Charon was squatting in the bare apartment, the landlord hovering uncertainly over him. He ran his fingers through the bare rug, whispering quietly to himself, and the landlord tried not to pay attention to the words, missing Charon's statement aloud.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I said, there's a lot of pain in this room."
He ran his fingers through his thinning hair. "I don't exactly believe in all that sort of stuff, no offense--"
"--But I can feel that something isn't right here."
"Yes sir. Like I said, there's a lot of pain in this room." Charon stood, stretching his cramping legs. "You'd practically have to be comatose not to feel it."
"Will you do it?"
Charon looked around the studio apartment, as if he was daring something to try sneaking into his peripheral vision. "I'm sorry?"
"Will you-- Can you clear the pain?"
Charon looked the landlord in the eyes. "I will try, but I can't guarantee anything."
He was drowning in those eyes, unable to speak until Charon looked away. "You're more humble than anyone we've had in here. They all said they could do it, and then couldn't. And all insisted on being paid before they would try. You never said what this will cost me."
"No, I didn't."
"Financially, nothing more than if you had someone living here, which I will be."
"You're... Are you sure?"
"It's how I work, and how I need to work. So I'll be using your electricity, your gas, your water. You'll pay for all that. I won't be abusing the access, and if you're not certain, you can check my references. When I'm done, I'll let you know. If I've succeeded, it will be fully rent-able. If not... then I don't know what to tell you. I'll need to be undisturbed, apart from normal sounds seeping through the walls, and I can't tell you how long it will take."
The landlord nodded. "When can you start?"
"Everything I need is in my car. I can start right now."
The landlord stuck out his hand and Charon shook it. "Best of luck to you then, and let me get out of your way."
Charon parked in the slot assigned to the apartment, and it only took two trips to get everything he needed. He lit a stick of incense as he settled in, spreading his sleeping bag in the center of the floor, closing the windows and the blinds, putting his own drapes up to block out the remaining light, until only the embers lit the room. After extinguishing it, he laid his head down and slept.
When I stopped going to school, I stopped making friends. People were never something I was good at; the friends I had were friends of circumstance. We had classes together, or classes in common, or knew each other through a third party, but never really had much in common. I always felt like a pretender among them.
I tried dating a few of them, gals, guys, and those lost in between, but nothing ever stuck. I was too different from them, and always felt broken inside.
When I moved out of my parents' place, I retreated even further inside myself...
"It's not natural, I tell you."
"Of course it's not natural, dealing with psychics and witches and ghosts."
"A guy named Sharon or Karen or whichever."
"Maybe he's gay."
"More likely one of those transients or whatever. That think they're a girl trapped in a guy's body."
"I'm sure you'd like to be trapped in a girl's body."
"Shut it, woman."
The monthly get-together for the tenants was running late, the fire burning down to just embers, and a cold night breeze was picking up. Wives huddled closer to their husbands or closer to the dying fire, putting off retreating back indoors. The men were discussing their newest neighbor, unpaying and secluded though he was.
They were all too aware of the haunting inside number 18, inside the cave that was the solo studio in the complex. The previous tenant, something happened to him that they didn't understand, didn't want to understand... and he died.
I tried for a while, to reach out and find other people like me. Online forums, dating sites, art communities, even the occasional in-person event. A few people even tried to reach into my world, into my darkness, but the darkness kept growing, the light kept shrinking, until all I was left holding was a few glowing embers...
Charon woke, and not from needing no more sleep. He had been dreaming, but when he opened his eyes, the vision was still there.
"It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm here to help."
There was no voice behind the words, but Charon felt and understood them all the same. "I'm not going to turn on a light. I blocked out the windows. This is your darkness. You can be yourself here."
[I am not myself.]
Charon spread his arms. "Will you tell me what happened?"
I pulled in my tendrils, my attempts, cut off the wasted time and stopped wasting more. I consolidated my accounts, left forwarding information everywhere, just in case. I was no optimist, did not expect anything to come, since nothing came while I was active. But I was all too aware of the Right Place Right Time phenomena. I didn't believe in leaving things to chance...
"He's always in there. He never comes out. Or is he even in there at all?"
The landlord was warming his hands by the fire, standing among the seated wives and children, but he retreated to answer the question. "I haven't see or heard hide nor hair of him since that first day, but the meters are still running, I'm still covering the bills." He shrugged. "Charon certainly isn't frivolous or wasteful, which is the same message I got from the references he provided. They all said pretty much the same thing: 'Does good work, reliable, but don't expect progress reports. Place was pristine when he was done, whether he succeeded or failed.' And he does it all without the chanting or flashy demonstrations of anybody else in the business. If he had better marketing, he might be the 'best in the biz,' as they say." He shrugged again and went up to bed.
I lived alone so I had no forced interactions with others, except at work, while I worked. Those wage slaves were blissfully ignorant of their bondage. All too often I wished for the same ignorance, but that wish was never granted. When the worst part of my suffering struck, I had enough sense to know my final days were upon me, enough hubris not to be around others while I drowned, and enough money to quit.
Nobody at work was close enough to me to know what was really going on inside my head. If they had asked, I probably would have told them, but nobody did. When I pulled my disappearing act, nobody noticed...
[Are you praying?]
Charon laughed. It was a warm sound, bright and uplifting. "Praying? I don't have anyone or anything to pray to. Do you have someone you need me to pray to?"
"Just some light meditation. I can hardly help you if I'm weighed down with my own baggage."
[What is bothering you?]
"Do you really want to know?"
I was good at invisibility while growing up. Too good. When some people were learning how to interact with others, I was learning how to avoid interacting, though not from lack of trying by my family. I was always quiet, and never grew out of it, like so many people hoped.
Some people had to talk a certain number of words everyday, but I felt like I had an upper-bound instead of a lower one. Even before I fully retreated, I'd go days without talking, and to no surprise, nobody noticed...
His car disappeared for a few hours one night, and they noticed, but though they tried to keep an eye out, by the morning it was back, and nobody had seen him.
People would talk over me, talk around me, talk through me. For about eighteen months, I dated a girl who actually noticed when I disappeared, though not always spotting me when I left or soon after. It was a refreshing change, but we had other issues that couldn't be worked through.
[I do not understand.]
"What do you mean?"
[Are you telling me my story or your own?]
I didn't go quietly into the night. I didn't waste away. I built myself into a sacrifice for gods that I wasn't sure I believed in. I had found too many lies among what everyone claimed to be true, so I decided that the reverse was not only possible, it was likely.
"What did he call himself?"
"A spirit guide."
"Whatever that is."
"Does he do tours?"
"Don't be an ass."
One of the wives was poking at her phone. "Honey, I think you should take a look at this."
"What are you still doing up?"
"I really think you should see this."
"What is it?"
"Do you remember what his name was?"
"Sharon or Karen. Why?"
I didn't feel anything, not that I really expected anything. Faith was not something I ever mastered, especially on a spiritual level. When I died, all I felt was emptiness, that space between falling asleep and waking when it feels like you just blink, and you can't even remember if you dreamed at all...
"What's the difference?"
[We are not the same.]
[Our stories cannot be the same.]
[Because then we would be the same.]
"What if I told you you didn't fail. You may not have felt yourself reaching something, but something felt you reaching out."
[Who are you?]
"An old friend who survived Anubis's scales and returned to row you on to where you belong."
"You know I never liked that name. And that body is gone forever. But this body has its own name, though I am the same inside. Well mostly."
"You never fully let go. That was what Faith was for. Letting go. I caught some of your spirit, your soul, your self, they're all the same thing. Doubt didn't let you cross completely. That's why you're still here."
[You are here to finish the job.]
[To finish killing me?]
"No, to make you whole and join me in Eternity."
The landlord was poised to knock,--it had been one month since the utilities had flatlined, showing no activity--when Charon opened the door. He stepped back in surprise, letting go of the screen door.
Charon smiled. "I was just about to find you. It's done." He held a box in his hands, his sleeping bag on top. "Let me take these out to my car, and then if you have any questions, I'll answer what I can."
The landlord pulled open the screen door again, and held it open while Charon stepped out, carrying his belongings. He popped the rear hatch on his fortwo, set the box inside, closed it, and returned to the apartment, where the landlord stood, amazed.
The apartment was bright, and not just from the sunlight streaming in. Like the fog had been cleared and he could see the garden once more.