Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Touch and Go by (guest writer) David Caprita

The end of the runway looked only a few hundred yards away.  But it was at least a mile.


Danny pulled the lever down to full flaps, checked his airspeed and pointed the nose down to the edge of the ancient asphalt.  This airstrip had been here in the middle of the Everglades for decades, at least since the end of the war. 


Danny chose this strip in the middle of nowhere to practice touch and go’s since he had been a student pilot.  Not just because it was free of traffic, ATC and weekend warriors but because of the waving guy. 


Danny first saw the waving guy the day he did his cross-country.  This strip had been the final leg of his required flight to get his license.  He was nervous enough without any extra distractions.  Getting properly into the pattern.  Checking for cross winds with the help of the faded orange windsock on the side of the runway.  Looking every which way for traffic.  And then, after setting his airspeed, flaps and angle, he was ready to touch his wheels to the ground.  And then the waving guy appeared. 


It was weird.  A lone man out in the middle of this ocean of saw grass, no plane, not even a car, just standing alone and waving with that big, goofy smile on his face.  


The waving guy at first startled him, distracted him and then inexplicably steadied him.  The guy in some way increased his concentration.  You’d think, on your first day of landing at a strange and unfamiliar airport, an anonymous figure frantically waving his arms back and forth like a mentally unstable homeless person in the middle of a busy freeway would completely throw you off; at first Danny thought of gunning his throttle and heading to some other airport.  Like X-Ray Tango Five.  That was a good airport with no distractions.  No crazy people waving their arms.


But suddenly, instead of panicking on that stressful flight, a day full of navigation, flight control and radio chatter, the waving guy suddenly made Danny serene, attentive and calmed him down. 


Now, every time he came out here to practice touch and go’s, he’d look for the waving guy.  The next several times he flew out here, he wasn’t there. 


But now, as Danny descended out of the sky, he was there, at the edge of the runway.  It was sort of a relief to see the guy again.  It was kind of confirmation that Danny hadn’t imagined the whole damn thing months ago.  No one would think he was the nutty one.
Not that Danny had ever had the balls to tell his fellow pilots about the waving guy.  It sounded too crazy. 


He had asked Tom, his instructor over at Lantana if he had ever seen any cars or spectators out here, maybe watching planes come and go like those pathetic pilot wannabes Danny saw at the edge of every runway. 


But Tom had ignored him, as if it was a half-joking question that didn’t even merit an answer.  And Tom had just looked up at the sky, changed the subject to the weather and then walked back into the hangar.


Danny was less than a thousand feet on his approach now.  The waving guy stood at the end of the runway, arms above his head, his legs spread into a V in the middle of the threshold chevrons, right where Danny was aiming his wheels.  Danny gunned his engine just a little so he would float over this obstacle that had appeared out of nowhere.  As he crossed the canal at the edge of the strip, the waving guy waved his arms over his head slowly but deliberately;   back and forth, back and forth.  It reminded Danny of one of those sailors with the paddles standing at the edge of an aircraft carrier, waving his arms up and down, signaling a pilot when one wing was higher than the other, making sure he was level with the flight deck.


“Okay, whoever you are, thanks for the guidance but I don’t need your help.” 


As Danny got closer he saw the man’s face, the face of a young man in his twenties but weathered like someone a couple decades older.  His hair was brown but balding, clean shaven, intense but friendly eyes.  He looked like one of those guys from the forties whose pictures you saw in an old magazine, one of those guys who were fresh out of high school but looked like they were twice their age. 


Young guys in those days always looked older than they were, Danny thought.  And as Danny got closer he could see the man was not only waving, waving.  He was smiling – a  big goddamn, goofy grin across his face like he was directing traffic into a baseball parking lot. 


This way, this way...


Danny floated over him, his wheels squealed a little past where he had wanted to touch down and immediately killed the throttle and braked.  The plane slowed to a stop just before the edge of the runway.  Danny and his Cessna stared across the vast ocean of green sawgrass stretching to the horizon. 


Danny pulled the throttle to idle and as the prop fluttered and he kept his feet on the bottom of the rudder pedals to hold the brakes, he opened his door and leaned out to look behind him.


He stared down the airstrip to the other end.  Nothing.  No one. 


What the fuck?  Did the guy disappear into the tall grass surrounding the runway?


Did he jump into the canal of murky water bordering the end of the strip?   No.  Even a crazy person wasn’t crazy enough to walk into the weeds or the water in the Everglades.  Just the thought of snakes and gators make Danny shudder. 


The guy, wherever he was, whoever he was was screwing with him. 


He slammed his door shut, gunned the engine a little enough to twist around and face the way he had just come.  The little Cessna pointed in the opposite direction. 


Danny pressed the button on his control wheel and talked into the mic attached to his headphones. 


“Sawgrass traffic, Sawgrass traffic, Cessna Niner Juliet Tango.  Westbound from Sawgrass airstrip, headed to the beach.”  It didn’t hurt to warn anyone within five miles of here he was about to join them in the air.


Danny pushed the throttle in all the way and the Cessna responded.  As the engine roared and the prop disappeared into a whir, the plane slowly rolled across the hot asphalt. 


Danny glanced at his airspeed, watched the needle slowly crawl toward fifty five knots, rotated his wheel back and the little Cessna started to float off the ground. 


The waving guy suddenly stood in front of Danny and the Cessna a hundred feet down the runway. 


“Goddammit!” 


The waving guy smiled like he was Danny’s best friend.


Danny impulsively pulled the nose back as far as it would go.   He knew pulling up so steeply was suicidal. 


But Danny wasn’t thinking like a pilot.  He was reacting like a startled deer crossing a highway with a freight truck bearing down on him.  


The waving guy disappeared underneath the nose of the plane.  Danny saw nothing but a beautiful blue sky in his windscreen.  And then the nose of the Cessna plummeted and the blue changed to ancient grey asphalt. 


The plane exploded.  A huge, greasy ball of flame and black smoke mushroomed in the center of the runway and lifted a thousand feet into the air, the empty Florida sky smudged with oil and death. 


It was a half hour before the first emergency copter made it to the lonely strip.  The fire was smoldering, a tattoo of black where the remnants of the Cessna lay.


And as the emergency crew looked for survivors, looked for a spot to land safely enough away from the flame and heat, someone who hadn’t been there a second before was there to help them.


Danny stood at the edge of the runway, his arms like signal paddles above his head, waving, waving, smiling at the copter pilot, helping him to a safe landing. 

This way. This way...















ABOUT THE AUTHOR: DAVID CAPRITA

This is David's second submission for October Ghosts this year. A well known actor, radio DJ and writer living in Los Angeles, he was trained to fly small airplanes while living in Florida. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Smoke by (guest writer) Shoshana Hebshi

Marianne stoked the fire and took a step back to admire her efforts.


“Looks like it’s just about done, then?” said Frank, leaning forward in attempt to sit up from the creaky leather sofa. It had a way of taking prisoners. “I’ll be turnin’ in.”


Marianne turned half way toward her husband and shot him a look. “Oh have it your way! But I’m telling you, the chimney’s clogged. Remind me to call Harlan in the morning.”


“Sure thing,” Frank said.


Finally, from enough momentum, Frank freed himself, knees creaking, and he took a big exhale. “That thing would eat me alive, I say. C’mon now, dear. Let’s get to bed.”


Marianne sighed and placed the iron stoker on its brass holder with the other tools. She shuffled in her slippers, sheepskin on three-century-old oak slats, a cozy reminder of her purpose.


“Suppose I am tired,” she admitted and followed her husband down the long hall to their bedroom.

~~~~~~

The alarm always went off too early. Marianne woke with a start, seeing that Frank had already been up and left a pot of warm tea on the bedside table next to the blaring clock. She smiled, bringing her hand to her chest. Closing her eyes for a moment, she realized there was no hope, and she sat up, unfurled the duvet from her body and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She reached for the alarm button, popping it down and bringing the room back into its peaceful solemnity. Her slippers were below her feet, and she slipped them on, enjoying the warm, scratchy wool inside.


She pulled the teacup and saucer closer and lifted the cup to her lips. First she inhaled, closing her eyes and breathing in the aroma, which smelled everything of morning and nothing of duty. Cloves, lemon…and that something else she could never name, blending seamlessly into the perfection of breakfast tea.


The sun was not yet up. It wouldn’t be for another half hour. In the stillness of the house, Marianne could hear Frank’s tender footsteps echoing off the kitchen tiles as he prepared batter for the guests’ pancakes. He made the best pancakes. Just a few more minutes and she would join her husband. Just a few more minutes of solitude.

The tea warmed her from the inside, but the house felt cold. Too cold. She scanned the room for her robe, and saw it hanging loosely from a corner of the chair near the closet. No time to wallow, she thought. Today is not a robe day.


One more sip of tea, and Marianne set the cup back on its saucer and lifted herself out of bed. Throwing on a pair of pressed black slacks and a festive fall blouse exploding with yellow, orange and polka dots, Marianne ran a comb through her graying—but still brown—waves, and sped off to the kitchen.

~~~~~~

“Did you get the fire going?” Marianne asked as she entered the kitchen. Frank was cracking eggs, one after another, pouring each one’s contents into a large metal bowl and tossing the shells into a compost bin on the counter. “It’s cold in here.”


“Didn’t notice,” said Frank. “Think your thermostat might be a bit off, dear. Good morning.”


Frank leaned over to offer his wife a kiss. Marianne obliged, but her gaze did not follow his intention. “I’ll just go get it started,” she said.


In the sitting room, the fire was still smoldering. A great pile of ash revealed glowing red and orange stones beneath. Marianne approached the great stone fireplace—thinking it a great relic of the old guesthouse’s past when they purchased it five years ago—with timid curiosity. She picked up the heavy stoker once more and removed the mesh curtain protecting the fire, or, rather, protecting the room from the fire, and put it off to the side. Marianne knelt down and began to jab at the coals and ash.


“At least I won’t have to start from scratch,” she muttered, pushing a nagging feeling to the back of her throat.


Grabbing a handful of kindling from the woodpile to her right, she dumped the lot on top of the ashes. Smoke soon started rising, and Marianne encouraged the fire with a steady blow from her lips.


“C’mon there,” she beckoned. “C’mon. You’ve got it!”


Smoke swirled and billowed before rising and exiting through the chimney.

Marianne followed the path of the gray twists and remembered about calling Harlan, the town handyman.


The doorbell rang. Bill Riordan with the morning stack of papers for the guests was right on schedule. She smoothed her pants and went to open the front door.
“Mornin’ Bill!” Marianne answered with a wide smile. She noticed the sky had lightened, and clouds in the east were glowing with the news of an impending sun.
“Mornin’ Marianne. Such a lovely one, eh? A bit brisk, but nothin’ a bit of wool and flannel can’t handle.”


Bill handed her a thick stack of newspapers. Her shoulders hunched from the weight.


“Not much worth mentionin’ today,” Bill continued. “Tough time in London their havin’, as usual. Tube workers threatnin’ to strike and all.”


“Good lord,” Marianne said with a quick glance toward the fire. It was still smoking. “Another such reason as to not live there.”


“Ya bet. Love usin’ me own two feet, I do. Don’t have to worry ‘bout no one but me own. Well, ya have a lovely day now Marianne. Dontcha work too hard. Get yerself some rest while ya can!”


“Same to you, Bill,” Marianne said, turning to set the stack of papers on the hall table. “Oh Bill, before you go, tell me, did you notice any smoke comin’ up from out the chimney as you were walkin’ up? I think it might be clogged.”


“Surely I did not, but I’ll just go take another look fer ya.”

“Appreciate it.”

Marianne closed the door to keep the heat in and began sorting through the stack of papers. Sure enough, nothing of much interest in that world. But the guests seemed to like keeping up with the news.


She heard some movement above her, thinking that young couple down from Manchester might be stirring.


The old house was beginning to smell like bacon, and that always got the guests scurrying downstairs to the dining room. It must be getting close to seven.



Marianne set one newspaper at each of the small tables in the dining room. Ten in all, and each, over the course of the next two hours, would need a fresh pot of tea, a pitcher of juice and a stack of toast.


As she was moving from the dining room back to the kitchen to check on Frank’s progress, Bill rapped at the door.


She hurried to open the heavy wooden door—also a great relic from the glorious past—and Bill greeted her with as little news as the morning paper.


“Not much is comin’ up, sorry to say,” he reported. “Might be time for that sweep, I’d say. Surely shouldn’t mess with layers of soot durin’ the cold. Ya don’t have to hear it from me.”


“Thanks Frank,” Marianne sighed. “’Fraid that was going to be the case. Ah well, I will make a call after breakfast. I do hope that Harlan’ll be free, you know with the weather turning and all.”


“Sure he’ll make time fer ya, ma’am,” Bill said, tipping his wool driver’s cap at Marianne. “See ya tomorrow.”


“Stay warm out there, Bill.”


Marianne closed the door careful not to slam it shut and startle the guests who had not yet been roused by the tempting scent of salt and grease.

~~~~~~

“Mr. Jones, would you like more toast?” Marianne asked the shy gentleman sitting at table seven.


He dropped the newspaper from his face and looked at his hostess. His plate had been empty for some time, but he had no intention of pushing off, giving Marianne more time to clean up before checkout time at half-past ten.


“Thank you, no. That was a wonderful assortment this morning. What do you do to your eggs to make them so…so…well, I suppose fluffy would be the word. They were fluffy eggs!”


Marianne laughed and stuck a hand to her hip. “That’s the husband’s special secret. Won’t even let me in the kitchen when he’s making up the egg batter.”


Mr. Jones shook his head, the light from the plate glass windows bouncing off the shiny bald top of it. “Fantastic eggs. Please tell him I quite enjoyed them.”


Mr. Jones smoothed his brown and red paisley tie that was hiding the buttons of a crisp blue oxford.


“I surely will, Mr. Jones. I surely will.”


Marianne turned to attend to the young couple sitting by the window, who had come down just five minutes before breakfast time was over. They were holding hands across the white linen and whispering quickly to each other. As she approached, the couple fell silent.


“How’s everything over here?” Marianne asked, trying her best not to pry into their private matters.


The young woman looked up at her with large green eyes. She seemed unable to speak, and her eyes were far away. Marianne turned to the young man, but he did not return her gaze.


“Tea strong enough? We have coffee over in the corner if you prefer. I know you got in late last night. Sleep well?”


“The tea is lovely, thank you,” the young man said, his eyes still focused on his partner.


“Tell her,” the woman said softly, nudging his hands with her delicate ones.

The young man said nothing, and Marianne could not contain her curiosity any longer. “Tell me what? Everything OK? Room suit you?”


The young woman poked at the man’s hand again, urging him on. He stalled for a moment, then cleared his throat.


“I don’t want to be a bother,” he started, his voice low and unsure. “It’s just…”


“You’re no bother!” Marianne said, her hand back on her hip and her gaze fixed on the couple. “Please, go on.”


“It’s just…” the young man continued, seemingly unable to get a sentence through.

The young woman jumped in. “It’s just we heard some strange knocking in the wall last night. Kept us up. Thought it might be the wind. But, you see, it’s our first time here, to Cornwall. We don’t really know how strong the wind blows here. In Manchester, well, it’s windy but…I’ve never heard it lash about so much.”

Marianne brought her hand from her hip to her chin. “Lashing about?”


“And it was quite smoky in the room, too. We didn’t have a fire on, but we could smell smoke still,” she continued, now becoming animated and detailed in her recollection. “We opened a window, but the air was so cold outside.”


“I’m so sorry about that,” said Marianne. She noticed her pulse quicken.

“We didn’t want to wake you,” the young woman continued. “It was so late. And really, eventually, the knocking stopped.”


“Does the room still smell of smoke?” Marianne asked, growing more concerned about reaching Harlan. “We’re having the chimney swept today. I do apologize. May I take a look after breakfast?”


“We did try to start a fire at one point, soon after we arrived. Just because the room was so cold. But the wood wouldn’t catch fire, and we just gave up and tried to get warm under the covers.”


Marianne hated hearing of a guest’s poor experience at the B&B, and felt a tightening in her gut. She thumbed through scenarios in her mind of how this would play out.


“I’ll make sure we check the thermostat in your room right away,” Marianne managed. “And perhaps you’d like to move to an ocean view room tonight?”


The couple looked at each other and smiled. “That would be lovely,” the woman said.
“Right,” Marianne started, turning to leave. “I’ll get it all fixed up after breakfast. Would you like anything more to eat or drink?”


They shook their heads in unison, and Marianne returned, hurriedly to the kitchen, where Frank was tackling the breakfast dishes.


“We’ve got a problem,” Marianne said. “The smoke’s back.”


“Call Harlan, then,” Frank said without breaking from the rhythm of wash, rinse, stack.


“Right, should be up by now. I’ll just call him on his mobile.”


Marianne scrolled through the contacts on her iPhone and found the handyman’s number. He had strict instructions to all who had the precious number not to disturb him before 9 a.m. Lucky, the clock said 9:03.


“Ello?” Harlan’s scratchy voice answered.


“Oh good God!” Marianne squealed, feeling a need to genuflect, but held back. “You picked up. I can’t begin to tell you how badly I need you to come over here and check our chimney.”


“Smoking again is it?”


“Not just smoking, but the fire isn’t going out, and smoke is entering one of the guest rooms that shares the main chimney. Plus,” she whispered, “there was knocking last night.”


“I’ve got time around 2.”


“Oh, that is perfect, Harlan, just perfect. I’ll see you at 2 then?”


“Right. At 2.”


Harlan ended the call, and Marianne slipped the phone into her apron pocket.


Leaving Frank to finish the dishes, she returned to the fireplace in the sitting room. The coals were still hot, but there was no fire, just smoke swirling up into the chimney. The kindling remained untouched. She sat on the oriental carpet in front of the fireplace and stared into the pile of gray ash and red-orange glow. She could feel her heart throbbing through her chest.


The young couple’s footsteps creaked up the steps to their room above. Marianne knew to give them some privacy as they packed up their belongings and readied to move to the superior room. She rang her hands remembering what happened last time the smoke came. Perhaps it would be just a coincidence. Harlan would know.

~~~~~~

At half-past nine, Marianne knocked on room seven. She could feel the cold through the painted white wooden door as her knuckles rapped on its middle plank. “Marianne, here,” she called.


Hearing movement inside, she took a deep breath, noticing the clamminess of her hands as she held them together at her waist waiting for the couple to answer. The young woman opened the door.


“It’s Kit, right?” Marianne smiled, happy to see their bags packed and the young man prepared to leave. “And Troy?”


“That’s right,” the woman said.


“Must’ve been a long drive from Manchester last night,” Marianne continued, walking into the room and scanning the walls, her gaze landing on the stone fireplace identical to the one in the sitting room but smaller. Fresh wood sat neatly stacked on an iron grate. 

“Sorry we didn’t get to chat much last night when you arrived. So late, you know.”


Marianne knelt in front of the fireplace and swiped her index finger along the stone hearth, picking up trace amounts of gray ash. She rubbed her finger and thumb together. 

“I’m sure your new room will be much more pleasant,” she smiled. “The view is remarkable.”


The couple followed her down a long hall to the rooms facing the Atlantic Ocean. “We’ve been having such lovely weather,” Marianne continued, as she unlocked the door to room 10 and escorted them in. “Such little rain, and, up until yesterday, quite warm. Unseasonably so.”


Kit smiled. She and Troy put down their bags on the wood floor and surveyed their new surroundings. “It’s just lovely,” Kit said. “We may never leave!”


Kit nudged Troy in the ribcage, and with a coy smile he let out his first sign of expression. “Thank you again.”


“Please do let me know if you have any trouble at all, if you need anything,” Marianne said, turning to leave. “Oh, and please, if you hear anything strange again or smell any smoke, don’t be shy. We need to be sure we’ve taken care of the problem. Old homes, you know.”


Marianne closed the door behind her and hurried down the creaky stairs back to the kitchen. Frank was sitting at the neat little bistro table in the nook sipping a cup of tea. Marianne pulled up the accompanying chair and joined her husband.


“It’s back,” she told him. Her face was expressionless. “I’m nearly sure of it.”
“What did the book say?”


“I haven’t checked it yet. I planned to wait until Harlan got here. He can navigate that book better than us. Those symbols, and messages, notes scribbled here and there. I don’t know what to make of it.”


“It’s here to help us, dear.”


“Are you sure about that? We don’t know where it came from, why the previous owners left it behind. It could all be a coincidence.”


“You say it’s back. It’s back. We can’t mess around this time.”


“We’ve been fine for two years now,” Marianne said, hoping to believe her own doubt. “Let’s just wait to hear what he has to say.”


Marianne poured herself a cup of tea and looked out the window at the gray day.

“We’re full tonight,” Marianne said. “I have the couple from Manchester in the last room. Mr. Jones is checking out, and we have another booking coming in from Leeds.”


“That’s a good thing.”


“Is it?”

~~~~~~

The doorbell rang at precisely a quarter past two. Marianne opened the door to find a veritable giant standing before her. At six-foot-five and thick as a redwood tree, Harlan had to duck to enter the old house. He smelled of brine and pipe smoke.

Standing firmly in the entryway, he uncoiled a green and blue plaid wool scarf from his mammoth neck and handed it to Marianne’s outstretched hand. Next he peeled off a thick gray wool overcoat and again handed it to the hostess.


“Right chilly out today,” he said, offering a quick smile before starting toward the sitting room.


“Harlan, I don’t think I need to explain,” Marianne said, following his long, heavy strides with her quick shuffle.


“You think it’s back, do ya?”


“The signs are pointing in that direction, I’m afraid.”


“You have the book?” he asked.


“Was waiting for you to decipher it.”


Harlan paused in front of the giant fireplace. His large, strong and ruddy hands hung on the dark mantelpiece, and he let his frame sag toward the ground. Marianne heard the man take a deep inhale. Then he bent down to inspect the inside of the fireplace.


The coals were still glowing, same as before, though Marianne had not encouraged them to remain lit. A thin stream of smoke continued traveling upward on its journey.


Marianne hung back, hoping that keeping her distance would free him to do his work and tell her the only piece of good news she needed for the day. She watched him analyze the smoke marks on the stone back of the fireplace, then pop his head in and turn it to gaze up past the flue into the chimney. He released a deep exhale, puffing his powerful air upward. As he breathed back in, he began coughing, and he came out from under the chimney. Still squatting, he pounded his fist to his chest, trying to rid his body of the cough that had begun choking him.


Marianne rushed to his side and leaned over to rub his back. “Are you OK, there?”
Harlan coughed, his face reddening, and his back lurching. “Fine, fine,” he struggled.
“I’ll just grab some water,” she said.


Marianne ran off to the kitchen and came rushing back with a tall glass for the giant handyman.


“Drink this,” she offered.


He took the water and finally was able to speak.


“I can feel it,” he said after some time of catching his breath.  “Not as strong as last time, see. But it’s here.”


Marianne nodded slowly. “You think so?”


“I’ll need the book.”


Marianne rose to fetch the book from a locked cabinet in their private bedroom, but was stopped on the way out by Mr. Jones. Startled by his abrupt presence, she took a step back and gasped.


“Didn’t mean to scare you!” Mr. Jones said. “Just wanted to square it all away. I’ll be on my way now.”


“Right! Let’s get you on your way,” Marianne said, managing a smile. She walked to the roll-top desk in the front hall and opened her guest registry. “Three nights, then. I hope everything was to your liking.”


She took a credit card from the man, who smiled back at her. “Wonderful time here, and like I mentioned, the eggs…divine. I’ll have to bring my wife back to try them. See if she can glean the recipe and replicate those delightful things back at home.”


“Lovely thought,” Marianne said blankly. “I do hope to see you again, Mr. Jones.”


After swiping his card, she pulled the receipt and offered for him to sign it.  She noticed he was peering around her, looking at Harlan working on the fireplace.


“Got an issue with the fireplace?” he said, picking up a pen and scribbling his signature on the dotted line. “I’ve some fantastic contacts in the restoration business, you know. Fine chaps. Worked on all sorts of historical renovations, all over England. Even royal dwellings. That’s right, I think Chip McAuliffe worked on Dolphin House after the fire. Anyway, hope you’ve got a good man there.”


Marianne smiled and nodded. She noticed a gleam in Mr. Jones’ dark eyes. “He’s the best in Cornwall.”


“Fine thing!” Mr. Jones returned the signed slip to Marianne. “This is a fine old place here.”


“Thank you, sir,” she said. “See you again.”


Mr. Jones lifted his duffel bag and slung it over his crisp blue shirt. He seemed to float out of the guesthouse. And as Marianne closed the front door behind him, her worries hit her more soundly than at any point during the morning. She raced down the hall to her bedroom, pulled an old key from a wooden box on the dresser and turned to open the locked cabinet next to the closet.  She pulled the doors open and pushed aside wads of cash, her mother’s pearls, their passports and an assortment of old papers and family photos. The book was not there. She emptied the cabinet, spreading its contents on the floor. The book was gone.


Marianne’s heart pounded in her ears. She drew her hands to the ears to quiet the pounding, but it did not work.


The next thing she knew, Frank was holding her, rubbing her back and whispering into her ear. “It’s OK dear, it’s OK. Shhhh. Shhhh.”


She pulled away from him. “It’s gone,” she realized, its absence now finalized with her words.


“You’re shaking,” he said. “Come, come. You need to lie down.”


Frank stood up, drawing his wife up with him and escorting her to their bed.


“No, no!” Marianne protested, taking her hands back and facing her husband. “You’re not understanding me, Frank! It’s gone! The book! Where could it be? Who knows about it but us? We can’t fight this thing without it! What’s to become of us? We need to find the book!”


“I’m sure it’s just been misplaced,” Frank consoled. “Did you look on the shelf?”

“I can’t do this. I know it’s gone, I feel it. Things like that don’t just get misplaced. I’ve got to tell Harlan. We need a new plan.”


Frank followed her out of the room. When she came to the sitting room, Harlan was sitting on an old rocking chair, but he was still. As still as stone. She approached him timidly, and started calling his name. When she reached him, she touched his large shoulder and shuddered at its coldness.


“Harlan!” she screamed. She shook his shoulder now. “Wake up! Wake up!”

As she worked frantically to rouse Harlan, she noticed the air had become thick and smoky. Her eyes began to water, and she turned toward the fireplace, which was home now to a raging and crackling fire, whose smoke was pouring out into the room.


Marianne rushed to open the windows so as not to set off the fire alarm and scare off the remaining guests. She began to cough. “Frank! Help me get these windows open!”


When she did not hear a response from her husband, she turned to find him gone. “Frank! Frank!” she screamed.


She glanced back at Harlan, whose glassy blue eyes were staring into nothing. He couldn’t be dead, she thought. His cheeks remained red, and she returned to examine his body. She placed her ear to his chest to listen for breath or heartbeat. Took her fingers to his wrist to feel for a pulse.  “Come on, Harlan, come on,” she beckoned.


And there it was, a faint pulse deep inside his thick chest. She sighed, stood up and became overwhelmed with the need to check the bedroom upstairs. “Don’t move,” she told the motionless giant and took the stairs two at a time.


When she reached room seven, she could feel heat coming through the door. She reached for the brass knob and quickly recoiled as its touch burned her palm. Taking the bottom of her apron and again twisting the knob and pushing the door open, Marianne found the room filled with smoke.


She raced to open the windows on the far side of the room, and as she crossed the floor, she tripped over something and fell to her knees. The bedroom door closed with a thud. She could barely see through the thick smoke, and she smelled an acrid, burning scent. It triggered that deep memory she hoped and just been a dream. But there was no denying it now.


“I know you’re back!” she said, her voice growing deep and strong. “But you are not in charge. This is my house!”


Footsteps creaked on the wooden planks in the room. They grew closer, and though Marianne could not see, she knew to whom they belonged.


She struggled to her feet and backed up into the bed where she felt human contact. Running her hands higher, she felt a leg, then a torso, a man sitting upright on the bed, legs hanging over the side. He was motionless and cold, as Harlan had been. Frank, she thought.


“I am not sure what you want with us, with this house,” Marianne continued, stumbling over the bed toward the windows. “But whatever it is you’re not going to get it. We will beat you.”


Marianne felt strength grow inside her. All the fear and dread she had felt earlier in the morning vanished and was replaced by the urge to fight back, to defend what was hers. She reached the windows and with a great tug, pulled one open, then another. She saw smoke billowing out into the daylight, the sea breeze carrying it away. But the room did not clear.


She closed her eyes, trying to remember words and directions prescribed in the book. The verses were vague, but as she strained to recall, she began to remember.

“This home is mine,” she began in a deep unwavering voice. She began to walk forward, toward the sound of the footsteps.


“Through smoke and fire, you cannot take what is not yours,” she called.


As she inhaled to continue, she felt a cold hand grab her around the neck. The force of the grip propelled her backward until she was up against the windowsill. The hand squeezed, and Marianne began to choke. She tried to swat away the force. The unseen hand pushed her further, her upper body now arching back out the open window.


Marianne felt strength receding from her body, and a piercing cold rushed through her. It was like ice moving from her throat down through her chest and out to her arms and legs. She began to gasp for air, her back arching further and further as her toes began to lift from the ground and her trajectory seemed imminent toward the pavement two stories below.


Marianne’s iPhone buzzed in her apron pocket. If only, she thought, that would save her. If only the power of Apple and the marvel of modern technology could repel the hauntings of the past. Save her in this moment of sheer doom.


The buzzing stopped, and suddenly the bedroom door creaked open. “Ello? Mrs. Weathers? Marianne? Um. Ello? Gosh it’s smoky in here…”


The familiar voice of Mr. Jones echoed through the room. Marianne tried to scream out, but the grip was too tight.


“You in here Marianne? I left my…. Oh. My. God.”


Marianne heard Mr. Jones scream, more high pitched than she would have imagined from a man of his stature, but she was glad for the interference.


Just as she felt her body weight shift back enough to tip the balance and send her toppling over the windowsill, she felt a strong grip on her wrist, then on her arm and shoulder. She was being pulled back in the room.

The smoke began to clear. Mr. Jones was coughing and waving his arms about, trying to shoo away the thick gray smoke. “My God, Marianne! Are you OK? What was that?”


Mr. Jones backed away from her and began to notice his surroundings as the smoke let up and revealed a frozen Frank on the bed holding a leather-bound book in his hands. She looked up at her former guest, noticing his eyes were positively glowing.

Marianne, puzzled, walked over to her husband. As she touched his arm, his body, his clothes, his being turned fully gray, then disintegrated on the bed into a pile of fine, gray ash. A wind swept through the room and ushered the ash out the window.

Marianne gasped. “Frank!”


Mr. Jones backed into a wall, his face gone white.


The book fell to the floor. Marianne bent to pick it up and flipped through its pages.

The remainder of the smoke curdled on the ceiling. She stared up at it, watching it take the form of a human. It dove toward her, swirled around her once and she could feel it, like a rope pulling across her body. Then it let go and vanished and into the fireplace.


“It started raining in town, and I…remembered…I…I…just uh, forgot my umbrella in my room,” Mr. Jones stuttered, the glow from his eyes now gone, but the color still drained from his cherubic face. “I smelled smoke and…well…I…”


Marianne turned to face him.


“You broke it,” she said. “How’d you do it?”


“Excuse me?”


“It’s gone. At least for now. I think. How’d you do it? You did something.”


“I have no idea what you’re talking about. What the hell was that?”


Mr. Jones, still stiff, came off the wall and inched toward Marianne. “Was that, your, uh, I mean, was that man your husband? Sitting on the bed there? Holding that book? That was your husband? Did he just, did he? He just disappeared! And all the smoke? What was that?”


Marianne nodded and looked at the book in her hands. She wondered how Frank had found it. She had been too late to save him. The smoke took her husband. It would feed on Frank while it lay dormant, waiting to strike again.


“You did something,” she repeated. “I don’t know what it was, but—“


She remembered Harlan. “Come with me!”


She raced down the stairs into the sitting room. Harlan’s body was perfectly still in the rocking chair just as she had left him.


“Hold this, please,” she said, handing the book to Mr. Jones. She bent over the handyman and breathed his name. “Harlan, come back. Harlan, Harlan. Come back.”

She waited, hoping. Not knowing if he, too, had been stolen away. “Harlan, you’re in there?” Marianne touched his wrist again, feeling for that faint pulse. He didn’t feel quite as cold as he had before. He was still in there. She needed to bring him out.

“Harlan!” she screamed, pounding on his chest.


“Will this help?” Mr. Jones offered with a shaking hand a glass of whiskey he had pulled from the collection of liquor on a nearby shelf.


Marianne took the glass and held it under Harlan’s nose. “Come back, take this in,” she said.


She waited, patiently urging him. Mr. Jones had helped himself to another glass of whiskey and was gulping it down.


“This has happened before?” he asked, his voice quivering.


“Shhhh,” Marianne said, her energy focused on Harlan.


A moment later, Harlan stirred, his nose wrinkling and a giant, breathy exhale shook out of him. He coughed, blinked, saw the glass of whiskey and smiled. She put the glass to his lips.


“Drink now,” she said softly. “It’s gone.”


“This is unreal,” Mr. Jones said.


As she let Harlan come back on his own, she turned to Mr. Jones and offered a seat to him on the old sofa. “I can explain,” she said. “Sort of.”


She pulled the bottle of whiskey from the shelf and refilled his glass.


“When Frank and I took over the B&B five years ago, we found this book locked away in the cabinet in our bedroom. We couldn’t understand what was written in it, seemed like an Old English or Gaelic or something in between. And two years ago we had a…disturbance. Harlan, here, was working on some electrical issues upstairs when smoke came billowing in from the fireplace in the room he was in. Harlan grew up in this town. He knew the former owners, and the owners before them. He had seen this before.  He knew about the book. He found some passage in the book and read it aloud, and the smoke disappeared. He told us to keep the book safe, that it would help us if this happened again. So we kept it locked up. But that doesn’t explain how it ended up in room seven with Frank...”


She remembered Frank. Her eyes welled up with tears, and her chin quivered. She turned to Harlan, who had finished his whiskey and was rubbing the red stubble on his chin. “It took Frank,” she told him.


Harlan’s gaze dropped.


“And you, Mr. Jones. I don’t know how or why, but you saved me.”


Marianne took his hand. It was warm and offered her a sense of calm. Color was returning to his face, his cheeks growing pink. He looked at her, still confused.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t know what I did.”


“No one completely understands,” Harlan said. “It’s driven dozens of good people away. Taken others, like Frank, who rarely return. We try to be ready when it strikes. Maybe there’s something in you that has been aroused, a force not yet seen to fight this thing, whatever it is.”


Harlan looked over at Mr. Jones and asked for the book from Marianne. He flipped to a page toward the end of the book and read:


“Sometimes it comes with a warning, a spark perhaps, a foul stench, a plume of smoke from a flameless fire. Other times it sneaks up out of the air, and you must be ready. Always be ready.”


He closed the book and set it on his lap.


The three of them looked toward the fireplace, the fire now out, ashes cold and gray.

It was there, still. Waiting.


“Always be ready,” he repeated.

"Smoke Ghost" by Steve Garner



ABOUT THE AUTHOR: SHOSHANA HEBSHI



A long time ago, Shoshana Hebshi wrote for a newspaper. Now she writes tweets--copy editing skills paying off big time. Find her at shoshanahebshi.com and on Twitter @shoshanahebshi 

She is forever grateful to Trevor Boelter for chasing that pesky ghost from her freshman dorm.