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Short story: The Amaryllis Heart by Celeste Ng

This exclusive story by Celeste Ng heralds the start of our new fiction competition, Emerald Street Stories. Read on to find out more...

The ghost first appeared in the kitchen, the week after Annelise rented the apartment. A little old woman: prim knee-length skirt, tight knot of hair, frown lines bracketing her mouth. Slightly misty, as if snipped from a sheet of fog. Annelise, hungover, had little patience. Shoo, she said. It gave her an impatient look.

Annelise went for aspirin, but when she returned the ghost had not moved. Through its clouded torso she could see the drooping amaryllis on the windowsill behind, red head wilted like a withered heart. What do you want? she asked. The ghost merely disappeared, unceremoniously, like a soap bubble popping.

After work, she found the ghost in the living room, perching with righteous good posture on the armchair, staring balefully. She tried to ignore it, plopping down on the couch with microwaved meatloaf and turning on a Friends rerun. The ghost wrinkled its nose at the smell and scowled at the boisterous laugh track until Annelise went to bed.

Every morning the ghost stood by the kitchen sink, eyeing the unwashed dishes from the night before. Every evening, it surveyed the clothes on the bedroom floor, counted the flies on the ripening garbage, inspected the grimy toilet and dirt-ringed tub. On Friday, Annelise – exasperated – went for happy hour. World’s worst roommate, she giggled to the man who’d bought her a drink. Five drinks later, they took a taxi back to her place.

The ghost was gone, but as they tumbled onto the bed, it appeared beside the nightstand, frosty with disapproval. She disentangled herself from – Chad? Mark? Ian? – and they lay for a moment, two parallel lines. I’m pretty tired, she said, and Chad or Mark or Ian left, with a few choice words, slamming the door behind him.

After that the ghost became noticeably more pleasant. It stopped appraising her housework. Some mornings it was waiting for her at the breakfast table. She began to pour it coffee. It pretended not to notice, but she spotted the ghost dipping its nose into the scented steam. She fanned open Glamour and Cosmo on the coffee table – 16 Fresh Looks For Fall! Five Ways to Feel Instantly Happier! – and arrived home to catch the ghost peering at them. On rushed mornings the ghost hovered beside whatever Annelise needed but had misplaced – wallet, keys, cell – its misty face gently bemused.

Weeks passed, then months. Work nights, Annelise curled up in front of the TV; the ghost, who’d developed a taste for Project Runway, took the ottoman. Weekends Annelise went dancing; when she returned alone, the ghost was always there, as if waiting up to say goodnight. When she brought someone home, she checked for the ghost: its absence was tacit approval.

And then, one day, when she’d been seeing Chris for almost a year, something new happened. “Who’s that woman?” he asked, and Annelise saw the ghost hovering in the living room, peeking shyly round the corner for the first time, waiting to be introduced.

Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You is published by Blackfriars on 13 November (£8.99).

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Short story: The Amaryllis Heart by Celeste Ng