Member Blog Post
he haze of sleep parted slowly and I began to gather memories of the night before like pieces of a puzzle. When the picture was put together enough for me to recollect the almost tangible sense of dread I had standing before the bathroom door my self-awareness snapped me upward. Memories of laughter and light from beneath the bathroom door swirled about me increasing my level of concern. What had been in the apartment with me? Had I imagined it?
“No,” I decided. “That was definitely real.” As ludicrous as it would sound if I tried to explain to someone else about it I knew that it had really happened. Something had visited me in my living room last night. For what purpose I could not say. Nor could I say I cared to repeat the experience.
I swung my legs out of bed and looked at them and then put my hands on my stomach and chest. I was in sweat pants and a white undershirt. I couldn’t recall putting these things on but I did remember getting into bed. Then again I couldn’t remember not putting them on. After the bathroom everything seemed to blur together and turn fuzzy as if I’d been semi-conscious. For the last ten minutes or so of the night my brain appeared to be a collection of still images more than moving ones, like an old photo album full of dusty and age-corroded pictures.
I got out of bed and headed for the bathroom intending to take a shower and then stopped. Unsure of what might be hidden in there I chose to stay out, at least for the moment. I could go the day without showering or brushing my teeth. It was Sunday and I had nowhere pressing I needed to be that morning.
I went over to the kitchenette to think. It was separated from the rest of the apartment by a wall on one side and a half wall with a counter on top upon which my phone rested. I went to the fridge and poured myself a glass of orange juice and walked back to the counter. I sat on one of the two barstools I kept there and began weighing my options.
The thought of going to a hotel for a few days and returning to see if things cooled down occurred to me. I hoped the whole thing would blow over if I wasn’t there. Maybe it was just a one time thing and I wouldn’t have to worry about it again. Doubt shrouded this idea. I thought it had to have happened for a reason and was sure the reason had not simply passed away in the night like a puff of smoke, a ghost of a dead fire carried away in the wind. Reason suggested that whatever caused the event may have possessed enduring intentions.
And what was I in the face of those intentions, whatever they might be? Was the visitation attracted to me or to this place? I had lived in the apartment for a few months now and nothing like it had happened before. Then again, I’d lived my life for thirty years and nothing like that had happened to me anywhere else. Or had it? Something elusive slithered out of my mind’s grasp just then. It was like the words of a song you knew well but couldn’t quite remember or arrange in the right order.
Another possibility occurred to me. It might have been a confluence of both presence and geography. The right person at the right place. I imagined the wrong key sliding in the right lock or vice versa. It resulted in the door remaining locked. But when the right key went into the right lock and you heard the satisfying click, the door could open and you could go into the adjoining room. Or anything in the locked room could come out.
“Yes,” I told myself, “it could be just like that.”
I felt suddenly uncomfortable staying in the apartment, even in the daylight. Standing up from my stool, I went back over to the futon and began to gather my clothes from the previous day and put them on in a hurry. I snatched my wallet and watch off a nightstand made of upside down milk crates I kept close to the futon. I trotted toward the door and reached for the keys I had left on the counter the night before and accidentally knocked the phone out of its cradle. It tumbled to the kitchenette floor in a clatter I hoped didn’t waken whatever else might be in the apartment.
Instinctively I reached down to the floor to pick it up. As I replaced it I saw the message light flashing. The little red eye winked as if it knew something I didn’t.
If the phone had rung in the night or the early morning I was almost certain it would have awoken me. And I knew I had listened to the only message that had been on the machine last night. I hesitated for a moment, afraid of what might be on it. I reached forward and then pulled my hand back.
“It’s just an old message, you chicken. Listen to it and get out of here.”
I reached forward and pushed the button, bracing myself.
The message began low and filled with static. Then the familiar childish laughter from the night before, this time distorted by the machine’s grainy white noise leapt up from the speaker and stopped my heart. But nothing could have prepared me for when the child spoke.
“Hey mister?” I almost fell backward but caught myself. “Hey mister, can you help me? He’s coming again. Can you help me?” More static issued from the machine obscuring something the child was saying. An interminably long silence followed, punctuated only by the sound of the little girl breathing as if she was waiting for a response. But the sound of her breathing wasn’t regular. It sounded labored. She coughed a few times.
Then another voice joined. This one was older and slightly deeper. It might have been a boy and it sounded like he was standing farther back into whatever room the little girl stood with the phone. He urged and pleaded with the girl, but I couldn’t discern what he was saying to her. I leaned closer to the machine, trying to make it out but it wouldn’t come. The message ended with a click. I wished then that my phone was one of the kinds which announced what time calls had come in.
I had completely forgotten my urgent flight from the apartment by this point and pushed the button to play the message again. I sat myself down onto the stool as I listened to message again. When it finished I was sure the other voice was, in fact, a slightly older boy. When it ended I pushed the button again and listened, trying to decipher what the boy was trying to say to the girl. This time, however, halfway into the message the voice of the girl was interrupted by a third voice. This one was menacing and loud and it consisted of only two words.
The voice of the girl shrieked at the interruption.
It sounded almost more like a growl than human words. This time I really did fall over backwards as I tripped over my own feet when I walked backwards too fast. When I got up I heard the message click finished. I thought I should have been able to hear more of it than that, but it ended sooner than the other times. Frozen for a time I stared at the machine and the machine back at me. I dared to try one more time. I pushed the button.
“No messages,” announced the robotic female voice.
I almost tried again and then decided against it. I knew hoping for a different result by doing the same action was foolish. The message had somehow been erased and I didn’t want to figure out how. Instead I nabbed my keys, opened the door leading out of the apartment and bolted for my car.
* * *
It wasn’t until later that I realized I’d forgotten my laptop. I would need it if I wanted to contact Jan Fenstra or anybody else. I could afford no cell phone and so kept all my contacts’ information stored on the computer. I debated with myself about whether I wanted to chance a return to the apartment or not.
I had parked the car in a lot at an industrial park a few miles from the apartment building. It wasn’t a business day so all the lots of the various businesses were completely empty. I now sat behind the wheel with the engine turned off and considered my choices. I eventually decided I should go back, but maybe the next day. It was Sunday and Jan wouldn’t be in her office to receive any calls I might make. The best I could do at that point was to leave a message in her voice mail. It would be better to talk to her in person.
“And what am I going to tell her,” I wondered out loud. “Sorry, don’t call my apartment. It’s haunted and I try not to spend too much time there.” I didn’t think that would be a good idea. I decided that I’d rather not lose my new job before I actually was able to work a few hours and draw a paycheck. It doesn’t look good on a resume, it’s even harder to get a decent reference and there would be no living with my mother after that. And I knew living with my parents would become a very real possibility if I couldn’t keep this job. I mentally shuddered at the thought.
That reminded me that my mother had invited me to stay with them for the weekend. I thought I might be able to take them up on the offer to get away for a few days if for nothing else than to give myself some space and time between the apartment and what had happened there.
“No, I can’t go back to mom and dad,” I said quickly rejecting the idea. I thought I should stay as close to my new employment as possible. If something came up and they wanted me to show up sooner I would have no way of knowing. I had to stay at least a little close to my apartment.
With no real friends in the area a hotel was the best option and I knew it. I decided that I wanted one a little bit more into the city and so I’d have to drive around a while until I found one that wasn’t too expensive but also that wasn’t a rat hole.
“It would be just my luck,” I told myself sarcastically, “that I’d find a cheap hotel and it would turn out to be haunted too.”
I turned the key in the ignition and put the shifter into drive. I pulled out of the lot and began driving toward the heart of the city. As the car maneuvered down various streets my mind maneuvered other paths, secret paths. Some other part of me had taken over the driving of the car while I didn’t really pay attention to where I went. Gradually the realization crept upon me that my surroundings were familiar. When I paid closer attention to where I was I saw that the nearest building to my right was the Spectra Data Processing building. I jammed down the brakes.
Something dawned within me. Being back here awakened a connection I hadn’t been able to make before. I’d almost witnessed a terrible accident on this street, almost this very spot. Or had I? The little girl I had seen crossing the road, the girl in the smudged white dress…had she really been there? Yes, she had really been present on the street, but perhaps not in the same way that I and the driver of the black sports car had been there.
The driver claimed he hadn’t seen her. I had merely assumed he wasn’t paying attention, that maybe he had been distracted by talking on a cell phone or something stupid like that. But what if he really hadn’t seen her because he couldn’t see her? What if I had seen her because I was the only one who could see her?
In my heart I knew now that the girl I had seen crossing the street the day before was the same girl I had heard laughing in my apartment bathroom. It was the same girl who had left the disturbing message on the answering machine while I slept. She was there, but in a different way. She was a ghost.
“But if the little kid is a ghost, then the boy I heard talking to her…he must be one too.” I thought about this as I looked at the houses and buildings along the street. My skin began to crawl as I remembered that other voice I heard the last time I’d tried to listen to the message, the voice that warned me to stay away.
There was a long story behind all of this, there had to be. The problem I struggled with was whether I wanted to uncover it or not. I wondered what would happen if I ignored it. Would it all go away? I also wondered about what might happen to me if I began to dig. Would I find something that should not be uncovered and awoken, something that was meant to stay buried? I thought about the last voice on the recording again. It had growled at me. It was angry at the thought of me. A very large part of me wanted to do just what the voice had commanded. The problem was that a smaller, braver part of me wanted to stand and fight.
“This, you realize,” I said to myself, “is how people get themselves into serious trouble.”
* * *
The first thing I did upon entering the hotel room was to turn the TV on. If I allowed silence to reign there was no telling what tricks my mind was liable to play on me. I also guessed there was some part of me that did not want to hear if some unearthly noise presented itself.
I soon found myself perched on the end of the bed half-watching a game show and also trying to figure out my next move. One difficulty I foresaw I was going to have to overcome was how to make it all the way through this mess without coming out the other side looking completely insane. There were certain people who would simply have to never hear a word about it. But was there anybody who I could talk to? I didn’t think there was. I was going to have to find somebody who was ready to believe me without knowing me.
I thought anybody like that was likely as crazy in reality as people would think I was if I told them what was happening to me. But then again maybe not. The more I thought about it the more I realized my assumptions about people who believed in ghosts or aliens or Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or anything else like that were colored by my own stance of disbelief. But now what had happened to me? My own solid, rational, disbelieving footing had taken an ugly thrashing in the last twenty-four hours.
It had been easy for me to stand at a distance and scoff at people who claimed experiences with the unknown or unexplainable. Now I was coming to see my neat and easy to explain world was bursting at the seams with complexity and my threads of simple ignorance could not hold it together for very long.
I decided to leave open the option of researching ghost experts of some kind, but only as a last resort. I wasn’t entirely sure that was a world I wanted to step into. I needed my laptop from the apartment for that anyway and I wasn’t ready to think about what was required for that task yet. That was for the next day and so the next day could worry about it. There was still plenty of the present day to deal with.
I looked at all the things I had spread out on the bed beside me. There wasn’t much. My keys, wallet, a handful of change from my pocket and a paperback book I kept in the car at all times in case I got stuck in traffic or a waiting room. I didn’t feel much like reading but the book sparked an idea. I didn’t need my laptop to do all the research I wanted. A former English teacher should have thought of it sooner.
The library would be closed because it was Sunday but the larger chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble would be open for part of the day. I had spent a lot of time in bookstores when I wasn’t searching for a job. I didn’t buy much anymore but I did use the stores as my off-hours library. They were about to become my new research centers.
“That’s where I’m going next,” I said. But I didn’t want to leave the hotel just yet. I needed a little down time where I wasn’t thinking about things that went bump in the night.
I began to flip through the channels. A sitcom here, an infomercial there. Most of it was useless drivel. I couldn’t imagine who would finance half the things which showed up on the screen.
As I passed through channel after channel I noticed something that made me backtrack. It was a movie and the scene showed a building on fire. A firefighter was trapped inside while his friends worked feverishly outside to rescue him. I watched transfixed for a few minutes and discovered a rising sense of panic. It got so bad I had to turn the TV off.
“Get a hold of yourself, Steve.” I wondered at nerves that were so bad that I couldn’t handle watching a tense clip from a movie without freaking out. I realized my nerves were probably on edge but didn’t think that was all there was to it. I had felt compelled to go back to the channel after passing it. I also did not believe my sense of panic was brought on solely by being caught up in the movie.
It had washed upon me like a wave of murky intuition, like I could hear someone standing and shouting from a beach but couldn’t discern the exact words because I was being pulled under. I should somehow just know why I needed to go back and watch the scene from the movie but it completely escaped me. That had happened to me a lot since the previous day. I wondered if maybe I was losing my mind.
I imagined life inside a small padded room with a constant belief that I was being persecuted by invisible spirits. I visualized what it would be like trying to explain my fears to psychiatrists and orderlies only to be locked up and never taken seriously again. I couldn’t face being labeled ‘nuts’ and shut out from the rest of the world. I had already lost so much. I couldn’t lose my freedom too. I resolved to take my steps very carefully from here on out.
The bed groaned as I stood up and gathered the few things from the bed next to where I’d sat, but I left the paperback book. I never knew why I chose to leave it behind. It just didn’t occur to me that I’d want it with me.
I looked at the TV again and then walked to the door and opened it. Stepping out into the clear early afternoon I took a deep breath. There were a few other cars parked in the hotel’s lot but not many. I surveyed the area close by, gathering my bearings.
The hotel was located on a main street near a lot of restaurants and stores. I had chosen it because I wanted to be close to a lot of people and activity. I also knew there was a big bookstore about ten miles down the road, and that’s where I decided to go next.
“Please let me find something helpful,” I prayed. My mind was just beginning to open up to the possibility of things I never would have considered before. I also, however, knew the world was full of conmen who would take advantage of people every opportunity they could. And I knew many of them could write books.
I trotted over to the car and checked to make sure there was nobody waiting in the back seat before I got in. Sliding into the low riding Honda I thought about how paranoid I was becoming. But I also felt it was understandable and believed no one else in my position would hold that against me.
It wasn’t long until I’d found my way to the familiar bookstore and ended up standing at the information desk. I waited until a sales associate appeared out of an aisle of bargain priced books. She was short and slender with shoulder length red hair. A pair of black horn rimmed glasses adorned her face and simple pearl earrings sparkled from beneath her hair. I didn’t recognize her, which meant she was new. A metallic, rectangular name tag displayed the name Katie.
“Hi, can I help you with something,” she asked in a soft voice.
“Yeah,” I replied, trying to sound casual. “I’m looking for something about ghosts. Where would I find that?”
“Fiction or non-fiction,” Katie asked.
“Right this way,” she said without a hint of judgment on her face.
I followed her and we passed shelves marked New Age, Astrology and UFOs to a section labeled Supernatural on a board above the shelves. I briefly glanced over all the strange volumes, overwhelmed by the chore in front of me.
“Are you looking for anything specific?” She smiled her retail smile at me.
“Well, I don’t really know. I’m really just kind of browsing right now,” I said, not looking at her because I was already absorbed by the titles on the shelves. I sighed. This was going to be a lot of work.
“Okay, well if you need any help just come back to the info desk and I’ll see what I can do for you.”
She turned and walked back the way we’d come. I watched her go and found myself checking her out. As she turned a corner she looked back and saw me watching her. Embarrassed, I quickly looked away, but thought I saw her smiling as she disappeared behind the row of shelves.
“Not now,” I told myself. “You’ve got more important things to do.”
A Ghost of Fire will be Available Sept 20 in Paperback, Kindle, Other Ebook platforms, and Special Hardcover edition.