Annie never intended to be a full-time house ghost. It’s not as if there were listings in the paper, all ‘One Ghost Wanted, Relevant Haunting Experience, Please Provide CV.’ She doubts she would have been hired if there had been an interview process. Somebody like Jeffrey Garnett from school would have been a better fit, all mischievous and prone to odd pranks. Annie had never been the sort of person to do much more than occasionally pass illicit notes in class.
Now Annie’s not a person at all. Not really.
The concept’s quite a hard one to grasp. Annie still feels like a person, when she isn’t paying too much attention. Her hands feel like hands. Her hair feels like hair. But Annie’s hair doesn’t grow, and her nails don’t break, and she never needs a wee or a kip or gets a craving for a Chinese, and no one has looked at her in one year and nine months, ever since she fell down the stairs and split her head open on the black and white tile of the entrance hall in her new house.
That cracked tile is really starting to grate on her nonexistent nerves. No one has fixed it yet and the crack just sits there, taunting her, holding corporeal form and being touched. By people. Well, trod upon, by feet, but honestly at this point Annie would give her right hand for that.
Death has turned her into a foot fetishist. Truly the universe is uncaring.
The cleaners come every few weeks. Mostly they're boring, sweeping the kitchen with great massive headphones on. Annie does her best to harangue them, since they are truly rubbish cleaners and always forget to dust the sideboard. Cleaner Amanda switches on the hoover and Annie darts back out of the way; not that she’s likely to get hoovered up or anything.
“Rude,” Annie tells her, folding her arms.
Cleaner Amanda ignores her, like always. “Oi, Michael, when are the new lot moving in?”
Cleaner Michael pokes his head in. “What?”
Cleaner Amanda pitches her voice louder. “When are the new lot moving in?”
Cleaner Michael squints. “Tuesday!”
“Oh, goody,” Annie says. “More hauntees for me. The job never stops.”
Annie stomps up the stairs, which would be terrifying if Cleaner Amanda weren’t still hoovering, and storms into the room she thinks of as hers.
Of course, it’s not hers. Nothing is hers, really. Property rights are not the purview of the transparent. Still, she does her best to make the space as unwelcoming as possible and crosses her fingers that none of them try to turn it into a bedroom — the last tenants who’d done that were Lucy and whats-his-chops, the boyfriend with the video camera. They’d been a fairly easy scare. Didn’t last more than a fortnight.
Annie’s record is three days. She’s very proud.
Honestly, there’s just so much time, being a ghost. Anyone would take up haunting out of sheer boredom.
Although, Annie has also taken up shoplifting. How else is she meant to get blood red paint to threaten her hauntees? It’s not as if they sent round a malevolent spirit kit when she died.
The new people are coming on Tuesday. It’s time to gather her ghosty tools.
By Monday afternoon Annie has acquired blood red paint, a new paintbrush, and HELLO!. Rachel Stevens got married, that bitch. And no one else from S Club 7 were at the ceremony, which is so disappointing. Send a girl on Strictly and she forgets her old friends, apparently.
There’s a bang downstairs, followed by a clatter and a sort of low swearing sound. Annie drops her magazine and creeps over to the stairs — oh, right. Ghost. She pops to the front of the house. A battered removal van sits right in front of the house, and big men are carting boxes through the front door.
“You were meant to be here Tuesday,” Annie says, and pops back inside.
Upstairs, boxes have started to sprout in the bedrooms. Annie sits on the toilet to wait.
“Mitchell, someone left HELLO! in here,” says one voice. “Ooh, look, Rachel off S Club 7 got married. And nobody from the band came?”
“Tell me about it,” mutters Annie. She peers through the cracked door at her new victims. The bloke holding Annie’s magazine is mostly ears and wire-rimmed glasses. The other one is taller and drop dead — ha — gorgeous.
Annie gives them three weeks, tops.
She starts with the old classics: clanking pipes, rattling chains, footsteps in the dark. She doesn’t see her hauntees in the morning, but she’s willing to bet her nonexistent bank account that they’re both a little worse for wear.
Hauntings usually follow a pretty regular script, but what the hell. Annie’s bored and furious and Big Ears stole her magazine. She can speed up the process. They’re out in the morning when Annie gets the paint and scrawls GET OUT on the wall, carefully dabbing the letters so red will drip down like blood.
Then she waits.
Where are these bastards? Oh — Tuesday. Being a ghost is a little like summer holidays, in that Annie can never remember when the weekend is.
Evening has fallen by the time the door finally goes. They’re prattling on about something or other — the house, something. Annie’s just waiting for them to notice the paint. And —
“What the hell is this?”
“Oh my god, is that blood?”
Annie doesn’t wait for a reply. That’s her cue to start chucking things about: a lamp, a few books, an empty mug. Dead, dead, dead. Just like her. Good old Dead Annie, mascot of this fucking house, great for a story they can tell their kids. Scary House Story. Scary House Annie. They won’t even know her name. She’s just a cold patch on the stairs and a sad story the estate agent tells; as depressing and forgettable as a lost birthday card in the rain.
She flings herself into her chair, chest still heaving. She wishes she could just — burn up. Stop existing. This half-life is nothing; it’s for no one. Why is she here? Is this what hell is? Is she being punished for the time she copied off Emily G in geography, has —
“Who the hell are you?”
Annie nearly swallows her tongue. Ears and Handsome stand in the doorway brandishing a cricket bat and an umbrella. They stare right at her. Right at — Annie checks behind her chair. Looks back. They’re still staring.
“Can you see me?” Annie waves her hands around her face. “Oh my god, can you really see me?”
“Of course I can see you,” Ears says, affronted, “We’re going to call the police. Mitchell, call the police!”
“George,” says Mitchell, “Wait —”
“Oh my god,” Annie says, leaping to her feet. If she had anything in her stomach, she’d be sick all over the carpet. “Oh my god, you can see me. You can hear me!”
“Did you write that on the wall? That had better come off!” George is still pointing his cricket bat right at her.
“I can’t believe it.” Annie clutches her face. “Oh my god, I can’t believe it. This is incredible. I’m going to cry; this is incredible!”
“What are you talking about? The police, Mitchell!”
“George, it’s okay,” Mitchell says. He looks right at Annie. “She’s a ghost.”
George lowers his cricket bat.
Annie steps back. They had better not be ghost-bigots. The only people who can see her cannot be ghost-bigots; that would be the last straw. “Your point being?”
“She’s a ghost?” George fixes Mitchell with an indignant stare.
“You can talk to me, you know,” Annie says, crossing her arms. “I’m right here.”
“Mitchell, there are ghosts?”
Mitchell makes a face. “George, you’re a werewolf. You’re talking to a vampire. And you’re surprised about ghosts?”
George sputters. “What else aren’t you telling me about?”
Mitchell turns towards Annie. “You’ve taken that quite well.”
Annie shrugs. “I died and I’m still here. Why wouldn’t I take that well?”
“She reacts better than you do,” Mitchell says. “George here took a lot of convincing. I had to do the whole routine.”
“Oh, for goodness sake,” huffs George. “I am going to check on the paint that our resident ghost has apparently graced us with, if you’ll excuse me.” He leaves with a put-upon sigh, his footsteps stamping all the way down the stairs.
“What’s the whole routine?” Annie perches on the arm of her chair. “Show me the whole routine.”
Mitchell looks off in the distance for a moment, brow furrowed. When he looks back, his pupils have swallowed his irises in bottomless black. Mitchell opens his mouth far enough for sharp teeth to peek through, white glinting in the fading light from the hall.
“Amazing,” says Annie, delighted. “I’m Annie. So pleased to meet you.”
Three days have gone and George has yet to forgive Annie for the paint. He did over it in white and it’s still there, says they’ll have to paint the whole wall now, and it’s not like Annie has any income to pay for repairs. He doesn’t like the paint, and he doesn’t like how many mugs Annie uses, and he doesn’t like how she goes through all the tea faster than he can buy it.
Honestly, Annie will take the irritable haranguing of a nitpicky werewolf any day of the week. She can be seen. She can be heard. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz, and the whole world has gone in colour. Only with more nagging.
“I wouldn’t take it personally,” Mitchell says. He’s sat at the kitchen table, gamely drinking one of Annie’s hot chocolates. “It’s mostly his personality.”
“How long have you been a… you know.” Annie clutches her cup of tea. Sometimes if she concentrates, she thinks she can feel its warmth. “Creature of the night.”
“Creature of the night? What is this, a gothic novel? We going to go run about the moors shrieking, or what?”
“You’d be Cathy,” Annie informs him. “Answer the question.”
Mitchell stares into the depths of his mug. “Since about 1917.”
“Blimey. You’ve lived through most of my history GCSE. What was that like?”
Mitchell’s face goes dark and stormy, all Heathcliff on the moor. Annie figures it’s a trick of his brow-bones. Lucky he has those as a vampire, or he’d be quite sweet looking. “Mostly the insides of shitty flats, I suppose. Same as anyone.”
“I always liked the sixties,” Annie says, undeterred. “Swinging London, Twiggy, all those cute little miniskirts? Oh, Mitchell, did you wear, like, silk scarves and loud trousers and all that?”
“Skinny ties and Beatles hair, baby.” Mitchell leans back in his chair, smile cheeky. “I’d show you pictures but, you know. Vampire.”
“At least you can change with the times. I —” Annie falls silent. Another hundred years and she could still be here in the same grey leggings, all of history happening somewhere else. The only way she’d be able to stay with the times would be through house renovations. Hobs through the ages: the Annie Sawyer story. “How do you survive it? How do you keep… Going?”
“What’s the alternative?” Mitchell leans forward, his eyes large and soft. “I don’t know, Annie. We try to make a life, I suppose. One day at a time.”
“I just wish I could change clothes. What if we go through another Swinging London? I’d look completely out of place!”
“Cheer up, grumpy. Think of the positives, eh? Like television. Do you know how many channels I used to have? None. Because they hadn’t invented telly yet. Having telly? Loads better than not having telly.”
“Oh, shut it, you.” Annie’s cup of tea has cooled. She puts it next to the sink and stares at all the mugs. “Stop moping about and help me with the washing up.”
As they get through the army of mugs, Mitchell’s shoulder bumps up against Annie’s, companionably. He’s not warm, but it helps all the same.
George gets home in a foul mood, and he doesn’t so much as notice or appreciate how nearly all the mugs are clean.
“Nearly all the mugs are clean, George,” Annie points out, helpfully.
“I can see about seven in use, right now."
“I said nearly.” Annie crosses her arms. “You’ve got to work on your positive thinking. You’re a real glass empty sort of bloke, aren’t you?”
George's nose turns up. “I think that’s my business, thank you.”
“We’re housemates, George, I just want to get to know you a bit better. Like, did you know that Mitchell used to wear silk scarves in the sixties?”
“What are you doing asking Mitchell about the sixties?”
“I was curious, George — Ooh, Curious George!”
“Like I’ve never heard that one before.”
“Oh, stop. Mitchell answers my questions.”
“Well, you have some sort of dead bond! Where you are both dead!”
“Rude,” Annie says. “Deadist of you.” She slumps in her chair, folding her arms tightly over her chest. “I said I was sorry about the paint.”
George’s eyes get a squirrelly cast and he glances at her in aborted apology. “Listen, it’s not… Personal. I just feel like one should choose one’s housemates.”
“Like I got a choice with mine?”
George’s hands still. “Fair point.”
“See?” Annie leans forward and fixes her eyes on George’s. He’s going to look right at her if she has to move his eyeballs herself. “We’re all in this together.”
“Isn’t that an American musical song?” His eyes meet her with an almost physical click.
Annie nearly claps with glee. “A joke! George, you made a joke! To me!”
“Don’t go on about it.” George looks away. “Now, let’s see about these nearly all entirely clean mugs, shall we?”
“Annie,” Mitchell says one evening. “Why were you trying to haunt us?”
The telly is on in a soothing, background sort of way, and Annie fancies it would be chilly enough for a cozy blanket if she could feel the air.
Annie shrugs. “Isn’t that in the job description? What else does a ghost do, but haunt?”
George squints at the ceiling. “That is… almost a fair point.”
“No, really.” Annie stands up and goes to the window. She puts her palm to the glass and thinks about saunas, about summer, about how her forehead would sweat in a hot bath. Fog grows silvery wet around her fingers, and she pulls her hand away. “You see? That’s all — that’s all I am now. People don’t see me. They see the space around me.”
“We see you,” Mitchell says. “Annie, we can see you now.”
“I know,” she says. “That’s what’s so incredible.” Annie’s handprint fades away. “Before you came, though, I just couldn’t… Me and Owen had just moved in. This was my first house, my first grown up house, and we were going to be married. I thought maybe we’d have our first baby here. We talked about which room would be the nursery, and how we’d redo the kitchen, and then I went and died.”
Mitchell and George are looking right at her. She can feel their eyes almost physically, like a hand to her elbow, but Annie can’t look back.
“These new people would come in and talk about their kitchen and their entrance hall, and… this is my house,” Annie says, fist clenched. “Mine. I don’t have anything else.”
“You have a sort of… cardigan thingy.” George wavers his fingers over his own arms, creating the shape of her cardigan thingy.
“And comfy slippers,” Mitchell adds. His eyes crinkle so warm no one would believe how cold he is to the touch.
“Some form of, I suppose, vest?” George mimes a vest this time, looking more like he’s stroking invisible long braids. It is entirely possible George does not understand vests.
“Lovely hair,” says Mitchell.
“About four hundred cold cups of tea,” says George.
“Some hideously handsome housemates.”
George furrows his brow. “Why do you emphasise hideous, Mitchell? Whilst looking straight at me? Bit rude, don’t you think?”
Mitchell shrugs with one shoulder and the lower half of his face. “Not really.”
“You are both twats,” Annie announces, flopping over onto the sofa.
“But we’re your twats,” Mitchell adds, ingratiating smile plastered all over his infuriating face. “Makes you proud, right?”
“Awfully.” Annie hides her face so they don’t see her grinning. It wouldn’t do them any good to feel like they could get her out of a strop that easily.
Annie Sawyer died two years ago. Her hair doesn’t grow, and her nails don’t break, and she has a hole in her leggings for all eternity. She died two years ago and sometimes, on dimly sunny mornings when George and Mitchell squabble over nothing, Annie thinks she has never been quite so happy.
Afterlives are confusing that way.