At the start of my junior year, I move into a two-bedroom apartment with Anna, a German American girl I met in botany class the previous spring. She wears berets and pale blue eyeshadow. Evenings, she pours over psychology books while I lounge on our chaise, reading mysteries.
One night while making spanakopita for dinner, Anna says she wants to live in Athens after college.
“What about you, Huma?”
“Maybe Lahore,” I say.
That first month in the apartment, we go grocery shopping together and peruse thrift stores downtown. With the help of Gwen, a pre-med student we meet at a friend’s get-together, we paint our living room purple, embracing strangeness at twenty-one, much like Victor, the goth downstairs I know from math class. He lines his bedroom windows with tinfoil.
Anna and I watch sitcoms and gossip about our neighbors on the second floor.
Weeknights she spreads tarot on the dining table, peering at the cups and wands as though willing her future to conform to some wish.
One Saturday in September, Victor texts me to see if he can hitch a ride to a party in the foothills that Anna and I are planning to attend.
We knock on his door after dinner. He answers wearing a black sweatshirt over jeans, his long hair reeking of weed.
“Thanks for letting me tag along, ladies,” he says.
We drive down Speedway in my Nissan. Anna tells us about this psychic reading she had that blew her away. When Victor says he prefers palm readings, Anna rolls her eyes. Finally, we swerve onto a dark lane, spotting a house that sways with lights and music.
Inside people drink beer out of plastic cups.
I run into Reggie, a friend from Shakespeare class.
A mustached guy wearing a red jacket stands beside him.
“This is Eric,” Reggie says. “He’s an artist.”
Eric flashes us a silver smile as he shakes our hands.
Eric and Anna immediately lock eyes. Leaving them to chat, I drift around the room making small talk.
Victor, who runs into a friend, ends up leaving with him. I find Gwen standing with a group of pre-med students in the kitchen. When I hug her, she smells of a garden. She compliments my dress and offers me an egg roll from a platter.
“Who’s the guy with the cute butt talking to Anna?” she says, gazing across the room.
“Some artist,” I say.
“Well, he can paint me any time,” she says, laughing.
Later, Eric hitches a ride home with us. I play Morrissey while we drive, Eric and Anna holding hands. I drop him off near an alley on 4th Avenue where he says he shares a house with three guys. Anna steps out to hug him, and he kisses her on the cheek.
Watching through the rearview mirror, I think of Kareem.
When she gets back in the car I say, “He seems cool.”
“He’s coming over tomorrow,” she hums.
Within a couple of weeks, the spiky-haired Eric comes over every night, saying things like, Neato. His mechanical walk seems robot-like. Aside from a couple of art classes he’s taking, his time revolves around Anna. His constant presence drives me mental. I hear them kissing while I cook pasta; baby talking while I study Arabic. In the evenings, they blast grunge music while they screw. Sometimes I catch Eric walking around in his underwear. He stays while Anna goes to class, watching our TV and drinking our milk.
Mornings I come out to find him sketching skulls at the dining table.
Time swells with growing resentments.
Anna and I seem to talk less and less.
One evening Anna sits at the dining table sewing the hem of a cape Eric bought her online. It’s for the vampire costume she plans to wear to a party.
While she sews, Eric sits beside me on the couch watching the news. He burps a couple of times. When I ask him to stop, he calls me a Paki shrew.
The easy way the slur rolls of his tongue makes me lose my breath.
Kareem, the exchange student I dated my sophomore year, is back in Dubai. He sends me pictures of his villa. I can still taste the kisses he planted on my mouth.
The summer after he left America, we fell out of touch, but now Kareem texts often. We chat on zoom, and I tell him about Arabic class, practicing my limited skills while he teaches me expressions he tells me will impress my teacher.
After shooting the breeze, he says, “I’ve started praying regularly.”
I nod, surprised. The previous year, Kareem was an easygoing partier and vaguely spiritual.
Suddenly he says, “How often do you pray?”
The question startles me. “Not enough.”
Then he says, “How do you like your new roommate?”
“She’s alright, but her boyfriend’s annoying.” I tell him how he’s over often and condescending.
“Guests and fish,” Kareem says, “begin stinking after three days. Tell Anna how you feel, my pretty one.”
“And if you can, Huma, say your prayers. God listens most to those who remember him.”
One weekend in early October when Eric is out of town, I sit on the chaise reading in the afternoon light.
My roommate enters the living room taking audible breaths.
When I look up from my mystery book, I see a pale-faced Anna quivering in a jersey dress. “You ok?”
She shakes her head. “I was lying in bed, and something touched me.”
“Like, a person?”
After a moment I say, “It was probably a dream.”
“I think it was a ghost.”
“You’re missing Eric. He’s here so often, his spirit has taken root.”
Anna leans against a wall. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Reaching for her black sneakers by the door, she says, “I’m going for a walk. I need some air.”
Later the same night while folding laundry, I finally understand why Anna freaked out.
I’m wiping my dresser when something brushes the back of my neck.
A shiver traces my spine as I peer around the room seeing nothing.
That night I don’t sleep well.
The next morning while preparing egg sandwiches in the kitchen, I guiltily tell Anna what happened.
“I wonder why the ghost’s shifted to your room?” she says, her eyes widening.
“Maybe he prefers brunettes?”
Anna gazes at me seriously. “We need to figure out why he’s haunting us.”
My insides churn with uncertainty, so I drag Anna into my bedroom. She leans by the open window, which overlooks the parking lot.
Standing in the corner of the room, Anna closes her eyes and takes a deep breath while I hover in the doorway.
A moment later she gasps, opening her eyes.
I step into the room. “What’s wrong?”
“I just saw a flash of him. He’s dressed in black, holding a ring.”
I laugh, out of nervousness or disbelief, I’m not sure. “Maybe he’s looking for a bride.”
“That’s a bad sign.”
I don’t know what to say to that. So, I say, “Did you see his face?”
“No. It’s shadowed.”
I don’t contradict her. Anna’s either psychic or has an active imagination.
“Let’s burn some sage,” she suggests, her eyes brightening with resolve. “It’ll clear the energy. We need to send this spirit a signal that he should move on.”
I nod, grateful some simple remedy might fix this. Anna bustles past me to collect the materials.
When she returns, she hands me some sage, an ashtray, and a lighter. Then she tells me to light the bundle and hold it over the tray as I circle the room saying, “Move on in peace, bloodsucker.” I walk around my bed, chanting, as she fans the rising smoke with her hands.
Afterwards, I feel a palpable sense of relief.
That night, I sleep soundly. If there was a strange presence in my room, it seems to have retreated.
When Eric returns from visiting family and hears about the ghost, he insists we burn sage for a week.
Soon he’s back to being over every night, and the grunge music is blasting often.
One night a week later when I am cleaning out my dresser drawers, I notice the gold necklace and earrings that my grandmother gave me on my last visit to Lahore are missing.
That burping fiend, I think.
My gut says Eric’s been entering my bedroom while I’m in class, stealing trinkets he might sell at a pawn shop for a pretty penny.
The next morning, I find Anna seated in the living room after breakfast. She’s polishing her nails. Eric is in art class. And for once, we’re alone.
I take a seat beside her and finally confess that having Eric there all the time is making me feel claustrophobic.
“He stays in my bedroom though,” Anna says, frowning.
“He’s here when you’re out.”
“So. He doesn’t bother you.”
“I’m also missing some jewelry.”
“What? And you think Eric stole it?”
A dark shadow casts itself across her face. “Keep your door locked then. You have some nerve calling him a thief.”
Saying this, she places her bottle of polish on the coffee table and brushes past me into her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
Later that night while we zoom across time zones, Kareem asks me if I’ve ever considered wearing a hijab.
“No,” I say, surprised. “Have you considered wearing one?”
Kareem laughs. “Men don’t wear hijab.”
“I like it when girls dress modestly.”
I want to ask him why he seems to be getting more conservative suddenly, but instead I hear myself say, “Can you teach me some clothing words? I need to write a short description in Arabic.”
The next evening, on Wednesday when I get home after classes, the apartment is eerily dark. Switching on a light, I head to my bedroom. Anna’s door is closed, but I hear Eric murmuring something next door.
In my room, I toss my backpack on the bed and wrinkle my nose, noticing a fruity scent in the air.
I change into sweats, sneezing. I have an Arabic test the next day, and I need to spend the evening studying. Maybe Kareem will help me practice.
A moment later, I hear a knock at my door.
“Come in,” I shout.
Anna twists the door open and steps inside. Eric passes into the bathroom behind her but doesn’t say hello.
“How were your classes?”
“Good.” I glance at her striped, black dress, the one I’ve seen her wear for occasions. “You going out tonight?”
“We’re driving to Phoenix. Eric’s mom’s birthday is tomorrow, and he wants to surprise her. We’ll be back on Friday.”
“Thought you’d appreciate the space.”
I quash a wave of guilt. “You don’t have to–”
“I know. But I get that you want more privacy. After we return, let’s figure out some compromise.”
I want to ask her about the jewelry but decide against it. Instead, I stand up and hug her. She hugs me back, but her shoulders seem stiff.
“By the way,” I say, “did you light a scented candle? It smells fruity.”
Anna shakes her head. Then she says, “Gwen stopped by earlier to return some books. She was wearing this strong perfume.”
“That explains it,” I say, wondering why Gwen didn’t text me if she was coming by.
Maybe she was in a rush.
After Eric and Anna leave, my sense of liberation is euphoric. I blast Enya while cooking biryani, feeling like I can finally exhale.
When they return, I think, I’ll suggest they move in together. I’ll find myself a studio downtown.
After dinner, zooming with Kareem, I tell him how I’m thinking about renting my own place.
“Women shouldn’t live alone.”
I laugh. “You sound like my dad.”
“Your dad must be a wise man.”
“Don’t you mean, a sexist?”
Kareem shakes his head. “American girls are so sensitive.”
I feel my chest tightening. I want to tell him he’s overgeneralizing, but if we get into a fight and stop talking, I wouldn’t have a friend to practice my Arabic with.
As it grows dark outside my window, he tells me about his recent trip to Jeddah, and I try to listen but feel myself getting distracted.
After we log off, I lie in bed pouring over my textbook. There’s so much to memorize, it’s daunting. The only way I know how to cram the words into my head is to copy them repeatedly on pieces of paper.
But as I sit absorbed in scribbling, something tickles the back of my neck.
I bolt up, recognizing the same sensation from weeks ago.
It’s gone dark in our unit except for the lamp on my bedside. Getting up, I turn on the lights around the apartment.
Anna’s bedroom door is closed. The trepidation taking hold of me makes me shrug respectful norms aside. I push her bedroom door open, switching on a light. What I see shocks me. The room is an utter mess. The bed is unkempt and covered in textbooks. Bras clutter the dresser, and Eric’s boxers form a stinky pile on the floor. The trash can in the corner overflows with tissues and crumpled papers. A used condom lies on top of the heap, like a rancid cherry on top of a garbage sundae.
“Disgusting,” I mutter. “They could’ve at least thrown out the trash.”
Then I remember why I’ve barged in. I’m looking for the green box where Anna stores her sage, so I can repeat the ritual, hoping to dispel lurking spirits. At last, I spot the box tucked by her bedside. I lean down and grab it. But taking off the lid, I gasp. There’s no sage inside, just a candle that oozes a fruity smell.
It seems like the candle was lit recently.
Why would Anna lie to me?
I pull out the cell in my pocket, texting Gwen to ask when she came by. A minute later she texts back saying she’s visiting family Los Angeles, which makes me lose my breath.
Once again, Anna lied, but why?
My heart pounding wildly, I sift around the room, opening drawers, hoping to find sage, but no luck. A glance at my watch reveals it’s almost ten. I tuck the green box back beside her bed and head to my room, shutting Anna’s door behind me.
My family and closest high school friends are scattered across the country in different cities. I could ring them for support, but what I need most right now is to lean on someone nearby.
With a breath, I try to subdue the anxious spell of my thoughts.
Nothing horrible has happened, I remind myself. I sensed a tingling on the back of my neck, then I discovered my roommate hadn’t been truthful. That’s all.
Grabbing my night dress and heading to the bathroom, I take a shower. Standing beneath the hot water instills a sense of calm. Afterwards, I tie my hair in a turbie-twist and apply coconut oil to my arms and legs.
With a wave of relief, I let go of the worry. I’ll dry my hair, make a sandwich, and study for another hour or so before slipping into bed.
Later I sit on the chaise in the living room, hunched over my Arabic textbook. Biting into the sandwich, I relish the cheese and tomato combination.
I speak aloud the weather-related Arabic terms, enjoying their unfamiliar cadences.
When my legs feel cold, I glance to the side of the couch, searching for the small blanket I keep on hand for watching films. The blanket’s missing, but the cape Eric bought for Anna’s costume lies crumpled in a basket. Reaching for it, I shake it open.
It seems rather large for Anna, who’s petite.
I peer at the blood-red stitching down the side. The garment feels coarse to the touch. I check the label. The cape’s a wool-crepe blend. Feeling along the inside lining, my hand brushes against the garment tag. I pull it out and scan it.
It reads, Psychic and Paranormal Item, eBay.
A shiver traces my spine. That’s strange, I think. With a jittery hand, I toss the cape on the coffee table.
At last, it’s time to sleep. I place the Arabic textbook on the dining table, brush my teeth, then head to bed.
Under the covers, I sigh in relief. My limbs ache from exhaustion and my eyelids feel heavy.
But as I’m drifting off, something brushes my left hand, tickling my knuckles.
Gasping, I jump out of bed and switch on the bedside lamp. When I glance around the room, I see nothing.
I pull back the duvet, wondering if I’ll spot a spider.
But the sheets are clean.
So, what just brushed against me?
I shudder, thinking of the ghost.
Dodging a wave of anxiety, I change into leggings and a sweatshirt, then I grab my backpack and throw it onto the bed. Maybe I’ll head to a motel or a diner to escape.
But a glance at my cell reminds me it’s after midnight.
Where can I really go at this queasy hour when the desert night reeks of tequila and burning bark?
“Move on in peace, bloodsucker,” I say.
The words croak out my mouth in an unconvincing whisper.
I lean against a wall, feeling faint.
How will I get through this night alone?
Maybe I should smoke some weed.
Picturing a joint makes me think of Victor, the goth downstairs.
My tense muscles relax.
Victor’s often up at night watching movies. With a surge of hope, I grab my keys and slide on flip flops. Then I head out of the apartment and down the steps, until I find the door for unit number eight.
The lights don’t seem to be on, but I am desperate. If I wake him up, I’ll apologize and say I owe him one. I need someone’s help, and he is someone I know.
I knock at his door, holding my breath.
A minute passes. Then another.
I gaze up at the moon, which is closer to full than crescent.
But a sinking feeling takes root in my chest.
Then as I’m about to turn around, the door creaks open at last. There stands Victor in a black robe, puffing on a fat joint. His long hair is unruly, and his eyes, bloodshot. Still, he seems at ease.
Seeing him, I feel a rush of relief.
“What’s up, angel face?”
“Sorry, did I wake you?”
“Nah, I was listening to music. You been here a while?”
“Not really, but I need some help. Mind if I come in?”
“Sure thing.” He pulls the door back and I enter as he hands me the joint. I take a healthy drag then hand it back to him. The living room is dark, spare the red lava lamps on the bookshelf by the television. There are a couple of dusty couches in the room, and a large cactus plant sways near the hallway.
He motions for me to take a seat. As we settle across from each other, I say, “This is gonna sound nuts, but I think our unit might be haunted.”
I expect him to snort, but instead he says, “No shit?”
In a stoned stupor, it all gushes out: the ghost I sensed weeks ago, what Anna saw in her mind, and how we used the sage. “Something brushed against my skin again tonight,” I say. “It freaked me out. Either something’s lurking or I’m losing my mind.”
After I finish speaking, Victor leans back, taking another hit on his joint. “Wonder why this thing would reappear today?”
I shrug. “Not sure. I’m home alone, which is unusual. But I’ve just been studying.”
“Things really took off between Eric and Anna, huh?
“I guess so.”
“That guy puts a lot of gel in his hair.”
I nod. “I’ve seen those bottles of gel.”
Victor seems to be thinking. “I don’t see why the ghost would wait for you to be alone, though maybe your roommate’s energy has been blocking him.”
“So, I don’t sound crazy?”
He shakes his head. “Believe me, I’ve had my own experiences with the invisible.”
“Who lived in our apartment before us?”
“Two sorority girls, Jemma and Stacey. They never mentioned any ghosts.” He puts out his joint in the ashtray on the coffee table. “Look, you’re welcome to crash here until your roommate gets back. But let me check things out. Sometimes, like Anna, I can sense things.”
“Do you have any sage?”
I wait as he slips out of the room. The leather couch I sit on makes my thighs itch. It wouldn’t make the best bed, but anything would be better than being in my unit alone.
A moment later Victor returns empty-handed. “Sorry. I’m out.”
He grabs his keys, and we head upstairs to my apartment.
After I unlock the front door and step inside, Victor says, “Smells like someone shat out a giant strawberry in here.”
I laugh. “I had a sneeze attack when I got home earlier. I thought Anna lit a candle, but she said she hadn’t. Then I found a fruity candle in her bedroom when I went looking for sage. It seemed like it’d been lit recently. I’m not sure why she lied to me.”
“Could be Eric’s candle,” Victor says. “Though that’s interesting.”
Victor glances around the kitchen, before I head into my bedroom. He circles the space, looking around curiously.
“Huh?” Victor says, fidgeting with the curtains.
“You said my finding a fruity candle was interesting.”
Victor shrugs. “I’m reaching a bit, but something occurred to me.”
I glance his way, and he turns around to face me. I can tell something’s on his mind, and I wish he would just spit it out. Finally, he does.
“From what I know, sweet scents are used to attract ghosts. Anna, being the woo woo girl she is, would probably know that. But maybe the candle belongs to Eric, and he lit it without her knowing.”
“Something’s off about the whole thing. The candle was lit in here. Her room doesn’t smell.”
“Mind if we take a look in there?”
“Sure. Just be prepared. It’s a mess.”
When I twist Anna’s bedroom door open and switch on the light, Victor coughs. “Jeez, they’re animals.”
Nodding, I reach for the green box by Anna’s bedside and show Victor the candle inside. His eyes widen. “Maybe this girl’s messing with your head. You guys been having issues?”
I tell Victor about Eric being over all the time and how I confronted Anna about it the day before.
“She could be channeling, but I don’t think that beret-wearing Barbie is some super attractor. She knows a thing or two about magic, and she could be using what she knows to take out her anger. But I don’t get a spiritual vibe from her or that energy vampire she’s dating.”
“I’m beginning to think they summoned this ghost to toy with me.”
“Sure,” Victor says. “We need to let this presence know he isn’t welcome.”
“How do we do that without sage?”
A moment later he says, “I just remembered. I have some sage incense on my bookshelf. I’ll go get it. It might work.”
“I’ll come with you. I don’t want to be here alone.”
Victor reaches into his robe and pulls out his keys, handing them to me. As his hand grazes my own, a shiver traces my spine. I blush, hoping he doesn’t notice.
But he just says, “I’ll wait here while you grab the incense.”
“Okay,” I say. Victor follows me out of the bedroom, taking a seat on the chaise in the living room.
As I twist the front door open, I see him reaching for the cape, which I tossed on the coffee table earlier.
Somehow, I’d forgotten about it.
When I return minutes later with the incense, Victor isn’t in the living room where I left him. I call out his name as I shut the door behind me, but no response. I wonder if the stoner has collapsed on my bed and fallen asleep.
Then I hear a thudding sound, as though Victor may have tripped and fallen.
There’s a knot in my stomach as I toss the incense on the dining table and head toward my bedroom in the back where I hear Victor gasping for breath. I enter the room to find him lying on the floor near the foot of my bed, waving his hands as though pushing something back.
His hands shake by his face, and I worry he’s having a seizure. But when I reach down to grab his hand, something invisible pushes me back.
I fall onto the ground, scraping my knee.
Moments later, I will myself up and run back into the kitchen. With trembling hands, I grab the incense, then race into Anna’s room to find a lighter. There’s one on her bedside table, which I use to light a stick of incense before running back into my bedroom.
Victor’s lying on his side, coughing, when I return. Whatever was attacking him, seems to have retreated.
“Jesus, Victor! Are you ok?”
I notice the crumpled black garment lying on the ground beside him.
“Whatever’s haunting your unit was wearing that thing when it attacked me. That spirit is something vile. It dragged me from the couch in the living room all the way here.”
Tossing the incense stick on the dresser, I reach for the garment and shake it loose. “Eric ordered this cape from eBay for Anna. It’s a Psychic and Paranormal Item.”
Victor whistles. “That fool ordered a haunted garment? He’s playing with darkness.”
I toss the cape aside, feeling a wave of nausea. Then to my surprise, I find my necklace and earrings sitting on the ground, right under my bed. I gasp.
“What’s wrong?” Victor says.
I hold up the jewelry. “These trinkets. They’ve been missing for days. I thought Eric stole them.”
“Maybe this lurking spirit was the culprit.”
I toss the jewelry beside me. “Why did the ghost come at you like that?”
Victor finally smiles, raising an eyebrow. “I’m guessing he saw me as competition for his Pakistani bride.”
I laugh, but before I can speak, Victor leans in toward me and kisses me right on the mouth. His lips feel so warm. I kiss him back, enjoying the taste of him.
Wrapping my arms around his neck, I lay back on the ground as he climbs on top of me, making me sigh with pleasure.
On Friday evening, I sit on the chaise reading a novel when I hear a key unlocking the front door of the apartment.
A moment later, my blond roommate and her mustached boyfriend enter the living room.
Anna seems to flash me a guilty smile. “How did it go, Huma?”
“Fine. Been studying.”
She seems disappointed.
Eric drops his duffel bag on the ground with a thump and points at the coffee table. “Why’s the cape there?”
I shrug. “I used it as a blanket.”
I watch as Eric and Anna exchange glances.
“By the way,” I say. “I reached out to our landlord.”
“Why?” Anna says.
“To tell him your gel-wearing boyfriend has basically moved in.”
“Screw you,” Eric says.
I glare at him. “Only two people can live here.”
“You’re a jealous rat,” Anna says. “Sorry your man is riding camels in the Middle East and all you guys have is Zoom.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I say.
Eric laughs. Then to my surprise, he reaches for the cape on the table and grabs it. Waving it in front of my face he says, “This cursed cloak was supposed to haunt your dreams, you bitchy nag.”
Burping loudly, he pulls the cape over his back like a shawl.
A moment later, the room seems colder–even windy.
Eric’s suddenly shaking so hard his eyes seem to be bulging. His face takes on a greenish tint, and he begins speaking in a language I don’t understand, something closer to Russian than English.
The color drains from Anna’s face.
With a quick leap, Eric jumps on me, reaching for my throat.
I gasp for breath as his hands tighten around my neck.
His eyes blaze with anger as he roars gibberish, flashing his fangs at me.
I feel myself go faint.
But seconds later Victor blazes out of my bedroom, swaying a bundle of burning sage, which he tosses at me. With the force of a Shaman, he pulls Eric off.
My body collapses in relief. Victor yanks off the cape and pushes Eric against a wall. Then he turns to look at me. “You okay, babe?”
I cough, reaching for the sage. “Barely.”
“You people make me sick,” Victor says, glaring at Anna and Eric. “I just recorded that stupid stunt with my cell. Try it again, and I’ll post the video on Facebook with enough hashtags to blow a hole through the internet.”
Eric gulps, breathing hard, while Anna, who leans against a wall, begins sobbing.
“Come on, bud,” Victor says, tugging at Eric. “Let’s grab that cape. We’re gonna burn the crap out of your wacko costume in the dumpster behind the building.”
Anna’s head is in her hands. Sitting on the floor, she seems to be hyperventilating. Then she glares at me like she wants to finish off the job Eric’s possessor started.
As Victor drags out a seething Eric, I can’t resist waving the sage through the air and shouting, “Move on in peace, Bloodsucker!”
Mehnaz Sahibzada is a 2022 Jack Hazard Fellow in fiction writing. Her writing has appeared in Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen, Jaggery, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Her poetry collection, My Gothic Romance, was published in 2019 by Finishing Line Press. She is currently at work on her first novel, Jaani, set in post-partition Pakistan. For inquiries, contact Mehnaz through her website at www.poetmehnaz.com