A Likely Story
By L.S. Taylor
By L.S. Taylor
|My mother died before I was born. It was raining that night, the streets poorly lit; they say the truck that hit her probably never saw her crossing the street. All Aunt Esta ever told me was that, within an hour, Mom was gone; at one and two minutes after that, Eddie and I were pulled from her lifeless womb. I’ll never know if our unusual birth was the cause, but I’ve heard the voices of the dead ever since. |
The rain in Boca Raton this morning was no different from that fateful night. It came at such a steady downpour, it might have been a fixture of the city itself. It bathed the cab, rivulets of water streaming down the windows so that all I could see were blobs of color passing, and I had my doubts that the driver saw anything more. The droplets beat a steady rhythm on the car, like tiny drumbeats, or machine gun fire. Or needles, I thought. I watched it, transfixed; you don’t see weather like this in Arizona. Florida in October was at the tail-end of hurricane season, and accordingly drenched.
Needles. Thousands of them.
And where do you hide needles, Jack? a wry voice asked me from memory. In a haystack? No. You hide it in a stack of other needles.
I shook my head. Eddie had been gone for three years, now, and we hadn’t been close for a long time before that, but I heard him as if we’d spoken only yesterday. His memory, his voice, had driven me here. Kneading my palms, I swallowed as the cab pulled aside to the curb, then smoothed the business skirt I’d bought just for this meeting. I paid the driver, thanked him, and stepped into the rain. The building towered over me, its neon Comet sign blinking like the banner of some sleazy hotel.
Needles, indeed, Eddie, I thought. With any luck, I’d found the mother lode.
The entrance was small, and rather like a high school principal’s office: grey carpet prefaced by speckled white linoleum, with plastic chairs lining the walls on both sides. It was warm enough indoors that I knew I’d be dry again soon, but I canned my umbrella in the waiting bin all the same. Still dripping with water, I walked up to the counter, and flashed a smile at the receptionist, but she hardly spared me a glance as she muttered, “One sec.” I took her in; mouse-brown curls, oval glasses, chocolate eyes. Gorgeous slip of a woman. She clattered away at the keyboard with as much vigor as the rain pounded the concrete with outside. “There,” she said at last, looking up.
“Letter for the boss?” I asked, trying to be friendly. I really shouldn’t flirt on business, but I’m a sucker for pretty ladies. Eddie was the same—and at this thought I remembered why I was here, and steeled myself for the meeting.v “No, just blogging. What can I do for you?”
“I’m here to speak with Mr. Detweiler,” I said candidly. “I called yesterday.”
“Name?” she asked.
“Jack Garcia,” I said, and when she did a double-take, I added, “Short for Jacqueline,” since everyone looks at me that way when I tell them my name.
“Oh,” she said, frowning. The pout of her lips was adorable. She clicked around with her mouse a few dozen times, then nodded. “Right, he’s expecting you.” Without getting up she jerked her thumb at the door behind her desk.
I swallowed a lump in my throat; here was my one chance to get answers, and I must have looked like a drowned rat. My jacket was still sodden and my hair would soon frizz up.
And to make matters worse, Eddie stood by the open doorway. He swept me a mocking bow as I entered the room.
Jackie, Honey, he laughed. You’ve finally come to the right place.
Eddie’s death had bothered me since the night he found me in Arizona, a bloody apparition whispering haunted nothings in my ear. I’d never seen a ghost before, only heard them, because seeing them was Eddie’s thing. He was gone before I could get over the shock of it. Days later, when Aunt Esta called me with the news that he’d been in a car wreck, he reappeared by the phone as I set down the receiver. “What happened?” I asked him, still shaken. “And why can I see you?”
I can’t tell you that, he said, brushing what looked like spectral flecks of white fur off of his suit. He’d cleaned up since his first appearance—in life, when we were kids, he’d told me that ghosts could do that—and he wasn’t nearly as, well, chewed looking as he’d been. You’ll have to come to Florida if you want to know the truth.
“That what? You were hit by a car, just like Mom?” I yelled, not caring who heard me. I lived alone then, as I have for years, so any neighbors must have thought I was on the phone, anyway. “Were you driving drunk, Eddie? Is that what you want me to know?” I glowered at him, all my pent-up anger threatening to break loose at once. “Well, you can bugger off, dammit. The way I see it, you abandoned me six years ago. How does you getting killed change things?”
He shook his ghostly head, and reached out, as if to embrace me. Then, as if changing his mind, he stepped away. I’ll be back when you’re ready to be sensible, he told me.
And then he was gone, leaving me to grieve—and to wonder just what the hell was going on.
Eddie’s ghost was the only one I’d seen, and only when he chose to show it to me. Logically, I can only guess that his abilities haven’t vanished in death, they’ve just transformed. As it was, he didn’t reappear for nearly six months, and to be honest, I wasn’t in much of a better mood then, either—I ran him off within seconds of his first hello. It’s lucky for me that the dead are patient, or at least Eddie was, because he kept coming back.
Moving? he asked one day, surprising me from behind a stack of boxes. He’d been gone for nearly ten months by then.
“Oh!” I gasped, dropping the box marked Glassware on my foot. It landed with a distinctive shattering noise, and I yelped. “Jesus, Eddie, don’t scare me like that!”
He grinned at me as if it was beyond his control. It is in the ghostly job descrip—
So, are you moving? he asked again.
“Of course not. Craig’s moving out.”
I thought you lived alone.
“We tried it for a few months,” I explained. “But he was never very comfortable with the fact that I play both sides of the fence.” With a wry smile, I added, “The fact that I could hear his dead mother clucking her tongue every time we were going at it was also a major turn-off.”
No way, he laughed. There ought to be rules against that sort of thing. He furrowed his brow. Come to think of it, there are rules—but I’m still learning and it’s not for your sort to know.
You know what I mean, Jack. Living.
I sighed. “So why are you here?”
He drifted over to a chest-high box, settling himself weightlessly on its edge. By then he was completely clean, his business suit whole and his death-injuries vanished. Jacqueline, there’s something you don’t know about my death.
“Then tell me,” I said.
He shook his head. Non-disclosure, he explained. I signed an agreement—it’s hard to explain. I need you to come to Boca Raton.
So, even in death he’d keep his secrets.
“Florida?” I exclaimed. “Eddie, my life is here in Phoenix.”
What, that shit job of yours?
As if I needed to be reminded that Barista Extraordinaire was the highlight title of my career. “There’s Aunt Esta,” I pointed out. “And my schooling.”
Aunt Esta ought to be in a nursing home, Eddie growled. And you can learn to be a massage therapist anywhere.
“Damn it, Eddie, why can’t you just tell me what’s going on?”
Everything will be made clear if you come to Florida, he repeated. Detweiler knows.
Whatever Eddie’s former and final boss had to say, I was here to learn it now, though at the time, I hadn’t been very receptive to my twin brother’s prodding. In fact, I stayed away until I had my certificate, and then it took Aunt Esta to have a fall before either of us could be convinced that yes, she needed care that, even if I moved in with her, I couldn’t provide. The sale of her house paid for her spot in the nursing home, and then some, but by the time all that was finalized, another two years had passed. So here I was, aged twenty-seven, on a wild hunt for answers because my ghost of a brother was certain I needed to know.
Okay, I’ll be honest: I did want to know. They’d shipped him back to Arizona pre-cremated, with no explanation. My brother’s ghost had been taunting me for nearly three years about his death. I’d been provoked into solving a mystery, and it was all Eddie’s fault. So, I entered that office with trepidation, yes, but also with relief. I tried not to glare at Eddie as I smiled and shook the man’s hand—I’ve had enough people think I’m a crazy lady without needing to scare off this one.
I couldn’t help but glance around as I entered. The walls were a darker grey than the carpet, hung with colorful framed posters of past issues—such as “I Gave Birth to 61 Rabbits” and “Bigfoot Reveals New Miracle Diet”. They were the only reminders that my brother had worked for such an unorthodox place; the only other decorations were a large rubber plant in one corner, a desk, and two ridiculously oversized chairs. Another door led to elsewhere in the building. I’d never had a problem with Eddie’s job as a tabloid reporter—it beat writing obituaries at the Phoenix Daily Sunrise, which he’d endured for about three months before the stress of ghostly visitors got to him—but being here did add an element of the surreal to my quest.
I met the man’s eyes as we shook hands. Detweiler was short, balding and stout, with the sharp face of a businessman—yet beneath his unibrow, his eyes gave off a different vibe, like he was someone I could trust. I didn’t know how to take this. I hadn’t come here to trust anyone.
I knew it was Detweiler because he sat behind the desk, but another man leaned against one wall, arms crossed. He, too, was balding, but his head was shaved to disguise it. He watched me through his shades, which looked like the kind that adjusted to the amount of light in a room. A frown crossed his lips, but he glanced at his boss, and nodded. Detweiler cleared his throat.
“Miss Garcia,” he said. “What can we do for you?”
I took a seat before he could offer it, crossed my legs, and adopted my business voice. Now was hardly the time to play coy. “I understand that my late brother, Eduardo, worked here,” I told him.
Relax, Jack, Eddie told me, lounging in the chair beside me. These are good people.
“Yes,” coughed Detweiler, who of course neither saw nor heard my brother. “We were sorry to lose him. A fine young man. He was a credit to his field.”
Oh, sure, you say that now, Boss, laughed Eddie, blowing Detweiler a ghostly raspberry. I had to clear my throat to keep from chuckling myself. But couldn’t you have mentioned it more often when I was living?
“I’ve been told he died on the job,” I ventured, resisting the urge to kick at Eddie. He wouldn’t feel it, but the motion would have made me feel better. Instead, I remained seated, fighting to stay calm.
Detweiler’s eyes left mine as he rearranged some papers on his desk. “Garcia was on assignment when the car wreck occurred—”
“It’s been suggested that there was no car wreck.”
I tried not to cringe at my own words. I hadn’t meant to snap, but my nerves were taut and I had no tolerance for crap. From the look the two men gave me, I knew I’d spoken true: there was something they were hiding.
They can’t tell you what happened, Jack, Eddie said, all of a sudden. The information’s classified.
“Miss Garcia...” began Detweiler. “We can’t—”
“Give me the papers, then,” I said, cross now. “I’ll sign your damn contract.”
“That secrecy thing Eddie keeps talking about.” Eddie supplied the name, and I added, “The non-disclosure agreement.”
I was flustered enough that I didn’t notice my use of the present tense until it was too late. The guy lounging against the wall straightened suddenly, and for the first time, he spoke. “What do you mean, keeps talking about?”
“I—I’m sorry,” I stuttered. “It was a slip of the tongue.”
“Didn’t sound that way,” he said, recrossing his arms.
“Murdock...” Detweiler warned.
Eddie got up and inspected the man. Max! What the hell happened to your hair?
“Miss Garcia,” said Detweiler, “I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe otherwise, but we don’t let just anyone sign our non-disclosure agreement. Some of our own employees haven’t even signed. To let a complete stranger do so is strictly against company policy.”
“But I’m not a stranger!” I cried. “My brother worked here! Don’t I have a right to know how he really died?”
Detweiler’s friendly expression vanished. “Eduardo was killed in a car crash, Miss Garcia. There is nothing more to tell.”
He’s lying, of course, Eddie added, nonchalant. Now my brother’s ghost sat on the edge of Detweiler’s polished wood desk. You’ll have to bring out the big guns, now.
Big guns? Like what? I stared at Eddie in confusion. I didn’t know what else to say. As far as the living in the room were concerned, I was looking at them.
And then I lost it.
“This is bullshit,” I sobbed. “I’ve been waiting to find out what happened to Eddie for nearly three years. But your stupid contract is more important than human decency, isn’t it?”
“Actually, yes,” said Detweiler, coolly.
“Yeah, that’s the way it is for Eddie, too,” I muttered. I was on my feet now. “Even in death your little agreement is more important to him than his family. That much hasn’t changed.” I grabbed my purse and made for the door.
“Wait!” said Murdock. “What do you mean?”
I blushed. “Trust me, you wouldn’t believe me.”
Eddie floated over as I reached for the doorknob. Jack, don’t do this!
I shook my head. “I’ve had enough,” I told him, so fraught that I didn’t hide my actions from the other men. “I don’t know why you even bothered.”
I slammed the door behind me, wiping my eyes on my jacket sleeve. I’m sure my makeup was running, but I didn’t care. I was done here.
The receptionist looked up as I stormed away. “Bad day?” she asked.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” I told her. I was halfway to my waiting umbrella when I stopped. “Say, do you know where a girl can get a decent cup of coffee in this town?”
Come on, Jack, you can do better than this.
“Go away, Eddie,” I said under my breath, with little success. My brother stayed seated and a few close-by people gave me the Look, the one that said, Oh, boy, we’ve got a crazy here. I sipped my latte and didn’t speak after that.
Bean Baby’s was a tiny shop two doors down from the Comet. I probably should have gone farther, escaped from the area right away, but the fact was, the rain was still falling like the world was ending, I was exhausted from my flight and the morning's events, and their coffee was good. If there was anything I’d picked up from my time at Starbucks, it was how to tell that much. Mind you, at this point I wouldn’t have said no to something stronger.
“Is this seat taken?”
I raised my head. There behind Eddie stood the tabloid’s receptionist, a large, whip-cream-topped mug in both hands. “Actually,” I said without thinking, “there’s a ghost sitting there, but the one next to it is free.” I managed a weak smile up at her when I realized what I’d said—maybe she’d think it a joke. She gave me an odd look, but nodded and took the empty chair.
“You okay?” she asked.
I shrugged. “That depends—how’s my mascara?”
She gave it an appraising glance. “You’re fine,” she told me. “Though with lashes like yours, I don’t see why you need it.”
Ducking my head, I blushed. Aunt Esta was always saying things like that. For the most part, like Eddie, I took after my Hispanic father: brown eyes, short dark hair; but my mother was French, and there were certain traits féminin, as she called them, that I shared. Mom, when she stopped by to see us from time to time, told me the same, and Eddie, who could see her, had confirmed it. It was one of the few times I’ve ever been envious of my brother’s gift. Growing up, ghostly visits from our dead mother had been a comfort in strained times, but a photo and a voice was no comparison to an apparition.
“So what happened back there?” the receptionist asked. She sipped her drink and came away with a whipped-cream moustache, then licked it off as I watched, spellbound. Well, at least the day hadn’t been a total loss. “I’ve never seen anyone leave Detweiler’s office that upset.”
“You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I said. It was becoming a habit.
Her mouth quirked, like she was in on a joke that I wasn’t. “I don’t know about that,” she said. “Try me.”
I blinked. No one had ever called me on it before. Not, of course, that I’d ever given them much to call me on. I’d learned to control my ability early in life, taking care not to let on that I could hear the things I did. Only Eddie and I knew of our gifts. As twins, we could share the secret with each other. In later years, I’d never met anyone I’d felt I could trust.
And that’s when it hit me.
I was a stranger here in Boca Raton. Sure, I’d given my name at the Comet, but they had nothing else, not even a mailing address. Two days from now, I’d be flying back to Phoenix. No one knew me here, and I wouldn’t be coming back.
So if I was just passing through, and they’d never see me again, what would it matter if I told her?
I took a long pull of my latte.
“You’ll probably think I’m crazy,” I warned.
“Maybe,” she agreed. There was a twinkle in her eyes, and her smile was warm as she added, “But maybe not.”
I told her. We sat in Bean Baby’s for over an hour as, for the first time in my life, I poured my heart out to someone who wasn’t my brother. I told her everything: about Mom, about the ghosts, even about my falling out with Eddie, after he left his job in Phoenix. Eddie sat quietly, for once not interrupting me every thirty seconds.
“So that’s it,” I finished. “I came here because my brother has been taunting me about his death, but he won’t tell me outright because of that contract. And I guess your boss doesn’t think I deserve the truth.”
“And you didn’t think to tell Detweiler what you told me?” she asked.
I cracked a wry smile, though inside I was kind of sad. She was teasing me, I just knew it. “Well,” I said, “you have to admit, ‘I hear dead people’ sounds pretty ridiculous.”
She shrugged. “I’ve heard stranger.”
“Yeah, but you work at a tabloid.” I made to stand. My butt was numb from the hard wooden chair, and I didn’t completely believe her about the state of my face. “Well, thanks for listening,” I said. “It was good to get that off my chest, even though I’m sure you think I’m full of shit.” I nodded to her, and turned away; I still hadn’t gotten her name, but maybe that was for the best. I slung my purse over my shoulder and grabbed my umbrella, feeling weary and defeated, but knowing that I’d be okay.
I heard her chair clatter behind me. “Hey, wait,” she said, touching my shoulder.
I stopped. She met my questioning gaze with a frown.
“Come back with me,” she said.
“No thanks,” I told her. “I’m really not interested in making a story of myself.”
“That’s not my intention,” she insisted, grabbing my arm. “Just—come with me, okay? I’ll try to talk to Detweiler.”
I took a good, long look at her, and I almost shrugged her off. Then I remembered that I was a stranger here. So what if they thought I was crazy? As likely, her boss wouldn’t give me the time of day twice.
Please, Jackie, said Eddie.
I sized up my brother, considering what would happen if I told my story. Maybe they’d just laugh it off and nothing would come of it. Then again, maybe they’d think I was crazy enough—and harmless enough—to sign that damn agreement.
“Fine,” I said at last. “I’ll go with you.”
The receptionist brightened, looking more relieved than I thought she ought to be.
“Hey,” I said, as she took my arm. “I never did get your name.”
She laughed. “Call me Brenda.” A moment later, as if it was a matter of extreme importance, she pursed her luscious lips, and asked, “So what do you do for a living?”
An hour later, I was still waiting in the reception area, anxiously seated in a plastic chair. Another receptionist—a round, Hispanic motherly type—sat at the desk, while Brenda had gone into Detweiler’s office. At first Eddie waited with me, floating around nervously while I touched up my makeup, but then he passed through the closed door to listen in. I could still hear the rattle of the October rain on the concrete outside. The humidity was so great that even my short, straight hair was curling.
They were gone a long time. I rifled through my purse and re-read my flight itinerary. I studied the walls for awhile, noticing for the first time a piece of paper tacked up by the Comet’s gold logo that read, “We orbit the truth once every eighty-seven years”. I even pulled out my cell phone and played several rounds of Tetris while I waited.
At last Eddie bounded out the doorway, looking excited.
With a furtive glance at the new receptionist, I held the cell to my ear. “What’s going on?” I asked.
Can’t tell you, he laughed. Non-disclosure.
I could have cheerfully killed him just then, but he was already dead.
The door opened, and Brenda emerged. “Miss Garcia? Mr. Detweiler would like to see you now.”
Nervous, I followed her inside.
The scene was almost as I’d left it. Detweiler still sat behind his desk; Murdock was reclined in one of the oversized chairs. I took the free one and crossed my legs. Once again, Detweiler cleared his throat.
“It seems, Miss Garcia, that when we spoke to you this morning, there were some misunderstandings.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I nodded.
“Brenda tells me that you’re a massage therapist,” he said. “Do you have a practice yet?”
“No,” I said truthfully. “I intend to join one when I return to Phoenix.”
To my surprise, Detweiler smiled, his unibrow quirked high in understanding. “I see. As it happens, Miss Garcia, I am currently in the midst of re-negotiating my employees’ benefits package. There are over a hundred people employed here and the nature of the work can be ... stressful, at times. What if I were to offer you a position with our company?”
“I—I don’t know,” I said, taken aback by this sudden change. “I have a home back in Phoenix. My great-aunt—”
“We would be willing to pay to move both of you,” he insisted. “As with the rest of Florida, Boca Raton is home to many excellent retirement communities for your aunt.” He handed me a thick document across the desk. “We would also be willing to offer you this.”
I glanced at it. The words, “COMET EMPLOYEES AND ASSOCIATES NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT”, stamped across the top, made it pretty clear what they were prepared to give. I looked at them all—amiable Detweiler, smiling Brenda, grinning Murdoch, smug Eddie—in utter confusion.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “This morning you were ready to get rid of me. Now you’re offering me a job?”
“The job is optional,” said Detweiler. “We feel that your—ah, skills—deserve good use. Whether you take the position or not, the non-disclosure agreement is yours to sign.”
“Skills?” I asked, suspicious. “You don’t just mean massage, do you?”
Of all the people in the room, it was Murdock who saw the confusion and hurt on my face. “Jacqueline, Eddie was my partner, and my friend. We can’t tell you anything more until you sign that document, but I promise you he was never mistreated for what he could do.”
Sign it, Jack, said Eddie.
Cautiously, I looked the document over. It was filled with a lot of phrases like “binding”, “in perpetuity” and “forever”—no wonder Eddie couldn’t tell me even now, as a ghost. Other than that, it was clean. I took a pen from my purse, and signed in seventeen places. I handed it back to Detweiler, who accepted it with a nod.
A yeti, blurted Eddie. I was eaten by a yeti.
“A yeti?” I exclaimed. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me—”
Murdock and Detweiler stared. Brenda snickered.
“He’s really here, isn’t he?” said Max.
I nodded. “But it can’t be,” I told them. “There’s no such thing as yetis!”
“Just as there’s no such thing as the ability to speak with the dead?” Detweiler asked, and I blushed. “Miss Garcia, we were fully aware of your brother’s talents. Yours are even greater. We’d like to have you on staff as a consultant, in addition to your regular work. That is, if you’ll join us?”
My head swam as I glanced around the room. “Who are you people?” I asked. “What does a supermarket tabloid have to do with things like yetis and people like me?”
“We write stories about them to protect their existence, and we stuff them in with trash stories,” Detweiler said simply. “That way, no one believes the true ones. It’s like hiding a needle—”
“In a pile of other needles,” I murmured, finally understanding my brother’s words.
Detweiler seemed pleased that I knew what he was talking about. “Yes.”
“So you’re saying there’s more of these?” I asked them. “Other ... creatures?”
“We’re acquainted with a variety of supernatural phenomena,” said Detweiler. “Vampires, dragons, magi—we make a special effort to keep them all safe from humanity.”
I thought about it. The memory of the white fur on Eddie’s suit, days after his death, suddenly made sense. These people hardly knew me; they had no reason to pull such an elaborate hoax, especially not when they knew the truth about my gift.
“Eddie?” I asked.
It’s all true, Jack.
Murdock said, “There’s a sasquatch on staff, if you’d like to meet him.”
“No,” I told him. “That is, I’m sure I’ll meet him soon, but I don’t need any more convincing.” I turned to each of them as I spoke, my decision made. I’d never been to Florida before today, but in that moment, something told me that I’d be crazy to leave. “Mr. Detweiler, I’ll take the job.”
Before I knew it, Eddie’s arms were around me. Everyone was grinning, and I was suddenly filled with a familiar but long-missed sensation.
No, I didn’t know much about this tabloid or its staff, let alone these people before me. I’d probably have a lot of work ahead—there was the move, adjusting to a new place, getting to know new people and leaving my home behind. Yet despite this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d lacked for so long.
For the first time in nearly a decade, I felt like I was somewhere I truly belonged.
Just then, the other door opened, and a tall, hairy figure entered the room. “You wanted to see me, Boss?”
I could feel it as everyone’s eyes slid to me to gauge my reaction. I blinked, a bit surprised, but after everything I’d been through today, I didn’t have room for apprehension. “Hi,” I said to the sasquatch, holding out my hand. “Jacqueline Garcia.”
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