She knows two things for certain and two things only.
One: she is not dead.
Two: her mother's screams are the oxygen of this old house, and her father's tears are it's bricks and mortar.
She falls asleep to the sounds of a distant raging fire, engulfing the house from door to door. Awakes to all consuming silence.
She knows a third thing: her name. And she whispers it to herself as she walks the length of the house. Fingers trail walls, collect dust and dirt and crumbling brick. She mimics her mother's voice, but she has lost the gentleness her mother carried and it tears at the hollow of her throat.
Her soundless footsteps her companion, she croons. "Karolina," she sings — herself; her mother; a creaking amalgamation. "Karolina."
And when night falls over her fortress, and the sounds of the fire begin to build, and the first scream shatters her crooked calm, Karolina curls up underneath her bed. She sings to herself. She clutches at her breath-empty chest and pretends she hears none of it.
And when the clock touches ten she waits two minutes. She falls asleep to the weeping, to the violent nothing.
She is seventeen. She thinks.
Her memories are incompleted flashes. A turquoise sky. A train. A bird in her hand. Laughter. The church she sometimes still visits. A pair of shoes her father always misplaced. A sapphire necklace her mother always wore.
She is hungry for more.
For more than the only full memory of she has. Slow clapping and a cheesy birthday song. Her, in the same pale pink dress she wears now, has worn. A homemade cake iced in white and adorned with candles.
So maybe she is sixteen.
She remembers her father's voice, a distant hollow thing. He spies her eating leftover pie in the kitchen. She is thirteen and the morning sky is barely even purple. "You're a morning person, like your old man. It's because we were born almost to midnight, you know."
And the fire came before midnight. So maybe she is still sixteen; she doesn't know how these things work. Not anymore.
"You don't get floors like these," a loud voice, a steady and familiar voice. "Not anymore."
"Rotten?" A critical new voice.
"Antique." A swift correction.
Sometimes she gets visitors.
Children, whose innocent ears hear the fire, sneak through windows and crawl from room to room.
Teenagers, people Karolina's age, who kiss where her mother used to sew their dresses and her father used to mend their shoes. Make haunting love in the spots where Karolina still daydreams.
The children say the house has too much wind. Because they hear the remnants of the fire and don't know what it is.
The other's paw through her things and say the house is haunted.
Sometimes her visitor is this woman. The one with a powerful voice and kind eyes and the look of someone who gives comforting hugs.
Karolina sits high on the stairs, each time. She curls her fingers around the banister, watches couples and families and single people as they are lead through the house.
Sometimes she just stares. Most times she follows them. Every time she hopes that someone will see her. That will say, "Who is that strange blonde girl? Who is she?"
And the realtor will say, "Oh, this is Karolina. This is her house. She doesn't mind you being her guests."
She hopes in vain.
"Robert," the woman murmurs, away from the realtor. Her birdlike hands run along furniture. "You don't really think we should buy it, do you?"
"You heard what Annabeth said," the man called Robert replies. He whispers too, but it is a barely contained, excited whisper. "She's right, too. You don't get floors like this. Or walls like this. Or woodwork like this."
"Its falling apart."
"It's a masterpiece."
They have two daughters: Amy and Nico. Karolina learns their names the quickest, they call to each other in the excited voices she is not used to hearing from anybody over twelve.
For the most, she stays out of their way. What a gracious host she is.. And she hopes her mother will be proud. Because she lets them tear the house apart and rebuild it to something different. Something new. Something, she sees it in the families eyes, better.
The walls don't crumble under her touch, not anymore. The beds are not empty frames, not anymore. The floorboards do not creak and the dust doesn't sit in her lungs, not anymore.
She is not alone, silence her companion and confidant. Their clothes fill cupboards and their breaths eat at the oxygen. Their laughter tangles with the screaming and the weeping.
And Karolina loves it. And Karolina hates it. Because it envelopes her in warmth, but it doesn't drown out the fire.
Amy gets the room nearest the stairs. The smallest room. She is a college going student, her mother says, she is hardly ever at home.
"I am hardly ever at home." And she unpacks her things into the room where Karolina remembers watching her mother paint. Where Karolina would paint, too— star filled skies and galaxies of her own creation.
The next day Amy says in a rush, "Love you. Bye." Her keys jangle, her duffle bag thuds. She is gone.
Karolina knows another thing: she does not know how to live with a family. Not anymore.
Her legs akimbo, she folds herself into the spaces beneath tables and desks chairs. She is like the families cat, the one they brought on the Wednesday of their second week— together, they settle into nooks and curl comfortably in impossible crannies.
She watches them.
She sits with them for breakfast. Slides a salt shaker into place. Wipes away an unseen spill before it stains.
She sits with them for supper. Pretends they have served her, that they include her in their conversations.
"How was your day, Karolina?" She imagines the mother asking. "What have you gotten up to?" The father asks.
And she imagines she smiles and answers and tells them every little thing she has done from the moment she opened her eyes that very first morning.
But they say nothing, ask nothing. She doesn't mind. Not really.
It is enough for her, this semblance of inclusion.
She has been alone for more years than can be counted on the dandelion tips of her fingers. She is simply content to have people around her, even if they don't know she is there and do not care about her.
They fascinate her. These living, breathing people. Their porcelain and stone lives.
She learns their surname. Minoru. And she whispers it to herself, almost embarrassed at the way she lets each letter melt on her tongue and sit in the marrow of her bones.
It pulls at her blood and pulses in her veins, a soft iron ore.
Each room is renamed. She deems it fitting, now that each room has changed.
Amy's room. Complicated paper flower chains hang from one corner of the room to the other. Karolina sits atop her pale duvet, pale blue and pink and white, and inhales the fragrant amalgam of scent. This is the most empty room. Amy has forfeited her bedroom, this is Karolina's now. At least until Amy returns.
Tina's office. Three black walls meet one white windowed wall. A single framed article adorns one black wall, a portrait of the family adorns another. Karolina drifts into this room more often than makes sense. She touches the smooth edges of the desk, of the computer, of the office chair.
Robert's office. Books upon books upon books, housed upon shelves which reach to the ceiling. It is always warm, cluttered but never claustrophobic. Karolina trails her hands over the books, feels the bumps of their spines and thrills.
Nico's room. Black curtains hang over windows designed to flood the room with light, are a partner to black walls and hardwood floors covered in a smattering of rugs. This is Karolina's old room. Candles sit in its every corner, and Karolina sits with them. Holds vigil as they do.
It is the room most unlike Karolina, and maybe this is why it is her favourite. Or maybe it's because it is Nico's, and her candle wax and woodsmoke scent clings to everything.
"What do you do when you sneak out at night?" Karolina wants to ask, so bad that the questions grow claws and rip at the roof of her mouth and the length of her tongue. "Your candles drip wax, cold each night and warm each morning. They tell me you hold vigil. Where? At whose altar do you pray?"
She sits beside Nico, behind Nico. Always as close to Nico as she can possibly get.
Her heat is a radiated halo, and it touches Karolina to the arches of her feet. Her peace outweighs her trouble and turmoil; in the midst of the houses storm, Nico is something calming and quieting.
Karolina has not deluded herself. How long has she been alone? For an age and a half.
This is another thing she knows: her infatuation is too big and too strong and too sudden and too born of her loneliness for it to be love.
But it is ever present. And it is all consuming. And it is heavy; a stone in her stomach. And it is wild; a flurry of birds in her throat, in the space between her lungs.
Alone. Dying light inches through sheer white curtains, delicate and casting a sweet light over everything in Amy's room. Karolina's temporary room.
Just the tips of her hair brush against the covers, her body floats halfway between the bed and the ceiling.
Her voice is a wave of longing. "Nico," it says. And her heart beats. It thuds in her chest and threatens to burst from behind the cage of her ribs.
A bite to the insides of her cheeks to stop the smile from growing on her raspberry lips.
"Nico." She repeats it to herself and it blooms from the well of her throat, from the silken roof of her mouth. "Nico Minoru."
And it gives her strength to know one more thing. One more to the one two three four five six things she knows with absolute certainty: she is as old as a lifetime.
She is the foundation of this house. The stone and the mortar. The screams of her mother, the tears of her father. The result of a fire.
Cold grass tickles the underneath of her feet. Damp from the drizzle which had fallen at the afternoon's beginning.
Tina had ordered the landscaping in their very first week, in time for the small house warming party.
Karolina was grateful then. Grateful and in hesitant awe, unable to tear her eyes away as the landscapers tore up the ground she had once tended.
And Karolina is grateful now. Loose stone paves a winding pathway from the glass back door. Sculpted bushes and roses are a hem.
In the middle of it all, a bright orange tent. Haphazardly arranged.
Karolina rarely wanders outside, she sees no point.
Now the sun stings her eyes and her legs bow with her every step. A thousand pinpricks of pain, stabbing and disappearing.
Soft music carries from the tent, dances on the wind. Music, haunting and strangely melodic, like nothing Karolina has heard before. Nico's voice a hushed accompaniment.
"I know you're there," Nico says. Her hair is a short black curtain, whatever isn't held back falls to cover her face. She stares at the burgundy bound book, pages worn at the edges, and says no more.
Karolina halts. A blush starts at the roots of her hair, travels and colours her skin a shade of red she hopes is pink but is most likely closer to a deep crimson.
Silence. A rustle of leaves as they dance with the wind, a flutter of butterfly wings.
Speak. But her voice is a mouse that has not been promised safety. It burrows; it ducks its head and refuses.
Speak. But she opens her mouth and nothing comes out. So she falls to sit across from Nico.
"You can see me?" she asks, a strangled thing. The idea does nothing to lessen the blush.
A shake of her head. Nico touches a finger to the edge of a page, raises her eyes to meet Karolina's. "Sometimes. Sometimes you're not so clear."
"Oh." Years and years and years and years, and this is the first conversation she has had with someone. And what to do? Words escape her. "I'm a ghost."
Nico has a laugh that is rusty and not used to being used. It is the squeaking of an old hinge, the push of an ancient door.
She is serious when she says, "I figured as much."
Questions sit on her tongue. They beg to be asked. Karolina voices none of them. Instead she stares, because her years of isolation have taught her to observe better than anybody else.
"Can you see me now?"
"Yes." Nico closes her book, opens it, closes it. "How old are you?"
"I don't remember." It is painful to say those words, ones that she had only said to herself. That only rattled in her brain. "I don't remember much."
"So," Nico says and looks Karolina right in the eye, "What do you remember? Do you remember your name?"
Karolina dips her head in a short and agreeing nod.
And there is the mouse that wants to be heard, it peeks its head out. And there is the bird that lives in her chest, it flutters.
Karolina lets the words tumble from her mouth in quick rivers and thick streams.
She knows three four five six seven eight nine things. But she knows two things for certain and two things only.
One: she is dead.
Two: it doesn't matter, not anymore.