The moment he entered his home, Bob
knew the ghost was gone.
Over the past four weeks, the ghost had always welcomed Bob home, whether in the evening when he came from work or Saturday afternoons when he returned from his weekly visit to his Mother’s or Sunday mornings after church. The ghost was a voice Bob had grown accustomed to hearing and now that it was gone, Bob was saddened and confused.
Bob waited at the door another moment, hoping the ghost would speak. Perhaps she (the ghost’s voice had a decidedly feminine character to it) was playing a game. Or busy. Bob had no previous experiences with ghosts, so maybe today, the third Thursday of the month, was when they ran their errands. A smile touched his lips as he thought of the ghost at the spectral grocery store. Maybe the ghost was at the ethereal DMV. He wondered if theirs was as much a bother as the one he visited annually to update the tags on his ten-year-old compact sedan.
When it became apparent no greeting would be forthcoming, Bob removed his shoes, placed them neatly on the little mat by the door and eased his feet into the slippers just as neatly located next to the newly-removed loafers. He placed his laptop bag on the small table in the small foyer near the entrance of his small home. He walked into his living room, also on the smallish side, and turned on the lamp. The sparsely-furnished area was instantly illuminated, putting on display an older recliner, a new couch, a stationary bike he used often (a fact that filled him with no small amount of pride considering he could still wear the suit he wore at his high school graduation), a glass-fronted cabinet displaying mementos of his life (there weren’t many), and a 50-inch high-definition flat-screen plasma TV mounted on the wall. The latter was a gift to himself. Not a birthday gift or a Christmas gift; a just-because gift.
He referred to these self-awarded pleasures as his Stuart Smalley Presents, a reference to the Saturday Night Live character whose credo of “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” never failed to give Bob a chuckle when he thought of it. While Bob felt, for the most part, he was in fact good enough, he had neither felt particularly smart at any point in his 30-some odd years on Earth, nor did he necessarily feel that people liked him. He was not disliked, that he knew of. In fact, had an independent survey taker decided to take the time to conduct a poll of the people in Bob’s life (his mother excluded) to suss out for themselves Bob’s popularity, said pollster would find Bob barely moved the needle of recognition beyond being the person occupying Workstation 42 at the call center where he adequately convinced people of their heretofore unknown need to purchase additional insurance, regardless of their level of financial protection in the event of a disaster at the time of his call. Bob was simply “there.”
Simply “there” was how Bob had come to think of the ghost. He was startled when she had first spoken to him, one night little more than a month ago. Since then and until this morning when he had heard the ghost’s voice the most recent (last?) time, wishing him a good day at work, he had come to think of the ghost as something slightly supernatural and odd, but beautiful and unique, like the Northern Lights or those fish at the bottom of the ocean with the odd stalk on their foreheads that had the naturally-occurring little light…for the life of him, Bob couldn’t think of what they were called. It would come to him. Things like this usually did when he stopped thinking about them. So he made the decision to stop thinking about what that particular form of aquatic life was called and did.
Bob sat down in his chair and picked up the remote to his television, but did not turn it on. He sat quietly staring at it, though, as if it were. He was thinking. He was thinking about the ghost and why she hadn’t spoken to him. Was she mad at him? That thought gave him the teensiest bit of discomfort, but had you asked him why, he wouldn’t have been able to put his finger on it. He didn’t believe so. He and the ghost had a very cordial relationship with the biggest bone of contention being what to watch Tuesday evenings.
Perhaps the ghost’s time with Bob was done and she had been called home, like Dudley in The Bishop’s Wife, one of his favorite movies. He didn’t feel that was the case. He had no great struggle in life. He had experienced the usual hardships in life; deaths, separations (most recently in the form of a divorce from his wife of slightly less than two years), the usual spate of slings and arrows one faces in the course of a normal existence. Or at least if she had been a part of Bob’s life for a specific purpose, he was unaware of it. But that didn’t feel right. If the ghost were a guardian angel, Bob believed that topic would have been broached by now.
So Bob sat, pondering. Unable to come to a satisfying conclusion, he got up from his chair and walked into his kitchen, turning the light on as he did. His kitchen, like the rest of his home, was small, but clean in a manner that states the person in charge of tidying up was, at least slightly, obsessive compulsive. Everything was in its place, perfectly aligned. All plates were stacked in perfect order, like equally-measured porcelain pancakes. In the silverware drawer, the slots designated for the forks and spoons were filled with an even number of utensils, piled perfectly atop one another. Had a white-gloved military inspector entered the kitchen, or any room in the house, Bob would have passed with flying colors.
He walked with purpose to the glass-faced cabinet above the sink, opened it, and retrieved a three-quarters full bottle of Jameson’s. As he did this, he was reminded of Tina, his newly-divorced wife. Tina was a tiny woman; barely five feet in height and barely one hundred pounds in weight. With a flawless Irish accent, he would refer to her as his “wee slip of a lass.” He usually did this as he would fill a shot glass with the Irish whiskey, hoist it to his lips, pinky finger out, and consume it in two or three sips. It was what Tina referred to as, in her not-so-flawless Irish accent, Bob enjoying his “wee sip of a glass.”
As he thought of Tina, Bob had a slight feeling of discomfort. It wasn’t a terrible feeling or a sense of something dreadfully wrong, nor was it long lasting in duration. Just an odd twinge that was completely forgotten as he finished his “wee sip of a glass.” As a matter of fact, Bob had not thought of Tina much at all since the divorce, a short, painless process lasting less than a month from the time she announced she felt it would be best for them to part to the day the couple stood before the same judge who had married them, decreeing the marriage irreparably damaged and approved the motion to divorce.
Having finished his whiskey (in three quick sips), Bob replaced the cap on the bottle, putting it back in its place. He was washing the shot glass when the ghost spoke.
Although he started, he did not drop the glass. As he set the shot glass down, he considered not responding, thinking his silence would relay to her his hurt that she had waited so long to speak to him. Bob also considered the opposite: asking why she only now spoke and if he had done something wrong.
He did neither because he sensed a tone. He was familiar with a tone. It was what he had heard from his mother growing up when she needed to stress to Bob the importance of listening to grownups. After all, she would say (so often, he thought it of others no fewer than five times per day, every single day of his adult life), “God gave us two ears and one mouth because listening is far more important than talking.” He had heard a tone from every boss he had ever worked for when they wanted to ensure he would do exactly what he was told, to the letter. “Wandering off the path” is how many referred to it. Bob never wandered off the path. The path was well-worn without a single footprint in the grass on either side.
The ghost had that particular affectation in her voice, so instead of passive aggression or an inquisitive mea culpa, Bob did what he always did. He turned to the direction he thought was the voice was originating from, smiled, and said, “Why, hello there. How was our day today?”
The ghost completely ignored Bob and, with a tone, said, “You haven’t checked today.”
He was taken aback. Two things slammed through Bob’s mind: The ghost had never brought this particular subject up and she was right. He hadn’t checked today, primarily because her not being here had confused him and caused him to forget. Bob was good about following directions but only if his daily patterns were not interrupted. Many people did not react positively to change, but in Bob’s case, confusion reigned in his mind when things did not happen exactly the way they were supposed to.
“You weren’t here,” Bob said, trying to (avoid eye contact) sound nonchalant. “I forgot.”
“Don’t bother,” the ghost said. “It’s gone. It’s gone and you need to take care of the situation.”
A panic chilled him to the very core of his soul. It’s gone, Bob thought. But what is it? He could not remember, but he knew it being gone was bad. Very bad. In fact, it would be the most bad thing to have ever happened in Bob’s life.
Bob ran through his small house to his small bedroom. Entering the room, he saw his bed, still perfectly made from this morning; the night table with the digital alarm clock; and his reading glasses atop a book, one of a series of weighty tomes regarding a young magician and his friends. His oak dresser was across from the bed, a chair next to it. His closet door was closed tightly as it always was. Bob made these observations in the span of an eye blink, but knew the ghost was right.
It was gone.
“What are you going to do, Bob?” said the ghost from behind him. Bob didn’t know. Bob didn’t even know what it was, only that it should be here and it wasn’t. He was about to respond when he suddenly thought: She asked me what I was going to do. All their conversations had been from the point of view of we. “How are we doing today” or “What are we going to watch this evening?” The ghost had asked, rather pointedly, what he was going to do. And it was a valid question because Bob had no idea what he was going to do considering he still couldn’t remember what it was or why he should be concerned about its disappearance.
In the midst of his anxiety, Bob was reminded of his and Tina’s final conversation. A similar feeling coursed through him then as now. She was returning home to retrieve the last of her things. Some clothes, a few movies she was fond of that, a couple small knick-knacks of personal value to her. Bob was busy baking bread prior to her arrival. She loved his homemade bread. He wasn’t, surprisingly, cooking her favorite treat in any effort to win her back. As with everything and everyone else in his life, when it was gone, it was gone. Jobs, friends, the very few girlfriends he had had, material things, whatever. When they left his life, he spared them hardly a second thought. That was another of his mother’s lessons: “Don’t focus on what you’ve lost. Look forward to what you can gain.” In his mother’s case, that lesson translated to: “Don’t worry about those things I told you to leave alone in the first place. Return instead to paying attention to me.”
No, he was cooking the bread for Tina simply because he knew she would like it and would cheer her up. While Bob really had no emotion about the divorce, the same could not be said for Tina. She was absolutely elated. She had never truly loved Bob, but had never hated him and never took advantage of him in any way, either. She had been in a spot in her life where family and friends had begun to turn up the pressure about getting married and Bob, whom she had met at a conference at work, seemed as good a man as any. He was well-mannered, attractive enough, and gave off the distinct vibe of a man who would not wander off the path.
And he didn’t. Which was good for Tina because had Bob set his feet upon the virgin foliage lining the path of his life, he would discover Tina’s girlfriend of eight years and their plan for Tina to stay married to Bob until gay marriage was legalized in their state, which it had been two months ago. Had someone actually confronted him and informed him his wife was a lesbian, Bob couldn’t have been more surprised had he learned his mother had played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals, was a three-time All-Star and former league MVP. Their sex life was normal (his and Tina’s). At least it was what he considered normal. He had never been comfortable with the act in the first place, but the fact that Tina allowed him to engage her in coitus from time to time, making the expected movements and moans, made him think they had at least an average sexual relationship. Tina saw sex with a man as a physical act used only to get things done. She and her partner had an understanding. That understanding was, if it took taking the high hard one to get a promotion or a vacation or, as in this case, the attention away from them until they could legally live their lives as they saw fit, then that was no issue whatsoever.
So Tina stuck it out with Bob for a couple years and actually grew to care for and pity him. True, she never loved him, but she made sure to never hurt him. She understood the psychic trauma his mother (vile, vile woman) had inflicted upon him and while she knew she was not going to deviate from her plans, she would make his life comfortable as possible. As such, it was with mixed emotions she watched her governor signing the bill for marriage equality into law. She loved her girlfriend and knew they would live happily ever after, but she also knew Bob was going to be hurt.
It was with great surprise, however, she discovered he didn’t seem to be upset that night she had told him she didn’t feel the spark was there anymore and that she wanted a divorce. Bob had smiled a sad little smile and said OK. Mostly because he wasn’t surprised by the announcement, but also due to the presence of a tone.
She entered the house while Bob was taking the bread out of the oven. He had already packed her things neatly into two medium-sized boxes sitting next to the front door. She smelled the fresh bread and smiled her own sad little smile. Bob may have had the emotional range of a sack of nickels, but the man could bake his ass off, she thought.
“Ah, my wee slip of a lass,” Bob said in his perfect Irish brogue as Tina walked into the kitchen.
She smiled as her eyes caught sight of the shot glass on the counter. “I see you’ve had your wee sip of a glass.” Their eyes locked briefly, but they looked away just as quickly. Tina turned around, taking her jacket off and setting it on the kitchen table. “My mom and dad said to tell you hi and to not be a stra-“
Her words were cut off as Bob put his hand across her mouth from behind with a strength that astonished her. Or rather, would have astonished her had she had time to be astonished. She didn’t. The moment he silenced her, the serrated edge of a bread knife touched her neck, just below her left ear. It began moving to the right, digging deeper into her flesh and her throat as it made its journey to her right ear. By the time the knife arrived near the diamond earring in Tina’s dainty earlobe, the knife (a gift from her), had cut to her spine, blood erupting from the wound in seemingly impossible amounts.
He kept his hand on her mouth, holding her to him as she struggled. He felt her weakening, weakening until she became a dead weight that he slowly lowered to the floor, now flooded with his ex-wife’s blood.
“Bob, we need to take care of this.”
It was the first time he had heard the ghost. He was surprised, but not startled, just as he was surprised by what he had done to Tina, but not horrified or panicked. He listened to the ghost (he thought of it as “she”) and did what she told him. After cleaning the kitchen and removing every drop of blood, he cleaned Tina as best he could, wrapped her in two of his bedsheets, and laid her beside his bed. The ghost had said this was for the best until they could decide how to best dispose of her.
It was Tina, Bob realized back in the present moment. He had killed her. He had killed Tina and had kept her in his (their) bedroom for the last four weeks. And now she (it) was gone. Bob’s legs gave way and he fell to the floor on his behind, panic threatening to shut down his mind.
“We’re going to take care of this, Bob,” the ghost said.
“Really? This is really going to be OK?” Bob asked, a mixture of stark fear and childish hope in his voice.
“Oh, yes. We’re going to be just fine,” she said. “There is a box beneath the couch. Get it and open it.”
With no hesitation, Bob leapt to his feet and ran to the living room. He shoved the couch from the back, looking down as he pushed. There was a smallish cardboard box there. He leaned down and picked it up. It was much heavier than he had thought it would be. He hesitated briefly, then opened it. Inside was a gray .380 pistol. He stared blankly for a moment and finally asked, “What am I supposed to do with this? Do I shoot myself?”
For the first time since he had known her (it), the ghost laughed. “Oh, no, Silly Bean!” Once again, ice water filled his veins. Silly Bean had been Tina’s pet name for him. “You need to take the gun, then look outside.”
He pulled the gun from the box, setting it in the middle of the couch. His eyes blank, sweat beginning to bead on his upper lip, he turned around and walked through the foyer to the front door. He looked outside through the window on the left side of the entrance. The entire street was filled with police. He saw at least five police cars, all with their lights flashing, what looked to be dozens of officers, two ambulances, four news vans with the tall satellite antennas and, of course, the entire neighborhood, members of which who would later provide the great stereotypical quote to the assembled media, “He seemed so normal.”
An officer must have noticed the movement of the curtain because a second or two after Bob looked out the window, he heard an amplified voice pierce the air.
“PLEASE COME OUTSIDE WITH YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD! WE DO NOT WANT TO HURT YOU! WE JUST WANT TO TALK!”
“Bob, they’re not going to talk to you,” the ghost said. “There are twelve snipers on the rooftops across the street. Why do you think there’s an ambulance and no paddy wagon? You’re going to the morgue, not the jail.”
“I didn’t want this!” Bob wailed. “I didn’t want any of this! I just want to lay down, read my book, and go to sleep. You told me we were going to be fine!”
Again, the ghost laughed with no trace of malice. “Oh, Silly Bean! That’s a royal ‘we!’ Let me rephrase. I’m going to be OK. You are fucked.”
Hearing this, Bob’s lip quivered just slightly and the first tears began to appear at the corner of his eyes as he continued to look in the direction of the voice. “You say you didn’t want this?” the ghost said. “Then you shouldn’t have killed me.”
“T-tina?” he whispered hoarsely.
“Yes, Silly Bean, it’s me,” she said, a smile in her voice. “I have to say, I never thought you had it in you. But you know what they say, still waters run the deepest.”
Bob looked as though he had aged 30 years in the past five minutes. Tears were falling freely down his pale cheeks, mixing with the nervous sweat from his brow. “Tina. Oh God, Tina. What do I do? What do I do?”
“You’re going to walk out the door and you’re going to take your medicine. You’re going to have a wee sip of a glass today, Bob!”
Bob looked around, the weight of the situation finally settling into his brain. He had killed his wife and either her ghost or his own guilty subconscious was going to make him pay for it. He began to shiver like a man caught in a blizzard as he went into shock. He again peered out the window and saw the officers and for the first time, saw they were not only armed, but standing with their weapons pointed directly at the front door.
“SIR!” the voice from the bullhorn screeched. “PLEASE COME OUTSIDE SO WE CAN TALK ABOUT THIS!”
“What should I do?” Bob asked aloud, but the ghost (Tina) was gone. Truly gone, Bob believed and he was right. For quite possibly the first time in his life, he was truly alone. No one to tell him what to do. No one to make his decisions for him. It was just Bob.
He placed his left hand on the knob of the door and turned it. He looked down at his hand and then looked straight ahead, pulling the door open. As he did, the assembled mob released a collective gasp. He thought he heard the klak-KLAK! of a pump-action shotgun as the lights from the media’s cameras blinded him. He stumbled two steps and stopped.
The word shook him out of his stupor and he looked at the .380 in his right hand. He had forgotten he still had it. As he looked up, he raised the gun, meaning to tell the small army of policemen this was a mistake. They did not give him the chance.
The first volley of bullets were close enough he could feel them zipping past his face. As a bullet found and shattered his left knee and the one that would crash into his brain, killing him instantly less than a second away, Bob thought, lantern fish.
It was called a lantern fish.