It was a small house, but there was room enough for two, the landlord said. The backyard was cramped and it backed up onto a wooded lot that was steep enough that the trees looked to Aziraphale like a choir standing on risers, the roots of the top ones level with the heads of the bottom. From the kitchen you couldn’t even see the ends of the tallest trees. The window framed a wall of solid green.
Downstairs there were three rooms: the kitchen, living room, and a tiny bathroom. Above that, two bedrooms, one at the top of the stairs and another down the hall to the left, and a slightly larger bathroom. The front yard had room for just one small tree before it ran into the sidewalk, and the sides of the house were so near to the neighboring houses that there was hardly enough room to walk between them.
It was plenty of space for Aziraphale, really. The only possessions he had were books. He owned little in the way of keepsakes, and tended to wear the same clothes, because that left room in the closet for more books. Aziraphale’s mother had always said that his room resembled a used bookshop, but Aziraphale (named by literary parents for an obscure angel) reminded his mother that bookshops were in the habit of getting rid of books, while he was in the habit of acquiring them.
Aziraphale had recently relocated to a large city after completing his training with a small-town florist, and he was happy to have found adequate housing near his new place of work, a grocery store floral department. Except there was a problem, and it must have been a big problem, because the landlord refused to let Aziraphale sign the lease without hearing about it.
“You’ll have a housemate,” the landlord said. He was a portly man with thick dark hair, black clothing, and an enormous wristwatch.
“Oh, I know,” Aziraphale said. “I don’t mind. I’m fairly easy to get along with.”
The landlord’s mouth wrinkled up. “Yeah, well, he’s not. Crowley, the other renter. He keeps running the other tenants out. Nobody stays more than a few weeks.”
Aziraphale moved his pen away from the rental papers, letting it hover in space above them.
The landlord frowned and shoved a hand in his jeans pocket, up to where it caught on his red wristwatch. “He’s not violent, just really aggravating. And he rarely leaves his room, so you won’t see much of him. Of course, he never leaves the house either. And I know, I should kick him out. But I inherited his lease when I bought the property. I don’t know who the hell drew it up, but not only is it indefinite, but I can’t legally evict him for anything except damaging the property or not paying rent. Nothing about pissing off the other tenants.”
“But he’s not dangerous?” Aziraphale asked.
“No, no. Nothing like that. No threats, no injuries.” The landlord watched Aziraphale’s pen hovering. “Look, you seem like a nice enough person, and if Crowley he doesn’t get a housemate he can live with soon, he’s going to run out of money and I will have to evict him.” The landlord gave an irritated sigh. “But I’ve learned that it’s not worth the headache of dealing with renters who want to break their lease right away, so I usually offer a trial period. One month with no penalties if you decide to leave. ”
“You care about him,” Aziraphale said.
The landlord rolled his eyes behind thick glasses. “He’s really not a bad guy. Pleasant enough with me. He just can’t abide anyone else being in the house.”
Aziraphale signed the lease for a one month trial period.
He would last in the house for twenty-two days.
The problem with owning mostly books was that when you moved, you ended up with a carload of small, heavy boxes to carry. Aziraphale did not expect help from his housemate. But he also did not expect the man to stand in the doorway of his bedroom and sneer at him as he worked.
He really, really did not expect that his housemate would be absolutely gorgeous.
The first sight Aziraphale had of Crowley was as he struggled up the stairs with a load of Shakespeare’s plays. Crowley was standing in his doorway, leaning against the door frame with his arms crossed. He was very thin and dressed in tight black clothing, with flame-red hair cut in a shaggy style, and a thick red moustache. He also wore a pair of sunglasses that made his eyes into black holes. Crowley looked like he’d stepped off a 1970’s album cover, and that was exactly what music Aziraphale could hear as he came up the stairs, classic rock loud enough to rattle the window panes.
But oh, Crowley was beautiful. The red, oddly styled hair was ridiculous and it looked perfect on him. The glasses— completely absurd to be wearing them in the house, but how starkly they stood out against his pale skin.
Aziraphale was dressed in pale shorts and a t-shirt, both damp with sweat. He was pudgy with curly blond hair and hardly any color to himself at all. He was his housemate’s complete opposite, it seemed. But, no reason why they couldn’t make a good start.
“Hello!” Aziraphale yelled over the music.
Crowley was indeed sneering, and his moustache rose with his top lip. “You have a lot of shit,” he said.
“It’s just books!”
“Well, they’ll probably get moldy. That bedroom is pretty damp.”
Aziraphale stopped awkwardly in the hallway, right in front of Crowley’s door. “I didn’t notice that!”
“Oh, yeah,” Crowley said, almost eagerly. “With the mold and the mouse problem, your books would be better off in the street waiting for the trash collector.”
Aziraphale took a deep breath (now that he could do that again after climbing the stairs for the tenth time) and put on a smile that was slightly forced. “My name is Aziraphale.”
“What the hell kind of name is that?”
“Well, what the hell kind of name is Crowley?”
“It’s my last name.”
“What’s your first name?”
“None of your damn business.”
“You know, that’s an even more ridiculous first name than mine.”
For a second, Crowley’s sneer wavered and looked an awful lot like a half-suppressed laugh.
“I’ll watch out for the mice,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley turned back into his room and slammed the door. The music got louder.
On the third morning, Crowley showed himself in the kitchen at five a.m. He seemed quite surprised to find Aziraphale there. “I came to get breakfast,” he said, as if it was some desperate confession.
“Oh, I know,” Aziraphale said. “I’ve heard you at this hour the past two days. I made coffee.”
Crowley looked at the coffee maker with overwhelming suspicion. “Thought you’d be asleep.”
“No, I don’t sleep much,” Aziraphale said. “That’s why I don’t mind the music playing most of the night. Do you sleep through it yourself, or do you sleep days?”
Crowley avoided the coffee maker but grabbed a muffin from a box on the counter. His movements were jerky and hasty, and his head kept turning to stare into different parts of the kitchen.
“Where do you get your food if you don’t leave the house?” Aziraphale asked.
“Ah. And you must work remotely?”
“No, I don’t have one of those— don’t have a computer. I’m rich.” Crowley seemed to narrow his eyes behind his dark glasses. “I murdered a guy for his money.”
Aziraphale tried to hide a smile behind a bite of donut. “I don’t believe you.”
Crowley looked honestly surprised. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t think you’re as scary as you put on.”
Crowley’s expression turned dark again. “You don’t know me. And you don’t know this house.”
Crowley took his muffin and bolted up the stairs again, having spent a total of about five minutes out of his room. That was as long as Aziraphale had ever seen him spend anywhere. Crowley took showers that ran for two minutes. He ate food that could be microwaved in three, and all the while, he’d pace the kitchen, looking around, peering out the window at the trees.
Aziraphale glanced toward the window now, as he finished his donut, and noticed something different. Something there that wasn’t green.
Aziraphale rose from the table. The view from the kitchen window really was a little claustrophobic, with the tops of the back trees soaring too high to see. You could almost imagine yourself to be on the sea floor, looking up at the seaweed reaching for the surface high above you, with the panicked feeling that there was no way to breathe unless you managed to get up there.
The unusual thing in the backyard was a man, turned away, looking up at the trees. He was tall and skinny, dressed all in black except for a pair of bright red shoes.
The yard was so small that the man was standing very near the house, surely close enough to see Aziraphale through the window if he turned his head. Aziraphale got the funny feeling that he didn’t want the man to see him. He hurried out of the kitchen.
Art by AuguryAnxiety
Crowley had stepped up his tactics. The classic rock ran all the time now, day and night. Sometimes it was a variety of artists, and sometimes one album or even one song, over and over.
Crowley also started visiting the kitchen at all hours, making noise. When Aziraphale was home, Crowley would fill the house with the stench of burnt popcorn or microwaved fish. When Aziraphale had been out, he would come home to a sink full of dishes that Crowley had hastily covered in chocolate sauce or cooking oil that Aziraphale would have to clean, except that Crowley had also removed all of the soap.
It was on one of those days that Aziraphale, tired from work and sporting a thumb skewered by a rose thorn, climbed the stairs and pounded on Crowley’s door. He stepped back onto the top stair to wait.
“Go away!” Crowley yelled, over the music.
“I need to talk to you!”
Aziraphale lost his patience. “Whatever-the-hell-your-first-name-is-Middle-initial-Crowley, you open this door right this minute!”
The music stopped. Aziraphale could hear movement in the room and then the door opened to reveal Crowley dressed in his usual black with his hair falling into his face. “What did you call me?”
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Then tell me your first name.”
“It’s Tony.” Crowley looked rather surprised to find he’d answered the question.
Aziraphale took in a calming breath. “Great. Tony. What the hell is your problem?”
But Crowley’s face had gone pale. “Get up here,” he said. Before Aziraphale could answer, Crowley had grasped Aziraphale’s shirt and yanked him up the top step and into the hallway. “Don’t stand on the stairs!”
“It’s— just don’t.”
“You know, I have about had it with—”
“Then leave. No one’s stopping you.” Aziraphale was surprised to see that Crowley’s expression was not one of triumph or even his customary sneer, but a kind of guarded hope.
“Why do you want me gone so badly?”
“Don’t want a housemate. I want the place to myself.”
“But you don’t use it. You never go anywhere but the kitchen or bathroom and only for a couple of minutes. Why should it bother you that I’m in the rest of the house?”
“Because you— you smell.”
“Wherever you work. Smells bad and you bring it home.”
“Crowley, I work in a flower shop.”
Crowley took a little side-step, clearly unsure of where to go from there. He shifted enough that Aziraphale got his first look at Crowley’s bedroom.
The walls were covered in 1970’s rock posters that looked original and were probably worth money at this point, nearly fifty years later. There was no computer or cell phone that Aziraphale could see, just a small desk with a large black box on it. Crowley’s bed was messy, with black sheets half on the floor. There was a shelf full of albums— not cd’s, actual records— and a record player with huge speakers attached to it, plus a small, very old TV. And all along one wall were stacks and stacks of books. Some looked old, but most looked like the kind of modern paperback that you could buy at a drugstore or grocery store. Crowley had probably had them delivered with the food, Aziraphale guessed.
“That’s what you do in here all day?” Aziraphale asked. “You read?”
Crowley jumped a little, apparently surprised to realize that Aziraphale had seen the room. “None of your business.”
“You know, I’m at the library almost every week,” Aziraphale said. “I could bring you home something other than the popular genres, if you ever wanted a biography, or classic, or even a cookbook. 101 Things to Make With Chocolate Syrup and Empty Dishes, maybe.”
Crowley looked like he’d been offered something both thrilling and dangerous, like bungee jumping. “That would—” But he shook his head resolutely. “We’re not friends, Aziraphale, and we’re not going to be. You need to move out.”
Then, of course, he slammed the door.
Aziraphale brought home a variety of books from the library and set them outside of Crowley’s door. They remained there, but of course, Aziraphale couldn’t be sure that Crowley wasn’t reading them when Aziraphale was at work.
The dirty dishes routine stopped, but now Crowley peeled the labels off of the cans in the cupboard and turned the dial up on the fridge so that the food in the back was frozen. When Aziraphale attempted to leave the dryer running when he went to work, he came home to find that Crowley had turned it off, and Aziraphale’s clothes had been sitting there all day, damp.
But they also talked occasionally, with Crowley standing in his doorway and Aziraphale in the hall (not on the stairs). Crowley was usually bitchy, but occasionally he’d smile or laugh, and it looked absolutely wonderful on him, the anxiety fading away, the tension easing out of his shoulders. Today, Aziraphale was hoping to encourage such a moment. He’d brought Crowley home a plant.
Aziraphale let himself into the house and set the plant on the kitchen table. His home-from-work routine involved a bit of investigation to see what Crowley had been up to while he’d been gone. Today Aziraphale found the laces on his jogging shoes tied in hopeless knots and all of the silverware missing. After checking all the cupboards, Aziraphale glanced out of the kitchen window and found that he could see a pile of silver in the backyard. It looked like Crowley had gone to the door and thrown it all without ever stepping out of the house.
Aziraphale, of course, had to step out of the house to retrieve it, and as he did, he couldn’t help but be reminded of seeing the man with the red shoes in the yard, just over a week ago.
He wasn’t there now, thankfully. The yard was empty. But while Aziraphale was picking up the silverware, he had the strange sensation that he was being watched.
It was just suggestion, he told himself. The stranger in the yard had creeped him out a little, and he was just remembering that. But the sensation continued as Aziraphale went back into the house. It felt as if he was not alone in the kitchen, washing the silverware, reheating the lasagna he’d made over the weekend (to which Crowley had, of course, been helping himself. Aziraphale didn’t really blame him, as home-cooked food was obviously a rarity for a man who couldn’t spend more than five minutes at a time in the kitchen).
But the feeling would not go away, not while Aziraphale ate or washed his plate or nervously stepped over to the kitchen window to peer out. The backyard was still deserted. Nothing but trees behind trees.
Whoever was watching him was inside the house.
Obviously, that left only one suspect.
“Crowley!” Aziraphale yelled. There was no music playing now, and Aziraphale listened intently. He’d wondered if Crowley might be leaving his room for longer periods when he thought he wouldn’t get caught, trying to pull more pranks. Aziraphale waited to hear a sound from somewhere in the house besides Crowley’s bedroom.
What he heard instead was Crowley flinging his door open and shouting, “What?”
Aziraphale was rushing up the stairs before he realized it, toward the relative safety of his housemate.
Crowley watched him with his mouth open. “What?” he repeated.
Aziraphale reached the hall with his heart racing. He looked down the stairs and saw nothing there. “There was— I thought— Never mind. It’s nothing.”
Crowley spoke slowly and very softly, and his breathing was shallow. “Did you see something?”
Crowley peered around Aziraphale to the staircase, with the same expression that people had when they didn’t really want to look at the screen during a horror movie. “Anything?”
“No. There was nothing.” Aziraphale suddenly remembered the plant. “Hold on, I have something for you.”
Crowley straightened up. “Why? What is it?”
“Far more than you deserve. Silverware in the back yard. Honestly.” Aziraphale tried to quell his shiver as he went back down the stairs to fetch the plant.
“I ate your lasagna too!” Crowley called after him. “If you didn’t notice.”
Aziraphale climbed the stairs again, holding the pot, which was painted a pretty blue, with a fuzzy purple African violet nestled inside. “Here. I thought it would brighten your room.”
Crowley was staring at Aziraphale so intently that he had to grasp for the plant without really looking at it. “You’re like an angel,” he said, so quietly that Aziraphale almost didn’t hear it.
Aziraphale burst out laughing. “I’m no angel, and you’re no demon.”
Crowley looked insulted. “Did you see your shoelaces?”
“Why are you not leaving then?”
Aziraphale opened his mouth and found it empty of answers. “Um. Well. It’s just—” He looked at Crowley, all black and red, with the purple violets in his large, pale hands. “I think we might be friends,” he said.
Crowley didn’t look angry, like Aziraphale thought he would, or disdainful. He looked scared again. Terrified. “You’re only making it worse,” he said sharply, and took the plant into his room, slamming his door.
The feeling returned then, stronger than ever. Aziraphale could have sworn that the house behind him was not empty, that someone was below, in the kitchen, in the living room. On the stairs. He turned with a shudder, but no one was there.
For a couple of days, there was silence from Crowley. Aziraphale did not see him and barely heard him. Worse, there were no pranks, no hidden objects or unexpected messes. Aziraphale had thought he’d be glad for such a development, but instead he felt very on edge, as if perhaps the calm presaged a larger storm.
Even the house itself seemed off. It should have felt emptier with Crowley absent. It did not. It felt very full.
Aziraphale did not have a good explanation for all of his creepy feelings in the house. It was a small place with a small yard. It did not take long to search, and noises traveled well if Crowley’s music wasn’t playing. It was simply impossible that someone else was in the house, moving from room to room to evade Aziraphale as he searched for them.
Aziraphale decided that the atmosphere of the house needed changing. That night he brought some work home with him.
It took a couple of trips from his car to bring in the loads of flowers and vases. Aziraphale spread out everything on the kitchen table: stems and scissors, ribbon and glass beads. Making display bouquets was one of Aziraphale’s favorite parts of his job, and the work relaxed him. A group of white flowers with a splash of blue. Pale blooms balanced with greenery in all shades. Dark blossoms surrounding a single red rose.
The house, or at least the kitchen, felt lighter than it had in days. The aroma of the flowers seemed to chase out the shadows and odd, suspicious feelings. Aziraphale was making room in the refrigerator for one of the bouquets when he heard a step. He turned to see Crowley hovering at the entrance of the kitchen, hesitant.
“Evening,” Aziraphale said. “I was just doing some work.”
“For us? I mean, for the house?” Crowley asked faintly. He still hadn’t put a toe onto the linoleum floor.
“Some of it. It doesn’t smell so bad, does it?”
Crowley made a little whispery sound of possible laughter.
“I just thought I’d start making the place my own,” Aziraphale said. “Since you hardly use it. Settling in, I guess.”
When he glanced at Crowley, he found the man had gone pale beneath his dark glasses. Crowley took a few shaky steps into the kitchen, up to the table. “Don’t,” he said sharply. “Don’t settle in. You’re not welcome.” Crowley swept a trembling hand over the table, knocking Aziraphale’s scissors and some stray bits of stem to the ground.
Aziraphale ignored him as if he were a tantruming toddler, which was not that far off, really. So Crowley knocked over other things with more aggression: unused flowers and all the spools of ribbon, which went cascading to the ground, making tangled rainbows across the floor.
Then he picked up the vase of dark flowers around the red rose. “You’re not welcome,” Crowley repeated. “You and your— your messes.”
“It is a bit of a mess now, isn’t it?” Aziraphale asked dryly.
Crowley shifted the vase, weighing it in his hands.
“Oh, Crowley, don’t, please,” Aziraphale said. “I worked hard on that.”
Crowley froze for a moment, and then he slowly put the vase back on the table.
And then, of course, he fled upstairs, but Aziraphale chased right behind him, managing to get in the way of the bedroom door before Crowley could close it. “Why are you doing this?” Aziraphale demanded.
Crowley was clenching and unclenching his hands around nothing. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “It’s not safe.”
“What’s not safe? Crowley, please, you’re obviously in pain. Let me help you.”
Crowley looked horrified by the offer. “Where have you seen him?” he asked. “Is he in the house yet? The others had seen him by now.”
Crowley answered in a strange, sort of melodious voice. “Last night I saw upon the stair, a little man who wasn’t there.”
“You know, maybe you might like to talk to someone,” Aziraphale said. “You could order a computer, have it delivered. You could have a zoom meeting with a therapist right from your bedroom, people do it all the time. I’ve found therapy quite helpful my—”
“He dresses all in black,” Crowley said. “Except for the red shoes.”
Aziraphale felt as if someone had dropped a heavy weight onto his shoulders, pushing him down. “Red shoes?”
Crowley clutched all his fingers together in a tight knot. “Where? Where did you see him?”
“He— in the backyard.”
“But not in the house?”
Aziraphale had a sudden suspicion. “Is he a friend of yours? Did you hire someone to try to frighten me away? Honestly, Crowley—”
“You shouldn’t be here!” Crowley yelled, startling Aziraphale. He gave Aziraphale a light push to get him out of the doorway and pulled his door shut.
There was immediately a tremendous crash downstairs, followed by what Aziraphale was sure were running footsteps. Aziraphale dashed down the stairs, wishing he had his pair of scissors or some other weapon. He ran into the kitchen, sure he’d find his vases shattered against the floor.
But there was nothing. No mess other than what Crowley had made, nothing broken, nothing that could have made such a crash. And no one else was there.
It was a poem, Aziraphale learned, by William Hughes Mearns, called Antigonish.
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away.
It had been written about a haunted house.
Aziraphale wasn’t entirely sure what to do with this information. Had Crowley learned the poem and started to suffer a delusion about someone else being in the house? Did they have a nosy neighbor who liked to wear red shoes and Crowley had imagined the man following him up the stairs?
Really, there could be no other rational explanation, and Aziraphale was a rational person. He decided to go see the landlord.
When Aziraphale pushed open the office door, the landlord got a defeated expression on his face. “So you lasted just over two weeks,” he said. “I’d had high hopes for you.”
“Oh, I’m not leaving,” Aziraphale said.
The landlord looked shocked. “You— you’re getting along with Crowley?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” Aziraphale said. “I just had another question. Is there, perhaps, a neighbor or a groundskeeper that dresses in black with red shoes? I’ve seen him in the yard, and Crowley doesn’t seem to care for him much. Maybe you could ask him to stay away from the property?”
“Red shoes?” the landlord asked. He stared off into a corner of his office for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. What does he look like?”
“I haven’t seen his face,” Aziraphale said, “but he’s tall and skinny.”
“Doesn’t fit anybody who works for me,” the landlord said. “Could be a neighbor. The house to the east of yours is one of my rentals, but the one on the other side is family-owned. I don’t know who lives there.”
“Okay,” Aziraphale said. “I’ll ask around the neighborhood. Thank you for your time.”
“No problem,” the landlord said, looking relieved. “As of right now, you are my favorite tenant.”
“Only eleven days to go!” Aziraphale said. “I think I’ll make it the full month. Crowley— he’s not so bad, really. When you get used to him.”
Aziraphale was cooking dinner. But it wasn’t his normal homemade fare. And, in another unusual step, he had put on music, playing from his phone. It wasn’t Aziraphale’s favorite genre either.
Crowley poked his head into the kitchen about ten minutes later. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
“Making dinner, dear.”
“But that’s my dinner. You’re eating my food now?”
Aziraphale smiled at him. “We’re eating your food. Sit down.”
Crowley, of course, did not. Aziraphale put two plates on the table anyway, microwaved fish sticks and tater tots. He’d also cut up some apple slices.
“This is my music,” Crowley said, still looking perplexed.
“I like this music, too.”
“You’d think you’d hate it. Heard it so many times,” Crowley said.
A new song started in the background, one that Aziraphale was (still) quite fond of.
On the first part of the journey
I was looking at all the life
There were plants and birds and rocks and things
There was sand and hills and rings
The pleasant tones of the music and aroma of food filled the kitchen, making it seem lighter again. “Crowley, you can sit down,” Aziraphale said.
“No.” Crowley reminded Aziraphale of a wild bird. Nervous, beautiful and just out of reach.
“It’s been two minutes,” Aziraphale said. “Sit down for another two and then I’ll help you carry the rest of your food up to your room.”
Crowley shifted a bit, looking at the empty chair. The song played on:
I've been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert, you can remember your name
'Cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain
Crowley finally smiled hesitantly. “I guess.” He came into the kitchen on shaky steps, peering into all the corners like he usually did. He pulled out the chair in a jerky motion and sat down, perching on the edge of the seat, ready to take flight. Aziraphale passed him the ketchup and Crowley made a small pool of red on his plate.
“This is nice, isn’t it?” Aziraphale asked.
“Nice— yeah.” Crowley stabbed at a tater tot with his fork.
“Did you like the lasagna?”
“Yeah, was good. I liked the stew better. That beef stew you made.”
“Oh, yes, that’s my mother’s recipe.”
Behind them, the song’s chorus started again:
I've been up the stairs on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
Aziraphale stopped with his fork partway to his mouth. “What was that?” He glanced at Crowley, who had gone as pale as the kitchen sink behind him.
On the staircase, you can’t remember your name
For there ain’t no way to escape from the pain
Crowley bolted out of the kitchen so fast that his plate slipped from the table and shattered on the floor, spattering dark red ketchup everywhere. Aziraphale, his fork still in his hand, turned his head toward the window and saw a man standing there. Black clothes, red shoes. Inside the kitchen.
Aziraphale ran up the stairs toward Crowley’s room, and the door opened immediately. Crowley seized Aziraphale by the arm and pulled him into the room, slamming the door behind them.
“What the fuck?” Aziraphale asked. “What the fuck?”
“You saw him, didn’t you?” Crowley asked. He had his glasses off for the first time in Aziraphale’s presence, and his eyes turned out to be a bright hazel. “Where?”
“Oh, god,” Crowley breathed. “Aziraphale, you have to leave.”
“No. I want an explanation.”
Crowley looked pained, but also sort of limp, like he had no resistance left. He dropped down onto his unmade bed, and Aziraphale took the desk chair. They both kept glancing at the door, but there was no other sound from the house. No footsteps on the stairs. Aziraphale wasn’t really sure what they were going to do if there was. There was nowhere to go from this room except out through the window.
“I didn’t see him until about a year after I moved in,” Crowley said. “He was in the yard. And I didn’t think anything of it, really. A neighbor or whatever. Couldn’t see his face. He showed up in the yard from time to time and I thought about yelling at him to fuck off, but I never did. He creeped me out a bit, I guess. Then things in the house started to get a little weird.”
“Were you living by yourself then?” Aziraphale asked.
Crowley looked away, toward the wall. “Yeah. Just me. There was a guy— he was gone, though.”
“And were you leaving your room? Leaving the house?”
“Wasn’t always like this,” Crowley said softly. “Anyway, I heard noises. Crashes, somebody walking. I thought it could have been my imagination or, I don’t know, sound carrying from a nearby house. We’re really close to the neighbors here. So I could explain that, or try to.
“But there was some bat-shit stuff too. Like when I’d cook food, it would turn cold as soon as I got it out of the oven. I’d rearrange stuff in the living room, chairs or whatever, but they’d always go back to the way they had been as soon as I left the room. And, um— I like to paint my nails.” Crowley held up his hand to show slightly chipped red polish. “One day, all of the bottles were red. Not replaced with new bottles, they were the same bottles, but all the polish turned red. I bought new. Still turned red. I stopped trying after that. Then I saw the man inside the house.”
Crowley was trembling a little now, and Aziraphale reached across to put a hand on Crowley’s arm. Crowley jumped at the contact, but he didn’t pull away.
“He was in the kitchen,” Crowley said. “And then in the living room. And then on the stairs.” He gave Aziraphale a desperate, haunted look. “If I leave my room for too long, he will get all the way up. And when I get back— he’ll be in here.”
“Why don’t you leave?”
“I can’t. I have nowhere to go. And anyway— he’ll follow me, I know it. Up some other staircase.”
Aziraphale felt like his heart was going to break. “So all of this, the pranks, you were trying to protect me? And all the other people who tried to rent the place?”
“He starts in the yard for everybody. Then kitchen, then living room, then stairs. I try to get people out before they see him in the house. You’ve lasted longer than most,” Crowley said, with a hitch in his voice. “You stupid angel.”
Aziraphale moved to sit on the bed next to Crowley and pulled him into his arms. Crowley began to sob against his shoulder, loud and messy, and Aziraphale held him as closely as he could.
“You know what,” Aziraphale said against Crowley’s shaggy red hair. “This is our house. Our place. Not his. We need to take it back.”
Crowley looked up with a tear-stained face. “How?”
“I know someone.”
The final day
Aziraphale had met Anathema Device at the grocery store where he worked. He was in the floral department, and Anathema worked in Natural Foods, selling plant-based milk and chunky beeswax soap. She also moonlighted in the pharmacy where she distracted little kids getting their flu shots with fairy tales. Aziraphale had once thought that all paranormal occurrences were fairy tales. Now he wasn’t so sure.
Anathema swept into the little house in a black dress, with a bit of smoking sage in her hand. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve done this before.”
Crowley peered down at her from his doorway, watching as Anathema took a tour.
“The last place I saw him was there,” Aziraphale said, pointing toward the kitchen window.
Anathema frowned to herself as she investigated, lifting the burning sage toward the ceiling. “Houses are strange things,” she said. “They’re much more than the space they occupy. People’s lives have so much drama in them, the good and the bad, and all that energy tends to stay around. It influences everyone who lives in the house.”
Anathema then approached the stairs with intense focus, speaking grandly, calling on higher powers of good to cleanse the house of any evil presences. She slowly climbed the steps, one by one, and when she got into Crowley’s room, Crowley was smiling broader than Aziraphale had ever seen.
“Should have done this ages ago, angel,” Crowley said. “I feel— can’t you feel it?”
Aziraphale nodded. “It feels— lighter.”
When Anathema was done with the upstairs, she took Aziraphale’s arm as they went back down. “That should do it!” she called loudly, and Crowley waved from his doorway.
But as they moved out of sight, toward the front door, Anathema’s expression became grave. “Listen,“ she said softly to Aziraphale, “I don’t know how much you believe in this stuff—”
“Well, I’ve definitely seen a couple of things that are hard to explain,” Aziraphale said. “And it does feel better in here now.”
Anathema’s frown only grew. “Aziraphale, do you know what suggestion is? Like in psychology?”
Aziraphale felt very confused. “What, you think I’m being influenced? Convinced I’m seeing things? By whom? By Crowley?”
Anathema nodded, setting her silver earrings swinging. “Look, I really can sense these things. I’ve been in a haunted house before. I’ve engaged with benign spirits and evil ones, and Aziraphale—” Anathema put a hand on his shoulder, peering at him with her dark eyes. “There is nothing in this house. Nothing except you and him.”
The door had barely shut behind Anathema when Aziraphale started to hear the banging. It sounded like windows and doors, one at a time, traveling through the house. Aziraphale stood frozen, looking at the front door beside him.
Aziraphale had seen the man before Crowley mentioned him, so it couldn't all be suggestion. But, Aziraphale wondered now— had he ever seen both Crowley and the man at the same time?
Aziraphale remembered being in Crowley’s room, with Crowley holding up his painted nails. All the polish turned red, he’d said.
“Crowley?” Aziraphale called, hearing a tremor in his own voice. There was no answer.
Last night I saw upon the stair, a little man
Who wasn’t there.
Aziraphale walked into the living room and looked up. Crowley was standing on the staircase, dressed all in black, with red shoes.
Art by AuguryAnxiety
“It didn’t work,” Crowley said. He was looking around, peering into the house. “None of the windows and doors will open.”
“You’re trapped here,” Aziraphale said. “You thought the cleansing would set you free.”
Crowley’s hands were clenching and unclenching at the stair rail. “New landlord. He doesn’t seem to know I moved into this place in 1972.”
“You’re not old enough for that,” Aziraphale said.
Crowley bent down a bit, as if trying to get closer to Aziraphale without moving his feet. His glasses were gone and Aziraphale could see tears form in his eyes. “The little man,” he whispered in a desperate voice. “I think he got into my room.”
“Crowley, there is no little man.”
Crowley sniffled, looking confused. “Can you still get out?”
“I don’t know. I could yesterday.”
“You should try.”
“I’m not leaving without you.”
Crowley shook his head, whispering again, terrified. “I think I might be dead.”
“Dead people don’t eat tater tots,” Aziraphale said. “Come on.” He extended his hand, and Crowley looked at it for a minute, but didn’t reach for it. He did take a shaky step down the stairs on his own. “Tell me what happened,” Aziraphale said.
“I was dating a guy— my housemate. Not officially, you know, because back then, it had to be a secret. We could only really be safe inside of the house. He— he did something for a living that gave him a lot of cash. An obscene amount of cash, he kept it in a black box.”
“The box on your desk? That’s how you’ve been paying for food and rent.” Crowley nodded. “What happened to him?” Aziraphale asked. “I know you didn’t kill him.”
“They— they came in. They made so much noise. Crashing everywhere.”
“I never knew. Probably people he worked with. Me— I hid. Upstairs. And later when I came down, it was so quiet.” Crowley put a foot on the lowest step, and joined it with his other foot. He stood, looking down at his feet. “The blood, you know. It got all over my shoes.”
“Crowley, come with me. We’re going to leave.”
Crowley shook his head, shaggy hair flying. “I can’t. I can’t, they’re out there.”
“They’re not. The only thing holding you here is your own guilt.”
“I should have defended him,” Crowley said with a sob.
Aziraphale took Crowley’s hand, and guided him to take the last step down, onto the floor. “I’m the one who needs your help now. Okay? I need you to help me leave.”
Crowley looked at Aziraphale, then down at their joined hands, then at their feet as they started to take steps toward the door. When they reached it, Aziraphale hung back. “Go ahead,” he said.
Crowley hesitantly put his hand on the knob. Slowly, it turned, and the door swung open.
“After you,” Aziraphale said. Crowley took a deep breath and stepped outside.
It was bright and sunny, and Crowley fumbled in his pocket for his sunglasses. The two of them walked out onto the sidewalk and stood there, just looking at the street. Everything seemed normal for Aziraphale. He wondered how things appeared to Crowley after fifty years in the house.
Crowley himself looked no different. He didn’t look seventy-five, no wrinkles on his skin or gray in his hair. It was as if he’d been frozen in the house, unable to move on from that one terrifying night.
“Come on,” Aziraphale said gently, tugging on his hand. “Let’s go break our lease.”