Story excerpts

A Door Opens

by Gordon Linzner


The witching hour: midnight to some people, three in the morning to others.  For Lucille Jiang, 2:17 a.m. was the haunting hour, the exact moment of Benita Carlson’s death, measured far more precisely than any medical examiner’s report.  Who would know better than the victim?

Jiang perched on her couch, legs crossed yoga style under a drab floral housecoat.  The fabric cover made her calves itch. There were scuff marks on the wooden floor; she’d repositioned the furniture for better viewing, once she realized what had been happening over the past week.  On the floor before her sat a now empty long-stemmed wine glass. This was all part of a ritual she’d developed over the last few days. Hands trembling as they gripped the throw pillow in her lap, Jiang stared at shadows writhing in the corner; shadows cast by neither the baseboard nightlight nor the streetlamps outside her second floor apartment.

To the unenlightened eye, those shadows seemed to be random swimming swirls of dust.  Jiang knew exactly what they represented. With each passing night, the horrific details grew sharper.

Whimpers slowly began filling the room, bouncing off plasterboard walls.  The sobbing only started three days earlier, at first so soft Jiang mistook them for street noises.  Tonight they seemed to drown out every other sound.

Every other sound but one.

“Lucy?”

The voice came from the direction of her apartment door.  Deep. Husky. Familiar.

Invasive.

Go away, part of her mind said.  Go away now.

“Everything okay in there?”  Louder. Too loud.

The fear-filled whimpers ceased.  Edges of the shadows softened, melting into their surroundings.

Jiang shifted her gaze, trying to stay focused on the fading images, and still glare at the intruder who had spoiled this moment.  Peripheral vision was not up to the task.

Derek Palmer, her beefy upstairs neighbor and the bouncer at Wicked Wally’s Pub, where she usually tended bar, stood in the open doorway.  Derek, without whose paranormal musings on slow days Jiang would never have figured out what was happening in her apartment since her lover’s death, or at least not have accepted its reality so easily.

“What the hell, Derek!”  She bit her tongue to silence herself.  Too late. Her outburst was the final nail in the coffin – an unfortunate phrase, under the circumstances.  The visitation was over. There was nothing she could do, or undo, at this point.

Palmer raised his hands in mock surrender.  “I didn’t copy your keys when I changed the locks, if that’s what you’re thinking.  I heard what sounded like a voice in distress, noticed your door was open, the way it was the night...that night.”  

Jiang glanced back at the now empty corner.  Her throat was fuzzy. She tossed the pillow aside, picked up the empty wine glass.  “The door. Yeah. She started that a couple nights ago. First time just unlocking it, then leaving it slightly ajar.  A little more each night.”

“I only noticed it tonight.”

“When you happened to be walking past my apartment, even though you live upstairs?”

“I’m worried about you.  Those self-defense moves I taught you are just basic.  Wait. You said she?”

Jiang sighed and straightened her legs, massaging a mild cramp in her left calf.  “Hell with it. You might as well come all the way in. You can turn on the light.  She won’t be coming back tonight.”

“She?” Palmer repeated.  He shut the door behind him, flipped on the wall switch.  The bright surge of light made Jiang blink. Palmer moved to the couch and perched his imposing form on the arm.  His clothes reeked of cigar smoke.

Jiang reached with her free hand for the cell phone on the end table, to check the time.  Not even half past two. Palmer had to have left his shift hours early, to get home before four.

To check on her.

She wished he wouldn’t do that.

“Benny, of course.”  Jiang was too emotionally drained to lie.  “I didn’t want to tell you, the way you’ve been hovering.  She’s been reliving her murder every night for the past six or seven days.  Is ‘relive’ the right word?”

Derek took the empty wine glass from her, sniffed at it.  “How much did you have to drink tonight?”

“Only the one glass.  One and a half. Enough to keep the sight from getting unbearable.  Not enough to get used to it. Ever.” She met his gaze. “Don’t even think about telling me that I’m imagining things.  You’re the goddamn ghost expert.”

“For your sake, I’d hope you were imagining it.”  Palmer rolled the glass in his hands. “It would be healthier.  Do you remember what I told my childhood encounter with my dead Aunt Claudia, up in Vermont?”

Jiang put down the phone and stretched her arms.  “The aunt in the bathtub. The one who’d drowned herself.  I remember.”

Palmer nodded.  “Under the circumstances, it bears repeating.  I was eight at the time. I hardly knew Aunt Claudia, but I recognized that silhouette in the unlit bathroom, the day after the funeral, as her, beyond a doubt.  Beckoning me. Wanting company. I still get shivers when someone crooks a finger at me like that. The spectre vanished when my older brother, Michael, came in behind me and turned on the light.  Of course, he hadn’t seen a thing. The next day, when I’d calmed down after a sleepless night, Mike suggested the image had been cast by light from the hallway bouncing off the moiré pattern in the shower curtain.”

Jiang nodded toward the corner.  “This was not reflected light, Derek.  I saw what I saw.”

“And I saw my aunt, no matter how many times I tried to rationalize that night later.  Look, Lucy, I confess, I did see some vague movement in that corner when I first came in, but your apartment is pretty dark, and you get those passing car headlights through the window, even up here on the second floor.”  Palmer shifted his gaze toward the spot at which Jiang had been staring. He started, blinked, suddenly leaned forward. “That stain. It shouldn’t be there. I scrubbed those floorboards clean myself, after the police were done.  With bleach.”

“I know.  Don’t bother with it.”  She grabbed the pillow again and tossed it to cover the splotch.  “It won’t come clean. I tried myself, the first couple of times. Doesn’t matter.  It fades on its own, just before dawn.”

Derek licked his lips and set the empty glass on the table beside her cell phone.  “They should never have told you that you could move back in.”

“I’m not crazy.”

“Did I say you were?  I just admitted I also saw, well, something moving over there.  Heard groans, but I thought that was you.  I’m not saying all this to humor you. You know I wouldn’t do that.  It’s just not healthy for you to continue living in the space where your lover...”  His voice tapered off.

“Was raped?  Murdered? They’re just words, Derek.  They don’t bother me.” She rubbed her eyes.  “Well, they do, a little. More than a little, to be honest.  But I’m dealing with it.”

“Memories alone are painful enough, Lucy.  If Benny’s haunting your apartment as well...”

Jiang stood abruptly.  She was done with this conversation.  “I’m thoughtless. You’re a guest, though a self-invited one.  I’ll make us some tea.” It was more an order than an offer.

Palmer shrugged, gracious in defeat.  At least the domestic act would give his friend and neighbor something to do besides brood.  “Hot tea. That’s a plan I can endorse. It’s freezing in here, and it’s not even winter yet.”  He rubbed his thick arms to emphasize the chill. “No caffeine, though. That would keep me up all day, and I’ll end up watching soap operas and game shows.”

His words caused Jiang to notice herself, for the first time, how clammy her cotton housecoat felt against her breasts and midriff.  “I have some chamomile. Does that work for you?”

“Perfect,” he lied.  Palmer hated herb tea.  

He followed her to the kitchenette.  “You know, Lucy, you’re welcome stay over at my place again, like you did that night.  As long as you like. That way, you wouldn’t even have to file a change of address with the post office.”

“You’ve made that offer before.  No. Thanks.”

“Hell, we could even trade apartments, if you’re worried about me bringing boys home, or cramping my style.  The layout’s about the same. You’re the one who found me that apartment. That’s the least I can do.”

“I can’t, Derek.”  Jiang let tap water run as she reached for her red kettle.  “I have to stay here. It’s about more than the memories now.  You saw. You said you saw. Benny’s soul is in torment. She needs me.”  Jiang filled the kettle and placed it on the stove’s left front burner.

“To do what?” Palmer asked.

“That’s the big question, isn’t it?  I don’t know. Not yet.”

“Maybe an exorcism would put her at peace.  I know a priest I can ask.”

“No!”  Jiang banged the tea canister on the counter.  “Absolutely not! Every night a little more of that night plays out.  The door that opens itself now, for instance. If the event repeats itself to a point where I can come in early enough, I might be able to interfere.  Stop it from happening. Maybe Benny would still be alive.”

“You can’t change the past, Lucy.”

“How often does one get a chance?  How can I pass up the possibility, however slim?”

Palmer pried open the canister and fished out two tea bags.  “You might have a point, Lucy. I don’t think you could actually bring Benny back, but simply uncovering her killer could resolve things.”

“Oh, that’s no mystery.  She screamed out his name the first night.”

“She knew him?”

Jiang bit her lip.  She really shouldn’t talk when she was so tired.  Not to as good a listener as Derek.

“Who is it?”

Jiang shook her head.

“Damn it, Lucille.  What if he comes back?  I’m waiting.”

“No.  You’d tell the police.  They’d arrest the bastard.  And Benny would have no further reason to return.”  She placed one teabag each in a pair of matching, breast-shaped cups.  A joke Valentine’s Day present from her lover. “I can’t lose her again, Derek.  Not so soon.”

“Look at me, Lucille.”

Her eyes remained fixed on the cups.

“What you’re seeing, that isn’t her.  Not fully. Not according to the experts I’ve talked to about my aunt.  You’re seeing that fragment of her that can’t let go, because of her death trauma.”

“I’ll settle for that.”  She squeezed a dollop of honey into each cup.  “I’m guessing most of your experts are random bar customers.”

Palmer ignored the jab.  “You’re also being selfish, which isn’t like you.  If Benny’s spirit is in pain, I’d think you would want her to move on.”

“This is all I have left of her, Derek.  Drop it.”

Palmer sighed.  “Okay. For now.”

“Thank you.”

“Change of subject.  I should have the super check on your radiator.  It shouldn’t be this chilly in here. People in mourning are more susceptible to colds.”

Jiang balked.  “Leave that poor man alone.  He’s got enough trouble, between his broken arm and...”  She let the words fade.

“So, he’ll send his son.”

“No!  No Freddy!”

“I know the kid’s a homophobe with a capital H, Lucy, but...”

The whistling kettle cut him off.  Jiang poured hot water in silence, then passed Derek a cup and spoon without meeting his eyes.  The sight of him fumbling to avoid the ceramic nipple would normally have made her grin.

“So,” she began awkwardly.  “How are things at the bar, Derek?  Is Wally’s surviving without me?”

Palmer shrugged and took a sip.  She’d won this round.

“Customers are abandoning the place in droves, for lack of their favorite bartender.  One group of protesters tonight were on the verge of getting dangerously sober.”

“You are so full of shit.”  She sipped her own tea too quickly, scalding the tip of her tongue.  “Tell me more.”


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