Perception: Part One

“You do realize we haven’t moved off this couch in the last four hours?”

“Not true,” Bronte said, clicking through the end credits of Grey’s Anatomy and onto the next episode. She tossed the PlayStation controller onto the ottoman/coffee table in front of us, narrowly missing her fairy-tale books and flower vase vignette. “Two episodes ago, you grabbed us cokes from the fridge. Thirty minutes into the previous episode, I stood up, stretched out my left leg because it went to sleep, and then sat back down.”

“Ah. I stand corrected.”

She nodded.  “As you were.”

The recap from the previous few episodes flashed across the 32-inch flat screen across the far wall. As if we hadn’t just seen all those moments hours earlier.

My eyes roamed above the screen to the world map tapestry hanging above it. As it always did, my eyes focused on the splotches marring the map. Bronte thought they were part of the tapestry’s charm. I thought they looked exactly like the state of New Jersey, just flipped around, and that the artist had been from New Jersey and this was all a clever ploy by the New Jersian to bolster the reputation of New Jersey. Bronte didn’t believe me.

The familiar jingle signaling another episode chimed from the screen. Then Meredith Grey’s voice floated over a fly-over of Seattle, drawing another parallel between surgical skills and life at large.

As it did.

In.

Every.

Episode.

“Shoot me now,” I grumbled.

Bronte grabbed one of the couch pillows and flung it at me. With eight pillows on the couch, we usually had some to spare besides the ones we cocooned ourselves with whenever we binged like this.

It smacked me on the top of the head before plopping off onto the ground beside me.

“We’re in season nine,” she said. “More than halfway through.”

“This was fun at the beginning.”

“It’s fun now.”

“Liar.”

“Maybe.”

“I’ve forgotten what other TV shows even talk about.”

“There are no other TV shows outside of Grey’s.”

“That can’t be right.” I looked over at her, a mock serious expression on my face. “Is that right? I can’t remember a time before. Was there a time before?”

“There has always been Grey’s.”

A chill went through me, rocking my core so violently I sat up with the shivers.

Bronte glanced at me, then frowned. “You want me to turn the heat up? Get a blanket?”

I fell back into my spot. “No need. It’s gone.”

She sat still for a moment. Then she reached forward, grabbed the controller, and paused the show. “It happens a lot, doesn’t it? The chills?”

“I’m always cold. You know that.”

She shook her head. “No, not getting cold, or running colder than normal, but the chills. My dad used to say it’s whenever someone walks over your grave–that’s when you get chills like that.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“It happens a lot though. Me included.”

She was right, of course. I’d noticed them too. The sudden shuddering seizing, then gone. A second, maybe two, then it passes like it’d never happened to begin with.

But I hadn’t been able to find a cause. We didn’t always walk under a vent when it happened, though sometimes we did. We didn’t catch a whiff of chilly air coming in through the cracks around our windows from the hasty construction. Driving, West Texas wind wasn’t always sneaking in through the front door. It was a fairly new apartment, so there shouldn’t be any drafts. And I wasn’t scientific enough to try and discover the cause, even though I had noticed how weird it was.

So I did what any sane person would do when met with something unexplainable and odd: I ignored it outwardly. I didn’t voice aloud how I felt that same chill every morning on the weekdays, exactly at the last minute when I needed to get up for work, and that it had saved me from oversleeping a few times. I didn’t tell my roommate that I felt it when I was alone in the apartment, crying over sad books. And I was certainly not about to mention that it seemed to happen more frequently when I played The Legend of Zelda video game series more than any other.

Letting those thoughts worm around in the back of my mind was one thing. Spreading them like a disease by voicing them aloud was something else. If I said them, if I shared them, if I gave them form–even in the form of spoken words–then they’d be real. They could spread.

I wasn’t about to let that happen.

“Really, Charlotte, I never noticed.”

She scowled at the use of her real name. Bronte had started as a nickname when we first met–we’d bonded over our general love of books after being introduced through a mutual friend, Rose. It had caught on, and in the thirteen years since then, it had spread to the point where nearly everyone called her Bronte now.

“Really, Stella, you never noticed?”

“Really, Charlotte, I never noticed,” I repeated, leaning forward and pressing the play button.

Still scowling, she grabbed a pillow and hugged it to her chest, turning her attention back to the show. For a few minutes, she looked at the screen. Then she whispered, “I keep thinking I see things. Out of the corner of my eye.”

I looked over at her.

She kept staring straight ahead. “And when I turn to look at them, they’re gone. Every time I think I see something, it’s you I think I see. Or feel, I guess. You know how like you’re standing in your room and you just know someone is standing in your doorway, even though you can’t see the doorway? It’s like that.”

“Why do you think it’s me?”

She shuddered. It wasn’t a shiver, not one of the walking-over-your-grave ones. But a shudder, nonetheless. “Who else would it be? We’re the only two here.”

I grabbed a pillow for myself and hugged it close.

My mouth opened to tell her about the voices. The voices I laid awake at night, trying to convince myself were people outside or in the apartment below. Voices floating through paper-thin walls because they sounded distant. No, not distant, exactly, more like muffled. Less like being echoed through a long hallway and more like words whispered through a pillow.

The front door burst open and we both jumped out of our seats.

Rose barreled into the room, balancing a pizza box and a bottle of wine along with her laptop bag, winter coat, and purse. “Assistance?”

Bronte and I shot forward, taking things from her until we’d unburied Rose from all the clutter. Her long, blonde hair was wavy today, held back by a bohemian scarf. Her sweat pants and two-sizes-too-big sweater let loose the scent of laundry detergent as I peeled her out of her coat. “Laundry day?”

“Yes,” she purred, taking a whiff of her sleeve and letting out a pleasant sigh. “Nothing beats laundry day.”

Bronte took the pizza box and wine into the kitchen. She stowed the white wine for after dinner and grabbed some plates down from the cabinets. “We’re on season nine,” she called out as she helped herself to a slice.

After we each grabbed our plates, we all returned to our places on the sofa. Bronte and I sat on it while Rose sat on the floor, her back propped up against it.

I noticed Bronte wouldn’t meet my eye as we resumed the show.

She didn’t bring it up after Rose left for the night, with a quick reminder about tomorrow’s girls’ night.

We didn’t breach the subject as we cleaned up the debris from dinner.

But when we headed our separate ways for the night, she shivered as she headed for her bedroom. We both froze: me near the kitchen lights, her in her doorframe. For a moment, I thought she was going to turn to me.

She didn’t.

And after a deep breath, she stepped into her room and shut the door.

My hand hovered over the light.  Then I flipped it and marched toward my bedroom door.

In the dark, my ears caught the softest sigh floating through the stillness of the room.  It spurned me on faster until I jumped into bed.  Like a child, I yanked the covers over my head.

“It’s just people outside, walking their dogs,” I whispered.

But I seriously doubted it.

***

“They’re starting to figure it out,” Oliver sighed, falling back onto the couch.

Cyril watched as his friend’s astral form fell slower than any real body would. Like a feather floating, Oliver drifted through the still air to settle on the couch. Not that the cushions gave under his weight–he didn’t have any weight. Not anymore. Not for a long time.

He never really understood why Oliver insisted on sitting on the furniture. They were ghosts. They could float. And their bodies didn’t exactly tire either, if they did remain standing.

His friend’s phantom outline shone with the faintest light in the late-night darkness of the room. A vague outline of pale, ghostly white. Oliver moved so that he could rest his elbows on his knees, hanging his head, his fingers sliding through his hair to mess it up.

If his friend stood now, he would be the picture of a crazed ghost portrayed in movies and on paper. Messy hair, wild eyes, trembling frame.

Oliver was taking the overheard conversation between Bronte and Stella roughly. Especially Bronte’s admissions of catching shadows in the corner of her eyes. Her fear, her uncertainty of those shadows had pierced straight through Oliver, forcing him to leave the room and retreat to Bronte’s bedroom during the evening.

Cyril had caught his friend’s face as Oliver and Bronte accidentally brushed when she switched rooms afterward. When Bronte stiffened. When Stella froze.

Bent over as his friend was now, he imagined it was the same face. The same agonized, tortured expression.

He moved away from Stella’s door, more toward the center of the living room. Still floating, he sat, but his body didn’t fall toward the floor. His top half didn’t even move. His legs just came up and he sat cross-legged nearly three feet above the ground.

“Not yet.”

Oliver’s head snapped up and he scowled at him. “The chills? Bronte is seeing things. Stella is hearing things. Us, Cyril. They’re feeling, seeing and hearing us.”

Cyril felt a stab of annoyance. “And what would you like me to do about that?”

Oliver scoffed. “Nothing.”

Anger rising, Cyril opened his mouth to snap back. But then he stopped, took in a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

Not that it was an actual breath. He’d given up breathing more than one hundred years ago. But still, the actions of taking a breath calmed him down. “Sorry.”

Oliver sighed. “I just…I don’t want what happened with Mrs. Rogers to happen again.”

“I know.”

“They’re younger, Cyril,” he said, an edge of concern creeping into his voice. “God, they’re in their mid-twenties. The only saving grace with Mrs. Rogers was her age, so she died faster.”  He let out a bitter laugh as he said it. “She only had to spend the last six years of her life going crazy.  If we do that to them–”

“We won’t.”

“–haunting them for the rest of their lives. God, I couldn’t bear to watch them deteriorate like Mrs. Rogers. She moved twice in those last six years, Cyril. Nearly bankrupted her to do it and she didn’t know, didn’t realize–”

“Oliver.”

“–her own children wanted to condemn her to the psychologists. We drove her mad, Cyril.”

Cyril floated through the air and landed on the sofa beside Oliver. “That’s not how it’s going to happen. Not again.”

Oliver’s eyes flitted to Bronte’s bedroom door. “A pocket watch. She bought a pocket watch and it killed her. And I thought how we died was bad.”

“They aren’t going to be like Mrs. Rogers.”

His friend turned to look at him. “You can’t know that.”

Sighing, Cyril glanced over his shoulder at Stella’s door. “They’ve got each other, so that’s something. They’re more akin to dreamers, so that might help. They’re stronger than Mrs. Rogers was. When it gets to the point that their perception of us is stronger, they’ll be better able to handle…able to handle the fact–”

“That they’re haunted,” Oliver whispered on a sigh.

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