The Ghost's Host

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When skeptic, Renee Chambers, acquires a new, phantasmic friend with boundary issues, she must come to terms with her past before she can learn how to embrace the future.

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Chapter One

     It was one of those summer days, hot as sin and full of lung crushing humidity that found me pounding the streets in search of new employment. I didn’t watch the weather or even glance at the paper, so I was unprepared, sporting slacks and a tailored jacket that were suffocating the life out of me with every step I took. Stopping to catch my breath, I took a look around me at the tall buildings shimmering in the heat of midafternoon. The city was never beautiful in the summer, it’s a filthy sauna crawling with hundreds of badly dressed, sweaty ants scurrying around trying to avoid all the rest of the badly dressed, sweaty ants. I crinkled my nose as a particularly potent passerby hacked into his sleeve, pulling my mask up higher and giving him wide berth. I was not cut out for this twenty-first century plague bullshit.

     The only reason I had dragged myself out of the house today was to please my best friend, Ellen Stafford, who had insisted I come here to apply for a job she saw listed in the paper. She was adamant and I couldn’t refuse her since she was footing my bills for the last few weeks while I applied for everything from burger flipper to toilet scrubber in a motel that probably doubled as a drug den. It was disconcerting to know that I lacked both the life skills and the experience for either job.

     I was getting desperate, willing to compromise my morals to find some way to pay for the lifestyle I was now accustomed to – eating at least two meals a day, living indoors, having underwear that wouldn’t embarrass a homeless person, etc. I had briefly considered prostitution but then I remembered I couldn’t even stand being on a bus with strangers, let alone taking my clothes off for them. The crushing weight of student loans, a car payment for my pos Ford Fiesta and a mortgage were great motivators though, and there was no way I would truly rule out anything just yet.

     My last job had soured me on humanity. I had been a high school English teacher, freshly graduated and still dumb enough to think I could make a difference in the lives of the hormonal miscreants that attended Deirdre Sanders High in the sweeping suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. My English and teaching degrees had led me astray, foolishly preparing me for a pleasant immersion into education, where in fact, my first few years of teaching were more like being tossed into a flaming pit of tigers. I had reached the limit of my patience and sanity when a group of sophomore boys cornered me in the parking lot after the final bell. Had Mr. Dewitt, the biology teacher, not come out to his car at that moment, I shudder to think what may have happened. I quit before I could find out.

     I rolled my eyes skyward to avoid any further contact with the disease riddled masses and realized I had reached my destination, an imposingly stern looking stone building with an opaque glass store front. Jutting above the entrance was a sign that creaked ominously over my head. A piece of curling paper was taped fast to the door with the store’s hours scratched out in magic marker. I ducked inside the doorway, beneath the sign that threatened to mash me flat to the pavement if a gentle breeze would stir. A tepid blast of air conditioning greeted me as I stared in wonder at the shelves upon shelves and stacks upon stacks of books that packed themselves like Jenga tiles everywhere. Inside, it appeared I was alone. Alone and exceptionally thirsty. So parched, in fact, I seriously considered drinking the muddy looking water in the fish tank that buzzed and chirped like a bird caught in a woodchipper. I didn’t see any fish in it - all the better for them, I guessed. I sat my purse on a small end table abutting a ragged couch and unbuttoned my jacket to allow some of the heat out.

     “This had better be worth it,” I grumbled, disgusted that I could do no better than some minimum wage teenager in a grody bookstore with my four years of college education rotting away. Cool air rushed over my roasting flesh. A Degas reprint hung on the wall over the front desk, somehow making the dark area look even more unapproachable. The florescent lighting above gave the frozen ballerinas an eerie glow. For so many years of my life, I had stared at similar paintings, well-lit and properly hung, yet I had never been affected as I was then. They called to me, impassioned pleas for freedom from their oppressively permanent poses. I shivered and looked away. To my left stood a small, shabby looking table with an Espresso machine and several volumes of poetry and classic literature. The fish tank, still rumbling, sat on a long wooden table pressed tight to the back of the couch. I turned slightly to the smaller mismatched loveseat facing the back of the store. It, too, looked as though it has seen better days.

     “Mrs. Chambers?” A voice echoed through the stacks, startling me with its proximity. I flinched at the sound of the young man’s voice. Swiveling my head, I saw the twenty something standing behind the cash register, for lack of better words, gawking at me. “Mrs. Chambers, welcome to ‘Rainbow Midge.’ My name is Alex.” He came out from behind the tall desk and held out a damp palm.

     “Hello Alex. Actually, it’s Miss, but you can call me Renee. I have an interview with Adrianne Hartman.” I raised my eyebrow at his outstretched hand, hoping desperately that he would bring it up into wave and I would not have to touch it. He did not, and I was forced to touch the clammy ham, if only with my fingertips. Immediately afterward, I groped fruitlessly for the hand sanitizer in my pocket, but it eluded my grasp.

     “I know. Please, sit down. It may be a few moments. Ms. Hartman is taking a phone call at the moment.” Alex walked back to his post, oblivious to my revulsion, or maybe just oblivious to the grossly wet hand he had foisted upon me. I took a seat, holding my breath that the legs of the dilapidated love seat would not collapse under me. The corner of an ancient ‘Better Homes and Garden’s’ magazine stuck out from under one leg in an apparently futile attempt to keep it from wobbling. I half closed my eyes to bask in the coolness, but Alex’s blatant staring made me more than a little uncomfortable.

     “You don’t remember me, do you?” He queried, giving me a bashful smile. I wracked my brain, trying to place his completely forgettable face and failing. It had recently occurred to me that he had used my name without me introducing myself. “I was in your study hall my senior year!” Oh, dear God. I was applying for a job and one of my old students was probably going to be my boss. How lovely.

     “Oh, that’s right,” I lied from my perch. “You used to sit next to, um, um…” I waited for him to take the bait and toss a gentle reminder my way without knowing he was being set up.

     “Damian.” I could see him catching my drift, glowering a bit that I had no clue and was trying to cover my tracks.

     “That’s right! The football jerk! You were the kid who used to draw all those weird comics.” I thought back to the busty caricatures and alien life forms Alex used to doodle all through study hall. He had artistic talent, but the subject matter was too strange for my liking.

     “Yeah!” He grinned broadly at me, thrilled to be remembered by his former teacher. His overlapping front teeth brought back yet another reminder that I used to sit facing him and wonder if his parents were too poor to take him to the dentist. Too, late now, I supposed.

     “Are you still drawing?” I asked stupidly, regretting the invitation to have him scrounge up some of his current work. Luckily, the phone rang, and he was distracted momentarily.

     “Sure thing. I’ll send her back,” he chirped gaily into the receiver before hanging up. “You can go in now! To the back of the store, take the door on the left. Up the staircase and then three doors down to the right.”

I nodded as I gathered my things, hurrying past to avoid his intent stare. Directions have always been my weak point and I only retained the first two instructions, but by the time I reached the apex of the stairway, I floundered. Opening the second door, I was greeted by the smell of Lysol and a gleaming toilet bowl. My keen intellect told me this was not where my meeting was to take place. When I gathered my wits and remembered it was the third door I was after, I grasped the handle and swung the door open, at once shocked and slightly repulsed by the heat in the tiny room. The next thing I noticed was the stunning woman, clearly made of nothing but acres of well-shaped legs, sitting regally on the front corner of her desk, folder in hand as her stilettoed foot bobbed up and down impatiently.

     “Sorry, the A/C is out, Miss Chambers. May I call you Renee? Please, sit.” I felt sluggish in the overwhelming humidity and swam through the thick air to clasp her hand as professionally as I could manage while I was drowning on dry land.

Her fingers were ice cold, not just chilly, but bloodless as a side of beef in a meat locker. I could have dipped them in a glass of water and used them as ice cubes. They were long, tapered and well-manicured, but practically albino in color, contrasting starkly with the deep, dark blue nail polish. Her hair was the same deep, dark blue. Okay, it was black, but under the lighting it definitely took on a blueish tint. Her eyes appeared almost onyx, no real color detectable behind the thickly mascaraed lashes, and they cruised over me critically from my short auburn spikes down to my abnormally small feet.

     “Renee is fine, thank you.” I sat in front of her in an unforgiving wooden chair, nervously licking my lips and trying out a tentative smile before realizing, she couldn’t see it under my wildly inappropriate ‘Hello Kitty’ mask.

“Hmm. I’m Adrianne Hartman, the proprietor of the ‘Rainbow Midge.’” She gave a vague gesture to the building around us, not much more than a flick of the wrist and a head tilt, both of which sent a weird chill down my spine. “Well, Renee, your resume is less than impressive.” I blinked stupidly at her brutal comment.

     “Huh? I mean, in what way?” I stammered.

     “You really haven’t shown me anything here,” she raised the file, “that would prove worthy of employment. A few college English courses certainly don’t make you qualified to assist in an impressive establishment such as this, nor will a tight blouse score you brownie points. Not that I don’t appreciate the effort.” A slow, curling grin spread across her face as she challenged me, staring over the rim of her glasses with one eyebrow creeping upward. “What makes you think you would be an asset to our fine team here at the Midge?” Oh, I thought, I’m not up to snuff for this seedy little, air conditioning-less shit hole, huh? I could feel the strength of my spine straightening, my chin jutting out defiantly as I made direct eye contact.

“I have taken more than just ‘a few English classes.’ I had a double major in English and Education and topped the Dean’s list! There is nothing in the world I cannot do. I’ve got fantastic references from every place I’ve ever worked that show me to be a hardworking, motivated individual who can and will do the best job possible. As far as not being ‘good enough’ for this…” I measured my words, “place, perhaps you should consider the fact that I was a teacher to the employee currently stationed at the register.” I gritted my teeth and braced for her attack. She cocked her head slightly and gave me a bitter, thin lipped smile before she spoke.

     “Then a better question might be – if you are so ‘overqualified’ why lower yourself to work in this… place? One might think there would be a plethora of opportunities beating down your door. What is it that makes you desperate enough to come crawling to me in my seedy little, air conditioning-less shit hole?”

     Okay, I thought, that was strange. I know I did not say those words out loud. Or did I? I squinted in confusion, cutting my hazel eyes back and forth as I dredged my mind to discover whether I had or not. Nada. Worse than that, I knew I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I was overqualified, but Ellen had practically demanded I apply here. It wasn’t like I could tell this sharp-edged woman that my psychic (psychotic!) friend had sent me here in an attempt to fulfill what she referred to as ‘my divine destiny’ after she had some sort of drug induced premonition about my future or lack thereof. Damn her and her ESP mumbo jumbo.

     “So, what is it then? Would you rather I leave or do you have any more questions for me.” I asked, seething whilst I committed career manslaughter.

     “While I detest your ego, you have enough spunk and attitude to impress me. I don’t give a damn about the Dean’s list or your overachiever status. In the real world, it takes more than book smarts to succeed. According to your last place of employment, you couldn’t even keep a few rowdy teenagers in line. Perhaps if they had insulted your education, you would have been angry enough to deal them the blow they so sorely deserved.” While she spoke, her eyes flashed like heat lightning over the desert. I could tell she was trying to control her temper, but it flirted with the sharp edges of her words and drew her lips tight across her teeth. She sat like a cheetah stalking its prey, leaning forward slightly and palms flat to the desk. It occurred to me, her eyes were not actually onyx but the darkest blue I had ever seen as they drew a bead on me. The room was insufferably hot to the point of making me woozy and she let a devilish smile sweep across her already hauntingly pale flesh. I gulped in mouthfuls of heavy, wet air, unable to pry my gaze from the thunderclouds in her striking stare.

     “I do have one more question, Renee. When can you start?”