Monthly Archives: July 2016

That Intolerable Noise

Troy was doodling with his headphones on when his roommate stomped into the living room and shouted: “WILL YOU PLEASE. STOP. MAKING. THAT. NOISE?”

Stephen had been a craigslist find, but for all that he wasn’t bad. First impression had read kinda fussy, but he was the first non-methhead of the day, so Troy had no trouble saying yes to him. Three months of quiet passing conversation, no passive-aggressive arguments about when the rent was due. And suddenly, this.

Troy swept the headphones from his ears. “I have it turned down, dude.”

“Not that,” Stephen said, exasperated. “That stupid…there! That!” he pointed, as if the sound had a physical body.

Troy looked around. It was a saturday morning calm. The Bellinis next door were out for the day, so no loud television. The Kellers across the courtyard had their pitbull trussed up, so it wasn’t that.

The refrigerator kicked on. Troy pointed. “That?”

Stephen ground his teeth. His eyes were mad little flames. “You know what it is. It’s coming from you. I’m not playing this game.”

Troy sat up, notebook sliding off his lap. “What games, what…I really don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Stephen was nodding, though, not agreeably but a reflexive jerk of the head. “I see how it is. You know, I pay my rent on time. I don’t deserve this.”

“Dude, you’re being weird.” Troy went to replace the headphones. Stephen knocked them away.

Troy leapt to his feet. “What the fuck?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I disrupt you?” Stephen asked acidly. “That’s what you’re doing to me right now. The fact that you can’t even own up to it—”

“I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about,” Troy shouted, getting right in his face. He was a head taller and twenty pounds heavier than Stephen, who finally shrank back.

“Fine,” he muttered after a time. “I’ve said my piece. It’s on you now.”

He stalked back to his room.

Troy capped the pen, shaking his head. The skull lay half-finished on the paper. He threw the notebook and a few supplies in his satchel and sat at a coffee house for a few hours as a peace offering. When he got back, Stephen was out like a light  on the couch, drooling excessively. Troy shook his head and called it a night.

 

Stephen was already up at the table when Troy stumbled out of bed. He had his robe on over his pajamas, the french press sat half-full of coffee next to marmalade toast. It looked and smelled like a trap. Troy groaned.

“When I signed on to live here,” Stephen said without so much as a ‘good morning,’ “I entered into a verbal contract. And though it may not be as binding as a written contract, I expect certain rights—”

“Jesus Christ, it’s too early for this.”

“—let me finish—rights that should be basic. I feel like my money not only buys me a space in this apartment, it buys me a certain amount of consideration. Would you agree?”

“Dude, I’m not making the noise, I don’t know what to tell you.”

“Would you agree?” Stephen repeated.

Troy wiped a hand down his face. “Sure, pal.”

“Good.” Stephen’s face was rigid. “I should think a right not to be harassed would be basic—”

“I’m not harassing you!”

“—let me finish—I would think the right not to be harassed would be basic stuff, but let’s just clarify it now, shall we? Harassment, as I define it, would be repeated and excessive actions designed to get a rise out of me. Would you agree?”

Troy stood and stared at his roommate for a bit.

“Fuck it,” he said, “I’m going for a bike ride.”

“Don’t you walk away from me!” Stephen rose from the table as Troy went to the front hall and donned his sneakers.

“We’re done here,” Troy said.

“We’re not done—”

“I’m not arguing with you anymore. I’m not making any noise, and if you can’t believe me when I say that then maybe you shouldn’t be living here.”

The last thing he saw before the door shut was Stephen’s face, drawn and white. It set off alarms in his head, but he couldn’t go back. Not just then. He saddled up the Raleigh and just pedaled aimlessly for awhile. Families  were out walking their dogs, flying kites and generally being pleasant.

Troy wondered if he really was making a noise he was unaware of. That would make him an asshole, if he never even considered the possibility.

He braked for a jogger cutting across the bike path.

Of course, if he was unaware of it, that didn’t automatically make him an asshole, didn’t it? And Stephen was awfully quick to jump to the conclusion that he was doing it on purpose.

Troy wondered about him. He’d never mentioned family, he’d never brought a girl (or guy) back to the apartment. He was generally neat and self-contained.

Troy freewheeled past a pond as he tried to think back over the three months of his tenancy. Had Stephen given any clues, any motion that seemed innocuous at the time but was suddenly significant?

He drew blank after blank.

Returning to the building with a bagful of chocolate croissants as a peace offering, Troy found the front door on a chain.

He sighed, set down the bag, and knocked.

Stephen appeared at the sliver of open door. “You’ll be happy to know I’ve called the landlord.”

“Dude. Seriously. What?” Troy put his face in his hands.

“If you hadn’t been so unreasonable, we might have settled this amicably.”

“Okay, look.” Troy held out open hands. “Are you going through something personal right now? Is it something at work? You can talk to me.”

“I tried, remember?”

Mr. Dimitriou came shuffling up the stairs. Stephen pressed himself to the gap in the door and yelled, “Sir? I’m the one who called you, right here!”

“Hello, Mr. Dimitriou,” Troy said.

“Don’t you dare try to preempt me, you bastard,” Stephen snapped. “Sir, it’s very urgent. I have to speak with you.

Dimitriou’s tired eyes looked from one man to the other. “Hello, Troy. It’s not the heater?”

“No, Mr. Dimitriou, it’s working fine.”

“Why are you talking to him? I’m the one who called you.” Stephen’s eyes were alight with unhealthy fire. “I would like to report an unlawful harassment. The man who rents this apartment from you has been repeatedly and insistently harassing—”

“It’s been a day, how are you even—”

“—harassing me. I would hate to bring litigation into it,” Stephen’s tone implied that he very much would like to, actually, “but I have shopped around and have several promising lawyers who might take my case.”

Dimitriou took a long, solemn moment to absorb facts. Then he turned to Troy.

“You sublet?”

“Yes, Mr. Dimitriou.”

“You charge him rent?”

“Yes, Mr. Dimitriou, we split the rent right down the middle. I show him the statement.”

“Your problem, then.” Dimitriou gave a shrug of his heavy shoulders and turned to go.

“Wait! He’s making the noise right now, listen! He hasn’t even stopped in your presence, that’s how blatant he’s being. Listen!”

Dimitriou looked at Troy, his grey eyes emotionless. Understanding fluttered between them.

“I hear nothing,” the old man said, and continued shuffling down the hall.

Stephen’s face was bloodless as he unhitched the chain. Troy tried to hand him the bag of croissants, but Stephen’s hands were limp.

“Look, I do believe you’re hearing something,” Troy said, “but I honestly don’t hear it. I’m sorry, have you considered seeing a doctor?”

“Don’t patronize me,” Stephen said. He went to his room and wedged towels beneath the door.

 

Troy heard little from him all week. It was the next weekend when he came into the kitchen, setting down a prescription page.

“There you go,” Stephen said icily, “a headache medication. Probably wanted to draw a middle finger, too.”

“So he couldn’t find anything physically wrong with you?”

Stephen nodded, smug.

“Did he recommend a mental health specialist?”

“I’m not going to—”

Did he recommend a mental health specialist?” Troy asked more forcefully.

Stephen wilted a little. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Which meant, to Troy, that the doctor probably had recommended one.

“Look,” he said as gently as he could, “I feel for you. I really do. But, if this is a mental health problem, you need to deal with it the same way you would an illness.”

Stephen folded his arms. “I know it’s not me.”

Troy said, “well it sure as shit ain’t me.” And left.

 

Sympathy lingered for about a week. Then it became annoyance. Whenever Troy would invite friends over, Stephen would make a point to make himself known. He would rush out of his room and do the most pointless, bizarre things he could. Trying to make as much noise as possible, Troy knew this. But it wasn’t until the mousetrap in the cupboard that Troy decided he’d had enough.

Troy had opened the cupboard above the sink looking for his box of granola bars. He pushed aside Stephen’s little baggies of quinoa and flaxseed jar and as he was feeling along the cupboard paper he heard something snap before he felt white-hot agony rush to his fingers. He could only grunt in surprise pain as he lifted the spring from his hand. There was a throbbing bar across his fingers from where the trap had hit. He sank them knuckle deep into a bowl of hastily crushed ice.

Stephen didn’t even bother looking innocent. He sat sprawled on his futon, watching a house flipping reality show. Troy stood in front of the TV set and turned it off.

“You need to leave,” he said, “I want you out now.”

Stephen looked shocked. As if he hadn’t considered this was a possible outcome of his actions. “You can’t throw me out for a mistake,” he said, standing.

Troy said gently, “look, this is getting ridiculous. You can’t talk to me, you won’t go to a doctor, and you can’t deal.”

Stephen said, “this is ridiculous. I have my rights.”

Troy said, “my rights include not being attacked in my own apartment. The subletting laws—”

“The subletting laws say you can’t kick me out for prejudice against my mental state,” Stephen said excitedly.

“Well, then, you would have to have an official diagnosis, wouldn’t you?” Troy asked.

Stephen shut his mouth. He really did look desperate. Troy almost felt sorry for him and then he moved his fingers. The twinge brought him back to reality.

“I’ll give you a week,” he said, “and then I want you out. I don’t care where you go, I don’t care who you hook up with, I don’t care what you take, I want you to leave because this is just unbearable.”

“ … If you’d only just stop,” Stephen whispered.

Troy slammed his good hand down on the television set. “I’m. Not. Doing. Anything!”

Stephen looked at the ground and said nothing.

 

If Stephen was looking for a new apartment, Troy could not see it. Stephen spent the time he was visible to Troy scribbling furiously in a series of notebooks. Troy called the landlord and the building owner just to make sure his corners were all squared. He learned he wasn’t really supposed to be subletting this apartment, but he could be grandfathered in due to an earlier lease. He also learned he could not use excessive force to take Stephen out, but the rules were vague on what that constituted. Just great. All he needed. More vaguery.

 

The day Stephen killed himself, Troy was at work. He’d given Julie his keys because she needed to pick something up from the apartment, so rather than leave work he simply handed her the ring. Stephen must have been waiting in his room, the ET said. He heard the jingle of keys in the door. He must have been waiting for Troy to come home.

Julie heard someone say, “no Troy, no!” And then a second later she heard a sickening crash as something hit the pavement. Stephen’s door swung open at a touch, and inside was a hurricane of disorder. When Troy arrived home later that day to take stock of the situation, he noticed he was missing a few things. Some furniture, some keepsakes, and an old vase his grandmother had given him. Stephen’s idea was probably to lure Troy into a conflict, they told him. There were signs of upturned furniture in the room, holes punched in the wall, and the window screen had been bent violently outward. He had apparently intended to frame Troy. There were no sign of the missing items in his room, and no sign of abuse on Stephen’s body.

Troy sat water-kneed on the couch with a cold beer as they broke this all to him gently as they could. Yes, he replied,  Stephen was not in a right mental state. Yes, they had quarreled. No, he had no idea any of this was going on.

They cleaned up the scene as best they could, and gave him the number of a crisis helpline. Julie went home to cry on her boyfriend. Troy sat with his arms encircling his knees.

He did not have contact information for anyone close to Stephen. His roommate remained just as enigmatic in death as he had been in life. That left Stephen’s few worldly possessions, still in his room because Troy could not bring himself to open the door again, in flux. It also meant that Troy would probably never see his things again.

Since he could not get up the energy to go to his room, Troy passed out on the couch after a few beers. As he slept he dreamed, and as he dreamed he came back to the apartment.

In the dream, he woke on his bed. It was night outside. The moon made unusually crisp shadows with the things on his nightstand. Stephen was calling him softly from the next room. In typical dream logic, Troy knew that Stephen only wanted to bother him about the noise. He kept silent and still on his bed. He was sleeping fully clothed above the covers, not even his shoes were off.

Stephen’s calling became more insistent. He had to talk to Troy. If he wanted his stuff back, he would have to come and talk like a human being.

Troy sat up. It did not seem at all unusual to him that his things were missing and yet Stephen was still alive. He walked slowly, oh so slowly, to the next room. Stephen was not in his room.

Stephen’s room was different in the dream. Where the window had been now there was an alcove that opened up into a greater hall. Stephens voice called from the end of the hall. Now it was gentler, insisting that Troy come and get his things, and Stephen would never bother him again. Stephen’s voice had an odd buzz to it, one that lingered like a tongue on a battery. It was irritating, yet oddly compelling. Troy had his foot on the first step when the honking of a car alarm started him awake.

He stood with his foot on the windowsill. He really was in Stephen’s room.

Troy step down from the sill, shaken. The wind blew through the open window. It had been closed when the EMTs left. He could see below, in the street where the car alarm was going off. A vase, Troy’s vase that had wilted daylilies in it, was shattered on the hood of the car.

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The Fierce Fenimore Clan

The story of the Fenimores begins with a birth and a misdiagnosis. Eunice and Harlow Fenimore were fraternal twins born to Bart and Claudine Fenimore at their Missouri farmstead. The doctor attending the home birth noted that the twins did not show what he considered a normal amount of activity for babies and estimated that they might be developmentally slow. The elder Fenimores took this to mean the infants were disabled and subsequently spent the remainder of the twins’ childhoods treating them as such. The children were barely spoken to, neglected of all but the barest means of survival, and confined to sleeping in a corn crib.

The twins were estimated to be of average-to-middling intelligence, and this early misunderstanding only served to isolate them from outside influence. Since they were never spoken to in complex sentences, they formed what their father dubbed “idiot english” and spoke it rapidly amongst themselves. The two were largely left to their own devices all throughout adolescence. Since the family included nine children(not counting the twins) there was little furor raised when the twins disappeared one day in July of 1908.

In 1935, a reporter was in the area following the trail of a moonshiner when a local storekeeper told him of a mysterious clan of mountain folk who spoke in an impenetrable language. The reporter initially dismissed it as a retread of the Sawney Bean folktale devised to throw him off the trail of the moonshiner. The shopkeeper then took him to a neighbor’s barn, where a feral girl was kept tethered to a wagon wheel.

The girl wore a tattered dress that they’d had to sew around the armpits to keep her from removing it. The storekeeper said she’d been naked, babbling an unknown language and fighting tooth and nail when captured. The reporter was intrigued. Over a series of weeks, he gradually built a rapport with the locals until the day they allowed him to take the girl, leashed, from her pen.

The girl immediately tried to flee through the bushes, calling like a wounded calf. To the reporter’s shock, she was answered from the treeline.

More feral children, some nearly adult age, amassed in the undergrowth. The reporter let go of the girl, afraid of reprisal from such a large force. As the girl fled with her fellows, the reporter signaled to the townsmen, and they began tracking the children.

The Fenimore compound has never been viewed in full, as it spans an extensive amount of tree cover and does not follow any known building plan. The men from town came close to the main development before they fell afoul of several defensive snares set out on the perimeter. They described what looked like a wasps’ nest of boards and other wood scraps, not like any other house they’d ever seen. They took this information back to the reporter. The reporter returned with federal marshals.

Under the guise of busting a moonshine still, the marshals trampled the undergrowth to the compound. Primitive early-warning devices, such as bones strung on a rope, lead most of the clan to flee the oncoming invasion. Those too ill or weak to escape were captured by the marshals. Two of them were Eunice and Harlow Fenimore.

The subsequent investigation turned up a few points of interest. First, that the Fenimores were suffering from a number of preventable diseases but not in poor health. Second, that there seemed to be a high rate of genetic recidivism. Third, that the Fenimores spoke not gibberish, but a complex idioglossia devised and developed by the twins during their years of isolation. The adults showed no compunction whatsoever to learn english, but the few children captured during the raid did, and eventually provided more pieces to the puzzle.

The clan was the result of the union of Eunice and Harlow Fenimore, who produced several children(an exact number was never determined) who thereupon produced grandchildren. Occasionally a Fenimore would abduct a stray child who would then be integrated into the clan, but on the whole the clan was so inbred that every third child was stillborn. The clan survived by a mixture of hunting and scavenging, sometimes stealing from homesteads too far from town to raise an alarm.

The remaining Fenimores were removed from the area by repeated raids. Most were sterilized in keeping with the attitude of the time that medically designated “imbeciles” should not breed. The adults spent the rest of their lives in asylums or group homes when it was determined that they would never fit into society. The children were confined to foster care until they reached the age of eighteen, when they were flushed from the system and all but vanished from written record. The last known Fenimore died of coronary thrombosis in 1998, in an adult home. The Fenimore twins were separated on arrival, Eunice sent to a woman’s sanitarium south of the state, while Harlow was confined to a nearby prison. The twins died on the same day, minutes apart. Harlow from an aneurysm, Eunice from unknown causes.

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The End of the World

Haruk spread his arms wide as his wives dressed him. They strapped on his ceremonial penis-gourd, the one decorated with parrot feathers. They draped him in heavy beads of turquoise, so many that his chest looked like a river.  They wiped white clay down his arms, white in welcoming and solidarity with their visitor. They tied the plaited grass skirt about his waist. And last, they set his teak sandals before him, so that he could step into the shoes of his forefathers.

The tribe amassed at the beach. Though Haruk was the only one allowed to speak with the visitor, everyone loved the spectacle. Children chased each other through the legs of their elders. Old men and women sat in the shade, fanning themselves with broad leaves. The story-weaver was ready with her bag of fibers and her beads of power. She had a red bead of courage in her hand and she turned it over and over in anticipation.

Haruk’s chief wife Shalay laid out the speaking mat. Like all other adult women, she had blue curled lines like tusks tattooed on her chin. She lowered her eyes demurely as her husband stepped onto the mat.

Far away, there was a silver flash as the visitor departed for the shore. A few of the men had seen it up close, once. A great silver canoe, one that could hold the whole village and still spare room. Haruk had known that any people who could make metal float on water were powerful people, and had met them in peace. His predecessors had not been so kind. Farud, his second cousin, had met the long ships with arrows. This brought a wave that swamped the village, ruining farmland as far inland as the burial grounds. Haruk himself had deposed him.

The speck born from the boat grew into a sickle-moon shape. This boat was plain wood, but a fascinating color. Haruk had been unable to glean how the colors did not wash off in the waves. Once a shy distance from the shore, the figure in the boat stood up and waved. The whole tribe waved back.

The white friend was a man like them. He had taken off the white skin once, far enough from shore that no harm would come to them. His skin was pink with heat, his hair fine and brown and his eyes an ugly green like the Perch they fished for. The skin kept bad spirits in, white friend explained, spirits that rode upon his back from his home.

“Wecome, Jess-up,” Haruk boomed as the white friend drew into the waves. The men caught the mooring rope he threw and dragged him up on the sand.

The white friend Jessup was not much taller than Haruk himself. The bulbous mouth of his mask made his words even harder to to understand.

“Greetings, Lord of the Mountain,” Jessup said in his clumsy, thick-tongued way. He had come a long way since the first meeting, even if he still chewed the people’s words like coconut pulp.

Haruk gave him a greeting gesture. Jessup repeated it clumsily. He had been so eager to learn from the very first that they excused his missteps, even when he tried following the women to the lagoon to watch them do woman things.

“How is Great Island,” Haruk said politely, “have you changed chiefs?”

Jessup squirmed a bit. The heat made the white skin uncomfortable. It squeaked when he moved.

“Not well,” he managed. “Chief. I must impart something of you.”

The chief dug his toes into the speaking mat. “Please speak, friend. Let us two make tragedy into fortune.”

Jessup struggled with his words. The skin was chafing at him, anyone could see. The tribe had not dispersed down the beach as they did in the past, they drew in closer.

“You know that I wear this skin to keep my spirits from…escaping you?” Jessup sneezed. Haruk immediately stuffed his soul back in his body.

Jessup paused, looking at hauk’s actions, then went on.

“There is a bad spirit,” he said, “huge bad. It sickens our people. It dangers our island. I come to tell you this may be our last visit.”

“Jess-up,” Haruk said sadly, “I know you. You do not wish evil on anyone. Please let our story-weaver cast protection on you so you may visit again?”

The story weaver stepped forward, albatross feather in her hand like a sword. Jessup waved her down.

“Not understand. Big bad spirit. We…greet other people. Small people like you. Before, on other island. No white skin, then. Other people die. All die. My people want to spare you that.”

Haruk took it all in. “I see you speak from the heart, Jess-up. We shall miss you.”

“I miss you.” Jessup was struggling, wavering on his feet. “I want to spare you red-spot curse. Terrible, terrible spirit.”

Haruk laughed out loud. “Oh, the red-spot sickness? Is that all?”

Jessup swayed. “You know this?” His words sounded congested.

“Oh yes. It struck in my father’s time. Very bad, many children die. But the ones that grew were stronger. It comes back once in awhile, but never kills. We are strong against it now.”

It was many words, complex words, that Haruk had to repeat a few times before Jessup understood.

Jessup stepped closer. “But this spirit bad. Blood comes in urine and tears. Flesh rots.”

“Yes, quite terrible, I know.” Haruk reached out to steady Jessup. “A terrible thing to behold. I myself caught it as a boy. But now you see me, fit and strong.” Haruk rapped his own chest with a thud.

Jessup sank to his knees. “Im-yoon,” he said, clawing at his mask. He repeated the word over and over. Im-yoon. Im-yoon. Haruk wondered if it was a protection word. Muttering his own secret protection word, he helped crack the faceplate of the mask.

Beneath it, Jessup had the look of a frightened boy. The red spots covered his face, some swollen boils that had burst. Red crust gathered at the corners of his eyes. He was more pitiful than ugly now.

Despite his ugliness, Haruk gathered him up.

“Do not be sad, Jess-up,” he told the white friend, “you will rest next to my father and his father before him. You will sleep like a warrior, and wake at the world’s end. I will even have Shalay put an extra travel stone in your bag.”

Jessup looked up mawkishly. “Already world-end for me.”

Haruk gave him a pat on the back and signaled to the men to pick him up. Jessup lasted until nightfall, when the last of his fluids ran out. They buried him in a plain straw mat, for he had no house-emblem to distinguish him. Haruk himself put a stone into Jessup’s bag.

The men set out to the great silver canoe, where it sat pinned by some unknown means to a single spot in the bay. The top of it was too high to climb, but they could see from a distance that the other Great Islanders were in the same state as Jessup, lying prone where they had fallen. Eventually a storm uprooted the ship, and they watched it drift away to the horizon. The white friend and his silver ships became a story Haruk told his grandchildren.

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The Last Recording of Ian Statler

What follows is a transcript of a recording made by Ian Statler, 35, who went missing after a scheduled appraisal on July 12th, 2006. Statler parked his car at 3206 Santa Viera court at 3:00pm and was last seen entering the house at that address. The hallway described by Statler does not appear on the house schematics, and following his directions leads to a bookshelf with no further opening behind it. The recorder with tape inside was found in the 5th and Main subway station. Statler presumably took it along to report details of the house, as evidenced by the first minute and a half of tape. The ‘Gomez’ mentioned by Statler would appear to be the legal owner of the house, one Adam Gomez. However, the address and social security number written on the paperwork are both fake, and the phone number was disconnected shortly after Statler’s disappearance. There were no witnesses to the drop-off of the recorder, and the tape was found rewound to the beginning. Statler is missing presumed dead.

 

**begin transcript**

STATLER: Check one-two. *sound of air blowing into receiving microphone* July 12th, Wednesday. House is in a nice neighborhood. No HOAC, that could be a plus. Nice little yard out back that could turn into a basketball court or a pool. Roof needs some work. *sound of door opening*

STATLER: oooh boy. Hardwood floors, show wear and tear. Needs refinishing. The windows aren’t—

[at this point, the audio cuts smoothly into a separate recording. Presumably, Statler meant to rewind the tape to the beginning and stopped too soon.]

STATLER: Okay, Jesus. Good. Gather my thoughts.

STATLER: it’s July 12, Wednesday. I think. I’ve been down here for hours. I don’t know if i’ll ever see daylight again. *long, drawn-out sigh*

STATLER: I’ve only spoken to my client over the phone. That’s not unusual. There’s plenty out-of-staters who own in California. Hell, half the block belongs to Chinese investors who never even set foot in the country—

STATLER: I’m sorry, I’m getting off track. Whoever’s listening…okay, me? Erase this part if you chose to show someone else, okay?

STATLER: *miscellaneous noises* Gomez wanted me to appraise his place. Not unusual. He asked me to check up on some things, see if they’d ding the resale value. The house—

[thirty seconds of dead air. Statler presumably listening for something.]

STATLER: Okay, the house did not look lived in. Like, it had some stuff in there, but not like it had ever been used. I mean, that’s kinda normal. There’s plenty of flipped houses in the valley. But there were a lot of things that didn’t make sense. The halls had brand-new light fixtures, but the floors were rotting. New drapes on the windows that had moldy sills.

STATLER: I should’ve left. Fuck, I should have walked right out. Fishy as hell. I’m an idiot.

[ten seconds of dead air]

STATLER: He told me to check out the storage closet in the basement. It’s sort of left by the water heater, kind of squeezed down this little passage. If you’re listening, don’t go down there, don’t even go near the house. *voice builds up to an emotional plea* For the love of God don’t let anybody else get lost down here.

[Statler stops to breathe, regaining control of his voice]

STATLER: Of course it opened up, and I went right inside. I’m an idiot. It looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to the wall. I walked into the hole. And I found…I found the hallway.

STATLER: *gulps* It’s really fucking weird to look at but if you go in there and see it, stay back. I know it looks like a normal hallway, but it just goes on and on and on. Those lamps? Don’t plug into anything. *bitter laughter* I have this little novelty keychain thing, it’s barely better than a glowstick. That’s all. I have my keys, I have my phone—which gets no signal down here—I have that business card in my pocket—I didn’t even bring a snack in the car—

[Statler breaks off, presumably to calm himself again]

STATLER: So it looked like  hallway from a regular old tract house. Like my gramma’s. It even had that wallpaper, that pink-on-pink that looked like a rash? God, I don’t miss her. She used to…anyway, it had lamps and white wicker tables and doors every so often. I opened a couple. They were always the same room. White wicker chairs, blond pine coffee table, white rug. Always the same.

STATLER: By the time I realized how far I’d gone, I turned back.

[eight seconds of dead air]

STATLER: I went in a straight line. I know I did. But the hall ended in another door. And when I opened it, there was another hall, identical to the one I was in. So I-I went back the other way. Walked way too long. There was another door, this one just opened up on the rooms. I wasn’t even panicking then, I was just kind of confused and I think I just got myself more lost, like, you know how they tell you to stay where you are when you’re lost in the woods? So when they come to rescue you—*breaks off into laughter*

STATLER: Shit. Like anyone’s coming for me. I don’t even know why the fuck I’m doing this. *sounds on the verge of tears* I don’t want to die. I don’t want to stay down here anymore. I hate houses. I hate rooms. I want to live in the woods from now on.

[Statler takes a few breaths to calm himself]

STATLER: Fuck. Forget it. So I’m lost, and then an hour ago I saw something moving. I’ve been sparing on the keychain, it’s only a watch battery. I saw something moving down the hall right before I clicked off the light. It was a long ways off. By the time I hit the button again, i-it was way closer. *laughter* I thought, “people!” I was so fucking happy. I thought it was a homeless guy who snuck down here, m-maybe he could show me out? I’d do that if I were homeless, move into a suburban maze. I mean, it’s gotta be better than living on the streets, right?

[ten seconds of dead air]

STATLER: It wasn’t a man.

[a shuffling noise starts up at this point. Statler appears unaware of the sound, his voice shows no overt reaction]

STATLER: From a distance—okay, sure, it could be an old guy with natty white-boy dreads. But it got closer–um, close to me, and he didn’t look–like, the nose was wrong. The nostrils were almost sideways. And the biggest–the weirdest thing was that his eyes reflected the light. Like a cougar or a wolf. Human’s eyes don’t do that, I remember my dad said once.

[twenty seconds of dead air. Statler may have been listening but did not seem to detect the noise]

STATLER: It started shuffling towards me, and it moved—it was wrong, okay? The whole thing was wrong. So I cut the light and I took the first door I found—thank God it was another hallway—and then immediately took another door. I could hear it following me. It went past me down the hall. I waited until I heard another door shut before I came out. I haven’t—I’ve been fumbling around in the dark, because I’m afraid if I can see it, it can see me.

[another sound layers over the shuffling noise. Audio analysis shows it has a match in the tymbal sound generated by cicadas, however at a much deeper pitch]

STATLER: So I’m sitting in one of those stupid wicker chairs. I’ve been walking for hours. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep in a place like this. I don’t want to sleep. What if they find me in the dark? Those lights in the eyes, I think they’re supposed to help animals hunt better at night, aren’t they?

STATLER: I’ve heard others moving around. Sometimes in the same hall. Mostly I just curl up into myself and hope they don’t come near but I can’t—I’m going to die down here, I know it. I just wish it wasn’t so fucking dark. I can’t stand not knowing what’s in front of me.

[at this point a third noise is detectable in the audio, a rising and falling tone that resembles no known audio, man or animal. Audio analysis showed that the origin of the noise was something attempting to mimic Statler’s speech]

STATLER: So I figured fuck it, watch battery or not, I’m going to—*begins screaming* Fuck! Fuck! Get the fuck [unintelligible] no, no, no, oh God no *hyperventilated breath* I [unintelligible] fucking can’t I just [unintelligible] no, get away!

[a loud click, presumably the recorder hitting the ground as Statler’s cries fade away. Sixty-five more minutes of dead air before the tape runs out]

**end transcript**

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Phone People

There was an old, white, square office phone at her uncle’s supply depot. It sat on a small table apart from everything else. The plastic was scuffed and grey from age. It didn’t plug into anything. There was nothing to plug into.

Luka noticed it her first day in the depot, but waited to ask after it. There were new rules to follow, more stringent than the ones at home. There was her cleansuit to get used to. There were engines to keep running. Even when she finally did, the question was not posed to uncle Jesse, but the men on the crew.

“I mean, does he keep it as a souvenir, or something?” she asked.

The men looked discomfited. One-ear Pete twirled a screwdriver around his bent middle finger.

“Somethin’ like that, yeah.” He harrumphed a measure of phlegm into a nearby plastic bottle.

“Stick around long enough, you’ll see.”

‘Long enough’ turned out to be three hours later. The phone rang.

Luka started, dropping the filters she’d been rinsing.

“Unca’ Jesse?” she called, “Deej? Phone’s ringing.”

Jesse came waddling through the depot door, shrugging on the loose shoulder of his coverall. He was the only chubby person Luka knew, which meant he had a lot more to offer than her family back home.

“I got it, I got it,” he said hastily. He took a quick breath before picking up the receiver. “Hello, McCalister’s department store,” he said in a polished tone she’d never heard before.

Luka clapped a hand in front of her giggle. Jesse shot her a glare.

“Oh hello, Mrs. Scheuble-Wilkes! What can I do for you today?” Luka’s uncle flicked his pointer finger to the doorway. Out, out.

Luka sought refuge outside.

The crew worked in shifts. Half the men were in heavy coveralls, unloading crates, soaping and rinsing down equipment. The other half were leaning against the wall, chewing tobacco and drinking bottled water.

Luka put her back to the wall and slid down to a sit, walking her legs out in front of her. Deej, the youngest member of the crew, handed her a bottle. She nodded thanks.

“He’s going off in there.” She motioned with the bottle.

“The phone? Oh yeah. He’s gotta answer it.” Deej smiled. He was missing his right top canine. “Cal tried answering it one day. That was nearly a disaster.”

Luka sipped her water, tonging the iron taste, trying to put her next statement together carefully.

“So is it—ghosts? Or some kind of weird radio?” She tried to back away from the first statement.

No need. “Right on the first.” Deej ate a handful of sunflower seeds. “It’s from the people who used to live over that way—” he waved off through the gray lead-cored wall, “—in some place used to be called Avalon Heights. Rich folks, lived in big houses.”

Luka looked at the wall. There were no windows in the depot. “Why do you think they call? How?”

Deej gave a shrug, finding something else to look at. They didn’t like questions here, none of them.

The afternoon was free, so she donned her cleansuit and walked a ways down the direction Deej had indicated.

Avalon Heights. She’d never met a rich person. The word ‘rich’ held no meaning for her. Jesse was rich, he had all the food he could want and power over other people. That was just about all you could ask for.

She took her binoculars and squinted down the tundra created by the blast. However big those houses may have been, there was nothing but wreck now. The few standing walls were pockmarked by shrapnel. Here and there, they were the blurry half outlines of shadows permanently fused to the wall.

Her filter indicator was orange. She treked back to the depot.

It was an insult, considering how carefully she carried herself out in the wastes, that the airlock door closed on her suit and ripped it. That earned her a chewing out from her uncle.

“Fool girl goes outside without a partner, for no good goddamn reason.” Jesse took a piece of precious electric tape from the roll and sealed the suit again. “I will ship you back to your folks, don’t think I won’t.”

“Unca’ Jesse,” Luka said, “why do you keep the phone? Those folk are gone, why not get rid of it?”

Jesse’s face was hard as he answered: “simple girl thinks everything’s goddamn simple. No, we can’t just chuck it. The phone stays there, and we take the calls. It’s part of the package, girl. Came with the building.”

Luka watched him store the tape in his drawer and lock it up. “What’s a department store?”

Jesse’s face was softer. “Another way of saying depot, child. Used to be you could find anything there, not just what you needed. All the time. Didn’t depend on the season or the roads, they always had it in. When your dad and me were young—” he broke off and rearranged some wrenches sitting on his tool bench.

Luka tried to imagine such plenty. “Y’ever been in one?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t like that anymore. That was the start of lean times, child. It was more like this depot, only most of the stuff it had, nobody needed anymore.” He turned. “Now I’ve got nine head of iodine tablets sitting on the floor out there, and no hand laid on them.” He gave her a pointed look.

As Luka sorted goods, she thought about the phone. What it was like to talk to a ghost.

She made it so the next time the phone rang, she was handy.

Luka picked it up and waited.

“Hello?” the voice was a woman’s, irked and sharp. There was an odd heaviness on the line, something that distorted her words like a rock on a plastic sheet.

“Hello?” Luka said right back.

“Is this McCalister’s?” There was a fuzzy background static to the line. Luka tried to imagine the signal struggling in from some grey land.

“Sure,” she said.

The woman’s voice grew angrier. “Sure? Sure? It’s good to know your store’s so casual about customer service, missy, I’ll be sure to pass the knowledge on to my friends. Now are you going to help me or not?”

“I’ll try,” Luka said, which seemed like a safe answer. No one had ever been this angry with her. It was puzzling.

The woman gave a sigh which made the line crackle. “Well, I bought a 24-piece crystal set from your store not three months ago. When I went to use the punch bowl for our Memorial Day gathering, it was chipped.” The woman’s voice made it clear that this was quite possibly the worst thing in the world. “Now, the only time it had been out of my hands is at the register and when it was delivered to my house. What do you think that says about your service?”

Luka squinted. She had never before encountered someone speaking the same language but misapplying so many words.

“Back up,” she said, “you use a bowl to punch somebody?”

The woman’s voice was flat when she said, “let me speak to your supervisor.”

Uncle Jesse pushed open the door and bustled in, furiously beckoning to her. Luka surrendered the phone, still puzzled as her uncle tried to appease the unbelievable voice. A full refund didn’t do it, nor did an apology. A voucher for a free spiral cut ham and 50% off her next purchase did.

“I don’t get it,” she said as he hung up, “you don’t let anyone else talk to you like that. Why you let dead people push you around?”

Jesse put his hand on her scruff and pushed her out of the room. “You gotta make nice with them, girl. Make them think they got you by the scrote so they might consider letting it go.”

“Yeah, but you cut Joe off last week just ‘cause he looked at you funny.”

“That’s different. You have to make nice with the phone people or bad things happen.” He gave her a final shove. “Don’t you worry about the phone no more. I don’t want to see you near it.”

Deej gave her a sympathetic look as she took up a sponge and worked on the engine next to him.

“He talks a hard line, but he’s fair man, Luke.”

“He talks a fool line. Probably just likes to feel important.” Luka worked her aggression into suds. “You really respect him and all that?”

Deej shrugged, which earned him a few points in her eyes. “My dad got lymph sickness when I was young. I got nothing to go back to, so I got no reason not to.”

Luka watched the suds creep down the side of the engine part. “I guess respecting him I could see. Why the hell I should give bossy dead folks respect is beyond me.”

Deej grinned. “Maybe they just want to feel important after all.”

“If they wanted to be important, they should’ve left the big houses and gone underground,” she argued, “like sensible people. ‘Stead of worrying about crystals and punch and what else.”

“Ohhh, you got the crystal set lady?” Deej guffawed. “She’s one of the worst. You can’t just give her what she wants, she has to cut you down some beforehand.”

Luka wasn’t scrubbing anymore. She was looking at her hands, grime clinging to the cracks in the skin.

“Shouldn’t be right,” she said, “such disrespect. Who the hell do they think they are?”

Deej’s grin disappeared and he looked away. “Nothing we can do. Way of the world.”

Luka begged to differ, but she knew to do it silently. She did nothing by pretending to do something all the time, so whenever her uncle spotted her she was carrying something or looked like she was  in a hurry to the next place. One day this turned out to be true: she was hurrying to the room with the phone.

Luka made sure to position herself behind the door, just in case Jesse walked in.

The phone sat in the middle of everything, an island of anachronism.

When it rang, Luka picked it up before it could even finish.

“What?” she said dully.

“Who is this?” It was a man’s voice this time. She tried to imagine the body that had supplied it a long time ago. Tall, broad-shouldered. Probably thinning hair.

“Who is this?” she repeated back.

“This is Preston William Weber jr. Who is this?” The man’s voice was brassier than the last caller, like he was speaking way too close to the receiver. “Nevermind, I’ll tell you who this is: this is the person making less in ten years than I earn in a month and yet decided to throw their weight around. Don’t even try me, you drop-out, I will have your parents evicted.”

Luka smiled. “Alright.”

“I bought an argyle tie from your men’s wear counter. I have bought every single tie I’ve ever owned from your counter. And they have all been of a quality. But this tie,” and he really wound up to a yell, “this tie fell apart in the wash. Do you hear me? I spent sixty dollars on this item and it falls apart when water hits it. Now, do you see that I’m upset?”

“Uh-huh.” Luka wondered what the hell an argyle was.

“Well, what are you going to do to make it up to me?”

Luka took a deep breath.

“What are you going to do to make it up to me?” the voice prompted.

“You’re dead,” Luka said. “You hear me?”

“What?”

“You’re dead. You were probably sitting in your big house when the flash happened and got burnt to ash. You’re dead, and so’s anyone who cared.”

“This isn’t funny, young lady.” The line was distorting even more heavily. “I may have to teach you a lesson if you don’t smarten up.”

“Fuck you,” Luka said, “what the hell makes you think you can bug people like this? You’re not important. You didn’t do anything for anyone. Just sit in your ash house and leave the rest of us alone.”

There was a commotion down the hall.

Do you want me to come down there?” He was yelling now, the feedback hurt her ear. “I will come down there and make you sorry.

“Go right ahead, fatty,” Luka said as Jesse elbowed open the door, “just get up and walk on your legs that aren’t there anymore. I hope you—”

Jesse ripped the phone from her hands and threw it onto the cradle. “Girl—dammit!!”

“There,” Luka said coolly, “I fixed it. I told him off.”

Jesse’s face was red. He dug the stubby nail-ends of his fingers into the flesh of his forehead. “Fucksakes, what am I going to tell your folks? Why can’t you have half the sense of a dog?”

“He can’t do nothing, he’s dead.”

“No, he’s coming down here now!” Jesse shouted in her face, “that’s what he’s doing! You think this never happened before? What do you think happened to your cousin Emmett?”

Luka said “oh” in a small voice.

Jesse wasn’t angry now. He was looking at her and shaking his head. He was afraid.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “you got to go out there, now. Meet him. I can’t have it happen in here. You understand.”

The weight of what she’d done was slowly coagulating in her stomach. She donned her cleansuit with numb fingers. The crew all looked away from her as she settled the mask on her face.

Deej and Cal met her coming into the airlock. “Luke? You going out solo? I’ll go with ye.”

“You just got back.” Luka tried to talk calmly. “I got to go alone anyhow. I’m waitin’ on a telephone man.”

Cal hustled past her, stripping off his gear. Deej stood his place.

“I’ll go with ye,” he repeated.

She was too frightened to say no.

They sat in the lee of the building. Deej tried to lighten the mood.

“What d’you think he’ll look like?”

Luka stared out into the white tundra. Whatever had made it had bleached all the color, all the life out of everything.

“He sounded like a thick bully,” she said, “the kinda man who leaves an angry ghost. I’m sorry.”

This last sentence she directed at Deej. He blushed through his suit’s faceplate.

“Nothin’ to sorry at me for.” He dug his heel into the scrub at their feet. I hate those phone people too. Wish I had your guts.”

“Wish I had your sense,” Luka said softly. She watched the horizon, watched Avalon Tundra for any signs. She’d never seen a ghost before. Would it be like the pictures her momma had shown her once, oozing sores and burnt flesh? Or would it be a rich person, all punch bowls and argyle?

“S’not fair. I don’t think there really is a ghost. I think—”

As they watched, one of the shadows slowly peeled away from the wall and started walking towards them.

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