Jason prepares to push forward with his plan as George knowingly aids him.
Jason, George, and Apartment 12
Jason reached the top of the stairs just as a woman and two young boys came out onto the third floor landing from apartment 11, directly across from apartment 12. The older boy didn't spare he and George a look, and the younger one seemed to be wrapped up in flying an action figure through the air. Amber, if Jason remembered her name correctly, gave a quick wave and a "hi" to George, and for an instant there appeared to be a glimmer of recognition as she switched her eyes back to Jason, but she turned away quickly and guided her boys down the stairs.
Jason could remember a few times being with Miranda out here on the landing, and being able to hear a man shouting, either at the mother or the boys. It was hard to tell what he was saying, he seemed to slur a lot. Miranda had just shaken her head and tightened her lips when Jason would look to her for explanation. There hadn't been any contact with the father other than passing him on the stairs on one occasion. Jason remembered that he'd been wearing a workshirt from a local mechanic's shop, and had been carrying a six-pack of beer with him as he headed up the stairs. He knew from the bruises he'd seen on Amber's face on occasion that he probably had quite a temper, especially when he'd been drinking. Jason had no empathy at all for the man.
Jason moved aside to let George get to the door. He listened carefully for other signs of life from the three other apartments on the third floor, but all he could hear was a TV blaring what sounded like a professional wrestling show. That was coming from apartment 11. He remembered that apartment 10 was occupied by a single man that worked second shift at a local factory. He wouldn't be home until late.
Apartment nine's tenant had been an older lady by the name of Lucy, if Jason remembered correctly. Miranda had talked about how she loved to bake, and would bring plates of cookies and other goodies around as the weather had turned cooler. Her grandchildren would come over occasionally, and Jason remembered the day he had helped her get her new Nintendo Wii installed so that she could play games with the kids. She had invited he and Miranda over a couple of times in the evenings to play her favorite sports game, bowling. She had told them that her arthritis had prevented her from staying active in her bowling league, but that she found the video game challenging enough to make up for it. She was very good at it, and there were times that Jason felt that she may actually be holding back in order to let he and Miranda feel more competitive.
Jason hoped that she wasn't home this evening. He'd seen no indication of activity when he'd drove around to the back of the building to look it over earlier. She occasionally would spend nights over at her daughter's house, babysitting. He hoped that this was one of those nights. He didn't want her around if things started going badly. He didn't want the two young boys in apartment 11 around either, but he had a feeling that any noise that he ended up making wouldn't cause their parents to investigate. They seemed rather reclusive already. He didn't get the feeling that they'd be the sort to call the police.
George was fiddling with his ring of keys when Jason's cell-phone began to ring. The sound made Jason jump, and George half-turned to give him a brief smile. Jason quickly reached inside his coat and flipped open the pay-as-you-go phone. The caller ID flashed Autumn's picture up for him.
"Hello?" he said.
"Jason, where are you?" Autumn asked. Her voice was low, and Jason heard the tone of tension in it.
He held a finger up to George, indicating that he'd just be a minute. George, finding the right key, unlocked the door and went inside.
Jason kept his voice low as well. "You know where I'm at."
"Jason...listen to me. I want you to stop. Don't go in there. You are not prepared. You're not in the right state of mind, and you don't have the experience to do it anyway."
He turned away from the apartment and went down a few steps, mentally cursing how well sound reverberated in the stairwell and landings. "I told you, Autumn. I don't care. I don't care if this all goes to hell and I end up like Miranda. I don't care, get it? I have to try. I'm not going to let this thing keep making me, and everyone else that I come into contact with, get away with making us miserable. And besides, I asked for your help, and you said no. There's no one else I can turn to. So I'm on my own, and I can't let it sit any longer. I can't keep being afraid."
There was a pause on the other end as Autumn considered her answer. "Jason. That apartment is its center of power. There are things that I haven't told you, that I know I should've, about how things work. I know that you've worked with me a couple of times, both you and Miranda did, and that those experiences went well. But those events were controlled. They were in my home, with my board, under my wards. The spirits that contacted us were basically struggling to even get a few words across the barrier. And, they were nothing like what's in there."
"You've told me all this before, Autumn. You told both Miranda and I. You warned us about straying into unknown territory without your guidance. We did it anyway, and yes, it all went to hell. But since you're not willing to try to help me here, there's nothing else I can do. I know this is where its center of power is. But I also know that here is where there's the best chance of getting it to do what I want. Here is where it's most comfortable. It won't believe I'm a threat."
"That's exactly what it wants, Jason. I don't share a lot of what I hear, and I'm sorry about that, there are somethings that the spirits that speak to me say that isn't always the perfect truth. But there are a few that I trust completely, and they're telling me that the thing that calls that place home wants more from you than you're aware of. It's after you. And not in the same way that it went after Miranda. What happened with Miranda was all because it wanted to hurt you. And it did. It got what it wanted out of that, and now you're about to give it what it wants again. Jason...I believe that it's created a portal in that room, a way for it to easily cross the barrier. And once it has that, it can come and go as it pleases. You won't be able to trap it. It'll be able to use its powers at full effect, regardless of whatever ward you think you can establish."
"You've told me this before, Autumn. I hear you. That's not what I'm planning on doing. I've been doing some reading and talking with others online. There's another way to handle this. I'm sorry, Autumn, I know you care. But I have to do this. I have to try. I can't go on like this anymore. I'm sorry." Jason flipped the phone closed and glanced up at apartment 12's waiting door.
Well, it's now or never.
Jason gripped the handle of the duffel bag tightly, and walked back up the stairs to the landing. George had left the door open a crack. Jason doubted that the man had been listening. Even if George had, Jason didn't believe that he'd be able to make much sense of the conversation anyway. Hopefully it wouldn't affect George's reaction to the bribe, if he did. Jason pushed the door gently open.
All of the apartments in 238 were laid out in a similar fashion. The door opened upon a small hallway with a closet immediately facing the doorway. A small open doorway to the right or left led to a small kitchen area, with the standard appliances. They'd been upgraded to include a dishwasher, something that wasn't included when Jason lived there as a child. Jason could remember his mother always complaining about the lack of cupboard space. Beyond the kitchen area lay a cramped dining area with a cheap chandelier style light. It hung too low for Jason to stand near it. Most people put a dining table beneath it. A set of double windows looked out upon the street below.
Jason walked forward past the kitchen doorway. Past that, also turning to the right, was the entryway to the living room, the largest room in the apartment. He found George there, seated in a large tan lounge chair, an open beer propped up in his lap. A bare lightbulb in the uncovered ceiling fixture cast sharp shadows behind him. A small electric heater sat on the floor in front of the air conditioning unit in the exterior wall, beneath another set of double windows. The heater buzzed quietly.
George raised his can of beer in a toast and smiled. "My little home away from home. The landlord doesn't know, I don't think he would care even if he knew. I keep everything running smoothly around here and that's all that matters to him. I keep a few beers in the fridge for 'emergencies'." He gestured toward the heater. "I keep the gas to this place turned off. I've heard stories of unoccupied places with their gas left on going kablooie if something weird happens. I don't know, maybe I saw it in a movie once? Anyway, no point in taking unnecessary risks."
Jason glanced about the room. It looked so different, so empty. In his mind he pictured Miranda's flower patterned sofa up against the far wall, the recliner that used sat in the corner of the exterior wall where George was. A smaller, more formal chair used to sit in the opposite corner, with matching floral pattern. The old wood entertainment center opposite the couch. He could remember the paintings that were Miranda's pride and joy, all nature scenes with beautiful frames. An antique roll-top desk, a family heirloom, was placed with care along the interior wall. Jason hoped he hadn't damaged it when he tripped over it in his rush to leave. All those things, now gone. The place was clean, yet somehow felt desolate to him.
Jason realized that George was watching him, and had a look of compassion on his face.
George took another gulp of beer, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Lots of memories huh? I remember when my grandmother died, we had to sell her house. I helped my dad move all of her things into storage, at least stuff that my mother didn't want to keep. She didn't want much, she didn't care for my grandma at all. Clash of personalities I guess. Anyway, I remember going back into the house after we were all done and thinking how wrong it all felt. A house should never feel that empty. Especially when you've seen it so full of life. It might be a little different for you, maybe an apartment doesn't have the same feel to it. But I can understand if it does."
Jason looked carefully at George. Was it the right moment to break out the bribe? He began to reach for the wallet in the back of his jeans when the sound of screaming echoed through the room, coming from somewhere outside, one of the other apartments. Jason shot a look toward the doorway and then turned back to George.
George listened for a moment, as the screaming became sporadic and then petered out. He sat his beer carefully in the cupholder, and then stood up as the screaming turned to shouting.
It was definitely a man's voice. "No! No! Get out! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!"
Jason switched his gaze from the doorway to George, unsure of what to do. This wasn't part of the plan.
George's face took on a look of grim concern, and he shook his head briefly before crossing the room, his hand moving to the cellphone clipped on his belt loop. "Guess I'd better check that out."
He moved past Jason and opened the door, heading across the hall. The shouting had stopped. He knocked quietly on the door.
George waited a few moments, and then the door opened. Daryl Leiderman looked disheveled and dopey. He was breathing heavily. His white t-shirt was soaked down the front, from what Jason couldn't tell, but he had a feeling that it stunk of beer.
"What?" was all Daryl had to say.
George glanced at Jason for a moment, pursing his lips, then turned back to Daryl. "Uh...we were in the apartment across the hall, and we heard some screaming and shouting. We thought something might be wrong. Everything ok?"
Daryl moved his body to block the doorway as George seemed to try and look past him. "Yeah. Yeah, everything's fine. Must've dosed off or something. Bad dream." The haunted look in his eyes started to return to their normal cold blandness.
"Ok. Wife and kids ok?" George replied.
Daryl's eyes became very cold and harsh. "Yeah, they're fine. They're not here right now. But they're fine. We're all fucking fine." His eyes moved over to Jason, and as he seemed to recognize him, they narrowed. "What are you fucking looking at?" he said, addressing Jason
Jason returned his icy gaze, lips thinning. "Nothing. Nothing at all."
He hoped that Daryl would take his double meaning, but he doubted it. Daryl didn't seem to be one for nuances.
Daryl grabbed the door to shut it. "Well, you two just have a wonderful fucking night then." He closed the door.
George turned and walked back across the hall, offering Jason a small shrug as he did so.
"Fucking asshole, huh? If there's one guy I'd like to see gone from this place, it's him. I wish she'd divorce his ass, she's a drunk too, but at least she's a nice drunk, ya know? Those kids deserve better than that piece of shit. Oh well, maybe he was dreaming about her biting his cock off." George laughed at that thought. "Can't think of any other guy who'd deserve it more!"
Jason smiled at that. The man did deserve to have something done to him. Jason had a feeling that, in some way, he probably already was. The thing in apartment 12 wasn't tied there. If it was capable of doing something good like harassing Daryl Leiderman it was unfortunate that Jason was going to have to destroy it. Jason knew no one deserved to have done to them what Miranda had gone through.
He let George by him, and watched as the man immediately went back over to his chair and plopped down with a sigh. His hand went right to the can of beer at his side. Maybe it was time for the bribe.
George interrupted him before he could speak. "You gonna take a look at the bathroom and bedrooms?"
"Yeah, if you don't mind." Jason replied.
"Nah, take whatever time you need, buddy. I'm in no rush." With that, George closed his eyes, and leaned his head back into the chair's headrest.
Jason nodded, and turned toward the small hallway that connected the bathroom, the linen closet, and the two bedrooms. He stole a quick peek into the bathroom. The small white sink with the cabinet mirror above it were spotless.
His mind went back to that night as he caught his reflection in the mirror. He'd come in here to regain his composure after the argument with Miranda. He'd been standing there looking at himself in the mirror, cool water dripping down his face from where he'd splashed himself. He'd felt feverish, his whole body pulsing with heat. Not from anger. It was from something much worse, he'd known. And that was when Miranda had started calling to him. Her voice was wrong. It hadn't sounded any different, it was the tone that was wrong. It wasn't her usual calm, soothing voice that she used after they'd had a disagreement. It was sultry, as if she were beckoning to him to come join her for one of her, as she referred to them, special treats. That night, the special treat had been something altogether different.
He shook himself out of the memory, taking a moment to give the rest of the bathroom a quick glance. The toilet sat between the sink and the bathtub. All of her decorations were gone. Again, it seemed all wrong. Everything was a reminder to him that she was gone.
He turned back to the master bedroom door, ignoring the second bedroom that Miranda had used as her "playroom" as she called it. It had all her arts and crafts materials, her scrapbooking things as well. It also served as a study, where she kept her working desk, computer, filing cabinets and bookshelves. As an accountant, she did a lot of her business from there. Jason knew it would add nothing to his resolve seeing it so empty as well.
He regarded the master bedroom door with quiet apprehension. He believed George's word was good, that he'd fix all the damage, and that the room was spotlessly clean. He thought he could even smell a whiff of fresh paint wafting from under the door. There would be nothing but his own memories to remind of him of that night, nor that night so long ago from his childhood that still rose from the depths of his mind whenever he'd been here. Two deaths had occurred in that very room, separated by nearly thirty years, and Jason knew that he was the only connection between the two.
He'd been thinking of his little brother Gavin quite a bit since Miranda's death. He'd been five, Jason seven. They'd been playing out in the living room, their toys spread out across the room as their parents, Bob and Ellie, sat in the kitchen playing cards and drinking. It had been a Friday night, Jason remembered. Not that it would've mattered to his father, from what Jason could remember of him he drank every night. But Friday's were the days he really let go and drank. A lot.
Jason remembered that Gavin had been playing with a toy police car, the kind that had an electronic siren, and annoyed his parents so much they'd told him that it had stopped working, when all they'd really done is remove the batteries. Jason had, for some reason he could not recall, decided that he wanted the toy, and had reached over to take it from Gavin. A struggle had ensued, and as they'd tumbled together, wrestling over the toy, Jason's foot had flown up and knocked one of their father's baseball trophies from its place on the display table he'd made for them. It had fallen to the floor and broken, despite the carpet cushioning its fall. The sound had immediately alerted their father, who came rushing out from the dining area to investigate. Both the boys had known that one of them was going to be punished with a severe spanking, and Jason had been the quicker of the two to point the finger. His brother merely sat there gawking at their father, knowing what was coming next.
Gavin had gotten up and started running faster than Jason had ever seen him go, and their father had shown surprising agility by leaping over the coffee table with a roar, his footfalls crashing like thunder throughout the apartment. Jason would never know why his brother had decided to run into their parents' bedroom instead of their own, possibly because the door had been left open, and the boys' door was closed, but he wasn't sure. Either way, that had been the place he'd died. His father would later tell the police that Gavin had tripped coming through the doorway, and hit his head on the bedpost at the foot of his parents' bed. From the way that his father had been shaking Gavin and screaming at him, Jason doubted that his father didn't have something to do with Gavin hitting the bedpost. It had taken Bob a few moments to realize that Gavin wasn't responding. He had accused Gavin of trying to fake, until some time had passed and it became apparent that Gavin wasn't breathing. At some point, their mother had wandered out of the kitchen, drink still in hand, and watched over the top of Jason as their father alternately slapped Gavin's face and held him to his chest.
Jason remembered his parents discussing the story they would tell the police, in between bouts of sobbing. Jason could only look on at the lifeless body of his brother, laying on the floor in a position he had never seen him sleep in. He could hardly remember the rest of that evening, when the paramedics had arrived and in a vain attempt to save his brother's life, rushed him to the hospital. He had only vague memories of the funeral as well. He'd never been able to let go of the guilt that he felt for that one simple gesture of pointing to his brother.
That had been nearly thirty years ago. It had been a shock to find out that Miranda, the woman from the book club that he'd become very interested in, lived in the very same apartment that he had as a child, and her bedroom was the very one his younger brother had died in. They'd been on their third date before he even found out where she lived. Jason could remember how difficult it had been to share the story with Miranda, and he knew that she'd been more than a little amazed at the coincidence. He didn't know who had been more creeped out by it, but they'd manage to work through Jason's emotional difficulties and had developed an intense relationship. One that Jason believed had cost her her life.
Time to make amends for that, and maybe even for Gavin too, he thought.
He took a moment to glance around the corner at George, who opened one eye to peek back.
"Everything ok?" George asked, slightly slurring. "Hey, you can put that bag down out here, you don't need to carry it around with you. I won't mess with it."
Jason looked down at it for a moment before answering. "Um, actually, that's something I wanted to ask you about. The reason I'm here really is that I was hoping to do a little prayer ritual in there. For Miranda. I've got a couple things in here that'll help me focus on that. I hope you don't mind, I wasn't sure how to ask you, really."
George seemed to consider that for a moment, then replied, "Nah. Just please don't make a mess in there. Check your shoes too, if you don't mind. The landlord would probably take it out of my paycheck if he had to replace the carpet again. And I don't know how I'd explain it to him in the first place. You're fine though. I can understand that you still have feelings for her. Go ahead, I'll be here. No rush."
Jason nodded, and checked his shoes for any dirt or moisture. "They look ok. Thanks."
Jason went back around the corner, and after a moment's hesitation, slowly turned the doorknob of the master bedroom of apartment 12. He held his breath as the door swung open.
The room was empty, as empty as the others had been. The light was on, as Jason had seen earlier, but other than that, the room was devoid of furniture, and life. It looked emaculate, for being so bare. The carpet was indeed new, a thick plush beige color. The smell of paint was still strong. There was no figure of Miranda, covered in blood and grinning. There was no small boy, dressed in He-man pajamas, his forehead swollen and bruised. There was no dark ghostly shadow waiting in the corner. It was completely empty.
Jason let out his breath, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. Despite the chilliness of the room, he realized that he'd begun to sweat, and the first small beads had formed on his brow. After taking a moment to close his eyes and draw in a deep breath and let it out, he turned and quietly closed the door behind him. As he'd remembered, the door had a lock on it, which he carefully set, trying not to alert George. He doubted that George would care much, but it might come across as suspicious. There was no point in causing problems with the man at this point, he'd been surprisingly easy going about things so far.
Jason turned back to the room and laid the duffel bag down gently on the floor. He removed his long trench-coat, and as he did so, his cell-phone fell to the floor. He bent down and picked it up. He pressed the volume button down until it registered mute. He was about to put it back in the interior pocket of his coat when he saw the signal bar go to zero bars. Flipping it open quickly, he looked again. No bars. He looked at it curiously for a moment, but then closed it, pressed the power button until it turned off, and put it back in the pocket.
That's ok, I don't need it right now, in fact, getting a call right now is the last thing that I want to have to deal with.
He folded the coat in half, carefully placing it on the floor so that the pocket with the gun in it was facing upward, within easy reach. Jason shook his head as he thought back on how he'd played out the different scenarios for this evening, glad that the gun hadn't had to play a part, yet.
He leaned up against the wall between the coat and the duffel bag, and slowly slid down into a sitting position. His heart was having trouble slowing down, and he found himself trying to take deeper breaths to help keep his pulse rate down. He was feeling a bit dizzy. It was probably the overwhelming smell of paint in the room. He'd always had difficulty with that smell. The coolness of the room was a help, though.
Jason reached over and unzipped the duffel bag. Miranda's book was on top. He took it out and laid it on his lap, thumbing through the pages. He remembered the page of the warding ritual that they had started. It was a simple one, but it was one that he could do alone. He believed what Autumn had said though, it would offer no protection here. The other ritual, the one that Miranda had insisted that they switch to, in the middle of completing the ward, was further back in the book. Jason flipped through the pages, and stopped as his eyes caught the presence of dark brown spots on a page. He couldn't make his fingers move to open the book further, he just stared at the spots, each one an accusation of guilt, an implication in a crime of lost faith.
His eyes became heavy. The pages were so hard to focus on, the words and spots blurring together. His hands felt like lead weights, and they dropped to his side, the book falling into his lap. Jason suddenly found that he couldn't hold his head up, and he leaned it back against the wall for support. He caught a glimpse of his breath, becoming a cloud of vapor before him. The light grew dim, and finally faded into blackness.