Tidy Ghost
Jess Mercer
(© 2008 by the author)

  The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at...


Though I've used it in my books, I've never really believed in a psychic sense, but I know the moment I put my key in the lock of the front door that something is not right. Cautiously, I push open the door and look around, but all looks normal, so I shrug and dismiss the feeling as fantasy, my imagination having gotten the best of me for the moment. After all, I am a writer and mysteries are my specialty.
In my books it's the old Victorian mansions that are haunted, not a small house that's only a few years old like this one. Sure, I don't have any close neighbors, the very reason I bought this place, but I bought it from the couple that built it, so it's highly unlikely there would be any ghosts hanging around, even if I believed in such things. After switching on the coffee maker, I sit down at my computer, read the last two paragraphs to get myself back into the mood of the story, and begin writing:
John continued to tap the paneled wall, listening closely for any slight difference in sound that might betray a hidden door. He worked his way along until he was within six feet of the fireplace. Ah, he thought to himself, I should have started here, the classic place. He rapped the panel with his knuckles, hearing the change. He took a step back and looked over the wall carefully. They always had some cleverly hidden latch, now if he could . . ..
Good, the coffee is ready. I go into my kitchen, but as I reach for a mug I see a nicely washed dish, glass, and two plastic food storage containers in the drain rack. I reach up and scratch my head, for I don't remember leaving them there before I left this morning. "Ah, well, guess I was busy thinking about the story," I mutter to myself as I pick them up, dry them with a towel and put them away as is my usual habit.
I continue with the story, taking breaks for more coffee until the darkness forces me to turn on a light. I put my computer into 'slumber' mode and go back to fix myself something for dinner. It's warm enough for a cold salad plate and I'm in no mood to cook. Knowing that I have chicken salad, potato salad, and lettuce in the fridge, and grape tomatoes from my tiny garden, I pull open the fridge door and look in. I'm astounded! I know damn well I had plenty in here, but the shelf is bare and the bottle of milk is almost empty. I continue to look at the bare shelf and shake my head, wondering if I'm going senile at the age of twenty-eight. I shut the fridge door.
Feeling uneasy again, I make the rounds of the house, but all the windows are locked and the doors, except for the front door that I came in, are solid and secure. Weird! I shrug and rummage in the freezer for something to nuke. After eating a frozen entrée that was passibly platable, I go back to my writing for a while, then pick up a new book I had gotten at my favorite bookshop in town and go to bed to read. I think once or twice about getting a big dog to guard the place, but decide it will be more trouble than its worth.
The next day I do not go out, spending my time writing after making up another batch of chicken salad and potato salad. I'm pleased with the results when I sit down to eat, though I have been a bit heavy handed with the pepper. Later, getting ready for bed I curse myself for not having made up a shopping list, for I use the last of the toothpaste and notice I'm out of several other items. I take time to make up a list, but it's the thought of another trip into town that bugs me. When my writing is going well, I resent anything that takes me away from it.
I spend the morning writing furiously, then go into town for some lunch at a small restaurant I like. It's after three when I finally finish my shopping and get back home. The moment I open the door, the feeling is back. There's a clean plate and glass in the drain rack again. When I open the fridge to put in the milk and cheese, I find the supply of salads considerably diminished. No way I could have eaten that much yesterday.
The groceries put away, I take the rest of my purchases up to my bathroom. The air is moist, and when I feel the towel and cloth draped over the rod, they are damp. I showered last night, so there's no reason they should not be dry by now. I make the rounds of the house again, but nothing appears out of place. Oh, well, mother always told me I was absentminded, so I go back to my work. After I'm in bed, I pass off the unusual feelings I've had to my mind being absorbed by the plot of the story I'm working on.
I work all the next day with nothing unusual breaking my tightly focused concentration, then sleep soundly. By noon on Thursday, I have finished the manuscript and, after lunch, begin to give it a final edit. By continual revising and editing as I write, one final run-through is all I usually need.
I finish Friday morning and print it out. Looking at my watch, I decide that if I hurry, I can get the manuscript off to my agent, then relax. Of course, I should have known; the line is wrapped around the post office lobby, but I squeeze through the door just as the custodian is about to lock it. While standing in line and fretting, I decide to buy some stamps and a small postal scale as well, to avoid further delays.
Finally I'm next, and the last, at the window; the manuscript is in the post. I stop at a butcher shop to treat myself to a steak that I'll grill in celebration of the completion of another book. Sure it's a formula potboiler, but they are fast to write and pay the bills. When I'm back home, the feeling returns the moment I put my key in the lock. I open the door cautiously, then feel a fool, for everything looks just as I left it, except the dish and glass are in the drain once more.
I'm finishing my dinner when the phone rings. It's friends inviting me for the weekend. The timing couldn't be better, and I'll enjoy getting out of town. I pack so I can get an early start.
Before I leave the next morning, I double check to see that everything is locked securely. My friends are welcoming as always; I feel quite at home with them. When I happen to mention my ghost, Ferd starts to tease me about my vivid imagination. I retort that it's my stock in trade and he laughs. But what else can one expect from a scientist? He writes, too, but dry factual texts.
During the drive Monday morning I have several good ideas for stories come into my mind. As each thought occurs, I immediately dictate it into the micro-cassette recorder that always accompanies me on trips. As soon as I'm home I drop my bag in the entry and switch on my computer, then take my bag to the bedroom and return to note the ideas down before I forget about them. When I stop to fix some dinner, I find the fridge almost empty. I had plenty in there when I left for my trip and the dish and glass are in the drain again. I also notice the door to the dryer is ajar. I know I closed it tightly Friday night. I go through the house again. The towel and cloth on the rod in my bath are damp and my bed is not made as smoothly as I know I left it. Do ghosts sleep? I don't know, but mine sure did, and in my bed! I can tell from the depression in the pillow that I never fail to fluff first thing each morning.
I bring up my mail, glance at a couple of messages and delete them, then open one from my agent. He's inquiring about a point in courtroom procedure I used in my story. I know darn well I've answered him on this, so I bring up my Sent file and open the last one to him. Just as I thought. I address a new message to him, paste in the relevant paragraph, then send it. When I go back to close the Sent file my eye is caught by the last message with an address I don't recognize. I open it.
'Hi, buddy. Thnx for helping me get away. I'm okay and hiding out. If I can, I'll come into town late some night to see you, so don't yell if I knock on your window. Don't try to answer this, cause I don't want the guy lives here to know I've used his computer. Love ya, R'
I get an instant rush of satisfaction knowing my ghost is real. Now I hope I can trace him with this, but when I look at the address line it's: wildman15@statepath.net. I e-mail an inquiry to the service desk of statepath, and go to bed.
The next morning I have a reply. It's a blind address and paid by bank transfer, so even if they knew the registered user, they couldn't give me a name or address. Then inspiration! I copy the address to a new e-mail form and type: 'Hi, buddy. Looks like the guy is going to be out of town for a few days, so send me a line or two, R' I send it and settle back to my work. Some three hours later I hear the chime announcing new mail. I open it eagerly.
'Don't know who you are but you ain't R. Forget it.' Damn! I thought I was being so smart. Got to be kids with some secret word. Yeah, just kids. I'd still like to know how he gets in my house. That worries me. I get a cup of coffee and go back to my work dismissing it from my mind.
The story is developing well, so I'm annoyed by a phone call from my dentist's receptionist reminding me of my appointment tomorrow at one. I'll make the appointment, then have lunch and go to market. My ghost is making fast work of the groceries.
I actually enjoy myself the next day. The dentist had only to clean my teeth, saying they are in excellent shape. Lunch was the best in some time, and the market uncrowded, so I could shop at leisure. The good mood evaporates the moment I open the door, for I can smell that something has been cooked. I go into the kitchen to put the groceries away and see a skillet added to the dish and glass in the drain. When I open the fridge, I immediately miss a large ham steak I had in there, along with a container of string beans I'd cooked the day before. It was bad enough for my ghost to be eating me out of house and home, but now he's started cooking!
Enough is enough! Since I live outside the city limits I call the sheriff's office to report the intrusion. The deputy who responds to my call is young and inexperienced. He looks around the house, then at the mail on my computer. He shakes his head. "No sign of forced entry. You sure somebody's been here?"
"Damn right. I ate out at lunch, so I didn't cook anything here. And how else would a message to someone I've never heard of be on my computer? You know well a bath towel doesn't wet itself."
"How do you expect us to find out anything with no more than some cookin' being done and a wet towel? Maybe you done had an intruder like you said, but it ain't much to go on. Best I can tell you is to call us if you see anybody strange hanging around. We'll get here fast."
Might as well have called the Keystone Cops, I think to myself as he drives off. I spend the next three days at work. There's no sign of anyone, nor am I bothered. When friends call and ask me to come for drinks and dinner, I'm glad to accept. I need a break.
It's raining slowly when I leave my friends after a pleasant evening. I drive home slowly with a sense of what must be anticipation, for I will feel rather let down if my ghost hasn't paid a visit while I've been gone. I can't believe this is becoming so familiar that my senses are no longer outraged.
The moment I switch on the lights I see tiny spots of drying mud on the entry floor. Yep, he's been here. The glass is back in the drain, but the dish is still in the dishpan and the water is still hot. He must have seen my car lights when I drove up. I switch on the floodlights mounted under the eves, but they don't throw light far enough for me to see anything, though I think I detected a slight movement near the woods. I flip the lights off and glance down to see an empty frozen dinner package lying on top of the trash bin which I had intended to empty earlier. I go up to bed, finding the air in the bath moist, the towel and cloth damp again. I'll give my ghost one thing, he's clean as well as tidy.
I rouse during the night, but go back to sleep almost instantly. When I go down to fix breakfast the next morning, my eyes fly open. The trash bin is empty. Curious, I go outside to look in the big trash bin I put out for the county to empty once a week. It's not there! I walk around the house and see it where the pick-up takes place. I go back in scratching my head. Now he's getting helpful. Small enough repayment for the food, I suppose, but I would like to see this ghost at least once.
As I eat breakfast, I begin to think of a comic way to write a story about a helpful ghost. The idea becomes so strong, I grab a mug of coffee and get to my computer before the ideas flee my mind. By taking short breaks for two more meals, I have a cute short story to send to my agent by bedtime. I can think of several kids publications he can sell it to with no difficulty.
The next day I take time to cook, this time for two, and after I've eaten lunch I go into town to pick up a new book the shop had called to let me know was in. When I turn into my drive, I notice the big trash bin is no longer at the side of the road. I start to read my new book and don't bother to check the kitchen until I get up for a mug of coffee. The dish and glass are in the drain once more.
A couple of days later, I fix a pot of stroganoff intending to invite a couple of friends for dinner that evening. Finding I don't have enough rice, and needing a bottle of decent wine to go with it, I make a list of things and go to the market. It's crowded as I expected, so it takes me longer than usual. I hate crowds, so I'm in a surly mood when I get back home.
The plate and glass are in the drain as is a small pot and a skillet. I open the fridge to see that heavy inroads have been made on the stroganoff, and the box of quick rice is lying in the trash. My temper pops! Enough is enough! I call my friends and cancel the dinner with abject apologies. If the sheriff won't do anything, I'll do it myself.
The next morning I make a sandwich and fill a thermos with coffee not knowing how long I'll have to maintain my stakeout. When I'm ready to leave, I put them in a small overnight bag hoping my ghost will see it and think I'm leaving for a day or two. I drive a couple of hundred yards and park my Cherokee in a long unused logging road leading into the woods. Taking the bag, I cross the road and walk through the thicket until I reach a heavy growth of wild myrtle across from the front of my house. I push in until I find a place where I have a good line of sight to my front door and settle down to watch. After an hour, I'm wondering how cops manage a stakeout for I'm ready to scream from boredom. The thermos is already nearly empty and the coffee has gotten to me. Reluctantly I push a few yards deeper into the thicket and relieve myself. I'm just back in time to see my front door closing. I race to my car and use the cell phone to call. Within ten minutes the deputy pulls along side me. I'm glad he hasn't used his siren, just the flashing blue lights on his car.
"You sure he's still in there."
"So far as I know. I called soon as I saw the door close."
"Can you get to the back of your house without being seen?"
"If I stay this side of the hedge row until I get to the woods."
"Do that in case he comes out the back. Give me your keys and I'll take the front."
I haven't been in position five minutes before I see my backdoor open and hear the deputy yell for me. When I enter my kitchen he's holding a pistol on a skinny terrified kid of no more than fourteen or fifteen who's backed into a corner. He's wearing ragged jeans and T-shirt, and is supported by crutches because his right leg is gone just above the knee.
He looks at me with cocker spaniel eyes of turquoise. "Please, mister, don't let him take me to jail. I didn't steal nothing."
"What you call breaking in this man's house and eatin' his food?" the deputy snaps.
I hold up my hand to silence him. "How did you get in?"
"I … I have a key to the door."
That makes no sense to me. "How'd you get it?"
"I used to live here."
"You what?" I exclaim.
"My dad sold you this house last year. I guess he forgot about my key."
"You're Rory McAndrews' son?"
"Unh, huh. I'm Rory junior."
"That doesn't explain why you're here."
I see tears well up in those beautiful eyes. "Mom and dad were killed in an accident about six months ago, and I was hurt. When I got out of the hospital, they put me in a foster home. Those people didn't give a damn about me, they were just in it for the money, so I ran away a couple of weeks ago. I couldn't think of nowhere else to go 'cept here, cause this was always home."
"Where have you been sleeping?"
"Dad built a shed back in the woods for firewood and stuff like that. I've been hiding out there. I didn't have any money left and I was getting awful hungry, so when I saw you leave, I let myself in and ate whatever you had fixed." He turns those eyes on me, and pulls a key out of his pocket, holding it out. "Please let me go. You can have the key. I'll go somewhere and not bother you no more."
By now his tears are running freely. Call me a fool, but I'm really touched by his story. I tell the deputy to put the pistol away then walk over to the boy and put my arm around his shoulders. He leans against me sniffling.
"How old are you, son?"
"You don't have any family to care about you?"
He shakes his head.
"Yeah you do," the deputy says.
Rory looks at him as do I. "Who?"
"You got an aunt and uncle. Sheriff was gonna call 'em to come get you, but you'd done run off."
"It's settled then. You can stay with me while the sheriff contacts your family."
The deputy shakes his head. "I got to take him in. You reported an intruder and I caught him."
"But he's just a kid, and I know who he is now."
"Don't make no difference. Got to follow the rules. Come on, kid."
I can see him trembling. "Please," he beseeches me.
"You go ahead with the deputy. I'll be right behind you and I'll talk to the sheriff. It'll be okay."
Twenty minutes later we're in the sheriff's office and I'm explaining the circumstances to the large man.
"You ain't gonna press charges, then?"
"Absolutely not."
"Then I got no reason to keep him, but he's underage so I'll have to put him in detention 'til I call welfare."
"Please don't make me go back to that place," Rory begs. "They said a cripple didn't do nothing so he didn't need much to eat. I was always hungry. Cold, too. They made me sleep on an old mattress in the attic."
"The hell you say!" The sheriff exclaims. "I got a boy of my own and I sure wouldn't want him treated like that." He looks at me. "If you take good care of him 'til his uncle and aunt get here for him, it won't hurt welfare to think he's missing fer another day or two."
"He'll be safe."
"We got some stuff belongs to him too." He looks at the deputy. "Johnny go get them boxes what belong to the boy and put 'em in Mr. Thorpe's car."
"Thanks for keeping me out of jail, Mr. Thorpe," Rory says on the way home.
"I was happy to. Call me Tim, Rory."
His look is one of amazement. "You're the guy writes all those mysteries."
"Well, yes. You mean you've read some of them?"
"Yeah. I had to wait 'til they came out in paper, cause I couldn't afford 'em in hardback. I sure hope they're in one of those boxes so you can autograph 'em for me."
"I'll be happy to."
When I stop in the drive, I ask, "Where are the rest of your things?"
"In the shed."
"It's not quite dark yet, so let's go get them."
I have to walk slowly, because he's still not completely steady on his crutches. He opens the door to the shed, and in the gloom, I can see a makeshift bed of pine straw covered with an old blanket. He picks up a Walkman, some tapes, and crams them into one of two shopping bags, then picks them up and tries to carry them as he comes toward me. I reach out to take them and we walk slowly back to the house.
"Which room was yours?" I ask when we're inside.
"That one." He points to the door of a room I put a single bed and a few other pieces of furniture in and haven't touched since.
I open the door and drop the shopping bags on the bed. "You can sleep here. Get ready to eat, and bring me your dirty clothes. I'll put them in the washer."
I'm glad now that the steaks were so beautiful that I bought two. Rory eats ravenously, his plate clean almost before I'm half way through mine.
"Do you want something else?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "That was good. Dad used to grill them just like you did, Tim."
After I have the last load of wash in the dryer, I bring in the boxes from my car and put them in Rory's room. He immediately starts to look through them. He's disappointed when the books are not to be found.
"Don't worry about it, Rory. I think I have one or two I can give you from those the publisher sends me."
"That'll be great."
He opens the last box and sits on his bed to sort through obviously personal things taken from his room. I leave him; he needs to deal with his memories alone. He doesn't come back into the living room as I had expected. When I'm ready to call it a night, I look into his room. He's fast asleep, sprawled across the bed clutching a worn teddy bear, dried tears on his cheeks. I slowly undress him to his briefs, ease the covers from beneath him, and pull them over him.
I'm about to call him to breakfast when he appears. "Sleep well?"
"I haven't slept so good since we left here."
"What do you want to do today?" I ask while we're eating.
"Can we go swimming?"
"The mill pond back of the woods, if they haven't torn down the old dam."
"I didn't know there was one."
He grins. "Not many people do. We'll have to walk cause the road isn't there any more. It's not that far."
I get towels and change into swim trunks. He's waiting for me by the door, wearing only a pair of cut off jeans. "Don't have a swim suit, so I'll skinny dip. Won't be nobody else around."
The pond is larger than I had envisioned it, but it looks inviting in the heat. I jump in when Rory does. The water is shockingly chill, so after a few minutes I get out and spread an old beach towel to lie on as I watch Rory diving off the top of the rock dam and swimming. A delightful picture I wish I had a camera to preserve. When he tires, he hops across and flops down beside me.
"I think I missed this more than anything when we moved."
"I glad you got to enjoy it again, but it's getting chilly and I don't want either of us catching colds. We'd better get back to the house."
As we walk the old trail back to the house, I realize Rory is starring at me.
"Is something wrong?"
"Naw," he smiles. "I just realized that nobody's given up a day's work to spend time with me since dad died."
I simply smile back at him.
After we shower and have dinner, Rory asks if he can read my newest book. I download the one I just sent my agent to a CD and give him my lap-top to read from, then begin work at my desk-top which I prefer to use. When I go to fix dinner, he smiles and shuts the lap-top down. "I'll help. This is a good story. How do you get ideas?"
I tell him how little things can spark a story and continue our conversation over dinner. He seems so interested, we spend the evening chatting about my books and writing in general.
"This has been the best day I've had in a long time." He says as we're going to our bedrooms.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed our swim, too. Its nice to have company for a change."
"It feels good to be home, Tim. I was scared you were gonna let the cops lock me up."
"I couldn't do that, especially after I found out who you are."
The next morning I begin working on a story outline while he finishes reading my book. It's late afternoon when I hear a car in the drive. I look out the window to see the sheriff getting out of his car along with a slightly younger, nicely dressed man and woman.
At the door he introduces them as the Johnstons, Rory's aunt and uncle. Rory says, "I heard mom speak of you, but I thought you must be dead or something. I mean you never came to see me or anything."
His aunt hugs him. "We were in Europe when the accident occurred so we couldn't be notified. When we got home and learned what had happened, no one we talked to seemed to know what had happened to you. Dan finally thought to call the police in Aberdeen. They told us you had run away from your foster home, and referred us to the sheriff. He told us he had just found you. A storm must have knocked out our answering machine, so we didn't get the message he left when he called earlier."
"What's going to happen now?" Rory asks plaintively.
"We've come to take you home with us, Rory."
"That's right. Your aunt and uncle want you to live with them," the sheriff says. "They're your family and have a legal right as your next of kin."
"Please, Rory, we want you with us so badly. Our house is large and you can have a room and bath to yourself. Dan's a professor at the university in Montridge so you'll be able to attend it when you finish high school."
"Rory, I realize you don't remember us, because it's been too long since we last saw you. You probably thought we didn't care, but we would have come immediately had we known. We want you, son," his uncle says quietly.
"But I like it here with Tim. It's my home."
I put my arm around his shoulders. "It was your home, Rory, but now it's mine. I'll miss you, but it's right for you to be with your aunt and uncle. You can always come to visit me on your summer holidays if you like." I see his aunt and uncle nod. "I know your aunt and uncle want to get back home as soon as possible."
"We do need to get back so Dan can hold meetings with the people in his department, and we have to get your records transferred to the school in our district. We'd like to leave tomorrow if that gives you enough time to pack."
"That's fine. I'll help Rory pack his things tonight for shipping. We'll have everything ready by early tomorrow morning. Have you a place to stay?"
"We're at the Inn. Do meet us there at six for dinner so we can get to know you and Rory better."
The dinner is superb and Rory warms up to his aunt and uncle quickly, but despite my efforts to be pleasant with these kind people and feeling happy for Rory, I feel a gloom settle over me at the thought of his leaving.
After a UPS truck picks up Rory's things, I help him pack the suitcase his uncle bought for him. I drive him to the Inn and take his bag to the desk, then turn and hug him. "I'm going now, Rory. Have a safe trip."
"Can't you wait until we leave?"
"No, it'll just be that much harder. Go ahead now, and God bless."
He hugs me tightly. "You're a great guy, Tim. I'll never forget you. I love you."
"I know. I love you too, Rory."
He tightens his hug for a moment then turns quickly away to keep me from seeing his tears. "Write me," he calls as I walk away.
We've spent only two days together, but I have to wipe my own eyes before I can drive away. Yes, I'll write him and, hopefully, the extra box I put with those to be shipped will often remind him of me. It contains autographed hardbacks of every book I've written. I'll send him the one I'm working on as soon as it's published, for I'm dedicating it to him.
The clouds and slow drizzle depress me further, but I'm finally able to push Rory to the back of my mind enough to get on with my story. I persist in my work, knowing I'll probably delete half of what I'm writing later on.
Two days later it's sunny and I need to weed my garden if I'm going to continue to enjoy its yield. I leave the back door open to air the house while I work. When I start in to fix some lunch, I see spots of mud on the top step and just inside. Have I a real ghost?
I peer in cautiously, but all looks as I left it. I take a step inside and hear a chittering. Sitting on the far end of the counter is a raccoon, holding an apple he's swiped from the bowl of fruit. I close the door to the living room, grab a broom from the corner, and chase him out the back door, closing it firmly behind him.


Feedback always welcome:     

Posted: 10/24/08