By D. Paul  Fonseca

Chapter Six - Houses

 

          Ana lay beneath a thin blue blanket on the sofa in Scott's room. Her red hair spread over the corner cushions in a wild tangle of curls. Her face, peaceful, and her breathing, quiet. Nearby, Scott quietly filled a paper filter with fragrant Swiss chocolate almond coffee. He knew she likes chocolate flavored coffee. As he poured water into the glass carafe, Ana turned over. Her eyes remained closed. She shivered.  From the open door, snoring could be heard through the hallway. Keith slept in his bed in his room alone. The clock by his bed read 7:14 AM.

          Scott walked to the window and looked out into the city. Down below in the parking lot, he saw Keith's Jaguar and Jason's old Corolla. What the heck? Scott scratched his head. He thought Jason had driven home last night after bringing Keith back. He turned on the drip coffee maker and softly went to the hallway and downstairs into the kitchen.

          He flicked on the lights and looked around the kitchen for the young man. But he was not there. "Jason?" Scott whispered. "Jason, where are you?" He checked in the office. The sofa had a sheet lying crumpled at one end. Pillows piled up at the opposite end, but he was not there. He looked in the dining area and there was no sign of him. Resigned that Jason had most likely run out for a breakfast burrito, Scott sighed and gave up the search. As he was about to go upstairs for coffee, he looked at the elevator. It was normally parked on the first floor, the kitchen. But the indicator said it was in the basement.

          “Shit.” Scott’s stomach knotted up with fear as soon as he realized the kid had probably gone into the basement to investigate the strange space. For the last few weeks, Keith had asked that everyone stay out of the basement area. Nobody had gone back down there besides some of the new workmen. Arturo had arranged for some electricians to come in and set up lights. It hadn’t taken too long because the electrical lines had been previously installed and with high-quality copper lines. But after Scott and Ana had gotten sick in the lower level, Keith said they all needed to stay clear of it.

          Scott pushed the button to go down. Given that the elevator would typically open right away, Scott could tell it was in the basement. He tapped his foot. He thought about the previous night, and the strange conversations they all had afterward. He remembered the way fear flooded Ana's face and drained it of color when he offered to let her have the room to herself for the night. She made him stay and talk with her until she had fallen asleep on the sofa. He watched over her for so long in the dark afterward that he had no idea when he finally fell asleep.

          The tale that Keith and Jason told had unnerved all of them. Something had been surrounding them, following them around since the day they'd arrived and began getting the restaurant ready for use. Jason's great-aunt sounded terrifying. If what she said were true, they would all be in trouble.

          The elevator doors opened but the familiar bell ringing did not happen. As soon as Scott entered the car, he realized why it remained silent. The control panel hung on a length of wires out of the housing it had been attached to. One yellow wire had been pulled back against itself and pinned in place with a binder clip. That kid….

          Scott reached under the control panel, found the basement button and pressed it. Down he went.

~

          Ana woke with a start. She sat up on the couch. Coffee steamed from the pot atop the dark wood dresser against the wall. She wanted to call out for Scott, but something felt wrong, out of place. She didn’t want to make any noise, but she wasn’t sure why.

          Outside, fog obscured the windows in an unearthly way. The air around her grew suddenly cold and the pot of coffee put off steam like it was going to boil over. The cold came fast and brutally strong. A familiar old feeling made the little red hairs on Ana’s arm stand up as a shiver ran through her from her toes to the top of her head. This had happened to her before, ten years earlier. Her lips mouthed the word: Ghost.

          With the recognition of the word, a dark shadow filled the corner of the room behind the door. It grew denser with every moment that that passed. Ana pulled the blanket up around her shoulders. She watched the dark form grow. Her fear of it intensified as it did so. She held her blanket tightly. Then she realized she had a small pillow behind her back. As fast as she could, she grabbed it and threw it at the dark intruder. For a moment she thought it would go away. The pillow stuck into the crook between the door and the wall since the door was nearly fully open. But that illusion faded. The dark form solidified and took the shape of a tall man in a button-down shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. His eyes searched the room but somehow did not see her. He held the pillow in his hands, dumbfounded as to its origin. He scowled, dropped the pillow, and stepped out from behind the door. His form, transparent, had a vaguely solid appearance. Though Ana could see through him, she could also see much of the detail of his features. 

            The man sneered, dropped the pillow and exited the room. He headed immediately down the stairs to the kitchen, making loud footsteps as he walked.

          As soon as he had gone, Ana ran to Keith's room. He remained asleep, unphased by anything going on. He apparently had not even heard the boots on the wood floor when the tall man went downstairs. She leaned in close to Keith, whispering into his ear, “Keith.” But he didn’t wake. “Keith, wake up,” she said. Her voice terribly quiet but nonetheless urgent. Still, he did not stir.

          Maybe he would wake to a familiar alarm? She looked around the room and saw his alarm clock. Keith’s breathing was regular and deep. His eyes moved behind their lids, a telltale sign he was still deep in sleep and dreaming. Ana decided the alarm would be too loud. She didn’t want to alert whomever that ghost was.

          Ana felt the first pangs of panic as her heartbeat pounded in her chest. She shook Keith’s shoulder, slowly, but nothing woke him. She didn't want to yell if the ghost was still in the kitchen. She put her mouth against Keith’s ear and whispered, giving her best seductive tone to him, “Wake up big boy, Mama wants to play.”

          His eyes snapped open, and he stared wide-eyed at her. He looked around and then at Ana. He asked, “What are you doing in here?” He slept naked and the fact that he woke to such a suggestive whisper confused him.  Even more unsettling to him was that she straddled him wearing only a t-shirt and sheer underwear.

            Ana put a finger to her lips and pointed down at the floor. “Sh…  There’s a ghost in the kitchen.”

            “Again?” Is it that guy Lou?” He whispered back to her.

            Ana shook her head. Keith cast his eyes down. He searched his memory. The events of the previous week ran through is mind; the ghosts, the inexplicable time-shift in the dining hall, the words of Jason’s grandmother. All of it felt unreal. He looked back at Ana, realizing she stared at him, searching for help, in need of direction.

            “What?” He said. “What do we do?”

 "Go and see what the ghost wants," Ana whispered to him, mere inches from his face.

            “What? Why me?”

            “It’s your restaurant,” she answered.

            “Why does everyone say that?” He shook his head and tried to get out of bed, but she weighed him down. “And did you whisper something to me to wake me up?” He eyed her suspiciously.

            “Like what?” She asked.

            “Nevermind.” He pushed her off of him gently, while trying not to stare at her body. He stood and pulled on a pair of plaid thermal pajama pants, his back to her. His naked, firm butt and muscular legs were all Ana could stare at.

            “Wow. Didn’t need to see that.” She laughed.

            He turned around. She saw that his chest and arms rippled with strong, well-defined muscles. He gave her a wry expression and said, “You should put some clothes on. You could give a guy the wrong impression waking him up like that.”  Then he walked out and crept down the staircase.

            Ana, puzzled by his comment, looked at herself and quickly realized what she was wearing. “Shit.”

~

            The elevator landed in the basement. Scott stood to the side while the new, shiny steel doors opened. He peered out from the opening. The lights hurt his eyes. They were too bright. He didn’t mind it, so long as he could see into the colossal subterranean room.

            The foyer gave way to the large room with the fountain and mock canal. Not a sound could be heard. He stepped out of the elevator and searched the room for Jason. There was no sign of him. He walked to the left and approached the wall. More mock structures, houses, and other buildings lined the wall. The façade amazed him. He wondered how such a thing could be kept secret in San Diego for so long. He wondered if anyone at all knew about it. The lights overhead cast stark shadows. The effect made Scott wonder if anyone could be looking out the dark windows at him. 

            He wandered down the short wall that separated the cityscape from the formal room. He felt it best to search the façade for Jason. Scot reasoned that if he was down there, he may have just fallen asleep somewhere among the structures. The still silence unnerved him as he approached the buildings façades. He peered into the dark recesses as sharply as he could, but the darkness won out. He could see nothing in the open windows or doorways.

           Scott timidly called out, "Jason." His voice echoed across the great room with a sinister overtone. He stepped past an arrangement of whitewashed wrought iron tables and chairs. Dust covered them in layers. It made it easy to see that nobody had sat in them recently. "Jason." He callout out again. "You little shit, if you are down here, answer me.” He stepped cautiously towards the wall. The crackling sound of gravel being stepped on drew his attention under his own foot. Several small nuggets of granite lay piled beneath his shoe. Looking left and right, he realized no other pile of debris appeared to be lying along the wall. On closer inspection, he discovered a worn pathway between two of the mock buildings. If Jason had seen it, maybe he followed the path, Scott reasoned. “Fuck.”  

            “Jason,” he called out, yelling as softly as he felt was safe. The walls of the room echoed back, but nobody answered. He leaned over the short wall. He peered at the dirt on the trail. A clear tennis shoe print signaled to him that indeed, someone had walked onto the hidden pathway. He mumbled under his breath. “Goddamnit.”

            Many things went through his mind as he stepped over the wall. For one, fear gripped him in such a way that he could tell his testicle were rising up into his body like scared little animals. When he realized it, he sighed. “At least it’s just my nuts bugging out.”  Then he moaned a sad rattle as his manhood shrank up against him. You so owe me for this Jason.

            The sandy gravel crunched on the ground as he stepped between the houses. A narrow gap wound between the buildings. He followed the trail of sneaker prints. Suddenly, about fifteen feet beyond the buildings, the trail stopped. A granite wall blocked the way. “What the?”

            The overhead light, closer to the interior of the room threw just enough light for him to search around him. Footholds, hammered out of concrete or stone led upwards and into a window on the second level. He turned around to see if there was a similar route behind him. There was none. Must have gone this way.

            He hoisted himself up the steps and climbed. The dark window gave no clues as he gazed into the abyss. From where he hung on the side of the building, he could see over most of the large hall. Other than a trickle of water running through the pseudo-canal, not a sound could be heard. Scott’s fingers gripped the cut stone. He could feel his hold on it loosening as the moments ticked by. The nagging fear of the unknown persisted in his mind until he decided. “Fuck it.” He climbed into the window.

~

            While Keith used the restroom, Ana took the time to find her skirt and a shirt to wear. She padded quietly around Scott’s room and rifled through his closet. Her eyes lit up and she smiled when she found a Blink 182 Concert T-shirt hanging up. It was a picture of Mark Hoppus, in black and white. At the bottom, it read, July 28, 2009, Vancouver, BC. She pulled off her flimsy undershirt and put on the Tee, grinning about finding the shirt. Blink, after all, had been her favorite band since she was a teenager. Nothing could have made her calmer than Mark Hoppus against her skin.

            She looked in the small mirror on the wall and frowned. Her hair, though naturally curly, spread out over her shoulders in a tangled mess.

            “Let’s go,” Keith said. He poked his head into the doorway.

           Ana tilted her head at him. She asked, "Where is Scott, anyway?" She then pointed to Jason's car in the parking lot.             "And Jason, I thought he went home last night after you two got back."

           “I have a feeling it’s all related to whatever you may have seen this morning. Let’s go have a look around downstairs.

           “OK.” She began slipping on her heels but as soon as she put on one shoe, she thought the better of it. “That’s going to make too much noise.” She whispered to Keith. She followed him down the stairs bare-footed.

           As they reached the kitchen, Keith stepped ahead of Ana and called out, “Hello?”

           Ana stepped around him. Her eyes grew large as she searched the kitchen. Nothing had changed since the evening before. The lights in the office were off, though half the kitchen lights were on. She stepped onto the floor and off the steps quietly. The concrete floor chilled her feet. She knew that somewhere nearby, a ghost watched them. She could feel it. She knew the signs, and she remembered just how it felt, the electric crackle in the air, the heavy sensation of pressure all around. But nothing revealed itself to them.

            She thought about her encounter ten years earlier, when she had been just a young girl of twelve. She’d opened the door to take out the trash and found something miraculous.

            "Ana," Keith called.

            She turned to look at Keith.

            “The elevator…” He motioned to the metal doors. The car was in the basement. “I think I know where they are.” He pushed the call button.

            As she looked at the doors, a shiver ran through her. Condensation had formed on the metal face of the elevator. It wasn’t wet. It was frozen, evaporating away in a mist. A cold, brutal sensation crossed through her being. She felt certain that something bad was coming, something very, very bad. She entered the elevator with Keith, but her mind drifted to somewhere else, somewhere safe.

            As the elevator made its way, slowly down the shaft, Ana’s memory entreated her to a time when the cold and the dark, and the ghostly was not so terrifying. Ten years earlier, she’d befriended a ghost. The ghost was a girl named Heather, and she was a few years younger than she. After one extraordinary day, she’d never seen her again. After all these years Ana often tried to convince herself that none of it had been real. But then, Jack was real. Heather’s doll Jack had saved Ana’s friend from a life of pain.

            The elevator stopped moving and the doors opened. Light beamed at them from the ceiling in the main hall. When they entered the cavernous room, it was empty.

~

            Scott lay on his back. The room around him remained dark and quiet. A light fell in through the open windows, but only illuminated a small portion of the wall behind him. He turned and tried to stand. "Crap!" He muttered. His knee throbbed with pain from falling onto the floor. He reached into his jeans pocket, searching for his lighter. Once found, he fumbled in the dark, working to right himself to sit against the wall. As he leaned back, the wall moved, allowing him to fall backward. “Shit.”

           In the dark, he knew he had fallen back into a new chamber. The crackling sound of gravel being trod teased his ears. At first, he thought it was coming from the window, down below, where he'd just come from. But as the sound grew near, he could tell it was coming from behind him, from inside the new open, and pitch black area. He flicked his lighter. Sparks flew about, but no flame ignited. 

           Then the sound of walking stopped. Scott could tell the person, or thing stopped close by. He only wished he knew how close. Then a flurry of cold wind came at him from the new chamber, as though a window had been thrown open in the middle of winter. Scott tried again to start the flame on his lighter, but it was useless. The wind was too strong, and the fuel appeared exhausted. Instead, he readied himself. He spun around, ignoring the pain of his injury. The wind carried dust and debris and pelted his eyes with bits of sand. That's when he noticed a darker form inside the new chamber. It was tall and black, and menacing. Scott yelled, “What do you want?”

           The shadow moved in the dark and with a swift motion, a cracking sound surprised Scott, and he winced. Then a light, yellow light, glowed from the center of the shadow, moving quickly back and forth. The light flew towards Scott and he screamed, “Aaaaugh!”

            “Scott?” A man’s voice broke the horrible silence and the light took the shape of a short cylinder as it bounced on the ground near Scott. “Scott, is that you?”

            Scott’s heart pounded. In the grip of fear, he had forgotten who he had been looking for. Jason stood near the glow-stick. His face reflected the sickly yellow-green glow, and Scott laughed. Then he began to cry. “You fucker!” He tried to swipe at the young man. “What are you doing down here? I came looking for you. I saw your car in the parking lot and…” Scott’s breathing was erratic. Tears fell from his eyes. The emotional strain and the fear overwhelmed him.

            “Dude, relax. The last thing I remember was a loud noise coming from the kitchen. It was about four in the morning. I thought one of you all had come down for a snack.” Jason sat down on the floor. His hands fumbled around in his denim jacket pocket for something. He pulled out a pack of spearmint gum. “Want a piece?” He offered some to Scott.

            “No.” He shook his head. He remembered that he’d left the coffee on upstairs in his room. That’s all he wanted, one cup of coffee, and maybe to watch Ana sleep a bit longer.

            Jason sighed. He put the gum away and looked out the two small windows at the rough-cut ceiling stone. “So…”  He hesitated. “I um. I found something.”

            “Found what?” Scott turned his head in the direction from where Jason had come.

Jason said, “Why don’t we go up to the Cup and I can tell Keith too?”

            “Dude, you can’t just say something like that…”

            Jason held out a fist. Scott flinched but soon realized his fist was upside down. Slowly, Jason opened his hand. Something sat in his palm. It was roughly the size of a walnut and its shape, just as unusual. Scott picked up the glowstick and held it over Jason’s open palm. He asked, “What is it?”

            Jason pulled out a plastic lighter and brought it to life. In the wavering light, the object in the young man’s hand reflected a shiny yellow metal nugget. It was gold. It was a very large chunk of gold.

           The two of them just stared at it for what felt like forever, the idea of wealth and what they would do with it played in their heads, as fantasies. Scott asked, “Is there more of that down here?”

          Jason nodded. “Yeah. And that’s not all.”

           “What?”

            Just then, Scott heard the faint sound of a bell. It sounded muffled, but in the silence of the underground vault, even the muffled sounds carry.

            Jason and Scott stood and went to the window to see what they could. Across the hall, two figures emerged from the elevator foyer. It was Ana and Keith.

            “Let’s go meet them,” Scott said. He hobbled to the side window where he’d come in. Jason followed. They hurried down the steps as fast as they could, calling to their friends as they went.

            "They're going to flip when they see this," Jason said to Scott.

            “No kidding!” He reached the stone floor and walked towards the two, Jason followed close behind him.

            Ana saw them first. She pointed at them and Keith broke into a run when he saw Scott hobbling, obviously injured. Ana followed behind and yelled out, “Scott!”

As the two parties came together, the lights in the room flickered. They went out.  

 

~

 

            The darkness enveloped the group of friends. Ana felt the air grow cold. Jason put his arms out but could not even see his hands before his face. Keith spoke up first.

            “Guys, are you there?” Keith stood still. He hoped his eyes would eventually adjust to the darkness.

            Around him, he heard Ana say, “Here.” She sounded meek, terrified. “I’m here.”

            Keith approached where Ana’s voice had come from. He immediately bumped into Jason.

            Jason spun around. “Hey,” he said.

           “Jason, good.” He called out to Scott. “Scott, where are you? Come to the sound of my voice. You too, Ana. We need to stick together.” Keith fumbled in his pocket. “Damnit. Does anyone have a lighter, or a flashlight?”

           At that point, Jason reached into his jacket pocket. He pulled out the glow-stick. It revealed everyone standing there in a green glow, but the light did not travel far. The room was too vast for the mediocre light source. “I got this.” Jason offered the stick to Keith.

            “Better than nothing.” He took it in his hand and checked everyone’s faces. “Are you all all right?” Concern on his face, he continued, “Let’s make our way back.”

            “Dude, I got hurt up in the houses.” Scott stuck his leg forward and lifted it to reveal his knee and the blood coming from it. “I kind of fucked it up when I fell into the window up there.”

            Ana felt the cold getting colder. “Do you guys feel that?” She asked them of the cold. “It’s getting colder.”

            Jason crossed his arms around himself, his thin jacket felt like it was not warm enough. “Oh, yeah. This is not good.”

            "Jason, get under Scott's left shoulder. I'll take the right. Ana, hold this." He handed the light to her. "Let's get back to the elevator and figure out what is going on. It seems odd that the light would just shut off at random."

            “It’s just a blackout, right?” Ana suggested. “I mean, the whole block might have gone out, for all we know.”

            The foursome hobbled as quickly as they could, pulling Scott with them. As they ambled along, Scott noticed a sound. “Do you hear that?” He asked them, “What the hell is that noise?” He panicked. “Put me down. Put me down!”  He spun around. Nothing obvious was visible. The sound intensified. “Fuck!” What is that?”

           Ana heard it too. Voices, a confused chatter of several others came from somewhere across the room, murmured and cackled incoherently. Ana called out to the voices, "Hello?" She waved the light stick in every direction the voices sounded from. “Who’s there?”

           Beside Ana, a match sprung into flames to reveal the face of an old man. Creases in his face moved like leather as he puckered his mouth to light the cigarette hanging out from between his lips. His gaze settled out across the invisible void of the room. “They can’t hear you,” he said. “They aren’t even aware we’re here.”

           Jason jumped back when the man appeared from out of nowhere. “The fuck?” He continued to back up towards the elevator. His steps, slow, nearly undetectable. Scott moved with him, but neither wanted to turn their back on the man. 

           Keith stood silent. He realized Ana’s right hand was squeezing his left as they gawked at the newcomer. “Who…” Keith rasped out the word but wasn’t able to complete a full sentence.

            The man’s face turned to them, His high cheeks and narrow face made him look Native American. As he inhaled a drag off the cigarette, he stared at them. The glow of the cigarette intensified as the man inhaled. Keith could see into the man’s eyes, dark, black and glossy. The lustrous reflection in his eyes from the glow-stick and the cigarette Keith shiver.

            The voices in the room subsided. The old man, however, remained at attention. Keith asked, “Who are you?”

            The stranger exhaled thick smoke into the air. He smiled and the cracked, stained teeth in his mouth caused Jason to cringe and check his footing. Jason was ready to run if he needed to. “You, all of you. Who are you? What are you doing here?” He took a moment to inhale another drag.

            Jason began to say something, and Keith cut him off, raising his hand in the air, “I’m Keith, and I own this place.” He stood taller. “Who the fuck are you, and what are you doing here?”

            The man frowned, threw his cigarette on the ground. "I'm the foreman, you little shit. If Carter finds you down here…" Then the man turned away, as though he heard something. He called back into the darkness, "Be right there!" And then to the small group, he said, "Break's over. Now get back to work. Nevermind the ghosts." He turned away, and vanished. A frigid wind followed after him.

            The lights flickered on with a buzzing and a flash. A hum hung in the air from the lights. The voices had left entirely.              On the floor, where the man had been, a cigarette lay floundering. It was not something you’d buy at a store. It was hand rolled and looked out of place. The area around the cigarette had a dark stain to it. The cobbled stone ground was steaming.

            “Is that steam?” Ana asked. “Keith?”

            He leaned down and observed the dark patch. Two shapes stood out to him immediately. “Scotty, look.” He pointed to the spots on the ground. Then he touched the spot. It felt cold, like ice. The two spots faded with every moment that passed.

            Scott leaned down and stared. “What the hell?” His eyes grew large as he recognized the pattern of the two boots, the same as they’d seen in the kitchen that first night they opened the place up and looked around. “Who the fuck is the foreman?”

            Jason moved uncomfortably as he stood, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Guys…” Jason mumbled. “I, um…” He reached into his pocket. “Maybe the foreman has something to do…” He pulled out the gold nugget. “with this?”

© 2018 Mayachrome Press & D. Paul Fonseca

First Published October 31, 2018

Images courtesy of Pixabay.com & D. Paul Fonseca

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