Every day at four, without fail, Maggie tripped and had a cup of tea.
The grandfather clock belonged to Anne, and it had been one of her most prized possessions outside of the various teapots and fancy pipe that Nicole had gotten her one year for her birthday. Anne had inherited it from a great-uncle on her mother’s side and learned how to tend to it from how-to videos on the internet and constantly pestering an old woman that worked at an antique shop across town. The clock was tall, regal, and looked incredibly out of place and sophisticated in an apartment inhabited by three college students, no matter if the ancient brick building had some old, antiquated charm to it. Anne had always kept it polished and shiny, but since her death, dust had been collecting on it.
Their other furniture was shabby and mismatched, chosen out of convenience and for comfort rather than style. As college students, they didn’t have money to waste on fancy or nice furniture when hand-me-downs and junk furniture worked just as well. So, their tables, chairs, couch, recliner, dressers, and entertainment center consisted of whatever they could afford. Most of it came from Nicole finding random things on the side of the road, carrying it home by herself, and then she and Anne would work together like mad scientists with a dastardly purpose to clean, repair, and detail it until it was functional. The grandfather clock that probably cost more than all of their furniture and likely a year’s rent combined stood out like a sore thumb. It looked like it belonged in some fancy mansion or castle.
Maggie had never paid much attention to the clock aside from the occasional times it came up in one of Nicole’s rants about things that annoyed her. Maggie was certain that Nicole’s issue with the clock was part of the reason why Anne had liked it so much, but she never voiced that aloud before, lest it fuel the fire that was Nicole’s short temper. It was just another piece of furniture before Anne and Nicole’s death, one that was easily overlooked and ignored.
Recently, however, Maggie had been counting the four deep chimes of the clock as it announced the change of the hour almost obsessively. She would stop in the middle of whatever she was doing to listen to the chimes, and those that stopped before they reached four were met with uneasiness, while any chimes that carried on past four—even in the dead of night—were welcomed with relief. But when the fourth and final note faded, Maggie habitually looked towards the kitchenette like Pavlov’s dog, and eyed the piping cup of tea on the kitchen table as if it might grow legs, become sentient, and give chase.
Despite her English parentage, tea was not something Maggie had indulged in since she moved to the States when she was a child. She had never really liked tea, as she was more of a coffee person, which was perhaps partially due to the fact that the apartment she rented with Anne and Nicole was nestled right above a small coffee shop. Anne had tried for years to convert Maggie to tea over coffee, but failed every time. Yet every day at four, out of nowhere, a freshly brewed cup of tea would be there on the table.
She had no earthly idea how to even brew tea, and she had lived alone for the past few weeks since the abrupt and mysterious deaths of her roommates. Occasionally the old land-lady would pop up at the door to check on Maggie, but she was quickly ruled out as a potential culprit for the random tea cup. Mrs. Heatherway was the type to announce her arrival into every room and drag Maggie into a conversation whether she liked it or not, and she had a heavy limp from a motorcycle accident that made it impossible for her to sneak up on anyone.
At first, it was just the tea. The tripping didn’t come until later. Maggie never drank the tea or even went near it due to a mix of fear and confusion. She would just stare at it like she expected it to come alive and attack her or explode in her face like a bomb. For the first couple of days, it would stay on the table for hours, cool, and get filmy until Maggie finally got the nerve to clean up the mess for the sake of cleanliness. As she got used to it appearing, she only waited just long enough for it to cool before she would pour it out.
A month into the weird tea ritual, during midterms, was the first time she tripped.
Annoyed because she had just started the dishwasher during a break from studying and suddenly, she had another dish to wash, Maggie had been in the process of taking the still steaming tea to the sink to dump it out when her foot hit something hard and she went crashing to the ground. The tea cup flew out of her hand, but did not meet the same fate as Maggie. No, instead when she got to her feet, she found the cup sitting innocently where it had been before she picked it up.
At the time, she figured she must have been imagining things because of her lack of sleep due to midterms and repeated all-night study sessions. A combination of sleep-deprivation and not being the most elegant person in the world was not safe for anyone. Maggie chalked it all up to hallucinations or sleep-walking.
A few more days of tripping as soon as the fourth chime of the grandfather clock faded and Maggie knew that it was not a coincidence, and she was not imagining things. This went on for quite some time, but no matter what Maggie did to not trip, she would still hit the floor when the final clang ended. Even if she was sitting, she would somehow end up flopping out of her chair onto the floor, or rolled out of her bed onto the hardwood if she happened to be lying down. The only way to escape the tripping was if she was out of the apartment for some reason, though her classes and her shifts at the coffee shop downstairs both ended by then.
One fateful Sunday after many weeks of this odd ritual, Maggie was in Anne’s room, packing up some of her books when she heard the clock’s heavy tolling begin. A sound that she once had been able to tune out and not even notice, now made her flinch. She automatically tensed at the count of only four chimes and she glanced at the alarm-clock on Anna’s old nightstand to confirm that it was in fact four o’clock.
A second after the final note from the grandfather clock faded, the book in her hand roughly met the floor and an instant later, Maggie was also on the ground, groaning because the wind had been knocked out of her due to the impact. She muttered a few swear words under her breath as she got to her feet, picking up the fallen book. She set the book aside on the shelf, then crept towards the kitchen to see the cup of tea on the table waiting for her.
She scowled at it, because it was the tea’s fault that she kept tripping, and the tea was responsible for the fact that she kept having sleepless nights pondering the possibility of either being crazy or whether or not her apartment was haunted. The stupid cup of tea was in one of the coffee mugs from Anne’s extensive collection instead of an actual tea-cup—of which Anne had many. Today’s mug was one Maggie knew well, as she remembered when Nicole had brought it home and presented it to Anne like a gleeful child showing off a finger-painting and hoping it would get pinned on the fridge. Neither Anne nor Maggie had thought much of the boring white mug until they noticed the mustache on the bottom that showed itself when one tipped the cup back for a drink. Anne had loved it and she drank her tea from it all the time.
Maggie walked over to the table and grabbed the mug, fully intending on dumping the contents in the sink even though it had not yet gone cold, when she caught the aroma of the brew. A bitter, citrus scent that smelled almost clean and fresh, but not overly, pungently floral like some teas. She recognized it as one of Anne’s favorites, though she did not know what it was called, only recalling that Nicole insisted that it smelled like Fruit Loops and tasted like someone had dumped a clump of dirt in her orange juice. It was a flavor Anne stock-piled like it was going out of style but only made when she was having a bad day or was in a particularly good mood.
Part of Maggie was angry at the cup for daring to have Anne’s precious tea in it, while the other half of her was suddenly filled with grief. It had only been a few months since Anne and Nicole’s funeral and she had done everything in her power to avoid thinking about them aside from having to move, tidy-up, or get rid of their things. The smell of the tea Maggie had come to associate with Anne’s goofy smile or quiet pouting was sad, but also strangely soothing.
It reminded her of all the rainy days when Anne would grab Maggie and drag her into Nicole’s room with her art supplies in tow so she could use the natural lighting from Nicole’s giant window to paint or sketch or draw plans for some crafting project. Anne would fill the room with her humming or talk in her usual soft, comforting voice. Every time, she would lull Nicole to sleep within minutes and help Maggie destress from a long week of classes and work. The memory of those peaceful days had a lump forming in Maggie’s throat and she had to firmly force down the urge to cry.
Instead of throwing the tea out in the sink like she usually did, she found herself sitting at the table and wrapping her hands around the warm cup. It smelled stronger now that she was closer, and she quickly decided that she liked the aroma. Curious if the tea tasted as good as it smelled, Maggie brought the cup to her lips and took a cautious sip, wary of the heat.
The first sip was hot, but not unbearably so, and so far, the taste was not nearly as disgusting as she remembered. Maggie definitely still preferred coffee, but perhaps tea actually wasn’t so bad. Anne would have been pleased. Maggie tried for a second taste, tilting the cup further back to get more of the liquid, only to freeze as it filled her mouth.
The kitchen table had a perfect view of the front door and the hallway that led to it. There was a coat closet near the door where they kept their shoes, coats, and umbrellas. There was also a tall mirror on the inside of the closet door that Maggie had Nicole hang up for her when they first moved in. The door to the closet was open, as Maggie usually forgot to close it when she came home from class, so she had a very clear view of herself and the kitchen around her in the mirror.
Her eyes were wide as she stared at the mirror and the tea was beginning to drip down her chin because her jaw had dropped. Her own appearance was expected, though she distractedly lamented the fact that the hot tea was getting all over her blouse. The kitchen looked normal, untidy as always and filled with an accumulation of Maggie’s junk food and dirty dishes, Anne’s weird teapots, and Nicole’s mismatched kitchen accessories.
Behind Maggie were Nicole and Anne, arguing silently with each other as they hovered just above her shoulders. Nicole was sitting cross-legged in midair while Anne hung upside down in the air over Maggie, feet flailing about, as she desperately tried to catch the tea dripping down Maggie’s chin in her cupped hands. The tea just passed through her hands and poured onto Maggie’s lap and the floor between her feet.
The last thing Maggie noticed before she fainted was the stupid mustache on the bottom of the coffee mug.
When Maggie came to, her cheek was stuck to the kitchen table because of the puddle of tea into which she face-planted. The mug was thankfully still in one piece, tipped over on its side on the floor, though it had dumped tea all over her, the table, and the hardwood. Maggie’s clothes were stiff and sticky and she could feel the residue of the tacky cooled tea fused between her toes. When she peeled her face off the table, she brushed her wild ginger hair out of her face and grimaced as a few strands were yanked from her scalp because the tea had dried them to the table.
Maggie massaged her sore cheek pitifully and worked at the sticky gunk clumping her hair together. She looked around the kitchen and the connected living room cautiously before she forced herself to her feet. Feeling a little disoriented as she recalled the reason she had fainted into a puddle of tea, she walked towards the hallway closet. Her toes were tacky on the hardwood and each step tugged lightly at the skin on her feet.
As she reached the hallway closet, she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her pale-blue blouse had a giant dirty, brown stain all the way down the front, and the crotch of her jeans had an embarrassing stain as if she had wet herself. A blush bloomed on her freckled cheeks at the thought of someone seeing her in such a state, and she scowled, brown eyes glaring at her own face and the dried tea clumped in her red hair.
She was just about to slam the door shut when she saw movement. Her eyes flicked to the corner of the mirror and her mouth fell open with a soft inhale as Nicole glided around the corner of the hallway and headed in Maggie’s direction, her mouth moving as if she were talking. Maggie’s head snapped around to look over her shoulder, but she saw nothing. A quick glance at the mirror showed that Nicole was still moving towards her.
And it was her. Maggie would remember Nicole’s strong jaw, sharp features, button nose, long, dark brown hair, and her heterochromatic eyes were unmistakable. She looked the same as she had the day Maggie had met her when they were eight years old, only bigger and with longer hair. Tall and broad-shouldered, Nicole stood almost a full head taller than Maggie as she came to a stop behind her. Maggie’s stomach twisted with grief and longing because she had missed her. Fear of the unknown didn’t even register in her mind, buried down beneath confusion and so many other feelings.
Nicole’s head cocked the side as she stared down at Maggie, and Maggie studied her through the mirror. Nicole didn’t spare a glance for the mirror and was instead inspecting Maggie’s face. Suddenly she began to laugh, pointing at the red mark on Maggie’s face from where it had gotten stuck to the table, and Nicole turned towards the kitchen, waving in a come-hither motion.
Anne appeared a moment later, and she threw back her head and guffawed soundlessly at the red mark on Maggie’s face when she saw it, then pointed out the stain on her pants. Nicole was doubled-over by now, laughing at Maggie’s expense. Maggie could almost hear their cackling from memory, but rather than feeling grief or longing anymore, she felt embarrassed and irritated. They had seen her in worse states before, but the laughing was ridiculous, especially since she couldn’t hear what they were saying about her. The blush on her face burned all the more intently and Maggie covered her face with her hands, peeking through her fingers.
“Stop laughing at me!”
Nicole’s silent laughter stopped abruptly and her head snapped around to stare at Maggie. She looked between Maggie’s face and the mirror and Anne before looking back at Maggie. She did that a few more times before she poked at Maggie’s face. Maggie saw it happen in the mirror, but she didn’t feel anything on her skin.
Maggie couldn’t hear her, but she could easily read Nicole’s lips as she said, “You can hear us?”
“No,” Maggie said aloud, shaking her head. “I can’t hear you. But I can see you in the mirror.”
Nicole looked at the mirror with a frown on her face before she grinned. Maggie watched Nicole reach out to pat her on the head but was unable to feel the contact. Instead, she just watched as Nicole’s hand went straight through her. Maggie shoved down the pain at being unable to feel her friend’s touch because now wasn’t the time to deal with that angst.
“You’re a ghost?” Maggie asked.
Nicole nodded and gestured at Anne, her eyebrows raised at Maggie in the mirror.
“I can see Anne, too.”
Nicole said something that Maggie couldn’t hear or read from her lips and Anne replied. Anne stepped closer, edging around Nicole to stand in front of her and beside Maggie so she could more easily see the mirror. Maggie drank in her appearance eagerly. Like Nicole, Anne was a bit taller than Maggie but Anne was slighter in build than both of them. Her black hair was cropped short as usual, and she had her thick-framed glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. Anne met Maggie’s eyes in the mirror and she smiled warmly. Maggie didn’t think twice about returning the smile with her own, but she had to stop herself from reaching out to touch Anne’s reflection in the mirror.
“How are you guys here?” Maggie wondered.
Nicole shrugged and mouthed “the fuck if I know, bro,” at her while Anne just gave Maggie a flat stare.
Maggie frowned at the look, because rude. “Why are you looking at me like that? It’s a good question!”
Nicole nodded in agreement and Anne just rolled her eyes before speaking, though Maggie was unable to understand what she said. Nicole stared at Anne uncomprehendingly for a moment before surprise washed over her face. She pointed at Maggie’s head as she spoke to Anne who responded with nods and the occasional short comments while Nicole worked things out for herself.
When Nicole finally seemed to grasp whatever Anne was telling her, she turned back to Maggie and mimed slapping Maggie upside the back of the head. Maggie flinched out of habit, but felt nothing.
“I’m so glad I don’t have to endure your abuse anymore,” Maggie said aloud.
One of Nicole’s eyebrows raised at Maggie, as if she was taking the statement as a challenge. Anne said something and Nicole grinned again. Instead of replying, she just crossed her arms over her chest and smirked down at Maggie like she knew something Maggie didn’t.
Maggie would never admit it—especially not when Nicole was making that face—but she did miss Nicole’s penchant for physical contact that ranged from incessant poking and shoving, to literally picking both Anne and Maggie up and carrying them around over her shoulders. Most people would wait for someone to move out of their way or say “excuse me” if they needed to get by, but Nicole would just pick them up and move them if they were in her way. She also tended to drape herself over both of them if she wanted their attention. Maggie had been knocked down under Nicole’s dense weight before when Nicole demanded attention but Maggie wasn’t ready to give it to her. Anne fared better, only because she was able to multitask and could go about her business while simultaneously enduring Nicole’s clinging.
Maggie turned her attention to Anne, doing her best to ignore the devious glint in Nicole’s eyes. “You know why you guys are here, Anne?”
Anne watched her for a long moment before her head tilted to the side thoughtfully and she looked around at Nicole. Maggie didn’t see either of them speak, but as always, they were able to understand each other with just a shared look, because Nicole frowned. She shook her head and said something to Anne who just held Nicole’s gaze and stared at her patiently. Eventually Nicole grimaced but relented and sighed. She lifted one hand to begin forming finger-spelling signs in order to spell out a word for Maggie.
Maggie watched Nicole for a moment, confused out of her mind, before she sighed. “Nicole, I don’t know sign language.”
Nicole dropped her hand and scowled at Maggie, mouthing “what good are you, then?” before she turned around and acted like she was walking off.
“Can’t you just mouth the words?” Maggie asked. “All that language practice for you foreign language and linguistics majors made you pretty articulate and whatnot, didn’t it? Do it slow so I can try to read your lips!”
Nicole just lifted up one of her middle fingers at Maggie and crossed her arms before sitting down, mid-air. She began floating through the air and sulking like a petulant child. Anne rolled her eyes and mouthed Nicole’s name. Nicole glanced over her shoulder and scowled before she floated away, vanishing around the corner heading into the living room. While she was gone, Anne glided a little closer to Maggie to look at her.
“Do you know why you’re here, Anne?” Maggie asked again.
Anne shook her head but something about the immediate denial made Maggie think that Anne wasn’t being entirely honest. Anne opened her mouth as if to speak but then frowned and shot an impatient look over her shoulder. Maggie had only that warning and a hint of movement in the mirror that provided her with enough time to duck the worn blue book that came flying in her direction from down the hallway. It hit the floor with a loud thud and then slid across the hardwood before slamming into Maggie’s bare feet. Maggie was glad the page-side of the book hit her, rather than the spine, but she still flicked off the empty hallway with her middle finger aimed in the direction where she expected Nicole was. She bent over to pick up the book and turned it to see the cover.
It was one of Nicole’s old sign-language books. The section for finger-spelling signs was marked by the folded corner of the page and Maggie cracked it open to look. She looked back up at the mirror to see Nicole waiting expectantly for her to pay attention. As soon as she noticed she had Maggie’s attention, she lifted her hand.
“Wait,” Maggie said, “let me get a notebook to write the words down.”
Nicole waved her hand impatiently.
Maggie hurried down the hallway and headed for her bedroom. She grabbed one of the notebooks off her desk, not caring which one, and snatched up a pen. She trotted back to the mirror and stood behind Nicole, in full view of the mirror, and readied her notebook, pen, and the sign-language book. She dipped her head to let Nicole know she was ready and Nicole rolled her eyes as she lifted one hand.
Slowly, Nicole formed hand-signs to finger-spell letters. Maggie wrote the letters down, not yet worrying about what they spelled, and she committed the signs to memory as she learned them and had Nicole repeat them a few times if she got confused. Once she was finished writing down all the letters, she looked down at the notebook to see what Nicole had to say.
“‘You just lost the game,’” Maggie read and then she scowled, realization hitting her. Her head snapped up to glare at the mirror. “Damn it, Nicole!”
Nicole was cackling in the mirror, half-heartedly deflecting the assault from Anne who was not amused by her antics. Maggie rolled her eyes and sat on the floor, watching as Anne jumped on Nicole’s back to try and strangle her while Nicole just laughed. Their forms seemed solid and almost corporeal, but they didn’t appear to make contact with any solid objects or surfaces. Maggie wondered how they were able to interact with things, like the tea mugs and the book. They both floated through the air, and if it wasn’t for that and the fact that Maggie couldn’t hear them, she might have believed that they were still alive.
She averted her eyes as her grief and heartache swelled within her. As happy as she was to see them again, it also just felt like a cruel taunt. She could see them, but she couldn’t hear their voices or hug them as she wished she could. Their deaths were so abrupt that even months after the fact, she really still hadn’t come to terms with it. One day the three of them were together as they had been since the day they met, and then the next day, Maggie received a phone call telling her of their upcoming funeral.
She didn’t even know how they died. No one did. All Maggie had left of them physically were the things they left behind in the apartment and a locket with some of their ashes sealed inside.
Maggie twitched when her pen hit her in the forehead and she looked up to see both of them on the floor with her. Anne was kneeling behind her, arms wrapped around Maggie’s shoulders and her head resting on Maggie’s unruly red hair. Maggie’s heart twisted with pain because she couldn’t even feel the comforting embrace. Nicole was sitting cross-legged right beside Anne, hands in her lap. When Maggie looked up, Nicole raised her hand and pointed at Maggie before using the universal sign for okay.
Maggie sniffled and wiped at her eyes as she nodded. “I miss you guys.”
Nicole mouthed at her, making gestures with her hands to help Maggie understand what she was saying. We are right here.
“It’s not the same,” Maggie whispered. “Why are you here? Do you know?”
Anne shook her head while Nicole sighed and pointedly didn’t look at Maggie through the mirror. She reached down and tapped at the notebook, flicking the pen where it was in Maggie’s lap. Maggie grabbed the pen and looked up to write down Nicole’s signs.
“You have theories, but you don’t know for sure,” Maggie said after writing the words out. “What theories?”
Anne just patted Maggie’s head. She said something to Nicole who rolled her eyes and signed to translate. Maggie wrote it down and read it aloud; “‘We’ll figure it out.’ Anne, that’s really annoying.”
Nicole gave a few exaggerated nods of agreement and then dodged the swipe Anne made at her head. Maggie watched them with a smile, deciding that she would just enjoy her time with them while she had it, even if it hurt.
Despite the issue of the language barrier, Maggie got used to the ghosts of Anne and Nicole around her quickly. It only took a few times of nearly jumping out of her skin when she’d look into the mirror in the bathroom in the morning and see Nicole or Anne standing right there before she was no longer affected by it. She stopped being fazed by the tea-cup on the table at four every day, and instead went to the kitchen and watched the wobbly movements of the cup, teabag, and kettle as Anne went about her daily ritual. The tripping still happened, and it only took one instance of glancing at the giant mirror she’d brought out of her bedroom to realize that Nicole was the one responsible for her the tripping.
The argument over the tripping thing had been extremely one-sided, since only Maggie was able to actually be heard during it. She was certain anyone that heard her shout at something that they couldn’t hear respond thought she was crazy. Nicole reluctantly cut back on the tripping, but Maggie did get hit in the head with pillows or randomly tossed clothing much more often than before.
She soon learned that Anne was a better ghost than Nicole. Anne was able to interact with objects, to an extent, while Nicole really could only do a few little things. Nicole’s interaction was limited to just a few seconds before she’d lose control, hence why she threw stuff at Maggie rather than floating it over. Anne could make a cup of tea, move heavy objects, and read books in small spurts. Maggie thought it might be because of Anne’s steady and calm presence compared to Nicole’s more agitated and rowdier personality. Even at her most rambunctious, Anne was tranquil like a gentle breeze. Nicole, in contrast, was sharp and blunt like icy rain.
They had been working on Anne writing on mirrors or the whiteboard in her bedroom with dry-erase markers, but it was a slow-going process so they relied mostly on Nicole’s sign language. Maintaining prolonged contact with solid objects was difficult and exhausting for them, let alone actually doing such precise motions for writing words at the same time. That led to Nicole bulldozing her way into interrupting Anne’s writing if she noticed Anne was showing signs of getting tired. Nicole did give writing a try too, though, and Maggie felt both excited and proud when she emerged from her shower before class one morning to see a messy drawing of male genitalia in the steam on the mirror, courtesy of Nicole.
The practice did seem to be doing them good. They were getting stronger and more present by the day. Maggie still was only able to see them in the mirrors, but she swore up and down that she had caught Anne’s reflection in the tea kettle once, just for a moment. Nicole steadily became more capable of interacting with objects which was a double-edged sword because Nicole took full advantage of her new skills to prank Maggie and to be a menace.
Anne, as always, gleefully joined in on Nicole’s antics and even goaded Nicole into some of her more mischievous shenanigans, because Anne was the most devious of them all despite all appearances to the contrary. Nicole never bothered to rein Anne in and instead delighted in the chaos Anne caused. Both of them were just as wild and unruly in death as they had been in life. Maggie had been woken up rather abruptly by a pillow slamming heavily into her face more than once and she always initially blamed Nicole, but after angling one of the extra mirrors she brought into her bedroom, she was able to see Anne was the true culprit.
It reminded Maggie of all the impromptu wrestling matches Nicole would start with them when she was alive if the apartment got a little too quiet for her liking. Or the occasions when Anne would rouse them at ungodly hours of the morning by banging pots and pans with a shit-eating grin because she wanted to go on a spontaneous hike into the wilderness and they had to accompany her. Never a dull moment with them. Maggie had gotten used to it over the years.
It took a while before Maggie had the courage to try and ask them how they died. She didn’t want to upset them, and part of her wasn’t sure if it was a good idea for her to even know the cause. But she thought that maybe it would help her figure out why they were there or even help them move on. She wasn’t getting anywhere with her internet searches and trips to the library between classes and shifts at the coffee shop downstairs.
The first few times Maggie managed to ask each of them what happened to them, she got vague answers from Anne and was blatantly ignored by Nicole. It made her wonder if they even remembered how they died, especially since no one else did. Perhaps it was so gruesome or sad that they didn’t want to tell her to spare her the pain. They did the same thing when Maggie asked them if they had ideas as to why they had returned as ghosts, with Nicole not saying anything at all and Anne clearly hedging and trying to avoid the subject. Maggie had been researching paranormal and spiritual texts both for answers of her own by searching the internet and grabbing every relevant book she could find in the campus library, but so far nothing made any sense—especially since she didn’t know how they died.
But Maggie was nothing if not stubborn and persistent. After a week of constant prodding and guilt-tripping, Nicole finally caved and agreed to tell her. Maggie watched through the mirror as Nicole told her how she had been killed in a hit and run accident and how the vehicle that struck her down was an ice-cream truck, of all things. Maggie’s chest had clenched and her stomach sank with grief renewed, the weight of anger that began to bubble up out nowhere towards the person who had killed her friend was almost overwhelming. She did her best to smother it and she asked Nicole if Anne had died in the same accident. Nicole had simply shrugged and told her to ask Anne herself.
So, she did. Maggie cornered Anne and asked her how she died, explaining that Nicole had given her the details of her own death. Anne had seemed startled and it made Maggie wonder if Anne had been the first to go and didn’t know how Nicole died. So, Maggie relayed the story that Nicole had told her, that she had been run over and killed by an ice-cream truck.
Maggie expected a few things from Anne in terms of her response to how Nicole died. She thought Anne might be angry, as she had been to hear someone had run over their friend. It wouldn’t have been weird for Anne to be startled or even confused, maybe even sad and sympathetic. What she did not expect was for Anne’s eyes to widen and for her to slap her hand over her mouth before she abruptly left the bathroom through the wall. Maggie heard a loud slam but when she went to look for the source, she couldn’t see anything amiss.
It took almost ten minutes for her to find Anne and when she did, it was in Nicole’s room. Nicole didn’t have mirrors in her room and thus it had become a space for the two ghosts to retreat to when they wanted to be unseen by Maggie for whatever reason. Thus, Maggie was unable to see either of them, but she could see two pillows floating in the air. One was braced low over the bed as if to protect whatever was beneath it while the other pillow was swinging through the air, slamming into the pillow shield incessantly. Just from the lasting contact alone, it was clear that Anne was the one beating Nicole up with a pillow.
“Knock it off, you two,” Maggie said and she yelped as both pillows suddenly flew in her direction. “Hey!”
It took a few hours and more things tossed randomly through the apartment before Maggie was able to broach the topic again. She wrangled Anne into the bathroom and asked her how she died. Anne told her that the breaks on her van had gone out and she drove off a cliff after running over a weirdly placed speed-bump and flew into a ravine. It was a new vehicle, apparently, and the guy who sold her the ice-cream truck from Craigslist was pretty sketchy.
Maggie was certain she was reading things incorrectly until she saw Nicole in the corner of the mirror, floating through the air and roaring with silent laughter. It suddenly occurred to her that people would know how the two girls had died if they had been hit by a car or drove off a cliff. Maggie had never been the most cynical person in the room—that was always Nicole—and it wasn’t unlike Anne and Nicole to pull pranks on her for their own amusement. She should have seen this coming.
“You’re both lying, aren’t you?” Maggie asked and Anne started laughing too. “Damn it, you guys. I’m being serious! Knowing how you died could help us figure out why you’re here!” She scowled as they both floated around above her head, laughing together. “Fine. I’ll ask later.”
And boy did Maggie try, but it became a game to them. Each time she asked, they had a different answer for her. It got to the point where Maggie was convinced that they had no idea or they were so embarrassed about whatever stupid way they died that they were just coming up with more outlandish answers to try and seem cooler. The fact that no one—not even their families—knew how either of them died only made it harder to get them to be serious.
Some of their causes were believable, like when Anne told her she had inhaled toxic gas while inspecting an abandoned factory while looking for a good place to get inspiration for one of her art projects. Anne had been known to sneak into some pretty questionable places no matter how dangerous or restricted they were, simply if the places interested her and because she could. Maggie couldn’t find it in herself to be surprised by the story until she asked again later and Anne gave her a wild tale about being murdered by a pissed off goose.
Other stories were completely ridiculous. Nicole had given Maggie a very serious retelling of how she had gotten lost in the woods and came upon a strange cottage where an old woman lived. The old woman had invited her inside, offered her a drink, and the next thing Nicole knew, she was dead and watching her body being cooked into a stew. Anne had laughed so hard at that story that two light-bulbs exploded in the bathroom.
Maggie decided that learning of how they died was a lost cause because they clearly weren’t going to tell her. She went back to her research and even went as far as to read fiction stories and forums about supposed hauntings and mediums for any information. She asked some of the professors in the Lit department for book recommendations on the paranormal and supernatural, but aside from a few good reads, she didn’t find anything of substance with the answers she was looking for. Maggie was about to deem it a lost cause until she noticed something that seemed to be unanimously agreed upon as one of the most common causes of hauntings or lingering spirits: Unfinished business.
Maggie ducked into Anne’s bedroom where she could see Nicole trying to interact with the retro radio on Anne’s dresser with Anne’s careful instruction. There was a giant mirror attached to the back of the dresser, so Maggie got to see Nicole’s tongue sticking out in concentration as she tried to get her spectral hands to stop going through the stereo and instead touch the knobs and buttons or the broken, metal antenna. Anne hovered over her, upside down in the air, and was moving her hands around this way and that, as if trying to guide her.
“Nicole? Anne?” Maggie said, approaching them.
Nicole glanced up at her briefly in acknowledgement and waved before she returned her attention to the radio. Anne twisted in the air to look at Maggie through the mirror, to show that she was paying attention. She slapped at Nicole’s hands to get her to stop messing with the radio, but Nicole slapped her hands back and mouthed a few swear words that Maggie didn’t need signs to decipher.
“I wanna talk to you guys. Pay attention for a minute.”
Nicole tapped her ear as if to say “I’m listening.” Anne just sat down in the air, crisscross-applesauce, and watched Maggie expectantly.
Maggie made a face but sat on the edge of Anne’s bed so she could look into the mirror and gage their reactions. “I was looking up some ideas of why you two might be here. I saw something about a lot of people being stuck here because they had unfinished business. So, maybe if we can figure out what you two wanted to do most while you were alive, we can help you move on. Not that I don’t like you guys being here! It’s just…you should be able to move on, you know? What if this is damaging to your souls or whatever? I know none of us are religious, but a lot of people say this sort of thing hinders reincarnation or your chances of going to heaven or whatever. Yes, Nicole, heaven. Don’t scoff at me. You may be an asshole, but that’s not enough of a reason for you to go to hell.” She sighed and looked between both Anne and Nicole who were staring at her now. “Is there some unfinished business you two have?”
Nicole threw her hands up in the air, her back to the mirror so Maggie couldn’t see what she said, but Anne smiled warmly and shook her head with a fond twinkle in her eyes. Nicole left the room and Anne began to fiddle with the radio in her absence. The radio crackled to life, low static hissing through the room with a few words breaking through the buzzing from other stations as Anne switched through the frequencies. Maggie opened her mouth to ask Anne where Nicole went, when suddenly something hard crashed into her shoulder and narrowly missed hitting her in the head. Maggie yelped and flinched away from the projectile.
“Nicole, what the hell?” she snapped, glaring towards the mirror to see Nicole was back by the radio with Anne, completely ignoring her.
Maggie scowled but looked at what had been launched at her and her eyebrows shot up when she saw a familiar, worn journal. Maggie picked it up, feeling warm and nostalgic and sad all at once as she caressed the worn sharpie of Anne’s name, her own written in pen, and Nicole’s carved into the cover with pencil. She couldn’t remember the last time she had thought about the journal, let alone actually seen it. She knew it had been at least since middle school, because that was when the journal had been retired as a memento to their childhood once they got cell phones and didn’t have to rely on a book that rotated between them to log their conversations and ideas when they were apart.
Maggie flicked through the journal absently, laughing at Nicole’s scribbles beside Anne’s more talented doodles. Most of the pages were dated, but even without Nicole was able to track the years via their handwriting and some of the immature nonsense they wrote about. She skimmed over most of the conversations, ideas, and doodles, recalling things here and there. It wasn’t until she reached the final page that suddenly everything clicked.
Written three times in each of their handwriting were five words: TRAVEL AROUND THE WORLD TOGETHER.
Maggie remembered that childish promise well, as it was something they had decided on when Maggie had first met Nicole and Anne in school when they were eight years old and became their friend. She remembered Nicole announcing that she was going to start a savings account when she got her first paid baby-sitting job so they could save up for their trip. When they were in fifth grade, Anne made a swear-jaw which Nicole had to contribute to and she said it would be dedicated to their trip when they were older. Maggie had even started saving coins in a jar and would smile to herself when she thought of putting that money to use for their future adventure.
“Oh,” Maggie whispered, fingers smoothing over the words, and finally she understood why they were there. Nicole and Anne were there for her. Despite dying, they had lingered so that they could fulfill their childhood promise with her and give her a real, final farewell. “I forgot about this.”
The radio’s static spiked across the room, making Maggie jump in surprise. Her head snapped around to look at Anne and Nicole who were both watching her through the mirror, their spectral hands resting on the radio. She watched their mouths open to form words and at the same time, familiar but scratchy voices cut through the static on the radio.
“It’s about time, Mags,” said Anne’s lighter, brighter voice. Soft and comforting as it ever was, even though her tone was laced with mirth and distorted by the static.
She then heard Nicole’s shaper, deeper and snarky voice with her lazy mid-western drawl. “Better start saving up, Doofus. You owe us a vacation.”
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