UNTITLED GHOST STORY, FIRST DRAFT
The old brick Victorian at 60 Hawthorne Street was well over 100 years old. Originally a spacious two-storey home, the building now housed a café on the first floor. The column in the dining room originally lived on the front porch of the house, before the porch was removed during the renovations. To accommodate the café, the entire front side of the first floor was expanded forward to meet the sidewalk, and the column was put aside and replaced in roughly the same spot afterwards. Other parts of the home were re-shaped, expanded, and converted accordingly: The kitchen grew; bathrooms were renovated or added; a small shop was placed in the back corner of the house, accessible through the semi-preserved sitting room at the rear of the café. Through the sitting room, one could also find a hallway leading to the employee bathroom and a set of large French doors, which in turn opened up to a sizable, well-maintained courtyard garden.
The wealth of renovations gave the building a charmingly eclectic appearance. Many aspects of the house had been preserved, while others had been rent apart and replaced with some mimicry of the original. Perhaps the most unusual thing about the building, however, was that the renovations had begun and ended on the first floor. The entire second storey had been neglected, the entrance to the hall with the staircase boarded up and painted over. What was even more unusual was the fact that almost no one talked about it. The café remained a popular spot during the day, but reliably slowed down in the evenings. The turnout after dark was so low that most employees, current and former, regularly wondered why the business owner bothered to keep it open in the evenings at all.
Only after the last surviving member of the house’s original family died, and their silent partnership with the establishment subsequently terminated, did renovations begin on the second floor.
“Original architecture is something visitors look forward to when they visit pretty little tourist towns.” This was the reasoning the current property manager used to justify the immediate conversion of the second storey into a handful of small apartments. The original bedrooms would be refurbished and rented out to tourists, with the intention of giving them a bed & breakfast experience near the heart of the downtown core. The renovations would be a very long, drawn-out process: the rooms must be brought up to code, while maintaining as much of the original architectural features as possible. But the profit potential was huge. The deceased’s wishes that the second storey remain boarded up was “nothing but sentimental superstition.”
Audrey parallel-parked her rented car in front of 60 Hawthorne Street. The weathered brick made a suitably plain backdrop for the flowers and greenery in large white planters by the front door. It looked just as it had in the pictures… from what she could remember, anyways. The posting had been taken down shortly after she had sent a message inquiring about the rental. The property manager had offered to show her the apartment before she committed to moving in, but Audrey had declined. She didn’t need a showing. The building looked beautiful, and she was desperate to move somewhere, anywhere, by herself. When she received the lease- month to month, no less– she was elated. An apartment above a café in a picturesque little town for less than half of what she was paying for her previous place? It was perfect. Sure, it didn’t have a full kitchen or room for guests. But it was exactly what she needed while she tried to make a transition in her life.
Audrey popped open the trunk of the rental and lifted one of her suitcases out of the vehicle. She had plenty of luggage with her, but if there was one bag she wanted inside and safe first, it was the one with her ring light. She took a deep breath, willing the tension of the three-hour drive to dissipate from her body. She was here. A new town, a new room, a new chapter. It wasn’t in her nature to relax, but she made an effort as she pushed open the door and entered the café.
The first thing she noticed was the display case set into the counter. It was directly in front of the door, and featured a wide assortment of treats, despite the lateness of the afternoon. Pastries, squares, cookies, and small cakes filled the tidy display, presenting a perfect medley of elevated and rustic. Above the counter and hanging on the wall was a large menu board, handwritten in chalk by a neat, feminine hand. The pale, blue-green walls and large windows made the space feel larger than it looked on the outside. Every table was covered with a clean white tablecloth and adorned with a small vase, each holding a single but bountiful stem of something resembling baby’s breath. There was only a small handful of people seated in the room, each making their own contribution to the ambient noise- a muted conversation, a page turning, a porcelain cup clinking onto a saucer. It was bright and clean and charming and beautiful.
A woman, a little younger than Audrey, came to the counter, looking at Audrey with polite expectation. “What can I get you?”
“I’m Audrey, I’m here for the room?” She nodded to the large suitcase she held protectively beside her with both hands.
The young woman’s voice immediately dropped. “Oh. You’ll want to talk to William. He’s through that room-” she pointed to an archway at the back of the dining room- “in the shop.”
Audrey gave her thanks and weaved her suitcase awkwardly through tables to reach the back of the room. The archway welcomed her into a sitting room with lavender walls, white wainscotting, and polished hardwood floors. A great bay window filled the majority of the wall on her left, waiting to usher in the warm glow of the evening’s sunset. The three antique chairs placed in the corners of the room were distinctive, but unobtrusive. She allowed herself a brief fantasy of reading a book in one of those chairs, awash in natural light, before she stepped through the thick oaken door that stood open a few steps before her.
Her gaze was instantly drawn to the man behind the counter. He raised his head and regarded her with dark eyes, his sharp gaze swiftly sending a quick chill over her skin. He didn’t look quite old enough to be the sort of person who would own a store like this…. perhaps he wasn’t. He couldn’t have been more than six, seven years her senior. But here she was, experiencing the faint, but specific feeling that she was a guest in someone else’s space.
She took measured, purposeful steps towards him. “William?”
“Yes.” His voice was calm and sure.
“I’m Audrey, I’m here for the apartment?”
His lips formed a subtle curve. “Of course.” He stepped out from behind the counter. “I can show you up.”
As she turned and moved aside so that he could lead the way, she was surprised to notice that she had unwittingly abandoned her suitcase in the middle of the doorway. When she saw William move to grab it, she hastily stepped forward- “That’s okay, I got it,”- and picked it up before he had the chance to.
She watched him walk into the sitting room and towards a hallway opposite the window.
“Don’t you need to…?” She gestured vaguely to the shop door behind them.
“No. Don’t worry, no one’s coming in.”
“…This room is beautiful…” she muttered under her breath.
“It is… Isn’t it?” He responded. “Most of the original architecture of the building has been preserved. The second storey, especially…” They passed into the hallway and through another door. “They only started the renovations upstairs about six months ago. Your apartment, at least, is up to code, but the rest… isn’t quite finished.” They ascended the staircase and paused on the half landing.
“They’re still doing the renovations?” She asked.
“Yes. I hope the occasional noise next door won’t bother you.”
She smiled. “Not at all. Ask my last landlord. He attempted to renovict me.”
“Attempted. I do a lot of work from home, so he must have figured the noise would be a problem for me. He figured wrong.”
“And yet, here you are.” They resumed their climb, and soon stood in a wood-panelled hallway.
“I lost one of my jobs. Couldn’t afford rent, anymore.”
“The one you did from home?”
“No, the other one. I was working in retail- at a Pages.”
He looked at her for a moment. Before she could place just what that look meant, he shifted his gaze past her and stepped down the hallway. “The room is just here.”
She followed him to the nearer end of the hall, peering past the heavy wood railing and into the staircase below. They stopped at an old, sturdy door. William inserted a key and unlocked the door, which opened with a low, moaning creak. Audrey followed him into the room, the floor grumbling under the weight of her feet.
“Here we are.”
The room was spacious. The door to the ensuite bathroom hung open on the wall to her left, not far from where she stood. On her right, the room stretched into a long rectangle, the floor sinking at the end to accommodate a trio of tall, paned windows. That must be directly above the sitting room, she thought. Shortly before the step into the sunken floor, a pair of slatted doors closed over a closet.
As a whole, the room wasn’t nearly as bright or inviting as the lower level. The old, hardwood floors creaked and the walls showed their age. There was no separate bedroom- it was essentially a modest studio apartment. But it was perfect.
“Honestly… I’m surprise it wasn’t taken before I managed to find it.”
“Advertising is not a strength of the property manager,” William answered. “And the locals didn’t care to inquire.”
“Why is that?” She turned to look at him, only to find that he was already staring at her. He blinked once and looked away.
“I couldn’t say. Murder, probably.”
What? “Was someone killed here?”
“Not to my knowledge. But you never know with these old houses. History adds character, I suppose.”
“How quaint,” she remarked dryly.
A pause. That was a joke, wasn’t it?
“Would you like any help with your other bags?” He asked.
“Are you sure you don’t need to be getting back?”
They made several more trips, bringing the remainder of her luggage up the stairs and into the apartment. Within thirty minutes, all but a single box was taken from the car and in the room.
“Are you sure you don’t want any help moving the furniture?”
“I’m sure. It isn’t that heavy.”
“If you’re sure there isn’t anything else…” He took a ring of keys from his pocket and held it up before her, tapping each key as he spoke: “The gate; the back doors; the hall door; your room.”
He placed the ring of keys in her open palm. Her hand quickly closed over it, her fingers brushing his.
Another small shiver, a brief, discomposing buzz up her forearms.
“Do enjoy the garden in the back, when you have the time.” He met eyes directly. “It’s exclusively for employees… and residents.”
“And,” he added, “Try not to leave your car parked at the front for too much longer… They like to give tickets for that.”
“I won’t. It’s going back to the rental company once I’m done.”
“Very good.” He turned to leave. “Feel free to let me know if you need anything further.”
After grabbing the last box from her car, Audrey stepped off of the staircase and into the hallway, keys in hand. She looked around- one door on the long side of the hall, mere feet from her own, and three more at the farther end of the hall on her right. Are those rooms not ready for tenants, yet? Will I have neighbours, eventually?
It was fine, she decided.
She dropped the final box on the floor of her room and closed the door behind her.
The room was hers.
All that was left was to take the car back. She checked the time- it wasn’t so late. She probably had time for a quick post.
She dug through one of her suitcases and found the lingerie she was looking for.
Wait… Burgundy? Or yellow?
She took a look around the room. She looked at the wall through the phone on her camera, holding up the bra from either set to compare colours. Burgundy.
She sent a brief text to her best friend, Erin, to let her know that she arrived safely. Then she set up her ring light as quickly as she could, changed into the lacy, three-piece set, and retrieved her phone. She propped it up on one of the tables across from the wall, set the timer, and took a handful of posed full-body photos. After scrolling through the results, picking her favourite one, and applying a filter, she logged into her JustAdmirers app to post it.
A bubble bath… not likely, tonight. Oh, well. She’d see what else she could post later.
She checked the time again- shit, that took longer than expected. She quickly removed her garter belt and pulled her clothes back on. She darted out of her room and down the stairs, locking the door behind her.
She reached the car without issue. As she went to open the door on the driver’s side, she noticed it: a paper slip under one of the windshield wipers.
Her hand tightened on the door handle. Her knuckles paled, and she shut her eyes.
A bike zoomed past.
A door opened nearby…
It was well after dark by the time Audrey returned to the café. When she walked through the front doors, the harmonious hum of conversation that had greeted her earlier was gone, replaced by a quiet stillness. There was one customer sitting at a table by the window, moments away from finishing their coffee. There wasn’t anyone stationed at the counter… only a soft, distant clinking gave any indication that there was someone in the kitchen.
She stepped up to the counter, looking into the glass display case. It seemed colder and emptier now. The selection of food was much smaller than it had been a few hours ago: a few cookies, a couple of crumble-topped squares, and a lone slice of cake were all that occupied the vast glass case.
It didn’t take long for a middle-aged man to come shuffling out of the kitchen doors. She smiled. “Hi, I’m Audrey. I’m the new tenant! You’ll probably be seeing me around.”
He took her in in spurts, his eyes shifting away from her face every few seconds. “Oh… Uh… I’m Jeff.” A pause. “…Can I… Get you anything, or…?”
“Yeah, sure!” She glanced briefly at the display, then turned back to him. “I’ll just take a chai latte.”
He turned around and began making the drink. As the machine began to whir, the last customer exited, leaving the two of them alone.
“It’ll be five-oh-eight.”
She took out her wallet and paid in cash. The register closed and they both stood there, waiting for the machine to finish.
Jeff shifted awkwardly. “…So, uh, what do you do?”
“Social media management and digital marketing,” she replied. Not entirely untrue. And she rarely got many follow-up questions with an answer like that.
“You do that from home?” He turned to finish making her drink.
“Yeah, it’s pretty convenient. I can take my work with me just about anywhere.”
“Will you, uh…be using the café’s internet for that, or…?”
“Oh no, definitely not! I’ll be setting up my own connection.”
“Oh.” He put her drink on the counter in front of her. They stood there in a tense silence for a few seconds.
“…Well, I guess I’ll see you around… later…” he said.
“Yeah, definitely!” She grabbed her drink and smiled. “I’ll let you get back to work.”
He nodded and hesitantly stepped back into the kitchen. “Good night!” she called, and was met with no response. She opened her wallet again, this time to drop a few coins into the tip jar. They clinked together and met the bottom of the ceramic jar, the sound feeling obtrusive and inappropriately loud in the silence.
Passing into the sitting room, she noted the “CLOSED” sign on the shop door. William must have left. She stepped into the hall, unlocked the door to the stairway, and went back up to her room. The second floor hallway felt even dimmer than it had before- the lights had been left on, but somehow the glow of the sconces couldn’t seem to reach the corners of the hall. The air felt heavier than it had before. It’s too bad they can’t put any windows in here, Audrey mused as she entered her room and locked the door behind her.
Her new home had the same stillness as the café below. The windows at the far side of the room, stained with the hues of sunset before she left, were now dark, reflecting the scene inside.
New apartments always feel uncomfortable at first.
Should I unpack? She thought. I suppose I won’t have any neighbours to keep awake…
First came some clothes… then her backdrop curtain… her bathroom kit, placed tentatively on the desk instead of the counter in the hollow, windowless bathroom…
By the time she had set up her laptop, she had reached the end of her latte and her motivation. Normally, she would stay up later than this. But the busy day she had endured had caught up to her. Her sheets would be the last thing she unpacked that night. She took her time making the bed with them… strange rooms were uncomfortable to begin with. Audrey was not looking forward to the uneasy attempt at sleep that awaited her.
She undressed, picked up her phone, and lied back on the bed. Carefully aiming the camera, she took several photos of herself from the waist up, draping her free arm and hand across her breasts.
She wished that that could be the end of it. But there would be another hour or two of responding to messages before she’s be able to sleep.
Later, she slipped into her pajamas and walked over to the bathroom. Her hand hovered over the light switch… and left it. The bathroom light could stay on, tonight.
She left the bathroom door cracked, turned off the main lights, and quickly jumped into bed. Fingers tight, she drew the covers over herself, but her body refused to lie all the down. Reflexively glancing around the room, she recalled those weeks spent living with Erin after she lost her job. She suddenly missed the security of having a roommate.
It will get better, she thought. The first night is always a little shitty.
The next morning, Audrey awoke tired and relieved. Daylight was filtering gently through her windows, partially obstructed by the branches of a leaf-covered maple tree. The leaves rustled slowly and softly, kissing the thick panes of glass.
She rose and dressed, sluggishly placing her hygiene tools in their new homes as she used them. Oddly, her room still smelled of the chai latte she had drunk the night before. It was quiet… Despite being such an old building, sound evidently didn’t travel well.
By the time she had finished, she was hungry. She checked the time- the café will definitely be open by now.
She stepped into the windowless hallway. Locking her door behind her, she wondered what was on the café’s breakfast menu. Would-
Heavy footsteps behind her. A man was bounding towards her.
She turned down the stairs, sprint-jumping down the steps as fast as her legs could take her. Heart pounding and breath stuck in her chest, she stumbled over the half landing and down the next flight of stairs. Falling against the wall, she grabbed the door handle with shaking hands and pushed her body against the door. Turning to face the stairwell, she stared wide-eyed at the stairs with sickening anticipation.
Silence. Not a single movement before her. She was paralyzed where she stood, waiting for something to shock her body back into flight…
But there was nothing on the stairs, or in the upper hallway.
Seconds passed. Then minutes. Audrey didn’t know how long it took for the rhythm in her chest to soften or for her lungs to start breathing again. She couldn’t say how much time had elapsed before her mind started questioning what she had just heard and felt.
Were those really feet?
Was that a man?
It would have been impossible for them to be there without Audrey seeing them. There was nowhere for anyone to hide in that hallway.
Somehow, she found herself on the other side of the door. The sounds of light-hearted chatter, clinking dishes, and shifting chairs floated through the walls. A young woman in an apron stepped through the kitchen door behind Audrey and walked purposefully into the employee bathroom. She didn’t seem to notice Audrey.
When Audrey stepped into the sitting room, she saw William at the counter of the shop through the open doorway. Her feet moved through the arch before she had thought to do so, herself.
“Good Morning,” he said, looking up at her.
“Morning.” She leaned her hand on a nearby table. Think quickly. “I didn’t realize the renovation workers would be here so early.”
His eyes were sharp and quizzical. “They shouldn’t be.”
“Oh, that’s… weird. I just heard… There were some noises that woke me up, so I just assumed…”
His cool demeanour… softened? “I see. Maybe I should go upstairs and… check on them.”
The keys were already in his hand before she could decide whether to protest or not. She followed him into the halls and up the stairs. She hesitated at the landing, but forced her legs to continue their ascent.
When the hallway was found just as empty as it had appeared before, she watched him unlock and check every room apart from her own. She attempted to mask her nervous glances through the opened doors and fluttering steps as aimless wandering.
“I’m sorry, I thought-”
He turned, and his look made her forget any words that could have left her mouth. “…Of course. Old houses make a lot of noise, it could have been any number of things.”
“I’m sorry to make you…” she trailed off, the right words not arriving.
“It’s no trouble.”
He followed her down the stairs and back into the sitting room. “The workers are usually just here in the afternoons. You shouldn’t have to worry about them in the mornings.”
“Good… I like to sleep in. I’m usually up pretty late.”
The corner of his mouth rose again in that dark half-smile. “Is that for work, or leisure?”
She thought a minute. “Both. I find that the evening is the best time for me to work… or read. Or write.”
“You’re a writer?”
“I want to be. I will be.” She paused. “I just find I have more energy at night… I like the dark. It’s…” she smiled. “…Evocative.”
One heartbeat. Two. Three. Four.
She gestured to the café. “I should grab something to eat.”
“I won’t keep you.”
“What can I get for you?”
“Could I get the veggie omelette and a caramel latte?”
“Yep, anything else?”
For a moment, Audrey eyed the blackberry pastries in the display case. It was overflowing with food again, the abundance of sweets already being chipped away at by the many customers sitting in the café this morning. “…No, that’s it.”
She paid the woman at the counter, starting the regret her decision. Shit, those things look good.
The woman handed Audrey the receipt. “I’ll bring it to you when it’s done, you can sit wherever you like.”
The café was alive again. Sunlight seemed to touch every corner of the space, and the smells of coffee and baking permeated the air. Audrey sat at an empty table by one of the windows, already feeling a sense of security returning as she looked around at the crowd of people surrounding her. The same baby’s breath as yesterday still decorated the tables, and the linens were just as crisp and white as she remembered them. She pulled out her phone as she waited, checking her JustAdmirers inbox. A few messages… nothing exceptional.
She was still sending out responses when the waitress arrived with her breakfast.
“There we go. Did you need anything else?”
“Yeah, actually… I was wondering, is there anything in the area you would recommend checking out? Like, anywhere you’d recommend going?”
The waitress put a hand on her hip. “How long are you in town for?”
“I actually just moved in upstairs, so…” Audrey shrugged.
“Oh, no shit!” she smiled. “That was you, huh?”
“Yeah, it was! I just got in yesterday.”
“You should have said something! I’m Elena, I do a lot of mornings here. They don’t give you a kitchen up there, do they?”
“No, not a real one… They have a little counter, and I can bring in a small fridge and a hot plate or something, but there’s no kitchen.”
“Ugh, that sucks. Well, next time, if you want to eat in the garden, just let us know and we can just bring your stuff out there for you. It’s beautiful back there… really quiet. We try to take our breaks out there.”
“Yeah, I’ll have to do that later.” Audrey brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “You don’t ever work the evening shift, do you?”
“No, that’s usually just Jeff, the night manager. We almost never work that late.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Elena diverted her gaze. “We just don’t,” she replied flatly. “It’s pretty dead here at night, anyways. Did you say you met Jeff? Or no? It’s a pretty small staff here, I’m trying to think of who was here yesterday- OH, right, I think it would have been Noelle-” sarcastically, “-she’s a delight, and apart from her, I think…”
Audrey tried to follow the short, but sudden barrage of names haphazardly thrown into Elena’s rambling. She saw a pair of customers at a table across the room from hers eyeing Elena, trying to get her attention.
“…William’s not in the café, though, he just works in the shop. He’s the only one who does, actually… But he’s been here longer than any of us have, so I guess it works out fine. Just having one person in there, I mean.” she paused, seeing Audrey’s gaze skip between her and a table behind her. “Ah,” she seemed to relax again. “Duty calls, I guess-” she glanced over her shoulder, “-Sorry for blathering on… I don’t, usually.”
“I’ll come back around later. Let me know if you need something!” She smiled casually and walked away.
The café was busy, and by the time Elena had made her way back to her table, Audrey had finished her breakfast and was well into responding to her private messages. Elena dropped a small paper bag onto the table in front of her.
“For later,” she said with a wink and a playful smile before leaving again.
Audrey looked into the bag… A blackberry pastry and a napkin with a smiling face and the word “Welcome!” written on it in black marker.