This Old House

“I saw her again,” said Chris, looking up at me from his seat on the floor. He still held the Playstation controller in his hand, although from the look in his eye, it was all but forgotten now. On the television screen, his car swerved off the road and smashed into a tree.

Tonight, I thought, after he leaves. It’s time…I can’t keep doing this like this…

“Let me guess,” I answered, sipping from my beer mug, “still dressed in red?”

He smiled, a bit faraway, but containing some hidden bit of amusement that only he ever saw. “She always is.”

He ignored the trace of sarcasm in my voice, still faintly smiling, but his eyes serious. “Her name is Bethany,” he told me, absently placing the game controller on the floor and rising to his feet. “She told me last night in the dream. I don’t recall what else she said, though.”

I started to retort, but stopped short of mouthing off a smart-assed reply. Let him have his fantasies.

“Why does she visit you?” I asked. “Why not me? She’s in my house, isn’t she?”

He shrugged, stood, and stretched. “I really don’t know. Maybe she trusts me. Who knows?” His hand slipped into his coat pocket, and he pulled out his keys. “Besides, you don’t believe me. So what difference does it make?”

I had no answer for that. He pulled his jacket on. “Talk to you tomorrow, Cliff?” he asked, and I nodded. “In the morning, call me. Maybe we can go to the practice range or something.”

He paused once on his way to his car. He glanced over his shoulder at me, and I imagined what I must have looked like to him, standing in the doorway of the large centuries old farmhouse I rented, silhouetted in the door, tall and gaunt. He raised his hand to me, paused, and looked up at the bedroom window over my head, on the second floor. In the bright light of the harvest moon that hung bloated and orange over my home, I saw him smile, and not at me.

***

After I left Samantha three months ago and moved back to Pennsylvania, I did two things within a week of my return. Actually, better make those three things. The first was to secure my old job again. This I did from the cab of my rented Ryder truck as I was doing 80 down I-95. The second thing was to secure the old house that I now lived in. Chris was the one who turned me on to it, telling me about it when I stopped by to let him know I was back in town, this time for good. And the third and final, the least important to some, but perhaps the most important to me, was to install a fully stocked bar in my new abode.

I poured myself a glass of rum, topped it off with a splash of coke, stirred it briefly, picked up my pistol, and went back to the recliner. I took a sip from my glass as I used the TV remote to switch through the channels. Once again, I proved to myself that blowing a hundred bucks a month on cable was a complete waste of money. I thumbed the power button and the screen went dark. Another sip.

The house creaked around me, as old houses are known to do. Not for the first time, I wondered how long ago the place had been built. The landlord told me it was built in the 1850’s sometime. He based this guess on the town records, and the architecture of the place. Thick beams, water pipes that ran outside of the walls rather than inside of them, the incredibly high ceilings, the stone foundation. I accepted his guess, although Chris told me about two months after he first mentioned Bethany that the place was much, much older then 150 years.

Another sip. I sighed, leaned back in the soft comfort of the chair, kicking my feet up as it reclined back. I closed my eyes, balancing the cool glass of alcohol on my right thigh, the glass a bit damp in my right hand from the condensation, the warm feel of the metal grip in my left hand, palm a bit damp not from condensation, but from sweat, and the hard weight of the automatic pressing into my left thigh.

Loser, I thought, and viciously swiped a tear from my cheek with the back of my hand.

***

“I think the place was built in the early 1700’s,” Chris told me. “Settlers from England.”

How do you know this?

“I’m not sure. It’s just a…feeling, really.”

Let it go…

***

The telephone was ringing again. The wall clock read 11:30, so I didn’t even consider answering it. A shrill beep, “This is Cliff, I’m not at home right now, please leave a message after the beep,” followed by another shrill beep.

“Hi Cliff…this is Sam……I just…wanted to say…hi, I guess…and to let you know that I was thinking of you. Cliff? If you’re there…listening…please know……please k-know that I still love–I mean……I am thinking about you, ok? Please know that? And Cliff, please, baby, please pick up the phone sometime when I call? Or call me? Please? Cliff, I think about us constantly…about what we h-had…and Jesus Christ do I miss you…so badly…I lie awake at night…thinking…BEEEEEEP.” The machine cut her off, in mid-sentence, just as it always did. I opened my eyes, staring at a thin hairline crack that ran across the ceiling in the plaster. My hand, I realized suddenly, was squeezing and releasing the pistol’s grip, slick with sweat, finger convulsing on the trigger. I took my hand off of it, letting it rest heavily on my thigh.

Another sip, followed by a gulp.

“Jesus,” I murmured softly to myself…

***

Three nights ago, I woke up to the sun’s rays streaming in through my bedroom window. A woodpecker pecked outside in the old oak, tap-tap-tapping happily away as the new day began. The sound of the woodpecker was something that I’ve risen to every day since I moved into the house. Annoying for the first few weeks, by now he was a comfort. Something I could depend upon. Every morning, the sun would rise and the woodpecker would peck, and life would go on.

My pillowcase was slick with blood, my finger shiny around the edge of the nail. I moaned softly, lifting my cheek from the sticky puddle, knowing that the congealing blood was smeared across my face. I have chronic allergies, I told myself and anyone who asked. My nose itched constantly. Blowing did no good. Rubbing did no good. The only relief I ever found was, after making sure that no one was watching, scraping my fingernail across the inner wall of my nose. Itching solved, and a quick flick would send away whatever it produced. Not so fast, mister.

The itching would go away for all of ten minutes, if that. It grew to be chronic. Constant itching, constant suffering, constant (when no one was watching) digging. My nose hasn’t ever healed on the inside from the numerous scrapes that I’ve inflicted upon it. Often just a quick itch would produce a nosebleed. Simply blowing my nose would often produce a nosebleed.

Jesus, are You there? My life for a normal nose, no allergies.

As usual, no answer.

In the spring, I would stand in the shower, looking at the white tile wall of my bathroom. My nose would be so full of snot and shit that I would hold one nostril shut with one hand and blow out as hard as I possibly could. My left nostril was always the worst for the wear, especially with nosebleeds. One good blow would turn the pure white tile into a spray of dark red bloody clots of snot. The way the spray from a gunshot wound to the head might look, I imagined sometimes, staring at the ugly mess as the spray from the shower slowly washed the tile back to it’s pristine whiteness. Down the drain I go, I would think, watching the swirling mess vanish into the black hole in the floor of the tub.

When I was younger, I’d look for worms in the mess. This after I read a short story by a forgotten author whose character believe that he was infested with worms. Not that I believed that, anyway. Or at least, I didn’t think I did. More importantly, I don’t now if I ever did. But that doesn’t stop me from checking once in awhile, anyway.

Three days ago, waking up to a bloody finger and a bloody pillow, the sound of the woodpecker and the morning sun. Two mornings followed, yesterday and today, with bright sunny days and no tap-tap-tapping. I sat by the window this morning for an hour, gazing out across the acres of what was once prime farmland, watching stakes with multi-colored ribbons blowing in the morning breeze, waiting for woodpecker to show up. I finally cancelled my watch when a car pulled into my driveway. I pulled on yesterday’s jeans, a T-shirt, and headed outside to meet my landlord.

***

The township approved of the plans finally. A new waste management plant was being built, and construction would commence in six months. The stakes in the unplanted fields would grow into condos. My old house would be torn down.

“I’m sorry, Cliff, but you have three months to move. I hope that’s time enough, but we did talk about it before you moved in, yanno.” He turned to walk away, but paused. “What’s this?” he asked, toeing something in the high grass next to the gravel driveway. His face puckered with disgust, as he kicked the small dead red-headed bird across the driveway and into the drainage ditch. I turned and walked into the house, leaning against the closed door, heart pounding painfully.

Three months to find a new home…

***

When I was showing Chris and Jen around the house for the first time, it was Chris whose gaze took to the far end of the basement, in the darkest corner of the dirt floor. He knelt beneath the cobwebbed beams, his fingers tracing in the dirt floor, his eyes distant. Jennifer stood at the foot of the stairs, clearly not liking where she was, watching anxiously as I stood over Chris.

“What did he find?” she called.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Something’s here,” he said, his voice thin. “Right here, about five feet down.”

“What is?” I asked, confused.

“I…I don’t know. Something…someone? I…dreamed about? Last night, I think?” He looked up at me, a frown on his thin lips, and then stood up. “Jesus, Cliff, I have a nightmare for the first time in years and I have to bring it into your new place. Sorry.”

And he dropped it, just like that.

I avoided my basement, though.

***

I pressed a round into the clip. The clip held fifteen rounds of 9mm ammunition. I only needed one. The bullet was a safety slug. A hollow point, packed with small bearings, which were held in by some sort of hardened gel. The idea was that the round would hit the target, entering the flesh (let’s not kid ourselves what the target should be, right?). The impact as it entered the body would shatter the round, spreading the bearings every which way, tearing up vitals, and making a mess. Very little, if anything, would exit the target to hit the paperboy on his bike as he rode up the next block.

I jacked the clip into the pistol, pulled back the slide, and let it snap forth. The safety I flipped off with my right thumb. After I snapped the safety off, I carefully pulled back the hammer, feeling it lock open, the trigger moving dangerously closer to the grip as I cocked it. Slight pressure, no more than a pound or three, and the safety slug would tear into the intended target.

A friend of mine once joked that with a safety slug, you could accidentally shoot yourself in the foot and still manage to blow your head off. I pointed the pistol at my foot. “Pow!” I whispered. I released the hammer, easing it back down, and snapped the safety back on. I put the pistol down on the arm of the chair, wiping away the tears from my eyes before I even realized that I was crying.

***

Work is not what you do. I am a software trainer for a government subcontractor. A grand paying job. High self-esteem. Wonderful benefits. Prestige. A new BMW, perhaps? Maybe last year’s Jag?

A software trainer for a government subcontractor…

The image of an office several floors up in a multi-level building with handsome modern architecture. A desk next to an open window, a soft breeze blowing in, maybe a bird perched outside on a branch.

Maybe a woodpecker.

My office was a three-sided cubicle that held more than it ought to have contained. My BWM was a 6 year old Chevy that I was still struggling to pay off.

But the overtime…the overtime was great. Thank God for the overtime.

I took a sip from my now empty glass.

I refilled it. Rum, a splash of coke for color, no need to stir it.

The old house creaked around me, settling, breathing in its last before it died.

***

“Four times now I have seen her,” said Chris. We walked outside along the edge of the north field, once used for corn, now used for stakes.

“What does she look like?”

“She looks like…light. I mean, I can’t tell. She almost seems surreal, and glowing. She’s in a dress…light-colored, maybe white or yellow. She is gorgeous…stunningly beautiful. That much I can see clearly. Her hair is flowing, over her shoulders, light, although I can’t tell if it is blonde or light. She is very light though…and she watches me when I pull in.”

“Where from?”

“The room over the kitchen.”

“That’s my bedroom.”

***

You know that feeling you get? The hairs on the back of your neck? That is when you know they’re there…

Or something like that.

I see dead people.

I loved that movie.

My hairs have never stood up on the back of my neck. Not in this old house, anyway.

I’ve never seen a dead person.

And I don’t believe Chris’ story, either.

***

The second bedroom I use for writing. I am a writer. I am a writer of stories, poetry, whatever. The notebooks scattered across the floor, packed with notes, prove this. I write.

The PC on the desk, usually turned on, either to Microsoft Word or to some Internet site, also proves this fact. I do write, really.

The Writers Market for 2002 on the bookshelf proves that I intend to send my stories out for publication.

The dust on the cover though…does it suggest something else?

The lack of acceptance letters, does it prove me a success?

Or on a note more curious note–the lack of rejection slips. What factoid does this offer?

I am a writer, I swear it, I really am.

And I like to take pictures, too. Open my chest of drawers, fourth drawer down on the right, and see the countless rolls of undeveloped film.

***

I wake with a start. Rum and coke has spilled down my thigh, into the recliner. The clock has just moved past two in the morning. The answering machine glows red and blinks the number “2”; another message has been recorded since I fell asleep. Samantha is also having trouble sleeping.

I put the empty glass aside on the end table, stand up and stretch long and hard.

The house creaks around me.

Outside, a breeze is kicking up, and I can see the old oak swaying against the full moon. The fields are bright from the moonlight, the stakes standing sentinel.

I go upstairs, my left hand heavy and warm, palms sweaty, clenching the pistol.

My bed, wide, inviting…I set the pistol down onto the nighttable, undressed slowly, tossing my clothes into the hamper in the far corner of the room. Finally, stripped down to my boxers, I lay down, stretching out, making myself comfortable.

I pick up the pistol again, studying it for several long moments, before slipping the barrel between my parted lips.

Well, Bethany, think you might try to stop me? Think you might want to maake an appearaance, pretend you give a damn?

Slowly, carefully, I draw the hammer back, feeling it lock into position, the trigger now pulled back. I wrap my index finger around the slim curve of metal–just as she appeared at my bedside, hair streaming past her shoulders, her skin pale, a shiny white that glistens in the moonlight. I look up into her eyes…bright with compassion, bright with love, hope, and kindness. She reached a long slim hand out to me, shaking her head, her lips forming one word, “No.”
Why didn’t you come to me before?
“Why?” I croak, my voice muffled around the metal barrel, tears falling freely.

I wipe away my tears and squeezed the trigger.

The hammer fell…snapping onto the empty chamber.

Her smile is so beautiful…

Chris Loveless 7/20/02

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