UNTITLED GHOST STORY, FIRST DRAFT
That afternoon, Audrey spent her time setting up her internet connection. By the time she was finished, she was restless and eager to explore.
From the view of the café doors, Hawthorne street was an expanse. The street was full of brick and stone, lined with mismatched row buildings that stretched across Audrey’s field of vision. The café itself was flanked by two other houses-turned-businesses, one a pastel-sided boutique and the other a russet-bricked office. A short stroll down either end of the street would reveal a healthy collection of narrow sidestreets: short stretches and gentle arches homed small eateries and quaint shops. A generous smattering of fabric awnings and well-tended sidewalk planters added to the charm of each distinctive avenue, and most places that served food or drinks had a fenced patio either in front of or behind the building so that diners could enjoy the attractive scenery. Small trees offered periodic pieces of shade in the late Summer sun, and the occasional bench allowed passers-by a place to sit in peace.
The only thing that seemed to interrupt the picturesque loveliness was the town’s collection of churches. If one were to travel far enough, it would appear that there was one on every street. Each one seemed to be woven snugly into the fabric of the fabric of each street, yet towered above every other building in its vicinity. Steeples reached unapologetically towards the sky, standing like guard posts for feathered watchmen. In areas of fresh paint and recently-renovated buildings, the church seemed to be the only structure not granted new life. Conversely, in spots rich in preserved heritage buildings, the church stood out almost conspicuously with clean, modern lines and perfectly polished windows and doors. With such a variety of churches, Audrey had to wonder at the town’s religious background. What denominations really live here? Are all of these churches still active, or are some just leftover places for tourists to explore…? Rarely used, but still too sacred for anyone to want to tear down?
By the time she had returned, the sun was only beginning to set. String lights, lamps, and post lanterns were starting to flick on, illuminating the streets with a gentle glow. The café was still busy, but would surely empty itself soon enough.
She strode through the café and into the sitting room, seeing the shop door still open- is William still here? That must be a long shift. She walked through the door to find him already preparing to close. Her mood was heightened by her tour of the neighbourhood, and she spoke before he had the chance to greet her.
“How many churches would you say there are in this town?”
He grimaced- “Too many,” -before amending his tone. “I’m sorry. Were you looking for a particular one?”
“Local branch of the Satanic Temple?” Her jest was met with a bemused smirk. She was emboldened. “You laugh, but my best friend’s a Satanist. She’s actually pretty involved.”
“Are there really sacrifices and blood rituals, or is that just marketing to entice new members?”
“Pure propaganda. In fact, either of those would be a hard pass, since… probably more than half of them are vegan.” She examined a piece of pottery, a glazed and deeply-hued mug. “Consuming flesh and blood is really more of a Christina thing, anyways.”
“Is that so?”
“I can confirm, yes.”
“Is that why you’re asking about churches? Craving the flesh of men?”
“Always,” she replied dryly. “…There just seem to be a lot of churches here.”
“There are,” he said, “but that’s to be expected in a small town.”
“Yeah, but… this many?”
“Yes.” He reached across the counter for a pen. “It’s quite normal for a town this size. I don’t expect you’d be accustomed to it, coming from a large city.”
It was true. There were plenty of options for every different flavour of worship in the city, but they weren’t nearly as concentrated as they were here… Or as homogeneous.
“I guess it just adds to the charm.”
“Mm. Charm.” His reply was sardonic, and he neglected to make eye contact as he began writing in the notebook in front of him.
Audrey turned to leave. She reached the door and paused a moment. Turning back to look at William, she asked, “Did I tell you that I came from a big city?”
He looked up at her, the corner of his lips pulled into another subdued smirk. “You didn’t have to.”
Audrey was hesitant to go up those stairs again. The first time she tried, she made it half way to the landing before stopping, waiting (for what, she wasn’t sure), and ultimately deciding that she was craving another latte. She turned and descended down the handful of stairs, returning minutes later with a drink. Peering up the staircase and into the hall, it occurred to her that it may be nice to enjoy her drink in the café this evening… No. She couldn’t. She would look ridiculous taking her drink with her, only to turn around and come back. That was too awkward.
So she stood once again at the foot of the staircase, holding her drink in one hand while she awkwardly fiddled with her keys, attempting to arrange them like spikes through the clenched fist of the other. She suddenly regretted the latte- she was no longer able to hold the handrail and her keys at the same time. Would the handrail protect her in any way? No. But it may have helped her pull herself up the stairs more easily, forcing her legs to move onwards despite the memory of that morning hanging over her.
Eventually, she managed to climb the staircase and reach the hallway. She looked to her left, her right, and her left again before stepping off of the staircase. Look both ways before crossing the street, she thought reflexively as she turned towards her door. She preemptively removed the lid of her drink, just in case of any surprises. She unlocked her door, pushed it open, and waited a moment before stepping through.
The room was exactly as she had left it. She flicked the lights on, illuminating the clusters of half-unpacked suitcases and boxes that dotted her room. Her bed was left unmade, and both the bathroom and closet doors remained wide open. She still checked both before she closed her door, turned the lock, and took off her shoes.
The evening was young- the whole night stretched before her, offering hours of time to work. If JustAdmirers was going to be her primary source of income for the foreseeable future, she needed to put the time in. She put on some music, but kept the volume low. The proceeding seven hours were spent unpacking, setting up, shooting content, a little bit of editing here and there, and engaging with subscribers. By the time Audrey went to bed, it was well into the small hours of the morning. She had slept so poorly the previous night, and her eyes were struggling to remain open. After the lights were out and the covers were over her, it didn’t take long for her to start drifting, gently floating out of consciousness. The void around her was still, the world was inconsequential, a slow nothing overtook her… Nothing… Nothing…
Her eyes bolted open and she was jolted back into the world by the obtrusive noise. She stopped breathing, her body frozen as her eyes darted around the room. She listened… Did she dream it?
Heavy… trepidatious… silence…
She heard now where the sound came from. The conspicuous creak of the floor had come from the hallway…
She longed to get up, turn on a right, reach for something, but her body no longer listened to her will. She lay paralyzed, listening for another sound, a noise to confirm something, anything…
Get your phone.
Get your phone.
It couldn’t have been more than a few feet from her door.
Get your phone.
GET YOUR FUCKING PHONE.
On the count of three, pick up your phone.
FUCKING PICK IT UP.
PICK IT UP.
Somehow the spell was broken, just enough for Audrey to regain her ability to move. She reached over to the nightstand and grabbed her cell phone. Should she text someone? Should she post on social media? What if someone was outside? Would she look stupid if it turned out to be nothing? What if it was something? How would anyone know what had happened to her? How could she stop the door from opening? It was locked, but what if that wasn’t enough? Could she do anything?-
…Was that another creak?
Time passed immeasurably. Seconds, minutes, hours… it was impossible to gauge. Somehow, Audrey managed to pull the covers off of her body. As slowly and quietly as she could, she got out of bed. She delicately made her way over to the chair situated by the desk, her heart pounding in her chest as her body moved cautiously and leadenly across the old hardwood floor. It took agonizing minutes for her to reach the chair, even more for her to pick it up and take it to the door. Once there, she jammed it at an angle under the doorknob. After accomplishing this as silently as she could manage, she crept back to her bed, motivated by a deep, childlike urge to shield herself with the blankets.
Huddled on her bed, she unlocked her phone and dialled 9-1.
Audrey awoke the next morning with sore eyes and a faint headache. She had no idea when she had fallen asleep, or how long she was up staring at the door last night. The room was filled with sun again, no corner neglected by the light flooding through the windows. She unlocked her phone… 9-1 was still pre-dialled, ready for the last two buttons to be pressed. She took a languid, bleary-eyed look around the room- nothing seemed amiss- and cleared the number.
In time, she rose slowly and grudgingly. It was too bright and too late to go back to sleep. No matter how much she wanted to, her body would not comply.
When she left the room, sh did so carefully. She double-checked the lock behind her, and positioned her keys in her fist. She had hidden a pair of scissors up her sleeve and carried her phone in a strategic, easily accessible place. Despite what had happened last night and the previous morning, her preparation had been in vain: There were no suspicious shadows, or open doors, or heavy footsteps to chase after her.
She made her way down the staircase, too anxious to be grateful for the anticlimax. She cast one more look up the staircase before moving into the hall behind the café, fingers grasping at the door a little more hastily than she intended. Passing through the sitting room, she saw the shop door shut with an unassuming sign hanging on the inside, declaring it “CLOSED”.
Closed on a Saturday, she thought. That’s unusual.
The idea was quickly dismissed as she entered the café, stepping around tables and diners and ending up in front of the counter, face to face with the young woman who had greeted her when she arrived the other day.
“Hi, what can I get for you?” She didn’t make eye contact.
“Can I just have a large coffee, please?”
“Is that everything?”
“Sorry, it’s Noelle, isn’t it?” She finally met Audrey’s eyes. “I don’t think I took the time to say hello. I’m Audrey, I’m staying upstairs. I think I saw you yesterday?”
“I remember,” Noelle responded. “How are you settling in?”
“Good so far!”
“That’s good. That’ll be three forty.”
Noelle turned to get her drink as she tapped her card on the machine. “Actually,” she said as Noelle returned with a large paper cup, “Can I get two of those cookies as well?”
“Of course,” she responded with a tense politeness. The cookies were placed unceremoniously into a paper bag and put in front of Audrey. “Have a nice day,” she said once Audrey had paid a second time and gathered her breakfast.
“She’s delightful,” Audrey recalled Elena telling her. Evidently.
The rest of the day passed lazily by. The clear, sunny afternoon seemed to turn into a muted, overcast evening while no one was watching, and the pleasant hum of the town quieted. Audrey tried to write, but found herself unable to focus. No matter how hard she tried to concentrate on the potential, her mind was too readily distracted by the immediate and tangible, or by the intrusive memory of last night.
Darkness found her pushing her desk in front of her door and hiding a pair of scissors under her pillow. She had created enough content to get her through a few days, but she found herself staying up well into the night anyways, too anxious to go to sleep. When she finally did, she made sure that her phone was charged and her door was firmly locked… again. She had been listening all night for any sounds from the stairs or the hall. The house was old, and no one, not even a small child, would be able to move through it without the floorboards commenting. But despite her attentiveness, she had heard nothing.
Her body and her mind went to war as she crawled into bed. She had not slept well since she arrived, and her eyes begged to close. But every time they did, she feared what she might miss- any clue, not matter how subtle, that may explain the sounds outside her door or the frantic scare she had experienced the other morning.
Jeff was the only one here at night… Could it possibly be him? The café closed long before Audrey went to bed… but he could have stayed later. She never heard anyone coming up the stairs. Was there another way to get into the hall? He was a big man. She would have heard him. He was quiet… he was unsure… he didn’t want to look her in the eye…
He was a big man…
He didn’t want to look her in the eye…
The quiet persisted as sleep began to wash over her.
Her eyes shot open.
She lay still and silent.
Every muscle she had was impossibly tense. She could feel her heartbeat- it felt as though it was shaking her whole body. She cursed her breathing for being so loud… for making any noise at all. Her eyes flicked between the door handle and the space at the bottom of the door.
She awoke the next morning feeling even worse than she had the day before.
She couldn’t even take comfort from the morning sun… there wasn’t a sun to greet her. Instead, her windows were splattered with rivulets and wayward droplets of water, and the soft sounds of a gentle, leisurely rain emanated from the shadowy grey sky. She grasped the blanket, pulling it tightly and curling into herself.
She covered her face with her hands, and her low, whining groans went unanswered. She rose only after a long, grudging contemplation of the day. Stay in her room, don’t get dressed, forgo eating… alone. Or put herself together and exist outside, in the company of other people.
Audrey removed herself from the bed and moved towards her chest of drawers… only to hit her knee on the footboard of the bed. She grit her teeth and growled on her way there, moving on to the bathroom after she had slipped into something clean. Her hairbrush balanced on the edge of the counter, and it fell as she reached for it. She attempted to pick it up off the floor, missed, tried again, and dropped it as her fingers failed to hold it. She growled again, grabbing it violently from the tile and raising her arm, prepared to throw it.
She let the hairbrush fall to the floor and strode out of the bathroom.
Audrey did not take a meal in the café that morning. She instead took her latte and affixed herself in the sitting room, leaning as deeply into one of the chairs as she could. She was situated right by the bay window, where the rain whispered to her through the glass. Fuck it, she thought. If I’m not supposed to be here, someone will tell me. She glanced over at the shop door- closed on Sundays. Figures. She had just enough privacy and quiet to be able to focus on something easy. She puled out the latest book she had picked up and flipped it open to bare the page she had left off on. She had been reading for perhaps an hour before a voice broke her abstraction.
“Is that N.A. Martín?”
She looked up. Elena stood before her, looking bright and expectant.
Audrey smiled. “Yeah, you know her?”
“Yeah, I do! I mean, I’m not really into sci-fi, or, like… sci-fi adjacent stuff, but I’ve read some of her books!”
“Cool! Which ones?”
Quite a few, as it turned out… which was a pleasant surprise, since the author was on the more obscure side.
“I’m kind of surprised,” Audrey admitted. “For someone who’s not into sci-fi, you’ve basically read all of her work.”
Elena shrugged and fell into the chair opposite Audrey’s. “This is a small town. It’s… pretty white. There are a few book stores in town, but it’s pretty rare to find books by Latinx writers in any of them. If I want to read stories about people who look like me, I have to seek them out. Plus her love stories are so good!”
“I know, right?” Audrey marked her spot and shut the book on her lap. “A lot of people complain about the love triangles, that ‘they’re all she writes’ or whatever, but she writes them so well!”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with those people.”
“They don’t appreciate masterful writing, obviously.”
They spoke emphatically about the books and the characters, sharing laughter and opinions and debating which books had better world building.
“I don’t understand how you could think a standalone novel has more to it than a trilogy.”
“It does! Look-” Audrey pushed her hair behind her ear, “-All the information you get about the world in the trilogy is through the characters. It’s not even consistent, sometimes. The perspectives are all different.”
“Of course they are! That’s what makes it so great, you get different perspectives on the same thing!”
“Nooo, I don’t like it! I just want everything to be presented to me objectively so I can draw my own conclusions.”
“Elena!” Noelle appeared in the archway across from the window, her face betraying her annoyance. “You were supposed to relieve me ten minutes ago!”
Elena made a face at Audrey. “Sorry.” She got up from her chair. “I’m going!”
Noelle left, huffing. Elena mouthed the word delightful to Audrey on her way out, turning one more time to wave goodbye. Audrey smiled, fingering the edge of her bookmark as the rain tapping behind her was punctuated by the odd laugh from the room next door.
Audrey returned to the café later, only to find all of the lights off and Elena locking the door to the kitchen behind her.
“Hey!” She called. “Closed already?”
“Yeah, we close at six on weekends.”
“Oh.” That meant… “I guess that means no night manager, then.”
“No, Jeff only works during the week.”
That meant he couldn’t have been in the hallway… right?
Audrey wished this made her feel better. But it didn’t. I can’t keep doing this, she thought. I’m not sleeping. I won’t be able to write like this. I’ll be stuck here unless I move again… and find another shitty, minimum-wage job to hold me back. I can’t go back to that. I can’t waste my life being miserable.
She stayed awake well into the night, furiously reading every review and Top Ten list she could find of spy cameras. After hours of research, she came to the unfortunate conclusion that a decent one would cost her more than she wanted to spend.
Great, another cost I didn’t plan for. Between this and the parking ticket, her bank account wasn’t as well-padded as she hoped it would be. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.
Audrey grit her teeth and blinked away the threat of tears as she clicked on the link to an online tech store. She spent a few minutes comparing cameras before hesitantly adding one to her cart. She exhaled and clicked the checkout button.
Error: No Internet Connection.
What the fuck? She went to her PC’s Network & Internet Centre.
…And it was back on. She re-loaded the page. Checkout.
Error: No Internet Connection.
Connected to Internet.
Error: No Internet Connection.
“FOR FUCK’S SAKE.”
Audrey ran an antivirus scan, reset her modem, and restarted her computer. Every single time, her attempts appeared to be successful… until she reached the checkout page.
Error: No Internet Connection.
She exclaimed, whipping the wireless mouse across the room. As it ricocheted off the wall, she squeezed her eyes shut against the stream of tears that began to streak her hot cheeks.
She awoke the next day later than she expected she would. She couldn’t say with any honesty that she felt rested, but last night was a definitive improvement. There had been no mysterious, unsettling noises outside her door. She had fallen asleep emotionally drained… angry and frustrated, but less afraid than she had been.
The idea of telling someone about her experiences was uncomfortable. The thought of someone making a big deal out of the noises was almost as embarrassing as the thought of someone thinking she was being foolish or dramatic. Still, she felt no urge to counter when Elena remarked, “You look tired.”
Audrey bit her lip and took another sip of her coffee. “I…I’m just kind of anxious about staying here.”
“I mean, yeah. But it’s not just that. It’s being alone, it’s staying in a room-” Noelle drifted over to the table, “-instead of an actual apartment building, which is just… way more anonymous. It’s only having one or two deadbolts between me and anyone else. It’s not what I’m used to.” She sighed. “I don’t know, I might pick something else up. For the door.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Elena said. “Crime isn’t a big thing here…. Nothing happens here.”
“Literally nothing.” Noelle added flatly. “Good or bad. There’s not even anything to do. Eat, drink, shop, walk, go to church… Any church… that’s it.”
“I know, there are so many churches here… I saw a bunch of them walking around the other day.”
Elena shrugged. “I guess there are a lot.”
“William was saying that that’s pretty normal for a small town, but I don’t know… Is it?”
“Wait.” Noelle almost cut her off. “You were talking to William?”
“Huh.” Elena’s commentary was more subdued than Noelle’s, but the context was the same: That’s strange.
“Why is that weird?”
“It’s not weird,exactly,” Elena leaned on the back of the chair in front of her. “It’s just… kinda surprising, I guess?”
“Why? I know who he is, I talked to him when I moved in.”
“I know. But…” She mulled over the words. “He’s… how to put it… he doesn’t come across as cold, exactly, but… It’s like, you can’t always tell whether he’s joking or not? And you never really know if he’s annoyed or just… being normal?”
Audrey took another sip. “I guess he does have an unusual sense of humour.”
“Yeah, he’s just really hard to read.”
Noelle raised her eyebrows. “That’s one way of putting it…”
Audrey glanced at her. “How would you put it?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Honestly? He’s creepy.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’re not his type, either.”
A pause. Elena looked surprised. Noelle looked indignant. Audrey sat perfectly still, looking unflinchingly at Noelle. Elena opened her mouth, but her earnest attempt at keeping the peace died on her lips.
“Look, maybe I’m just trying to warn you in case he turns out to be an asshole.”
“I know how to pick out an asshole. I dated plenty of them in university.” She smiled sharply. “I’m sure it’s a skill you’ll learn, too, when you get there.”
Noelle stood there only a short moment longer. Jaw clenched, she turned on her heel and strode away. The silence stretched, creating a tentative bubble before it was broken by Elena.
“I’m just warning you in case he’s an asshole,” fuck you. Why does that even matter? What the hell was her problem? What a judgmental bitch.
…Did she have a reason to think that?
No, fuck it. The reason was, she’s an asshole.
Audrey didn’t even try to convince herself that her trip into the shop wasn’t made in part to spite Noelle.
When she walked into the empty store, William looked at her expectantly. She just smiled.
“Is everything alright with the room?”
Did he have to ask that? “Yeah, it’s fine.” She hated lying. “Just saying hi.”
…Well, shit. Now what do I say? “It seems slow in here.”
“An astute observation.”
“I meant, it always seems slow. Does anyone ever come in here?”
“Occasionally. But not often.” He cut open a cardboard box, revealing a well-packed assortment of greeting cards. “The customers are more often tourists than locals. That’s why I took the position. I enjoy the solitude and I don’t particularly like the people here.”
“Oh… I’m sorry.” She shifted. “Am I bothering you?”
“It’s the locals I don’t like.” He looked up at her. “You’re fine.”
She feigned gravity. “I’m honoured. Why don’t you like the people here?”
She waited for him to elaborate… but nothing came. Instead, she was left wondering how to fill what felt like an awkward silence as he began placing cards on a display beside the counter. Should I ask him to explain…? Should I just leave…? He gave her the mercy of ending her conflict.
“Tell me. Are you more of a dog person, or a cat person?”
She looked back at him quizzically and found him handling two small stacks of cards, each sporting an image of one of the aforementioned animals. “…Um… A cat person, I guess?”
“They say you can tell a lot about a person based on which they prefer. Apparently there have been scientific studies. I can’t speak to the accuracy of these claims… But you’re correct.” The cards dropped audibly into the metal holder. “Cats are the superior pet.”
It took Audrey considerable effort to stifle a smile, despite the fact that he had his back to her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone speak so seriously about such a trivial question. She shifted her weight again, the floorboards grumbling beneath her.
“Before you go…” he started coolly.
Before I go? That’s probably a hint, he wants me to leave.
“…Would you hand me that sticker gun?”
She looked where his finger was pointed, on the opposite end of the counter. It took her only a few steps to reach. She took a couple more steps towards him, handing the gun to him from the other side of the countertop. He took it from her, and as the tips of his finger brushed her skin she once again felt that subtle, discordant quake climbing up her skin.
As she turned to leave, he said, “I’m glad the room is treating you well.”
Slowly, she stopped in her tracks. Breath in. Breath out.
Fuck it, she decided.
What do I have to lose?
She turned on her heel to face him and shrugged one of her shoulders. “It is,” she said. “For the most part.” She tilted her head coquettishly. “It is a little lonely, though.”
He hadn’t been looking at her, but in an instant she could see his face lose all expression. She stood there as he blinked in silence. However, his reaction only lasted a few short seconds before he spoke.
“Perhaps you should get a cat.”
She raised her eyebrows and started out of the room again. “Perhaps I will.”