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    Geron Kees
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The Thief of Small Things - 8. Chapter 8

"Hi."

"Hi. How was work tonight?"

"Oh, not bad. I'm tired, but that's the usual."

I bunched the pillow more under my head so it would hold the phone to my ear. "I wish I'd brought my headset with me. I just didn't think I'd be on the phone much while I was here."

"Lucky you, huh?"

There was something sad in that reply. Something that bothered me. It sounded like Mark's mood had darkened, rather than improved.

"Yeah, lucky me." I hoped I sounded as positive as I was feeling. "I couldn't wait to talk to you again."

"Well, here I am."

I laughed. "Tell me about your night at work."

We discussed his evening at the restaurant, which didn't exactly sound thrilling. Most people's jobs are not thrilling, so that was no surprise at all. But the longer we talked, the less I realized we were saying. It was almost like the polite banter that two people that hardly knew each other might make while passing the time waiting on something. Every time I tried to get more personal, to talk about us, Mark would steer me away. I began to grow frustrated at his distance, until I finally grunted out an irritated rebuke.

"What the hell is wrong with you? It's like you're a million miles away!"

I knew immediately that it was a mistake. The connection was silent a moment, and I was shocked to sense distress coming from the other end. After what had happened earlier in the day, I had argued myself into thinking that our brief falling out at the museum was just one of those dumb things that happened sometimes, and that Mark wasn't really mad at me. Granddad had suggested that Mark would have the day to think about it, and that our conversation tonight would be much better.

But Mark had had time to think, and not only did he not sound better, he sounded worse! It now seemed that something really was broken here, and I just couldn't believe it could have happened. A cold sense of dread coursed throughout me as I realized that this was not something that was just going to go away.

And now, despite what granddad and I had agreed about going slow, I had just stepped out and issued a challenge. I was immediately mad at myself, and moved quickly to try to make it right. "I'm sorry. I'm just worried about you. I feel like something is wrong, and it's eating me up."

"Nothing is wrong." His voice was a monotone, totally unconvincing.

I shook my head, and had to grab the phone to keep it from falling to the mattress beside me. "Something's wrong. Please tell me."

"It's...it's not anything. I'm just tired, I guess."

I gaped a little at that, knowing for certain now that he was holding me at arm's length, and not telling me the truth. I felt a sense of rising panic, that this thing I had come to want so much between us was somehow slipping away before it had even had a chance to grow. "Was it something I said, or did?" I asked.

He sighed, sounding even more upset. "Oh, no. It isn't you at all. It's...it's me, David. I'm just really fucked up, is all."

I think I gasped. "How? How are you fucked up? You seem fine to me."

"You don't know, that's all."

"I don't know what?"

Again there was a silent moment, before he went on. "Oh, man, I just don't feel very good, okay? I'm tired, and I need some sleep."

There was more, obviously, but I was afraid now to push, to ask too much. But that he was avoiding me hurt, and scared me, too. "Can I see you in the morning? Before you go to work?"

"I don't think so."

There was a finality to those words that shocked me. "You're not dumping me already!" I blurted, without thinking.

I heard him take a breath, and then give forth almost a whimper. "Oh, don't be silly. I just...I just need to sleep, okay?"

I couldn't think of anything to say then. I had settled down for what I had expected to be a long, pleasant call, and now it was over before it even started. I was scared now, plain and simple. Anything I might say could make it worse.

"Mark...please."

He made that sound again, almost a whimper. When he spoke again, his voice was a whisper. "Let me go, David. I'll call you tomorrow, okay?"

"Will you?" I asked, not convinced.

"Yes. I promise I will."

I felt a tear run down my cheek then. "Okay."

It was all I could say. To argue, to do anything now but to give in, would only make things worse, I felt.

"Goodnight, David."

It had the ring of a goodbye. I clenched my jaw, and nodded. "Goodnight, Mark. I...I'll talk to you tomorrow."

We disconnected, and I held up the phone and stared at it. The inside of my head felt like stone, all hard and covered with sharp edges. I couldn't think about anything, and found I didn't want to, either.

I put the phone on the nightstand. Granddad would be home shortly, and I didn't want him to see me like this. I wouldn't know what to say, and I also found I just didn't want to talk to anyone.

I turned off the light and got under the sheets, and closed my eyes and cried.

 

* * * * * * *

 

The morning was not much better. My eyes popped open after a troubled sleep, and found the previous night's conversation with Mark right there, waiting. I turned it over in my mind, and couldn't see any good side to any of it. He had put me off, he had evaded my questions, and he'd given me every sign that he didn't want to tell me what the hell was going on. His sadness about it came through plainly, and it made me think he had already made the decision not to pursue our relationship. He just didn't have the nerve to tell me yet.

But why? That's what I couldn't figure out. I was sure now that I hadn't done anything wrong. And I was also sure now that whatever was bothering him was not something that had suddenly come up since we had met. This had to be something Mark had been carrying around before he met me, something that was just driving him nuts, but that he couldn't share with me, or was afraid to. I had tried to make him see that I didn't care what it might be, that I still wanted to be with him, but...

He was blinded by whatever it was. He couldn't see past it, which meant he couldn't see me wanting to help. That was the only explanation that I could come up with.

I wanted badly to talk to granddad about it, but at the same time I didn't. I didn't want him to tell me it was over, maybe, or that there was nothing I could do. Or that all I could do was wait, which was pretty much the same as doing nothing.

I got up and showered and got dressed, and then went to the kitchen and fixed myself a bowl of cereal. As I sat at the table, I could picture Mark and I there just two nights before, laughing and joking as we made our pizzas. And getting close, and kissing. That had been like magic. I had been sure then that this was something that would last forever.

So where had it gone? Where had the secrets suddenly come from?

I was certain he was hiding something from me, something he was afraid to share. It had to be something that he felt would seriously screw up our relationship. I felt like I could deal with just about anything, that nothing he could say could matter enough to pull us apart. What hurt was that it was like he didn't trust me to do that.

I munched on a mouthful of cereal, and realized with a little shock that it really was exactly like I had told granddad: on the one hand, it was like I had known Mark forever. And on the other hand, we had just met. And that was at the heart of the problem.

I really didn't know Mark at all.

There was something scary about that realization, and something very sobering. Yes, we had been moving along quickly. But I knew now that my thinking had rushed on ahead of even the quickness of our feelings about each other. I had felt that this was the one special relationship I was looking for, and so I had made no allowances for the idea that it might not be that way at all.

The truth was, I had no idea what I was doing, none at all. I had assumed much, and I had been traveling on emotions, and excitement, and...hope. Mark and I had said some nice things to each other, and we'd kissed, and I had assumed that meant something special was happening between us, something that would last. So I had made no room for the idea that each of us had entire lives going on behind the scenes, about which the other was totally unaware.

I felt kind of flat then, like my emotions had simply drained away. The kitchen seemed too light somehow, everything stark and hard-edged, all the friendliness and happiness I had always associated with it now gone. It was like a photo, real, but just a place, like any other place. Real, and empty.

A place without Mark.

I finished up my cereal, rinsed the bowl out, and put it in the dishwasher. Then I found granddad's notepad, and left a quick note saying that I was going to the park for a walk and would see him tonight. I put the pad right where he would have to sit to eat breakfast, to be sure he would see it. He wouldn't mind that I had gone out, as he considered the park a safe place. And I was a big boy now, and could take care of myself.

Right?

 

* * * * * * *

 

I think the first hour I walked, I didn't see much of what I passed. The park was full of people, but I didn't notice them mostly, either. I simply stuck to the paths, placing one foot in front of the other, moving with the other wanderers, the group constantly changing as people broke off to stop some place to gawk, while others joined the slow walking clusters of people among the trees. I'd turned left on entering the park, and had walked along the lake, passing the Ladies Pavilion and continuing on to the Shakespeare Garden, and then to make a sort of rambling circuit of the Great Lawn. I hadn't been paying attention, and when I finally realized I'd retraced my steps more than once, I made for the Belvedere Castle to find a place to sit. It was hot out, I was hot, and I needed to just sit and be quiet a bit.

Nothing had changed inside my head. Well, much. I still felt like the world had ended somehow, but now I had grown used to the idea that it hadn't been all that well established a world in the first place. I mean, it had only been a few days since I had met Mark. A few days, out of seventeen years. So why did it seem so much more?

A kind of dullness had replaced my anxiety and hurt. I guessed it was acceptance, or a pre-acceptance, because Mark had still to tell me we were over. But the certainty that that would happen was now upon me. I should have known it was too good to be true. Stupid!

I found a nice shaded spot where I could look out over the Turtle Pond, and I just sort of retreated from thinking, just watching the people, the gently swaying trees, the summer day all around me. Tons of people, everywhere, and yet I had never felt so alone in my life. That kind of made me mad then, and I realized that I had given up on Mark, and that I had no reason to be doing that. I wanted to be with him, right? I wanted us to be happy, right?

I thought myself around in a circle twice, and then just had to stop, feeling I was making myself nutty. I just didn't have the experience to be dealing with this, not by myself, and not just inside my own head. I should have stayed at the condo and waited for granddad to get up, and talked to him. He knew more about this stuff than anyone, and it would have had to have helped.

I pulled out my cell, looked at the time. It was just after two PM. I hit the icon to call Granddad, and was pleased to hear him answer quickly. "Hello? David?"

I forced myself to sound normal. Or, what I thought was normal. "Hi. I'm at the park."

"I saw your note. Is everything okay?"

"Sure. I was just thinking about heading back. I wondered if you would have a moment to talk?"

"Oh...I'm in the elevator right now, heading down. I had a few things to do before going into the restaurant. Would you like me to wait in the lobby for you?"

I felt a sinking feeling, and then just a sad one. I didn't want to mess up Granddad's day, and the things I had to say were not so well laid out yet that I thought I could do it quickly or orderly. More time was needed, quiet time to consider stuff.

"Oh...no. It's nothing really important. It can wait until tonight."

"You're sure? I don't mind waiting for you."

But now that I was considering looking at this whole thing with Granddad, I knew I was not looking at it with any sense. It all felt jumbled and confused in my mind now, and not ready to share. "No. That's okay. Have a good evening, and I'll see you when you get home."

The phone was quiet a moment, and I knew he was gauging my response. "Okay. But you call me if you need anything, hear me?"

I had to smile at that. "Okay. But I'm fine. See you tonight."

I guess I was convincing enough. "Alright, son. Don't get too overheated, okay? It's the hottest day of the week so far."

"I'll be back home in a bit," I told him. "Stop worrying. I'll see you tonight."

"Okay. Bye."

"Bye."

I sighed, and shut off the phone. Even though I hadn't shared a single thing with Granddad, just talking to him a moment had been enough to steady me. To remind me that I was not alone, and that things could always be worse. I'd been doing what Dad called 'fatalistic thinking', which was a short cut to depression, and never solved anything.

I still felt resigned to disappointment, but it was not like my life was over or anything. I still needed to talk to Mark, and when I did, I felt I had a right to at least ask a few questions now. Even if we were over, I had a right to know why.

I headed back the way I had come, paying more attention to the things around me. When I got to the lake, I saw the same two gay guys I'd seen the other day, sailing their little boat on the calm waters, smiling and talking and just enjoying each other's company. It made me smile. There would be time for that sort of thing for me, someday.

I reached Terrace Drive and was heading over to West 72nd when my phone chirped and vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out, thinking that Granddad had decided to pass on one last thing, and was startled to see an unfamiliar screen on the phone. It took a moment for me to realize what it was: the app for the cameras back in the condo. An alert!

For a moment I was just shocked into immobility. For the app to have notified me, Granddad would had to have set it before he left. He could activate and deactivate it from his phone, just like I could, though I had only set the alert to go to my cell. It was possible that Granddad had come back for something, and forgotten to deactivate the cameras...

But I didn't think so. Granddad was sharp. I just couldn't see him forgetting that quickly.

For a moment I was tempted to call him, just to ask if he had gone home. But he would want to know why I was asking, and if I told him the cameras had activated, he would turn around and head straight back to the condo. It would spoil his day, and I was not even certain there was a reason for that. I mean, the cameras were supposed to be reliable, but...

But what?

There was no reason not to tell Granddad. He would even be upset that I hadn't, I knew. But for some reason, I didn't want to do that just now.

Instead, I pushed the cell back into my pocket and started back to the condo at a jog. It cut the return time in half, and it was less than five minutes later that I was heading up in the elevator, a distinct thrill running through me as I saw the possibility of solving the enigma of the ghost. Some small part of my mind was aware that I was not dealing with this very smartly. Another part kept saying that this was my mystery, not Granddad's, and that I wanted to be the one to solve it. I guess with all the other nutty thinking I'd been doing all morning, it wasn't really at all out of place. But as I reached the double doors to the condo and pulled out my key, I did pause a moment to wonder if I was heading into trouble here.

Was I? The ghost had never been there when we had returned. The one time I had sensed it while in my room had been the only time it seemed to have been present when one of us was, too. And it had fled then, hadn't it? Disappeared and left no trace. Except for a few missing slices of bread, maybe.

I stuck the key in the doorknob and turned it, then withdrew it, and used the second key to get the deadbolt. I pulled out my phone and deactivated the cameras, and then I pushed the door open and stepped inside. For a moment I stood still, listening. The condo was quiet, and even exuded a sense of emptiness, a sure feeling that no one was there. But then I heard it: that weird sound I'd heard before, muted and somehow eerily distant, like the call of some giant bird, but plainly coming from down the hallway towards the bedrooms.

I closed the front door and waited. The silence in the condo was very regular, the steady tick-tick of the pendulum clock in the living room the only sound. I continued to listen, but no other sounds came to my ears. My senses told me that I was alone, but some other feeling also arose, a feeling that someone had been here, and that I had just missed them by seconds.

How could that be? The front and rear doors were the only ways in or out, and from the front door I could see down the side hall into the kitchen, and clearly that the back door was closed. No one had gone out that way, and no one had passed me. So what the hell?

I headed for the den, and the cabinet where we had agreed to stash Granddad's laptop when we were out. It was there, waiting. I pulled the computer from its hidden location and went back to the living room, and set the machine on the coffee table. I raised the lid, and sat before it.

The screen lit, showing the camera app right off. I checked it, saw that two of the cameras had run for nearly eight minutes. Paydirt!

But then I had to scratch my head. The two cameras that had run had been the hallway cams at each end. Neither of the cameras watching the doors had been set off! That didn't make sense!

I brought up the file for the first cam, that looked down the hallway from the living room end and faced all the bedrooms. I took a deep breath, and set it running.

Immediately, I saw the hallway door was open. That motion had been what had set the camera going. Someone came out of the door, but the open door itself mostly blocked the view. I had a quick glimpse of an arm and a leg, but then they moved up the hallway and the door cut them off.

I switched to the file for the second camera, which was mounted at the other end of the hallway. Again, the hallway door was open, a hand on the inner knob, the arm it was attached to disappearing inside the closet. For a moment, nothing changed, as if the person was listening...and then someone came out.

Mark.

My mouth hung open in disbelief, my head just unable to process what I was seeing. Mark was the ghost? How was that possible?

I simply stared at the image on the screen. My Mark. In Granddad's condo! A series of disjointed thoughts flashed through my head in short order, each lit by different shades of emotion: angry disbelief at the realization that I had been fooled by a guy I thought I was falling in love with; consternation and confusion, over how it could even be that Mark was in the building at all; a stunned understanding that it had to have been him in the hallway that day I sensed an intruder; and a vivid and undeniably anxious accompanying notion that he must somehow be behind all the weird 'ghost' events all over the upper floor of The Boltfort for the past several months. Months!

That would mean he was already here, well before I arrived. That would mean he discovered I was here the day I sensed him in the hallway. And that would mean...he had overheard Granddad and I planning our trip to the catacombs, and purposely gone there to meet me! The ideas were scary, the planning apparent now, and the reasons...every stalker movie I'd ever seen flashed brief scenes in my mind.

But...everything that had happened between us had seemed so real! So spontaneous! Not planned, not cold and plotted. Not made up, with some ulterior motive in mind.

In the video, Mark came out of the closet, and walked down to the door of the guest room. My room. He extended his arms and leaned against the door frame, and looked inside, and just stood there. For more than a minute he didn't move; and then he raised a hand and wiped at his eyes, and I realized he was crying.

Crying. All my suspicions faded then. The anger, the disbelief...all of it receded to the back of my mind with the simple understanding that Mark was expressing anguish over something. And that that something simply had to do with me. I gasped, realizing that in my anger I had not given him the benefit of the doubt in any of my thinking, something I certainly owed him if I cared about him at all.

A slow, aching feeling rose from the pit of my stomach. I did care about him.

But I was frozen now, watching, as Mark just stood there, looking into my room, occasionally wiping at his eyes, and doing nothing else at all. The timer on the recording hit three minutes, and then four, and then five, and still he just stood there, looking into my room like he might find me there. Six minutes passed, and now he seemed to be talking to himself. Seven minutes, and he was shaking his head, and kneading himself between the eyes with a tightened fist.

And then he suddenly started, looked back towards the front of the condo, and then tiptoed back to the closet door, went inside, and closed the door.

The recording froze, and then ended. Clearly, this had been the point where I had returned home. Then Mark must still be nearby!

I jumped to my feet, raced down the hall, and threw open the closet door. I scrabbled for the light switch within, found it, and pushed it upwards. The light came on, revealing the inside of the closet.

Empty, just like before.

Once again I went about the walls, pushing on them, but they were solid. The floor was carpeted, and I pulled on that and pushed, but it was securely attached to the floor. I looked up then, shielding my eyes from the overhead light.

That only left the ceiling. It was covered with carved panels, and looked as solid as the walls. The circular light fixture was set towards the rear of the closet, leaving more than enough room for a door or hatch of some kind towards the front. I had examined the ceiling several times already, and hadn't seen anything of the sort. What I needed to do now was to examine it more closely. It had to be the way Mark had gotten into the condo!

But what if there was no door there? What if there was nothing? It just couldn't be so...unless Mark was somehow not real.

For just a second I was stunned all over again, the idea that Mark might really be a ghost creeping eerily up my spine and expanding inside my head. But...wait. That was a ridiculous idea. I didn't believe in crap like that, for one thing, and besides...no ghost could kiss like Mark could kiss. I smiled briefly at that, and examined the ceiling again. That had to be it!

And then I was on my way to the dining room. There I pulled one of the stout wooden chairs from beneath the table and carried it back to the closet, positioned it beneath the expanse of paneled ceiling inside the closet door, and then climbed aboard. The chair gave me the height I needed to touch the ceiling, and I gave it a gentle push.

Not only did it give a bit, but it groaned. I gave it another push, and could then see a line that ran directly above me, normally concealed between rows of panels. But when I pushed harder, I could feel a solid resistance, telling me quite surely that either the panel was locked somehow, or that it wasn't designed to move upwards. That could only mean that it was meant to come down.

I got down off the chair and moved it closer to the closet door, got back up and pushed gently on the ceiling again. This time I discovered the leading edge of what was certainly a rectangle, one large enough to be the very door I was searching for. I gently bounced the panel, until the leading edge dropped enough that I could dig my fingernails into it...

I managed to pry it downward. Just as it got to a point where it resisted, my fingers slipped into the exposed crack, and then I was able to apply more force. I grabbed hold, and carefully stepped down off the chair.

The ceiling dropped at an angle, now obviously secured at the back by hinges, just in front of the light fixture. I lowered it carefully, and as it came down I was treated to slower version of the weird bird call I'd heard before, though now I could plainly see the large springs on either side of the panel that were the origins of the sound. And then I was looking at a folded ladder inside the panel, no different than the one leading up to the attic in my father's own house.

An attic!

I wasted a moment staring at it, before grasping the ladder and pulling it down. It unfolded easily, and as it did so, handrails stood up along each side, and the panel dropped even lower until the end of the ladder touched the floor.

Above was a square rectangle of darkness, and the answer, perhaps, to more than one riddle in my life just now. I had to know, and I had to know now. I knew that this would probably lead to a confrontation, and one that might not turn out well. But I had to know what was going on, and whether or not it meant the end of my relationship with Mark.

So I grasped the handrails, put a foot on the first step, and started upwards.

Copyright © 2020 Geron Kees; All Rights Reserved.
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Chapter Comments



Ah ha!

Mark is the ghost! And he’s inside the building. I had wondered if David would catch Mark living inside Central Park or something.
;–)

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16 minutes ago, travlbug said:

I'd chide him for failing to take a flashlight--Frank and Joe would never have let that happen 😂--but these new-fangled smart phones even have an app for that!

But if this were a scary teenager movie, they’d strip down first before exploring to discover what the strange noise was in the dark!
;–)

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18 minutes ago, Fae Briona said:

Hm..  why do none of the tenants know about the attics? They would have to be interconnected for him to be able to move from apt to apt

Elderly wealthy people have no reason to check out attics. It’s very possible that only the maintenance people were aware of its existence. There’s also an implication that the attic is accessible from the back stairs…
;–)

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15 minutes ago, ColumbusGuy said:

What further mysteries will David find beyond Mark?

Apparently, there’s a thriving community with a restaurant since Mark is a waiter! More exiles who can be reconnected to Nicklas?
;–)

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2 hours ago, Geron Kees said:

It will appear at 8:00 tomorrow morning

17 minutes ago, empresslovesreading said:

Well that's sucky!

That’s 5am PDT! I may still be awake when it drops…
;–)

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36 minutes ago, droughtquake said:

That’s 5am PDT! I may still be awake when it drops…
;–/

My ass, and the rest of me, plan to be asleep at 8:00 AM but it'll be a better reason to get up than needing to pee.

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Wow , so we have to play Sherlock Holmes, interesting chapter,and even more interesting times ahead

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4 hours ago, Fae Briona said:

Hm..  why do none of the tenants know about the attics? They would have to be interconnected for him to be able to move from apt to apt

There's some explanation for that later. :)

 

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