In the stairwell, he said hello to the pictures. They were all generic décor-shop prints, some flowers, some ships. But he said hello to all of them every evening before going in, a ritual that brought him calm, made him feel something like a boy again. There were never any names; just, hello, hello, hello.
The door was locked, as usual. He slid in his key and clicked the lock and pushed in the door and there it was: home. The pale vanilla walls and the chestnut futon and the shelf full of photos from their vacations. The scene warmed his chest a little, even though he hated the futon.
She was sitting on it, watching television. The screen was filled with crisp, bright images of women wrestlers in neon outfits, taunting one another in the middle of a wrestling ring.
“Hey,” she said.
“Yo,” he said, locking the door. He went into the kitchen and poured a glass of water and then opened the cupboard and took out a bottle of Wild Turkey.
“How was your day,” she asked, turning away for a second from her show.
“Okay,” he said, pouring whiskey. He went and sat beside her. He drank his whiskey in two sips, then got up to get another one.
“How about yours?” he said, pouring.
“Good,” she said.
“What’s happening,” he asked, sitting down again, his leg touching hers. “On the show.”
“There’s going to be a fight,” she said.
“Isn’t that the point?” he said.
“No,” she said. “This is a drama. It’s not real.”
“Oh,” he said.
The show ended. He didn’t know how it had finished. He’d been looking variously at the glowing brick of his phone or at a reflection on the window, the lamplit scene of the two of them sitting side-by-side on the couch. There was light in every direction. He sighed.
“I think I’m gonna go to bed,” she said. “Pretty beat.”
“Cool,” he said. “See you in a bit.” He picked up the remote and flicked the channels, looking for something good, maybe real professional wrestling. She kissed him on the forehead, then went into the bedroom and closed the door, but not all the way.
It was later than he thought, or felt that way. He turned down the lights so she could sleep better. Another drink then, he thought; and then he poured it and drank it, and poured another, but he was quiet so as not to wake her.
In the chair again, he smiled and raised a glass to the television when professional wrestling came on.
He was lost in the screen when he heard the key slide into the lock and turn and click it open. What, he thought. He looked over at the door. It opened and she walked in, wearing work clothes, a grey business suit that matched the deep wells under her eyes.
“Hey,” she said. “Sorry I’m late.”
He frowned, his brow pinched into a knot. He looked at the crack of the bedroom door, then at the television. Someone was getting a suplex. He looked back at her.
“Um,” he said. He was wavering, slipping between theories: he was too drunk, he’d passed out and was already asleep and dreaming. He had no idea how to respond. “How was your day?” he said, in a shaky voice.
“Long,” she said, putting down her briefcase by the door and sliding off her jacket. “Yours?”
“Okay,” he said. He looked at his whiskey. There was still a lot left. He drank it in one shot, feeling it crawl down his chest.
“I’m beat,” she said, plonking down beside him with a glass of cold white wine already in hand. “What’s on?”
“Wrestling,” he said.
“Oh,” she said.
He looked at the reflection in the window again. They were both there, visible, translucent.
“I think I’m going to go to bed, though,” he said. “I’m exhausted.” That was it: he was just tired, too tired.
“Okay,” she said. “’Night.”
He kissed her on the head, right where her hair parted, smelling the realness of her, hints of cinnamon and cherry and sweat.
At the door to the bedroom, he paused. His heartbeat thumped like a kick drum in his chest. His whole body was tensed and sweaty. He looked back at her and shook his head. There was nothing wrong. He was being completely irrational.
He pushed open the door to the darkened room. In the wan green light cast by the moon through the window, her side of the bed lay empty, barely rumpled. On his side, laid out like a neoprene wetsuit, was a flattened-out sheathing of skin in his image, as though he’d shed a layer of himself in the morning upon rising, which was waiting for him to return.
Coming up the stairs, she lamented the hour. It was much too late; she’d been working too much, it had to stop. She put the key in the lock and turned it until it clicked. She opened the door, expecting to walk into a quiet house, but the TV was on—pro wrestling, the volume turned low—even though the room was empty.
“Hello?” she said. There was no answer. He must have gone to bed and forgotten to turn off the TV. She opened the fridge and took out a bottle of Chardonnay and poured a glass. The remote was lying on the futon and she went over to click through the channels. As she sat down she heard a murmur outside the door.
What? she thought. It was indistinct, but easy enough to make out the words: hello, hello, hello.
She got up, slowly, and put her wine glass on the table. As carefully as she could, she made her way to the door, taking note to make sure she’d locked it. Moving in from the side, she slid her eye over the peephole to get a glimpse.
But there was no one there: she looked out on an empty stairwell, nothing but cheap framed pictures under the skittish light.
The stress was getting to her. She turned back to the living room and saw that she’d been wrong about the TV. The scene had changed and the wrestlers were now talking to each other like normal people. It wasn’t wrestling at all, but a show about wrestling, a documentary or a drama.
She sighed, and as her shoulders settled she noticed the dome of a blond head cresting the upper edge of the futon’s overstuffed cushion. The ponytail, with its bright red hair tie, gave it away.
She was looking at herself from behind, as though she’d never moved from the futon. In two places at once. Or separated somehow, elements of the whole divided into faded halves.
Hello, she thought. Hello. Hello. Hello.
It happened when they were doing dishes together. He was washing, she drying. The radio was on, jazz music playing low. As he scrubbed the crust from a skillet, the roach came out of the drain and crawled up onto the counter, making for the fruit bowl.
“Oh, gross! Kill it!” she said.
He took the soapy skillet and smacked it down onto the roach’s body and then leaned on the flat part to make sure it would be crushed. He didn’t let go until he heard the crunching of its shell, felt the body turn to paste.
He turned around to apologize about the pan and there they were, dozens of them, versions of her and him, moving mute and diaphanous through the kitchen and the living room, crammed into the apartment, unaware of each other’s existence. None did anything particularly noteworthy: some shuffled through ghost mail; some chopped nonexistent vegetables; some sat, yogic, on the throw rug. The futon alone held at least nine of them, seated so as to overlap one another, a jumble of intangible pairs all staring forward at the dark rectangle of the TV screen.
He reeled, unsure of which her was the true her—until he recognized her solidity by the bedroom door, still holding a dish towel in one hand and gripping the doorframe with the other, staring at him, through him, around him, with a look of appalled horror. It was clear: she could see them, just as he could. These ghosts of a thousand shed selves, the accumulations of what they had been and done together: they had come out of the air, or ridden the moonlight into their bed, or never been gone at all; just existed as an infinite, invisible disturbance underneath the surface of their lives. They were seeping through now. The seams were fraying. Nothing would hold like this.
“Are you okay?” he said.
She stared at him, eyes black and huge with fear even as her mouth tried to manage an offhand smile.
“Yes,” she said. “Sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
For a long time, neither of them moved.
J.R. McConvey’s debut short story collection, DIFFERENT BEASTS, won the 2020 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for speculative fiction. His stories have been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, the Bristol Short Story Prize, and the Thomas Morton Prize, and appeared in The Malahat Review, Joyland, EVENT, The Puritan, carte blanche, and other outlets. He sometimes works as a journalist and media producer, and exists on Twitter @jrmcconvey, Instagram @jrmcconvey, and on the web at jrmcconvey.com.