Friday, October 04, 2013

TABU - A short story in honor of Halloween

The odor of burnt coffee and moldering souls clung to Justin Garner as he walked the narrow grey alleyways to his cubicle. As he’d done every weekday for the past two years, he stowed his empty briefcase, turned on his laptop, and silently counted off the twenty-three footsteps to the coffee room. The carafe sputtered angrily when he pushed the top down, announcing to everyone nearby that he needed to make a new pot or spend the rest of the morning suffering the furtive glances of agitated coffee addicts.
Next door, in the only cube facing Justin’s, sat Allan Solarno, his bulky upper half tilting in toward his monitor, thick fingers ticking away on the keyboard. The two young men had only known each other for a month, but were already bonded tightly by their contempt for their employer, Moffett Medical Supply, and the nearly unbearable emptiness of their personal lives. Allan leaned back and clasped his hands around the back of his head. He was already sweating and it was only 8:40 in the morning.
“Justin,” said Allan without turning. “What is the thing that you fear most in life?”
“A Friday morning call from HR?”
“No, I mean like zombies or a killer clowns or Freddy Krueger?”
Justin covered the Reddit page he was reading with his internal email window and swiveled toward Allan. “Somehow, I think telling you my most terrifying fear would be a huge mistake.”
Allan turned and leaned in. “I’ve got a second job. I’m going to work at a haunted house through the end of October.”
“Wow,” said Justin, not sure whether to laugh hysterically or feign being impressed. He hit a Seinfeldian middle note. “A haunted house….”
Allan rummaged through papers on his desk and then handed Justin a letter. “The thing is, this isn’t just any haunted house. Read that.”
“Dear Mister Solarno. Not many people know of Dunbar Manor, as it is the best-kept Halloween secret in Chicagoland. Situated in a secluded corner of Evanston, we are the metro’s most exclusive haunted house featuring something that no other attraction can claim: actual ghosts.
You read that right. Dunbar Manor is really haunted. Those living souls brave enough to spend a half-hour in the candlelit parlor of the manor are treated to orbs, shadows, ghostly voices and the icy cold touch of the dead…and it is all 100% authentic.
Our ticket price is steep ($200) and our clientele is by invitation only, but we guarantee that if your visit isn’t one of the most memorable experiences of your life, we will return your ticket cost. In the ten years we have been in business, no one has asked for a refund.
Since you expressed an interest in working here…” Justin turned to Allan. “You did?” Allan shrugged. “…we would like to extend an offer of employment. Please email us at the address below if you are interested. The job starts September 12th. Thank you.” Justin handed back the letter. “That’s today.”
“I know. I start tonight at nine thirty. Dude, it’s $300 a night. For four hours of work. Can you believe that?”
“No. Do you even know what you’re job is?”
“Not exactly. They said I would be hosting people, whatever that means. Hey, for three hundred a night, I’ll throw in a blow job at no extra charge.”
“You’re a class act, Allan. It’s some kind of scam.”
Allan’s plump face crumpled. “No, man. It’s legit. I drove by the place and it really is a creepy old mansion. And they have a web site. It’s the real deal.”
“Actually haunted? You can’t believe that, can you?”
“Hey, I don’t know. And neither do you. How could they stay in business if it’s fake? They’d be giving back money left and right.”
“Maybe. I don’t know, but something’s seriously messed up about it.”
“You know what, Bro? As long as it isn’t illegal, I don’t give a shit. I’d ask you to come over and check it out for yourself, but it’s invitation only.” Allan turned back to his desk and pretended to work.
Justin shook his head and swiveled back to his laptop. Three hundred a night would be a nice chunk of change, he thought, but the whole thing has to be bogus. Really haunted? An excel spread sheet filled his monitor screen and he started cross checking inventory, leaving Allan to his delusions for the rest of the day.
With a broad, vacant smile, the waitress set beers in front of Justin and his brother-in-law Juan Ruiz. Fleetwood Mac and the crack of pool balls filled the void lingering between the two men hunched over drinks at O’Malley’s.
“What’s bothering you? You get dumped again?” asked Juan.
Justin gave Juan a sideways glance. “No. I didn’t get dumped again. Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Ghosts?” Juan considered the question for a moment. “Well, I was raised Catholic in Guatemala, but there were a lot of people in my village who believed in spirits that dwelled in places, like mountains and caves and sacred objects, and even sometimes people.  I don’t really believe in that shit anymore. Why?”
“This guy at my job is going to work in a haunted house for Halloween, but he thinks the place is actually haunted…I mean with real ghosts. I’m like, what the fuck, that’s impossible. And listen to this. It’s invitation only. Really? Invitation only? It’s all just too weird. He starts work tonight, so I guess I’ll find out about it tomorrow.”
 “Why wait? We could go drive by it tonight. See what’s going down.”
Justin smiled. “I like the way you think, compadre. Let’s finish these and go.”
It was 11:15 when the two cruised past the Welcome to Evanston sign. Justin had located the Dunbar Manor website on his IPhone and they were now following GPS instructions.
            “Turn right in 100 yards. Turn right now.”
            Several commands later Juan inched his car down an unusually narrow, dark street.
            “Where are the street lights?”
            Justin looked around nervously. “I don’t know, but there…there’s the house up on the left.”
            “The last one?”
            Juan pulled the car over to the curb and they both gaped at the massive, brooding Tudor revival framed by spindly, scoliotic black trees. There were no lights on in any rooms, but an expensive Lexis was parked in front of the house, its highly polished finish glimmering under the half moon above them. The men looked at each other.   
            “So what now?” asked Juan.
            “Damn, as long as we’re hear, I guess I should go see if Allan’s working.”
            “Well, why did we come here?”
            “Go on, Homie. Check it out.”
            “Are you fucking with me?”
            “No, man. Seriously. Go on.”
            With little enthusiasm, Justin opened the door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Standing up straight and facing the house, he inhaled the cool night air and a tinge of something sweet that he couldn’t quite identify.
            “Hey,” called Juan, leaning across the seats of his car. “Let’s go, man. Lisa’s going to kick my ass if I don’t get home pretty soon.”
            Having experienced Lisa’s wrath many times as her younger brother, Justin knew that was a true statement. He made his way around the front of the Escalade and strode toward the large overgrown trellis entryway. Scanning the shadowy yard, he took a breath and opened the gate, walking warily to the porch steps and up to the large, ornately carved front door. I’m a grown man, he thought to himself, and knocked firmly on the black wood.
            “Who’s there?” called a man’s voice from the other side.
            “Allan? Is that you? It’s Justin.”
            “Yeah, man. It’s me.”
            “Dude, you’re not supposed to be here. It’s by appointment only.”
            “Yeah, I know. We were just out driving around and—“
            “Go, please. You can’t be here now.”
            “Do you want to get me fired on my first night?”
            “You sound pretty stressed. You okay?”
            “Okay. I’m going.”     
            Justin backed away from the door and jogged back to the car.
            “So what’s up?” asked Juan.
            “Seriously, I don’t know. He’s in there, but he’s all like, ‘You can’t be here or I’ll get fired.’ It was strange. He actually sounded kind of scared. Come on. Let’s head back.”
Justin sat at his desk the following morning lost in columns of numbers until he stood up to get coffee and noticed that Allan hadn’t shown up yet. On his meandering journey to the break room he learned that his nametag was upside down, Obama was building concentration camps in Nevada and that Allan was unaccounted for. Must have been a helluva night at the mansion, the thought as he returned to his desk.
The email icon indicated he had a new message. The subject line was “Congratulations.” He assumed it was junk mail, but couldn’t help himself and opened it. Maybe he’d won the Irish lottery, again.
“Dear Mister Garner. Not many people know of Dunbar Manor, as it is the best-kept Halloween secret in Chicagoland. Situated in a secluded corner of Evanston, we are the metro’s most exclusive haunted house featuring something that no other attraction can claim: actual ghosts.
You read that right. Dunbar Manor is really haunted. Those living souls brave enough to spend a half-hour in the candlelit main room of the manor are treated to orbs, shadows, ghostly voices and the icy cold touch of the dead…and it is all 100% authentic.
Our ticket price is steep ($200) and our clientele is by invitation only, but we guarantee that if it isn’t one of the most memorable experiences of your life, we will return your ticket cost. In the ten years we have been in business, no one has asked for a refund.
Congratulations. You have been selected out of tens of thousands of area residents to experience the frightfully unique haunting of Dunbar Manor. Your appointment is for 10:30 tonight, September 13. Please arrive a few minutes early. See details below for payment options and waiver.
We look forward to having you as our guest.”
            Whoa, thought Justin leaning back in his chair, Allan must have pulled some strings. Excited and apprehensive, he had a difficult time focusing on work and spent most of the day poking around on the web for anything related to Dunbar Manor. He didn’t find much. The house was built in 1912 by Enoch Dunbar who made a fortune investing heavily in the company of his college roommate, George Eastman. Other than that, there was no mention anywhere, other than the Dunbar Manor website, of the house being a haunted attraction.
            Evanston was a fifteen-minute drive north from his apartment near Loyola Park. A light rain started falling as he cruised past malls and through upscale neighborhoods toward his Evanston destination. He reached Dunbar Manor five minutes early, and took the time to check the small pocket-sized recorder he had with him to make sure it was queued up. Real ghosts? We’ll see about that.
            The house looked as uninviting and cold as he remembered from the previous night. He turned on his recorder then tapped on the front door and waited. Gradually, the heavy door swung in and he stepped across the threshold into a dark entryway illuminated only by a single candle flickering in a wall sconce. The door closed behind him and Allan stood in the shadows wearing what looked like a monks habit. His face was completely dark.
            “Justin. Glad you could make it.”
            “Dude, I’m freaked out already. You look…insane.”
            “You’re probably going to think I’m acting weird, but I’m supposed to always stay in character when I’m working. Kind of like Disneyland. Come this way.”
            Allan was speaking very slowly and in a much deeper voice then Justin was used to, but he understood the whole thing about keeping in character. They walked past a wide central staircase to a room on the left of the main entryway. “So, Dude, do you still think the place is actually haunted?”
            Allan opened the door and then stepped back. “It’s haunted all right. I guarantee it.”
            “Better be $200 worth of scary,” said Justin, smiling and winking.
            “There’s a leather chair in the middle of the room,” said Allan. “Please sit there and we’ll begin.”
            “Okay. Hey, you’re doing great… really freaky.”
            “We can talk more when your session is over. Enjoy.”
            With that Allan closed the door behind Justin. The parlor was large and illuminated by two candles at each end of the rectangular room. There was barely enough light to find the chair, but not enough to clearly see the rest of the furniture surrounding him. Justin sat nervously, not knowing what to expect.
            Soon, a small white ball of light entered the room from his right and danced playfully in front of him, circling and diving like Tinker Bell on a bender. As it danced, a murmur of whispering voices grew gradually louder and more intense. From this cloud of noise he was able to pick up words that at first made no sense, but which he quickly realized were bits and pieces of his life.
            “He’s so precious…pee’d his pants…go away…little wussy…I’m proud of you, son…wow, a bike…I like you, too…you’re father died last night…I already have a date…you cheated on me?...thanks for being a friend…there’s always community college…It’s Alzheimer’s…wanna come up?...
            It went on and on and rolled by faster and faster until he pressed his hands on his ears to keep from reliving some very painful moment of his life. It stopped suddenly. The orb disappeared, and the silence was frightening. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something run in front of a candle. A shadow moved to his left. Footsteps came from one corner of the room and stopped at his chair. He wanted to speak, but was afraid to open his mouth. Small quick steps behind him and then a child’s laughter. He was turning anxiously in the chair, trying to pinpoint the sounds that were all around him now, as if he was at a party wearing a blindfold. Then a familiar aroma infused the air. It took him a moment, but he realized it was the perfume his mother always wore. It was called Tabu, and he knew that because he had given it to her as a Christmas present more than once. His face flushed and he started to tear up, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve. Everything that was happening was related to his life, his past. How could they fake all of this? His mother’s fragrance grew stronger and he imagined she was standing right next to him, but no one was there. Then he felt a hand brush the back of his head and he instinctively yelped and swung around.
            “Who’s there?” he whispered.
            “It’s me, Honey” came his mother’s distant voice.
            “Where are you?” he asked, twisting and turning in the chair. “I can’t see you.”
            “I’m sorry,” she whispered, and he could feel her presence dissipating.
            “Sorry for what? Don’t go. I…wait…” The sense of loss as she drifted away was profound, and he put his face in his hands and sobbed. A door opened at the opposite end of the room from where he’d entered. Allan stood quietly near the threshold as Justin wiped his eyes and slowly exited the room. He found himself in what must have been the library. Shaken and emotionally exhausted, Justin leaned against a table for support and was soon joined by Allan.
            “I…I didn’t expect anything like that,” said Justin, trying to slow down his breathing.
“I know. It can be overwhelming.”
            “My…my mother. She was standing right next to me. I know it. I could feel it.”
            “Crazy stuff.
            “She said she was sorry, but I don’t know what for? Jesus, I need a drink. When do you get off?”
            “Late. There’s an opening for another guide here.”
            Justin looked perplexed. “Here? You mean work here?”
            “Three hundred a night. Hey, you can see it’s not that hard.”
            “I don’t know, man…”
            “What you experienced tonight? When you work here that happens all the time. You can be in constant contact with the people you love.”
            “Are you serious?”
            “I have to go greet the next guest.” Allan started backing away slowly. “Think about it.”
            As he watched his cloaked friend fade away into a dark corner of the room and disappear into a doorway, he had to admire Allan’s ability to get into his role. He was definitely creepy.
            Bleary-eyed and a little hung over, Justin sat at his desk the next morning staring blankly at the monitor, fingers hovering over the keyboard as if waiting for inspiration. Last nights adventure had him questioning his sanity as he arduously tried to rationalize the incident from every angle. Can I believe my own eyes and ears? Is it by invitation in order to give them time to research a person’s background? In the battle for clarity, his rational side finally gained the upper hand, and he soon convinced himself that it had to be an elaborate, extremely sophisticated hoax, and that pissed him off. No one should be allowed to play with a person’s emotions like that. He wanted to confront Allan about the charade and force him to admit the truth, but his neighbor was out again. How convenient, he thought. A new email popped up with the subject line “Job offer.”
“Dear Mister Garner…” began the now familiar Dunbar Manor boilerplate section of the letter. The last paragraph was new. “Since you expressed an interest in working here we would like to extend an offer of employment. Please email us at the address below if you are interested. The job starts September 14th. Thank you.
            P.S. Hope you’ll join us. Allan.”
            Justin’s first instinct was to delete the email and put this episode of his life behind him, but then he had a small epiphany. What better way to expose the fraud behind Dunbar Manor than by working there? Once in the fold, they would let him in on the secrets used to create their special effects and show him how they dig up so much personal information on their guests. It was perfect.
            Justin replied that he would love to work at Dunbar Manor and received a confirmation email in minutes.
            At 2:30 that afternoon, everyone in Justin’s division was called into the building’s main conference room. There was the typical buzz about layoffs or the company going under, but the dour vice president Jack Clayburn, Justin’s boss several steps up the food chain, stood stiffly at the front of the room and gave no hints as he waited for everyone to be seated. After everyone settled in, Jack walked to center stage, his hands in his pockets.
            “This is going to be a very short meeting, but I wanted to speak to you all before any unfortunate rumors started circulating throughout the company. Some of you knew Allan Solarno, for those of you who didn’t, Allan started with Moffet about a month ago as an inventory account specialist and was a part of Jan’s group. Uh, there’s no delicate way to segue into this, but police found Allan’s body this morning and he apparently committed suicide.” A murmur rose and ebbed through the room. It took Justin’s mind a few moments to catch up with what was just said. “The police tell me that it must have happened a couple of days ago based on the…body. There’s no need go into details—“
            Justin rose to his feet. “Excuse me, Mr. Clayburn, but that’s impossible. I spoke with Allan just last night.”
            “And you are…?
            “Justin Garner. Allan had the cube next to mine.
            “I’m really sorry, Justin. I’m just passing along what the police told me. Apparently they can tell these things based on the, uh…condition of the body.”
            “But it’s impossible,” said Justin, his voice trailing off.
            “Okay. Thanks. Uh, so that’s it. Thank you, everyone.”
            Justin continued standing as his colleagues shuffled out of the room and back to their desks. His reality and Clayburn’s announcement had just been involved in a head on collision. There was no conceivable way Allan could have been dead for two days. The police must have made a mistake. Was someone playing an elaborate hoax on him? Was he going to find himself on YouTube that evening? There was a tap on his arm and he jumped. It was Jack Clayburn wearing an irritated expression.
            “Pull yourself together, kid. These things happen. It’s not good for morale if you’re going to be in a funk all day, so take some time off. Just make sure you record it as ‘unpaid’ on your time sheet.”
            Justin nodded. What else did he expect?
            He’d rarely experienced driving back to his apartment in the middle of the day and he made it home in record time. Bright sunshine filled the sparsely furnished apartment. He set his briefcase down, pulled a beer from the refrigerator and fell back into his favorite chair. Nothing made sense. How could Allan have been dead for two days? The guy was excited about starting the haunted house gig and not at all suicidal. What the fuck was going on?
            The tape recorder. Justin jumped up and went to the hallway where his jacket was hanging and pulled out the small machine. How could he have forgotten about this? He returned to the chair and hit the play button. The sound quality was poor, but he could hear himself knocking on the door, and then talking.
            “Dude, I’m freaked out already. You look…insane.”
            So, Dude, do you still think the place is actually haunted?”
            “Better be $200 worth of scary.”
            Justin stopped the tape and rewound it, hitting play again. It wasn’t a glitch. The only voice it captured was his.
            The car bounced violently as a tire jumped up on the curb during Justin’s drunken attempt to park in front of Dunbar Manor. With a six-pack under his belt, he was beyond caring about such trivial matters as correct parking procedures. He finally found the door latch and got out of the car, walked unsteadily along the dark path to the porch and then rapped on the door several times. The door slowly opened and Justin took a wobbly step into the shadowy entryway. Dressed in his hooded robe, Allan closed the door behind Justin and stepped back.
            “I’m glad you decided to take the job.”
Justin pointed his finger at his friend. “What is going on? Huh? They said you were dead, that you died two days ago. My tape player didn’t record your voice. What the fuck is that all about?”
            “I’ll explain everything after your interview. It’s just a formality, but an important one.”
            “Interview? Jesus Christ, Allan, I’m drunk as shit. I can’t take—“
            “No, listen, it doesn’t matter. I’m serious. Come on.” Allan guided Justin to a door on the right side of the massive stairway where they stopped. “Don’t worry. It won’t take long.”
            Justin started to complain again when Allan opened the door and gently nudged him into the room, closing the door behind him. A single candle shuddered and danced in the center of the room. As his eyes adjusted, he could see there was something just below the candle’s glow and he took a few steps closer. Barely outlined by the flickering light was a red satin pillow with a silvery handgun resting on it like a beauty queen’s tiara. Stunned, Justin turned and retraced his steps back to the door, twisted the knob and pulled it open. And then he stopped. Instinct was eclipsed by something even deeper than fear. His shoulders slumped forward and he rested his forehead on the cool wood. “Where am I going?” he asked aloud. There was no answer, which was the answer. Resignation turned to resolve, and Justin pushed forward on the handle, easing the door shut. The latch clicked and the air was suffused with the scent of Tabu.

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