Ghost Story - Jason Stokes (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1

Blood on the sheets again. Justin rolled, pillow clutched to his chest. The one beside him identical aside from the spray pattern of deep red, light pink around the edges, spreading to the fibers. High thread counts excelled at soaking up puddles that formed in the creases.

The sheets fared worse. A red to rust-brown Rorschach pattern pooled in the indentation where a body should be. A body that was missing but not far. Weak morning light that crept around the edges of drawn curtains confirmed his opinion; it was still too early for this shit.

But life and death were impatient. Precious moments of blissful haze were already fading fast into the screaming horror of reality. Maybe it was just his head that was screaming. A migraine-like an ice pick to the skull forced him to squeeze shut his eyelids, retinas burning and unready for the morning light, no doubt bloodshot. Gradually they opened, adjusting as needed. Sore, he turned his head from the window, not yet able to move the rest of his body.

The air was cool on his skin, raising goosebumps up and down cold exposed flesh. At some point in the night he had kicked off the covers, a pile gathered at the end of the bed. The exposure allowed a stiffness like rigor mortis to settle deep in the muscle tissue. He hadn’t noticed, in a darkness too deep for even dreams to find. Or if they had, they had been unable to escape the depths because he had no memory of them. On the cusp of winter, it was too cool at night for the window unit in the other room and too warm in the day for the ancient baseboard coils that turned the small apartment into an oven. Lacking either, the chill of coastal winds heavy with moisture had crept through the cracked window overnight. Winds whose cold bit the skin, sending emissaries to seek out nerve endings buried deep within for the kiss of oncoming winter. But it was still September and their threats were short-lived, evaporating by mid-afternoon, leaving only the mornings to suffer through promises for now empty.

Only slightly warmer than a cadaver and half as stiff, he swung his legs over, touched the cool bare floor and started the awkward seizure dance of muscles left too long unused. Bones popped and tendons snapped into place. He was awake for better or worse, but his mind, still hazy, refused to give up its hold on the memories lingering just below the surface. Like fog on a dark sea, bits and pieces of the wreckage came into view as clouds lifted, but the full picture never materialized. Whatever it was would have to wait. The urge to piss took precedence over all other functions.

He danced back and forth on the black and white tiles of the bathroom floor, older possibly than the heaters. Once the stream began, relief came and he relaxed, braced on the wall, letting the bubbling sound of nature create a soothing background. The shower curtain was closed. He hadn't failed to notice that. Whether he closed it or not was uncertain, lost in the empty space where last night should reside. He was appreciative that certain barriers, even vinyl ones, made it possible to ignore inconveniences of his lifestyle. This ten-dollar one from a local home store allowed precious moments to pretend everything was normal, that today was just like any other. He was truly grateful for those moments, often too short-lived. Finishing up, he kicked his shorts to the side, flushed and grasped the curtain.

No time like the present.

She was there, where he expected her. She always was. Fish-white flesh huddled in the bottom, crisscrossed with a pattern of cuts and streaks of red matching the sheets in both color and type. Some of the cuts were deeper. Most were shallow, superficial. The way self-inflicted wounds tend to be, or defensive marks, he wasn’t sure which. Her eyes were hollow white marbles, focused on an indeterminable point near the ceiling, legs bent, stuffed into the awkward space. Her arms were a hash mark pattern of scratches and lacerations and fell to her sides, hands tucked beneath the flesh of her buttocks.

He leaned over the body, turning on the water hot tap first until it started to steam. Ignoring the woman, he found himself watching pink streams emerge from under the body, collide and rush towards the drain. Eventually, humidity filled the air, obscuring the scene. It brought new life as the embrace of heat woke the senses, revitalized him from within, helped him think clearly. Careful not to touch the long limbs taking up nearly all the space, Justin stepped in, took a spot under the water and closed his eyes. He soaked up the life-giving warmth, feeling hot rivers trace down his back, igniting nerves numb to the world. As the temperature equalized, the fog in his brain began to dissipate. The pummeling of the shower head was like a deep tissue massage that freed the stress of a night spent in awkward positions, that encouraged blood flow within the confines of veins dehydrated and slow from alcohol.

The drinks he remembered. Beer at first and then the whiskey, untouched since moving in, had soon taken over. He had toasted himself with the first shot, then drunk the rest from the bottle. A celebration of absurdity in an empty house. By the time the crowds downtown were in full swing, he was carrying the bottle by the neck, pacing the apartment, music on the TV turned too loud to hear complaints from the neighbors. Eventually, the songs bled into poorly played renditions of Zeppelin and Nirvana on a battered Gibson plugged into a cheap amp. His mouth tasted like ash, which meant cheap cigars from the corner store. The evidence would be found in little piles on the kitchen counter, the coffee table, on the floor. He didn’t remember going out but that didn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Somehow no one had filed a complaint, called the cops to break it up, or had they? He couldn’t recall. Scrubbing his face with wet hands, he made a mental note to apologize to the neighbors he still spoke to on occasion as soon as it was convenient. It was a promise he wouldn’t keep. Much easier to ignore their pointed glares for a few weeks until everything went back to normal.

Perhaps he had been the only one home on a colder-than-average Thursday night in early September. Maybe no one even noticed. It would fit the theme. Despite the spontaneous grandeur, and grand it was, his was a party of one. The woman he had shared a bed with was not someone he had brought home in a drunken stupor. She was neither invited nor welcome, but she was there. As always.

He massaged in a healthy lather of tea tree shampoo, a gift that made his scalp tingle and brought his brain to life. The penetrating aroma cleared sinuses congested with smoke and bad decisions. It was one of the few self-care rituals he indulged. In an otherwise sparse existence, this one thing was a luxury by comparison. The little things were what made life worth living. The ones you could return to and focus on when the big picture became a little too difficult to look at. Taking in the scent, he allowed himself to be only in that moment, letting it ride for as long as the moment would last. Eyes closed, he didn’t notice the arm move or the spindly blue fingers slide from under the body. Rinsing suds from his black matted curls, he couldn’t see the first glint of metal flash across tile. When the water ran clean enough to open his eyes, the astringent sting of tea tree oil still burning their edges, the arm was raised, an unfamiliar blade arcing through the air.

He jerked, tried to jump back. He was not quick enough. A six-inch kitchen knife swung low, passed through one bare thigh, across his groin and came to a stop midway through the other. The menace was evident even in empty soulless eyes while he gaped at the smooth, undamaged flesh where only the hilt protruded. She had never done that before and he chastised himself for being caught off guard, for flinching. Showing fear only seemed to encourage them. Which was why, despite the shiver of adrenaline that snaked its way through his body, he rinsed off, casual, careful to pay no attention to a pounding heart. When the last of the suds tinged with barely noticeable pink washed down the drain, she was gone. But not far.

She was never far in a two-room apartment, its narrow kitchen tacked on like an afterthought, but he used the moment alone to gather himself. He breathed the heavily scented air, slung water in the now-empty shower and reached for the towel. When he opened the curtain, she was waiting.

It was routine. Not daily, thank God, but often enough he had grown almost comfortable with it. Almost. Occupying her space in the corner, blocking the only doorway, she watched while he toweled off, offering no inclination towards his nakedness or the fact that he was alive. Only an ambient, simmering hatred that seemed to emanate wherever she went. Or maybe he was projecting that because of her wounds.

She watched like a bird on a window, emotionless, influenced only by the nature of being.

Her almost solid-white eyes showed a hint of color, a pale blue circle that was unnoticeable under most conditions. They darted, flickered, unwilling to settle on one thing. Her mouth never moved, paralyzed perhaps, or her vocal chords severed by one of the deep wounds around her throat.

She dripped, tinted water running from hair that was a tangle of blond and stringy weeds. Narrow rivers snaked across her body, diverted where new openings had been made. They traveled down her chest, arms and legs, found fingers and elbows, where rivulets fell like silent raindrops, succumbing to whatever gravity existed in her world. They never arrived, the tile at her feet dry as bone.

She liked to watch and he could think of no way to stop her, so he shaved quickly, avoiding the mirror and her grotesque reflection over his shoulder. It meant he maintained a patchwork of stubble on his chin that did nothing to attract women who weren’t already dead.

He dressed and brushed his teeth in the bedroom, going out of his way to ignore the figure lingering in the doorway. He hoped with the lack of attention she would get bored and wander off. It rarely worked that way. She stayed close, tethered somehow to that space, rarely venturing to other rooms and never for long. Her presence, felt everywhere within the apartment, the reason he shunned company. Or one of them.

Justin Thomas was not a people person. It was exhausting, making plans and maintaining close bonds that only led to more plans, more people. Alone was easier, far from the trivialities of normal life. Expectations were low. He liked that. As a life plan, hiding from your problems in bed or a bottle was far from ideal, but it had worked for his early twenties and looked good for another year or two, at least.

Chronic anti-socialism aside, long hours and overtime left little room for a social life. It meant rarely having two days off in a row and being permanently exhausted. It was rare he even knew exactly what day it was. Which was one of the many reasons for the bottle of pills on the table, untouched since earlier in the week. Z-somethings. He stared at the white printed label, working up the desire to slip on his shoes, button the last clean shirt and go downstairs. Take one by mouth twice a day. They were supposed to treat bipolar depression, which he didn’t have. What he did have was more complicated and probably not easily managed with pills, not these anyway. But they managed to keep the unwanted visitors to a minimum. When he took them, he got some sleep. He got too much, wandering half-awake and aimless through life. The cure, he found, was worse than the disease.

His shoes waited, untied, one turned on its side at his feet. His head pounded. The hangover was not going quietly. The tension-easing effects of the shower were fading fast, energy levels close behind. Already exhausted and it wasn’t even nine a.m.

The cubicle farm in Chesapeake was a massive beast large enough to park a 747. Five hundred employees fielded calls for service and repair on a range of brand name electronics. The job matched his skill set, required little thought and provided security long term. He was a face in the crowd, another bee in the hive. And today, they would get along without him.

He opted for a t-shirt and jeans instead of the button-down, slid on some tennis shoes and pocketed his wallet and keys. Today already promised to be a real motherfucker.

But first, coffee.

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Justin has seen the dead since he was nine years old.

Now at twenty-six, he's discovering the rules between their world and his aren't the same as they've always been. Devastated by tragedy and haunted by his past, he sets off on a cross country mission with Whitney, his only friend, to find the one person who can tell him who and what he really is.

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