My head throbbed.
I leaned harder against the wall, grounding myself with the cool feeling of the painted plaster against my cheek. Time bent and stretched, and a sucking pit of anxiety sat heavy in my gut. It felt like taking a hit of nitrous, then remembering something horrible I’d done right before it took hold. Motionless, I floundered in a waking nightmare I’d invited myself to.
Reaching up, I placed my hand against the wall, focusing my attention on the cool surface on my warm palm. I could still think. I was still myself. My hand looked a bit different than I thought, but it wasn’t my old masculine proportions.
I tried to step away from the wall, but my legs threatened to buckle as the pain in my abdomen intensified. I crumpled against the wall, breathing heavily, and stayed there for several moments as I waited for my nausea and confusion to abate.
When I was certain that my limbs would hold me steady, I pushed out with my right hand, rolling around my left shoulder until my back pressed against the wall.
I looked up into the dusty but flawless surface of my family’s old hall mirror, and beheld myself, and the girl who stared back was not me.
Her deep brown eyes were not the right color, but they flared in fear as my pulse jumped. Her eyebrows, thinner than mine, rose to a shocked arch under flat bangs I never had in life or death. Where my frame had been a bit pudgy, hers was thin and slight.
The girl in the mirror wasn’t me, but she wasn’t unfamiliar, either.
“June,” I said aloud, and the voice I heard was so much higher and thinner than mine had ever been.
Another wave of weakness and pain washed over me, and I found myself remembering Reese’s words upon our return to the dining hall: “whoever’s got June needs to feed her.”
Food. I needed food.
I walked down the hallway and passed through an arch that led to the house’s spacious kitchen. It wasn’t until I leaned against the counter that I realized I knew the layout of the house perfectly.
This was my house. Not just a weird labyrinthine representation of my house, but the actual house I once lived in, the house I died in. The kitchen counter had been replaced by some kind of composite material, but the layout was the same.
I staggered to the fridge, which was a substantially nicer model than the one I’d grown up with. None of the food inside looked appetizing; June’s hunger had crossed over into revulsion and nausea well before I occupied it.
“Water,” I creaked, closing the fridge, “first.”
It took several tries and far too much stamina to find the correct cabinet, but I did. Glass in hand, I carried it to the sink and drew a glass of tap water. I drank the water slow, letting it run down the center of my tongue and cool my throat.
It must have been years since I last drank anything, and it felt like it. After setting the glass down I leaned against the counter, head spinning around the twin poles of relief and nausea. I nursed the glass over the course of several minutes, gradually standing up straighter as the wracking discomfort abated.
Slowly growing steadier, I assembled a sandwich from the white bread, american cheese, and mustard I found in the fridge. It was the saddest, worst sandwich I’d ever made in my life and my first bite of it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten in my life. I finished the sandwich as slowly as I could manage, which was still a bit too fast.
Collapsing on one of the coffee table’s chairs, I finally let myself rest. I could nearly think. I could nearly make sense of this. I was June now. Were my new friends still up here, in this brain? I raised a hand to my head, pressing against my temple as if I could feel for them. Nothing happened, of course, so I dropped the hand.
That’s when I noticed the smell.
I wasn’t sure how long this body had been helpless before I occupied it, but it certainly smelled like it had been a while. Worse, I think I caught the smell of an ‘accident’, though thankfully the less fragrant of the two options.
Our next stop on the urgent needs train was evidently fated to be a shower.
Gathering my strength, I trudged upstairs and opened the door to my room, which was… filled with junk. I frowned, crossed the hall, and opened another bedroom door. More junk. That just left the master bedroom. My parents’ room. Even now, knowing that they couldn’t possibly be living here any more, the thought of opening that door was daunting at best.
How long after my death had they lived? Did they haunt this place the way I used to haunt it?
I shook my head to banish the thoughts of my ghostly parents groaning passive-aggressive curses and opened the door.
To my relief, the bedroom was not only fully furnished but also wholly distinct from my parents’ interior decoration sensibilities. There was a warmth here, an aura of life; the clutter and disorganization only made it feel cozier.
My heart lurched as I saw a familiar face on the wall. A framed pencil drawing of Reese hung on the wall, and the sight of their tusked face was at once a relief and a source of stress. Why would they trust me again, after I stole that mask from Finder? I couldn’t even imagine trusting myself, at this point.
I reached up to my face, touched the skin, felt for the place where the edge of a mask might be. Finding nothing, I laced my fingers together, hung my head, and sighed.
Several minutes later, I’d managed to pick out a cute sundress and underwear from June’s clothes, and I finally stripped down and walked into the private bathroom. I was pleased to see that in spite of the clutter that extended to the bathroom, every surface shone spotless.
“One of the Residents must hate mildew more than they hate cleaning,” I murmured, and thought I heard laughter from somewhere, and some talking. I turned on the shower and turned around, looking at June’s naked body in the mirror as I waited for the water to heat up.
I was getting used to June’s body, bit by bit. It still didn’t feel like mine, but it wasn’t like my old body, lumpy and awkward, no part of it interesting enough to find repulsive. Being in the body I inhabited in June’s mind felt right in a way that nothing else did, but strange as it was, embodying June was the final catalyst that brought clarity.
“I’m transgender,” I told myself in the mirror, then immediately grew self-conscious and stepped into the shower, bracing for water that I feared would be too cold but was in fact too hot.
By the time I stepped out of the shower, the questions I’d been ignoring until now started to demand attention. I had to accept that my arrival was almost certainly responsible for the distortion of June’s headspace, and possibly for the separation of the Residents from one another.
The trouble lay in my inability to remember how I ended up in June’s headspace at all. The last thing I knew for sure about myself was that I had been a ghost. The last few months or years of that had been particularly fuzzy, and I could only find the faintest hint of memory about June moving into the house.
Whatever conclusion I might have come to was co-opted as I finished dressing and saw June’s smartphone sitting on the bedside table. I picked it up and unlocked it with pure muscle memory, entering a password pattern I didn’t technically know. I tapped the message notification, read the most recent messages, and dropped my jaw as the horror of my situation made itself clear.
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Monday, 16:31
Dear June bug: How are you settling into that old house? I hope nothing too strange has happened – Aunt Ruthie
From: June Pérez, Sent Monday, 16:42
I’m settling in fine, Ruthie, thank you. Nothing strange at all, just a beautiful house. Do you know you don’t have to sign your texts?
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Monday, 18:31
Dear June bug: If something strange happens, you’d better let me know. Your great-uncle was the last person to live in that house, and he swore up and down that the place was haunted. – Aunt Ruthie
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Tuesday, 08:19
Dear June bug, when was your last visit? Let’s have dinner together. – Aunt Ruthie
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Yesterday, 14:12
Dear June bug: It’s not like you to ignore me when I ask you a question. Is everything all right? – Aunt Ruthie
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Yesterday, 15:21
June bug, I’m becoming concerned because you don’t answer my texts. I asked you to set up your voice mail box but I guess you forgot. Call me! – Aunt Ruthie
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Yesterday, 18:50
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent Today, 9:01
Dear June bug: I’m very worried about you. I wanted to call the police but Harold said I should try to get ahold of you again. – Aunt Ruthie
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent 2 hours ago
June please answer!!
From: Ruth Dershowitz, Sent 45 minutes ago
June: I’m driving to your house. I will be there in an hour. If you don’t answer the doorbell I will have to let myself in with the spare key. -Aunt Ruthie
“Oh shit,” I murmured. “I have to host. As June. By myself.”
“Not… quite!” someone said in my brain. “There. Did that work?”
“Oh! I! Yes! I can hear you!” I put a hand on my head. “Can you hear me? Are you a Resident?”
“Why yes I am, Avery,” said the voice. “My name is Cora, and I’m here to help. Everything is going to be okay.”