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under better circumstances

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Katara can’t see dead people. She isn’t sorry for that fact until the eighth of August, about two days after she moves into her new apartment.

No wonder the rent was so cheap, she thinks as she looks forlornly at the leaking head of her shower, between the sketchy residents and the shitty plumbing. But she’s broke, so very broke, and so: she calls the super, leaves a message, and climbs into her clunker of a truck.

She drives to Lowes with all the windows rolled down because the air conditioning has been broken for a month or so. By the time she gets there, sweat stains the armpits of her white tee shirt and dark curls of her hair stick to her skin and she has clearly seen better days. The salesman in his blue vest looks sympathetic until Katara announces she needs a kiddie pool. She is fairly sure she can hear him laughing as she carries her prize out to her truck. Fuck him, she thinks irritably, slamming her door closed with more effort than is strictly necessary. She drives back to her apartment with the windows still rolled down. It is exactly as effective as it was before, which is to say not at all.

The complex’s elevator has apparently been broken for years, at least that’s what her neighbor in 405 said, so she hauls her kiddie pool up three flights of stairs and shoves it through her front door. Weather’s been in the high nineties all week so it’s not so much of a surprise that by the time she’s locked the front door and finished kicking the pool deeper into her apartment she’s a sweaty, ratty mess of a human being.

Thirty minutes later finds her sitting in six inches of tepid water and bubble suds, considering her life choices and how generally sucky they are. Like she should have been an engineer because being a martial arts instructor is like being a violinist. That’s when the ghost shows up and she begins to regret not being able to see dead people.


 

“You know, most people just shower at the gym when the plumbing breaks.”

Katara shrieks and flails. Water sloshes out onto the carpet. She shrieks some more, looking around for some sign of a person, because as far as she knew she was sulking in her kiddie pool alone in her locked apartment. But now there’s a guy’s voice, coming from the nearby vicinity of her couch.

This is some straight up horror movie shit and if she’s going to die she doesn’t want to die while sitting naked in a kiddie pool.

“Jesus, calm down,” the voice says. It’s got a quality to it, she notes distantly, that most people would call ‘smoky.’ It also sounds vaguely annoyed. Like this guy, this pervy axe murderer, has a right to be annoyed when he’s the one lurking her in apartment. “It’s not like I saw more than your back. You sound like…wait, you can hear me?” Now surprise, and that’s her first clue that maybe it isn’t an axe murder hiding behind her couch.

“No,” she says, reaching for the lavender colored towel she’d set next to the kiddie pool. One end is soaked from her earlier splashing. It figures. At this point, the race of her heart has gone from a sprint to a pathetic jog. In the aftermath of an adrenaline rush, there’s only the realization that her already threadbare carpet is soaked with water—oh joy, mildew—and there’s a faint throbbing in her left upper eyelid to herald full on twitch. “Sometimes I just scream and flail for no real reason.”

He laughs. In her mind’s eye, she matches that laugh with a large hand rubbing awkwardly at the side of his neck, a faintly embarrassed look on his face. One floorboard creaks as he shuffles his feet. “Shit, didn’t expect you to be able to hear me.”

“Obviously,” she says. “But shit, didn’t expect to have a ghost watching me bathe. Out of the two of us, I’m worse off.”

Again he laughs, this time more amused than embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I swear it was an accident. I wasn’t expecting you to bathe in the living room.” His words become muffled, almost as though he’s walking away, and then she hears another floorboard creak in the spare room serving as her office.

Feeling magnanimous in the wake of his apology and retreat, she says, “I’ll forgive you on the agreement that my life choices in this case were a bit unorthodox.” Katara wraps the partially soaked towel around her body.

“Thanks. I’m not used to living—” great choice of words for a dead guy, but since she’s magnanimous, she probably shouldn’t say anything, “—with someone Blind.”


 

They realized that Katara was Blind when her mother died. No, when her mother was murdered.

All of four years old and she’d been the one to stumble into the police station screaming for her father. Too anxious, fumbling, she’d only said “Mom, Mom, there’s a man, Mom,” and led them back the way she’d come. And they found the scene. Or what would become a scene, with yellow tape and little cards marking evidence, because now there’d been a crime.

Katara couldn’t remember her mother’s body. The psychiatrist dubbed that “entirely normal” because she was four and traumatized. What was not deemed normal was the fact that Katara hadn’t seen her mother’s ghost.

Tests had been run. It’d been declared that Katara’s Blindness was probably trauma related and one day she’d get it and things would be fine.

Katara never got the Sight. (Things were never fine.)


 

Once Katara’s gotten dressed—in her own bedroom, with the door locked, just for good measure—she slinks back into the living room. “Uhm...” she says. Is it just her, or does her voice sound unnaturally loud?

“Hi.”

It’s a single word but it makes her jump a good foot back. Not like his voice had been close. Or at least, not like it’d been uncomfortable close, but... Well, it’s weird to have someone’s voice suddenly just be there.

“I’m sorry.” The voice does sound genuinely sorry. Also like he’s much further away than he had been before. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m not used to people being able to hear me. Normally they just see me and...”

“It’s fine,” Katara says. Her lips pull into a smile without her really meaning to. It’s been a while since a guy has rambled at her. Even if he’s a dead guy.

There’s this long, awkward pause. It occurs to her that he might be waiting for her to make the first move. To define some boundaries. She glances at the kiddie pool still sitting in the middle of the room and coughs. How do you set boundaries with dead people? So far as she can tell, you don’t. At least other people don’t.

“Would it help if I talked when I moved and came into a room?” Maybe she’s imagining it, but she thinks he sounds hopeful. “Or...I mean, I could stay in the guest room, if you wanted. Just keep out of your way.”

Something tugs below her breastbone. It occurs to her how lonely he must be. How lonely all the dead must be when everyone can See them but no one can hear them, or touch them, or...

“No,” she says. Too quickly. “No,” she says again. “I think you talking would work. It may take me a few days to get used to you but that’s okay.”

“Okay.”

Another long pause. Katara likes to imagine it’s less awkward. “I’m going to make dinner,” she announces into the pause. “Tacos.” Turning on her heel, she marches into the kitchen. It takes a few minutes of pulling out pans and shoving half frozen ground beef into a pot full of warm water to thaw for her to realize she hasn’t got any taco seasoning.

“Under the left hand cupboard,” the voice says. It’s somewhere near the doorway to the kitchen. “The last people who lived here were a couple. When they broke up, the dude hide his girlfriends spice rack. Dick move. I tried to let her know but...” Katara gets the distinct impression of a shrug.

In return, she shrugs as well before scrounging under the left hand cupboard. And behold, there it is, a fully stocked spice rack. “You,” she says as she emerges with taco seasoning in hand, “will make a halfway decent roommate.”


 

Suki slurps at her triple shot Starbucks. Apparently Yue’d visited Sokka last night. Which, by proxy, meant visiting Suki. “I feel so bad,” Suki moans. “Like, she’s dead, you know? And it’s gotta suck to see him moving on or whatever. But they dated for like three months? It’s been three years?”

“Mm.” Vaguely supportive noises are all Suki requires when she’s on one of these rants. Rants that are, at this point, as mechanical and regular as clockwork.

“Does she really have to show up every full moon? Every single one?” Suki rubs the back of her neck and looks away. “It’d be so much easier if she was awful. But instead she’s just...noble, and sad, and...” One hand waves, like she can somehow encompass all the things that are Yue.

Here’s the worst part. Both of them know there’s nothing new to be said. Yue was kind and good and Sokka’s first love. There’s no way around all that. So Katara just rubs Suki’s back and says, “It sucks.”

One long, drawn out sigh. “Yeah.”

Katara finishes off her own double shot Starbucks. “Thanks, by the way,” she says as she tosses it into the garbage bin. Truth: even if she wasn’t obligated to listen to Suki’s rants on account of being best friends and business partners and practically in-laws, Katara would listen because Suki brings her coffee.

After that, they get to setting up the dojo for their taichi class. Suki disappears into the office after that to do some of the accounting work while Katara leads about six octogenarians and one wide-eyed sixteen year old through poses. It’s a good class. Good enough that the tension drains out of Katara and leaves her sweaty, breathless, and confessional.

“So your apartment is haunted,” Suki says, scrunching her nose and tapping one forest green nail against the desk. “Hell of a thing. Why didn’t you mention that earlier?”

“I’ve only been there three days,” Katara says. “There wasn’t any sign of him until yesterday afternoon.”

“When he showed up while you were bathing.”

The thing is, Katara doesn’t know quite how to feel about Suki’s dubious tone. It’s the kind of tone that suggests she thinks this guy is a pervvy axe murderer which, sure, that’s pretty much what Katara assumed at first too. But he’d been awkward and sweet and kind of adorably befuddled by the situation. Katara finds that she feels weirdly protective of him.

“It’s not like he knew I was Blind,” she says. “And when he realized it he left really quickly. And he apologized. Twice.” When Suki just raises her eyebrows, Katara says, “Look he’s not a bad guy. I actually think he might make a halfway decent roommate.”

The frequency of Suki’s nail tapping intensifies. “So, he like, actually lives in your apartment instead of just showing up?”

Katara nods slowly.

“Hey, maybe he’s that guy who died in that building like five years ago.” This idea seems to excite Suki. Figures. “That one whose psycho girlfriend stabbed him? You should let me come over and see.”

“I don’t think he’s that one,” Katara says. “He sounded pretty well adjusted and I don’t think someone who’d been stabbed to death by his girlfriend would be so well adjusted.”