Dawn had noticed the presence in the building right away. It hit her the way a sudden change in altitude might hit a mountain climber: palpable, nerve-wracking, but somehow promising. The property manager guided her into the green and gold lobby, past chandeliers dripping with fake crystal and long mirrors that needed to be cleaned, and all the while, Dawn thought, “Well, that’s interesting. There’s someone in the air.”
It would take months for her to realize that the unearthly presence was not in the air. It was the walls, the floors, the ceilings, the vents. Someone lurked in the electrical outlets and windowpanes, not confined to a single apartment or floor but instead pulsing through the entire building. They were the entire building.
When the lights in the lobby flickered, Dawn would think, “Now, try to calm down.” When the elevator went out, Dawn would think, “What’s gotten into you?” Whoever it was was begging to be noticed. Dawn seemed to be the only one paying any attention.
The First Question
“Who are you?” Dawn asked, just as she did each morning.
Dawn had come to understand the apartment, its likes and dislikes. It liked the cat, for instance, who entered its darkest corners with a sense of ownership. It disliked abandonment, acting out any time a suitcase or weekend bag was thrown open on the bed. When Christopher packed his things, the apartment shuddered. Windows slipped down in their sills at odd angles, pictures shifted to hang like drunks, and the microwave tray turned round and round.
“This is what I mean,” Dawn said, but Christopher wouldn’t look.
Now, Dawn was provoking the apartment. It had gone quiet lately and they were reaching a standstill. Dawn placed a chair in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room. She sat down and lifted her feet up onto the chair, wrapping her arms around her knees and humming.
When the apartment remained still and silent, Dawn jumped out of her chair, turned on the gas stove, and went back to her seat. She watched the blue flames flutter and erupt toward the exhaust fan, then hiss down to nothing.
“There you are,” Dawn said. “Let’s get back to it. Who are you?”
The Second Question
Dawn was methodical. She carried pocket-sized notebooks to record her thoughts and new information as it presented itself. She had three notebooks full of notes on the apartment and was well into a fourth. She had a fifth notebook, separate from the rest, that she’d started three months ago. All but two pages were blank.
The first page began, Reasons Christopher left. The second began, Ways to live without Christopher.
Under Reasons Christopher left, Dawn added an asterisk and the word possibilities. That was as far as she’d gotten.
What troubled her most was that Christopher, on his way out, had said, “I still love you.” This information seemed to complicate the only real theory she’d ever come up with, which was, He doesn’t love me anymore. Dawn didn’t like trying to solve the unsolvable, and so she’d mostly given up.
False Leads Pt. I
Dawn Googled the apartment building over and over, going back to the third, fourth, tenth results page. What she wanted was historical records but all she could find were listings and reviews.
Once, she found an article about an actress who’d thrown a party in a fifth-floor apartment. A man had leaned against a window assuming it was closed. Realizing too late that it wasn’t, he fell the five stories and died, but Dawn was certain that he was not the answer to her question.
Failing, also, to answer her question were the handful of obituaries Dawn discovered that listed the building as the last residence of the deceased.
“Are you Marie Holloway?” Dawn asked. “Are you Danny Kaiser?”
The apartment remained still and silent.
False Leads Pt. II
Google yielded next to nothing about Christopher’s departure. Dawn did discover an article titled, Why Men Leave. The writer seemed to believe that men were unpredictable in their moods and predictable in their needs, that they wanted a caretaker rather than a partner. Christopher was not like that. He was calm and supportive. He did not expect her to cook every night or to clean the apartment religiously. He’d been encouraging when she’d gone back to school and understanding when she’d dropped out. When issues arose, they discussed them, finding agreeable solutions.
“It seems,” she remembered Christopher saying, “like you should get out more. How about a part-time job? Volunteer work?”
Dawn had considered this for a moment. “I don’t know about that.” She showed him the notes she’d taken that day, about the way the lights in the bathroom flickered every time she sneezed. “I’m making a lot of progress,” she said. “I think I’m almost there. I just have to stick with it and then we can all move on.” She’d patted him on the shoulder and smiled agreeably.
The End of the Beginning
Dawn painted the bedroom green like she’d always wanted, and the apartment didn’t seem to mind. She put on old pop records and the apartment seemed okay with that, too.
The notebook about Christopher sat on Dawn’s nightstand, collecting a thin layer of dust on its faux leather cover. She picked it up and opened it, tapping a ballpoint pen on the page headed, Ways to live without Christopher.
She looked at Christopher’s social media often. It seemed to her that after years of intertwining their lives, Christopher would find it just as difficult as she did to point life in a new direction and trudge ever onward. Yet, there he was, the little digital version of himself, arms around friends she’d forgotten he had, standing in places she knew they’d never gone together. He wasn’t trudging ever onward. He was expanding the vista of his life, and rapidly.
The faint blue lines on the page began to waver in front of her unfocused eyes. She blinked and they became solid. Carefully, she wrote, Forget that he ever existed.
Unable to ignore the piles of unpaid bills on the counter, Dawn applied for a job at the bookstore. It was one of the only places she went by choice. Other places included her grocery store and the walk-up above her grocery store where her psychic read tarot cards at a pay-what-you-can rate. Everywhere else was too far, too time-consuming, too taxing.
Dawn got the job and, on most days, worked alone. Once a week, she shared the store with Rebecca, the store’s bracelet-bedecked owner, and had worked at the store for nearly a month when Rebecca jingled out of the backroom and tossed a thick, glossy book on the counter. Across the cover in raised red letters were the words, The Buildings That Made Our City.
“Page 59,” Rebecca said. “Look familiar?”
Dawn recognized the brick facade and sorrowful mascaron ornaments immediately. Just below the photo was a small caption in thin white letters: Built in 1904 by Miles Hilton.
In the top right corner of the two-page spread was a small photo of Miles and, behind him, one hand on his shoulder, a young woman. She looked calm and controlled and yet, Dawn thought, burdened by a thought she was unable to express. Dawn stared at the picture, bringing the book inches from her face to better take in the woman’s features. Miles Hilton and fiancé Mira Welles.
“It’s you,” Dawn said.
The bulb in the lamp next to her chair went out with a pop.
The Beginning of the End
Dawn understood now. She understood that it wasn’t quite Mira Welles, herself, that was occupying the building. Mira Welles was the building.
Dawn spent days writing in the fourth notebook before beginning a fifth. She filled the fifth with poetry to Mira and when she read the poems aloud, Mira bathed her in warmth. Mira’s bones ached when it rained. Her mood soured when the sun set, lifting slightly when the moon rose. She yawned at the television. She broke the microwave. She broke the dishes in the dishwasher. She knocked a vase from the coffee table and a figurine from the bookshelf. She stopped the clocks at 3:22 and started them up again hours later . She begged for understanding and Dawn did everything she could to understand.
Dawn found herself always exhausted, falling asleep suddenly on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. As she slept, Mira visited, filling Dawn’s mind with her own memories. She showed Dawn the entirety of her romance with Miles Hilton, how quickly his love for her had grown into something heavier than either of them could hold. She walked Dawn through the construction site of the building, trailing Miles as he pointed to the shipments of hardwood planks and rust-colored bricks, stopping, finally, at a long table layered with blueprints. Miles described each room like a painter describing a portrait, saying things like, “This one will represent your beauty,” and, “This one will commemorate your heart.” It was in one of these dreams that Dawn came to learn that she was living in the control center, that her apartment was meant to capture Mira’s curious and active brain.
Reasons Christopher Left
Once, and only once, Dawn allowed herself to slip deep down into her memories of Christopher. She’d awoken from another dream of Mira—this time, dressing slowly for dinner, searching for ways to cause a scene—and lost herself in her own past.
She was meeting Christopher for the first time. He still had all of his hair. She still had smooth skin. They were standing in the produce section at the grocery store, both reaching for the last bag of spring greens. He said, “You can have them,” and she said, “They’ll just rot in my fridge.”
It was their third date. They were going to see a band she’d never heard of. She was drinking too fast, and everything was quite funny and too loud. When she asked to leave before the band had finished their set, Christopher didn’t mind.
She was moving in with Christopher. It was their first apartment together, the one they’d had before this. They layered their mismatched dishes into the cupboards and made a pizza in the oven and hung paintings on the walls. He teased her when hers hung crooked. They spun records one after another after another, taking turns so that her old pop music was punctuated by his heavy, distorted guitars. When she said no to going to the bar for a drink, he agreed that it was late and that it was best to call it a night.
She was crying. They had lived in the new apartment, the one she still lived in, for six months. Christopher was standing on the other side of the living room, his coat already on. “Now, try to calm down,” he said, holding out his hands as if she might combust. She nodded, rubbing her temples. Just the thought of leaving—and it was only a trip to the shopping mall that Christopher had suggested—had caused her vision to cloud over so that nothing, not even her own reflection, retained the sharpness of reality. “What has gotten into you?” Christopher asked and she clamped her mouth shut and stared down at the floor until, finally, Christopher left.
“And wasn’t that how everything went eventually?” Dawn said aloud and Mira shuddered in agreement, having seen Christopher leave Dawn behind over and over again.
The Beginning of the End
Dawn had taken the apartment three years ago because it was cheaper and it was in a quiet part of the city. She’d thought, at the time, that it was for her relationship—that if she could just find a change of pace, she could return to the version of herself that had existed when the relationship began. That version had been a little nervous, surely, but only about the big things: death, war, crowded restaurants. The big things were easy to set aside. It was the little things, crawling all through her brain like newly hatched spiders, that got in the way. It was the little things that had consumed her for the past five years—until she met, formally, the essence of Mira Welles.
Of course, what she knew now was that the choice to move into this building wasn’t for her relationship or even for herself. It was for Mira. It was all for Mira. Mira needed to be seen and Dawn needed to see and that was all that was left. That was all that was needed.
“The trouble with Dawn,” Christopher said, “is that she gets fixated. Once she has her mental hooks in something, she can’t get them back out, if you know what I mean.”
He said this to a man in a white coat in an office with very bright, very yellow overhead lighting. The man in the white coat nodded and wrote something down. Dawn could not see what he wrote but she listened while Christopher talked about her. She wondered where he got his ideas. She wondered at his confidence in speaking about her so-called trouble.
Dawn closed her eyes, trying to remember how, exactly, she’d gotten here. Christopher had opened the apartment door with the key he still had. He’d said, “Dawn, Dawn, what have you done, what happened to you, Dawn Dawn Dawn,” and then he’d put her in the passenger seat of his new car.
“The super called,” he’d said as he drove. “Sounds like you’re not paying the rent. He also mentioned some complaints, Dawn. From the neighbors. You’ve got to stop asking people about ghosts.”
“Relationship to the patient?” a nurse asked when they’d first arrived.
“Ah, former boyfriend,” Christopher said, glancing at Dawn. “I’m still her emergency contact.”
The Way In
Try as they might, the man in the white coat and the man who was her former boyfriend and current emergency contact could not convince Dawn to go anywhere but home. She thought about inviting Christopher in to show him, once and for all, how right she’d been all along. She thought about exposing him to Mira Welles and doing nothing to stop Mira from pelting him with throw pillows and tin cans and refrigerator magnets. She thought about it so much that she asked him out loud if he’d like to come up.
“I’d better not,” he said. “I don’t want to give you the wrong idea.”
Dawn did not know what wrong idea he could possibly give her. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He looked tired.
They pulled up beside Mira Welles and Dawn gazed up at her many mascaron faces. The faces grimaced back at her. She waved quickly at them, and Christopher sighed.
“You should at least see someone,” he said. “There are outpatient programs. You should move. None of this is healthy. You’ve trapped yourself in this story.”
Dawn snapped her fingers and fumbled to unbuckle her seatbelt with the other. She patted Christopher on the wrist, feeling the knob of bone and finding it unfamiliar. “That’s it,” she said. “Trapped.”
The Way Out
Dawn’s first instinct was to visit her medium, but the trip to the doctor’s office had left her too rattled, too loose in space to attempt another outing. Going anywhere, she thought, would result in becoming so untethered that she may never find her way home. She would simply have to read her own cards.
Dawn pulled the battered deck from a drawer in her nightstand and brought it out into the living room. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment before cutting the deck and putting it back together. She overturned the top card.
She stared at the image, two bodies falling headfirst from a lightning-struck building. It was said to signify a shocking change, a perfect representation of everything she went out of her way to avoid—the chance of danger, the loss of control. There’s no turning back, the card seemed to say.
She’d known from the moment she stepped foot in the lobby and experienced the essence of Mira Welles for the first time. Selfishly, she had not done it right away. She’d wanted to discover this other person, to know them intimately, the way one can only know oneself. It wasn’t until Christopher had uttered the word trapped that she realized that in searching for the signs and clues that could lead her closer to Mira, she had repeated Miles Hilton’s original mistake. They had trapped her, locked her into place.
Dawn would start with the notebooks.
She gathered all five of them and dropped them in the wastebasket, held the corner of an unopened bill over the blue flame of her gas stove, and watched as it eagerly lapped at the folded pieces of paper. When the bill was half-consumed, she placed it in the wastebasket. After a moment of thought, she pulled The Buildings That Made Our City from the bookshelf and tossed that in, too.
The smell of burning paper was thick, filling her nose and throat. She rubbed at her watering eyes, trying to force her thoughts to slow. “Move away from the fire,” she thought, and ran to her bedroom, closing the door behind her. Here, the air was clear enough, although the thick smoke clung to her hair and clothes. The alarm in the kitchen started to go off, screaming its incessant and useless warning. Mira, too, had awakened. Dawn heard the sound of each window slamming shut one by one. The lock in the bedroom door clicked into place.
“I’m going to free you,” Dawn said, pacing from one end of the room to the other. “I’m letting you go. You don’t have to stay here.”
The white curtains that hung over Dawn’s bedroom windows billowed, grabbing at her as she struggled past them, threatening to wrap like a boa constrictor around her body. The windowpanes cracked, exposing Dawn to their jagged edges.
“Why aren’t you listening to me?” Dawn shouted over the sound of the fire alarm.
The bedroom door burst open, the latch breaking in its chamber. The curtains released Dawn from their grip and she ran into the living room. Through the smoke that had filled every inch of the apartment’s outer rooms, Dawn made out a human figure.
“It’s you,” she whispered.
The damage to the apartment had been minimal, although Dawn would not be allowed back in it. The super had agreed to let go of the months of unpaid rent in exchange for an immediate termination of the lease.
The job at the bookstore was also finished, although Rebecca had been kind enough to help Dawn secure a new job at a different bookstore store a few blocks away. With her small paycheck, she’d been able to rent a studio apartment in a plain, quiet building with plain, quiet walls that seemed to possess no history, whatsoever.
In her spare time, Dawn took stock of the things she owned and the things she saw, creating a sort of ledger of her own existence. It was of the utmost importance, she thought, to keep ahold of the passing minutes, to see what was there, to touch and be touched by life’s daily offerings. She started taking walks, feeling like a spindle-legged fawn at first, her thoughts drifting ever backward to the safety of her little apartment until, one day, they didn’t. She walked farther and farther from home.
Six months passed before she allowed herself to think deeply on that last day in her old apartment. She found it difficult to remember how it had all come to an end, but now she could picture with clarity the super unlocking her door and letting in two uniformed firefighters. One had escorted her out of the building while the other poured water into the burning wastebasket and stifled the smoldering pieces of paper that had drifted onto the carpet. They’d assured her that no one else was in the apartment. Mira was gone.
What struck Dawn now was how willing she’d been to go with her.
A light breeze passed through the open window next to her bed. She closed her eyes, inhaling the scent of damp earth as it washed over her. It wouldn’t be long before the trees shook out new buds and tulips emerged from garden beds, top-heavy and drunk with color. Her mind summoned Mira’s likeness, strolling down the same streets Dawn walked each morning, perfectly and serenely alone. She opened her eyes and let the image dissolve, resolving that it was time to forget that Mira had ever existed.
Molly Andrea-Ryan is a prose writer and occasional poet living in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work can be found in Idle Ink, trampset, Barren Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @mollyandrearyan, where she mostly talks about her cats.