It Came To This

Sometimes, Erin wonders whether she's going crazy or seeing ghosts. Or both.

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1. The Falter

    I don't know whose idea it was to get Chinese takeout that night, but I wanted to strangle them. An hour after I finished eating my stomach was hurting so badly that any miniscule movement could have brought the food back up. I lay groggily on the couch, one arm draped over my eyes and the other over my stomach. I'm pretty thin and have a sensitive digestive system, so big meals and greasy food goes straight through me. This all added up to me dozing while the others played cards and drank beer. 
    I guess it's a good thing, though. I can't stand beer.
    "Yo Erin, are you gonna get up or what?" My friend Eric shouted, taking a swig of his Michelob. I groaned and waved him off. This set off a round of laughs, and a suggestion from Eric's girlfriend Mona to turn on some music to drown out my "gurgling." An obscene hand gesture and a few puke jokes later, they finally left me alone.
    For a bunch of medical school students, my friends go a little insane. They feel so cramped in the lecture hall - ironic, I know - that when they get a brake they party like they're ready for the apocolypse. There were eight of us in the room that night, including Eric, Mona, and myself. None of us were really coherent, and while most of the group was drunk, they were all still cracking jokes that you would need a college degree to understand. I heard my friend Maggie laughing like a maniac over a pun Eric made about the different ingredients in the antibiotics used to treat cyphilis.
    "I hope she doesn't puke on my carpet," my roommate, Heartley, muttered jokingly. We were in our shared apartment, which I'd paid to have remodeled - including the carpeting. I shook my head and, feeling slightly better, propped myself up on my elbows to look at them. The group was half gathered around our tiny dining table, and half sitting on the floor laughing hysterically. A typical Saturday night.
    Just as I leaned up I felt my stomach give way and sprang to my feet, practically diving out the window onto the fire escape. As weird as it sounds, Heartley and I had bought a large metal bucket for puking purposes when we'd moved in together, because we both hate the smell of vomit. It was placed out on the fire escape, and any guests who came over and drank were directed to it post-haste.
    I leaned over the bucket and wreched violently until my throat hurt and my stomach was at ease. I sighed, sitting back on my heels and - making sure it was clean first - running a hand through my hair. I absolutely hate puking, and puke in general. The smell, the sight, all of it. That's my one weakness as a med student, and I get picked on endlessly for it. Fortunately, I got stuck in the same class as Heartley, and I didn't feel so alone.
    "Are you okay?" A voice whispered from behind me.
    My head snapped up and I stood, whirling around to face the stranger. The sudden movement caused me to become lightheaded and I slapped a hand to my forehead. A pair of hands grabbed my elbows to keep me steady, and after a moment the feeling passed. I blinked and looked up at the stranger, brushing some dark hair out of my eyes.
    "Are you okay?" He repeated. His pale gaze inspected me closely.
    "Wh-who are you?" I murmured, glancing at the window. It was shut.
    He looked that way as well and swallowed a guilt-ridden swallow. He'd shut the window. I didn't have the chance to wonder why, because I suddenly felt sick again. I forced him to let go of me and turned my back - bad idea when dealing with someone who might be dangerous, I know, but when a girl's gotta hurl, a girl's gotta hurl.
    He bent over me as I heaved over and over again, what was left of the rancid Chinese food finally vacated my body. I tried shoving him away with the hand that wasn't holding my hair away from my face, but he was persistent, even putting a hand on my back at one point. I felt like crying; I was confused, sick, and exhausted, and some stranger had me trapped on a fire escape between a puke bucket and the only portal back to safety.
    "Who are you?" I demanded once I was done getting sick. I stood slowly, jutting my elbows out to make sure he didn't try to grab hold of me. I faltered, though, and he put a hand on my arm. I felt like hitting him, which startled me. I'm not a usually violent person.
    "A friend," he replied. Hearing his voice for the second time pointed out that he had an accent; I assumed it was Eastern European. I swallowed and jerked my arms out of his grasp, inching toward the window. "Don't...be afraid." He reached out to me and I slapped his hand away, wrenching the window open. "Please..."
    "Stay away from me," I uttered, pointing one manicured finger in his direction. He pursed his lips, remaining silent as I bolted in through the window and slammed it behind me. I looked down at the carpet, straightening out my shirt. My friends stared at me in confusion.
    "What's wrong, E?" Heartley asked. I paused, glancing out the window.
    "Nothing," I said, and fell back onto the couch. They all paused for a moment, exchanging concerned glances. After a few moments I leaned my head into the cushion and closed my eyes, pretending to fall asleep. There was a grudging sigh amongst them and they went back to their games and drinking.
    Though my eyes were closed, I could still see perfectly clear: the man on the fire escape, his cold hands, his pale gaze. He'd seemed honest enough, and was probably harmless. So why had I bolted so quickly? Was it my unstable gut, or something else that made me run? Either way, it was too late to question myself now.
     The man was gone.

    "I hate mornings," Heartley groaned when he shuffled into the kitchen the following day. He looked ruffled and exhausted, his normally perfect blonde hair in knots and his eyes sunken and decorated with heavy bags. He was in his signature black sweatpants that I'd gotten him for Christmas a year and a half earlier, and not much else. I laughed every time I read the words "Dr. Awesome" printed on the left leg.
    "It's noon," I informed him, looking up from the sandwich I'd just made. 
    "Yeah, I was sure not to wake up before noon," he said, yawning. "That's how much I hate mornings." He winked at me and grabbed a water bottle out of the fridge. I rolled my eyes, digging around for a knife in the silverware drawer. I wanted to ask him about the night before, to see if my food poisoning had made me dillusional, but I didn't know how to ask. He was hungover and tired, so he probably wouldn't remember any better than I did.
    I found a knife and cut the sandwich in half, listening to Heartley dig around in the medicine cabinet for some aspirin. After a long moment of contemplation I turned, leaning my palms into the counter behind me. "Heartley?" I said quietly.
    "Yeah?" He didn't turn away from the cabinet.
    "Did something weird happen last night, or was I dreaming?" I asked.
    "Hmm?"
    "Can you stop for a second?" I snapped. He paused, turning slowly to look at me.
    "Why are you so cranky?" He asked. "I'm the one with a migraine the size of Texas."
    "Sorry," I murmured, turning the knife over in my hand. "I just...something's been bugging me all morning, and I wanted to ask you if you noticed anything weird going on with my last night." He didn't respond right away, mulling this over in his head. "I remember getting food poisoning from that disgusting take out, and I think I vomitted..." I paused. "But then..."
    "Then...?" He prompted after a moment of silence.
    I shrugged, setting the knife down on the counter. "I don't remember. It was weird."
    He arched an eyebrow and for a moment I thought he was going to say I was losing my mind. But instead he replied, "You went out onto the fire escape to get sick, and came back inside looking kind of panicked. But I think you were just escaping the vomit smell." He sometimes behaved very seriously, stating the facts as though he were diagnosing me. I smiled lightly, glad to know that last night hadn't been some stupid dream. But I was also nervous; who the hell was that guy?
    "The aspirin's in here," I said, reaching into the open silverware drawer and tossing him the bottle. He caught it and grinned at me, popping a few into his mouth.
    "Thanks babe." He crossed the kitchen to hand me the bottle and gave me a peck on the cheek. I pushed him away and he chuckled, sauntering out of the kitchen in the direction of his bedroom. I followed him, wielding the aspirin bottle like a weapon.
    "Would you stop acting like we're dating or something? You'll give people ideas," I chided playfully.
    "Who am I giving ideas?" He asked nonchalantly, pushing his bedroom door open with his fingertips. "You?" He disappeared into his room, shutting the door behind him with a soft click. A moment later I heard the creak of his mattress as he crawled into it and I shook my head. He was ridiculous, and hardly ever took me seriously. I was one of the only people whom he teased brutally and endlessly, the irony in this being that I'm his closest friend.
    Despite the obvious friendzoning that has occurred between us, I feel a spark every time he kisses me. I know it doesn't mean anything, but for a split second, I swear it does.
    Pushing his advances out of my mind I walked over to the window, looking out warily onto the fire escape. I slid the window open slowly and climbed outside, eyes raking over my surroundings. I didn't see anything, so I walked over to perform the clean-up duties bestowed on the puker. I bent over it and stopped. It was completely empty, just a spotless metal bucket. My heart flew into my throat and I stood up, looking around in a panic before hurrying back inside. 
    Heartley hadn't cleaned it, he was drunk last night and hungover today. No one else would have cleaned it up, either, and I sure as hell hadn't done it.
    I locked up the window and ran into my bedroom, locking that door and huddling into my bed. What was going on? Heartley told me I'd gotten sick on the fire escape, so I knew I'd gone out there. Nobody had cleaned out the bucket that I knew of, so it must have been the guy I'd seen. But why would he do that? More importantly, who was he? Why was he on my fire escape? And why did he seem to know me?
    After internally asking myself so many questions, I suddenly felt as though I might need more aspirin pills than Heartley.

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