s arm jerks forward, offering aforementioned sad flower. “Yeah. I, uh…” He looks at his feet, clutching the flower a littler harder. “ It made me think of you.” Bad comparison.
Pretty eyes and kind smile, David takes the flower, touching it to his nose like it has a scent besides plastic and dust. When he glances up, there’s a hint of pink on his cheeks. It’s at least six times lighter than the color Ben can feel burned into his own cheeks, but there nonetheless.
“I don’t have anything for you.”
Ben laughs. Too loud and too sharp. “Oh, no, I don’t-”
“Coffee? Tomorrow. On me.”
Ben doesn’t realize he’s gone stock still and dead silent until David takes a step back, eyes on his feet.
“I mean. if you don’t want to…” David clears his throat.
“No, no,” Ben says, a little out of breath. “I mean yes.” he laughs, and David’s smile is back. “Yes.” Forget going to the light. “I’d like that.”
“Me too,” David says, tucking the flower behind his ear as Ben moves to leave. “Next time, I’ll bring you flowers.”
In the elevator, and as he gets back to his apartment, Ben can’t stop smiling. Suddenly, it’s the only expression he knows.
“Helga,” he says as he walks inside, stopping when he sees the room is empty.
He wanders to the kitchen. Nothing. Moby, the little demon, meows his way out from under the couch. But no ghost. Even when he uses her real name, he’s still alone in his apartment, cheeks red and grin wide.
“David asked me out,” he says, waiting for her to pop in with an ‘I told you so.’ She doesn’t. “He liked the flower.” Pathetic as it was, David liked it. Liked him.
Where does she go when she’s not bugging him? Does she have other houses to haunt?
“Seriously, Helga? Hello?”
He walks into his bedroom, a mess helped only by Helga, the matchmaking ghost, and stops. His eyes go wide and for a moment he forgets how to breathe.
His phone is on his desk. And the flashlight is on.
She wouldn’t go to the light without saying goodbye. Or asking about David. She wouldn’t just leave. Would she?
“Come on,” he mumbles, dropping to the bed. Moby sits at his feet. “You can’t force me to talk to David and then just disappear. What do I say? Should I bring up the ghost living in my apartment? Do I tell him before or after our date that Moby is psychotic?”
The cat in question hisses at the mention of his name.
“You can’t just…leave me.”
Helga, who gave him a heart attack when she popped out of his fridge three nights after she died. Helga, who told him to tuck in his shirt. Eat a vegetable once in awhile. Bring David a flower.
She can’t be gone now.
“Fine,” he mutters, wiping his face. “Leave me with Moby.” Another hiss. “He’s got great first date talk ideas. I’m sure David is fascinated by yarn. And cat fights.”
Shaking his head, Ben grabs his computer, pulls up Google. “This has gotta be the second dumbest idea I’ve ever had.” The first is meowing at his feet. “Okay, Helga. Here goes nothing.”
How to bring back a ghost.