"You do realize the last person who lived here died, right?", Brian Quiverland's neighbor asked as she stood in his doorway with one hand on the upper-left corner of its frame and the other on her right hip.
He already didn't care much for this woman named Marla, whose middle age seemed to be the only thing the two had in common. But her use of that tired, worn-out way of phrasing a question had him looking at her with crossed eyes and wrinkles at the bridge of his nose while backing away a full six feet from the potential virus host.
"Well, most people do die.", he replied. "And most of them lived somewhere." He gave himself a figurative kick in the butt while thinking: "And I'll learn never to answer that door one of these days."
Inside, he felt doomed. He'd just moved into this rent house: A two-bedroom, pale yellow outfit in South Lake Tahoe with a tall, pointed roof the same color as the foliage of the evergreens surrounding it. The last thing he needed now was yet another reason to be wide awake at night.
"I assume you know how they died?", he asked. He didn't want to hear the whole biography of rumors he knew she carried in her brain. But he had to find out something about this person. Just that it wasn't a murder or a suicide would at least put his mind at ease about having to confine himself here 'til this "Corona" thing blew over.
"Car wreck.", Marla said. "Name was Aurora. Boy I tell you! The names people give their kids these days...", she sidetracked with a snort for a laugh. "I know 'cause I checked the mailbox right after she died. You know how long it takes the postal service to figure out someone croaked."
Brian had a hard time not glaring at her with a frown and red face over that one. "Oh well, it takes all types to make the world go around I suppose.", he calmed himself down in thought.
"You say this person was a kid?", he continued. Having grown up subjected to a barrage of movies where the antagonist was some possessed child, he felt like spiders were crawling all over him while awaiting the answer.
Marla shrugged. "To you and me she was a kid. I'd say...just from zooming in on the face...she was probably in her early thirties."
He couldn't control the low seethe that leaked through his lips. "Just what do you mean about 'zooming in on the face'?"
"Just what I said!", she replied with a puzzled look and a laugh at her neighbor's growing irritation. "With my phone, through my window. That was one crazy girl, let me tell you!" Marla's voice dropped to a near whisper as she leaned toward his round, ivory-filled eyes. "Every evening, right before sunset, she would go to the top of the roof and sit there...staring at the sky. I don't know if it was drugs, or just plain mental illness. But that kid was most definitely bat-crazy!"
Out of instinct, Brian did a quick mental inventory of the house. He'd noticed from the first day of living here that the roof had a small cut-out balcony, but no apparent easy way to get to it. There was no outside staircase, no ladder lying around. Nothing. "Did she float up there every evening?", he asked himself with a chill running up his legs. "No! Of course not! Quit being ridiculous!", he scolded. "Even if that were humanly possible, 'Miss Probe Nose' here would know all about it."
As he brainstormed every possible logical explanation his mind could throw at him, Marla caught him off guard with her next words: "Every evening, that is...until a week before she died."
If it hadn't been for the tone, Brian might not have thought much of this. "So, for the whole last week of her life, she quit going up there."
"Pret-ty eerie!", Marla stated with her bony fingers fluttering in the air beside her cosmetics-crusted face.
If this conversation didn't end, he was either going to puke from terror or from disgust. He could feel it coming. He felt sandwiched between a home he didn't want to inhabit anymore and this human embodiment of annoyance. But for now, he'd take his chances in here alone over enduring another word out of that mouth. "Crap! My ramen's burning!", he hollered as he shut the door.
"You watch yourself in that place!", Marla counter-hollered right as the glimmer of sunlight shining around its edges turned it into a rectangular, wooden eclipse.
Heat fumes from crackling logs shimmied in the air around the fireplace. Brian could see them all the way from the dining room. Every time he heard a popping sound or saw a hint of a flicker back there, he looked over his shoulder. He was still cold. Even the area around the fireplace seemed cold this evening. Much like the Salisbury steak he'd removed from the microwave half an hour ago.
As he held a fork and knife over it with a grip like that of someone hanging from the ledge of a skyscraper, he thought about turning on the TV so he could hear something besides every little noise in the house. "No way!" If he hit that remote button, he might land right in the middle of some trailer for a movie he did not want to see. Or worse, the TV might start talking to him!
"Careful not to look into the eyes!", he warned himself when he realized he was staring at that painting on the wall in front of the shiny, oval wooden table. He kept expecting those turquoise eyes to turn crimson. That pale, soft skin to become transparent. That sweet, innocent smile to fade away revealing skull teeth. Dinner got colder.
Then, the thought of eating went away altogether as he approached the painting with his arms outstretched and head turned away. He simply couldn't stand to look at that monstrosity of nightmare material anymore. "I'll just set it off to the side. Turned away from me. I can always hang it back up real fast if the landlady needs in here.", he plotted.
"Come on! Where's the darned nail?" His shins wobbled with violence as he battled with the tall, bulky masterpiece trying to get it to let go. The bottom edge rammed the floor with a sharp, rickety clack. Ceramic shards shot into the air from the fallen frame.
He didn't know which to panic over most: The cost of replacing this furnishing, the look on Mrs. Turrigan's face when he tried to explain the accident, or the gaping, rectangular opening in the wall that bellowed drafts of air even chillier than dinner.
He eased through the kitchen, then the maze of doors which led to his preferred bedroom where a flashlight was. When he got there, he wanted to stay, wishing the opening in the wall was just a figment of his overactive imagination.
But it wasn't. The dull white beam traveled up one decaying wooden stair step after another until it reached the top, where he saw yet another opening, tall enough to stand in off to the side.
He retracted his strained head and neck from the entrance to the passage, back into the dining room for a moment. Someone or something was in the house with him now. He just knew it! From what little he'd seen of shows about ghost hunting, he knew a spirit's territory was something you didn't dare ever disturb.
"Every evening, that is...until a week before she died.", Marla's words from this afternoon whispered within his mind. Why did she stop going up there? He had to know. Not because of nosy curiosity, but because of something which felt more like a command than an urge. A feeling he'd never known before.
Climbing over the part of the dining room wall below where the painting had hung and into the passage was the equivalent of that first step in "walking the plank" on a pirate ship to him. One that was miles long, disappearing into the fog. Would he be jumping off the edge of a flat earth when he reached the end?
He wasn't the least bit worried about the condition of the stair steps as he climbed. His focus was on two things only: The entryway behind him, and the entryway ahead. With every step of elevation gain, a dozen beats got added to his heart rate. The presence was undeniable. "Keep going.", it pushed like the low, monotone voice of a hypnotist.
"Almost there.", it continued as the flashlight's beam spread across the dust-scented floor of what was obviously meant to be an attic. An empty one with the exception of he and the, thus-far, invisible presence. Trying to snap out of it with a painful slap to the left side of his face, he reasoned: "Okay. So Mrs. Turrigan and her husband built that passage to store valuables up here at one time. Nothing creepy about that! And when they bought the new house, they took it all out of here with them." He laughed, sighed, and shrugged. "And right over there is the door. Which I'm sure leads to nothing but a little balcony where a poor, crazy tenant used to sit every evening to indulge her psychotic delusions. She was probably in the middle of one of those delusions when she wrecked the car. All that matters is she's deader than a door nail now, and I have nothing to fear."
His self-reassurance was already fading again by the time he got to that last word: "fear". The presence was back, and this time, he sensed anger in it as the urge nudged him toward that door. "Please! No!", he cried over his shoulder at it. He held his knees together, begging his legs to quit walking. He wasn't sure if it was he who opened it, but there the yellowish plywood-backed hatchway rested against the interior of the attic, and a stiff, freezing breeze thick with crisp alpine-lake air seemed to be pulling him toward the balcony rather than pushing him back. It was like the difference in air pressure created some kind of demented vacuum. He muttered a quick prayer interrupted at every syllable by gasps of hyperventilation. And when he tripped over the folded chair this evil being once sat in, he braced himself within for the hurtle to his early grave with windswept tears running sideways across his face.
Then, the breeze died down. His eyelids eased open. He saw that he was still on the balcony. The vinyl cushion of the chair's backing had done little more than knock the wind out of him for a few seconds. It reminded him of all the times as a child he had tripped over something while running, and he laughed as he got up.
"I should see for myself what's so spectacular about this view that would make someone want to sit here every single evening.", he thought while lifting the chair to unfold it.
"What in the...", he exclaimed. Underneath it was a long, steel rectangular box. The same type one could buy from the Office Supply section of most large retail stores. Clearly designed for keeping important papers or other items safe from the elements, including thieves. Adrenaline pulsated through his veins again as that childish side of him, out of instinct, began visualizing gold coins, or diamonds, or wads of cash. Then it all went into overdrive when he realized the lid to it opened freely. No combination dial, no padlock, no keyhole. "Stop it!", he chastized with another slap to his cheek as he eased the box open.
He felt a bright smile when the contents were revealed, but it wasn't coming from him. He started reading the lime-green handwriting on the sheet of notebook paper he'd pulled out of the box--which had been so carefully laminated in plastic--with a tingle in his throat.
"If you've found this, you're smart enough to understand what I'm about to say. If there's one thing I've learned from existence, it's: Never get so caught up in looking out to heaven that you forget what you have down here on earth. Live each week you're still on this side like it's your last. Love, Aurora."
Now Brian felt a hug, and a strong urge to just go back downstairs and enjoy his new home.
"And never get so caught up in running from your fear that you forget: We're all people. Human form or spirit, we're all people.", he advised himself in addition to those words.
He turned around and smiled at the space between he and the doorway back into the attic, where he imagined Aurora was standing. "Thank you, Aurora. Thank you."