By D. Paul Fonseca
Chapter 5 – Haunted
Upstairs, on the second floor of The Buffet, Scott handed Ana a fresh cup of coffee. Since he usually stayed up late, he kept a coffee maker in his room. He had only moved in three weeks previous, and many boxes remained unpacked. The room felt cluttered and crowded with Ana, Scott, and Jason spread out on chairs and on the sofa. Keith lay sprawled on the floor over the rough and dirty hardwood. None of them wanted to go back into the kitchen.
Keith’s arm covered his face. His eyes remained closed as he said, “So, you all saw this guy, Louie?”
“Lou,” replied Jason. “His name was Lou.” From his chair by the small window, he watched the street below while cars drove past in the night. “It was real.” Jason’s dark eyes moved. They tracked the tail lights on an old Volkswagen Beetle as it made a turn around the corner. His vacant expression reflected the general mood of the room.
“If it was real, then, where’d he go? And this other guy, Angelo? Why was he in my office?”
Ana threw a pillow from the couch at Keith. She said, “They were ghosts, you goof!”
“Hey!” Keith knocked the pillow away from his face. “Ok, fine, let’s entertain that idea for a minute.” He sat up. “If those two guys in the kitchen were ghosts, who were they? Did they work here? Did they die here? Why would they be here now? Can we find out? Can we find out if either of them ever even actually worked in this building?”
Scott shook his head. “Man, I don’t know about staying here now. We should just rent this place out.”
“Dude! You’re the one who talked me into making this place have a stage! I already paid for half of it.” Keith huffed. “And if you want to go rent yourself an apartment someplace else, I’m sure I can get someone else to help me with this place.”
“Whoa!” Scott put up a hand and softened his expression. “Let’s take a step back a minute.” He poured a cup of coffee and offered it to Keith. “Dude. This is freaky. You got to admit, the whole eighties revival thing was pretty whacked.” Scott shook his head, tossing his long hair behind him and out of his eyes.
Keith took the coffee and leaned his back against the front of the couch as he sat on the floor. He crossed his legs and took a sip of the hot java. “Shit, I’m sorry man. I didn’t want to admit this place…”
“Is haunted!” Jason gave a hollow look toward Keith. “This place is haunted, and we don’t know anything about it, so we can’t know why.” He stood up and walked over to the coffee maker. He found a mug in the cupboard and filled it. “I think we need to do some research on this place. I mean, Keith, you inherited it. It’s your family, so what’s the deal with it?
Keith palmed his face in slow motion. He sighed. “I don’t know.” He stood and sat on the couch next to Ana.
“My biological family wouldn’t talk to me. They told my lawyer that I’m on my own with this place. Nobody will talk to me.” He lowered his head, saddened.
“Whoa! So, they know something?” Ana said, sipping her coffee. “How did you get this place, anyway? Scotty said you inherited it. Who did you inherit it from?”
“My attorney had worked on finding out who my birth parents are. The trail of legal papers led to a Maia Antonia Russo and there was no father on my birth certificate.”
“Damn.” Scott shook his head. He kneeled down and reached behind his sofa. When he found what he had reached for, he pulled it out. “Yeah, bay bee.” He grinned. A short, amber waterpipe came out in his hand. “I’ve been looking for you,” he said to the bong. “Let’s get reacquainted.”
Ana rolled her eyes. “Hey,” she said. “We are talking about Keith right now.”
“Right. Sorry.” Scott went to the sink and rinsed the bong.
Jason asked, “Keith, where’s the inheritance papers? Do you have it with you here?”
“Yeah, hang on,” said Keith. He got up, opened the door and disappeared into the dark hallway.
Scott meandered towards the couch. He did not pay attention to the group. Instead, he pushed a small pile of green weed into the bowl of his bong. He held it in his right hand before him and fidgeted to look into his jacket pocket for a lighter.
“Dude, don’t light that shit up right now,” Ana growled at Scott.
He stopped in his tracks. “Fine,” he said. He held the pipe in his hand and sat on a wooden chair near the stereo. Although he agreed to stop, the lighter remained at the ready in his left hand on his leg. He balanced the pipe on his knee with his other hand.
Keith entered with an envelope in his hand. Ana and Jason stood and reached for the paper together, but, she grabbed it from Keith and opened it. Ana mumbled to herself. She read the text, and then said, “This document is dated 1982 and lists Maia Antonia Russo as the heir. At the time, Zacharias Russo was the owner of this building.” She turned her head and asked, “Are you sure Maia Russo is your mother?”
“That’s what Marco Says.”
“Who’s Marco?” asked Ana.
“My attorney.” Keith began pacing in the room. His heart rate went up and he cracked his knuckles.
Ana asked, “Can’t you ask him about her? When did she own the building?”
“She never did.” He paused. “She died in ninety-four, freak car accident at Sunset Cliffs.”
“Oh god, I’m so sorry,” Ana said. “So, it went straight from this Zach dude to you?”
“That’s the story.” He only died a few years ago. But, this place has been sitting since before I was born. She died sixteen years ago. I never knew her, or who she was. I'm adopted.” He threw his hands up. The twist on his lips caught Ana off guard.
Jason reached for the papers in Ana’s hand. “May I see that?” Ana handed the papers to him. He flipped to the next page. He said, “You know, this address for the owner isn’t that far from here. It would be worth checking out.”
Scott and Ana nodded. Keith interjected, “They won’t talk to me, remember? I don’t know what their fucking problem is, but nobody in that family will talk to me. I tried. Marco can’t get any information from them, other than what I can.
“What if Ana and I go and check it out?” Scott appealed to Keith. He sounded sincere. “Come on, we can go incognito. It’ll be like … it will be like a spy mission! We’re going recon!” Scott sounded cocky, but he had a point.
“We can handle it.” Ana smiled. “At least, I can handle it. Why don’t you let me do the talking?” She said to Scott. He snarled at her and grinned.
“Fine.” Scott agreed. Keith stared off into the distance. He looked out the window and considered his options. He didn’t want to do it. All he wanted was to finish the work, make up a menu and open the place. The only work remaining comprised of hiring staff and getting the stage put in. The inspector already came and checked off the rest of the building. Keith had all the permits he needed. He thought to himself, Why does this shit need to be haunted? He nodded, “OK.”
Ana’s face perked up with a smile. “We can park your scooter down the street from the house and case the place,” she said to Scott. He nodded the affirmative. She turned to Keith, “Do you have a nice coat Scott can use? I have an idea. However, he needs to look a little more…” Ana shrugged. She eyed Scott up and down and wondered. “Grown up.”
Keith giggled and ran off to get his blue coat. “Okay, but I don’t want him messing this thing up.”
“I got this, Keith,” Scott said.
Jason spoke up, “I know someone who can help us with this.”
“I don’t want some ghost hunter team in this place. The last thing I need is this place showing up on the Internet as the next big thing to break into and investigate.” Keith grew agitated.
Jason shook his head. “No. I know someone who has experience with ghosts, lots of experience.”
Keith turned his head sideways. “Go on. Who? Who do you know?”
“Her name is Esme.” Jason swallowed. “She’s my great aunt. She’s a bruja.”
“A what?” Keith didn’t understand.
Ana had pulled her coat on and shot a look at Keith and Jason. “A witch. A bruja is a witch,” she said. “You sure you want to do that?” Her gaze settled on Jason. “I mean, a witch? It sounds dangerous.”
Jason pursed his lips and cast his eyes down. It became clear her comment did not sit well with him. “It’s fine. I trust her. I mean, she’s family. She’s always been kind.” Then he said, “Okay, she’s almost always been kind. There was that one time….”
Ana cocked her head at him.
He said, “Later. We need to go. She goes to bed kind’ve early.” He checked his watch. “It’s almost nine, now.”
Jason and Keith headed out. Ana stood with Scott and shook her head. When he tried to say something, she put her hand on his mouth, muffling his response. She said, “Don’t.” Then they headed out the door and down the stairs, following the others with wide eyes.
Scott wore his helmet with the full visor up and Ann sat behind him with a short café style helmet and goggles. They sped across Hillcrest. The car flew over the bumps and dips of the road down University Avenue towards Goldfinch. Once there, they cut north across Washington. Before long, they found their way down Sunset Boulevard. As they neared the old three-story house, Scott slowed and cut the motor. They drifted to a stop half a block away from the house. Scott said, “I think it’s that one, up there, here’s the number.” He passed the paper with the address on it to Ann, behind him.
“That’s it all right,” Ana whispered.
The raised front of the house ran up against the sidewalk. A lush, green hedge grew around a raised patio, split in the center. The patio was dark and teamed with several elephant ears and large split leaf plants. Pleasant, soft glowing lamps illuminated two palm trees, at the corners of the landscape. The walls of the house had a cheerful coat of bright yellow paint with white trim. It stood three stories high and had a short row of attic windows around the top, three in each direction.
Scott sat on the scooter with Ana’s arms around his waist. He’d shut off the motor and walked it backward. Ana climbed off the back, and then he kicked up the stand.
“I didn’t think it would be so big,” Ana whispered to Scott. He grinned and was about to speak when she put her hand on his mouth to keep him quiet. She shushed him. “Don’t you dare say, ‘that’s what she said’ or I’ll kick your ass right here.” Ana glared at the longhaired man and gave him her best mean face.
“Come on.” Scott grinned and followed her.
“Hold my hand,” Ana said. “We should look natural. I want to do a slow walk by this place first. Then we can walk down the street and come back on the other side. Don’t break character.”
“Character?” He asked.
“Yes! Pretend you like me,” she whispered. “Play casual.”
“Ok,” he responded. “Let’s go have a look.” Scott took her hand in his. It felt small, delicate, and cold. They approached the house but remained across the street from it. They passed it by in a slow stroll. Ann looked at it as they drew close. Scott noticed a light on the third-floor attic area. It was the only light coming from inside the house. Then, it turned off.
Ann stopped. She had seen the light as well. She grabbed Scott and turned him to face her. “Whisper to me.” “What,” Scott didn’t understand.
“Pretend you like me, remember? I want to check out the house a minute. Hug me and look like you’re trying to convince me that you love me.”
“Oh, like I like you. Got it.” He did as she asked and put an arm around her waist. He pulled her close. He inhaled her perfume. It had been a long day, but with her this close to him, Scott felt a genuine stirring. “Ok, sure.” He drew her in and she put her chin on his shoulder.
Ana exhaled. “That’s good. I can see the house better like this.” She watched as a light came on, on the second floor, somewhere in the distant center of the home. Then went off.
“What do you see?” Scott asked.
“Someone is moving around in the house. They might be going downstairs.”
He felt her arms tense around his shoulders.
She continued after a short pause, “The door’s opening. Someone is coming out.”
With that, she drew her chin back, off of Scott’s shoulder. She snuggled into Scott in an intimate gesture. Their noses almost touched, but, she kept a close eye on the man who walked down the stairs. He closed the iron gate behind him as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. The, he faced them, as they stood close together. The little old man adjusted his glasses on his nose.
“What are you doing?” Scott asked her.
Ana squirmed. “Shit,” she said. Then she nodded, the motion looked exaggerated, but Scott didn’t know what she was doing. “Ok.” She said, louder than she needed to, and she kissed him, closing her eyes.
Scott’s mind shut off like a Windows’ blue screen. As he felt his friend embrace him, she slipped her tongue into his mouth. In all his life he had never been close to a woman with such attributes. Her tongue parted his lips. He could smell the makeup on her face and the velvety aroma of her lipstick against his mouth. Before he knew what was happening, his manhood rose to the occasion and poked at Ana.
Ana’s eyes remained closed. She dug her nails into Scott’s jacket, but then after a moment, she peeked at the man across the street. He had become disinterested like she’d hoped and had climbed into a parked car. The man retrieved hidden keys from the visor and then started the engine. Before too long, he had driven down the street and out of sight. “Come on,”
She pulled him by the hand down the street, headed the same direction they had been walking, west. After they had passed four houses, she led them across the street. They turned back down towards the house in question.
They searched the street for pedestrians and found none. They also made a casual survey of the windows of the houses around them, but all they saw were closed curtains. Most of the lights were out. Scott checked his watch. 10:43. “It’s getting late.” He said to her. “What’s your plan?”
“That all depends.” She whispered to him. “Has the swelling gone down?”
He blushed. He knew exactly what she meant. “Um yeah. Hey, I couldn’t help that.”
“I know. Men are predictable that way. That’s why I didn’t slap you.” She changed the subject, “Do you see that window?” She nodded at the side of the house. One of the windows gaped open, enough to fit a hand through. The darkness behind it made Scott feel uneasy. He shuddered, getting a bad feeling about her intentions.
“Because that’s how we’re getting in.”
Jason and Keith rode in Jason’s compact Toyota Corolla. The hum of the engine could barely be heard over the loud sound system as it blared Destiny’s Child “Jumpin’, Jumpin’”.
“Jason, can you turn that down a little?” Keith shouted.
“What’s up?” The young man turned down the sound.
“I,” he paused. “I have a headache.”
“Sorry, Keith.” He turned off the freeway and headed up Euclid Avenue, then turned onto a side street and into an odd cul-de-sac. “We’re here.”
Keith realized that the neighborhood he was in was dubious at best. Security bars covered every window and door he saw. The entire street looked like a Brazilian Favela, or so he imagined. The house they parked in front of was no exception. The metal bars had been painted over with an odd, light sand color to match the color of the house. Several trash cans, filled to the brim, sat out on the curb. Despite the desperate appearance, the landscape had appeal. Plants covered the front of the property. A variety of cactus and three giant bird of paradise flourished on the grounds. The clearly defined yard lay within the chain-link fence.
Jason stepped up to the front door and knocked. But, there was no answer. He yelled at the door. “Tia?” The metal screen door gave a view of the house through a living room and a hallway. At the end of the hallway, an open bedroom door revealed the foot of a bed and a dark, wooden dresser inside a well-lit room. The sound of a game show announcer could be heard in low tones.
“I think she’s watching tv.” Jason tried the door handle. The latch opened, and the handle made a click as he pulled it open. Immediately two small dogs barked and yelped. They came at him from the bedroom. Their paws clicked on the hardwood floor with every step. The barking grew louder until they reached the door. Barking became yelps and whining noises as they recognized Jason. He bent down to calm them with petting and soothing words. All the while their tails wagged vigorously, and they shook with joy and excitement. “Hello?” The voice of an older woman called from the bedroom. “Who’s there?”
“Tia, it’s me, Jason.” He motioned for Keith to follow him in but then put a hand up to stop once their feet were in the hallway. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll see if she’s okay with you….”
“Jason, bring your friend with you. He no have to wait.” She sounded concerned.
The men exchanged looks of surprise. Jason grinned. He put a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “You see.” He nodded. “She already knows you’re here.”
“We’ll see what she knows,” Keith said, “I hope she can help me.”
As the men walked into the bedroom, Keith was struck with a large number of figurines and candles in the room. The walls were painted pink, and the lampshades threw a yellow glow over everything.
“Tia Esme,” Jason began. “This is my friend Keith.” He stood in the doorway, and stepped aside, so she could see the new man. “He’s also my boss, where I work right now on a job in Hillcrest. We have a problem.”
The woman sat up higher in bed and set her glasses down. “Mijo, turn the tv sound off.”
Jason did as she asked. Then he said to Keith, “This is my Tia, Esme. I think she can help.” Keith smiled at her but felt out of place. The discomfort itched at his neck and made the hairs on the back of it stand up.
“Mijo, it’s late. Why do you need me right now? What has happened?” She fixed her dark, piercing eyes on the young men.
Keith grew nervous and felt like he had no right to intrude on the old woman at this hour. He spoke before
Jason could. “I’m so sorry. It’s my fault. I asked him to bring me to you. There’s a problem at the restaurant I’m trying to open up.”
“It’s haunted.” She said. Her eyes searched her nightstand until she found a glass of water. As she brought it to her lips, she looked towards Keith. Her eyes settled on something in the doorway behind him. She swallowed her refreshment.
“How did you know?” Keith asked her.
“Because you have dragged a lot of bad energy here with you.” She pulled a mirror off her nightstand. With that, she stretched her arm out as far as she could and angled the mirror to see down the hallway and to the doorway. “Yes. I see them.” Her tone grew labored. “There are two spirits waiting for you on my doorstep. What have you boys gotten into?”
For a moment, Keith wavered. His voice escaped him. He swallowed hard and beads of sweat formed on his brow. “I don’t know,” The words squeaked out of him in thin rasps. “I inherited a building and it’s…”
Jason jumped in, “It’s haunted with something bad, Tia.” He put an arm on his friend’s shoulder.
Esme read Keith’s face. The alien fear in his eyes spoke volumes of a story untold. He was lost, of that she was certain. It wasn’t only the spirits haunting his property. She could tell that much. But what she could also see were the ghosts of his past, a past he had all but forgotten.
The old Mexican woman blinked, and the sounds in the house grew silent. The tick-tock of a clock in the hallway engulfed the room with its rhythmic tapping. Shadows in the corners of the room swelled in silence. The men took no notice. Their eyes remained on the woman before them.
“Go. I need to pray.” Esme commanded. “Close my door.”
“Tia?” Jason interrupted her.
The shadows stretched across the ceiling in odd shapes. The hairs on the back of the woman’s arms stood up. “Get out.” She snapped.
The men backed out of the room, their eyes on the woman. The two small dogs lay on the floor just under the foot of the bed. Jason realized his aunt had closed her eyes and from somewhere had grabbed her Rosary. She began praying in low murmured words. Before Jason closed the door behind them, he saw a candle on her dresser burst into light. The flicker danced with an orange and blue flame. He wondered to himself, had that candle been lit when they’d entered?
In the shadows between the houses, Scott shifted his gaze away from Ana. His heart pounded fast and heavy. Ana had reached through the open window and struggled to get herself inside. Her head, shoulders, and one arm had made it into the home, but Scott struggled outside, trying desperately to not look at her in a more than friendly way. The difficulty he faced only intensified with one hand on her bottom and the other holding onto her bare foot. It didn’t help him that her skirt was short. She may have gotten a rise out of him before, but with this, he was about to lose his mind.
“I can’t quite pull myself in.” The young woman squirmed inside the window. Her foot pushed against Scott’s hands. “Can you lift me up just a little?”
From somewhere behind him, in the shadows, a girl’s voice asked, “What are you doing?”
Scott swung his head around to the face where the voice had come from. He stood motionless while Ana squirmed against his shoulder and hands. A teenage girl stared back at him from the next property over, through a tall iron bar fence.
“Are you trying to break into Mr. Russo’s house?”
Ana stopped wiggling. She’d heard the girl talking to Scott.
Scott backed Ana out of the window. She had become quiet and moved cautiously. Scott addressed the teen as he set his friend’s feet firmly on the grass, “Um, not exactly.” He looked at Ana, his eyes pleaded with her to say something.
Ana smoothed her skirt down over her legs and said, “We’re looking for something.” Then, “Who are you?”
“Whitney.” She looked back at the large boxy mansion behind her. “I live here. I’m hiding out from my father. He’s angry with me.” She turned back. “So, whatever you’re doing, just pretend I’m not here.”
“Did you say, Mr. Russo?” Ana struggled to understand. If Mr. Russo was alive, how did Keith inherit the building already?
“Of course. He’s a friend of my father.” Whitney leaned back against the trunk of a robust pecan tree. She then slouched herself to the ground and lay down in the grass, staring up at the stars. “Mr. Russo and my father have been friends since they were kids.”
Scott took Ana’s hand and gave her a side-eyed glance. He asked Whitney, “Why are you afraid of your father?”
The girl on the other side of the fence shuddered and looked away. She picked up a pecan from the ground and held it up before her, examining it in her fingers. The hard, smooth edges came to a point at one end. From where Scott stood, he could see only half of her in the scant moonlight. Her legs, bent at the knees, were bare, as were her feet. The dress Whitney wore looked soft, pale blue and simple. Her curly, long, dark hair lay in tresses across her shoulders and over her breast. When she finally spoke again, she said, “I hate them.”
Ana and Scott looked at each other, feeling a sense of cold pass through them. A thud sounded from Whitney, and when the two looked back at her, she had vanished. The pecan lay in the grass, rolling to a stop in the depression left behind by the girl.
They sat alone in a darkened living room full of old Mexican furniture. The tile floor reflected the street light that came in through the windows. A table fan blew the curtains towards the window and a mild, cool breeze kept the men from breaking into a sweat. Keith remembered what the woman had said about bad energy and something following them here. He stood and walked to the large window, to peer out towards the front door.
“You see something, boss?” Jason stood. His heavy boots made a clunking noise on the floor.
Keith shook his head. Shadows moved slowly against the wall and on the pavement near the front door. It was hard to see much of anything.
Jason walked into the hallway and opened the door to reveal the metal screen. Cold air filtered into the house in a sudden rush. He shut the door quickly, but silently.
“Mijo!” Esme’s frail voice carried through the door and down the hall at them. Keith joined Jason and they hurried down the hall. Jason stopped and knocked on the door. “Tia?”
He opened the door and cautiously stepped inside. Keith waited in the hall behind him. “Yes? Are you okay?”
“Si, Mijo.” She coughed and reached for her glass on the bedside table. “Agua, por favor?” She offered an empty cup to her nephew. As he took it and left the room she called out behind him. “Tráeme una cerveza fría.” Soon after that, “Dos.” She patted her throat and looked around the room. Two candles burned, one on her nightstand, and one on her tall dresser, beside the old television. Keith hovered in the doorway. He smiled respectfully at Esme, as he waited for Jason to return. He wasn’t sure what she had asked him, other than she was thirsty, but he did think he heard her ask for a beer.
Esme stared back at him. Her white hair was braided and pulled to the side. Her face held many days of sunshine and joy, wisdom and pain. The creases in her skin told the story of a very long and eventful life. Her eyes, glossy onyx, held his gaze. Keith stood transfixed by her attention. He almost didn’t notice her hand outstretched toward him, with her finger calling him with a slow curling and uncurling motion.
The refrigerator door rattle as it opened and bottles clinked. Then the sound of water whooshed as it poured into a glass in the kitchen. The mundane noises from the kitchen left Keith quiescent, calm. The eyes of the old woman put a pause in his breathing, and he stepped towards her with trepidation.
He knelt by her bedside and asked, “Yes?”
Esme took his hand in hers. A rosary had been woven between her soft, weathered fingers. Keith figured she had been praying. As she held his right hand in hers, she took his chin between her left thumb and forefinger to look into his eyes. She searched for something in them. Keith felt a frosty breath blow heavy on his neck when his back was turned. It was as though death had come in behind him and was breathing its dark, ugly grip of fear over his shoulder. He wanted to turn and see what, or who was there, but he could not look away from Esme. The rich color-of-earth eyes of hers compelled him to remain.
From the bedroom door, Jason entered the room. He didn’t know what to make of what he saw. His aunt lay in the bed, her hands on his boss and friend, and surrounding Keith was an electric blue veil of light, flickering and pulsing in the same way fire dances on the tip of a candle.
“Tia?” Jason stood, transfixed. He noticed the candle on his great-aunt’s dresser did not flicker, but the shadows behind it did. The darkness writhed and coalesced upon the wall in ways that did not make sense. Keith hadn’t moved, and Esme appeared to hold his gaze. Glaring back at the shadow on the wall, Jason saw that the wall had become engulfed in darkness. The flame of the candle on the dresser had turned blue, nearly invisible.
The lamp in the room came on. Keith eased back on his heels. The blue aura disappeared from him and Esme fell back into her pillows with a sigh. She looked at Jason, whose eyes had widened. She stifled a giggle, and it became a cough. Jason brought refreshments to her, handed the water to her first.
“Tia, are you okay?” he asked.
“Si, mijo.” Esme gulped the water and pointed to the bottles of beer. She waved one to herself and he obliged. He held up the other bottle and cocked his head. She pointed to the top of the dresser.
As he set the bottle on the dresser, he noticed the candle had come back to normal color. It flickered innocently among a litter of objects. A small picture of the Virgin Mary stood leaning against the side of a small animal skull and an unlit black candle stood awkwardly on a saucer. Beside the dark candle, tiny ash residue lay about from incense cones. Jason always knew his great-aunt was a witch, but he’d never really seen her altar before. He asked her, “Here?”
She nodded. "It is for alma de la persona."
Jason’s mouth went dry. He looked around the room, then put the beer down on the altar.
Esme chuckled as she pulled her beer away from her mouth. “Mijo, no worry. He is gone.” The smile on her lips made Keith shiver.