Member Blog Post
Here is the second chapter of my forthcoming Paranormal Thriller novel, "A Ghost of Fire."
hen I walked into my studio apartment an hour later, the message light on the answering machine was blinking. I dropped my keys next to it on the counter and walked away without pushing the playback button. I was afraid it was my mother inviting me over for the weekend again. I couldn’t stand the endless sympathy diners with the obligatory lectures on how I really should have found something to do by now.
“I can’t deal with another weekend of that, not right now.” Not when I’d had a possible victory that day. I wanted to wait for confirmation that I had in fact gotten the job first. Then I could face the parents again. Then I could do it gladly.
I also set down the plastic bag of Chinese take-out and the rented DVDs on the small coffee table between the futon and the modest sized TV. The TV had been manufactured in the early 90’s when they still weighed at least thirty pounds and were awkward to handle because of their boxy shape. Garage sales and thrift stores were a bachelor’s best friend when there was a need for furnishing and short funds. The food and the movies were a little celebration treat for the interview and presumed win against unemployment.
There was a little kitchenette just inside the door. I went to the refrigerator and pulled out the half consumed two-liter bottle of generic brand root beer. I then retrieved one of the six non-matching glasses from the cupboard and poured myself a cup. I got a fork for the fried rice and sweet and sour pork and headed into the living area trying to balance it all long enough to set it all down on the coffee table without spilling or dropping anything.
I put one of the DVDs into the player, turned on the TV and sat down. My thoughts kept turning back to the interview and the near accident I’d witnessed. Between bouts of these stray memories I only caught glimpses of Bruce Willis blowing stuff up and narrowly escaping death. The movie just couldn’t hold my attention for more than five minutes at a run. The food, barely touched, was getting cold. An hour into the movie I finally turned it off and left it unfinished. I was too restless to sit and vegetate in front of the TV tonight.
“I’ll try again tomorrow,” I promised myself.
I sat back on the futon in the silence of the apartment, not knowing what to do next. It wasn’t that I was bored. I was distracted and until something could catch and hold my attention I knew I could be that way all night, maybe not even able to get to sleep until four or five in the morning. I hate nights like that, when the brain refuses to shut down because I can’t clear it of all the loose thoughts rolling around in my head like marbles on a shifting floor.
I decided to get up and pace around the apartment until something was able to draw my attention long enough to kick start clarity for me again. I started out by pacing to a window and looking out into the darkening day. It had been lightly raining for a while and I hadn’t noticed. The wet pavement reflected the street lamps now blinking to life along the road. Tiny droplets of water condensed on the cars lined outside on the street, became thousands of miniature rivers coursing their terminating paths for a short while and finally were absorbed into the damp ground below.
My mind was drawn away from this to a memory of a smell of ash. I wondered at this, trying to connect it with something. I puzzled at why I would think of the smell of something burning. I couldn’t remember where I had smelled it. I knew it was recent but I couldn’t connect it with anything else. I even pinpointed it as being that day, but I couldn’t seem to fix it into place. It was like something was blocking the view of my memory. And just like that it was gone again. It was shattered by another distraction. The phone rang, startling me out of my pursuit of a memory.
I stared at it for a moment and held a microscopic internal debate about whether I should answer it or not. I didn’t want to talk to anyone then. But I also knew the longer I waited the more there would be to talk about later. Plus I would have to conjure an explanation as to why I hadn’t been answering the phone and I didn’t like lying, not even about something that menial. I was going to have to talk to people sometime later if not then. I lifted the phone from its cradle and greeted the person on the other end of the line.
“Hello, Stevie!” It was my mother. I rolled my eyes. Let the guilt parade begin.
“Hey mom, how are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine Stevie. I was just calling to check up on you, to see how your job search is going. Is there anything new?” As always there was a subtext. This was one of my mother’s favorites. It went something like, “A thirty year two old man like you should really have a more stable life. Why when your father was your age he…” and on and on it went.
“Well mom, I actually had a job interview today. I think I have a pretty good shot at getting this one, too.” I knew what was coming next and braced myself. The inevitable suspicious question would rise from deep within her mind, float to her lips, travel fifty miles of telephone line and hit me right between the eyes like a bullet.
“Oh, that’s so nice,” She said, then added, “What kind of job is it?” I hesitated, which was always a mistake. Mothers can smell fear like a canine unit at an airport can find drugs. I tried to be nonchalant, downplaying my own excitement at having any kind of lead on work.
“Nothing much, just some janitorial work for a data processing company.” There was a pause and I could see, actually see, my mother roll her eyes on the other end of the line.
“Oh, that’s nice,” She said not meaning a bit of it. “Well, it may be okay for now,” she added cautiously, “but it’s not really something you want to try to live on for long. Even if you do get it you should probably keep looking for something better.” I closed my eyes and rubbed them with the thumb and index finger of my free hand. I found that there were just some people in this world who refused to be pleased with any kind of progress. I believe all such people go to my mother for advice on how best to do it.
“Yes, I know mom. Thank you. Look I don’t mean to cut this short, but I’m kind of in the middle of something here.” I looked at the blank TV and cold Chinese food. Yes, that’s right mom, I’m having a lovely party for one, I thought to myself. I hope you don’t mind but I’m in the middle of a stimulating conversation about climate change brought on by all the explosions Bruce Willis causes in all his movies. Watching paint dry would have been a more attractive option than continuing the present conversation.
“That’s fine, Stevie, I just wanted to invite you to come home for the weekend.” Home. I was already home. My old bedroom where I’d discovered the music I loved and the brave new worlds created by Tolkien, Bradbury, Hugo and others was no longer home. It hadn’t been for years. I mostly enjoyed my early weekend retreats back there, but recently they had become more difficult. There was no outright hostility when I went back, but there was still something not quite right.
Part of it was that I didn’t fit the successful mold created by everyone else in the family. The rest of them were CEOs, wealthy entrepreneurs and trophy wives. I had no intentions of aspiring to any of those paths, especially the trophy wife thing. I had neither the brainlessness nor the equipment. And as desperate as my situation was I didn’t have money for that kind of surgery. Plus, I think I’d make kind of an ugly woman. Regardless, I was the black sheep of the family. I was the failed project.
“You know, thanks for the offer, mom, but I can’t this weekend. I’m doing something with some friends.” This was a pure lie. There was nothing planned for the weekend. I didn’t even have any real friends in the city. I’d tried to develop some four months before after having moved there, but people seemed to get very busy when they found out how I lost my last job. The same problem applied to meeting girls.
It was hard enough to answer the “What do you do” question with “unemployment.” Try to explain the reason you’re unemployed is due to an accusation of sexually inappropriate behavior toward minors, and for some reason you will find that the average single woman on a barstool isn’t interested in having you meet her parents or pick out curtains together.
“Oh, that’s alright sweetie. I understand. I hope you have a good time with your friends. Tell me if you meet somebody fun, won’t you?” Ah, yes, “Somebody fun.” That was of course mom-code for “Somebody who can provide me with grandbabies one day, you uterus-less wretch.”
“Yes, of course I will Mom.” Then, as an after thought, in order to appease guilt gods I added, “Oh and I see my message light is blinking. You must have tried to reach me earlier when I wasn’t here. Sorry if I missed you.”
“I didn’t call you earlier honey. I was busy all day. Some of us work for a living you know.” There’s nothing like a closing jab to keep family relations civil. Yes, of course, I thought but did not say. Sorry mom. How could I forget? Maybe unemployment is starting to make me stupid as well as useless. A thousand apologies.
“Oh, sorry. Okay well I’ll talk to you later. Got to go.” As I pressed the off button I could hear my mother try to get in one last comment. I smiled and placed the phone back into its cradle. Then I looked at it for a moment. The red message light blinked slowly, advertising its single unheard message. If it wasn’t my mother, who was it? I pushed the button. The voice which issued from the grainy speakers was unmistakable, crisp and authoritative.
“Mr. Nicholas, this is Jan Fenstra at Spectra Data Processing. I was calling about two items.” I was surprised to hear back so quickly. I figured she must have called shortly after I’d left. I scrambled to find paper and a pen in case I needed to write anything important. The recording continued.
“The first is to notify you that we are accepting you for the custodial position. I’d like to arrange to meet with you on Wednesday at one o’clock so we may go over your pay rate and a few other procedural matters. We’ll be taking your photograph for an ID. This will allow you into certain areas of the building, notably the custodial closets which are otherwise locked electronically. Also if you want to use the elevator you will need the badge.” There was a momentary pause and a click. It sounded maybe like she had set something down on her desk on the other end of the line.
“The second item is to see if everything is alright. I heard the tires of that car screech earlier and then someone in the cubicle area shouted something about a fight outside. I looked out my window to see what was going on, knowing you had just left. I couldn’t see anything for a few minutes then I saw you walking toward your car. I also saw the other car, the black one speed by you honking and…gesturing.” She paused for a heartbeat then added, “I do hope everything is alright.
“If you have any questions or conflicts on Wednesday feel free to call me Monday and we’ll work it out. Otherwise I look forward to meeting you in the middle of the week. Have a good evening, Mr. Nicholas.” The recording concluded with the customary beep. I finished scrawling my notes and put the pen down.
I felt the call was more about checking up on me than it was about relaying the information about getting the job. I remembered thinking that if anyone was on this woman’s team they could trust she would go to bat for them without fail. It was an odd feeling, and a wonderfully strange contrast to my mother’s call.
I realized at that moment I’d found the clarifying anchor I needed earlier. I no longer felt the distracted and disconnected sense which threatened to unravel the day, dragging it down into uncertainty in the night. I was refreshed and ready to relax. I went back into the living space of the small apartment, got the cold food and took it back to the kitchenette to microwave it. I brought it back to the futon and was about to switch the movie back on and start over when I heard it for the first time.
The giggle of a small child came from somewhere in the apartment. I looked over and noticed the bathroom door was closed but a yellow bar of light streamed out from beneath it. The light was on in there and I knew that I had not turned it on. It had been off when I had gotten home and I hadn’t gone in there. The small, girlish laughter drifted out again and the light in the bathroom turned off.
I rocketed up from my seat spilling freshly heated rice and my glass of flat root beer onto the floor. I was frozen in place, not knowing what to do. Part of me screamed to run for my life and never come back. Another part of me, a smaller part, wanted me to pretend it hadn’t happened and that I was only imagining things and that nothing had really happened. A third faction within my mind, the one which ultimately won out, decided the best option was to stay and figure it out.
“Hello?” I called and heard the shaking in my own voice. There was no response. I forced myself to tear my feet away from the places where they had glued themselves and move toward the bathroom door. It was only about a yard and a half away but each step felt unstable as if the floor would give way beneath me and I might fall forever.
I reached my hand out and wrapped it around the door knob. My heart beat well beyond the normal rate and threatened to explode out of my chest. As I was about to turn the knob and burst into the small bathroom I was stopped by the tiniest whiff of something which did not belong. The smell of smoke and ash filled my nose and then was gone again just as quick.
The memory of the interview, of twice smelling something burning in a short span of time, cascaded back upon me. It was what I couldn’t recall just minutes before. Any further thinking along that line came to an abrupt halt as the urge to act grew too strong to contain any longer.
As fast as I could I turned the knob, pushed on the door and rushed into the bathroom, not that there was much space to rush into. There was enough space for the toilet, the shower and one human being. I was the only one in there. The shower curtain was open and the stall was empty.
The hair on the back of my neck was raised and yet it seemed unusually warm in the small room, almost as if the shower had been going at full heat for a few minutes, but there was no steam on the mirror and I certainly would have heard it. My eyes scanned around, darting back and forth but there wasn’t much to see. I even checked between the back of the door and the wall. Nothing.
I spun around and looked back into the main area of the apartment in case I might catch a glimpse of something which did not belong, but it was also deserted. Nothing was out of place and no one was there. I felt this as much as saw it. I expected to have the sense that someone was watching me, that feeling you get in old libraries where the eyes of long dead benefactors followed you from their paintings on the wall. But that sense was not there.
I moved cautiously back into the main area, anticipating someone or something jumping out at me for some unutterable purpose. Nothing did. The apartment was empty and completely silent except for me and the sound of my rapid breathing. Then a sensation came over me, completely unexpected and illogical. I felt completely safe and at ease. I knew I should not have but I could not reconcile what my mind told me and what my heart seemed to know. I also began to feel very tired.
I cleaned up the spill I had made and put the rest of the food away in the refrigerator. The great pressure and fear of only five minutes earlier now felt like a distant memory. I transformed the futon into my bed and lay down. Pulling the blankets over myself, I quickly fell into a deep sleep untroubled by dreams of smells and laughter.
Sam Whittaker © 2011
"A Ghost of Fire"
5.5" x 8.5"