Excerpt – Telltale Signs (Spellbound, an anthology by Melange Books)

   Harley helps me load my car with a few boxes of extra decorations from my own private stash. I wasn’t lying to Tiffany; Hallowe’en really is my favourite holiday.  He gives me one more kiss, and then we’re off in opposite directions.  
   My mind keeps going back to Elsa.  I can understand where she’s coming from, but no matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to make any headway with her.  She constantly butted in during the planning process, walking up to the museum at odd hours to tell me her latest thought or critique. She reminds me of the mother in ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, the one living across the road who cannot keep to her own business.  At first, I thought Elsa was great, and I truly appreciated her advice, but after a while it became tiresome.  Until she fell on an iced-over puddle, I could never predict just when she would show up.  She second-guesses everything, and usually has a folder with plans for exhibits that are “time-tested”.  The woman uses words like “newfangled”, for heaven’s sakes.  
   So when I see a hunched little figure standing at the side of the road, leaning on a heavy cane, I naturally assume that it’s her.
   Thank you, Chris, for allowing Elsa to have her own key to the DLNM.
   As much as it kills me, I cannot in good conscience let the woman hobble the entire way to the building.  Of course not.  
   But when I pull over, I realize that it’s not her.
   The sun has mostly set by this point, and the light is poor, but with the headlights I can see that she’s wearing a man’s overcoat, a big furry hat, and work boots.  She looks at me expectantly.
   I roll down the passenger side window.  “Hello.  Do you need a ride?”
   She doesn’t say anything.
   Nonplussed, I try again.  “Je parle seulement anglais.  Do you speak English?” Dark Lake is highly bilingual, but there are some residents who are entirely francophone.  I have cursed my unilingual brain many times.  Usually, though, I get a friendly response when I at least try to use my high school French.
   She says nothing.
   Unnerved, I offer one more time.  “Listen, I’m headed to the North Museum.” I look away, up the road, a bit desperate for another vehicle to appear.  I check my rearview mirrors, too. It’s a bit strange that there are no other cars, this early at night.  “I can take you as far as Murdoch Street, but –”
   I look back to see if she understands, and my heart skips a beat.
   The woman is gone.
   “What the hell?” I start, looking to the left and right.  I put the vehicle in park, get out, and check the sidewalk.  Nothing.  It’s as though she vanished into thin air.  Either that, or she was never even there.  In the slight bit of gravel on the edge, where I could have sworn she was standing, I don’t see the mark of a cane, or a footprint.  
   But then again it’s dark.  I am not a tracker.  I just have a very vivid imagination.  I am tired.  
   “That’s weird,” I say to myself.  After one more quick glance around, my discomfort grows. This stretch of the main road leading into Dark Lake is not populous. Many of the houses are old and falling apart.  Their empty, blank windows are creepy. Those with people in them are few and far apart.  
   I shrug off the shivers that are starting on my neck, and quickly get back in my car.
   The rest of my drive to the museum is uneventful. 
   The building is set about fifty yards back from the main road, screened by a variety of evergreen trees, a few stands of birches, and an oak tree, all of which grew naturally from the ground.  The driveway is bordered by shrubs and peony bushes.  The security lights are on, spotlights at ground level which beautifully illuminate the facade of the painted log mansion. Designed and built for a mine owner in 1922, it is an eclectic construction that follows the craftsman style.  The logs, all original, are freshly painted yellow each spring.  The trim around the windows, the wrap-around porch, the doors, and the stairs, are brown, also redone annually. The roof is black shingle.  It is unique to the era, the community, and the region, and surprisingly elegant.  After the original owner had made his fortune and moved away, it became a nursing home for a while, and then it was donated to the town to house its growing archives.  In the summer and at Christmas, it is a favoured location for weddings and reunions, occupying an outcropping of rocky land over the small lake bordering the town.  On national holidays, it becomes a gathering point for locals to meet and greet politicians, do fundraisers, hold recitals.
   But at night, in late October, it’s incredibly creepy.
   The deciduous trees are completely bare now, and the few that stand near the footlights cast weird, claw-like shadows above the porch.  Interior security lights are visible, but most of the windows are dark and reflective.  There are two or three really nice houses sharing the same dead-end street, but their lights are off, too.  It looks like I will be the only one here, tonight.
   I really don’t want to get out of the car.
   I take the prime parking spot closest to the porch, and sit for a few minutes. There is a bit of wind, enough to move the limbs of the trees a little, making eerie shadows sway around the property.  It’s no wonder that Chris wanted me to wait until morning — there are a lot of places for people to hide, if they want to play with you.  But Dark Lake is a pretty safe place.  Hell, most of the kids don’t even bother to lock their bikes up.  I’m just a bit freaked out by that old lady I saw. Or didn’t see.  It’s just a building, and it’s just night time.  I know every inch of the place.  I have my list.  I will get the job done, and go home to my bed and a nice cup of tea.
   I have never unloaded a vehicle so fast in my life.
   My hand is shaking by the time I lock the front doors again.  I slip behind the front counter and quickly switch on all the lights.  And the radio.  The music is Sara McLaughlin.  Singing along about building mysteries is calming.  It’s perfectly ordinary for me to be here, alone, setting up for the morning.  Storing my things, I pick up the boxes and head to the main exhibition hall.
   What I see there pisses me off to no end.  I’m so mad, all I can do is swear a blue streak.  It looks like someone has once again pulled a fast one, switching artifacts around with no regard for labels, neatness, chronology, or my vision.  “Mother, give me strength,” I hiss, setting down the boxes and resisting the urge to kick something.  I walk the length of the old dining room, taking stock, with my hands on my hips.
   As I put on cotton gloves and lift off the first of the plexiglass cubes — all of which have been sloppily returned to place, askew on the display tables, wrinkling the cloths under them — it occurs to me for the first time that it’s really only five items that keep being moved.  The same five items.  Why would that be?  If Mr. Allan had a problem with my arrangement, he would have said something, wouldn’t he?  Elsa would be the more likely suspect, she has a tendency to jump in and do things without a word to anyone.  But she’s laid up at home.  This has happened numerous times in the last few weeks.
   I am relieved that the first artifact, a man’s beaver fur hat, is undamaged.  One of my greatest fears is that something will happen to ruin something I am in charge of.  I turn it over, hold it up, and then it comes to me with a shock of recognition.
   It’s the same type of hat I saw that old lady wearing.
   It’s a coincidence.  It has to be.  I cross the room, thinking it over.  It was dark after all.  I can’t be positive that her hat was beaver.  I put the hat in its proper place on a mahogany dummy head, aligning both with the label giving its provenance and a yellowed obituary about the original owner, preserved in plastic.  The picture on the newsprint gives me another shock.  “Not possible,” I whisper.  Slowly, I lift the cube again and slide the clipping out by the edge of its page protector.
   “Lily Grey,” I read aloud. “One of the original three investors in Silver Tree Mine.  Loaned Sir Melvin Andrews his down payment on the property which would become the biggest gold producer in the province.” I am acutely conscious of my voice in the stillness.  The music from the radio echoes slightly from way down by the front entrance, but it only emphasizes how quiet everything is.  Rapidly skimming the rest of the document, I read that the woman was fiercely independent, yet never owned a car. To the end of her life she was often seen walking the streets of Dark Lake.  She had owned and rented out many buildings, and was known for her hunting prowess, which kept her intellect sharp and her legs spry.  Grey was known for hitch hiking, often gaining rides on the main street.  Her friends and family mourn her passing in 1967.
   I want to go home.
   I put the obituary back.
   Fishing in my pocket for my cellphone, it takes me a minute to realize that the radio has stopped playing.  Now I am fully creeped out.  I dial Harley’s number as I leave the room.  I cannot stand it to be completely quiet in here.  During the daytime, there’s always the background noise of life — people talking softly in the office, the phone ringing, cars passing. Right now, there’s a bit of hum from the furnace.  The radio should be on, though; if there’s a problem with the plug, I may have to go check the circuit breaker.  That’s in the basement.  
“Please, don’t make me go down to the basement,” I mutter to myself, listening to Harley’s voicemail introduction.  “Harley, where are you?”
I try the landline to the fire station’s lounge area, but it’s busy.  The universe is against me.  I put the cell back in my pocket and try the radio’s on switch.
   The sudden blast of sound knocks me back in surprise.  “Holy fuck!” I exclaim, covering my ears.  I scramble to lower the volume.  “What the hell is going on?  Is someone here?” I call out, turning around.  I walk into the office, extremely pissed off that someone messed with the equipment.  “If someone is playing games with me, I’m not impressed.” The office lights are already on, of course.  I check under every desk, open the closet door, and I even go into the filing room.  If someone else is in the building with me, they’re quick.  And ninja-quiet, because the floors are infamously creaky, and I didn’t hear anyone pass by me.  I pick up the phone at my desk while I’m there and try the fire station again.  “Whoever is tying up the phone is going to get an earful,” I swear. 
   On my way back to the exhibit hall, I unplug the radio and take it with me.  It will be less echoey if I keep it with me, anyway.  And I have a new strategy.  I am a bit tired, it might be hard to get up on time if I stay here too long.  I’ll give myself a limit, stay until eight thirty, and then I am gone.  Cranking up my tunes to a comfortable, and comforting, level, I get back to work.
   The next artifact that is out of place is an old pair of spectacles which had belonged to an area prospector.  I inspect the lenses carefully for breaks, cracks, chips. Happily, they’re in the same condition I had noted when I found them in the collection.  I have an impulse to try them on.  It’s terribly bad form, but for some reason I just cannot resist.  They’re round, tarnished metal wire.  I have no idea what prescription they might be, but as I am already nearsighted and have contacts, I figure I’m safe.  I move to the mirror that stretches the length of the stone fireplace that bisects the room, and put them on.
   I like the look.  It’s cute, old-school, kind of like a stereotypical librarian from a children’s book.  I lift my hair off my neck into a bun, and in the mirror, I see a man standing behind my shoulder.  
   I freeze.
   I can’t breathe.
   He slowly raises his head to look into my eyes.  My mind barely registers that he is not wearing contemporary clothing.  I see a stained and yellowed collarless shirt, suspenders.  He is balding and has a thin moustache.  His eyes are deeply circled.  He just stares and stares, unmoving.  I exhale, and rising on my tiptoes, let my gaze travel down to where his feet should be.  Bile rises into my throat.  This is not possible.  It is not possible for this to be happening. This is some kind of joke, a sick prank on the newbie.  Summoning my courage, I wave my hand in front of the mirror to check for a projector’s beam.  “I don’t know who you think you are,” I croak, before turning.  “But I really don’t appreciate this kind of immature behaviour.
   And of course, there’s no-one behind me.  I’m being punked, I know it.  I take the glasses off and turn around again, checking the reflection.  I only see myself.  “Hm. Interesting.  I think I know how you did that,” I call out, setting the glasses on the mantle. I inspect every corner of the room, looking for the camera.  A hidden panel.  Something. If the effect was done like Pepper’s ghost, the image should be projected from a black box of some kind.  I ignore the little voice in my head that says that the image should also appear in the room itself, not in the mirror.  In the end, after twenty minutes, I find nothing.
   “This is such a waste of my time,” I announce.  Marching back to the mantle, I hold the specs up once more, and out of the corner of my eye, in my line of sight through a small section of the left lens, I see him again.
   Fingers trembling, I slowly put them back on.
   He’s closer to me this time.  I can see more detail in his face — a spider’s web of wrinkles crossing his skin, the bristle marking where he needs to shave.  I can’t stop the whimper from leaving my throat.  I force myself to turn around and face him.
   But again, there’s nothing there.
   My skin is clammy.  Across from me, the night disc jockey announces the next set of songs. The room is completely empty of another individual, brightly lit, a row of blackened windows to my left and right.
I take a few steps forward, to the place where the man should be standing. Hesitantly, I put one hand out and move it through the air.  “Rationally, Kate, if there was a ghost here you should be feeling a cold spot, or a pulse of energy, or something tangible.  Measurable.” Talking to myself is soothing.  I put my hands on my hips, looking over the glasses at the floor.  “No evidence of a screen.” I look at the ceiling.  “No fishing wire.” I pivot on a heel and walk toward the lobby at my left, then stop and whirl around with a judo shriek. “Hi-yah!” 
   The only result is that I feel even more like an idiot.  I straighten from my crouch and resume my power-posture.  Chin raised, I look to my right, and in the reflection of the night-dark window I see the man’s face right over my shoulder, so close that by rights I should feel him breathing on my neck, hear him swallowing as he glares directly at me, but instead I feel my heart hammering and beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead.
   A banging on the front door makes me jump.
   Whipping off the spectacles as I race from the room, I am intensely relieved to see Harley’s face on the other side of the wavy glass.  My hands are shaking so badly that I can barely manage the locks.  He is wearing some fire gear, so embracing him is uncomfortable, but when I refuse to let go of him he has to peel my hands away.  
   “I saw that you called,” he says, kissing my forehead.  His eyes are full of concern.  He strokes my hair away from my face, hugging me again. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
   “Thank God for caller display,” I joke, snivelling a bit into his fire-proof jacket.  I wipe my nose with my sleeve.  “I think I’m just letting this project get to me.  I’m so stressed out, I’m starting to see things.”
   “Like what?” His hands rub my back.  I hiccup, aware that I am perilously close to tears.
   “Um…like I was putting the exhibit back together…” I lean into his arms as I explain, turning the spectacles over in my hand while I am talking.  They look perfectly ordinary.  “I’m absolutely convinced that there is a logical explanation, some kind of prank, but I don’t know how it’s being done and it’s freaking me out.”
   Harley keeps one hand on my back, and with the other, he retrieves a cotton glove from a box on a nearby shelf above the counter.  He knows the routines here. Gently taking the glasses from me, he puts them on.  “Let’s have a look, shall we?” He smiles at me, confidently, and I follow him back into the room.
   Ten minutes later, he has looked into every window and the mirror, spectacles on and off.  He’s put them on and turned around, copying my actions.  He traverses the room looking for anything out of the ordinary.  I watch, my arms folded, feeling more and more stupid.  Finally, he returns them to the display case where they belong, and comes over to me.
   “I’m just silly, I guess,” I admit, rubbing my eyes with the heel of one hand.  He takes off my glove and lays a kiss on my palm.  “It’s late, this old house is creepy at night, and I’m stressed.  So no ghosts, just me and my dumb imagination.”
   “It’s okay,” Harley replies, pulling me close.  “It could happen to anyone.  It’s probably happened to Chris Allen, which is why he didn’t want you here late.  It would mess with anyone.”
   “Even a big tough fire fighter?” I tease, tugging at the fasteners on his coat.
   “Even a big tough fire man,” he emphasizes, kissing me.  He checks his watch. “I have to go, sweetheart.  There’s a cat in a tree somewhere that needs my help.”
   I salute him playfully.  “Then go forth, my hero, and save the poor pussy.”. 
   His eyes light up at my choice of words.  He raises an eyebrow and reaches down to tickle me; I push his arm away, laughing.  

Chapter 3

   Locking up after he leaves is difficult, but I feel better for about five minutes.  I am careful to avoid looking into any of the reflective surfaces when I go back into the room. I finish straightening the rest of the exhibit, and there are no other incidents.  The three remaining artifacts which were out of place — a toy rabbit that had once belonged to the mine owner’s son, a diary with entries pertaining to sightings of Bigfoot, and a photograph of a local church which burned to the ground thirty years earlier — are undamaged and easy to put back.  I set out the artifacts that arrived that morning, and use my personal decorations to really make the room pop, singing along to the music at the top of my voice. This is what I love, setting the stage.
Standing back to get the perspective of someone just walking in, I am pleased at the overall impression. I used lengths of black fabric on the tables, and tea-dyed paper to resemble parchment for the labels. The identity of each item is written in a spidery font I found online. The information for each is provided on card stock. The tables are slightly staggered as they follow the edges of the room, enabling visitors to flow through and see the larger items, the dolls and clothing items, from different perspectives. Documents are closer to the walls. I have brought glittering saris from home in orange, purple, black, and yellow silk, and draped them from one corner of the room to the other, creating an intimate effect. Eschewing tacky cotton cobwebs, I have provided painted wicker jack o’lanterns, stacked in corners with tables of dried flower-laden cauldrons, crystal balls, candles and colourful dried leaves. It looks great. The effect is slightly creepy, aesthetically pleasing, not overly frightening, but in keeping with the spirit of Hallowe’en. No children will be too frightened to explore, and older visitors should leave feeling enthusiastic and excited. The colours will stay fresh until the end of November. I use my phone to take some photos for my portfolio.
   And then I move on to the remainder of my list.  I prepare the refreshments, mixing juices and filling jugs with water, cutting the pastries into smaller portions to be shared amongst the children coming tomorrow, make up trays of nanaimo bars, brownies, and other sweets, as well as veggie and cheese platters.  I could have gotten them pre-made at the grocery store, but I saved some money doing it myself.  The one indulgence I permitted in my budget is a stand of cupcakes decorated like jack o’lanterns, bats, skeletons, and ghosts.  These I leave in their plastic tubs until tomorrow.  Everything else, I cover with plastic wrap and store in the staff kitchen fridge. Out in the hall, the radio plays on.
   The little yellow curtains on the window by the counter fall still as the furnace switches off. Accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the heater, I pay no attention to the vibration of the floor when it is working, and usually the end of the vibration registers only vaguely in the back of my mind, like noticing a gust of wind or a raindrop on my face while I’m gardening.  I grab a load of tablecloths and masking tape, go into the lobby, and prep the refreshment tables.  In university, while working in catering, I learned how to dress a table so the cloth is six inches off the floor, perfectly parallel to the table’s edge, folded back along the front corner to hide the side legs, and fastened with tape.  A top cloth hides the folds.  It takes me five or ten minutes.  I realize that I am one tablecloth short, and return to the kitchen.  
   At first, the vibration in the floor doesn’t register.  From the top shelf of the broom closet,  I pull down a folded square of linen, which has a big stain on it.  I reach again, and at my eye level, I notice that the porcelain mugs are rattling in the glass-fronted cabinets.  I slowly sink back down on my heels, my toes tingling.  Under my sneakers, I recognize that the floor is trembling.  My eyes go automatically to the window curtain, which is hanging without movement.  The plates are rattling now.  I cross to the wall and hold my hand over the vent in the floor.  No heat.  The furnace is still off.  Perplexed, I stand back up, and then stumble as the linoleum lurches under my feet.  My elbow bangs into the counter.  “Goddamn!” I explode as pain shoots down to my fingers.  As if in response, the shaking increases further; fearfully, I look up at the secured doors, worried that a glass might suddenly fall on my head. The glass windows themselves are visibly quivering in their slots.  Drawers are moving forward with the shaking, the cutlery and utensils adding to the noise.  It’s so loud, I put my hands over my ears.  I cannot stay on my feet and fall to my knees.  “What is happening?” I call over the din, my voice barely discernible. The door to the fridge starts to flap, and the lights on the microwave are flashing.  In fact, the fluorescent light overhead is flickering as the noise rises to a deafening roar.  It blacks out for a minute, leaving only the beams from the doorways, and comes back.  Then, all the lights go out.  I scream, squeezing my eyes shut. “Please, stop it, stop it!” I cry.  I feel like I am going to hyperventilate.
   And then it stops.  Everything is quiet.  I uncover my ears, cautiously, and run a shaky hand along the wall until I find the windowsill.  My lip is bleeding from where I’ve bitten into it.  I take a few hiccupy breaths, and smooth my hair.  Finally, I open my eyes. The lights are all on, as they should be, and nothing is moving except for me.  I hear an advertisement for a movie echoing in the exhibit area.
   “I am going crazy,” I say into the silence.  “I have stressed myself to the point of having delusions.” I laugh a little giddily, and haul myself to my feet.  
My elbow still hurts, and my mouth tastes salty.  It takes me a few tries to pull out my cellphone to call Harley.  It has no signal.  Bile rises in my throat.  I raise the thing higher, trying to get at least one bar.  My mobile has never failed me, it always has a signal.  But this time it flashes that it is low on power, even though I charged it this afternoon, and then it dies.
   I am close to panicking.  
   And then, I hear the front door creak open.

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