On Monday morning, I stopped at the Short Street Diner for breakfast. It was the only place that still had a ten-dollar buffet, including coffee. Eating at the Diner wasn’t about the price anymore, but the comforting familiarity of the food. I ate here every morning before high school to avoid eating lunch at the shitty school canteen. I knew what Eli’s reaction would be if he knew I was here. If he didn’t enjoy our favourite fish and chip place, I’d doubt he’d ever had a meal that cost less than sixty dollars. The smell of the cheap coffee blend reminded me of the countless mornings spent with my friends. Every day we’d have just one last coffee refill and have to run to beat the bus. It was a small freedom that we woke in the early hours of the morning to enjoy. Fourteen-year-old Dexter saw more sunrises in a week then I’d seen in the past year.
I knew they timed their hit when two women walked in the library wearing three-piece suits and serious looks.
Three hours before, Eli’s Grandfather the Senior Mr Lacy had left his weekly visit to the law section early, his round face beat red, as he yelled at whoever was on the other end of his phone call.
I pressed my finger into the corner of a hardcover book. Had they targeted me on purpose? Going after my family? Dinner tonight would be tense if Lacy Senior discovered I was in that basement. The timing was suspect. They would have left evidence the theft happened on Friday. I was always in the basement on Friday morning.
I transferred another book to the shelf. When I turned back to the cart, one of the suited women was standing on the other side of it. She looked straight at my face. It felt as though she was looking through me and into my soul; the blood had drained from her face. She blinked, and in a second, the look vanished back into the hard professionalism that predated her forty years.
“You must be Dexter.”
“Must? I have a feeling you already know.” The words seemed to spill from my mouth at their own accord. “God, that sounded rude. What the hell was wrong with me?”
Her raised eyebrow was the only change to her hard expression. “My name is Andrea Dominguez. I’m a detective investigating a theft from a store of rare books that were placed under the care of the library.”
“Why would someone steal from here?”
“That’s what I’d like to know.” Her tight bun gave her a school ma’am look that aged her two decades at first glance.
“I haven’t seen any suspicious activity.”
“Why did you vanish for most of Friday morning?”
“I was working in the basement as ordered.”
“It took you twice as long as it should have.”
I looked around as though I was watching for my boss, then turned to her and whispered. “I was kind of slacking off. There’s not a lot to do around here.”
“What exactly were you doing?”
“Reading fanfiction on my phone.” I hoped my forced flushed cheeks were red enough to stand out against my light brown skin. I needed to appear as though I was embarrassed about doing something so unbelievably nerdy, as though that was what I was hiding.
“Stories people write about already established characters.”
“Do you have internet down there?”
“I downloaded it. I have a collection on my phone. I always take far longer than I need in the basement. Better than stacking books all day. I must have lost track of time.”
“And you saw nothing odd while you were down there?”
“If I find anything to connect you to this, I’m taking you in.”
I felt the tension slide from my shoulders as I watched her walk off, only fully relaxing when I could no longer make out the stripes on her pinstripe suit.
Why were they suspicious of me?
Julie was sitting in the back office when I arrived. She looked up from my computer when I placed my metal bottle on the desk beside her. “You know they stopped supporting this operating system half a decade ago.”
“We don’t get the budget to upgrade.” I pointed to Mrs Gregory’s desk. “She doesn’t even know how to turn it on.” I sat down and started to scan the returns pile.
“I get that you don’t want to babysit me, but I sort of assumed that we were friends at this point.”
I paused and looked her in the eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s not you who I’m angry with.”
“Don’t project your anger onto me. You can be a real arse sometimes.” She walked into the kitchen and used the microwave. She returned with a cardboard cup filled with coffee. “Better than that sludge you get at the Diner.”
She pulled her phone from her pocket and stared at the screen for a minute before angrily stuffing it back in her jean pocket.
“You saw me at the Diner?”
“A few times. Why?”
“You’ll probably tell me it’s silly.” I took a long sip of coffee. Why was I talking about this to my husband’s best friend? “I’m worried that Eli will look down on me for eating at a ten-dollar buffet.”
“He totally would. You’ve met his family.” She let out a short high pitched laugh. “Hell, you have the misfortune of living with them. If you and Eli adopt a kid, it’s going to be as snobby and entitled as the rest of his family. As much as I love Eli, I’ll be the first to admit that he’s the product of his environment.”
“The Diner is special to me, and I don’t want to leave it because my in-laws are worried about people seeing me there.”
“If they made a fuss, it would reflect worse on them. I think they were glad when Eli brought you home with how close your families are. Heaven forbid, he brings home some hillbilly from the sticks with no sense of class or wealth.”
“My family has a reputation, not money.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Sure ‘bout that one?”
“Have you seen where my grandfather lives compared to Eli’s family?”
“I know for a fact that your family has money. I have a feeling you’ve never wanted for anything in your life.”
“If that’s true, why do people call me a ‘gay for pay gold digger’?”
“Jealous assholes! You hooked a hot rich guy they or a woman in their lives could have had.” Julie sighed. “People in this town act like they’re in a fucking soap opera and you’re not helping by worrying about it. If fewer people played along with the older generation’s bullshit, the town would be a better place.”
I ran a hand through my dark curls. “I hate that it bothers me, but I can’t just turn my feelings off.”
I looked back at my computer. I had an email from Mayor Chesterfield’s secretary. It contained the information Mrs Gregory had on the lost and overdue books. I sighed as I looked at the poorly scanned handwritten notes attached to the email. Why did we have a computer system at all? If I’d known so many books were missing, I might have done something about it sooner. Mrs Gregory had listed the books and their last locations but hadn’t bothered to follow up and try to get the books back. I opened a new spreadsheet and entered the list into it as Julie played Solitaire on Mrs Gregory’s computer.
I emailed Julie the spreadsheet and walked over to her desk. I showed her the mysterious card Mayor Chesterfield had given me. “Your uncle said to call this number if we encountered anything strange.”
“I was told not to ask.”
“This is just a white business card with a number written in fancy green ink. Either it’s a joke or creepy.”
“Probably.” I stood up and grabbed my bag and keys from the desk. “I’m going to start on this list. Mrs Gregory will tell you where she needs you.” I looked away from her so she wouldn’t see me blushing. Why had I told her about the card? Even as a special kind of social idiot, I should have known it was some sick joke of Gregory and Mayor Chesterfields’ to teach me a lesson.
In the car, I pulled my phone from my bag and opened the contact menu. I deleted the number. I felt sick and angry. Not the best mood to drive in, but I couldn’t stay in the office. At least she had the tact to contain her laughter until I couldn’t hear.
I looked at the spreadsheet on my phone. I’d reorganised it based on each patron’s proximity to the library. First on the list, Nora Rowe, her son had contacted Gregory a month or so ago about donating his deceased mother’s books. The message had been simple; to take them all. He’d left us a key but couldn’t be bothered to sort through the books himself. If he was anything like his son, he was likely in a crack house with a heroin needle stuck in his arm.
I scrunched up the card and angrily threw it towards the bin on the street. It bounced off the edge and landed in the middle of the sidewalk. I shook my head and walked towards the parking lot.
“You shouldn’t litter.”
I turned around to face Mayor Chesterfield who was standing next to the bin smoothing the card between his fingers.
“I wrote the number down.” I started walking towards my car.
“I don’t do things for no reason.”
I stopped walking but didn’t face him. “I know, Sir.”
“You married into my family. Which means I’m obliged to look out for your best interests.” I heard Mayor Chesterfield walk up beside me.
“I’m sorry if I offended you.” I said.
“If I do something, it’s for your benefit because I care about my nephew.”
“I’d never purposely be nasty to you. So why did you throw away something I gave you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Think about it.” Mayor Chesterfield brushed past me and hopped in his car without looking back at me.
Armed with the key to Nora Rowe’s house, I let myself in. I hate dead people’s homes. Not in the usual, ‘oh that’s kind of creepy’ way. I can see and communicate with spirits. When he was alive, my Pop assumed I had the magical ability to influence them with spellcraft like my Gran. I’d never had the chance to use the spells I’d learnt. I used to practice the essential potion craft he taught me. It involved little magic and was my limit outside of spells which effected the spirit world. I knew Nora Rowe had died in her home without anyone telling me.
I unlocked the door, and my stomach dropped as I took in the sight. The small living room of her kit home was filled with books and old newspapers. The acrid smell of cigarettes and forty years of woodfires filled my nose as I waved through the stacks of books. The walls were lined with mismatched flatpack bookshelves that warped under the strain of thousands of books. The living room held no other furniture apart from an old tv and a worn leather armchair—the worn carpet covered by threadbare rugs. I clicked the first light switch I saw on and off a couple of times. Why had I expected the power to work? I walked over to the windows and pushed the dust-caked, lace curtains to the side. The increase in light level startled me.
In the kitchen, I noticed that the doors of the kitchen cupboards hung open. The only things left behind were a few cheap plastic items scattered across the chipped lino. I stood on a plastic cup and wobbled on my feet for a few sick seconds before I grabbed the counter to steady myself.
Fuck, this place was a death trap.
She had over twenty library books I had to separate before I could pack up the rest. My legs shook as I walked to the shelves closest to the door. I ignored the erratic beating of my heart and the part of my brain telling me to run. I pulled the keys from my pocket and flicked the small key chain light on. I placed it between my teeth and started scanning the spines for library tags.
When the light hit the grimy glass on one of the small photo frames that littered the shelves, I saw something move behind me. I stilled my eyes, kept them fixed on the glass as I slowly lifted my hand and used my thumb to clear a spot of grime. If it hadn’t moved, I could have ignored the human-shaped shadow reflected in the glass.
I turned to look at the woman who sat in the armchair. This Nora was a couple of years older than the one who happily celebrated her birthday in the photo. Her gaze was centred on the TV which would have been new the year Queen Elizabeth was coronated. I kept my gaze locked on her blinking one eye at a time. I slowed my breath, and I took a careful step backwards towards the door. The stack of books I knocked over sliced through my composure just as easy as the silence in the room.
“What the fuck are you doing in my house?” Nora stood and turned to face me.
I knew I’d given the game away when I jumped out of my skin and almost dropped my keys. I had made a noise like a dying rat. She knew I could hear her. The first thing Gran had taught me was not to let a spirit realise you could sense them. It was dangerous—a possible trigger for the ire of a vengeful spirit.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Your son gave me the key.”
“Good for nothing piece of shit. Letting strangers in my house. He stole my Grandma’s dinner set for drug money before my body was even cold. I saw him put it in his car before he called someone to deal with the mess.”
“I’ll just be going now.”
“Actually, I’ll be going.”
I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I tried to breathe, and my lungs refused to move. I couldn’t breathe! The edge of my vision went black as I gasped for air. I fell flat on my front. I was so focused on trying to breathe; I almost missed the presence pushing at the back of my mind. It started small, a hint of a suggestion. The temptation to give in grew. The knowledge that this was her body. I was nothing but a figment of her imagination. Dexter wasn’t real. Nothing more than a thought exercise to see what it’d be like as a man her grandson’s age. With each second, it pressed harder, and the urge to give in grew. It would be easy to give in and never have another worry again. All of the pain and pressure of life would be gone if I could relax and let her take control.
I shivered as I tried to move my arms to push myself on to my hands and knees. I focused on the door… it was only a short crawl. I had to do it. For a second, my vision went entirely black. No! I gathered all of the strength I had and screamed. The remaining air expelled from my lungs. I took a sharp breath in, then out. I moved my stiff arms and pushed myself on to my hands and knees.
I was Dexter, I was real, and this was my body. Nothing would take that away from me.
I closed my eyes and pushed back the ghost. I wrapped a mental net around the invasive presence in my mind and forced it back through the hole where it had entered. One hand forward, one leg forward, and breathe.
Move. Breathe. Move. Breathe.
I made it to the threshold and pulled the door open. I slid headfirst down the concrete stairs to lay on my back.
The pressure in my mind was gone.
I opened my eyes. The pale blue sky was almost cloudless. The perfect day an act of obliviousness to my plight. The mid-autumn day hardly different from late summer. I could have laid there for hours, but I could feel the hot concrete melting the skin off my back. I rolled onto the dead grass beside the cracked front path. Sweat ran into my eyes as I sat up. I could still feel the cold air wafting from the open door. I had to shut it. Mayor Chesterfield was looking for any excuse to fire me. I stood and walked to the threshold. Grab the handle and pull it closed, remove my hand from the handle and step back. One quick movement.
My eyes adjusted to the dim inside of the house. She stood just inside, her hard eyes focused on me.
Her eyes locked on mine, she smiled.
I stepped forward and grabbed the door handle. Her hand shot out towards my arm. Her pale, icy fingers clamped down around my left arm. I tightened the grip of my right hand around the door handle. I tucked my chin to my chest, threw myself down the stairs and used the weight of my body to swing the door closed. I felt my dress shirt rip as I fell backwards, the sleeve staying in her hand as my arm slipped free. The air was expelled from my lungs when I hit the ground. There was a dizzy kind of relief as I breathed again, and after a few minutes, I slowly stood up. Blood ran down my exposed arm, the only part of my body that had hit the thin concrete path. Spirits could touch me… Physically hurt me… I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing, forcing back the panic attack that bubbled in the back of my mind. I knew about the possession but the touching… It would have been good to know. Why hadn’t Gran or Pop told me? I needed to call Gran, but I knew she couldn’t help me. She hadn’t been the same since the accident. I suspected the accident was magic related, but she’d kept silent about it. Now she was in America with Aunt Myrtle, I couldn’t ask.