Sunday, September 9, 2018

Vengeant, Chapter Two

“Oh, look…it’s the freak’s cousin!”

My hearing zeroed in on the sound, and I glanced up from where I was locking my bike to the rack.  Students flowed in from the school parking lot – some talking cheerfully with friends, others looking like they weren’t quite awake yet – and I had to crane my neck around before I finally found the source of the contemptuous tone.    

A heavyset girl with bad acne stood with a couple of friends just outside the campus fence, sharing a cigarette before the first bell.  She wore camo pants, flip-flops and a black T-shirt that read Kill the Patriarchy.  I noticed the bottom hem of the shirt was cut three or four inches above her waistband.  It wasn’t a good look for her.

“Darlene’s starting early,” Les remarked.

Ab looked over, scowling. 

“What’s her deal?” I asked.

Ab shook her head.  “Nothing.  Just a mean streak a mile wide.” 

I turned back toward the scene, frowning automatically.  I hate bullies.

A slender girl in a long skirt and a loose, zippered hoodie was trying to squeeze past them through a narrow pedestrian gate.  Darlene moved to block her way.  “How can you stand to even be in the same house as him?” she taunted.  “Or maybe you’re a freak, too – is that it?”

The girl in the skirt just stood there, hugging a binder to her chest with one arm while holding an insulated lunch bag in her free hand.  The hood of her sweatshirt was up, and she looked up at Darlene through dark hair that partially obscured her face.  I could make out pale skin and brown eyes that were wide with fear.  Her expression reminded me of a small animal caught in a trap, and before I even realized it I was weaving my way toward them.

 “What…are you deaf, new girl?” Darlene taunted as I drew near.  She reached and yanked the binder out of her grasp, flinging it casually behind her and prompting tribal laughter from her friends.  It landed open and face down inside the chain link fence, a handful of loose pages floating gracefully to the asphalt like leaves.   “You answer me when I’m talking to you!” 

“Leave her alone,” I called out, and Darlene turned toward me, her eyes narrowing.  “What’s the matter?” I pressed.  “Was she trip-trip-tripping over your bridge?” 

It took a second or two before her expression registered understanding, and I began to suspect she might not be the brightest crayon in the box.  “Mind your own business, asshole!” she snarled.  The eager aggression I’d initially sensed from the big girl had dampened considerably, but she hid it pretty well. 

“Wow…you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Les asked, stepping up beside me.

“Fuck you, Hawkins.”

He chuckled.  “Not in a million years, princess.”

“If you want to push someone around, how about me instead?” Ab challenged from my other side.  “It didn’t work out so well for you last time, but hey, I’m up for a rematch if you are.”

Darlene’s friends exchanged a glance and moved tentatively to back her up.  One was tall and pear-shaped, wearing a green and yellow tie-dye shirt and jeans.  The other was skinny and had spiky hair.  She wore a gray sweatshirt with the sleeves cut away and the poo emoji on the front.  Classy. 

Their combined feelings only amounted to nervousness and fear, though, so I decided to end the situation before it got any uglier.  Staring Darlene in the eyes I stepped calmly forward, moving right into her personal space.  Just as I figured, she scuttled back, bumping into her friends as all three retreated.  “Come on,” I said, turning to the girl they’d been picking on.  “Let’s go get your stuff.”  I gestured toward the gate and she hurried through.

“There goes the big man!” Darlene called out as we walked away, but there wasn’t much conviction behind it.  “You gotta love that white male privilege!”  We continued to ignore her, so she pitched her voice to carry over the crowd.  “SOMEBODY NEEDS TO TEACH YOU HOW TO TREAT WOMEN!”

Conversations fell silent as everyone in the immediate area paused to see what was going on.

Ab turned.  “Yeah?” she fired back.  “Well somebody needs to teach you the difference between a bare midriff and a beer-gutriff!” 

Laughter erupted all around and I could hear Les chuckle behind me as I squatted, helping the girl pick up her scattered papers.  “I don’t know about you,” I confided, “but much more of that and Darlene will lose my vote for homecoming queen.”

She raised her head slightly, looking up at me through dark bangs as I handed the pages over, and I didn’t need my gift to sense her wariness – I could see it in her eyes. 

“That was a joke,” I explained, hoping that being friendly would make her feel better.  “I’m Ben, by the way.” 

Her wary expression eased a little.  “Gina,” she murmured, sounding either shy or reluctant, I couldn’t tell which.  Then, as if an afterthought, “Thanks.”

“No problem,” I said, rising.  “And don’t worry about…”

But she was gone, scurrying away head-down through the crowd.

The bell rang, and Les waved as he veered off toward his first class while Ab and I headed for the sophomore assembly at the gym. 

“Beer-gutriff?” I asked after a moment.

She grinned at me.

We parted ways as soon as we stepped inside, Ab heading toward a table with a paper banner reading Last Name A-F while I fell into a shorter line on the opposite side with the rest of the U through Z’s.  Their system turned out to be pretty efficient.  The line moved quickly, and less than ten minutes after I reached the front I was headed back outside again with my schedule for the semester, hall and gym locker assignments, campus map, and a photo ID that was still warm in my hand.  They hadn’t noticed I’d crossed my eyes.

I hiked across campus, passing a room with an open door where the band was slowly running through their first scales of the year.  Lots of flutes, trumpets and saxophones I noted, wincing a little at the sound.  They were out of tune.  It’s only the first day, I reminded myself.  They’re bound to get better.

Room 19 was in the next building over and I opened the door, stepping tentatively into my first-period geometry class.  The teacher – Miss George, according to the name written on the ancient-looking blackboard – was still going through her expectations while a couple of volunteers passed out books, and she waved me in without stopping.  The only desks left open were toward the front (thanks a lot, sophomore assembly) and I dropped into the second seat back in the row closest to the door.  Math was my least-favorite subject, but at least I’d be getting it out of the way first thing.  I watched as other kids came trickling in, hoping to see Ab or someone else I knew, but by the time Miss George began taking attendance I had decided I was out of luck. 

Gina walked in when the teacher was about halfway through calling out names, and she hurried over and slipped into the last open seat, just to my left.  I brightened a little, relieved to see someone I at least recognized, but then I gave an inward sigh when she just stared at the desktop after giving me barely a glance.   When Miss George called “Gina Lynch?” she replied a soft “Here” without looking up.

So much for finding allies, I decided gloomily.  Geometry was going to suck.

Second period was English, which I had with Ab, followed by third period U.S. History with both Ab and Gina.  I was also glad to see Vern Ashley, a guy I’d first met a few days after moving to the area, and who sometimes joined our Saturday night fire circle on the beach.  He had ebony skin and muscles that made him look like he’d been carved from granite, and even though we’d sometimes talked about him teaching me to lift weights, it hadn’t happened yet.  Phys Ed came right before lunch, and there at least I got to hang out with Les (major score!) along with Monica, one of the other girls from Windward Cove.  She was lean and athletic from long days on her surfboard, and based on her hair and skin tone I took her for Native American, but I hadn’t got around to asking her yet.

I checked my schedule as I left the locker room, noting that all I had left after lunch was Biology I and then a drama class – my only elective.  I’d taken Beginning Drama back in middle school, and while I wasn’t much of an actor, I was fine with building sets, hanging in the background and helping out as a stage hand.  It would be a pretty chill way to end the day.

All in all, I figured things weren’t looking too bad as I exited the lunch line in the cafeteria, holding my back pack in one hand and balancing my tray in the other.  I scanned the room, looking for someone I knew, and I recognized a familiar cascade of dark auburn hair on the far side.  Kelly Thatcher sat at a table by the windows, along with three or four of her cheerleader friends and some guys from the football team.  She brightened when she saw me, and I could see there was an open space to her left, but I kept my gaze moving, pretending I hadn’t seen her.  I knew that sooner or later she and I would have to talk, but today wasn’t that day.  From the corner of my eye I saw Alan Garrett walk over and claim the open spot, and then the pressure was off.

I figured everyone else was lagging behind, so I made my way to a large table near the wall that was mostly open.  “Mind if I sit here?” I asked the only occupant, but then I almost immediately wished I hadn’t.  The guy was large – probably over six feet, I estimated – though round shouldered and kind of pudgy.  He wore a dark, long-sleeved tee with a dragon on it.  He glanced up as if annoyed, looking at me over the top of thick, horn-rimmed glasses, and then turned his attention back to the open book in front of him.  He turned the page, ignoring me.


I turned to see Gina standing a couple of steps behind me holding her lunch bag.  “Oh, hey,” I said.  “Just looking for some space.”

She chewed her lower lip, looking uncertain.  “You can sit with us if you want,” she offered at last, moving cautiously around me to the table.  That earned her a scowl from Mr. Cheerful but she ignored it, sliding into the chair next to his.

“Thanks.”  I set my tray down in the place across from them, and then hung my back pack on the chair before dropping into it.

“This is my cousin Darren,” she told me.  “Darren, this is Ben.”

“Hi,” I said.

“You know this guy?” he asked Gina, still ignoring me. 

I guessed he wasn’t the welcoming type.

She nodded.  “Some girls were giving me a hard time before school.  Ben and his friends made them stop.”
“What girls?” he demanded.

“It doesn’t matter.  It’s over now.”  She began unpacking her lunch, and I watched as she arranged a yogurt and a plastic spoon next to a sandwich made of a single slice of pressed turkey on wheat bread.  

No wonder she’s so slender, I thought.

Darren looked like he was going to press her further, but then just shook his head.  “I told you the people around here suck,” he muttered, and then turned his attention back to his book.

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, and then took a sip from my water glass.  “Darlene’s got some issues, but pretty much everyone else has been cool so far.”

He looked over at me with a sour expression, and then glanced down at the meatloaf and mashed potatoes on my plate, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

Maybe he was vegan.

Gina’s expression darkened.  “Darlene’s a…” She paused, as if looking for the right word.  “A witch,” she finished awkwardly, as if she’d said something crude.  She looked down at her food, blushing.

“Yeah,” I agreed, picking up my fork.  “We just pronounce it differently where I come from.”

She looked back up, her brown eyes momentarily wide, and then offered a tentative smile.

“There you are!” Les said cheerfully, setting a huge sack lunch beside my tray and pulling out the chair.  Ab was half a step behind him, along with Monica and Vern, and they all took places at the table.  They were followed a second or two later by Nicole and Kim, two more girls we knew from Windward Cove, and the conversation brightened as we exchanged greetings.  Across from me, Darren’s scowled deepened as the table filled up, and I wondered if it was his go-to expression.  Gina just retreated into her own space, staring at the tabletop.

“Hi,” Ab said from the chair next to her.  “You’re new, right?  You took off before we had a chance to meet this morning.” 

As she began making introductions, Darren rose abruptly and stalked away, obviously in a state of high pissoff.  I wasn’t sorry to see him go. 

“Don’t worry about Bubbles,” Les confided, pitching his voice low so Gina couldn’t hear.  “He’s always that way.”

I shrugged, turning back to the conversation at the table.

“…and you’ve already met Ben.  He’s pretty new too, and just moved here at the beginning of summer,” Ab finished.  “So where are you from?”

Gina hesitated, but I could see Ab’s friendliness superpower was already working its magic.  I hadn’t met anyone yet she couldn’t get to like her, and the new girl smiled shyly.  “Rome,” she answered in a soft voice.

“Italy?” Nicole asked excitedly, moving into Darren’s vacant seat so she could better hear.

The girl shook her head, blushing.  “New York.  Upstate.  My family has…”  She paused.  “We had a farm there.”

“So what brings you to California?”

Gina frowned, looking down again.  “There was an accident.  I had to come live with my aunt and uncle.”

It grew quiet as a brief, awkward silence fell over our table.  “So have you tried surfing yet?” Nicole asked, grinning.

That salvaged things, and the conversation was off and running again.  I relaxed, working on my meatloaf and chiming in every now and then as everyone did their best to make the shy girl feel welcome.

It looked like Gina was part of the crowd.

Monday, September 3, 2018

"Vengeant" Chapter One

“Which ghost is this one, again?” Les asked.

“The scary one,” I muttered, a little nervously.  Okay, maybe more than a little. 

“Dude…they’re ghosts.  They’re supposed to be scary.”

I gave him a raised eyebrow, but all he did was grin at me.  Leslie Hawkins, the unruffle-able.  Seriously, nothing ever seemed to bother the guy.  He’d hung around with us the whole summer long, taking charge of the Common Sense department while Ab (short for Abigail) Chambers did the hardcore research and provided all the ghost expertise.  She’d been studying the paranormal most of her life (if “studying” was even the right word – she was more like a raging groupie following her favorite band), and she had emerged as our unofficial leader.

And me?  I was just the guy who could see and feel things no one else could.

We were gathered at the end of the third floor hall in front of Suite 324 – the only locked door inside the Windward Inn.  I stood a little to one side, avoiding the cold spot I remembered from the day my mom and I had first explored the old, boarded-up hotel.  The spot was still there, a space of maybe three square feet where the temperature seemed to drop fifteen or twenty degrees.  But that wasn’t the part that bothered me.  What bothered me was the feeling of detached, brutal menace that emanated from whatever lurked on the other side of the door.  I swallowed, feeling sweat gather on the back of my neck.

I didn’t want to be there.

“This should be Frank Delgiacco,” Ab reported when I didn’t answer.  She consulted her stack of notes, most of which were photocopies of old newspaper columns downloaded from the internet, and I watched as she flipped though the pages.  She was lean, with a narrow face and high cheekbones.  Her hair was the same dark brown as her eyes, longer on top and cut shorter on the sides, and even in the dim hallway I could make out the purple highlights.  The line between her eyebrows smoothed out when she found the page she was looking for.  “Aha -- here it is.  Frank was a gangster from the thirties with connections to crime families in both New York and Chicago.”

“So how’d he end up here?” Les asked.

“As the story goes, he hooked up with his boss’ girlfriend – a woman named Martina Russo.  They ran away together when they were discovered, but the mob caught up to him here a little over a year later.”  Ab frowned down at the page.  “The article doesn’t say if Martina was with him or not.”

I reached out mentally, immediately finding the brief vision I’d seen earlier that summer:  the muzzle flash of a gun, a spray of blood, and the body of a woman being buried in the desert.  “She wasn’t,” I told them, my mouth suddenly dry. 

What happened? I wondered offhandedly.  Did they have a fight?  Did Martina have second thoughts and want to go back?  I shook my head, realizing I’d probably never know.

“Anyway, on the night of April 11th, 1933, two mob hit men showed up and knocked around eleven p.m.,” Ab went on.  “When Frank asked who was there, one fired a shotgun right through the door, and then kicked it in.  Delgiacco took most of the blast in his chest and stomach, but he must’ve been a big guy because as soon as the door swung open he shot one of the mobsters in the face, and then dragged the other one inside.  He must’ve dropped his gun in the fight, because the second mobster was found strangled to death.  Frank bled out before the police got here.”

“And you want me to go in,” I said.  “Is it just me, or does this sound like a really stupid idea?”

“C’mon, Wolfman,” Ab prodded, sounding impatient.  “All we need to find out is if this ghost is aware of people, or if he’s just another spirit stuck reliving the past.  And anyway, we’ve been all over this place and nothing’s hurt you so far, has it?”

I sighed.  She was right, and I was probably just being a wuss.  You’d think after a summer of investigating the spirits in the old hotel I’d be used to it by now.  But then again, each case was a little different.  From Edna Lang down in room 209, who killed herself in May of 1926 by taking a whole bottle of sleeping pills, to William “Willie” Boyd, who got drunk off his ass during a New Year’s Eve party in 1942, and died after wrestling the third floor elevator door open and falling down the shaft.  There were ghosts who seemed to have stuck around for reasons known only to them, others who didn’t even know they were dead, and pretty much everything in between – and no two were exactly alike.

My friend Lisette Gautier had spent a lot of time over the summer trying to teach me how to reach out to them, hoping I’d be able to “help move ‘em on.”   So far, though, my batting average was zero.  Sure, under the right circumstances I could experience mind-blowing visions of past events.  And I was great at sensing emotions too, both from the people around me and any strong feelings that were sometimes imprinted on places and objects.  Once in a great while I could even tell when something was about to happen, although that was the least specific or reliable – like having just a touch of Peter Parker’s spider-sense.   But in spite of Lisette’s patient coaching and all the ghost-hunting we’d done over the summer, I still wasn’t able to form any sort of connection by which I could genuinely communicate or interact.  I dunno…maybe I just sucked at the whole psychic thing.  At best, I seemed to just be a spectator, which sometimes made me feel like I brought the least of all of us to the party. 

Ben Wolf…inept clairvoyant.

Moe nuzzled my hand, as if sensing my uncertainty, and I ruffled his black, shaggy fur.  The puppy I’d found and adopted back in June had grown a lot.  His shoulders now stood partway up my thigh, and he wasn’t even close to done yet.  The vet in Silver Creek had identified him as a Black Russian Terrier; a dog originally bred for military and police work, and if what I’d read in the internet was true, he could end up weighing upwards of a hundred and fifty pounds.   It was a good thing he was so mellow.

“Wolfman…?  You still with us?”

“Yeah,” I said, bringing my thoughts back to the present.  “Sorry.”  I dug the hotel passkey out of my hip pocket and inserted it into the lock.  I had to twist hard before the old key began to turn, and I wondered how long it had been since the door was opened.  At last, though, something inside gave way with a grind and a snap, and the bolt rolled aside. 

My heart began thudding heavily in my chest.  Ab’s research had included pouring through boxes of old, leather-bound hotel registers we’d found in a small office behind the front desk, and we’d found out that the last guest to stay in Suite 324 had checked out a little after midnight on September 12th, 1934.  In the seventeen months following Frank Delgiacco’s murder, the suite had only been rented twenty-eight times, with no one making it through a single night.  Five of the guests had switched to other rooms, but the rest had all left the hotel anywhere between seven p.m. and three-fifteen in the morning.  From the night the last recorded guest checked out until the Windward Inn shut down in 1951, there was no record of Suite 324 ever being occupied again.

Knowing that wasn’t exactly comforting.

I twisted the knob, holding my breath as a crack of semi-darkness appeared between the door and the frame.

And then I was stumbling into gloom, pulled inside as the door was jerked savagely open!  I had barely a second to realize they hadn’t even bothered to clear out the furniture before I somersaulted over the back of a sofa, my legs landing hard on a coffee table on the other side and breaking it in half.  Dust from the upholstery rose in a cloud and I could hear Moe barking as I scrambled awkwardly to my feet.  The cracks between the boarded-over windows allowed afternoon sunlight to penetrate the room, the narrow beams looking like lasers as they cut through the billowing dust.

I found my bearings again, looking back to where Ab and Les stared in from the hallway wide-eyed with shock, but then something hit me hard in the chest and I was flying through the air, my back slamming against a wall and shattering a big mirror that hung there.  I had just landed when what felt like a huge hand closed around my throat, slamming me back against the wall again and pinning me there with my feet dangling a foot above the floor.  Panicked, I flailed at the towering, vaguely man-shaped distortion I could now see in front of me, but my punches and kicks just sailed right through.  I struggled to breathe, but the hand holding me had completely closed off my windpipe, and my vision started to go gray around the edges.

Suddenly, the hand was gone as Moe tore into the room, showing teeth and barking furiously as the ghostly outline appeared to retreat in surprise.  I landed on my hands and knees, gasping, and then Les was there, hauling me back to my feet and half-dragging me back to where Ab waited, ready to pull the door shut. 

“Moe!” I managed to choke out, my throat burning, and he turned and scrambled out into the hall just ahead of us.  Ab slammed the door shut as soon as we were clear, and half a second later it rattled in its frame as something heavy hit it from the other side.

The thud echoed hollowly down the empty corridor, but after it faded the only sound was our labored breathing. 

After a long moment, Les turned away from the door, his pale eyes glinting mischievously in the half-light.  “Well,” he remarked casually, “ol’ Frank seems pretty aware to me.  What do you guys think?”

I started to chuckle. It made my throat hurt, but I just couldn’t help it.  Ab and Les joined in, and we shared a laugh that was part hysterical relief, part lingering shock and terror, but mostly just good friends finding the moment funny as hell.  We kept going until a second, louder thud rattled the door, as if the ghost inside resented the sound, and we all jumped a little.  “Lock that, will you?” I asked.

I watched as Les strained to turn the key.  “It won’t budge,” he said at last, giving up.  “Something inside must’ve broken when you opened it.”

That scared me a little, but then I realized that if the ghost of Frank Delgiacco wanted to get past the door, he would have done it already.  Just the same, I figured we shouldn’t press our luck.  “So,” I asked Ab “do you have any more near-death experiences you’d like to put me through, or can we get out of here?”

She grinned.  “Nah…I guess that’s enough for today.” 

We made our way down to the lobby, and I left the passkey on its hook behind the front desk before following Ab and Les out to the porch.

“Have you and your mom ever thought about reopening the Windward?” Ab asked, watching as I locked the door behind us.

“Not really,” I admitted.  “I mean sure, it’s come up, but we just got all the wiring fixed at the house, and Mom has a lot of other stuff planned.  It’ll be a while before this place makes it that far up the To Do list.”

I watched Moe as he loped on ahead of us, and we shared a companionable silence as we ducked under the chain blocking the entrance and began our hike down the steep drive.  The sun was warm through my shirt, but a chill wind off the ocean reminded me that summer was waning.  The afternoon light had been turning a deeper gold as autumn crept near, the sunsets ticking steadily southward and giving way to twilight a few minutes earlier each evening.  Thinking about it made me a little sad, especially when I remembered it was the last day of summer vacation.

“You guys all ready for tomorrow?” Ab asked, as if reading my thoughts.

“Yup,” said Les.

“Nope,” I answered at the same time, and we laughed.

“C’mon, hombre,” Less offered good-naturedly, ruffling the lingering dust from his light, almost colorless hair.  “Tomorrow you’re officially a Silver Creek High Buccaneer.  What’s not to like about that?”  He was a little taller than me, though thicker in the chest and shoulders in a burly kind of way that sometimes reminded me of a mountain man, or maybe a lumberjack.  He was a year ahead of Ab and me – a junior – and had shown us around the campus the week before.

I shrugged.  “Nothing, I guess.  I just like summer better.  You know, staying up late watching movies, getting to sleep in whenever I want, warm nights on the beach...  Now we have to trade it all in for boring days in class, homework and all the rest.”

“Don’t forget football games and dances,” Les countered.

“Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Ab added.

“Stop being so cheerful when I’m trying to feel sorry for myself,” I complained, smirking.

From there our conversation drifted to other subjects like which teachers were cool and which weren’t, what to definitely stay away from in the cafeteria, and other random bits of intel Les thought we might need.  It kept us busy until we made it to my house, a rambling Victorian ringed by elm trees about halfway down the hill from the inn.  It sat in a meadow just south of what had been a private vineyard back in the forties, maybe ten square acres of abandoned vines that had grown into a great, tangled jungle of green that was twelve to fifteen feet high in some places.  The vineyard had been haunted when Mom and I had moved to Windward Cove back in June, but it wasn’t anymore.  And anyway, that’s a different story.

“You guys want to stay for dinner?” I asked.  “Mom’s making her chicken enchilada casserole.  It’s awesome – one of my all-time favorites.”

“Can’t,” Ab said.  “I probably should have been home an hour ago.  My Aunt Abby is visiting, and if I don’t go and pretend I’m a girlie-girl for a while, I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“I should go, too,” Les replied.  “I need shove some clothes in the washer – you can only turn your underwear inside-out so many days in a row.”

We laughed, and then arranged to meet early at Tsunami Joe for coffee in the morning so we could ride to school together.  I sat on the porch step, feeling sad again as I watched my friends get on their bicycles and pedal away.  I knew it was just end-of-summer blues, so I tried to shake it off, entwining my fingers in Moe’s fur as I looked through the gap in the western hills where the sunset was just a coppery line above the Pacific.  Pretty, and as good a way to end my last day of freedom as any, I supposed.

“Benny!”  My mother’s call was faint as it drifted through the screen door behind me from somewhere in the back of the house.  “You around?  Dinner’s almost ready!”

“Be right there!” I hollered back, but I stayed put for a few moments longer, watching a black spot out over the ocean glide south against the golden backdrop of shimmering water.  It was a bird – either a seagull or a pelican; it was too far away to tell for sure – skimming a foot or so above the waves as if enjoying the last flight of the day.

I knew just how he felt.