When Alex first met Kyle seven years ago, she’d been living in the apartment for only a few months. At the time she was still adjusting to the building’s quirks, and this one seemed to have more than most.
The lights often flickered, as if disrupted by a storm—except the flickering always seemed to happen on perfectly clear nights. There was also a half-hour period once a week where she inexplicably had no phone service or Wi-Fi, rendering her unable to browse the Internet or successfully send a single text message. The man on the phone had unhelpfully suggested waiting it all out, seeing if things stopped on their own. But they didn’t.
If Alex had known anyone in the building, she might have asked around about it all. It’s true that strange experiences feel less lonely when shared. But the only reason she knew any of her neighbors’ names was because their mail had been delivered to her box by mistake, and her closest connection in the city was with the boy who delivered her Thai food every Thursday night.
As time passed, she began to think of these incidents as little reminders—environmental suggestions to put her phone down, to look out the window, to go to sleep on time. Every place she’d lived had had its own distinct personality—the lightly spectral howls of a hundred-year-old house shifting, a dorm room closet that occasionally opened on its own. This was no different, she told herself. And anyway, that view! Incredible. Unmatched. Nothing beat sipping her morning French roast while gazing through the bay windows at her own personal patch of blue. She had been lucky to get the place, the realtor had assured her repeatedly. And so Alex tried to feel lucky. Until Kyle showed up.
She hadn’t been expecting anyone else that evening, as her pad thai had already been delivered. It was only after she’d said hello to the intercom that she realized she would have been well within her rights to ignore the buzzer, since it was probably a mistake anyway. But an unfamiliar male voice was already filtering into her living room.
As she would later realize, a side effect of Kyle’s confidence was that he was actually very bad at explaining why he needed to be somewhere if the other person didn’t agree with him; he also spoke slightly too fast to be comfortably understood through the dated technology they were using to communicate. The gist seemed to be that a relative of his had lived in the unit before her, but he’d never had the chance to visit and so he wanted to see the place now.
A completely plausible reason to enter someone’s unit—if you’re a murderer, Alex thought dryly. And so she cut over him, in a rare moment of assertiveness, to tell him that she didn’t see why she had any obligation to invite him up.
This was the moment that he stopped and took a deep breath and said, in a very quiet voice, “Look, I’m really sorry to bother you. I just . . . my brother’s dead. He was my brother. He lived in your unit. And now he’s dead. And I just want to—”
Something clicked into place. No one had ever satisfactorily explained to her why this unit, with its ideal location and excellent view, was so abruptly available. It was the kind of apartment that people spent the rest of their lives in. Which it sounded the previous owner had, Alex realized uncomfortably.
She wondered if the dead brother had also had the issues with outages. She couldn’t deny that this stranger had triggered a certain morbid curiosity within her, the kind that also motivated her to listen to recorded conversations between pairs of women discussing grisly murders and violent serial killers and, in general, different ways you could be unexpectedly killed as a woman who lived alone, while she sauteed vegetables in olive oil or washed her hair.
“I’ll come down,” she said to the intercom.
Moments later she saw him for the first time. A very tall man stooped slightly in the vestibule to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling, surrounded by the familiar monochrome rows of tenant mailboxes. He was wearing a gray hoodie, a beat-up cardboard box placed at his feet, and there was something undeniably young about him despite his height. Something in his eyes, she thought.
As she entered the vestibule, she scrunched her shoulders against the chill, arms folded tightly against her ribcage. A neighbor she hadn’t met before—a squat man in a beanie who looked vaguely familiar—shuffled past without a second look.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” the tall man said, in the apologetic way that people are often inclined to backpedal once they have a face to put to a name. “I’ve been trying to get back for months now. I was teaching English in Japan. It’s a long story. And not very interesting, either. I won’t bore you with it.”
Alex pulled her cardigan tighter, suppressing a shiver. “I don’t have,” she began. “I mean, I don’t know how I can—none of his things are here. They were all gone when I moved in.” She paused. “I’m so sorry.”
No one had shared anything emotional with her in months; all of the tragedy she’d consumed had been at a distance, through various screens. Despite herself, she found a great rush of sympathy streaming out of her body toward him, almost physical in its intensity. A single person’s tragedy, right before her in the flesh.
“No, I know,” he said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “My parents came and got everything. That’s not why I’m here. Oh god.”
He paused and looked over at a spot on the wall near the ceiling, which was considerably closer to him than her. Alex followed his gaze, clocking the splotchy brown water stain. She tried to identify a recognizable shape, as she did with clouds when she was younger. But mostly she found herself wondering whether its existence meant there was a leak to worry about.
She looked back down again. He pushed his hands deeper into the pocket of his hoodie, so that the fabric pulled taut across his chest. He seemed nervous, as she had been. But for a different reason.
“Fuck, I’ll just say it,” he sighed. “I, ah . . . I think he might still be there. In some capacity.”
Alex felt the great wave of empathy evaporate suddenly into a stark, intense jolt of regret—regret for coming down, for engaging a stranger, for answering the intercom at all. She took an automatic step back. Her longest conversation since moving here was with a man who believed in ghosts.
Not for the first time she had a sudden flash of the different ways a man might kill her. Maybe there was a gun in the box at his feet. An axe. A chainsaw.
“Sorry. Fuck. I knew it was a long shot.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Goddamn it. I know this is weird, I’m so sorry. Fuck.” He paused again and took stock of his actions. “And now I’m just like, cursing at you. Shit. I mean—sorry. God. I just. He was my brother. Today’s his birthday. I don’t know. I had to try.”
He pulled his hands out of the hoodie, palms facing her. He looked close to tears.
“Look, I’ll just say this. What he and I had always promised each other, right, is that whoever died first would try and get a sign to the other, if there was a way. When we agreed to that, I didn’t think he was going to fucking kill himself at twenty-five, but he did. And before he died, we’d had this theory that maybe you’d be able to manipulate technology, electricity, the currents. . . .”
He moved his arms around, tracing the air rapidly with his fingers, as if to help her visualize a river.
“Anyway, he was always smart about that stuff. So I thought maybe when he died, he got stuck in the walls of the apartment he lived in. Which is yours now. God. I’m sorry. I’m probably making you so uncomfortable.”
Alex didn’t respond immediately. She’d often wondered whether such acknowledgements really made anything better—to recognize that you were actively responsible for creating a negative environment but doing nothing to stop it. What was the point of saying anything at all?
Another person entered the vestibule, passing between them this time, due to the space Alex had created earlier by backing away. She was a woman with a short brunette bob whom Alex had also never spoken to. Instead of going the way the man in the beanie had, though, the woman paused before the door and looked over, tilting her head in a private way, as if to ask, You good?
Alex thought of the flickering lights, the service outages. Hands moving like a current. People who might still have things they wanted to say, if they were only given the chance.
Alex was twenty-five too.
She nodded at the woman, adding a soft smile, and the woman left.
“So I know this is a huge ask,” Kyle finished, seemingly unaware of the exchange that had just occurred. “But can I come up for a minute?”
He nudged the box at his feet.
“I brought something that could help.”
And that was how it all started. Alex had since made a handful of acquaintances, mostly through work and apps, but never once had she mentioned Kyle to any of them. She knew what it would sound like, after all.
Yes, once a year the brother of the man who killed himself in my apartment pays me a visit and we perform a pseudo-technopagan ritual in hope of receiving a message from said dead brother.
Which we do, in fact. Receive a message, I mean.
Some obligatory googling after Kyle’s first visit did turn up the fact that he’d had a brother who died “suddenly,” in the coded language sometimes employed by obituary writers to mask the fact of suicide. Though weren’t all deaths sudden at the end of the day, Alex thought as she scrolled in the dark. Alive one moment and gone the next.
The date of death listed was barely a month before she’d moved in, the contemplation of which made her nauseous. The conscious knowledge that someone had experienced such abject despair in that very room. And as she sat there alone in the apartment that night, with the gentle glow of her laptop screen connecting her ever so tenuously to this whole world of other people’s pain, for a moment what Kyle had claimed didn’t feel so impossible.
Didn’t it make sense that certain things like that might linger—like a scent, like smoke—even after the source had gone? That some essential fragment of that person might endure?
Alex was reminded of walking into her mother’s bedroom for the first time after the last heart attack, being hit so hard with that familiar smell—notes of her beloved eucalyptus perfume and something else, something stronger, something like the scent of her mother’s hair after every morning swim—that it had driven her to her knees right there beside the still-unmade bed. As if her brain had short-circuited altogether, completely incapable of comprehending that her mother was gone when so much of her remained in the spaces that had belonged to her.
Months passed, but the encounter never quite reached the bizarre anecdote status where she felt comfortable regaling someone with the tale during after-work drinks. Instead, Kyle’s visit existed in that ephemeral space where quiet and private things remained. Alex couldn’t explain it, but she felt as if telling anyone else about what had happened would hurt Kyle and his brother in some way. Wherever they were.
So she never told anyone, but she didn’t forget either. And then he showed up again one year later.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” came the voice through the intercom, “but—”
She’d buzzed him up, of course, and he’d come in as he had the year before, holding the same box containing the same fax machine.
He was still teaching, this time in Bosnia. Kyle didn’t like to stay in one place for very long. He felt at home everywhere, he told her. And, indeed, he seemed to feel very comfortable in the apartment, though he’d only visited once while his brother was alive.
On the night of that second visit, they positioned her various scented candles in a circle around the fax machine as they had the first time, and as they were doing this he asked about her job. Alex understood that she had a choice about how to approach the whole thing, now that the event was repeating itself: she could dwell in the unadulterated bizarreness of it all, allowing her responses to effuse a stilted discomfort, or she could release that part of herself and surrender to the weirdness. This wistful pipe dream of connection.
Some people volunteer at soup kitchens, she’d found herself thinking. I help a lonely man talk to his brother. Like a very specific kind of medium.
He’d left with another printout, but before he went he apologized for showing up unannounced again and asked whether it was all right if he returned the following year on the same day. And she’d said yes, of course, for how could she say no, really, didn’t the whole thing give her a little bit of hope, a renewed belief in what was possible?
Throughout the ensuing years, she’d looked for other signs that the brother was trying to communicate. Kyle hadn’t talked much about what his brother had been like but did mention that he was quiet, like her. Worked with computers, like her. Spent his time hiking on the weekends, a hobby that she did not share but could imagine herself enjoying.
In this way, Alex crafted a persona based on the scant memories Kyle shared with her. Peeked up from her laptop now and again to consider whether a message might be hidden in the Morse code flickering of the lights. And rather than moving through the same circuitous loops of bad news, she began to open new windows. Clicked hyperlink after hyperlink and allowed the possibility of a new future to unfurl before her. Until one day the question What would he do? became What might I do? and this time, she knew the answer.
And so Alex inched closer and closer to the idea of real change until one day, against all odds, something did.
Kyle’s first order of business was to remove his shoes. He knelt down to untie the laces—head bent, fingers moving deftly—and then he walked deeper into the living room in his mismatched socks: one striped in black and white, the other a periwinkle blue printed with small green frogs.
Alex found herself lingering in the entryway, watching her guest take stock of the last year’s changes. A small collection of objects lay waiting on the coffee table: several slender white prayer candles, unlined paper, a lighter, and one very worn photograph of a young man with dark brown hair. A crease from repeated folds ran down the center of his face, splitting him in half.
“I don’t like what you’ve done with the couch,” Kyle pronounced finally. “Everything else looks nice, though.”
Alex rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.
“You understand you don’t live here, right?”
He turned from the bay windows and grinned at her. “I know. I just like to offer my opinion.”
She laughed, clasping the sharp points of her elbows. Kyle sat, pushing the coffee table further out to accommodate his height.
“Where are you teaching right now?” She took a seat beside him.
“You’ll never guess.” He started rearranging the candles. “Chicago.”
“Really?” Alex was surprised. It was the first time he’d responded with a place on the same continent.
“Yeah. I just, ah. I missed certain things. About this shitty country.” He offered a lopsided shrug of his broad shoulders, his eyes flicking briefly to hers and then away.
“Go figure,” he added wryly.
She didn’t say anything for a moment, busying herself with the lighter. Each flame sputtered a bit at first, then burned valiantly into the surrounding darkness. After she was finished, Kyle leaned forward and said the same thing he always did, inviting his brother into the space if he was present, letting him know that he should feel comfortable with Alex here, too, that she was a friend.
Friend, she thought, turning the word over in her mind.
“Do you ever think it’s weird,” she said, following the continued impulse to say whatever came to her. “Doing this on his birthday?”
Kyle shrugged. “I dunno. I guess I feel like it’s a way of retroactively being there for him? He spent a few birthdays alone, toward the end. I left the second I could, and uh. Our parents weren’t really around.” He cleared his throat. “But, you know, the right thing to do would’ve been to be there for all the birthdays when he was still alive. Even one alone is too many. Although, I come up here and bother you once a year, when you didn’t even know him. I guess this whole thing is kind of selfish.”
“You don’t,” Alex said automatically.
“Bother me,” she said, flushing.
“Oh.” Kyle looked at his hands. “That’s good.”
“And it’s not your fault, you know,” she added quickly, though the clichéd nature of the platitude made her grimace. “I just. I don’t know if anyone ever said that to you.”
They both faced forward again, as Alex did on so many of her nights alone in the apartment, but instead of the television, they gazed at the fax machine. Of all the old-fashioned, outdated technology, she thought. Now they just had to wait.
But Alex didn’t know how to sit in silence without saying what she had to say.
“Kyle. I’m not—I’m not going to be here next year.”
“What do you mean?” he said sharply.
“Oh. I mean, I’m not dying or anything.” She laughed nervously, then winced. “Sorry. I—I’m moving.”
“Moving?” He turned away from the machine, looking at her.
“Yeah, actually. I, uh. I’m going back to school. I’m going to be a teacher.”
He looked at her in surprise, clearly inviting explanation.
But how to explain the last year? How she had talked out loud all the time—maybe to the brother, maybe just to herself. Realizing she might have more in common with the brother who’d died than the one who had lived. Thinking about the dreams she’d had when she was younger, how they had all shifted toward practicality over time. Maybe she had lost something along the way.
And yet, there had been a single point of light that never wavered in the back of her mind. An imagined version of herself she treasured. She dreamed of being in a room full of people and feeling like she belonged, like in the stories Kyle had shared over the years. That thrilling ping-pong bounce of communication with greater purpose.
Her mother had been a teacher too.
“I guess you might’ve given me the idea,” she admitted, laughing at her own earnestness. “It’s stupid. Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know. But, I mean, I thought you should know. That when you come back next year . . . I won’t be here.”
“Wow,” he said, nodding. “Yeah, I mean. I guess that makes sense. People move on. I’m really happy for you, Alex. That’s great news.”
“What will you do?” she persisted, both wanting and not wanting to hear the answer.
Kyle leaned forward, staring at one of the candles, reaching out to touch the tip of the flame with his fingers.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Come back here a year from now, I guess, and try to explain it all to the next person.”
He sighed and threw himself back into the couch, looking out the window.
“I don’t know why the hell he chose to live here, of all places. Sometimes it feels like the loneliest city in the world.”
“You can feel lonely anywhere,” she said. “Maybe it’s about what you do with that feeling.”
The machine in front of them interrupted with a series of high-pitched beeps. A green light flashed, and the printing began. They both watched as a single piece of paper chugged slowly through the yellowed machine. The message came through, line by line, and then was finally laid to rest in the flimsy plastic tray. But Kyle didn’t reach for it immediately.
“Hey Alex,” he began hesitantly. “Uh. Is it all right if I visit you? Wherever it is that you’re going to go.”
She looked over at him. “Your brother won’t be there, though.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”
“Oh!” Alex flushed again. “Oh! Of course.”
For she hadn’t ever really imagined a world where they stopped seeing each other on this particular day in October. Maybe on other days too.
They both faced forward again, smiling softly. After a minute had passed, Alex spoke.
“Kyle. I’ve always wondered. Can I see what it says?”
All the previous years she’d never asked, never looked too closely, reminding herself that the message was for Kyle, that she was only a conduit—not even her, really, but the apartment. And the correspondence was private, between brothers. But it was impossible to deny that she was curious.
Kyle nodded and without a word passed the paper over to her, his fingers grazing hers. On the page was a seemingly random jumble of numbers and letters, filling the sheet from top to bottom. She looked up at his face and back down at the paper again.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Is it a code?”
He blinked. “No, it’s not a code. Not one that I know, anyway.”
“But,” she said. “Is this what it looks like every year?”
“What does it mean?”
“Well,” he said. “The person who receives the message is the one who gives it meaning, right?” He leaned forward and blew out two of the candles in quick succession.
“So it means whatever you want it to mean. Either someone’s out there, and it’s my brother, he’s telling me he’s here, and he still loves me and he’s always loved me. Or, it’s all random, and it’s just some weird glitch happening to an outdated piece of technology, and it means nothing.”
He blew out another flame.
“These messages don’t answer the questions I have,” he continued. “They don’t really give me any new information. But I never expected them to. I know why he did it, in a way, but also, I don’t know. I’ll never know exactly what was going through his mind that night.”
Another candle. Another.
“You can think whatever you want, in the end,” Kyle said. “I know what I believe. Maybe all that matters is that we were here, tonight, together, and it came to us. Like a notification from the afterlife. A note to say hello, I’m here.”
All of the candles had been extinguished; thin cords of smoke spiraled through the air in the absence of flame. Kyle rose from the couch.
Alex had tears in her eyes that she couldn’t explain or understand. In that moment—though she knew, rationally, that it was impossible—she was sure she smelled eucalyptus and chlorine.
She held the message out to Kyle, but he just smiled and pushed her hand back.
“You keep that one, Alex. I’ll see you next year.”
Rumpus original art by Peter Witte