Nick Rossi

Settle in with a glass of wine and enjoy Nick Rossi’s “The Ghost of Grace.”

It looked like a nice apartment, both aesthetically and functionally. I didn’t know how lofty to allow my expectations to be on getting that real first post-college, roommate-free, futon-less place of my very own. I had vehemently promised myself when I started looking for an apartment that I was going to keep an open mind and make no snap judgements. I was running out of couches to surf. So when I saw the historical, elevator-free, dark but mysterious flat at The Lonsdale, I was immediately enthralled.

What instantly captured my attention was the fog-like haze that surrounded the building’s ruddy, yet regal tan and red bricked exterior. Ancient chewing gum and hopscotch courts from days past marred the sidewalk surrounding it, and the imposing affectations that emanated from the mismatched window casings seemed to jut out from impossible angles. It was a direct contradiction to the blossoming oak and maple trees adorning the sidewalks, and the adorable facades of the cafes and shops adjacent to it. The relative stillness and lack of vegetation on the Lonsdale lot was conspicuous but hardly unordinary. Or was it? I wasn’t sure then and I’m still not quite sure now.

A lingering scent of long-dead campfires and roasted marshmallows was embedded in the linoleum-lined hallways, and the orange coloured carpets gave an impression of character and originality. I couldn’t help but think of The Shining upon seeing the enticing apricot carpet, which made me feel both comforted and hypnotized. I knew that being on a rather restrictive budget with a requirement to live close to the action, I had to take what I could get.

I wanted to be able to lay out my toiletries in a straight line for easy use, instead of throwing them haphazardly into an enormous Ziploc bag that had seen better days. I wanted my own space.

“As you can see, it’s got lots of charm” the gnarly, raven-haired super said as she guided me throughout the small apartment. I wanted to savour every moment of making this monumental decision of residency for myself, purposely breathing in the staid, but soothing air that surrounded me. I meandered around the living room, imagining where I was going to hang my Vertigo film poster and macramé dream catcher.

Pointing out the unique crown moulding above the living room entrance, the super, who later referred to herself as Magda and stayed named as such, stopped suddenly and looked toward the bay window behind us. I did not know what to make of this.

I wanted to be able to lay out my toiletries in a straight line for easy use, instead of throwing them haphazardly into an enormous Ziploc bag that had seen better days.

Losing Magda in the kitchen, I began to size the place up. Trying it on like an ornately jewelled pair of heels that I would probably only ever wear on my wedding day or in my casket. I realized that if I didn’t jump on this, I was never going to stop couch surfing. Plus, I felt that I belonged in this apartment. There was something about its style and mismatched paint that called out to me.

I rejoined Magda in the kitchen and coughed politely, attempting to get the older woman’s attention from her vacant, yet impenetrable stare.

“I’ll take it!” I said louder than I had hoped. I’d always had a hard time of maintaining my enthusiasm.

Scribbling my signature, which was still going through iterations of style, I signed a one-year lease in the Lonsdale Apartment.

*

Lugging what seemed like endless amounts of heavy (though extremely well organized) boxes from the rented moving truck to my unit took every last bit of energy I had. The makeshift raw linen I purchased in the discount bin at my parents’ local fabric shop were thrown over the curtain rods, buffering the stark sunlight that inhaled the apartment.

Before I knew it, the sun had set and I’d mostly, if not completely, assembled my new rooms. Aside from a few larger furniture pieces that were still pending delivery, I was essentially, and successfully, moved in. Looking around my little sanctuary, I smiled as I left the apartment to navigate my new neighbourhood and find somewhere to eat. I decided to own the corner booth at a lavish looking but reasonably priced pizza place where I could eat as much pepperoni as my heart desired.

*

In retrospect, there were so many little hints and signs that all was not right with my little Lonsdale apartment. Randomly running taps when I was sure I had turned them off, a fire alarm going off for no apparent reason, a knock on my front door at 3 a.m. from an invisible guest—they were all there and all did happen, but because I was so busy with work and semi-sleep deprived, I shook these incidents off as the strange but normal behaviours of an old 4 story walk-up building. I wasn’t totally oblivious of course, but perhaps now looking back, I didn’t want to consider the possibility that something strange was unfolding in the apartment I had decided to call home.

There was one event that really rattled me.

It was a cold, cold evening. You know how even when you wear a double pair of socks and a sweater underneath your blazer and you’re still chilled? It was one of those nights. I had stayed later at work than usual. The nights were starting earlier and earlier, and 7 p.m. was black as midnight. Like me, the other people I passed on my short walk home were suffering miserably in the depths of iciness that surrounded us. For once, I felt I had other people to commiserate with.

I felt the burning cold deep in my stomach, a ferocious cross between an ice cream headache and general malaise.

I remember contemplating ordering Pho from the local Korean place with the fluorescent green dining room, but by the time I passed the little shop that lay just feet within my house, I decided against it, anticipating the warmth of my apartment. Nodding at the cashier as I passed by (I was a regular customer), I ran for the building entrance, eagerly anticipating a relief from Siberia.

I felt the burning cold deep in my stomach, a ferocious cross between an ice cream headache and general malaise. Eagerly awaiting the respite of my own place, I felt immediate rage when I saw the large, haphazardly written note on the front door which simply stated: “Heat is out. Will be fixed in the morning. Turn on your ovens. M”.

I groaned so loud that Magda herself opened her apartment door, which happened to be just by the building’s most popularly used stairwell. Upon seeing my outraged expression she attempted to diffuse the situation in her kind but gnarled and absent way.

I entertained her numerous reasons as to why the heat was out—“It’s an old building”, “… mind of its own”, “Technician is on vacation”—blah blah blah. I smiled politely and nodded at the right times. I didn’t want to sour the relationship with the superintendent, especially since I’d just moved in a month ago.

“Ok, well have a good night” was all I could muster before disappearing into the darkened stairwell. If I’d had reticence about walking into what is a typical horror story setting, I didn’t show it that night because I stormed right into a stairwell illuminated by only a lone light bulb that kept flickering on and off like clichéd electric lightning. While it was certainly creepy, I was much too cold to pay attention to omens of what was to come. It’s amazing how being on the edge of hypothermia can distract you from symbolism and foreshadowing.

By the time I exited the stairwell with its tumbleweed tufts of dust on every landing, I was warm from the cardio of stair climbing. With a little pep in my step and a semi-accelerated heartbeat, I was welcomed by the tangerine, plush carpeting that escorted me to my home. A drastic difference from the dilapidated stairwell, my floor’s hallway looked downright lavish. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some large palm plants flanking the end of the hallway where my apartment door was. Had I never seen these before? Not being used to seeing green in the depths of a cold fall, I was surprised to notice that the hallway was not only aesthetically warm, but physically warm.

It’s amazing how being on the edge of hypothermia can distract you from symbolism and foreshadowing.

Could the furnace repair person have fixed the problem during my short walk up the stairwell? As I neared my large solid teak door, I jostled through my too-big red leather bag for my too-big set of keys. The warmth of the heat that touched my face thawed both my heightened temperament and lowered temperature.

The first thing I noticed on that fateful evening was the light emanating from the bedroom. Peculiar as it was, I wondered if perhaps I’d just left the light on in my haste to get out the door that morning . As unlikely as I thought that omission was, I went to the kitchen to pour some wine into my thrift shop score of a goblet instead of investigating.

The television in the other room suddenly turned on. I was obviously startled, and semi-pissed that I couldn’t even have a taste of my freshly poured wine, but strangely, still not attuned to what was really happening. It was almost like I was entranced by the white snow that filled the television screen, a random display of dancing white dots that was both alluring and lulling.

Chocking it up to a building that clearly had some electrical issues, as well as heating issues, I allowed myself a sip of the red juice, walked into the living room, and attempted to change the channel. I pressed the remote to no avail. The screen hopped with black and white flecks.

I worried that the multi-hundred-dollar television I had just bought was beginning to go on the fritz and I would have to dig out my warranty and make the trek back to the Best Buy near my parent’s house. I decided to just unplug it.

The window above the television was open, and despite the cold winds that swirled around the city, there was no draft. The linen I’d hung didn’t rustle. I pulled the window shut, confused as ever. First the bedroom light, then the weird TV issue, and now an open window that I definitely knew I did not open? Had someone broken in?

I felt my heartbeat quicken as I turned around slowly to reassess my surroundings. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The kitchen looked just like I had left it, my wine glass sitting on the countertop waiting to be drunk.

Could I have left the window open this morning? I walked to the bedroom, figuring I should investigate to see if something was indeed askew in my abode. I grabbed a large black umbrella for protection, holding it over my head like a sword.

I don’t know where my bravado came from, but the body does some weird things when it’s terrified.

I sneaked toward the light. The plush carpet below my feet was soft, muffling any sounds that could have alerted a potential burglar of my arrival. I used my other hand to guide me down the hallway.

Now, in my bedroom, I noticed that my bedspread was different—a floral pattern when mine was a solid grey beige. A ludicrous looking lamp that resembled an ostrich egg was lit, casting what was the hue I had seen coming from the room earlier.

I was so confused. Did my mother, the only person who I gave a key of my apartment to, come over while I was at work and redecorate my room? I couldn’t rule it out, as she’d verbally berated my decor choices. But it just didn’t seem like something she would do. I retraced my steps back into the living room.

I shook my head to re-center myself and be fully aware of my surroundings. From my angle in the little hallway between the bedroom and the kitchen, I peeked my head around. The kitchen light had turned itself off. I convinced myself to be annoyed, not spooked. I tried to tell myself that all these weird incidents were a result of an old building with shoddy electrical. To comfort myself, I began to itemize in my head all of the things I would write in my strongly worded letter to Magda when I heard a new sound.

“Grace.”

Now I was legitimately freaked out. Like a panther, I bounded into the hallway with my umbrella/sword, ready to assert my presence.

“Graccccceeee.” I heard it again. The disembodied voice seemed to be originating from the loveseat that sat perpendicular to the television.

“Who’s there?” I screamed, falling into the trope character of the horror movie heroine that has been dramatized many a time for a rapt audience of horny teenagers who clapped when someone was murdered because of their own stupidity.

When I did not hear a response, I walked closer to the loveseat, trying to identify the source of the voice. What I saw I did not expect.

There was a woman sitting there. From behind, all I saw was her midnight black hair. Its length was undetectable, it melted into the darkness surrounding her. I noticed that the two lamps that I had on my side tables had been replaced with one old, streetlight-looking lamp that shone on the woman’s perfectly straight, horrifyingly raven mane.

“Who are you?” I asked. Not only was a stranger with Crystal Gayle hair sitting on my loveseat calling my name, but she didn’t even have the nerve to turn around to address me.

I don’t know where my bravado came from, but the body does some weird things when it’s terrified. I ran around to face my perpetrator head on. Then I screamed at the top of my lungs.

The woman didn’t have a face.

She had long, shiny locks of hair where her face should have been. She looked like Cousin Itt’s younger cousin. I circled back around thinking maybe she’d just turned away, but her entire head was covered with black fumes of hair. And now, I was afraid.

I heard people in the hallway outside of my apartment and I ran to the door, tripping and falling over my umbrella/sword. My knee hit the floor, all of my weight falling on it. I heard a loud crunch. As I tried to stand up, I felt a red, fiery pain.

She had long, shiny locks of hair where her face should have been. She looked like Cousin Itt’s younger cousin.

I dragged myself across the floor toward the door. The distance seemed insurmountable. I looked back toward the black-haired presence in my living room, but she was gone. I felt a cold whoosh of air hit me in the face, welcome to the sweat that had begun to break out on my forehead due to the pain of my knee. I reached up on my good knee and opened the front door.

The entire hallway was dark and carpetless. The floors were covered in a cheap linoleum. There was one lone light bulb lit near the rear of the hallway, the one I had seen in the stairway earlier that evening, casting an eerie shadow on its desolate surroundings.

Was I losing my mind? Was I getting some sort of blood poisoning or something from my recently sustained injury? Had I passed out in my apartment? Was I hallucinating?

Before I fell into the abyss of my thoughts, I heard the apartment door open directly in front of me. Seeing the two young teenagers, I rasped for help. Trench-crawling, I pulled myself closer to them. They didn’t even acknowledge me or seem to hear me. I screamed louder and louder, and at one point grabbed the large pant leg of the older boy in front of me, but I couldn’t seem to get hold of anything.

Then I heard them speaking.

“… two years ago”, the older boy said, his voice on the cusp of adulthood. He looked at my open apartment door with fear in his eyes.

“And no one has lived there since?” the girl beside him asked, joining his gaze into my hallway. I followed their gaze.

The unit behind me, the one I’d called home, was blackened. Charred. It looked like a 3 alarm fire had gutted the place and never been repaired.

“She lived alone. They found her in the hallway just over there”, the older boy pointed to where I lay.

“Why don’t they fix it up and rent it out to someone else?” the girl, eyes as big as saucers, asked. She fidgeted her hands into her pockets, her gaze moving from the apartment door, sweeping over me, back onto her friend.

I screamed louder and louder, and at one point grabbed the large pant leg of the older boy in front of me, but I couldn’t seem to get hold of anything.

“My mom says it’s haunted”, the boy replied, as the two walked slowly toward the stairwell door. “People say they’ve seen a woman with long dark hair walking around, calling out a woman’s name”.

Clearly enthralled and scared by the boy’s story, the little girl asked tentatively:

“Who’s name?”

The boy stopped dead in his tracks and looked back down the hallway to where I lay, crumpled in pain.

“Grace.”

Something tickled my neck. I reached up to brush it away, but my hand got caught in a thick knot. Flowing from my scalp was long, shiny, black hair. I could feel it growing, enveloping me in its lustre and length. It was swallowing me.

Grace.

Grace.

Grace!

Struggling to open my eyes, I heard my name being called.

Grace!

My eyes fluttered wide. It was Magda. I was overjoyed to see her, and thrilled to see the crisply painted cantaloupe walls of the hallway and plush orange carpet.

“Heat’s back,” she said. “You left your oven on.” She extended a bony hand to pull me up. She held me by the elbow and walked me back into my place.

Surrounding me like an oversized and overused sweater was my new apartment, casually hung drapes and plush loveseat. The macramé adorned table tops and shag carpeting. Three’s Company was playing on the TV.

Walking to the kitchen, I was greeted by the sight of a full glass of wine. Shaking off the burnt shards of my dream, I finally took a sip. The storm raged outside, but in here, I was safe.

Nick Rossi is a writer and the author of the YA inspired novel Page Turner. He lives in Toronto.

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