February 11, 2022
Excerpt - How to Walk on Water and Other Stories - Winner of the 2021 Book of the Year Award for Traditional Fiction
By Rachel Swearingen
Excerpt from the story “Advice for the Haunted”
Any other couple would have thrown away the former owner’s things and moved in, but two months after buying the apartment at auction, Nick and I were still using it as a playhouse. The former owner’s name had been Natalia. We had “inherited” all of her possessions, her pantry and freezer stuffed with food. Under the couch, she had wedged bottles of cheap red wine. Nick joked that we could survive at Natalia’s forever. “It’s like our own private fallout shelter,” he said, as we peeled back her bedspread and crawled under the sheets. We didn’t concern ourselves with the circumstances of her death. We were young and in love, and the misfortunes of others had nothing to do with us.
The flat had one bedroom, an office, and a narrow kitchen that opened into a long central room. Heavy drapes shut out the city view. The furniture was outdated; the Persian rugs, threadbare and stained. The ceilings and walls had recently been spackled, leaving bone-white spots. On the buffet, next to the dining table, were stacks of postcards of paintings, many of them torn or chewed at the corners. We found a half-used bottle of anti-anxiety pills in the medicine cabinet, a glass accordion in a folded tablecloth, a baggie of foreign coins in a boot at the back of a closet. In a rickety piano bench, we discovered faded Polaroids of two girls at what looked like a family picnic.
We were still paying rent for our own apartments and rarely talked of the future. At Natalia’s, we’d spend entire weekends pretending we were the last two people on Earth. We liked to camp it up. “Zombies?” I’d say.
“Meteorite.” He’d tear off his tie. “It’s at least three miles wide.” Sunlight would be breaking through the drapes. “Do you see how dark it’s getting?”
“What will we do?” I’d say, unbuttoning my blouse.
We ransacked her cupboards, pulled out soapstone animals from Africa. We placed the rhinoceros and giraffe in compromising positions. We played like children, pillaging her closets. Then we learned from the downstairs neighbor that Natalia had been a recluse who hadn’t left the apartment in years. Something had happened to the sister who brought her supplies, and Natalia had started venturing into the hallway. One day she left the building with a suitcase and somehow plunged to her death from the L platform just two blocks away.
We continued to rearrange her furniture and tchotchkes. We still pretended we were secret agents or a strange new semi-human species that had survived the apocalypse. Entire weekends passed before we left the apartment or ate a real dinner, but we studied her photographs more closely now. We invented roles for Natalia in our games: captor, hostage, aunt.
Once or twice a week, Nick and I met at Natalia’s during my lunch break. We were soaking in Natalia’s tub. Nick handed me a mug of wine. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “You know you’re not going back to work.”
We thought it was a shame Natalia had had to bathe alone in such a wondrous tub. The guy beneath us had said that the morning of her death, she said hello to him in the hallway. “But she was all strange and spacey. Really happy, you know. The kind of happy people get before they jump.”
“But the suitcase,” I said to Nick. “He said she was carrying a suitcase. Why would she, if she was planning on ending it all?”
He pulled a long leg out of the water and slung it over the edge of the tub. “She should have never left,” he said. “She had everything she needed right here.”
I stood and reached for a towel. I’d been hearing noises, and what I heard then was the sound of a wrench knocking against metal inside the bathroom walls. The door creaked open and cold air rushed in. I hopped out of the tub and shut it, but as soon as I turned around, it opened again.
Nick crossed his arms over his chest and in a rich falsetto said, “Natalia, stay out. We’re naked.”
I laughed out loud, but then came a sound like steel marbles rolling across the ceiling. I think even Nick had the feeling we weren’t alone. He handed me his mug. “Hold this,” he said, and when I reached, I slipped on the tile and struck my head.
Nick got out and examined my forehead. “It’s not that bad,” he said. “Barely a scratch, but you’re going to have a goose egg.”
“Natalia did it,” I said. I was only half-kidding.
We tightened our towels and made our way to the kitchen. I took a box of crackers and a jar of peanut butter from the cupboard. “I don’t know what it is about this place that makes me so hungry,” I said.
Nick dug into the peanut butter with a spoon. “It’s that we didn’t buy this food ourselves.”
“No, it’s like it’s not real. Like there’s no world out there.”
“Precisely,” he said. He pulled me close. “Let’s never leave.”
We joked about turning the apartment into a private country, a micronation like Christiania in Denmark. We’d call it the Republic of Natalia and design our own special stamp.
The next morning, I noticed an imprint in the bedding, as if someone had been sitting there watching us. Nick was in the kitchen paging through one of Natalia’s books, and he showed it to me. “Classical mathematics,” he said.
“No wonder she didn’t have any friends.”
“I thought you liked math.” He filled one of the miniature cups from her china set with coffee and put it down in front of the extra stool at the breakfast bar. “Good morning, Nat,” he said. “How’d you sleep?”
“She’s grumpy in the morning,” he said to me. “Doesn’t like to talk.” He winked.
“I think it’s time to tell Oscar and Joelle,” I said. “About the apartment, I mean.”
Oscar and Joelle were our closest friends. They were the reason we were together. And Oscar believed in ghosts. He was a sort of amateur ghost hunter. I wanted to get his read on the place. “Let’s have them over, for dinner or something.”
“You know how Natalia feels about company,” Nick said. “Besides, they don’t have visas yet.”
“I’m going to be late,” I said.
Nick put the book aside and got up to make another pot of coffee. “We don’t start before ten in the Republic of Natalia.”
“Too bad I don’t work for the Republic. If I keep this up, we won’t be able to afford to live in the Republic anymore.” I had intended the words more lightly.
“I never asked you to put up the down payment,” he said. “It didn’t need to be that large.”
So far we had managed to mostly avoid talking about the purchase or my paying more toward the mortgage. I was in the middle of several large acquisitions at work, and any conversation about interest rates and balloon payments was likely to turn into an argument about corporate greed in the face of famine and war.
I left Nick in the kitchen and went to Natalia’s closet to look for something to wear. We almost never stayed overnight during the week. I was traveling more for due diligence, always to other cities in the Midwest or the South. I was constantly shuttling between airports and hotels, between my own apartment, Natalia’s, and my office downtown. I felt disoriented, and my excuses for leaving work were growing absurd.
Most of Natalia’s clothes were outdated. I recognized a purple dress from a photograph of a much younger Natalia in front of a fountain with a boyfriend somewhere in Europe. We had propped the photo against a lamp on her dresser, and I looked at it again as I changed into the dress. The boyfriend had a goofy grin and thick hair that stuck up in a cowlick, and Natalia threw her head back to laugh. She must have been healthy then.
I searched her underwear drawer with dread, wishing I had brought an overnight bag. All of Natalia’s undergarments were plain white cotton, many with frayed elastic. I reminded myself that Natalia was dead and wouldn’t care if I wore something of hers, but I rejoiced when I found a lacy pair of silk panties that still had a price tag. I wondered when she had bought them, and why just one pair. I put them on and for a moment I was Natalia, untouched for too long.
At Fullerton, I waited on the platform for the Red Line. I checked my email on my phone, only partially aware of a pack of unruly school kids horsing around. One of them slammed into me. I stumbled toward the tracks, and an enormous woman grabbed me and pulled me back. I thought little of this until I was standing in the compartment and the woman pointed at my phone and said, “That thing’s gonna be the death of you.”
I squirmed against the sensation of the silk against my skin. “I’m wearing the underwear of a dead lady,” I wanted to confess.
I arrived at work late for yet another meeting and made up an excuse about a mechanical problem delaying my train. It was a harmless lie, but I had told so many by then I had the uneasy feeling I would be fired.
After work that evening I went out to meet my running club. They were a rugged group that ran even when temperatures dipped below zero. I wanted to be like them. At the waterfront, I tried to keep up. Lake Michigan frothed, and gulls struggled against the wind. The man in front of me lagged too. He kept wiping his arm across his brow. He tripped and regained his balance, and then his legs buckled under him.
At first I thought he had simply slipped, but he wasn’t moving and several other runners gathered around him. “I don’t think he’s breathing,” a woman said. I stood looking on with the crowd, and then sirens sounded and before long a paramedic was pushing us back, saying, “Give us some room, folks.” The others turned back, but I jogged another mile or two. I didn’t know the man, and that’s what I told myself all along the lake. He’s just a stranger. You don’t know him. This sort of thing happens every day.
I didn’t want to be alone, so I called Nick and went to Natalia’s. I pulled off my wet clothes and filled the bath. The refraction of my hands underwater made them appear broken off and reattached at the wrong angle. I ran my fingers over the welt on my forehead. I had fallen or almost fallen twice in less than 24 hours, and then, directly in front of me, a man had collapsed and probably died.
I got into bed, but not before putting the soapstone animals away in Natalia’s dresser, not before turning on the bedside light and making sure my phone was within reach. I couldn’t stop seeing the man at the lake, his legs giving way. I turned my face to the pillow and tried not to think of Natalia drooling into the same feathers.
Then Nick was standing in the bedroom doorway. He held his arms out and made his eyes dull, and I said, “Yes, please. Bring on the zombies.”
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