It ended badly. There were tears, shouting matches, and random kitchen objects thrown at each other: an apple, half a lime, a knife. That was when I knew had to get out. In the end, I got to keep Georgie, our dog, but urgently needed a new place to live.
Miranda, a friendly acquaintance at the university where I worked, offered me a room — but I preferred to find a place of my own. I couldn’t believe my luck when I came across the apartment available on Rue Saint-Zotique. Good location, great price, pre-furnished, and the building even allowed pets. It was old, but I found it charming. The building had a crooked front stoop and a crumbling stone exterior that enclosed three drafty floors — a basement, and two separate apartments.
I never met the landlady, interacting with her almost entirely via text message. During our single phone conversation, she lamented the challenges of maintaining a historical building. I told her not to worry — I’d been a history major in university, so I was used to old things. We finished the conversation with an agreement that on the first day of every month, I would leave a cheque for $500 in the mailbox out front.
The mailbox was also where I picked up the keys the next day, awkwardly handling Georgie on his leash and my medium-sized suitcase with its busted left wheel. I maneuvered my way up the narrow stairs and paused on the second-floor landing to readjust my grip on the handle.
A woman passed me as I stood there. She didn’t greet me, but as she sailed by, she gave me a small smile and I immediately noticed the distinct, sweet scent of her half-familiar perfume. She bid me bonsoir and I heard her singing to herself as she continued down the stairwell.
It wasn’t until I reached the top of the three flights of stairs that it occurred to me to wonder where the woman had come from.
There was only one apartment on the top floor, and that was mine. Hesitating, I checked the text messages from the landlady to make sure I had the right place. I tried the door — locked. Georgie watched me quizzically as I fumbled with the keys, then pushed the door wide.
Other than being rather musty, the small apartment was quaint, cozy, and spotless. The furnishings were sparse, but classically antique. Even the pots, pans, kettle, and utensils looked vintage. It was like stepping onto a movie set, or back in time. I was delighted. I started unpacking as Georgie sniffed around, taking stock of our new home.
Later that evening, as I was slicing an orange after dinner, I remembered what the smell of the woman’s perfume reminded me of — it was very like the little vials of handmade agua de flores that my mother used to have lined up in her bedroom window. Something of rose and lavender, with a hint of sweet citrus.
Other than the woman — who I only encountered the once — I never saw my neighbors, although the landlady had indicated that there were tenants in the apartment below. But in the evenings I could hear domestic sounds through the thin walls — a baby crying, snatches of jazz and opera, moans and the sighing of bedsprings, creaking floorboards, the occasional muffled yell or thud.
But the sound that most captivated me was the singing.
The first time I heard it, the voice seemed so close that it spooked me — as though I could have reached out touched the singer through the dark. It sounded like a woman. Only the fact that Georgie didn’t appear at all bothered kept me calm. Obviously the sound was just drifting in through a wall or some vent. I fell asleep to the gentle melody that night.
For over a month after that, I heard the singing quite regularly during the evenings. Often, the voice was accompanied by a piano. It always the same tune, sometimes cheerful and other times slower, more haunting. But it became a comforting, almost household sound, reminding me of how my mother used to sing along to the radio as she cooked.
Somewhere between the breakup and the move, I started to have trouble sleeping. I found myself wide awake and pacing the creaking floors, or otherwise having fearful dreams involving fire: stricken with sleep paralysis, I could hear the blaze crackling in the next room, and feel the heat on my skin as flames reached under the bedroom door. I’d waken gasping for Georgie, for my mother, even for my ex.
Often, the woman singing to herself on the other side of the wall would lull me toward a more peaceful slumber. Georgie would rearrange himself by my feet and continue sleeping, undisturbed.
A few weeks after moving into the apartment, I ran into Miranda at Starbucks during my lunch break. We sat and chatted over our respective lattes.
“Whereabouts is your new place?” she asked.
“That old place on St. Zotique, in Rosemont, you know?”
Her eyebrow lifted and disappeared up into her bangs. “You mean, temporarily or something — right? Until you find a better place?”
“I mean, I’m renting it month by month but I’m planning to stay.”
She grimaced. “You don’t know the story, then.”
“Oh wow, how could you not? I forget her name, but some kind of local star lived there, a nightclub singer in the 40s or something. She went insane and drowned her baby — then set the room on fire. She was found just sitting there, humming over her drowned baby while the fire burned all around her. The other tenants burnt to death in their beds. that’s the reason the apartments are so cheap. Nobody wants to live there.”
“But people do live there,” I objected. “I hear them. All the time.”
Miranda took out her iPhone and pulled up an article from the archives of the Montreal Gazette. There was a photo of a pretty woman with short dark hair, turned away from the camera and smiling back over her bare shoulder.
“Must have been taken before she lost it,” Miranda said.
“But that was decades ago,” I protested.
“The only reason the place is still standing is because it’s a designated historical building, over 100 years old or whatever, so they can’t tear it down. Anyway, keep looking for another place. Ghosts or not, it’s an old dump.”
Miranda dropped her phone back into her purse and took a sip of her latte before giving me a sly smile. “So I’m seeing Tom again tomorrow.”
I stared at her blankly.
“Tom,” she repeated. “Tinder Tom, remember? The guy from a couple of weeks ago. He finally messaged me back.”
“Oh right, yeah,” I said, rearranging my hands around my cup. I took a sip but my mouth remained paper dry. All I could think of was that I couldn’t possibly go back to that apartment — not that night, not ever again.
But I couldn’t leave Georgie, of course, and so I headed home after parting with Miranda. Partway there, I got a call from AT&T about a late payment. Phone pressed to my ear as I rummaged for the keys, I went straight to my laptop to make the payment — still apologizing to the agent on the line.
Houses can’t be haunted in a world where there are bills to be paid.
But the historical charm of the building suddenly put me on edge: the narrow, creaking stairs and loose floorboards, the dingy lighting and random thumps generated by the old-fashioned radiators. As the afternoon faded toward twilight, I couldn’t hear any of the familiar domestic sounds. I wondered if I’d just assumed them in the first place, or had been outright imagining things.
That evening I turned on all the lights on even before sunset, and kept Georgie close by with the vague idea that he’d defend me if anything happened. He started snorting softly in his sleep, and eventually I dozed.
The singing woke me up sometime after midnight. That melody that I’d found so beautifully haunting now sounded terrifying and ominous. My heart pounded wildly until I finally called out:
“I can hear you.”
The singing stopped. Then the voice picked up again, right where it had left off.
“Please — who’s there?”
No one spoke. But the singing stopped, and didn’t resume. I was close to tears in fear, gripping Georgie so tightly in my arms that he squealed, making me jump. After that, the silence was worse than the singing. I had to break it. The only think I could think of was to say: “I’m sorry.” I repeated it again and again until I passed out, and for the first time in weeks, fell into a dreamless sleep.
The familiar rising of the sun was a glaring contradiction to the ghostly confusions of the night. I took Georgie out for a quick walk, and then set the coffee machine going with trembling hands. I took a long shower.
There were many such mornings to follow.
I woke day after day like this, telling myself that it wasn’t real.
I am a rational person, living in a logical world. I busied myself with work.
One evening in mid-November, as I took the week’s trash out to the bin in the alley behind the building, I was overcome by a sudden impulse. No one was around. I stood on tiptoe and, with my elbows pressing into the window ledge, hoisted myself up to peer into the living room of the first-floor apartment.
I found myself looking into an empty room. Empty, except for a burnt piano waiting in a dark corner.
I haven’t dreamed of fire since moving out.
Emily Paskevics is a writer & editor currently based in Montreal. Her published work includes the chapbook The Night That Was Animal, or Methods in the Art of Rogue Taxidermy (Dancing Girl Press, 2014). Other publications include Hart House Review, Vallum Magazine, Acta Victoriana, CLASH Media, Rogue Agent, OCCULUM, and UofT Magazine. She has worked in literary translation for OOMPH Press, and has contributed to Lola Who, Luna Luna Magazine, and Culture Trip. Follow along @epaskev.