Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Post Vacation Blues

I just returned from a week's vacation in Hawaii. I've never been to Hawaii, and it was a vacation long overdue. Things have been crazy and stressful at work, and I've discovered, as I move closer to forty, that I'm tired. Tired of doing the laundry, tired of going to the grocery store, tired of vacuuming.

Tired of stressing out at work.

And lately, cleaning up after my pets, particularly the litter boxes, has just been sticking in my craw like nobody's business. I don't know if it's that my animals are getting older and thus crankier and more high-maintenance, or if it's me getting older thus crankier and I just think they are more high-maintenance.

At any rate, I find myself scooping poop five times a day, and if the canned food appears a minute past five o'clock you'd better believe I don't hear the end of it for the rest of the evening.

Hawaii was amazing. California Guy and I spent six amazing days at a resort in Waikiki. Our hotel room overlooked the beach. I've never been to the beach or swam in the ocean, and the beach alone was worth the trip. Those post cards don't lie. The water really is that blue, and it's actually a combination of blue, green, and turquoise in layers depending how far out you look. The sand feels like velvet, except of course for the occasional large piece of coral one has a tendency to step on.

I stubbed my toe a lot. I didn't care.

I didn't get out of my flip-flops or shorts for six days, and for someone who lives in Wyoming (and it has been a ridiculously hard winter with below zero temperatures and enough snow to bury a wildebeest), that was one of the best parts. The weather stayed around 78-80 degrees, pleasantly humid, and a little breezy. I had no idea how dried-out Wyoming is until I went to Hawaii.  I drink a gallon of water a day in Wyoming and it's still not enough.  I drank half that in Hawaii and it was too much.

The food was one of the other best parts. In Wyoming we have chain restaurants, steakhouses, bars and grills, and Mexican. I can't eat at chain restaurants due to gluten-free unfriendliness (I had a very bad experience with the Olive Garden's “gluten-free” pasta), I'm not a huge beef eater, most bar food is bread-fried or too greasy, and I'm sick of Mexican. In Hawaii we ate sushi, Hawaiin poke bowls, pineapple, and more shrimp and ahi tuna than you can shake a (shish kabob) stick at. I also got to drink a mai tai on the beach, which was something I've always wanted to do. It was in a plastic cup rather than a hallowed out pineapple or coconut, but I probably wouldn't be able to drink an alcoholic drink of the volume of an empty coconut or pineapple shell anyway.

Needless to say I did not want to come home, and I am ashamed to admit that this is the very first trip I have ever gone on that I did not miss my pets. Not even a little bit. I worried a bit about Puckett who had the audacity to get a minor bladder infection right before I left, but the animals were all left in the good hands of the Cowboy, so I didn't worry that much. I was also secretly glad that he had to give Puckett her antibiotics and I didn't. I treated her for two days before my trip and she bit me both times. Puckett is nearly impossible to medicate. She's stronger and more stubborn than I am and I always walk away with wounds after forcing her to take medicine. The Cowboy is stronger than me and doesn't get as emotional about pissing off the pets. He just does what needs to be done, and he doesn't care if they pout or get mad at him.

The Cowboy sent me nightly updates on Puckett and that she was doing fine, so I spent my entire vacation not thinking about them and not missing them. I actually enjoyed not having litter boxes to clean up or puke to mop up. Even California Guy mentioned the first night how amazing it was not to have stinky poop to smell, or cats demanding food, or some dog sitting there staring at us every time we take a bite and whining every time she's expected to go outside to use the potty.

I feel like a terrible pet owner, but I think my pets have beaten me. They have won. They have become so codependent, clingy, and needy that I'm running away to Hawaii just to get away from them. Throw Surina into the mix and I want to run farther, because she is by far the worst when it comes to separation anxiety.

When I got home, I was happy to see them, but they wasted no time in increasing my anxiety levels back to what I consider normal for when I'm in Wyoming. I didn't have a single panic or anxiety attack in Hawaii. I got home to full litter boxes and one wooden railing whittled down to a toothpick courtesy of Willow's claws, and my heart palpitations returned with a vengeance.

Aren't animals supposed to help lower one's blood pressure?

Percy squalled and pounded through the house for two hours my first morning back, making sure that sleeping in to cure my jet lag was not a possibility, and Tess paced around restlessly, which she's taken to doing a lot lately. I'm not exactly sure why. People tell me that they are misbehaving because they missed me and I'd been gone a week. I disagree. They act like this all the time, and the last time I went on vacation they barely noticed I was gone because they like hanging out with the Cowboy.

Really, other than the bladder infection that cost me four hundred dollars right before my vacation, Puckett is the only one who has been chill about this whole thing. She seems happy that I'm home, but she's not devastated that I left. In the past she would have pooped in my shoe.

I wonder sometimes if my pets and I have gotten to that point in a relationship where we are just getting on each other's nerves and we needed some time apart. They got a fun babysitter and I got a fun vacation in Hawaii. I don't like feeling this way though. I don't like not missing my pets and feeling glad to be away from them for awhile. And the funny thing is, I miss them each individually, but as a whole, I was so glad to be away from them that I really didn't want to come back.

Not wanting to come back might just be a Hawaii thing though. Who wants to come back to Wyoming after spending a week on the beach? And as soon as I got home all the crap of real life came flooding back, like housecleaning and work. And I think cleaning up after the animals and dealing with their literal and figurative crap is part of that. I have a new job to learn at my work on top of going through applications and the interview process for two new hires. I'm not looking forward to any of that as well as the never-ending pile of laundry and vacuuming.

After settling in and reacquainting myself with my real life (and doing four loads of laundry), I crawled into bed to finish reading my book and looked at Puckett curled up on the duvet, snoring away. I looked at the floor where Tess lay stretched out, also snoring away. And Percy was curled in the corner of the bedroom. Willow was in her cage. Everyone sleeping contently, snoring away, without a care in the world, and suddenly all seemed right again. And later when I sat downstairs to work on my laptop and watch The Big Bang Theory, I looked up at the top of the stairs and Tess and Puckett peeked back at me from underneath the gate, cuddled together, but still watching me as if to make sure that I hadn't slipped out in the middle of the night again. They followed me from the bedroom to the kitchen and from the kitchen to the living room. They kept checking on me to make sure I was still around.

I guess they did miss me.

I missed them too.

Piggies in the water!

Is there any felicity in the world superior to this?

These rocks revealed tons of little tide pools.  Tide pools are the most amazing things.

What sort of a guy takes a job keeping a lighthouse?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Linus Part 2

     “Tell me about Linus,” I requested of Mrs. Stiles later that night, after the family had had their dinner and Mr. Stiles had taken her daughter, Eloise upstairs to bed.

     “What do you mean?” Mrs. Stiles asked.  She set a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk in front of me on the coffee table in her spacious living room.  Linus lay sprawled out on the black leather couch, his head wedged up against my thigh, and he heaved a huge doggy sigh in his sleep.

     “Well, how long have you had him?” I asked.

     Mrs. Stiles thought a moment.  “About six months.”
     I was surprised.  “Really.  You all act like he's been a member of your family for years.”

     “He is a member of our family.”

     I nodded and dropped a hand on the dog's head, patting it gently.

     Mrs. Stiles sat in the chair on the other side of the coffee table, and took a cookie.  “We adopted Linus six months ago from the animal shelter.  Eloise adores him.  She wanted a dog so badly, and when we saw him at the shelter...well, we had to have him.”

     I smiled and scratched the dog behind the ears.  “I can see why.”

     “He's a doll," Mrs. Stiles said.  "He's a sweet, lovable dog.  He's never given us any trouble until this last month or so when the hauntings began.”

     “Do you know his previous owners?” I asked.

     She shook her head.  “No I don't.  The shelter didn't have much information.  Why?”

     "They didn't tell you why he was surrendered?" I asked.

     "All they would tell us is that the family could no longer handle the responsibility of a dog," Mrs. Stiles said.  "It wasn't anything he'd done.  He's a good boy, and the previous family acknowledged that.  They just...couldn't handle him anymore.  Why do you ask?"

     I shrugged.  “He took me to the elementary school this afternoon.  He sat there for hours like he was waiting for someone.  I could barely drag him away.”

     “Eloise's school?”  Mrs. Stile's frowned.  Eloise was nine years old and attended the small private school outside of town.

     I shook my head.  “The public elementary school.”

     Mrs. Stiles shrugged.  “Well, he does love children.  That is evident.”

     “He didn't go to any of them.  He was waiting for someone.”


     I took a deep breath and looked down at the snoring dog.  “Mrs. Stiles, your house isn't haunted.  Your dog is.”

     The next day I gave Linus free rein at two-thirty again, and followed him to the school.  Once again Linus sat in front of the doors of the school, waiting patiently while the children piled out of the building, exuding pent-up energy and relief.  Linus waited until well after four-thirty when the schoolyard was deserted, the buses gone, and the last car had disappeared from the parking lot before he once again allowed me to take him by the collar and lead him home.  The ghost stirred that evening in the house as well.  Several doors opened and slammed shut, and a tremendous crash alerted me to the dog dishes sliding across the the tile floor of the kitchen and crashing into the opposite wall, sloshing water everywhere and leaving a trail of kibble in their wake.  I heard Eloise scream upstairs, and lights flooded the house as Mrs. Stiles and her husband ran to their daughter to comfort her.  I looked at Linus and he looked at me, his ears perked forward and his brown eyes wide in his face.  He moaned, then lowered his chin to his paws again.

     The temperature in the living room dropped a few degrees and I reached for my hoodie and the heavy throw on the back of the couch.  I still had nothing but Linus to try to get the spirit to manifest. For whatever reason it wasn't showing itself, even to me, and it was obviously pissed.  The wind picked up outside, rattling the windows and slamming eerily against the sides of the house.  I had set up several large, fat, white candles on the coffee table, and I lit them.  I heard footsteps creaking upstairs, announcing the Stileses moving back to the master bedroom, no doubt with Eloise.  It was better that way, the family shut up together in their master bedroom.  Without Linus I doubted the ghost would bother them up there.  I watched the flames in my candles dance and shiver in the darkness of the room.  A shimmer of translucent color arrested my attention, and I glanced at the corner next to where the large flat screen TV was mounted.  The air in the corner flickered with shimmering lights like the onset of an ocular migraine.  I blinked and focused on the spot, and just as subtly the shimmer disappeared like it had been nothing more than a trick of the mind.  The wind outside died down, and the room warmed slowly, the chill bleeding out as if someone had raised the thermostat.  I stretched out on the couch, pulling the throw around my shoulders, and closed my eyes, feeling the chill leach out of my blood.  Linus rested his head on my legs and sighed mournfully.

     Ghosts took a lot out of me, physically and emotionally.  I fell into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
     The next afternoon, Linus led me once again to the schoolyard, and this time I joined him, sitting quietly next to his erect form and waiting without a word.

     As the last of the children left the building, a woman in jeans and a sweater set walked out of the school, struggling with a briefcase.  She dropped the briefcase on the ground, a frustrated and resigned expression crossing her face as papers spilled out of it.  Her lips formed a cuss word before she knelt down to retrieve the briefcase and gather up the papers.

     I rushed to her side.  “Let me help you with that."

     She looked up in surprise and then smiled.  Up close she looked younger than I'd originally thought.  Her brown hair was pulled in a smooth bun, and her face was free of makeup.

     “Thank you.  It's been a day.”  She rubbed a hand across her forehead as I gathered up the papers and shoved them into the briefcase.  She accepted the briefcase gratefully.

     “Tell me about it,” I said.  “I've been chasing him all day.”  I gestured to the dog who still sat perfectly erect, ears pricked forward, staring at the front doors.

     “Is that Linus?” the lady asked me, clutching her briefcase to her chest.

     “You know him?”  I tried to keep the eagerness from my voice.

     She nodded.  “He used to wait here every day after school.  But he hasn't been by in months.  Not since...”  She glanced down at her briefcase, her face turning red.  "Never mind.  It's not my place."

     “Since?” I pressed.
     The woman brushed her hair from her eyes and looked at me, forcing a smile.  “Since the accident.  His little girl – Madison Fleming.  It was a terrible thing.”  She shook her head.  "Is he yours now?"

     I looked at Linus.  “No.  No, he's not.  I'm sort of his shrink.”

     “A dog whisperer,” the woman said with a smile.  “He never seemed like the sort of dog who needed it.”

     “His new owners are having a bit of trouble with him.  They've been keeping him cooped up, but he escaped the other day and I've been letting him go.  You know, exorcise some demons.”

     The woman nodded.  “Madison was my student,” she said.  “Last year, second grade.  Linus came to pick her up from school everyday.  Her family doesn't live that far from here, and he'd walk her home.”

     “What happened to her?”

     “Car accident," she said and I felt something click in my brain.  "Drunk driver," she continued.  "Hit them head on.  Her parents and older sister survived.  She didn't.”  She looked at Linus again.  “It kind of pains me to see that they gave him up.  Poor guy."

     “Maybe the memories were too painful,” I said.


     “What can you tell me about Madison?” I asked.

     She looked at me.  “I'm sorry?”

     I shrugged.  “I just thought if you could tell me anything about her, it would help me with Linus.  His new family has had him about six months, and he isn't settling in well.”

     Her brow creased.  “Well, she was a good student.  A lovely child, really.  Quiet and reserved, but she loved to draw.  She was very artistic.  Her favorite color was pink.  Oh, and peanut butter and jelly was her favorite lunch.”

     I bit my lip. Sounded like every child I ever met.  Livvy loved peanut butter and jelly too.  “Do you think it would be a good idea to visit her family?”

     The teacher shook her head.  “They moved.  Not long after the accident.  I guess they went back to Michigan where Madison's grandparents live.”

     I heaved a sigh.  “Is she buried here?”

     The woman looked puzzled.  “In the cemetery as far as I know.”

     “Thank you,” I said.  “I guess I'll take Linus home now.  You've been very helpful.”

     I turned away.

     “Wait!” the teacher called, and I turned back to her.

     The woman set her briefcase down on the ground and opened it.  She removed something from one of the pockets and held it out to me.

     “What's this?”

     “Madison left this in class once,” she said.  “It was a bandanna she wore.  I always meant to return it to her parents but...”  She looked down.  “Well, maybe Linus should have it.”

     I took the bandanna and looked at it.  It was pink and had the initials M.F. embroidered in one corner.  I clutched it in my hand and nodded, then turned and headed back to where Linus still sat ramrod straight, ears pricked forward.  As soon as I walked up to him he shoved his nose into my hand, sniffing at the bandanna and whining deep in his throat.  I tied the bandanna around his neck and clipped the leash to his collar.

     It took me an hour to find the tombstone, but I finally found it at the very back of the cemetery.  A small headstone inscribed with a name and a date told me I'd found the right plot. Fresh flowers, the stems tied with a pink ribbon, lay on the grass beside the stone.  If the family had moved back to Michigan I wondered where the flowers came from.  I squatted down and placed a hand against the stone.  Linus sniffed around the plot, slobbered on the stone, and slid down to his stomach, groaning.  He rested his chin on his paws, and watched me with large brown eyes.  The wind picked up, ruffling Linus' fur and the hem of my black T-shirt.  The branches of the trees around us rattled and leaves rained down, swirling into a small cyclone and scattering across the green grass.  I pulled out the items I'd collected earlier, and arranged them beside the gravestone: the pink bandanna, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fudge brownies, a package of colored pencils and a drawing pad, and finally, a picture I'd found on the Internet.  A little girl with blonde pigtails and beautiful blue eyes smiled out of the picture.  She was missing one of her front teeth, and she wore pink ribbons in her pigtails that matched the pink short-sleeved dress she wore.  I'd found the picture with the newspaper story about the car accident when I searched the local paper online at the library.  She looked nothing like my Livvy, but she could be her, right down to the pigtails and the gap-toothed smile.  I felt a lump in my throat as I brought Linus closer and ordered him to sit.  I dropped to the ground cross-legged by the items I'd gathered, and lit a small candle.  Several minutes passed as the wind pushed against us, scattering more leaves.  There was a noticeable chill in the air.  Clouds scudded across the sky, blocking out the sun and swallowing the shadows on the ground, turning everything greyish.  Linus whined and got to his feet, tail wagging and I glanced up.  

     Peeking over the top of the gravestone were a pair of large blue eyes.  They blinked at him.

    I raised a hand but did not get up.  The eyes disappeared from behind the gravestone, and Linus whined, straining harder at his leash.  I released the dog and got slowly to his feet.

     “Hello?” I whispered.

     A little girl slid from around the gravestone and held her hands out to the dog.  Linus lunged happily at her, but slipped right through her and the little girl's eyes widened and glittered with unshed tears.  Linus whined in confusion.

     “Are you Madison?” I asked.

     She nodded, but remained silent.

     “We've been looking for you,” I said.  “Linus is very upset.  He misses you.”

     The little girl looked at Linus who now sat beside her and was trying to sniff her.  Her outline blurred and shimmered, giving her an unsteady and ethereal appearance.  She kept slipping in and out of focus, and her colors looked leached, translucent.  I could see the tombstone through her.

     “Can he see me?” the little girl asked.

     “I think so,” I replied.  “Have you been trying to get him to see you?”

     She looked down at her feet.  She wore sneakers with her jeans, and pink T-shirt.  “I wanted to say goodbye.  I'm sorry I scared those people.”

     I looked Linus.  He whined again, trying to paw at the little girl.  His paw kept passing through her.  I knew what he felt.  When a ghost passed through someone it turned their blood cold and froze their insides.  It was like being doused from the inside with a bucket of freezing water.

     "Madison, why wouldn't you let me see you?" I asked.

     Madison tried to pat Linus' head but her hand disappeared in his fur.  The dog's eyes seemed to widen.  "I was afraid," she said.

     "Afraid of me?"

     She nodded.  "No one has ever seen me before.  It scared me that you knew I was there.  I wanted to talk to you, but I was scared."

     "That's what I'm here for, Madison," I said.  "You can talk to me.  You can tell me why you aren't crossing over."

     "I miss Linus," she said.  "I want to be with him."

     “Honey, you need to let Linus go,” I told her gently.  “Why have you been haunting the Stiles?”

     She looked up at me again, her face sad.  “I was angry,” she said.  “He's my dog.”

     I crouched down so my face was level with hers.  “You're angry because your family gave him away, aren't you?  He's your dog and he doesn't belong with those people.”

     Madison nodded, looking ashamed.

     “Madison, listen to me.  Linus is with a wonderful family now.  They have a little girl just like you.  She loves Linus, and she can be here for him in a way you can't anymore.  She loves him.  He's in good hands, I promise.  You can let him go.”

     Madison looked at Linus.  He stared back and whined softly.  "No," she said, tears feeling her eyes.  "He's mine."

     "You'll be with him again," I said.  "But now you need to let him go.  And you need to move on too."

     “I wish I could touch him,” Madison said.

     I reached out my hand.  “Take my hand,” I said.

     She hesitated.

     “Take my hand, Madison," I said.  “If you take my hand, you can touch him.  You can say goodbye.”

     Madison hesitated a moment longer before she floated closer and took my hand.  Instead of passing through my hand, it became warm and alive at my touch.

     That was my gift, bringing ghosts to corporeal form, if only briefly.  As long as they touched me, they became warm and solid.

     Linus bounded forward, tongue hanging out.  He gave a little hop, and slurped his tongue across Madison's face.  The little girl giggled and reached out to pat Linus head.  She gripped my hand with one of hers, and stroked Linus' long silky ears with the other.   A moment later she wrapped her free arm around Linus' neck.  Her other arm pulled me closer, and the three of us sank to the ground in a three-way hug, Madison buried her face in Linus' fur and wove her fingers tightly through mine.  The dog went very still between us as we embraced.  He closed his eyes and rested his chin on Madison's shoulder.  We stayed in that position for a long time.  I didn't dare move despite the cramp in my legs and the tingling feeling in my fingers.

     “Goodbye,” Madison whispered finally, and she kissed the top of Linus' head.  She dissolved slowly from my embrace, her form leaching to colorless, fading into the late afternoon rays of sun until there was nothing left but a slight shimmer in the air.  Linus sighed and leaned his large head against my shoulder, then looked up at me sadly.  I patted the dog, gathered up the items on Madison's grave, and tied the pink bandanna to Linus' collar.  Then I whistled for the dog and turned away.  Linus followed him calmly and obediently all the way back to his new home.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Linus Part 1

     Life held few truths, but there was one thing I was certain of, and that was ghosts didn't take the weekends off just because I had plans.

     It was like waiting and waiting all day for my probation officer.  As soon as I got in the bath, there was a knock at the door.

     I'd picked a hell of a day for ghost hunting.  The sun shone brightly in the cloudless sky, and a warm breeze ruffled the leaves on the trees that grew on the immaculately cared-for grounds where the blades of grass were the exact same height and too green to be real.  My beat-up old blue Ford pickup sat in a driveway manicured with pea gravel, looking completely out of place next to the extravagance that was the new client's property.

            And that was just the four-car garage, in which was probably parked an Escalade, a BMW, or a Lexis.  Possibly a Corvette, or even better, a Porsche.  The house itself was almost obscene.  I lived in a modernized bunkhouse on my parents' ranch.  Both my little house and the main ranch house could fit in this monstrosity with room to spare.

           The woman before me studied me with an unreadable expression. 

            I stared at her in return.  Margaret Stiles wore her frosted-blonde hair in a short, cropped style. She wore an expensive navy blue pinstripe suit and white silk blouse, and her navy pumps matched the skirt and jacket of her suit.  She looked to be in her forties, and she carried herself with the air of a woman to be obeyed, no questions asked.  She didn't look to me like a person who would believe in ghosts, let alone tolerate the presence of one in her mansion.  Her entire demeanor should probably have been intimidating to most punks my age, but I'd seen enough that nothing scared me anymore.

     I stood before her in my black T-shirt, loose fitting jeans, and well-worn brown cowboy boots, not even a little self-conscious.  I'd at least washed my hair, but hadn't bothered to comb it, and I was aware that Mrs. Stiles' eyes took in the tattoos that covered both my forearms and the silver hoops handing from my ears.  I'm sure I looked nothing like a ghost hunter or a dog trainer.  I looked more like the drug-dealing felon I used to be. Incidentally this was why I was saddled with that probation officer.  Those days were well behind me, but mys probation wasn't up for another two years.

     “Thank you so much for meeting with me, Mr. Guerin,” Mrs. Stiles said.  “We've reached the end of our rope with Linus and you are our last hope.”

     I eyed the enormous furry beast lying at Mrs. Stiles' feet.  I'd taken her case as a favor to one of my other clients, but in meeting Mrs. Stiles I'd gotten the impression she needed a dog whisperer. 

     “Mrs. Stiles," I said. "I think you might have misunderstood exactly what I do.  I'm a ghost whisperer, not a dog whisperer.”

     “Oh, no.” Mrs. Stiles shook her head.  “You help people.  That's what you do.  And, Mr. Guerin, we desperately need your help.”

     I glanced down at the dog again.  One hundred and fifty pounds of long black and tan fur gazed up at me with large, sorrowful eyes.  He had the boxy face and floppy ears of a St. Bernard, the long lithe body of a German Shepherd, and the long, stilted legs of a Great Dane.  His feathered black tail brushed the ground back and forth steadily when our eyes met.  Then he slung his head back as he stretched out on his side, wiping his muzzle across Mrs. Stiles' navy pumps, and leaving a trail of slime.

     “I'm not sure what you want me to do,” I said.  “I don't really work with dogs.”

     “Oh, the problem isn't Linus' behavior,” Mrs. Stiles said, leaning down to scratch the dog behind his ears.  “He's a good boy.”  Linus' tail wagged slowly and he closed his eyes, heaving a huge sigh.  Soon he began to snore.  Mrs. Stiles didn't seem to notice or care that her immaculate outfit was now covered in hair and slobber, something I admired. 

     “But you just said you are your wit's end with him,” I said, confused. 

     “Well, we are,” Mrs. Stiles said.        

     I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose with a thumb and forefinger.  When I took this gig I accepted the fact that along with the actual ghosts I would inevitably run into a few loons.  After all, the idea of a ghost whisperer could be considered lunacy itself, which was the main reason I worked one hundred percent by referral.  When Mrs. Stiles told me in our phone consultation that a client of mine had insisted she call me, I thought it was a legitimate call.  I had no idea my new client would end up being a dog.

     “Mr. Guerin, you have to help us,” Mrs. Stiles said.  “Linus is merely a symptom, not the problem.”  She glanced around furtively.  “You see, our house is haunted.  It's not exactly something you want the neighbors to know about.  I was told that you deal with such things.  You come very highly recommended.”

     I guess when you're a ghost whisperer, word gets around.

     I hunkered down on my heels and patted the dog's head, running his velvety ears through my fingers.  Linus merely sighed.  I wasn't inexperienced with animals.  Quite the opposite, actually, as I lived with a psychotic cat, a silly pit bull puppy, and a retired barrel racer.  That didn't make me a pet behaviorist, even if Linus didn't look too formidable in his current state.  My specialty was ghosts. 

     I found ghosts easier to deal with than people.

     “So tell me why you think your house is haunted,” I said, giving the dog one more pat before getting up. 

     “The sounds at night,” she said in hushed voice, once again glancing around, clearly worried the neighbors would hear.  “Banging and moaning.  We've found things moved around the next morning.  The lights flicker and sometimes when we walk in a room the temperature has noticeably dropped a few degrees.”

     Those were all symptoms of a ghost, but I still wasn't sure.  “Did you just purchase the house?”

    “Of course not,” she said with a sniff.  “We've lived here for years.”

     “Has there been a death in the family recently?  A friend maybe?”

      She shook her head. “No.  Nothing like that.”

     “When did you notice that your house was...you know...occupied?”

     She paused for a moment.  “It's been about a month now, I believe.  Yes, a month.  My daughter said she saw something in her bedroom – an apparition, though she couldn't make it out.  She slept in our bed for a week after that.  And Linus – well, when he isn't pacing the house all night, he races into the kitchen barking like the devil is after him.”

     “Dogs do that,” Sam said.

     “Yes, but not Linus.  He is not a barker.  Never was.  He is not a high energy dog.”

     I didn't find that too hard to believe as I stared at Linus now fast asleep with his head resting on Mrs. Stiles' shoes.  He snored loudly and a ribbon of drool decorated Mrs. Stiles' pump. 

     “And as I mentioned before, Mr. Guerin,” Mrs. Stiles continued.  “We hear moaning that may or may not be the wind, and banging against the walls and doors.  Objects get moved around.  It's all very strange.”

     It was rare for a ghost to just suddenly take up haunting a house for no apparent reason.  Many times a ghost came with the house, or else someone close to the family had recently passed away and could not rest for whatever reason.  Most ghosts crossed over fairly quickly.  Others hung around for whatever reason, but there was always a reason.  A ghost didn't just suddenly appear one day because it was bored.  

     “Will you help us, Mr. Guerin?” Mrs. Stiles said.  “My daughter is terrified.  My husband can't sleep, and the dog his beside himself.”

     I sighed.  “Of course.  I'll take your case.”

     “Oh, thank you!”  Mrs. Stiles grasped my hand in a surprisingly strong grip and pumped it vigorously.  “Cost is not an issue!  Just please get me my house back.”

     I carefully extracted my hand.  “The usual rates apply, Mrs. Stiles.  We can discuss payment later.”  Cost didn't seem like it would be an issue for these people.

     “I know we can leave it all up to you.”  She leaned in close again.  “We don't want the neighbors to know that...you know...”  she rolled her eyes towards her mansion, as if having a ghost was some kind of social disease.

     Then again, there was the fact that to most people, admitting one had a ghost would require a straightjacket and a trip to the looney bin.  It was a wonder I hadn't landed there myself yet.

     “I'll start tonight,” I said.

     I set up shop in the Stiles' beautifully decorated living room that was actually less of a living room, and more of an art museum judging by the many abstract sculptures and pointillist paintings on display.  Mrs. Stiles offered me the guest wing of the mansion so I would be in the midst of the action, and I could sleep during the day in order to spend my nights dealing with the ghost.  As work stations went, I've had worse.  It definitely beat the dilapidated old barn that smelled of horse manure that I'd spent three nights in, trying to exorcise the ghost of an old farmer a couple of months ago.            
     Mr. Stiles was less thrilled with my presence and methods, though that was the nature of the occupation.  He wanted to see my credentials and know why I didn't carry any equipment, going so far as to imply that he thought I might be some freeloading quack.  I didn't have any credentials or identification other than the fact that I saw spirits floating about at the most random times, and the plain black calling card with my name and the number to my answering service written in silver script.  I didn't give out my personal cell number, but I did have an app downloaded to let me know whenever I had new voicemails on the answering service.  When I returned calls, my number came across as "Unavailable." 

    I bristled at Mr. Stiles' implications, but held my tongue.  Shows like Ghost Hunters used technology and equipment to track electromagnetic pulses in the air that could be construed as paranormal activity.  Some ghost hunters found such things useful I suppose, but I used more unorthodox methods, mostly because I could actually see the bastards.  I relied on using things the ghosts related to in order to help them manifest.  The senses – touch, taste, sound, sight, and smell – could all be used in a manifestation.  I figured out what the spirit had loved in life – foods, music, tangible things like animals or precious art – and then gathered these things in the haunted area to bring the spirit forth.  I'd even managed to bring one to corporeal form, though that was a rare occurence.  It took a tremendous amount of energy and emotional attachment, and the result, though rewarding, was ultimately exhausting.

     It was also more likely for a corproeal spirit to go poltergeist, and that was never a fun experience. 

     I tracked the disturbances in the Stiles' mansion for a week without much luck, and by then even Mr. Stiles threw himself at my mercy.  His reception of me went from chilly to welcoming, and he encouraged me to work out who or what exactly was haunting his house so that he could get back to his life and a decent night's sleep.  He was a very prestigious and talented lawyer.  I guessed the stress of his job coupled with the lack of sleep due to ghostly disturbances were starting to unravel him and he was at a point where he was willing to try anything.  Lawyers seem to stress a lot anyway, so the added fun of a ghostly occupant in one's house probably didn't help matters.

     The poor guy probably had an ulcer.

     The disturbances seemed to have increased since I'd gotten there, according to Mrs. Stiles.  I don't know if that was my fault, or just coincidental as spooks gained power and mischief the longer they resided somewhere.  The nights became pretty consistent.  Sometime around midnight, once the family had gone to sleep, the bumping and creaking began.  The temperature in the living room where I sat up with my tablet and Linus sacked out on the couch beside me dropped several degrees, and the dog immediately became tense.  A normally relaxed animal, Linus' fur bristled and he jumped from the couch, where just moments before he had been sound asleep snoring without a care in the world.  I tracked and recorded his growing anxiety as he began pacing the living room, whining and groaning until he finally scurried to the front door and pawed, whining.  Mrs. Stiles had given me strict instructions not to let Linus out after dark, and especially not without a leash.  Apparently Linus had taken to running off whenever he got loose, and once when I opened the front door just to check the grounds, Linus had very nearly bowled me over in his rush to get loose.  I had to grab him by the collar and haul him back inside as he fought to get out the door.

     I'm no wimp, but Linus was a strong dog.

    This would prove to be a difficult case.  The Stileses had experienced no deaths in the family and no friends had passed away.  The house had been built ten years ago and several trips to the city planner and the library had proven nothing out of the ordinary about the grounds.  The house had not been built inadvertently on some old, sacred burial grounds or over the murder site of some unfortunate victim.  Unless the family knew something they weren't telling – perhaps they were a family of ax murderers - I didn't have a lot to go on.

     My closest link at this point was Linus, so I started taking the dog for walks during the day and developing a bond with him.  During the day Linus was his usual relaxed and lazy self.  He enjoyed his walks, but preferred to spend the day lying on the Stiles' sunny veranda.  Unlike his behavior in the middle of the night, if the door opened he did not try to bolt for it, nor did he stray if he was outside in the front yard, sunning himself on the lawn.

     The only other unusual thing about Linus was around midafternoon when he started to get antsy again.  Mrs. Stiles insisted on putting him back in the house or out in the fenced-in backyard.  There he proceeded to pace the fence for an hour before settling down for dinner.

     I decided to rearrange Linus' routine a little, and rather than taking him for a walk in the mornings I waited until midafternoon to clip Linus' lead to his collar.  Maybe he would give me some clue as to why he got restless at that particular time.  I took a firm hold on Linus' lead and opened the front door.

     Linus lunged out the door, half dragging me down the cobblestone walk to the street, a sharp contrast to his sedate, mannerly walk in the mornings.  After I let Linus drag me for a block or two, I pulled him to a barely contained stop and made him sit before unclipping his lead.  I only hoped Linus wouldn't run so fast that I couldn't keep up.

     As soon as he was free, Linus broke into a long-legged, loping stride. I ran after the dog, thankful that I'd started running every morning to keep myself in shape.

     I chased the dog out of the Stiles' rich subdivision and through the small town's downtown.     Linus crossed one last street and stopped outside a large two-story building.  I stayed on the other side of the street and clutched the trunk of a tree, wheezing and gasping.  Perhaps I wasn't in as good of shape as I'd thought.  When I'd finally caught my breath, I glanced up and caught sight of the dog.  Linus sat ramrod straight on the lawn of the elementary school, facing the front doors, ears perked forward.  His tail brushed the grass slowly back and forth as he stared intently at the doors.

     The clanging of the dismissal bell startled me, but Linus didn't move.  A moment later, children poured out of the building, laughing and chattering, hefting backpacks.  They ran for cars or school buses waiting for them, or walked in groups down the sidewalks, heading for home.  Linus's ears stayed perked forward as he watched each of the children.  For over half an hour children, teachers, and parents milled in utter chaos outside the school.  School buses pulled away from behind the building and drove off.  Parents gathered their children into their cars, asking how days had gone and what the homework situation was.  I thought briefly of my niece, Olivia, and how I should be at home, picking her up from school too, but instead I was off ghost hunting.  Livvy was the light of my life, and she had the sight too.

     I wouldn't have chosen that for her, had I a choice.
     Finally, when the last child had disappeared and the parking lot was nearly empty save for a few cars that belonged to teachers working late, Linus lay down and rested his chin on his paws.  He continued to stare at the front doors of the building.

     I waited until well after four-thirty before approaching the dog.  Linus lay mournfully in the grass, staring at the front doors.  I could tell he heard my approach because he swiveled his ears back, but he still did not move.  I snapped the leash to his collar, and squatted down beside him, resting a hand on his soft black head.

     “Come on, buddy,” I said softly.  “Let's go home."
     With a sigh, Linus got to his feet and followed me home.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Old Criley Part 2

We finished the rest of the dishes in silence. When we were done, I made my excuses and locked myself in the guest room to read on my tablet before going to sleep. The sounds filling the house comforted me, letting me know it was occupied. It had been a long time since I'd stayed in a place inhabited by other people. I was a loner by nature, and even more so recently.  I usually didn't sleep easily, but I must have fallen into a deep, dreamless sleep because I awoke with a start sometime later.  My tablet lay on the bed next to me, the screen black. The night was well advanced, and my room was dark save for the slash of moonlight that cut through the gap in the curtains. I slipped out of bed and moved over to the window to peer out. A thin mist blanketed the night muting the silver light of the moon. I pushed the curtains aside, and opened the window to let in some fresh air.

Chill air stung my face, and the acrid smell of smoke assaulted my nose causing a sharp blade of panic to slice through my body. I struggled into my jeans, and jerked open the door to my room.

“Fire!” I hollered as I ran through the house. “Fire!”

I slammed out of the house with Trip at my heels, not bothering to stop and see if the Michaelsons had heard me or followed me. The ranch dogs erupted into a cacophony of barking behind me as I raced towards the barn. Trip bounded ahead and stopped short of the barn, yelping his warning of danger. Flames engulfed the top of the building, sending sparks shooting into the sky. Over the crackling and roaring of the flames, I could hear the horses screaming desperately, begging to be set free. I pulled a bandanna from my back pocket and plunged it into the water of a horse trough, then dunked my head and entire upper body. The cold of the water combined with the frosty air nearly froze the breath from my lungs, but I wrapped the bandanna around my nose and mouth, and ran towards the barn, thinking only of Promise. I wasn't cold for long as the heat inside the barn slammed tangibly against my shoulders. The smoke obscured my vision to near blindness.  I coughed inside my bandanna as I ran down the corridor, unbolting doors as I went. The hayloft groaned above me, warning its inevitable collapse. If that happened the horses were as good as dead, and I knew only that I could not lose Promise.  I'd lost her previous owner to death, and I wouldn't let the same thing happen to her.  I yelled and waved my arms at the petrified horses, urging them to flee and save themselves, but they seemed glued to their stalls.

A hand landed on my elbow and I jumped, whirling around. In the glow of firelight stood old Criley, a shovel in one hand.

“Get out of here, boy!” he yelled as he headed for the first stall. “This whole place'll go any second!”

“The horses!” I yelled back. “I have to get to Promise!”

“Get out! I'll get them!”

Criley all but tossed me towards the barn door and disappeared into the first stall. A moment later the horse barreled out, nearly trampling me in its panic. A loud crack above announced the hayloft starting to give way. Flames rained down igniting the straw upon landing, causing a fresh wave of fear from the horses. Criley handed me a lead line.

“Take this one and go!” the old man yelled, and disappeared into the smoke.
I ran for the entrance, leading the frightened horse, and heard Trip howling and barking from outside.  The horse behind me threw his head, screaming, and as soon as I cleared the barn, I released him, sending him into a gallop with a slap on the flank.

One by the one the horses thundered out of the building and galloped into the night. My heart leaped into my throat when Promise appeared in the doorway, prancing fearfully, her eyes rolling. She reared once before exploding away from the building, the fire behind her illuminating her escape. She raced past me, nearly mowing me down, and I dove out of her way, stumbling into the ground.  I tore my jeans and scraped my arms, but I didn't care.  All I cared about was that Promise was safe.

By then Mr. Michaelson was outside, his shirt unbuttoned, hair rumpled from sleep. He grabbed me as I stumbled towards him.  I coughed from the smoke in my lungs.   Blood welled from my scrapes and streaks of soot covered my arms.

“The fire department is on its way!” Mr. Michaelson said.

“I have to go back for Criley!” I said.  I tried to struggle out of Mr. Michaelson's grip, but the man held me tightly.

“You can't go in there now! You'll be killed!”

I turned towards the barn, horrified as the building exploded in a fresh burst of flames.  The contents of that barn were nothing but tinder.  Everything was flammable, everything fed the fire that grew towards the night sky.  The roar and crackling of burning wood and hay echoed around us, and somewhere in the distance the sound of sirens filled the air.

One final horse appeared in the doorway of the barn.  The horse reared, magnificently silhouetted against the glare of firelight, a rider on her back.  For a moment everything seemed to stand still, with only the roar of the fire pounding against my ears.  Then Lady Guinevere leapt from the broiling building into a dead run, tearing past me and Mr. Michaelson.
“Criley!” Mr. Michaelson shouted as horse and rider galloped into the night and disappeared into the darkness.

The scene became one of complete chaos as the fire department arrived and began attending to the barn. There was no saving the building, and all that could be done at that point was to control the fire and keep it from spreading. The firefighters worked until morning when they finally got the inferno under control. Mr. Michaelson and I rounded up Promise and the other horses, securing them safely in one of the far pastures, safely away from the remains of the fire. Lady Guinevere, however, was nowhere to be found, and I never saw Old Criley come back either.

By the time the firefighters got control of the fire and it had burned itself out, the Michaelsons and I sprawled around the kitchen table in the ranch house, exhausted and blackened with smoke and soot.
We were sore and we'd lost the barn, but all the animals were safe, and none of us had been too badly hurt.  I'd gotten the worst of it, and Suzanne scolded my foolishness gently as she tended to teh scrapes on my arms.  The ranch was crawling with emergency vehicles, and the paramedics wanted to take me to the hospital for observation, thinking I possibly suffered from smoke inhalation.  In my typical stubborn fashion, I refused.  I felt fine other than bone-weary and worried about Old Criley. 

I  finally scraped up the nerve to ask Mr. Michaelson, “Where do you think Old Criley and Lady Guinevere got to? We all saw him ride her out of there before the building blew.  Shouldn't they be back by now?”

Suzanne and her husband glanced at each other, then looked at me.

“Sam, we had to put Lady Guinevere down last year. She broke her leg in a show accident. Took a jump wrong. Anna was okay, but we couldn't save the horse."

I frowned, puzzled. That didn't make any sense.  She was in the barn with the other horses the day before when I'd chatted with Old Criley.

“And as for Criley,” Mr. Michaelson continued. “Well, Suzanne checked his bunkhouse this morning after she got no answer from calling his cell. He was there.”

“Is he okay?” I asked.

Suzanne gently put a hand on my wrist. There were tears in her eyes. “Sam, Old Criley passed away in the night. The paramedics said he was probably gone before the fire even started. He had a heart attack.”

"But we all saw him ride a horse out of the barn during the fire," I said.  "He helped get the horses out.  They're alive because of him."

Mr. Michaelson nodded.  "Your dad mentioned that there was something special about you, that you had some...interesting abilities."

I shook my head and sighed. Ghosts often kept me company and were nothing new to me, but at least Old Criley had managed to save Promise.

And at least Old Criley and Lady Guinevere were together again.