Derek Littell was a god damned genius. They told him as much when he was in third grade. They told him again when he graduated high school at 14. They told him again when he got his second doctorate from MIT in experimental physics. “Bright future,” they said. “He can go anywhere,” they said.
“Fuck ’em,” he replied.
Derek Littell was at least smart enough to know when he was being manipulated. “Anywhere” was just shorthand for “anywhere we think would be fitting.” He found that out when he told them what he wanted to study.
“Ghosts?” the Dean said, one side of his tightly pursed lips twitching up into a condescending smirk. “Surely there are other more worthy pursuits in which you could interest yourself, Mr. Little.”
“Littell,” said Derek. Dean Hardscrabble stared at him, expecting more and flashed an awkward grin when the silence stretched too long.
“Look,” said Hardscrabble, “if you’re not interested in having a serious discussion about this…”
“I’m being serious,” Derek said, more quietly than he intended. He shifted in his chair and the leather of his jacket made an uncomfortable noise against the vinyl chair-back.
The Dean grimaced. “Mr. Littell, this school has given you free reign to decide your own course of study. We give you a minimal course load, a laboratory on campus, even preliminary funding, and you have the… the…”
Hardscrabble was turning red, and his white mustache was twitching.
“Did you read my proposal?” asked Derek.
“Read it? I read it. Did you? This reads like you got drunk one night in your dorm room and started philosophizing,” said the Dean.
This had happened to Derek before, and he had expected it again. “It’s not really ghosts, sir.”
“Then why is the blasted word right there in the damned title?” Hardscrabble held up the paper titled Ghosts and the Multiverse: How Intruding Dimensions May Explain Suspicions on the Afterlife.
“Well, okay, it’s ghosts, but not in the way you’re thinking,” Derek said, holding his hands over his head in an imitation of a stereotypical ghost. “No white sheets and chains.”
Hardscrabble put his head down in his hands. “Mr. Littell, I’m not here to discuss the non-existent merits of your idea. I asked you here to let you know that you will change the topic of your research or you will no longer be employed by this institution.”
Derek left the Dean’s office and headed for his quarters, hands in his pockets. It began to drizzle and soon his too-big shoes made wet slapping sounds on the sidewalk. Derek looked up into the falling water and marveled at the blue, cloudless sky. The world was full of wonders and offered no explanations to those too timid or too proud to pry them free. He left the dean’s office having told the old man that he would think about changing his thesis. Now he squarely meant to be fired. The feeling was freeing. He wasn’t sure what he would do now, but whatever it was, he wouldn’t be here, watched over and corralled by unimaginative geezers like Hardscrabble.
Derek tumbled into his apartment in a hurry. His roommate barely looked up from his book, and fair enough. They hardly spoke, and Derek knew he was terrible at rooming. He left the door standing wide open and sprinted up the stairs to his bedroom where he fired up the old MacBook that kept all of his research. Hardscrabble didn’t know he’d already been using university resources for the project for months and he wanted to make sure he got it before they did.
As the data downloaded onto his external drive – purposely not borrowed from the university – he clicked over to his email, and surprisingly, there was a notification.
“Already,” he thought. “I haven’t even given the old man an answer.”
The email wasn’t from Hardscrabble. It wasn’t even from a university address. Yahoo, even. Was Yahoo even a damned company anymore?
Please help, read the subject line. Sparse. Derek clicked, and then knew what he was doing next.
Texas was a long way away. It took three days for Derek to arrive in the tiny town of Hutto, and when the car ground to a halt on the gravel in front of the Williamson County Jail, he could still feel the vibration of the highway in his feet.
Derek sat in the parking lot for a long time, feeling the car’s conditioned air blow on his face. He knew he was crazy. It was freeing to know.
Derek got out of the car and crunched up to the building. It was bigger than he expected, and much more modern. In his head it was a little brick building faded with heat and dust. Now that he was here, he realized how much this mental image was a characature of what he expected from a small Texas town. The building was several stories tall, built of white concrete with large glass panel windows. He walked in through the glass automatic doors. A portly woman in a brown uniform with curly brown hair and thick glasses looked up from the desk and smiled.
“Good morning,” she said.
Derek approached the desk. “Morning,” he said. “I’m here to see Alvin Ambrose.”
The desk clerk, whose name tag read Doris, smiled knowingly. “Ayup,” she said. “He said somebody might be coming. His bail’s been out a couple days, but nobody’s paid. You gonna get him out of here?”
“Not sure, actually,” said Derek. “I’d like to visit with him, though.”
Doris pressed a button on the desk and a buzzer sounded as a door off to the left clicked open. “Go on through there and have a seat. I’ll have him brought around.”
In the room were a few worn couches, and one wall was a line of desks separated down the middle by glass. There were phones on the desk on either side of the dividers with folding chairs sat out on the visitors side. He was the only person in the room. He supposed that made sense at eight in the morning.
He took a seat in one of the folding chairs and waited, but not for long. Another buzzer sounded and a door popped open on the other side of the glass. A uniformed guard walked a prisoner into the visitor’s area. The prisoner was in a white jumpsuit. His hair was dirty and stuck up in matted clumps. His beard was getting long and it’s gray streaks were stained brown and yellow. Derek couldn’t smell him, but he looked like he stunk.
The prisoner sat down across the desk and pointed to the phone. Derek picked up his and the prisoner did likewise.
“Alvin?” Said Derek.
“That’s me,” Alvin said, smirking.
“You don’t look like you’ve had a good time in there.”
Alvin started laughing. It was too high and panicky.
Derek grimaced. “You’re not crazy are you?”
Alvin’s laughter subsided and he looked down at the desk. “I dunno, man.”
Derek stared at the man. It would be just his luck to have driven 28 hours over three days to come see a damned mental patient. “Tell me you’re not, and we can keep talking.”
Alvin looked up into Derek’s eyes. “I keep asking myself the same damn question, over and over. It don’t do any good. I’ve never been crazy before, so I wouldn’t know what it feels like.”
“Fair enough,” said Derek. “Tell me why you’re here.”
“You saw the tapes, right?” Alvin said, leaning in.
“Yeah, I saw the tapes. I heard your ghost story. Found some newspapers that fill in the gaps. Tell me why you’re in jail.”
Alvin huffed. “You ain’t found a newspaper that would fill in the gaps with any kinda accuracy.”
“That may be true. That’s why I’m here. I want to help, I really do. I even brought bail money. But first, you gotta tell me what happened two days ago.”
I remember hating him. I can’t understand it anymore, but I remember it. I didn’t always hate him, but there were times when I would think I had made a mistake. I would think that he was meant to take my life from me.
Of course what he was really doing was changing my life, and change and destruction are closely related. You might even say that one is a prerequisite for the other. I came to terms with the change in his fourth year. That doesn’t mean that I never felt that way again. It just means that I felt that way less, and took it less seriously when those feelings surfaced.
One day in the summer of 2016, I woke up free as a bird. My obligations had all fled from me. My eyes opened. I felt my weight pressing into the soft pillow-top of the bed my wife and I once slept in. Light flowed in from the window illuminating the photos I still kept and the piles of clothes that carpeted the floor. I could smell myself. It was an earthy, sour stench that at one time in my life would have sent me reeling for the shower. On that day, I lay in it, unconcerned. I was free, you see.
There’s an old song. Freedom, it says, is just another word for nothing left to lose.
I lay in bed that morning hating myself, punishing myself with inaction. I stared at the ceiling and cried the way I cried every morning, silent, still, choking. I struggled to keep my eyes open even as the tears forced them to blink because every time my eyelids shut I saw him falling. I saw him stumble to his feet. There was a dark line of something dribbling from his bottom lip. He held his arm tenderly and winced as he stepped forward. His eyes squinted. His mouth moved silently. He stepped forward and was gone.
I reeled out of bed. The final frame of darkness was like a cattle prod, pushing me up, out. I had somewhere I needed to be.
Shirt. Pants. Shoes. Forget the shower. My wife would never have let me get away with that. Oh, glorious freedom. I was out the door in fifteen minutes. I pulled my car up behind the building in twenty.
I’ve been here before.
Of course I had. Do you honestly think I could go six years and never go into the place? That I could wait so long and never look for him myself? I’ve been in there a dozen times at least. On that day I broke in like a seasoned professional, like a special forces operative. I was Jason Bourne, hiding in plain sight, never flashy, never attracting attention. Small, casual movements. I strolled along, hands in pockets, the building’s wide brick face to my right. It was ten and the Texas sun was already starting to bake the pavement below my feet. The sun reflected in the grid of windows stretching up the building’s side was like a death ray built of mirrors. I was sweating, but I wore a jacket because I was going inside. It was always cold in there.
Left foot, right foot, heel, toe. I turned right around the corner and saw the porch. A railing ran around it. It looked like there should be a porch swing. I jogged up the stairs like a curious tourist. Is this place for sale? What’s in there? It helps to think the part.
There’s the hole in the glass. The one he put there. You can see on the tape where he wrapped his hand in a cloth — it looked like one of his mama’s kitchen towels, but it was hard to say — and pushed it through. He didn’t cut himself. They didn’t find any blood. I used to think the owner of the place left the hole in the glass for me, so I could get in. He knew I was breaking in. There were cameras up, after all. That’s how we knew. In reality, he stopped looking at the cameras afterward. He won’t tell me why, even though I’ve asked. He took them down. I don’t think he comes down here anymore. He’s just letting the place rot. Fair enough.
I put my hand through the hole just like he did. I turned the lock, turned the knob. The place smelled like an attic, like old books and rats. Red spray paint spells “Don’t open, dead inside” above the door on the far wall. There were illegible tags here and there. I walked over to the red “X” on the floor halfway across the room and sat on it. On the tapes, he jumped at something and landed here. After the tapes made the news, someone got in here and marked all the spots where he stopped, where he lingered.
I stared at the door from my seat on the floor. He disappeared through there for five minutes before his fall down the basement stairs that are right across the hall. The hallway was where the great mystery resided. The only cameras on which Danny appeared were in great tall entryway where I sat now and in the basement. The space between the two doors, one on each side of the hallway, was no more than ten feet and yet he disappeared into it for more than five minutes.
This meant he had turned. I got up and stood in the doorway. The hallway stretched off in either direction, much further to my left than my right, where it ended abruptly following a door to what appeared to be an administrative office. The name on the glass said “Dr. Wallace Shaw”, no title. I’d dug through Dr. Shaw’s office a half-dozen times and found nothing, no trace that Danny had been here. The office was even relatively clear of the carpet of paper that covered the floor in most of the rest of the place.
Today, I decided to turn left, though that was not exactly a new strategy either.
A long hallway, more paper, an overturned gurney; these things greeted me as they had a dozen times, static in their ruin. I took three steps down the hallway and stopped. How many times had my traitorous eyes moved over that spot and not seen? At the top of the wall, just over an inch from the ceiling was a jagged hole, and from that hole protruded two wires, cut clean. That son of a bitch.
I sprinted from the building to the car, no longer caring if someone saw me. I had a visit to make.
“So that’s when you went and found Mike Flanagan and beat him within an inch of his life,” said Derek.
“There was an… altercation,” Alvin said.
“You can say that again,” said Derek.
“Look, I ain’t gonna tell you what I did and didn’t do. Those folks out there are still deciding, and I’ve decided not to help them. What I will say is that he knew more than he’d tell me, and I took exception to that.”
“And what did he know?” Derek asked.
“He knew there was another camera, another tape. He knew it and he didn’t give it to me.” Alvin was starting to shake.
“Do you have the tape?”
“No,” said Alvin. “They have the tape.” He gestured toward the door. “They wouldn’t let me see it before they stuck me in here. They’re calling it evidence.”
“Evidence of what?” Asked Derek.
“Don’t ask me. Look, you gonna help me or not? They don’t let these visits go on too long. Not that I’d know from experience or anything.”
Derek leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. There was not enough information here, but Alvin was right, time was short. This crazy bastard could just be an attempted murderer and Daniel Ambrose could just be some kid who fell down the stairs. But Derek wanted to see that tape. He could leave the old man to rot in here and try to get it, but that seemed like prying. This wasn’t his story, it was Alvin’s.
“Fine,” said Derek. “I’ll bail you.”
Alvin let out a breath he had been holding and seemed to deflate. “Oh, thank god,” he said.
“Don’t thank God,” said Derek. “Thank intellectual curiosity. Any idea how we can get our hands on that tape?”
“Not a one,” said Alvin, his grin full of white teeth.