He spoke clearly, in a conversational tone. In an instant I awoke completely. A muscle in my back tensed and I shivered.
I pulled my exposed, cold foot under the blanket, and arched my neck to look to the end of the bed. I could barely make out the figure of our dog Abbie sleeping on her dog blanket.
“Hello.” The voice wasn’t loud, but it was clear. And close.
Jessica snored softly next to me, curled on her side, her back to me; her shoulder softly illuminated by the streetlights outside our house.
The man’s voice disoriented me. It sounded as if he were standing right beside me, but as my head cleared away the sleep I determined the voice must be a neighbor in the carport speaking on his cell phone. Our bedroom window is only a few feet from our neighbor’s carport.
The voice was calm. It occurred to me he might be speaking to get my attention. I pushed myself up so my eyes peeked over the bottom of the window. I inched back one of the white curtains and did my best to look outside. The ambient glow of street lights and porch lights was enough to make out shapes. I saw no one.
I slipped back into the bed, pulling the blanket over my shoulder. I was fully awake. Jessica rolled on her back and mumbled something. She was dreaming.
“Hello.” The clarity and closeness convinced me I must be hearing a neighbor in the carport speaking to his phone. He probably stood on the other side of the cinder block wall.
I looked at the clock. 5:33. Still a half-hour before the alarm went off. I turned the alarm off and quietly slid out of bed. I could tell by the silhouetted tilt of her head that Abbie watched me, hoping for an early breakfast. I pulled my robe from the back of a dining room chair we kept in the bedroom and moved to the kitchen to make coffee. I was happy to get a jump on the day’s work.
The kitchen door looks out at the same carport as our bedroom window. Before I turned on the kitchen light I pulled the curtain back and looked boldly outside. I was up. If someone wanted my attention I could give it to them. I saw no one.
Awakening to the voice left me with an unsettled feeling. The sound had been so clear, so close. Probably someone in the carport, I told myself. Nothing creepy. Or, more likely, there was no one there and it was only a dream.
By the time the coffee brewed and I stepped out of my shower I had forgotten about the ‘Hello Man,’ as I named him. Today I would enjoy a perk of my job. It was the end of winter in Tampa, Florida, which meant a high of seventy-two degrees, and my job compelled me to attend two spring practice baseball games. Days like this made the stress of my work tolerable. The rest of the time my job was riddled with pressure and anxiety as my colleagues and I anticipated the next round of lay-offs.
Even while watching the game I didn’t feel I could stop working. I surfed the internet and wrote posts for the paper’s social media while I watched the Pirates play the Yankees.
Jessica long ago stopped listening sympathetically to my complaints about work. But, she also gave up telling me to change careers. I dreamed of being a sports writer since I was twelve. I didn’t know what else to do with myself. Jessica, for her part, learned to tolerate Tampa. She was happy. Enough.
That night as Jessica and I lay in bed, she reading on her Kindle, and me working on a story on the laptop balanced on my belly, still a little tipsy from the ballpark beers and the post-game conviviality at the Green Iguana, I remembered the Hello Man.
“Did you hear anything this morning?”
“You’ll have to be more specific.” Jessica didn’t look away from her reading. She lay propped against a pile of pillows, knees pulled up and the device resting against the blankets covering her thighs.
“Did you hear a man saying hello outside the window?”
She turned and looked at me, tilting her head to look over the top of her reading glasses. “No. Did you?”
I folded up my laptop and set it on the floor. “Yeah, a voice woke me. It was creepy. It sounded like he was here in the room. It was a quiet voice. Not like a whisper, but close, conversational.”
She shrugged and looked back at her screen. “Probably someone next door.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Someone next door. Maybe a dream, but it sounded so real.”
I turned off my light, rolled on my right side and started rubbing her belly under the cover, under her t-shirt. Florida’s mild winter chill receded and for the first night of the year it was warm enough to keep the windows open through the night. Jessica opened the window before getting into bed. We would sleep with windows open until the summer heat became unbearable.
She put her Kindle aside and turned off her bedside light. We made love under the blankets, then spooned, her back to my chest. When we met we fucked like beasts. Constantly. We were both more than a little wild in our youth. Somewhere deep inside neither of us believed we’d survive our twenties. That compulsion to experience everything brought us together. At some point our love-making became perfunctory, but that was common after seven years of marriage. I was content to slip gracefully into middle age, but I knew our middle-class, suburban life didn’t make Jessica happy.
I heard her breathing change as she fell asleep. I couldn’t sleep. The open window made me nervous. I told myself I was being foolish. We always slept with the windows open. Besides, Abbie lay at the foot of the bed to raise the alarm if anyone tried to break in.
Eventually I got up and closed the window. I was chilly, I told myself.
My eyes opened and I turned to nightstand to look at the clock. 5:29.
I lifted myself on my knees and pulled the curtain away. This morning I wouldn’t hesitate. I saw no one and imagined they stood on the other side of the carport wall. I quickly pulled on my sweat pants and grabbed a t-shirt from the back of the chair. I walked out the kitchen door and approached the chain link fence separating the two properties.
“Hey. Are you there? I can hear you.”
No one answered.
I turned to my right and opened the gate leading to the front yard. The chain link fence ran almost to the street. I walked around the fence and walked up their driveway.
I expected to see someone as soon as I turned the fence, but there was no one there. The car port was empty. No person. No car.
I tried to remember the last time I saw our neighbors. Had they moved out?
I walked back to my house, through the gate and into the backyard. I looked into the darkness. It was a quiet morning. The neighborhood was peaceful. I took a moment to stare at the stars. At least I could get a little extra work done.
I wasn’t much of a reader when I was young. On my 12th birthday I was nursing a recently broken ankle, and my aunt gifted me a copy of A Season on the Brink, a book about Coach Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers. I stayed up all night reading. As soon as I finished I turned back to page one and started again.
Until I received her gift I didn’t know that people wrote about sports. I began to methodically work my way through all the sports books in my local library. I had found my calling.
People are resilient. Despite the pall of gloom permanently lodged over the Tampa Bay Chronicle, and the empty desks and offices haunting the building, some of us still found ways to have fun. Hope and humor sprouted between the bouts of soul-crushing anxiety like weeds through cracks in the driveway.
A group of us eat together every Wednesday, and have for years. Nowadays we eat in a rarely used conference room. Such a luxurious space would have been off-limits in the economic boom times of the 1990s, but now the well-appointed room was rarely used except for Wednesday lunch.
At Wednesday’s lunch the conversation turned to weird dreams and I mentioned the Hello Man, which I’d convinced myself was only a weird dream.
“Maybe it’s a ghost,” said Amani, our tightly wound librarian. Everybody laughed.
A few hours after lunch I sat at my desk, churning out my fifth online piece for the day. In addition to the material for the print newspaper, I was also expected to generate content over the course of the day for the web. The more the better as far as my editor was concerned.
A hand touched my shoulder and I flinched, slightly startled. “I looked up your house.” Amani stood by my desk. Amani was a thin black woman, originally from Kenya. She was off-the-charts anxious, but generally happy and optimistic. She was the newspaper’s librarian. At its peak the newspaper employed a dozen librarians to collect and organize information for the reporters. Two remained, an indulgence most newspapers couldn’t afford.
I held up a finger, finished my story, and hit send.
“Hi, Amani. Do you want some coffee?” She grinned and nodded. We went to the break room.
“What do you mean, you ‘looked up my house’?” We poured our coffees and walked the steps to the roof. Since the city banned smoking in the workplace the roof became the de facto smoking area. I didn’t smoke, but knew Amani wanted a cigarette to accompany her coffee. The roof was empty and the day was hot and humid.
“I thought I’d see if anyone committed any horrible murders in your house. That might explain the ghost.”
“Seriously? Ghosts don’t exist, Amani.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “That’s beside the point. The point is that while I didn’t find a murder victim in your house, I did find a murderer.” She grinned, waiting for my response.
My response surprised me. Instead of morbid curiosity I felt a cold knot of fear blossom deep in my bowels. My stomach felt sour and for an instant I thought I might puke.
“You OK, Jimmy?”
It must have shown on my face. I tried to shake it off and present the appearance of hardened reporter. “I’m fine,” I smiled. “Too much coffee. So, you found a murderer?”
Amani nodded, smiling again, excited about her discovery.
“In the early 1950s Robert Burns lived at your location.”
“Our house was built in 1959.”
“Yes! Because the old house burned down. Before your house there was the house Robert Burns lived in.”
“OK. Who was Robert Burns?”
“Bobby Burns was a motherfucking bad motherfucker. He was the ‘terror of the town’ as one person put it at his trial. He worked some as an enforcer for the mob, but he was too out-of-control for those guys. Mostly he beat people up, and supported himself through various crimes. By the time he was twenty-five he was dead.”
“How did he die?”
“He was on trial for murders. Plural. During a recess he took a gun from a cop, shot two officers dead before he was shot to death in the courthouse.”
“How many murders?”
“The trial was for four, but who knows how many he really killed. After his death his house burned down. The fire chief said it was arson, but they never found the person or people who torched it. Frankly, I don’t think they tried too hard. I bet they salted the earth as well. That neighborhood wanted to erase any memory of his existence.”
“Did he kill anybody inside the house?”
She shrugged and crushed her cigarette into the ashtray. “Who knows? I didn’t find anything like that in the newspaper morgue.”
“OK then. Even though there are no ghosts I’m pretty sure I’ll never sleep again out of fear that the ghost of Bobby Burns is going to kill me in my dreams.”
She winked. “I knew you’d appreciate it.”
I poured my coffee on the roof and followed her back inside.
I spent the rest of the afternoon learning what I could about Bobby Burns on the internet. There wasn’t much, but my searches led me down a trail of nostalgia. I ruminated on the awesomeness of writing about sports during the 1950s. I imagined watching Rocky Marciano fight, and attending spring training to watch Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. The Lakers played basketball in Minneapolis where God intended them to play. The New York football Giants had two up-and-coming assistant coaches named Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi. Furman Bisher wrote about sports over in Atlanta, Shirley Povich was writing at the Post, and everybody in America knew the names Red Smith and Grantland Rice.
I finally climbed out of the haze of nostalgia at 6pm and made my way home. A wreck on the bridge kept me in traffic for more than an hour. As I sat in the car I turned off the radio and pined for a different world.
I was already awake. This time I shook Jessica’s shoulder. She started to say something. I touched her lip and leaned in close to her ear and said “shh.”
I saw her eyes widen. “Hello,” she said loudly. “Who’s there?”
We waited for a response. I took my hand away from her shoulder. I didn’t want her to feel my hand quiver.
After a few moments of silence Jessica threw back the sheet, stood, grabbed her robe and made her way quickly to the kitchen to step outside. I hesitated, but felt compelled to follow. I couldn’t allow her to face whatever waited alone.
The morning was still and humid. Abbie followed us and snuffled her way to the middle of the back yard to pee.
“Hello?” Jessica interrupted the silence. “Hello? Is there anybody there?”
I anticipated she was about to walk to the end of the fence, so I led the way. She watched me reach the end of the fence and come back up the neighbor’s driveway.
“There’s no one here.” I stood next to her, on the opposite side of the fence. “When did the neighbors move?”
“A week ago. I guess almost two weeks. Two weeks this weekend.”
I started to walk back to the end of the fence.
“Knock on the door.”
I shook my head. “No. Maybe later when it’s light. What if someone’s moved in and I’m waking them at 5:30 in the morning?” She understood.
We went inside and I started making coffee.
“So, you heard the voice.”
“That was fucking creepy.” She reached down and petted Abbie. “I wonder why Abbie didn’t bark.”
“Good point. Could it be some sort of shared hallucination, or common dream?”
“Is that even possible? You told me about the Hello Man. Maybe I imagined hearing the voice when you woke me.”
“But, you did hear it, right?”
“Oh, I heard it. It was creepy.”
By 8am I had enough sunlight and coffee to gather my courage and knock on the neighbor’s door. Jessica accompanied me. There was no answer. We walked around the house peeking through the windows. The house looked empty. We discussed the possibility of a homeless person taking up residence, and that was who we heard. If so, they left no evidence we could see.
At work I went straight to Amani’s desk. I still didn’t believe in ghosts, but my curiosity was piqued. “Can you do some research on the house next to mine?” I told her Jessica also heard the Hello Man. “We think it’s probably some homeless person who moved into the house.”
“What am I looking for?”
“I don’t know. Just thought it might be interesting to learn more.”
The house next to us was an anomaly on our block. It wasn’t the only rental house, but it was unique in that no one ever stayed for more than a few months. Our block is almost evenly split between homeowners and renters, but even the renters have lived here for years. The house to our east, however, had frequent turnover. Sometimes the tenants only lasted a few weeks, but were typically quiet and kept to themselves. It had the air of a halfway house. I wondered if some previous tenant decided to move back in without permission.
I was on the phone most of the morning doing phone interviews. The NFL draft was a few months away and I was interviewing college coaches about players soon to be drafted. Amani swung by while I was speaking to the coach of Florida State. I waved to her and pointed to the phone at my ear. She mouthed ‘call me’ and held her hand next to her head, pinky and thumb extended. I nodded and returned to quizzing the coach about his quarterback’s off-field indiscretions.
After confirming that the top-ranked candidate in the draft was a privileged prima donna and also a freakishly gifted athlete I walked to Amani’s desk.
“Jackpot. Your house may not be haunted, but this one sure as shit is. Look at this.” She held a manila folder full of photocopies from the newspaper archives. “On the top is some stuff about the house next door to you.”
“What’s the rest?”
“Your neighborhood was a high-crime area in the 1930s and 1940s. In a way Bobby Burns was the end of an era.”
The top article was from 1927. A jealous wife shot her cheating husband. Buried toward the bottom was the address of the house next door to mine.
“It’s difficult to read between the lines, but I think this couple,” Amani pointed at the photocopied news article I held in my hand, “hosted sex parties.”
“They had sex parties in the 1920s?”
“Yes. And Florida was the perfect place for libertines and scofflaws. Look at the next one.”
The next article showed a robbery gone bad. “Apparently someone tried to rob a drug dealer.”
“There were drug dealers in the 1930s?”
Amani said slowly. “Yes, Jimmy. Drugs have been popular for as long as there have been people. Drugs were illegal for most of the 20th century. Which meant…” she paused dramatically, “drug dealers.”
“I suppose so. I guess I never really thought about it.”
“Look at this, skip ahead to the 1940s. This is the weirdest, and this is what prompted me to start looking at the rest of the neighborhood.” She pulled a paper out of the stack and handed it to me.
NEIGHBORS COMPLAIN ABOUT LOCAL CHURCH ANIMAL SLAUGHTER
The Seminole Heights Neighborhood Group filed a formal request to the City Council to ban animal slaughter within the city limits. Neighbors complained about the unusual religious practices of a small church at 1400 North Street for years.
“The smell is bad enough, but the sound of the animals being killed anytime day or night is not appropriate for a suburban neighborhood,” said Richard Burns, president of the Neighborhood Association.
Several members of the City Council asked to postpone the vote to ensure people could still keep chickens and goats on their property.
City Councilman Jebidiah “Peaches” Culbreath said he believed the Council would more likely pass restrictions on the times of allowable slaughter, rather than restricting certain types of animals within the city limits. “During wartime it is important we allow our citizens to contribute anyway they can, and that means letting the raise animals for milk and sustenance.”
Amani nodded. “I’m thinking that’s Bobby Burns’s daddy.”
“And what does it mean ‘unusual religious practices’?”
She grinned and handed me another article, this one from 1954, the same year Bobby Burns was shot to death and his neighbors burned down his house.
SATANIC CHURCH CLOSED
Police evicted members of the St. Ba’al Church of the Anti-Christ Friday night and closed their church. Neighbors have complained about the loud parties at this location for years. New Police Chief John said the eviction was a long-time coming. “This is a cult, not a church. They have been flouting the law for years. We want everyone in Tampa to know that no one is above the law. If they can’t live by the rules then they need to go somewhere else. This is a God-fearing Christian community.”
Members of the Church could not be reached for comment.
She handed me the next sheet from 1955.
The City of Tampa concluded a deal with McKay Realty on Tuesday by bulldozing the notorious Church of Ba’al. McKay Realty agreed to purchase the property and develop it if the City paid for the destruction of the structures on the property.
“We’re happy to close this chapter of the City’s history and start a new one,” said Neighborhood Association President Richard Burns.
“But the house next to me is still standing,” I said.
“Right, so I looked at the Sanborn maps.” She pulled out a photocopied page from the folder. “Now, you have two houses between you and the cross-street. But, until 1955 the four lots at the end of the block were one property. The house next to you has always been a house, but was originally intended as the pastor’s house. The church used to sit on the corner, and had a bigger footprint than the house there now. The church was meant to be a Methodist Church, but for some reason it was never used as that. From the beginning the church was used by cults and charismatics and pentecostal types. The congregations changed every few years until the Church of Ba’al moved in in the early 1940s.”
“So, you always hear the Hello Man at 5:30 in the morning.”
“More or less.”
“We should set our alarms for 5am and go next door so we’re there at 5:30.” Jessica and I read through the folder Amani compiled. Reading the violent history of my quiet neighborhood depressed me, but Jessica was enthralled.
I’m sentimental about the past. I have a rosy-colored vision of clean streets and optimistic families moving to the suburbs. I didn’t want to be reminded that the crimes and hatred and bigotry of today also existed in my fantasy world.
“What do you think will happen?” I asked.
“I don’t know. There’s only one way to find out.” Jessica smiled. She was excited.
I didn’t know how to say no. I knew she would go regardless of what decision I made.
I awoke before the alarm went off at 5am. For a minute I considered turning it off and going back to sleep and pretending some inexplicable mechanical failure. But, I knew that was only postponing the inevitable. I let the alarm go off and wake Jessica.
She snuggled against me. “Do you think we’ll meet a ghost?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t know, but I feel a little freaked out.”
“Then we have to go!” She leapt to her feet and stood on the bed, tottering slightly, holding her fist above her head, nearly touching the ceiling. “We must confront our fears,” she said loudly. Abbie barked. I tried to pull her back into the bed, our time would be better spent fucking instead of ghost hunting, but she slipped from my fingers and jumped to the floor.
“C’mon horny man, time’s running out.” I felt a warm surge of love. Jessica made my life better.
I considered taking a kitchen knife or a hammer, but settled on carrying my phone in my hand, ready to dial 911 if necessary.
The carport of the neighbor’s house was built of cinder block. It was open in the front and back, but roofed. The interior of the carport also contained the primary entrance to the house. The morning was warm and sticky. We walked to the end of the chain link fence separating our yards and crossed over to the neighbor’s driveway. A chill shivered up my spine. The door was open and a pale light spilled from inside the house.
When we got to the edge of the carport I called out. “Hello? Is anyone there?”
A man appeared in the doorway. “Hello.” It was the voice. He was a short man with a round face, dressed neatly in a blue suit and muted paisley tie. “Please, come in.” He turned away and vanished into the interior of the house. Jessica and I looked at each other, wary of the strange man and the invitation. Everything inside me told me to turn around, but Jessica took a step to the house and I followed.
Somehow, between the time we peeked through the windows and now, the house had been comfortably furnished. The man sat in an overstuffed brown chair. A reading lamp stood next to his chair, emitting a dim light. We stood hesitantly in the doorway and he gestured to a plush, red love seat near the door. We stepped inside and sat down.
“Hello. Thank you for visiting. I don’t get many visitors.”
“Who are you?” asked Jessica.
“My name is Charles. I live here.” He tilted his head and leaned forward slightly.
“When did you move in? We thought no one lived here.” Jessica leaned in, mirroring his motion.
He ignored the question. “How long have you lived in Tampa?”
“We moved here eight years ago. We love this neighborhood,” said Jessica. Her rote response.
“Really?” He arched an eyebrow and steepled his fingers. “What do you love about it?” I resisted the temptation to look at my phone.
“It’s so quiet and quaint.” Jessica echoed the language I always used to describe our neighborhood.
He laughed. “I’ve never heard the neighborhood described as quiet before.” I gave into temptation and glanced at my phone. It was dead.
“What is that?” He pointed to the phone.
“The new android phone. It lost its connection.” I laughed nervously.
“Hey, Charlie!” Jessica and I both jerked, startled at the sound from the doorway. Our movement caught the visitor’s eye. “Hey, you got guests. Didn’t mean to spook you folks. My name’s Bobby.” He stepped into the house. I stood quickly to take his extended hand. He didn’t shake, but squeezed my hand like he wanted to crush my knuckles. He grinned at my discomfort. He stunk of whisky and tobacco smoke and his eyes were glassy and rimmed red. He stood in front of Jessica so she couldn’t stand. After squeezing my hand he turned to her, towering over her. I wanted to physically move him out of the way. He was encroaching on our space.
We stood there a moment, silent. I watched him watch Jessica. The silence became increasingly awkward before he blinked his eyes as if awakening and looked away. He moved to a chair deeper into the room, in front of us, and to the left of Charles. He sat on the edge of the pool of light, sinking into the shadow.
“Well, we saw the light and wanted to be neighborly and say Hi.” I reached down for Jessica’s hand. She took my hand and stood. “We don’t want to take too much of your time.” I gave Jessica a gently nudge to move her to the door.
“Please, sit,” said Charles. “It’s no bother. I’m happy to have the company. Visit for a few minutes.”
Jessica smiled. “Thanks, but I need to start getting ready for work.”
“Sit down,” said Bobby. His voice was full of quiet menace.
“Sorry, gotta go.” I stepped to the door, awkwardly bumping into Jessica who started to the door a split second after I took a step. Before either of us could take another step the door slammed shut loudly.
Jessica let out a short, involuntary scream at the sound of the slamming door.
I reached out and grabbed the doorknob. It wouldn’t turn.
“I must insist,” said Charles quietly, sitting calmly in the overstuffed chair. “As I mentioned, I don’t get many visitors.”
In the half-shadow I could see Bobby Burns smirking from his seat against the wall. I gripped the doorknob again and did my best to make it move. The knob felt as solid and unmovable as stone.
I let go of the door and started pushing buttons on my phone. Jessica sank to the couch. Charles and Bobby waited patiently.
“Who are you?” Jessica asked. I looked at her face. She looked surprisingly calm. I felt on the edge of panic, like I might start weeping uncontrollably, or possibly shit myself.
“My name is Charles. I live here.”
“Are you part of the Church of Ba’al?”
“You’ve heard of us?” The tone of his voice perked up. He sounded genuinely pleased.
“Yeah. A little bit. Is that who you are?”
“Yes. I am the second anti-Pope of the Church of Ba’al the Anti-Christ. This is Bishop Bobby Burns.” Bobby smiled and nodded his head.
I sat next to Jessica, still trying to make my phone work.
“Why did you come back? I thought you’d been kicked out years ago.”
“We never left. I have some facility with the dark arts. Whatever you imagine you know about this place, or me, or the church, or my associates, is probably wrong. You can’t trust journalists,” he laughed.
I looked up from my phone, ready to defend my profession. Then I remembered what was going on and kept my mouth shut. I put my phone away.
“What do you want with us?” I asked.
“Your soul,” said Bobby conversationally.
“I’m still using it,” I joked weakly.
“What do we get in exchange?” asked Jessica.
Bobby let out a short bark of laughter.
Charles smiled. “We rarely get people interested in negotiation. We typically just take what we need.”
Jessica shrugged. “I don’t care much about souls.”
“Interesting. Would you consider joining our church? I know this is rather sudden notice, but we have such a small congregation, and we’re always looking to grow.”
“Do we get magic powers?” asked Jessica. I stayed quiet. I was uncertain where Jessica was going with this unexpected response to a supernatural creature asking for our souls. In case this was some sort of delaying tactic I considered how we might fight our way out. Both of us kept in shape. I played pick-up soccer games until last summer, and we both still ran and did some weights, but neither of us trained as fighters. We might have the element of surprise on our side if Jessica’s delaying tactic worked. Maybe since Bobby was drunk, his reflexes would be slow. Besides, we were fighting for our souls.
Charles waved his hand dismissively. “Magic. Our way of life is something less than, yet greater than, magic. It’s a different world with different rules, but it is not a life of wish fulfillment. I must say, I quite enjoy it.”
“Yeah, it’s fucking awesome,” Bobby slurred from his chair. He looked like he might be falling asleep. I looked around for anything we could use as a weapon.
“Can you elaborate?” Jessica asked.
“No, my dear. Boldness and courage are prerequisites. You must either make the leap, or…” I took that as a signal and leapt at Charles.
I hit him with my shoulder, attempting to knock the chair over, and pin him to the ground. That should give Jessica time to get somewhere else. The door wouldn’t budge, but maybe she could get to another room, or find a way to break out a window.
I struck the chair hard and it went toppling over. The sound jolted Bobby awake and in an instant he stood over me. I pulled back my arm to punch Charles, but he wasn’t beneath me. I was alone on the floor, lying awkwardly across the chair.
Bobby stood above me and laughed. I looked around the room. Jessica remained sitting in the loveseat and Charles stood quietly beside her, a slight smirk on his face.
Bobby reached out a hand to help me up. I ignored it and pushed myself to my feet.
“My husband and I need to speak in private, Charles.”
“Certainly.” Charles gave her a slight nod. He gestured to Bobby. The two of them left the room.
“C’mon, Jessica, now’s our chance.”
“I don’t want to go, Jimmy. I want to stay here.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Is this a dream?” My legs felt weak, and I wasn’t sure if they’d continue supporting me. I reached out a hand to support myself against the wall. The wall was too far away and I tilted awkwardly. I removed my hand, standing straight, and looked for a place to sit. The only place was next to Jessica on the couch. I sat beside her.
“I don’t like my life.”
“He wants your fucking soul. That can’t be a good idea.”
“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal.”
I began to protest, but she interrupted me.
“You’re not going to change my mind. This is not a logical or rational decision, Jimmy. This is opportunism. I don’t know what the fuck this kind of life might be, but I know it will be different, radically different than anything I ever imagined. And if I don’t go I’ll regret it every time I do another load of laundry or attend another boring dinner party or find myself watching some stupid reality TV show while you’re out at a game.”
“What if it’s a nightmare? What if it’s Hell?”
“I’m willing to take that chance. It’s a gamble. I don’t think it’s going to be Hell.”
“I won’t let you. I…”
“I believe she made up her mind.” I startled. I didn’t hear them step back into the room. “Bobby, will you show our guest out?” Charles held out his hand to Jessica. She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
“I love you,” she whispered. She stood and took Charles’s hand. He smiled and escorted her out of the room.
“C’mon, lover boy,” Bobby smirked. “Time to go.”
I didn’t move. I wasn’t going to leave Jessica. I couldn’t leave. Before I could conjure up a plan Bobby grabbed me by the neck and pulled me to my feet. I resisted, but couldn’t break his grip. He twisted my arm behind my back, and pushed me through the door, which now stood open. He shoved me, I tripped and hit the concrete hard.
I ignored the pain and turned to run back in the house. Bobby stood in the doorway, grinning, and then slammed the door.
I beat on the door, then ran to the front of the house to break a window. The sky brightened as the sun rose, a thick red light covered the bottom of the clouds. Bars protected the windows. I pushed my face against the bars and looked through the window. The house was empty.
I ran back to the door and kicked it and kicked it with the heel of my foot until one of the lower quarter panels loosened. I kicked harder. The panel came out and I reached through and unlocked the door.
I stood inside the empty house, light breaking through the windows. There was no love seat, no lamp, no chair, no Charles, no Bobby, and no Jessica.
I pulled out my phone and it lit up. I looked at it. I called Jessica.
“This is Jessica. Please leave a message.”
I left a message. “I love you. I was wrong. Take me with you. If you get this message, come back for me. I want to be with you.”