Updated: Sep 3
Armando met the darkness in an apartment. Newly renovated but dirt cheap, Armie had known there would be something terribly wrong. Desperation won, and he’d signed the lease. The kitchen faucet dripped endlessly. Drywall residue caked the barren corners. Somehow, that was the worst of it.
With each item unpacked, his heart grew heavier. Concert posters from high school still hung in his old room. He’d managed to save most of his clothes, but Martin’s rampage had left the ones on hangers unsalvageable. At first he thought someone had broken in. Handmade clay figurines and mugs were missing from the shelf above his bed. The trash can had clued him in, emptied onto his bed and garbage smeared on his pillow. Martin’s fervent voicemail haunted him. Don’t ever come near me again.
Armie floated between home and work, disconnected from his body. The community center’s art room brought brief solace. A story tall, it was fitted between a high rise and retirement home, easily missed. A miserable drive from the new apartment. Armie pushed away emotions and pulled out the walls of his bowl, fingers soon covered in a thick coat of wet clay. The wheel spun. His thoughts slowed.
The nights couldn’t come fast enough. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, boredom crept up. Martin had provided all of his social interaction. His roommate brought friends over to smoke weed and wax philosophical about mundane subjects. Armie had only liked those friends when they were high. They stayed out of Armie’s way except to occasionally pressure him into going out with them. “I don’t want my roommate turning into a serial killer.” Armie had hated the jokes, but it was just Martin’s personality.
Armie threw himself on his airbed, burying his face in his pillow. He needed a sleep mask. The window's flimsy curtains had lived previous lives as tablecloths, failing their duties as an ambulance’s lights broadcasted across the dusty apartment walls. The wail rose and then floated down, the vehicle racing on to its destination. Armie rolled over.
And the wail trickled back in. Low and mournful, it poured from the walls and crawled up Armie's spine. It pulled him out of bed and onto his feet. He searched the sparse apartment, from bedroom to bathroom to the kitchen area. The sound climbed with the urgency of a tornado siren.
A brief call to the landlord, Garza, confirmed his suspicions. “It happens sometimes. I’m pretty sure it’s just a tenant.” The tenant that hid in his bathroom. Right.
But when Armie rushed to record the noise, the formless wailing ceased. He’d never thought of a ghost as being shy.
Whatever haunted the building became restless after two days. He came home to a rat dying in front of his door. He let out a shocked yelp, then slapped his hand over his mouth. The animal seized and flailed. He found himself worrying about rabies and ducked into the stairwell.
By the time he had Garza on the phone, the rat was gone.
Stomps echoed throughout the building, so early in the morning that the birds had not yet woken. The windows rattled with each thump. “Hey!” Armie snapped. “Can you chill out?” He paused for the silence. Hoped it wasn’t a neighbor. “Sorry for yelling.”
That evening, the floorboards fluttered and creaked, jiggling the mattress. A half-hearted spectacle in the face of the ghost’s previous antics. Armie bought a bag of tea candles from the dollar store, leaving them around the apartment. He set up an altar in the corner of his room, lighting the short wicks and setting down a plastic cup of water. Its gaze settled into his back. He pretended not to feel it.
The front entrance’s broken window did not become apparent to Armie until after he stepped on glass. He heard the crunch beneath his soles, saw the jagged teeth rising from the window frame. “Oh, come on.” The apartment hallway stretched from the staircase to the front door, with the entrance widened to accommodate two narrow, opaque windows. Now one window.
Armie lit incense to placate the spirit. Left notes in hope that it would return his kindness. Another stretch of time passed without nuisance. Almost as if the ghost were ashamed.
He walked to Walgreens to save on gas. The pharmacist was a dark haired man with pale, freckled skin and scruffy sideburns, Martin's lookalike. Armie traded his debit PIN for a vial of testosterone cypionate and left as fast as possible. He wandered too close to the road, feet slipping off the curb, thoughts on Martin and his clone. A bright orange truck blared its horn at him. He threw his middle finger up at it and immediately felt embarrassed. There was an anger he couldn’t quite muster up anymore. His heart ached.
Fresh from the kiln, Armie painted his bowl at home. He’d have to bake it a second time, but it was an attempt at distraction. He could hear Martin’s voice as he mixed the glaze. You did that? You’re so talented. In those moments his roommate would fall silent, eyes on Armie’s hands as awe replaced the usual Martin snark. Armie put the brush down, distracted by his own speculation. Was it possible that-
The shadow in the corner of his living room caught his eye. Garza wouldn’t have been able to weave a story to explain that. “You weren’t there before.” If he said it out loud, he could suspend his disbelief of how his ceiling lights casted shadows.
“You see me.” A whisper came from the darkness. His heart raced but he didn’t inhale. It was easier to laugh off a haunting when it didn’t have anything to say. “Most cannot.”
Armie released an incredulous huff of air. He needed to remember to breathe. “Are you serious?”
It responded. It responded! “Are you a ghost?” Armie left the rest of the world behind. He’d lulled a restless spirit into a truce, and it had sought him out first. He'd peaked before he could turn thirty.
“One must first be alive, in order to die.”
Armie’s sarcasm was instinctual. “That was a yes or no question.” His fingernails dug into his skin. He freed them, leaving crescent-shaped indents in his forearms.
“No. I came into existence like this, and it is how I will leave. If I ever do.” The answer only gave him more questions, but now he wondered if there really were ghosts. If a shadow could talk to him, what else was possible? The darkness danced restlessly, creating the illusion of light moving through water. “It is lonely.”
Armie already had something in common with the darkness. He unfolded his legs, letting his feet rest on the floor. Inching closer to the shadow. It jumped to another corner, blending into the room. “I’m sorry to hear that.” They stared at each other until Armie figured out which of his thousand questions he wanted to ask next. “Can I see what you feel like?” He imagined cool mist or a coating of coal dust.
“Do not touch me.” The darkness said it with a rumbling force.
A cool gust of air brushed over Armie’s arms, instantly covering them in goosebumps. “Fine, sorry, you’re right.” He likened it to coworkers touching his hair. So exotic. “That was rude. I’m just amazed by you. How did you, um, come into existence?” It made a disgruntled noise.
“You don’t understand,” the darkness insisted. “It would feel excruciating.” Not like touching hair without permission, but touching fire. Armie gestured to the tattoos snaking out from under his sleeves. Colors and shading that had taken hours, years to build.
“Trust me, I can handle pain.”
The darkness moved again, dripping down the wall and across the dusty floors. Armie stilled. It transformed from shadow to liquid and back to shadow again. It stopped a foot away from him. He looked down at it, now in the shape of his own shadow. The fringes swirled and wobbled like steam. “Any living being I touch feels something worse than pain. They hallucinate themselves dying. It is worse than torture. And afterwards, they fear me. Is this truly what you want?”
All that came to mind was the hurt already tearing up Armie’s insides. Martin’s betrayal, the stolen mementos, the confusion of it all. Was there anything worse than heartbreak? “I don’t know.”
“Good.” The darkness said as it pooled across the floor, towards the bedroom entrance.
“Hold on.” It stopped its dramatic exit. Armie glanced away sheepishly. “I still have other questions.”
The darkness had watched time pass by the brick walls. It had only ever known the apartment building, its tether. What had come before a construction crew mixed cement for the foundation, it did not know. Its last friend, a small old lady named Constance, was a medium and a witch. The way it described her reminded Armie of his mother. A short, perceptive brown lady who was never without incense. She had honored the darkness, and it had protected her, as it would Armie. “But I have a request.”
Garza wore flip flops and a fluffy bathrobe the following morning, hauling an industrial-sized Morton salt bag. White anthills trailed the building’s perimeter and led into the grass. She popped up to replenish the salt ring once a month, twice if she was forced to visit the building to tend to a repair. Nearly three decades of salt had led to terrible damage in the concrete, and had done little to protect the property from its ghost.
Armie watched from his window, peering past the thin curtains. She tossed the empty bag into her powder blue Mercedes and sped off before the sun could peek over the horizon of highrises.
Equipped with a broom, Armie faced the chilly dawn. The darkness slunk along the sides of the building to watch. He swept salt into the street, dispersing the piles into granules. It took thirty minutes to break the steady line Garza had so painstakingly drawn. Satisfied with the opening he'd created, Armie gestured for the darkness to come forward. It slipped over the front walk, changing into geometric shapes before slicing itself up among the grass blades. It approached the curb, slow and careful. Unharmed. “Thank you.” It whispered in earnest before darting away. He watched the darkness trail a pickup truck’s tires, slide over to a street drain and vanish inside.
It asked Armie about his shift when he returned from work. He’d thrown the refrigerator door open with a heavy sigh. “Oh, you’re here already! It was fine.” He stammered, unsure of what to divulge. He’d expected it to stay out for days, if not for good. Though that didn’t make the relief at its return any less sweet. “Tiring. My coworkers get on my damn nerves sometimes.” He didn’t feel bad saying it aloud to the darkness. Not that it would tattle on him to a manager. After scanning the half-empty shelves, he wondered aloud: “What should I eat?”
A distinct pause. “You have frozen burgers from last week.”
He created a new routine with his secret friend. Separately, he worked all day while the darkness explored the world. Together, they swapped stories over meals, first about landlords the darkness had terrorized, then about Martin.
“I cared about him. I still do, sort of. There’s a space in my heart that he took up. I couldn’t help it, not when we lived with each other. Having that routine snatched from you is jarring. And, I mean, I lost a friend.”
“He may have loved you.” Armie’s head turned like he’d been slapped. “I have witnessed lover’s rage. It is possible.”
“But what would’ve caused it?” The question remained unanswered. He didn’t buy it anyway.
At the community center, Armie started on a candle holder. He gave up after two tries by hand, folding the clay and returning to the wheel. Did it matter that his gift would never be held by its recipient? Martin hadn’t touched Armie’s creations either. He’d chalked it up to respect, or what was as close to respect as Martin could get.
The candle holder finally came home. “It’s for you.” Armie said. He set it down on a collection of newspapers.
“You have skill.” The recognition of his years of practice warmed him. Nothing like Martin, who’d say things like you’re a sorcerer or some people just have natural born talent, huh? “Green is befitting of it.” The darkness offered after watching Armie argue with himself over a color scheme.
“Befitting…” He muttered, reaching for a jar of olive.
“Are you teasing me?”
A smile pressed into his lips. The difference between Martin’s sardonic drawl and the authenticity of the darkness surprised Armie. He didn’t need to make excuses or flinch at irresponsible phrasing; he welcomed the darkness in its entirety.
He sensed the change one night. Armie had shut off the lights but lingered by his bedroom door. The shadow in the hallway flitted restlessly. Like a cat. Like something barely holding onto a secret. Even after putting the phone down and sliding under the covers, he left his eyes open. He pretended that the darkness enveloped him.
Minutes passed. It was still there. “You can come in, if you want.” Armie called. He watched the shadow disappear as it blended with the pitch black of his room.
“I did not realize you were awake.”
Its dishonesty pained Armie. They were both lying. “I know you want to protect me, but I’m dying to know.”
He scoffed. “I feel like you just want to humiliate me.”
“I would never.”
Armie took his time to elaborate, instead getting out of bed to switch the lights on. He preferred to see what he was talking to. “I want to know what it’s like to touch you.” They had grown closer, more so than anyone else in his life, and that had done nothing to quell his morbid curiosity.
It didn’t object like the first time. “Are you certain?” Surprised at its ease, he pressed forward.
Armie watched it slither onto the bed and over his socks, up his shins. It shone in the light like liquid but he felt nothing on his skin. After a moment he wondered what all the fuss had been about. This was fine. His foot tickled. The sensation morphed into pins and needles, sharper and more defined than if it had simply been asleep. He held his breath.
He couldn’t breathe at all. Each inhale birthed fissures in his bones. His ribcage splintered like wood. The darkness crept up, oozing onto his bare stomach. His arms wouldn’t move, as if paralyzed in a dream state. The curtains fluttered as the air conditioning switched on. They were a deep burgundy, but he only saw his blood.
His knees were bruised. The darkness must have smashed his joints. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to stand if he tried. If it lifted itself off of him.
The radiator’s ambience joined in with his shallow breathing. He tried to give up, let the calm sweep over at last. The darkness pulled itself across Armie’s chest and looped under his arms. He’d wanted this. He’d asked for this. But they were quickly approaching a threshold he wouldn’t be able to return from.
“Stop.” He pleaded. It slipped away instantly.
Pain had garbled Armie’s memories from moments ago. His knees were unharmed, and he breathed without trouble. The bed sheets were damp with his terrified sweat. He’d wanted to leave the lights on, but now he felt exposed. Too vulnerable after his body had fallen apart.
"I am so sorry." Its apology broke off in a breathy sob. It slunk against the far wall, making itself small. "I am horrible."
Armie thumbed the bruises on his knees. No, what he'd thought were bruises. With the terror fading, reality came back into focus. The aftermath of a bad nightmare. “You’re better than some people." He wiped the tears from his face. He hadn't noticed them. "But let’s not do that again."
Martin resurfaced. The man who’d proclaimed to never want to speak to Armie again had left a new voicemail. Armie avoided it until he couldn’t shut his eyes, drowning in the hundred possible reasons why Martin had chosen to reach back out. It didn’t matter if it would only be more insults: Armie had to know.
Hey, Armie - Armando. I’m really, really sorry.
Armie’d had a feeling that he would return to the apartment, one way or another. The concrete arch was leached of its sense of wonder. Once a heavenly gateway, it made Armie’s skin itch. A warning sign. An omen. He moved the cobwebs that covered his old apartment’s doorbell. Sound crackled through the broken speaker as Martin let him in. The lock buzzed and he shoved the door open. Hinges squealed as the door slammed shut behind him. A routine noise, but it had been long enough to make him flinch. The darkness followed Armie with caution, falling into place beneath his footsteps.
The way I acted was wrong.
Martin sat slumped on a green sofa. The green sofa Armie had paid most of, although he very well couldn’t saw the thing in half. “Go ahead and grab your stuff.” Martin said without looking up from the television. As if he hadn’t been the one to trash Armie’s room and lock him out of the apartment. Armie ground his teeth together and willed himself not to wring his former roommate’s neck.
I can’t undo the damage already done, but you should come back to get your things.
His body grew heavy. He told himself he wasn’t forgiving Martin, but it felt like forgiveness to open the apartment door back up. To scoot past the couch without so much as a glance. Like cowardice.
I haven’t thrown anything out yet.
The room’s shape had changed. That’s how it felt with the bed frame taken apart and leaning against a wall. The walls were bare, with two black trash bags on the unvacuumed carpet. His anger started to build. Heat rose into his face, swelling at his fingertips as he opened one of the bags. With the blood rushing in his ears he didn’t notice Martin at the door.
Let’s talk about what happened.
Armie’s thoughts blurred into hatred as he sifted through the bonedust. Not just shattered, but smashed. Ground up. Martin truly despised him.
I’m sorry, for real.
The end of the voicemail had sounded sincere enough to soften the calluses of Armie’s broken heart. He looked up at the figure, his former roommate a picture of smugness. “What is your problem?” Armie’s voice trembled and broke, unable to carry the fury. He remained kneeling on the floor. He couldn’t be sure that his legs would carry him. “You’re disgusting.”
Martin’s smirk vanished. “No, no, no. You are disgusting.” He slammed the side of his fist into the doorframe, then leaned into it as if to hide his tension. “You lied to me. You said you were one thing and you’re not!” The last word became a shout. Armie cowered, now hyper aware of the darkness listening in. “You really think you can get away with that? Lying to people about being a man?”
Armie shook. He was trapped in the worst situation he could’ve imagined, back to the wall while Martin covered his only escape. His thoughts raced as he tried to imagine who would have found out, which stupid friend of Martin's had outed him. Or had he outed himself? It didn't matter. He'd kept the needles tucked away. His top surgery scars were noticeable, but Martin wouldn't have seen him shirtless. Stop. It didn't matter. “I'm not lying. And I don’t owe you an explanation.”
Martin advanced. His shadow followed. Armie cringed, but Martin screamed.
The darkness became a sheen of oil on Martin’s skin. Armie's horror meshed with grim satisfaction. Martin wheezed, now fully on the floor. He held his head in between his forearms, his body twisted. “Help.” He gasped, saliva pooling at the corner of his mouth, lips unable to press together. “Help me!” He screamed again, desperately clutching at his stomach. The neighbors wouldn’t care enough to call the police. With the amount of noise Martin and his friends made, this was business as usual.
“Fuck you.” Armie dumped the trash bags onto the floor, sending up a small cloud of dust. He took his glaze, bed frame, anything that remained. The pottery wheel was nowhere to be found, likely already pawned off. It was clear what belongings Martin had seen as more valuable, making it hurt worse.
With everything Armie wanted to bring home in a trash bag, the darkness released its hold on Martin. Free from its manufactured terror, he broke down in tears, stuck in a fetal position. “Don’t come near me again.” Armie flung Martin’s month-old words back at his face.
The setting sun glared in Armie’s eyes as he drove home, making him regret not bringing his sunglasses. The darkness traveled with him, forming long shadows in contrast to the freeway. He hadn’t succeeded in retrieving the possessions he’d wanted most. The pottery was gone. He would have to make more, so much more. Armie drove carefully, but his body felt weak. He rolled the windows down to let the September air in and sang his heart out to the radio’s top hits. As long as he didn’t dwell, he would be okay. He’d form new clay bowls, learn new skills, find better friends. The song was in its final chorus, and tears welled up.
An ad played over the last two seconds of the song, disorienting the mood. Armie drove fast. He only took a moment to glance at the dim screen and find something else to play. The road appeared clear. He rested his fingers on the radio.
Sheet metal crumpled like paper, then tore. Armie’s torso slammed into the air bag and he lost consciousness. When he came to, the smell of smoke and gasoline wafted up around him. Something burned. Copper coated his tongue. All that had partitioned him from a concrete barrier and the street was a split second to change the radio station.
His thoughts were delirious with grating, stinging, suffocating agony. It became clear to him that he teetered on the edge of something dreadful. He had never been frightened of death until that moment. His instincts pleaded with him, but he knew. In that bloodied, mangled moment, he knew. And all he wanted was its touch. “Come to me, please.” He said to no one. To the windshield, now a spider’s web of cracks. A shadow slipped next to him.
Armie’s skin became slick with its gossamer touch. More a filmy sleeve than an opaque shell of darkness. It tried to be gentle, but he couldn’t tell either way. He existed in a haze of pain and fear that couldn’t take him further than where he was. It touched his face, rested on his skin like a kiss. He ascended the discomfort, as if morphine had snaked into his veins. It whispered his full name, Armando, dear Armando. A farewell.