by Bart Lessard
I work part time as a ghost. There’s no paycheck but room and board is free. Nobody hired me unless you count the last person in the job. We never met. What I found is all I know. But I’m not alone in here, not anymore, the netherworld of wall and floor. Somebody has me on the run. He wears the frock of a priest and has pads on his elbows and knees to give chase through shallow spaces. His face is unseen behind a filter mask to check a century of dust and a beam from a lamp mounted at an ear. He leaves traps and has a sawed-off shotgun. I can’t say how it’s loaded—it hasn’t gone off yet—but I’m not holding out for sprinkles. Call him an exorcist. He does. And you sent him.
* * *
Three years ago I moved into a city apartment for a tilt at the gig market. This was in an old neighborhood. Big Victorians were minced up into one-bedrooms and studio flats. Dead space was easy to miss, especially from the turret and gambrel outsides on mine. The layout to the flat was odd, with split levels off a shrimpy common room. Four steps led up to the bedroom suite, same as for the kitchen and the entryway.
Scooting furniture around I found the uppermost ghost door. A leg had caught a tread. Floor varnish gave a snap and the bottom step popped up a quarter inch. There goes my deposit, I thought. But on reaching down to finger the seam I saw that it would move. The whole thing swung up with a wrenching creak. The stairs were a hatch, a torsion spring hinge concealed on the bedroom end. Beneath was another short flight, this one leading down. The flashlight app on my phone showed me an unfinished space. It had the same footprint as the bedroom and bath. Unfinished, raw down to joist, lath, and stud. But not without furniture, dimly seen in a shivering fog. Not vapor—the whole volume was sewn up with dirty spider silk, drier than a cough. I had to go fetch a broom.
* * *
One-liners—that’s what he’s shouting. I can’t weigh them for zing but the noise is a bonus. Even with cams and mikes down they tell me where he is. My laptop is in a bad way on the floor—screen shattered, hinge broken, case cracked on a boot heel. The keys are scattered like teeth around a mugging. He poured on water—holy water no doubt. He’s working from a theme. My cell phone is gone from its charging port, which leaves me dark. The hatch is stuck, to a jail rattle. You put on a padlock on the outside—his ask. The exorcist has a method. He might have done this once or twice before.
* * *
Soon enough I had a better look, even a bit of light: table lamps stood on retrofuture end tables, and the bulbs were still good for a yellow shine. Between them were a floral print patio chair and matching chaise longue. Bookcases, thigh high, sandbagged every antiwall, loaded up with magazines and paperbacks. A fat analog TV set—dials! rabbit ears!—sat atop a squat device. I had to look it up: RCA SelectaVision, a videodisc playback system, gone down in the wreck of the mid-1980s. A library was at the flank, discs in caddy sleeves stacked up on edge like vinyl. Most titles were science fiction. Anything electrical was wired straight into an old panel which was itself spliced to a main that had no business being there. Aside from my own two squinty eyes nothing down in that spread was a day younger than thirty-five years.
No headroom—the five-foot ceilings. On first glance, shadowy, cobwebbed, quiet as a tomb—I had said, “Hello?” Whoever the subtenant had been—a he, given Penthouses on the shelves—he left no names to go by. In the week ahead I had a better look. Narrow paths led to spaces below my kitchen, my broom closet, the hall outside my entryway. The subkitchenette was itself a kitchenette, with a bar-height fridge, hot plate, and milk crate stack, tops out, full of cans. Scotch Buy, read the faded labels, above a tam o’ shantered trophy head. A store brand from a less enlightened era. Sprays of dirty webbing twitched in the air I had disturbed. Plates and bowls nested aside a utensil tray, pots and pans. A utility sink had been installed, plumbed into the lines leading to my own, and the drainpipe into the waste leading out. Shelves made for counter space and a drainboard. The subcloset was a berth for a bed, small, nothing but a twin mattress wedged in and blankets under dust. Here a curtain was hung for a door, walls finished out, shelves put up, a light mounted to the rear wall. On which there was a Nagel print. It must have been a latecomer. The shelves held keepsakes, all of them noise in the weak signal. A smooth rock in a bird’s nest, an undead chia gnome, empty green bottles with a candle stub behind, a collection of magnifying glasses, a clothbound dictionary, a fat buddha cookie jar. I opened it up. Papers sat atop a gray husk of ditchweed.
Good hauls from any pharaoh’s tomb of the disco era, but the parts past the living quarters struck me hardest. The portions below the hall were a crossroads, nothing less—crawlspaces and hatchways. They led throughout the building, and judging from where they stood the gangways were to other rentals. I let these be, mindful of private lives, unmindful yet that this was the one true motive to haunting a house.
* * *
I creep into the underhall. Junk from the last guy lends cover. I peek out from around the chaise to the far end of the gallery. His beam gropes and grazes and he vanishes into a nook. He’s making his way back to the heart. The old exit point is no good anymore. I’ll have to improvise. The surest bet is the ghost door where the inkblot lady lives. She creeps me out, one of the two lost causes, even more lost than the arsenal man. But she won’t be home that time of day, and it’s closest, and I never saw her load for ghost.
* * *
Anyone who ever tried to gig through a lease in doom times can see where this went. I did have an advantage on the last guy to make the move: IT skills. Likely he had just been a dropout, a hippy, a derelict. I would be a dropout with a data plan.
Scouting runs on the underhall gave up a ladder at the far end. It led both up and down. There was a rooftop hatch with a double bolt, disguised as a vent panel. This gave me sun time for vitamin D. Below was access to the second floor underhall, and, farther down, a share of the basement, sealed off with brick. The laundry room was opposite, but there was no door. Here was how the last guy had kept clean and took a crap: a working toilet bowl, a rag bath sink. The laundry room was where the standpipe let out into the sewer main. He had piggybacked on this, and on the freshwater supply to the machines. Not ideal—I would have to keep a bedside jerry for late-night tinkles—but smart. He must have been a plumber. I was grateful for a skillset outside my own.
In and out would be tricky. There was no window on the stair hatch. I’d need access to another apartment. There was no roof stairway, only another hatch for maintenance. Fire escapes left off on the third floor. I could tie a rope, but I’d have to come out in the dark to go unseen, and that would make a ruckus when neighbors were at home. Figure it out later. My term was up in a week. Before I sealed myself in I scoured out the homestead with TSP and bought new furniture, flat-pack that I could carry through. Most old decor went into the underhall, stacked aside. Leaving it there left no risk of questions. I also brought in a Makita cordless drill and a couple of draw latches. The stair hatch would never pop up again, not while I sat on my claim.
No window views, but three steady bars: signal enough to telecommute. Remote gigs were sparse—coder work—but overhead had bottomed out. My address at the bank was still the same, and for my credit card, but statements were electronic. Once I had a password I’d poach wifi. Meanwhile I heard you move in. The steps, bangs, and scrapes sounded angry, almost theatrically so. But I took those for the pangs of moving day. Once I had the chance I would start bringing in spray-on foam.
* * *
My first time inside: the ghost door swings out of wainscoting and hits the coat tree. I knew it was there from a spyhole. A push scoots it out enough for me to worm through. The air smells of bad breath and charcoal. Sooty hands pat every wall—print on print, a collage years deep. I make the inkblot lady’s front door. A turn of the bolt, a hand on the knob, goodbye to the career. Vagrant beats dead. Worse I’ll miss the purpose, and yes, the community, though they never knew me, or that I was near. Except you. You knew.
I open the door. There stands the exorcist. Through the mask comes another one-liner. Diarrhetic terror makes it hard to get his dad wit. No move as I clap the door to—was only showing me he had the scent. Bolt shot, back to the rathole. The bastard must be on my cam system, maybe from my own phone. Crafty—bad news never came worse.
* * *
It was on scout for the best daytime exit that I found out what would change everything. At first I had gone out mid-day when people were at work. But I came upon something else the last guy had put in: spyholes. There was a vantage on every room. Most holes had been left blind when apartments were patched up and repainted over the years. A drill bit could fix that—narrow bores for webcams, surveillance run from a laptop. I had no voyeur’s itch, but I did need to know when people came and went. I was sad to find out what had driven the last guy. A simple pervert, never caught. Probably gone off to masturbate into the neighbors’ bedpans at a retirement home. Snap of me—unfair.
Soon I found an empty apartment, an older one. The spyhole was open to a living room. Whoever lived there was never at home, not for a week straight. Maybe they were on vacation; maybe they lived abroad. The vantage showed me where the ghost door was hid—a good spot, in wainscoting. A shove cracked a coat of white paint, and the leaf swung out. All the ghost doors were like that, I found in time. Three-inch tongue-and-groove hid a jamb well, at least if wallboard was still up. A grandma’s flat, to guess from midcentury decor and the child armies up in frames between soft-eyed portraits of Jesus Christ. A bowl by the door held keys. I disturbed nothing else, read no mail, took no stock—done and done. Three hours later I was back inside with bags of tech, acoustic spray foam, canned foodstuffs, fresh weed. The supe made no hall appearance, rarely did, but a simple fib would have spackled that ding over. His default mode was drunk.
* * *
The only places without cams and mikes are the heart and your home, once mine. But he knows that, too. You must have lent him the keys. I’ll have to rig up a weapon. How do you parry a shotgun with a rolled-up Nagel print?
* * *
To celebrate the exit route I fired up the dope and figured out how to work a videodisc. I could stream movies on a laptop or a pad any time I liked, but I was curious about the collection. I had kept these movies, the books, even the softcore glossies. I turned to Channel 3 as the internet instructed and watched Outland and Forbidden Planet. The first was okay—High Noon, with bodies yeastily exploding in a vacuum—but the second was great. Hokey, yes, and downright drivel whenever the lone woman had her screen time—her tiger pal unfriended her after she broke a tooth on Leslie Nielsen—but great. At one point a death fence and raygun barrage lit up a phantom Disney beast. As it howled and fought and mauled space soldiers in polyester I heard the thump above me.
The volume was down by more than half. I had no idea sound could carry. Three angry stomps on the floorboards, to silence. Before I caught my breath stomps came again, harder, spread out, to say yes, idiot, I am talking to you. I turned off the TV and held still. In time I saw that you took me for the neighbor downstairs and not for a stowaway. But the close call kept me up all night. Or the glow of anger overhead.
Which brings us to what the spyholes told.
The tenants have gone mad. Not figuratively mad—quirky, rash—but mad in a straightjacket sense. I studied over the next three months, looking in to see when I was free to move about, and what I found time and again only got me low. These were small apartments, so almost every tenant soloed in life. Every last one of them spent home time scowling, pacing, talking to empty rooms. In rest there was no rest, only a shake that built until it threw scalds left and right, back and forth. At bedtime the cycle would reset—work and home, public face, private face. There were worse cases. One guy got home, stripped nude, and sat on his futon couch, staring and inert, wincing at tears, and he did that every day. A woman measured the floor in paces, and that much was the usual—but as her mouth wrung itself out, no curses said aloud, she would turn and act out the other side. Replay, eternal replay—that was what she had to herself, a mirror on the day left behind. Those two were, if sad, harmless, to others at least. Another guy had a stash of handguns—more than fifty—and every night he took them out to clean and fondle them and listen close. Later on I found a photo album. Each weapon was held up in a duckface selfie you might make with a best friend. Another woman, once home, smeared herself all over with matte black body paint. She became unreflective, her form a mobile cutout. She slept like that, drawing rorschachs in her bed. Come morning she would wash it clean and set off to work. There was a guy who brought in stuffed animals—toys—which he threw into a heap grown ceiling high. Sometimes he would take one down in each fist and monologue—a gripe that rolled and reeled until he threw the audience aside. Stolen, all—the tags read names of children. There was a woman who burnt the eyes out of headshots. The tip of a blowtorch threw a dull rainbow on a stylus. Smoke would curl, portrait features ashing out in whorls. Under breath she said, someday, someday. She must have worked with actors. Worse, not.
Rant or freeze, anger drove it all, the selfsame craze of anger felt in everyone.
* * *
I know what to do. Not that I like it. There’s one place in here with lethal force. I don’t know whether the arsenal man is home. He works hours shakier than most, whatever he does for bullet cash and Hot Pockets, and I didn’t check the feeds this morning. If he is I’ll plead the Second—be his right-to-carry pal. There’s a rampage underway, I can tell him, a shotgun leveled at his door. Gun on gun: we aim to make a dream come true.
The arsenal man is the only tenant, supe aside, who never had a brush with the invisible. Once that photo album turned up, laying off seemed wisest.
* * *
That old dictionary on the bed berth shelf held a note folded double. Whether the last guy had written it, or somebody before him, who could say—no date, no name or signature, just cursive on a page torn from a journal book. But the longhand, the brownish tinge seemed older stuff than hotpant and platform shoe.
Picture me, looking up a word (manticore) while reading myself out and seeing the light. I had spent weeks in a funk. There was nothing special about the building except for the compartments. Madness here must be everywhere. I thought back to before the life between lives, and I supposed I could see it—an anger grown, with nowhere to direct it. I might even have left, too sad for glimpses of the wear and tear of the ordinary. But what I read made me think back to your thumps at the howling monster from the id.
And to something else. At the time it had been unremarkable. One night the raving lady had quit her march and pantomime. I had been watching by coincidence, making ready for an exit run. But in the feed she turned sharp upon her window and went to look outward. A police car had pulled up on our block, sirens going. The orange-blue strobe showed in her hair. Mundane—a reminder of the larger world. But even as the cruiser pulled away, flashing and squalling, she did not go back to paces. Instead, she sat in thought for a while and watched TV before bed. No miracle—soon enough she was on the boards, laying charges at the void where she would play the enemy. But the nudge had brought relief. For one evening the weight of her day had been lifted.
At the time I made nothing of it aside from the effect. But the note spelled it out: Say what you will about a bump in the night—it puts the trouble on the outside. There was a legacy here.
* * *
I pull the cams and mikes as I go along. But that just leaves another kind of track—blank marks the spot. Thinking about it I almost hit another of the tripwire snares. The exorcist could have left pungi stakes, grenades, spiky arms, but he wants to face me live. If it were just a citizen’s arrest I’d roll over and become a minor headline. But those groaner bon mots and pauses for laughs tell me an exorcism is played for keeps.
The ghost door to the arsenal man’s place has only swung out once, but that broke the skin of paint. Anyway here out I’m not after stealth. I know where the cache is. The decor is Ikea. There’s a lot of Ikea in the building—another sameness like the anger, whether the choice of sofa is an Ektorp or a Kivik. Arsenal chose a Svirfneblin in gray, and he’s lying on it, drinking a midday beer from a can. No gun is near a hand, but there’s a Mack Bolan paperback—a moment of strong personal development.
He looks at me, I him. The face is hard to read, even as he begins to scream. High, girlish, nonstop. I open my mouth but he throws the beer at me, and the couch.
Scurrying, gasping, I’m back into the crawlspace. He was bigger than he looked on cam. At no time had he thought to go for a gun. That will frustrate him. He’s going to light up a schoolyard now, isn’t he? Goddam me.
* * *
Bumps in the night, that was the scale—ruses played out with noise. Sometimes I’d go in and scoot something out of place, if the breed of mania called for it. Nothing overt—no poltergeist stacking up kitchen chairs or pulling out drawers. Nor with the sounds, and sounds were easy. Windup music boxes were a go-to. I’d take out the motors and screw them into the lath right behind a bedroom wall. The machines ran down fast, slowing to a finish, and the entire wall became a sounding board. Stares drawn, made uneasy, almost every tenant fell out of boil. Not the inkblot lady—no, she would just waltz solo to the eerie music, or with no partner I could see. My favorite gag was with the heap of animals. When the tenant was out, I repositioned each toy in the stack so that all eyes fell on the entryway. I missed the money shot, but he got rid of the animals and never brought another. Also, he moved out. I might have gone too far. But a kid out there somewhere would be happier.
So was I. It went on for a good two years. Tenant anger came on less and less. Ghost pranks would go from nightly down to once a month. People started reading. They had friends over for a movie or a board game. They went out more often. They brought in prostitutes. Society is not unflawed. People moved out, people moved in. The grandma apartment became a bro den, but by then I had copied other sets of keys. I ramped my game up or down as needed and did just enough remote work to keep myself fed and clothed. Churning out code is nowhere near as fun as a hoax.
Lost causes, though—they did bother me. Mostly yours, because I had never laid eyes on you, not once. I made it a point never to read names on the mailboxes or junk in the reject pile. Stalking was not the aim. There were no spyholes up there, so likewise no cams. But I could hear the stomp right above my head, even through the foam. You wept at night, and growled. The inkblot lady would play antimatter danseuse no matter what. But you—whoever you were, maybe I could help.
* * *
Girlish screams had brought no breakdown of the door, no knock, no questions. Whoever the exorcist was, he had no dream of being hero. More like a trophy hunter. Perhaps ghost heads hung on the mantelpiece wall back at psycho seminary.
I could go down to the cellar toilet, but that would leave me in a corner of hard brick. Most apartments downstairs are empty this time of day, but for security the sash windows don’t open all the way and the casements are wrought-barred. City living.
The rooftop. I’ll have to jump down onto the fire escape. Something will break—ankle, knee—but I’ll survive, and I can always shout for help without drawing fire. Maybe I’m due for a little help myself.
* * *
Simple mistake—without a vantage there was no way to see for sure if you were home. Once the noises had left off for an hour I swung up the hatch. It was the first time in three years. A scan of the living room gave the OK. You have good taste—no Ikea, but proper furniture, with joinery in Mission style. You have money or other resources.
Out I came, and lowered the hatch. I was going to map out the best angle for a spyhole. But when I turned, there you were, bolt upright in bed, surrounded by wads of tissue. Nary a honk—you blow your nose like a ninja.
I look at you, you me. You seem pleasant enough, if under the weather, even good looking. Maybe we could have wound up friends. But the eyes told it, just as they tell it now—they cook up horror from a distance. Whatever your mask, however comfortable your home life, you were maddest of the mad, the angriest of all.
“Who the fuck are you?”
A smirk, a shrug. “A ghost?”
Back down the hatch, I met no blowback right away. The law never showed up. Maybe you had taken me for a vision. You might have been running a fever. Whatever the case, you were not, never were, scared of me. But I had gone back to the old routines, content just to leave you be.
* * *
My head pokes up on the roof through the phony vent.
* * *
The home he keeps is filthy. The standby would be that he’s a family man, an orthodontist, well groomed and unassuming. But mad is mad, and it begins indoors. A Coleman lantern makes the only light. His laptop is open on a stack of hoarder’s trash. Brown runes are painted on every wall. Blood, shit, shit and blood—it must smell awful. No smell gets through. He must have me gagged as well as bound. He is cleaning the barrels of his shotgun with a brush like a chimney sweep. Frock and mask are off but I still can’t see his face. Everything is a blur and in a reel. I must have been hit hard.
You’re here, too—I can see your eyes, angrier than ever, and not much else in the shadow. Maybe we’re here to negotiate, with him as referee. No—you never saw this coming. Where did you look for an exorcist, anyway? Oh god—the internet. Worse—you used Craigslist. No wonder he brought you here, too, after he was done with me. Whatever fee you paid with all your recluse cash was never his motivation here.
The exorcist has no mind for anything but the barrel scrub. The rite grows old, so I try to say a word. There is no gag—no mouth. I fight my restraints. There are none. Sending out an arm—sending out what arm—knocks side a totem built of garbage.
His eyes snap up. I still can’t see his face. What I’m seeing isn’t seeing. But he can see, and see mine. In shock he scrambles backward, upsetting more of his junk. He’s breathing hard, eyes wide. I can’t hear. I can’t see. But sight and sound are in my mind.
“How are you here?”
You brought me.
The shotgun comes up, and his hands shake and scatter shells before he can load. You decide you’ve had enough. In a caterwaul like a phantom Disney beast you move, and the move is fast. What you do is so much worse than a movie. Might as well join in. I’m furious with him myself, now that I understand. My work as a ghost has gone full time. Like yours. Welcome to the job.
© DOCKYARD PRESS