Little was known about the tenant of apartment 3B at 1621 Winamac Drive, but one word came to the mind of every neighbor she passed: strange.
“Such an odd girl,” Mrs. O'Leary of 2B would remark with the trembling voice of a woman who had lived long and seen much. “She never has company. Seems afraid of her own shadow.”
“Always got her face shoved in that notebook of hers,” Mr. O'Leary might add with disdain.
“I hear her talking to herself sometimes but I mean, I do that too, you know? Who doesn’t? She seems shy. I wish I could talk to her,” Josh Madison of 3A told his friends upon her arrival to the building. “She’s always wearing a scarf, like she’s cold all the time. And, and, the way she pushes her glasses up is just so… it’s so…”
He would trail off around the time his friends made fun of him for crushing on the weird neighbor girl.
The girl in question was oblivious to Josh’s pining. She moved through life oblivious to most things. Her bubble was safe and private. Push papers by day; pour over a new book by night. Until one fall evening, along the banks of the Chicago River, when her fate would change.
She liked to sit by the Riverwalk at dusk and sketch figures in her notebook: lovers intertwined, large men with tiny dogs, children whose arms had outgrown their coats.
That evening, it was unusually quiet. The temperature had taken a sudden drop. Without people nearby, she drew some of the freshly fallen leaves piling up around her. It would be her first autumn in the new place at Winamac. She couldn’t wait to see the maple by her window turn vivid shades of red.
But the wicked wind seeped through her cardigan, forcing her to admit defeat and turn home. Her distracted eyes did not see the bottle under her feet - they met the sky as she felt gravity give way. Her head connected with cold concrete. Next came the shock of freezing water.
Her knit cardigan soaked up water at frightening speed. She was seeing stars and thrashing wildly, her mind repeating, “Take it off! Take it off!” Every attempt to pull herself up the embankment left her dizzier than before. Darkness closed in quickly to numb her panicked senses.
She moved through the following day in more of a bubble than usual. Nothing made sense. She couldn’t remember the night before. Whole chunks of time would go missing. There was only the apartment. And her notebook… her poor notebook. Its thick black shell had put up a fight, but every one of her drawings had a smudged out quality. At times she believed the charcoal strokes dripped down each page, freshly destroyed all over again.
As her world unraveled, Josh Madison of 3A hatched a plan to introduce himself. It would be cool and casual. A meet cute by the mailboxes.
The next day, their timing aligned. He was coming down as she was coming in. She never so much as glanced at her pile of old mail on the ground, busy scribbling something in her notebook.
Her face jolted upward. Josh waited for a response. She only blinked.
“I’m Josh. I live across the hall?”
Her brows furrowed as her mouth tried to form around words.
Josh ran a hand through his hair with discomfort.
“Um… take what?”
“Take it… take it off.” He laughed in spite of himself.
She did not look amused. In fact, she didn’t look anything. She moved as though he didn’t exist.
“Wait! Wait, I’m sorry, I don’t understand! I’ve been wanting to introduce myself before now, I just- I never had the guts. I think you’re really cute. And you seem so nice.”
Recognition sparked in her eyes as she finally looked at him.
“Yeah! Maybe a little shy.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m your neighbor! You know, in 3A? I’ve waved a couple times.”
She nodded dimly.
“Oh. Hello.” She gave him a small smile before proceeding up the stairs. Josh collected his mail, bounding up after her.
“So would you want to grab coffee sometime?”
She fiddled with keys outside her door, dropping her notebook in the process. It opened to a page filled with names: women’s names scrawled out in childlike handwriting.
Josh reached for the unsettling pages but his neighbor snapped it up, clutching it tightly to her chest.
“Tea?” she asked him.
“Sure, yeah, we could have tea.”
“At your place?” She nodded. “Okay, why not?”
The inside of her apartment was cozy and tidy, albeit sparse. She walked in and sat down on a loveseat in front of the TV. Josh awkwardly stood in the doorway.
“I can put the kettle on,” he volunteered.
“Oh! Yes, thank you.”
He placed the bright yellow kettle over a burner before joining her on the couch.
“So… I still don’t know your name,” Josh said with as much casualty as he could muster. Her face froze in fear.
“I’m Josh, and you are?”
“I’m… I’m…” She pulled out her notebook and whipped it back open to the page of names. “I’m one of these.”
Josh released one awkward “HA” into the air. She started to cry.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry. It’s just… you’re serious?”
“I can’t remember,” she whispered.
“You can’t remember your name?”
She shook her head, covering her face. Josh watched her shoulders begin to shake.
“Please don’t cry! It’ll be alright.” He moved to touch her shoulder, a gesture of comfort, but his hand could not connect. He felt an unbearable cold creep up his arm.
His hand had disappeared into her body.
Josh fell off the loveseat in a confused scramble of limbs.
The kettle began its shrill shriek.
“I don’t… I don’t…” she said, looking at him with pain in her eyes.
“You… my hand… you’re...” Josh started to say.
“It was so cold. I’m so cold.”
“What was cold?”
The kettle shrieked.
“The water… I think-”
“I think you-”
“Why can’t I remember?”
“I think you’re dead.”
The kettle stopped shrieking. The lights flickered.
“What did you say?”
She sank onto the floor next to him, no longer in a daze.
“Try to touch me.” Josh swallowed and braced himself for the bitter cold as her hand passed through his arm. He expected her to panic but her face remained unchanged.
“But what’s my name?” she asked sadly.
“I don’t know. But I know how to find out,” he said with sudden determination. “I’ll be right back.”
He sprinted from the apartment, afraid to stop moving and reconsider all that had just transpired. After nearly falling down the stairs, he found himself back at the mailboxes. As he retrieved 3B’s mail, the outer door opened. He gasped from the blast of cool air and the sight of his ghostly neighbor walking in. She did not acknowledge him; her nose was back in the little black notebook.
He realized, with horror, that she was stuck in a loop.
“Olivia Johnson. Your name is Olivia Johnson.” An electric bill trembled in his hand.
Olivia turned to him, her face lit up in a brilliant smile of relief.
“That’s my name! And you’re Josh and you think I’m nice!” She collapsed onto the stairs, crying once more in front of her handsome neighbor. She could not believe she had never noticed him before.
“I do… or… I did?” he said gently, sitting on the step beside her.
“I’m really dead?”
“I think so, Olivia.”
“I hit my head and fell in the river… I couldn’t get out. So dizzy… I couldn’t see.”
“I’m so sorry.” Josh instinctively tried to hold her hand before realizing his mistake. “Are you still cold?”
“I feel warmer with you here.” Such a sentence would’ve made her blush in the past. “How can you see me?”
“I don’t know, but we’d better get back upstairs,” Josh suggested. They returned to her apartment and discussed the eve of her demise. She told him everything she could remember and didn’t stop there.
Words poured out of her. She told him about her sketches. Her first kiss. She told him that her favorite color was yellow because it could brighten any room. That her father had died just three years prior. That she had been terribly lonely.
Josh listened to it all with bittersweet ease. He could listen to her talk all night.
“It feels so nice - sharing this stuff with you,” Olivia admitted after a while. “Thank you for listening.”
“Well, I couldn’t announce that you’re dead and leave.” She winced. “That was a terrible joke, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m here because I want to be. Because you deserve to be heard. I think… I think that’s why I could see you. I wanted to see you.”
“It all slipped away in a second,” she said in a quavering voice. “Why me?”
“I wish I knew… I wish I had talked to you sooner,” Josh said, his voice cracking.
“I wish I had waved back.”
There was an excruciating silence.
“What would you do tomorrow if you could?” Olivia asked him. Josh shifted on his couch cushion.
“This sounds kind of dumb… I should say go skydiving or see the Taj Mahal or something, right? But I’ve always thought about opening my own little café bookstore deal, the kind that has open mic nights and gross poetry readings, you know?”
Olivia beamed. “That isn’t dumb at all! There’s nothing better than sipping on something warm with a good book. Except maybe drawing.”
“Staying up talking with a beautiful girl,” Josh said before he could stop himself.
“I would’ve sketched your clientele,” she replied.
“I would’ve provided endless tea.”
“You should find a way to make it happen.”
“Not with student loans eating away my savings. That dream’s on the shelf for a while.” Josh’s mouth formed a hard line.
“Well, take it from me. Don’t keep it there too long.” She waited for him to hold her gaze.
“What will you do now?” Josh asked carefully.
“What my Dad did for me when he passed.” The corner of her mouth twitched into a secret, knowing smile.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll see…” Olivia glanced at the oven clock. “3 am. You tired yet?”
“A little... are you?” Her eyebrow quirked up. “Sorry, didn’t think. Do ghosts sleep?” he asked.
“Guess we’ll find out.” She looked to her bedroom. “Will you stay with me?”
“As long as you need.”
They curled up face to face under her patchwork quilt, longing to share the touch of warm skin and hear the slow, steady breaths of sleep.
She watched him drift off.
“You deserve to be heard, too.”
He awoke to an empty bed, the little black notebook placed carefully on the pillow beside him. He knew she was gone.
He thumbed through the crinkled pages - past the smudged figures and leaves and scrawled names - until he found a new entry. The handwriting had obviously been a struggle for her, but the picture below was as delicate and lovely as her smile.
Olivia had drawn the inside of a darling café, replete with shelves of books and starry-eyed customers. Josh noted a familiar aproned figure delivering a teacup to a woman whose face remained hidden behind a book.
He recognized the handwritten message from Hamlet. “To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death what dreams may come.”
As he peered closer, a piece of paper unceremoniously fell to the colorful quilt. It was a check from Miss Olivia Johnson made out to Mr. Josh Madison. His breath caught in his chest. It was a check for $20,000. “For dreams” the note line read.