by Tom Buck
A supernatural mystery. Can something from "beyond the grave" disrupt our fragile world?
Sentenced to Hell
A Novel by Tom Buckley
January 2, 2007 – 11:05 pm
Maybe I need an exorcist. Maybe I'm going insane.
Someone or something was in the house tonight. If Bosco could talk, he would back me up. Or, am I just imagining all of this? Nothing makes sense. I'm exhausted, but I'm afraid to sleep.
And what about Holly? Why would she want to carry on a relationship with a nutcase? Maybe if I explained all of this to her, we could laugh it off together. Probably not. How in the world am I going to be able to act normal around her when I pick her up tomorrow night? I pray that I don’t turn into a stuttering moron. It feels as if there’s a three-ring circus going on inside my head.
Here I am rambling again.
God help me. I have to get a grip. I want my life back. All I know for sure is that something is terribly wrong. If this is some kind of joke, whoever's behind it is damn good. We'll have a laugh when I'm let in on it. I wish I could find a shred of hope that allowed me to believe that’s what’s happening.
The e-mails, texts, wiring problems, and the strange happenings from tonight are bad enough. But, the dreams are the worst of it. They become more like reality with each replay. The one this morning was the worst yet.
I’m trembling as I write this. I have to admit that I'm scared to death. I have no idea where this is heading, and I've lost control of my life.
Could it be the house? That doesn’t make sense. Nothing makes sense right now. I've got to get to the bottom of this. My very existence may be at stake.
If things were normal, I probably would have started tonight’s entry with, “I'm pissed because I still didn't get my Secret Santa gift.”
Things are not normal – not at all!!!!
The setting was always the same. He stood naked on ground that was hard as rock and so hot that it should have burned the skin off his feet. He couldn’t move, but his senses operated at full throttle. The murky darkness that surrounded him was so alive that it crawled over his flesh. Vague shapes and forms lurked nearby. He sensed that these beings weren't human and that they were sizing him up for some ungodly purpose.
The smell of the place was overwhelmingly vile. He compared it to a mixture of decomposing bodies and burning rubber, but that didn't do it justice. Huge fires burned in the distance. But, what terrified him most was the chorus of relentless screams coming from all directions. Something unthinkable was going on in this horrible habitat.
As was the usual case when these nightmares derailed his sleep, Charles woke up in a cold sweat, clutching his damp pillow. He wondered what the dreams meant and why they seemed so real. They stayed with him for days, or longer, while his more mundane dreams faded as quickly as smoke in the wind. And, with each occurrence, they became more vivid, as if he were visiting a place that actually existed.
Glancing at the alarm clock, Charles saw that he had over an hour before it would summon him to get ready for work. The dreams worried him. He had never had nightmares like this until recently. Before then, his worst dreams were of the common variety, such as falling off a building, or walking around naked in public. But this was very different, and he couldn't figure out why it was happening.
He wondered if the nightmares could be associated with the house he had moved into six months earlier, since he had recorded the first occurrence a little over a month after moving in. But, his new home was located on a quiet street in a peaceful neighborhood, so he couldn't come up with an explanation as to how a location could be the cause. The strange dreams began shortly after he had started dating Holly. For the most part, nothing else in his life had changed.
Charles considered seeing a professional, maybe a psychiatrist or a therapist. He didn't know if he could afford that, although he had no idea what it would cost. His parents paid for his therapy when he was a child. He had a healthy balance in his investment account, but it was against his principles to make withdrawals. He imagined that they would suggest weekly sessions for a year or so. He wondered if his medical plan at work would cover most of the cost. And, if so, would his boss find out and think he had “mental problems.” He knew that Al would have a field day with that tidbit of information.
Sitting up in bed, Charles switched off the alarm clock at 5:40 a.m., although it had been set for 6:45. On mornings like this, he knew that he couldn’t sleep any longer and would only torture himself by trying.
It was Wednesday, January 2nd, a work day. The holidays had come and gone for Charles without much fanfare, including his thirty-fifth birthday on December 23rd. He felt shortchanged by his birth date and had long since concluded that most people were too busy preparing for Christmas to have time for him on his special day.
He spent the evening of his birthday at Holly’s condo, but she was preoccupied with her upcoming trip to Ohio. Most of the time, Charles sat with her Siamese cat, Sasha, while she prepared for her early morning flight. Luckily, his allergy didn’t kick-in too badly. He had been allergic to cat dander since childhood. They had dinner, Holly gave him a birthday present, and they exchanged Christmas gifts. He was perplexed by the birthday present, a gift certificate for iTunes, until he opened his Christmas gift and found an iPod. He was delighted, and they laughed together knowing that Holly had set him up.
Charles had spent a lot of time deciding on just the right gift for Holly, finally opting for an expensive vase that she had admired a few weeks before when they were shopping. She said that she loved it and gave him a big hug.
He left just before midnight with his gifts, a kiss on the lips, a tickle in his throat, watery eyes, a runny nose, and an itchy tongue. Before getting into his car, he took a deep breath of crisp, fresh air, enjoying the cleansing sensation. While blowing his nose into a wad of toilet paper he fished out of a pocket in his jeans, he made a mental note to bring a handkerchief whenever he visited Holly.
When he got home, the message light was flashing on his phone. He let Bosco in, and they went through their usual greeting ritual. Charles then listened to the Happy Birthday messages from his family, with his brother and his sister calling him Charlie, a nickname he never used when referring to himself. He played each message a couple of times. That helped to ease the loneliness that was starting to creep into the pit of his stomach. “Love you Charlie,” was the last thing he heard as his sister ended her greeting.
He thought that at least Charlie was better than Chuck, a name that some of his co-workers insisted on calling him. His given name was Charles Rayborn. That’s how he introduced himself and signed his name. It was also his e-mail signature. He wished that people would address him accordingly, but he seldom corrected anyone.
Charles couldn’t say that he had ever experienced much of a love life. He had many dates and even a few serious relationships, but nothing long-term. He proposed marriage once but was refused. That relationship then deteriorated rapidly. Although many people considered him good looking, and someone even referred to him as "a catch,” he couldn’t seem to keep a relationship going. He blamed it on the slight stutter in his speech that crept in when he was nervous, upset, or unusually tired. He was determined to overcome that impediment.
Charles had been seeing Holly for over five months, but, according to her, that wasn’t long enough for her to invite him to her parents’ house in Ohio for the holidays. That had been a topic of serious conversation over the previous two weeks. He had been excited about the two of them spending Christmas together. More than a few times, he had caught himself humming the Burl Ives classic – Have a Holly Jolly Christmas. But, that was before she broke the news that she would be leaving town for the holidays. He missed her and was looking forward to her return.
Charles rolled out of bed and dragged his tired body to the master bathroom. The warm water in the shower felt relaxing. After shaving over the sink, he stepped back and looked at himself in the mirror. He was proud of his appearance and liked the fact that he was sometimes called handsome. His thick, dark black hair was always neatly trimmed and combed straight back, with a natural wave. He had a standing appointment at a hair salon every Saturday at 9:00 a.m. He liked being the first customer of the day while his regular hair stylist was still fresh. She was cute enough to flirt with, but he had never gotten up the nerve to ask her out. He knew that his family would never approve of him going out with a hairdresser.
Admiring the way that his dark eyes complemented his narrow face, Charles absentmindedly gave his strong-looking shoulders and arms a once-over. At six feet tall, he considered 180 pounds to be his ideal weight. Stepping on the scale every morning, even one pound overweight resulted in a day of limited caloric intake. He thought that he still looked young with his high cheekbones and prominent jaw. He didn’t have a noticeable wrinkle on his face. His workouts, at a minimum of four times a week, kept his body trim and slightly muscular.
Still groggy, Charles wandered into his home office and booted up his computer to check his personal AOL e-mail account. He didn’t care for the audio voice announcing that he had mail, but he chose not to switch from AOL or turn off the sound. There were three new messages. The oldest was from Holly from late the night before. He recognized her mother’s e-mail address. It was the fourth time that she initiated contact since she left town. She sent an e-mail saying that she had arrived safely, she called on Christmas Day, and she sent a funny holiday e-mail a few days later. He had called her three times, and the conversations were pleasant. He wanted to talk to her every day, but didn’t want to appear “pushy.” Neither of them was into text messaging. In the e-mail he was staring at now, she actually said that she missed him. He replied that he missed her too, and added a smiley face, thinking that maybe the relationship could go somewhere. He genuinely liked her, but he had to be careful not to run her off. His dating resume would confirm that he had that capability. He had even kept his speech impediment under control while around her, and it had never been mentioned. He moved her message to the folder named “From Holly,” and then immediately deleted the second message that came from a furniture store where he had an account.
In the latest e-mail, the subject line displayed “RE:” and the sender was “UNKNOWN.” It had arrived at 5:17 a.m. There were only a few discernable words in the text, but Charles felt a chill run through his body when he saw the words “Charlee” and “Hell” along with a bunch of gibberish. He had received a number of similar e-mails over the previous few weeks. Charles had read that spam could even be generated from foreign countries. He sat and thought for a moment. Was it actually supposed to be my name? How would they get my name? He used no part of his name in his private e-mail address, and he was very protective of his personal information. He didn’t belong to any dating services and had no social networking accounts. “God only knows where these people get their information,” he said as he hit Delete. He decided that the dream had just shaken him.
It was a casual week at the office, but Charles still selected black dress pants, a pin-striped dress shirt, and freshly polished shoes. He knew that most of his co-workers would be in jeans, but that wasn't his style. No tie was his version of casual at work. He pulled a tan sports coat off its hanger and headed to the kitchen to make breakfast.
Ten minutes later, Charles sat down at the small round table in the breakfast nook next to the kitchen with his morning fare in front of him. He liked to eat in that spot, because he could watch his big-screen TV in the den from that vantage point. As usual, his best friend was lying on the floor next to his feet. Charles had his normal breakfast: two scrambled eggs, a piece of dry toast with strawberry jam, two microwaved slices of bacon, and a glass of orange juice. For variety, grapefruit juice sometimes replaced its orange counterpart. He avoided coffee, since it tended to make him jittery. As usual, he watched the local news and weather. The stories from New Years Day included two shootings, a house fire caused by fireworks, a high-speed chase, a stabbing during a domestic dispute, a sex scandal, a home-invasion robbery, and a heartwarming story about the adoption of a blind dog from a shelter. It had been a busy news day, but Charles wasn't entertained. At least the weather girl said it was going to be a pleasant day.
One thing that Charles liked about living in North Texas was that the weather could be good almost any time of year. He also liked the weather girl, often calling her “smoking hot,” if only to himself. He had wished that he could meet her, but now he had a girlfriend, so maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea. But, he still enjoyed watching her perform on HDTV. As the sports segment came on, he turned off the TV and read a chapter from a novel to pass time before he had to let Bosco out and leave for work.
Charles knew that he would have a lot to do when he arrived at the office. He had checked his business e-mail account a couple of times between Christmas and New Years and saw that he had numerous messages. Most of them involved someone on a "mission" wanting something from him. He never responded on holidays, vacations, or weekends. That didn’t seem to slow them down. At least his boss didn’t bother him much during those times, as he was usually preoccupied with personal issues.
Knowing that it was going to be a busy day didn't make him want to get to work early. However, he would be punctual. That was one thing he prided himself on. He was almost always there on time. In the seven years he had worked at Patton Brothers, he was only late on one occasion, but that wasn’t his fault. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit system let him down. He gave his boss a written explanation and followed-up later with an apology letter from DART, which he obtained after a week of badgering the highest-level employee who would speak with him.
The time off was refreshing, but Charles dreaded going back to the office. Most of the time, he liked his job. It was after an extended time away that it was hard to go back. He knew that the first time he heard “Hey Chuck,” he would wish he were somewhere else. Al, his boss, was usually in a foul mood around year-end, especially if his football betting went sour, as it usually did with so many “big games” over the holidays.
As Charles got into his bright red 1999 Pontiac Firebird and drove to the train station, he couldn’t help thinking about his vacation. It started at noon on his birthday, right after he dropped off his “Secret Santa” gift for one of his co-workers and left the office. He hadn’t received his gift yet, but he was confident that it would be on the desk in his cubicle when he returned to work.
He had felt reasonably happy the afternoon of December 23rd as he got ready to see Holly, glad that he would have company on his birthday. He still had some hope that something would change. Maybe she would choose to stay and spend the holidays with him. Maybe she would invite him to go to Ohio. Perhaps she would ask him to spend the night – after all, it was his birthday. None of those fantasies played-out.
Christmas Eve was a slow day. He picked Holly up at six in the morning and drove her to DFW Airport for her 8:10 a.m. flight. The trip wasn’t eventful, as Holly was tired from only four hours of sleep. He felt sad after he kissed her goodbye.
Charles finished his Christmas shopping later that morning, but that didn’t take long. He got a bottle of Vodka for Joe, his semi-retired next door neighbor, who was also his handyman. He then picked-up a gift certificate from a department store for the mail lady. He delivered the Vodka to Joe in a gift bag and left the gift certificate in the mailbox. He had shipped presents to his family earlier in the month and had given Al the obligatory “nice gift” at the sales department holiday party on the 15th.
About mid-afternoon, the doorbell rang, and Charles and Bosco greeted a freckled-faced delivery boy at the front door. The kid held out a large box marked “PERISHABLE.” Charles knew that it would be his gift from Al, who traditionally sent a frozen turkey to each of his direct reports on Christmas Eve. This was the fourth year for Charles to receive his gift. He handed the boy a five-dollar bill as they exchanged holiday pleasantries. He then lugged the box to the kitchen table and opened the card. The message read, “Merry Christmas, Al.” Under the greeting was a cartoon image of Santa Claus hugging a snowman.
The joke around the office was, “Did you get your turkey from the turkey?” It was especially popular to pose that question to Jake, the salesman of Jewish faith, who also got the “Merry Christmas” greeting. Al’s assistant, Meredith, wasn’t shy about telling people that she did the ordering and the company paid the bill. Al just gave her the names, including hers, and the message, which never varied. She followed his instructions to the letter, even though she was aware of religious preferences. The word around the office was that the two of them had a fling that Al eventually broke off.
In previous years, Charles gave away the turkey to neighbors because it wouldn’t fit in the compact refrigerator-freezer in his apartment. Not that he would have known what to do with it anyway. This time, he squeezed it into his slightly bigger freezer, hoping that he and Holly could make a feast out of it.
Since his girlfriend was out of town, his family lived far away, and his friends were busy with their families, Charles was alone with Bosco on Christmas. He wanted to treat himself to a fancy meal, but he decided that he didn’t want to be in a restaurant alone on Christmas for fear that others would view him as a loser. He found an open grocery store and bought the makings to fix a special meal for himself to the best of his limited abilities. Around mid-afternoon, he filled Bosco’s food bowl with sliced chicken breast, and then sat down to enjoy his handiwork. The pasta turned out chewy and the chicken overdone, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. He was proud that the broccoli was cooked perfectly and glad that Bosco seemed to enjoy every bite of the chicken.
Late that evening, Charles called his parents’ house, where the family gathering was taking place. He wished that he would have made plans to be there, but he wanted to give Holly every opportunity to be with him for the holidays. By the time he knew that there was no chance of that, plane fares to Boston were outrageously expensive. His dad asked about his girlfriend, and that cheered him up. Just after eight p.m., Holly called to say “Merry Christmas.” She seemed to be in a great mood, making him miss her even more.
Charles didn’t have a lot to do between Christmas and New Years, but he needed to take his remaining vacation days by year-end or lose them. He read two novels, played a round of golf with friends, worked out at the health club every day, and ate out a few times. Only once did a bizarre dream interrupt the otherwise peaceful week. On the night of December 27th, he went to a sports bar to hang out with an alumni group from The University of Texas and watch the Longhorns play in the Holiday Bowl. Charles graduated with honors from UT in 1995.
Even though Charles wasn’t much of a sports fan, he had fun that night. He was working on his social interaction skills and was currently focusing on first impressions. He tried out some new icebreaking remarks, and he had even gathered statistics about the Longhorn’s season to sprinkle into conversations. His new approach was proving better than his usual, “I’m not much of a football fan,” comment. He knew a handful of people in the group, made some new friends, and even got an invitation to a New Years Eve party. The Longhorn fans were in good spirits as their team quickly got the best of the Sun Devils.
After a few drinks, Charles had an enjoyable, stutter-free conversation with Anne, an attractive and available girl that he had met once before. He felt guilty accepting her name and phone number written on a napkin. When he got home, he stuck it in a desk drawer.
Although not in front of her, he referred to Holly as his girlfriend. They hadn't had a discussion about their relationship being exclusive, but it felt that way to him. He hoped that it was the same with her.
On Sunday, December 30th, he watched part of the Cowboys-Redskins game, only because Holly was a big Cowboys fan. They had watched most of the games together during November and December. The fact that he was watching by himself made him long for her even more. The game was boring, as the Cowboys had already clinched the top playoff spot and didn't play their starters long. They were never really in the game and lost 27-6.
Charles enjoyed the party on New Years Eve. Anne was there, and they spent time together. At midnight, she gave him a seductive kiss on the lips. That was just before he stepped outside to call Holly to wish her a Happy New Year. By one in the morning, Anne had given him signals indicating that he could take her home. Resisting the temptation, he left by himself. Anne’s last words to him were, “Call me.” On the way home, he felt good. He had a girlfriend and another girl hitting on him.
The warm, fuzzy feelings had passed by the time he woke up from a restless night’s sleep. He was worried about his flirtations with Anne. Charles was accomplished at playing the “What if?” game. He came up with a number of scenarios where his relationship with Holly might be ruined. He recovered the napkin with Anne’s name on it and ground it through the garbage disposal, which made him feel a little better. He retrieved the morning paper from his front porch and ate breakfast while he scanned the stories. He found a couple of interest and read those in their entirety. Over the next hour, he took down the Christmas decorations and put the tree out for trash collection. He stored the decorations neatly in his attic. The rest of New Years Day was uneventful. He tried to watch the bowl games, but couldn’t get interested.
The daydreaming about his vacation ended abruptly as Charles realized that he had to park and hustle to catch the train. He could take the next one and still get to work on time, but he didn’t like sitting and waiting during the five-minute interval between arrivals. He made the train and enjoyed reading the Dallas Morning News during the twenty-five-minute ride to downtown Dallas. He read an article about gang-related activity in the Metroplex, and he was glad that none of it was near his neighborhood. During the last few minutes of the ride, he thought about the dreams.
Charles got to his cubicle at 7:47 a.m., about his usual time. He looked around his desk and through his unlocked drawers for his Secret Santa gift but found nothing. Thinking that the Secret Santa program had bamboozled him started his day on a bad note. Should I tell someone? He decided that would seem petty. He regretted spending more than the suggested $15 on the lucky person whose name he had fished out of a stupidly decorated bowl. He consoled himself with the thought that his gift would probably show up later.
Getting down to business, Charles made the necessary keystrokes to awaken his computer. It sparked to life in a few seconds. Patton Brothers had an excellent IT staff. For the most part, they kept the electronics side of the business running smoothly. Even on the rare occasions when Charles worked from home, he could easily access all of his information remotely.
As he clicked on his e-mail icon and watched a seemingly endless string of new electronic pieces of mail appear, he absentmindedly made a neat pile of the papers and envelopes that had been carelessly strewn on his desk while he was gone. When his computer had everything up to date, he sorted his e-mail messages by name so that he could deal with those from Al first. He then opened his Excel program and pulled up his “To Do” file so that he could add the requests that would be embedded in many of the e-mails. Charles’ coworkers considered him an expert in Excel. They nicknamed him “Mr. Spreadsheet,” a title he enjoyed. By 8:30 a.m., he was finished with Al’s e-mails and had added eight items to his list. He scrolled to the top and started methodically going through the rest of the messages. By 9:45 a.m., he was near the bottom and had added ten more items to the list. He knew that he was going to be working hard during the abbreviated workweek. Feeling tired and overwhelmed as he walked to the break room to get a cup of decaf, he considered switching to regular coffee, but he stuck with decaf, reserving the right to have the stronger stuff later.
As he headed back to his cubicle, Charles was mentally scheduling his day. He would check the last few e-mails, prioritize his To Do list, and then start clearing items from the list. At noon, he would grab a sandwich from the deli downstairs and eat at his desk. He normally worked well under pressure and figured that he would make good progress by quitting time.
After sitting back down at his desk, Charles sipped his coffee and scrolled through the last few unread e-mails. He had been going in order, but the last one caught his attention, so he opened that one first. The words on the screen froze him over the keyboard. The message was from “UNKNOWN” and simply read, “U HEAR THE SCREAMS.” The time stamp was 5:35 a.m. that morning. When he was able to function, he hit Reply but only got SENDER UNKNOWN. Please tell me something I don’t already know.
He thought that maybe someone in IT was playing a practical joke on him. It wouldn’t be the first time, and they usually started work early. But how could they know about the screams? I haven’t shared the crazy nightmares with anyone. As luck would have it, Al appeared in his cubicle while Charles was still in shock. His first comments were, “Your Texas boys cost me a bunch of money the other night. I had Arizona State and the under. I thought about you after Texas scored the first twenty-one points of the game, all in the first quarter.”
If sarcasm were a marketable skill, Al could make a fortune holding seminars teaching the finer points. But, he was skilled at his chosen profession. As Sales Manager, he had a team of twelve salespeople and Charles as the Sales Analyst. As Al was standing in the cubicle, going on-and-on about his losses on the game, and others that he had lost because of bad calls or blown plays, Charles realized that his day was unraveling.
As expected, Al wasn’t in a good mood, and the ensuing conversation about the workload made Charles feel even more nervous. Bonuses were riding on the year-end numbers, and Al needed to know how much his would be as soon as possible. Charles imagined that there were probably a few bookies that also had a vested interest in Al’s finances. The previous year he had the company cut two checks for his substantial bonus. The smaller one he brought home; the second one he laughingly said would be used for “other purposes.” Charles had heard that along with a wife and two kids, Al also had a girlfriend.
As he tried to work, Charles couldn’t have felt more jumpy if there had been water dripping on the top of his head. He wasn’t accomplishing much because thoughts about the e-mails were rolling around in his head. As he got to the office that morning, he had decided that he would put away his worries about the dreams while he worked. Instead, they were frolicking around in the middle of his brain along with all sorts of negative thoughts, one of which was, Am I going crazy?
Charles didn’t know much about the inner workings of e-mail, but he thought there must be a logical explanation for the one he was currently concerned about. He decided to ask Joel Parker for help without acting too alarmed. Joel was the most helpful and friendly person in the IT department and was technically competent. Charles walked to Joel’s workstation. They chatted about the holidays for a few minutes and Joel even asked how things were going with Holly. Charles tried to appear relaxed, even though it felt as if he had ants crawling under his clothes. He finally posed the question about the e-mail as casually as he could, adding, “N-no big deal, I’m just curious.”
Joel said that an e-mail like that shouldn’t be able to get through because of the sophisticated blocking software the company used. He asked if the message was still there. Charles confirmed that it was as Joel pulled up his account.
“What time did you get it?” Joel asked.
“Early this morning.”
“I don't see it. It must have been deleted.”
Charles asked if anyone inside the company could be messing with his e-mail account. Joel made a few keystrokes and answered, “No.” Charles trusted him.
Back at his cubicle, Charles checked his e-mail and found that the one in question was gone. He remembered staring at it just before he went to see Joel. I didn't delete it. Or did I? It occurred to him that, in his current state of mind, short-term memory loss could certainly be on the menu.
Charles skipped lunch, which was a rare occurrence. During the afternoon, he did as much as he could under the circumstances, considering that he was a nervous wreck. He remembered having a few conversations with co-workers, but they were just a blur. He left at the usual time.
Riding the train back to the Forest Lane Station, Charles tried to clear his head. Could it be a coincidence? Did I imagine the e-mail? I did feel pretty uptight. He got off the train and walked the short distance to his car. As he was getting in, his cell phone beeped, indicating a voice mail message. He found that odd, since his cell phone had been with him all day, and it hadn’t rung. He started the car, fastened the seat belt, and pressed the voice mail button on his phone before pulling out of the parking lot. All he heard was static. Frustrated, he deleted the message. As he merged into traffic, he thought that he had heard a faint voice behind the static. Now he regretted deleting the recording. It was just another item to add to the ever-increasing “issue pile” in his head. He wished that he had someone to talk to. He thought that maybe if he could open up to Holly, they would just laugh this off together.
Charles felt relieved as he finally pulled into his driveway. He liked his house, except for the apparent wiring problems. He had gotten to know Joe quite well, and paid him to take care of routine maintenance. Since moving in, he had experienced fuzzy pictures on cable TV, static on the phone line, lights flickering, Internet outages, and glitches with the alarm system. Usually, by the time Joe came to fix the problem, it had corrected itself. Charles got tired of hearing him say, “It must have been a loose wire.” It had even gotten to be a joke between them. When they saw each other, Joe liked to smile and ask, “Got any loose wires?” Today, Charles felt like the wires in his brain were loose.
Charles was proud of his modest house. Being a homeowner suited him well, after living in three different apartments since moving out of the dorm in Austin. He was also pleased with himself for getting a good deal. A fraternity brother from UT, who worked for a bank, had called and told him about the property. The bank had foreclosed, and they needed to get rid of it. It was even furnished. Sometimes Charles wondered about the sad story that must surely lie behind the foreclosure. He didn't want to know the details, so he hadn’t asked any questions.
Although it had quite a few years on it, the red-brick house was in reasonably good shape when he moved in, even though it had been vacant for well over a year. With a proper cleaning and a little touch-up paint, it was in move-in condition. Charles set up an office in one of the two bedrooms. He bought a sofa bed for the living room, thinking that it would serve the purpose if he had an overnight guest since there was a full bath nearby. The adequate kitchen and breakfast area was open to the comfortable den across the hallway. An oversized single-car garage provided adequate storage for tools and lawn equipment. He appreciated the spacious master bedroom and adjoining master bathroom that the previous owner had obviously remodeled. He replaced a few pieces of furniture and décor items, but he didn’t have to spend much money to get the place feeling like home. His plan called for adding color by repainting some of the egg-shell-white walls and by changing the bland carpeting. Holly had offered to help and said that she had some ideas on curtains and furnishings, but they hadn't had time to start the process.
The landscaping around the house showed the effects of neglect. Soon after moving in, Charles started working on "curb appeal." After a number of trips to a nearby nursery and a few weekends of hard work, the yard and gardens were in tune with the neighborhood. The backyard featured a wrought iron fence across the back of the property with a gate that opened to a neighborhood park. He planted purple wisteria vines along the fence, hoping that by spring, he would be able to enjoy the smell of blossoms, as he had growing up in Boston. His mom loved wisteria, and each summer purple flowers flowed freely around the grounds of the estate.
As Charles grew up, the family always had at least one dog. Shortly after he moved into his new house, he decided that it would be nice to have a “four-legged friend” around. He went to a local animal shelter and picked out a chocolate-colored beagle that they said was “loving, house-trained, and well-behaved.” They were right. His coloring reminded Charles of his favorite childhood drink, so he named him Bosco. They became best friends immediately.
At first, Charles felt safe in his house and didn't think that a man living alone had need for an alarm system, especially with a dog on the premises. Those thoughts changed after the strange dreams started. He had an odd feeling that something wasn't right. Sometimes he sensed that there was someone else in the house, especially after Bosco started a habit of standing and barking at a blank wall or a closed door. Each time he searched the house, his suspicions proved to be unfounded. But, for a little extra peace of mind, he had an alarm system installed and subscribed to the alarm company’s monitoring service. Because he felt “wimpy” arming the system when he was home, he only used it when leaving the house for an extended period, including going to work. The fact that it had a silent alarm panic button and that the keypads chimed when a door or window opened, made him feel secure enough when he was home. On four occasions, he arrived back home, sure that he had turned on the alarm when he left, only to find the system unarmed. The first time, he chalked it up to a memory lapse. The second time, he had the alarm company out on a repair call.
The friendly repairman pronounced the system to be in perfect working order. “You probably forgot to arm it,” he said. “Happens all the time.” He handed Charles a copy of a form, tipped his cap, and left.
Charles devised a system for making sure he knew that he had armed the system. He always left the house through the laundry room door that led to the garage. One of Bosco’s leashes hung on a hook right outside the door. After he punched-in the code, and the keypad was beeping as it counted down thirty seconds to arming, Charles took the leash from the hook and hung it over the doorknob. When he got home, he put it back on the hook.
His plan worked for a couple of weeks. Then one day he came home to find the leash on the doorknob and the system unarmed.
“Are you sure you set it when you left?” the repairman asked after he found everything in working order for the second time.
“Y-yes,” Charles answered, starting to doubt himself as he glanced at the leash hanging on the door.
“Does anyone else have the code?”
“It might be a good idea to change it, just in case.” The man handed Charles a copy of the completed work order and didn't seem too happy about what he obviously perceived to be user error. “If the alarm was set, and there was a violation of the perimeter without the proper code being entered, it would have gone off. The station would have been notified, and you would have been called. If you didn't answer, the police would have been summoned, and the keypad would show where the entry took place. None of that happened, so either the system wasn't on or someone used the code to enter. Have a nice day.” He didn't tip his cap this time as he turned and headed for his truck.
As he changed the code, Charles thought about the old saying, Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me.
Charles didn't think the man would go for being fooled again, so when it happened for the fourth time, even though the leash was hanging over the door handle when he got home, he didn't call the alarm company. He was starting to hate modern technology. It had now been over two months since he had armed the system, but he did test it once a week to make sure it was monitored.
Charles parked his car in the garage and walked the short distance to the door leading into the house. He always felt a twinge of guilt for not using the alarm system each time it chimed his return home, usually consoling himself with the fact that it netted him a discount on his homeowners insurance. He crossed the laundry room and entered the hallway that ran from the front door to the back of the house. After a short walk down the hall, which turned into a passageway as it crossed through the center of the house, he entered the kitchen. He laid his sports coat and briefcase on the breakfast table and went to the door to let Bosco in. As soon as the door was open, they welcomed each other’s affections. He then set his cell phone in its charger on the kitchen counter and opened the refrigerator to get a beer. He walked into the den, turned on the TV, twisted off the cap from a Heineken, took a long swig, and plopped down on the dark leather sofa. He usually drank from a glass, but tonight he thought, What the hell? The first thing he heard as the TV came on was the news anchorman saying, “What a beautiful day we had today.” Charles answered, “Maybe your day was beautiful, but mine sucked.”
He couldn’t stomach much for dinner, so he ate nuts and chips while watching the news and a sitcom he had recorded. Even the evening weather girl couldn’t cheer him up with her perky good mood. After his second beer, he was starting to feel more relaxed, but he still had a lot on his plate. He couldn't help wondering if he was creating all of this in his mind. He was also concerned about how was he going to be able to act normal around Holly.
Charles spent the next hour lost in a horror novel. It helped to keep his mind from focusing on the horror story that his life had become. He closed the book just after nine p.m. and then spent a few minutes thinking about Holly. He decided to see if she had sent him any messages.
He turned on his computer and accessed his personal e-mail account. As soon as he saw the header in the only new item, all he could say was “O-oh no.” He immediately hit Reply and typed “Who are you?”
This is all I will be posting of this story on writing.com. I'm looking for a few more "first readers" to continue from here. If you are interested, you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.