All the Spirits in the Place ~ A Short Story

The Spirits in the Hotel image 3
All the Spirits in the Place
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

I always liked staying in a good hotel, even one that was falling apart and hadn’t seen a paying guest in fifty years. The Hotel Argyle was on the riverfront, in a cluster of other derelict buildings. It was twenty stories tall and could be seen from a long way off because the hotel name had been painted in huge letters on the side of the building. It stood as a symbol of urban blight. There’s nothing spirits love more than urban blight.

I walked into the lobby of the Argyle and was surprised to see a ghostly apparition at the registration desk. He seemed to be made of purple-and-green smoke. He gestured to the registration book and I knew what to do. It must have been somebody’s idea of a joke because spirits don’t use the names they had when they were alive. I made a little mark on the book. That seemed to satisfy him because he smiled his grotesque smile and gestured for me to take the stairs.

There were many vacancies at the Argyle. I would venture to guess that I could pick almost any room, on any floor, and it would be vacant. I went all the way to the top floor, the twentieth, and found the room I wanted at the end of the hall. It showed no signs of occupancy, so I took it as my own.

I was a tired old spook. I had traveled a long way to get here. I needed a rest, so I was happy for that reason that the hotel was quiet. The other spirits in residence were probably sleeping, since it was the middle of the day and the sun was shining brightly. If there’s anything a spirit hates, it’s bright sunlight.

I stared out the window at the skyline of the city for a while and then, hovering near the ceiling, I went into a trancelike state, which was as near as I ever came to sleeping. As long as I’m not disturbed, I can stay in this state for years at a time, but, of course, when you’re a spirit, a year means nothing. We think in terms of eternity. Time has no meaning.

In this trancelike state, I thought of—dreamed of—many things. I had been in the spirit world now for eighty years. I was only thirty-five when I crossed over. I had two wives when I was alive. I regret that I wasn’t very kind to either of them. I had a drinking problem. Luckily there were no children. I would have been a terrible father.

After my divorce, I had no job and no money, so I went back home to live with my mother. She and I never understood each other. We fought constantly. I should have known better, even if she didn’t. She nagged me about my drinking; she thought I could stop if I only tried. She wanted me to go to church with her the way I did as a child. She thought if I just read my Bible I’d be the kind of man God wanted me to be.

I got a part-time job driving a truck. I was never that keen on driving. I hated it. All my organs were pickled in alcohol. One hot July afternoon, my hundred-proof heart stopped when I was parked on a street downtown. I took off my shoes, put them side by side, laid down on the seat, and died. I knew I was dying and I didn’t care. I thought it was the best thing that could happen to me.

When I found myself in the spirit world, I was surprised there was any kind of existence after death. I thought it was punishment for all the bad things I had done. Everybody else went to heaven, I thought, but not me. That, of course, wasn’t true. The spirit world is teeming with spirits who never made it to heaven.

That night I met two of them. I was going out for a little city night life when I met them in the lobby of the hotel. I remembered them from before, a long time ago, in another incarnation. They went by the names Jocko and Howdy. They recognized me immediately and I them.

“We heard you were here,” Jocko said. “When did you get in?”

“A few days ago. I’ve been resting up in my room on the top floor.”

“We were just going out to do the town,” Howdy said. “Why don’t you join us for old time’s sake?”

“I’ll go if you promise not to scare me too much,” I said.

Hah-hah-hah!”

On our way downtown, Jocko, Howdy and I walked side by side, as if we were living instead of dead.  Howdy made a show of knocking people out of the way but, of course, they didn’t know he was there because he was invisible to them and, also, they were solid and he wasn’t. It’s only fair to mention that we met a few other spirits, but they were mostly in haughty groups and didn’t pay any attention to us. Howdy would get into a brawl with some of them if he could. He was a brawler and a mischief-maker.

On the way downtown, I asked Jocko and Howdy if the Hotel Argyle was a good place for a spook to live.

“It’s dead most of the time,” Jocko said.

“What do you mean?”

“Not much action there, man,” Howdy said.

“It seems perfect to me,” I said. “An abandoned hotel on the riverfront of a major city. Doesn’t it abound with ghosts?”

“Yeah, but ghosts are boring if they’re not doing anything,” Jocko said.

“So, you’re saying the ghosts in the hotel are all retired?”

“Well, something like that.”

“Don’t they like to scare little girls? Make them scream?”

“Yeah, but that’s the point. There aren’t any little girls to scare. What’s the fun of having the ability to scare people if there aren’t any people to scare?”

“You have to find out where the people are and scare them where they live,” I said.

“The people who own the hotel should turn it into a haunted-house attraction for Halloween,” Jocko said. “A lot of people would pay good money to tour a vintage hotel full of real ghosts instead of fake ones.”

“The people who own the hotel are dead,” Howdy said.

“The city owns the hotel,” Jocko said. “They’re just waiting for the right time to bring in the wrecking balls.”

“If they tear it down, they’re going to put a lot of ghosts out of a home,” I said.

“Not so many. Most of the spirits moved on a long time ago. Only losers stay at the Argyle now.”

“I was just beginning to like the atmosphere,” I said. “I had to leave my last home because a vengeful witch started throwing fireballs and burned the place down.”

“You have to watch out for those fireball-throwing witches!” Howdy said.

“The best way to deal with them is to cut off their heads and then burn their bodies,” Jocko said. “You have to be sure to remember to burn their bodies because some of them can go on living without a head.”

“Here, now!” Howdy said. “Let’s stop talking about witches and have some fun!”

Howdy was one of those spirits who engage in mayhem. He caused two cars to collide and then doubled over with laughter. When I asked him how he did it, he said it was a secret he learned during the war.

“What war was that?” I asked, but he didn’t answer me.

We couldn’t go to a bar or a restaurant and sit at a table the way other fellows do, so we walked all over downtown. We went into a movie theatre and watched part of the movie that was playing.

“I don’t like this movie!” Jocko said after a while. He then caused the projection equipment to break down when the movie was halfway through.

“That’s the way it’s done,” he said, laughing hysterically.

We entered a library and did some moaning and then we pulled down some shelves of books. Pretty tame stuff, but spirits have to make their own kind of fun.

Next we went to a dance hall where men buy tickets and use them to dance with weary-looking dames. It was a sorry-looking spectacle. I don’t know which was worse, the men or the women. What fools these mortals be.

We stood apart from the crowd against the wall. Knowing we were watching him, Howdy made as if to cut in on certain dancing couples, but he only brushed up against the ladies. They could feel it, of course, but not see it, so they were confused about what was happening to them. Some of them thought somebody was playing a trick on them. Maybe some of them knew it was spirits, but I doubt if any of them were smart enough to figure that out.

After the dance hall, we went to the oldest and biggest cemetery in the city. There were some really old corpses there—Civil War and before. The place needed some livening up. We built a small fire and joined hands and danced around it. We moaned and sang and chanted. Soon we had a couple of dozen spirits gathered around. They were delighted  we were there. They were happy to join in any kind of foolishness. They danced and sang and were happy.

Howdy, always the smooth operator, found himself a lady spirit. She was wearing a long, flowing white dress and a tiara on her head. She looked like a queen. She made eyes at Howdy, he made eyes at her, and then they joined hands and went off together into the darkness.

“How will we find him when it’s time to go?” I said to Jocko.

“Don’t worry about Howdy. He’ll make short work of her.”

We made merry in the cemetery until the first traces of dawn began to light up the eastern sky. Then the spirits reluctantly began to drift back to wherever they came from. Surprised that the night had passed so quickly, Jocko, Howdy, and I went back to the Argyle. It had been a most enjoyable evening.

We returned often to the cemetery, where we made some good friends. The spirits there were always happy to see us. We brought the good times with us. I had never had so much fun before.

I began spending all my evenings with Jocko and Howdy, resting in my room at the Argyle during the daylight hours. We took in all the attractions that the city had to offer. We spooked people left and right, sometimes causing them to doubt their own sanity. Howdy was a spirit who enjoyed mayhem, such as causing traffic lights to malfunction or streets to flood for no reason. Because we were with him, Jocko and I were more often than not willing to go along with him.

In the winter we had some excitement at the humdrum Argyle. A team of paranormal investigators set up shop in the old ballroom on the tenth floor. They were investigating the existence of life after death. It gave us all a good laugh.

All the spirits in the hotel were excited at the prospect of proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they had lived and that they went right on living after they died.

The psychic investigators (or ghost-hunters as they came to be called) had ultra-sensitive sound-recording equipment that would pick up the sound of a mouse breathing. They all left to go home at night but left their sound-recording equipment running to pick up every infinitesimal (ghostly) sound. In the mornings when they returned, they listened to what had been recorded during the night.

From the first night, all the spirits went to the ballroom with messages for the ghost-hunters. Some of them sang songs or recited poetry. Others laughed, moaned, or gave out with nonsense words of their own devising. Some of the spirits swore or made farting sounds. It was a lot of fun for everybody and a way to express our disdain for the living.

Regardless of what they said about the Argyle, I was beginning to like to and to think of it as home. And then something bad happened, and it wasn’t the wrecking balls, either. A fire started on one of the lower floors and soon spread to every floor. When all the spirits in the place realized what was happening, they all escaped out the windows. We all gathered outside and watched the place burn like a torch and collapse in on itself, all twenty stories. Whatever the cause of the fire, it saved the city a lot of trouble.

Jocko, Howdy and I bucked up the other spirits and urged them not to be downhearted. We had a plan.

We took them all, a procession of two hundred spirits or more (like a parade of the dead), to the cemetery, where we had been made to feel welcome before. All the spirits in the cemetery were delighted we had returned and had brought along lots of new friends. Everybody was welcome. The old cemetery had everything a spirit could want, and more.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

All Hallow’s Eve ~ A Short Story

Halloween 2021 3

All Hallow’s Eve
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~ 

(This is a repost.)

Mother stood over him while he ate his dinner of liver and onions. When she decided he had eaten enough, she told him he could go. He ran up the stairs to his room and put on his Halloween costume. A ghost this year, same as last year. Next year he was going to have to be something different. Wearing the same costume more than two years in a row was terrible.

His false face still had dried spit around the mouth, but it was his own spit so he didn’t care. He put it on and checked the entire effect in the mirror, costume, mask and all. Something was missing. Oh, yes, the old derby hat. It was the one thing that made his costume look just a little bit creepy and scary. Without the hat, the costume was just a cheap little-kid’s getup.

Mother was in the living room when he came down the stairs. “Come here, Buster, and let me take a look at your outfit,” she said.

“It’s a costume,” Buster said.

“Oh, don’t you look cute!”

“I’m supposed to look scary!”

“So, where are you going tonight? What are you plans?”

“I’m going tricking-or-treating, mother, the same as every Halloween.”

“Who are you going with?”

“I don’t know. Some of the kids from my class, I guess.”

“What are their names?”

“You want the names of all the kids in my class?”

“Of course I don’t. You’ll be careful, now, won’t you?”

“Yeah, I’ll be careful.”

“Make sure you’re not alone. Wherever you go, go in a group.”

“I don’t care.”

“What?”

“I said okay, I’ll go in a group.”

“Be home by ten o’clock.”

“Mother! It’s Halloween and tomorrow is Saturday!”

“All right, then. Eleven.”

When he finally got out the door, he broke into a run. The evening air felt good after the stuffy house and smelled good, like leaves and burning candle wax. It wasn’t all the way dark yet, but trick-or-treaters were everywhere, mostly little kids accompanied by their mothers.

He met his friends at the corner by the park. Eric was a skeleton, Stan a hobo, and Squeamy the Lone Ranger. Squeamy’s sister, Oda May, stood apart from the others, smoking a cigarette and looked bored. She carried a rubber-and-fur gorilla mask loosely in her hand like a rag.

“What’s Oda May doing here?” Buster asked.

“My mother wouldn’t let me go out without an adult,” Squeamy said.

“She’s fifteen!”

“I guess that’s enough of an adult.”

“Let’s get going, you losers,” Stan said, “before all the good candy is gone!”

Oda May flipped away her cigarette and put on the gorilla mask and they headed for the neighborhood on the other side of the park where all the best houses were.

It was a lucrative neighborhood. Three-quarters of the houses had their porch lights on. When people took one look at adult-sized Oda May in her gorilla mask, their smiles usually faded.

The treats were good, Hershey bars and popcorn balls instead of stale jelly beans. After three blocks, their bags were starting to get heavy. They sat down on the curb to rest for a while.

“That’s how it’s done,” Oda May said, hefting the bag of candy appreciatively between her legs. “If they’re just a little bit scared of you, they’ll fork over the candy quick enough so they can get rid of you.” She lit a cigarette without taking off the gorilla mask.

“Where to now?” Buster asked.

“I don’t know about you little turds,” Oda May said, “but I’m going to go meet my boyfriend.”

“What about us?” Stan asked.

“You’re on your own. I’ve played nursemaid long enough.”

“It’s all right,” Squeamy said. “We don’t need her.”

“And don’t follow me,” she said, “or somebody’s gonna lose some teeth!”

“Leave the mask on!” Squeamy called after her. “Your boyfriend might like you better that way!”

“What will she do with all that candy?” Buster asked.

“Probably give it to her boyfriend.”

“Who is this boyfriend, anyway?” Eric asked. “Why don’t we get to meet him?”

“He’s a criminal, I think,” Squeamy said. “She doesn’t want me to see him because she’s afraid I’ll tell on her. He’s twenty-three years old. I’ll bet he’s really terrible looking, like a convict.”

“I’d like to see him,” Stan said.

“Hey, I stole some of her cigarettes when she wasn’t looking,” Squeamy said, passing them around and lighting them.

“Boy, I like smoking!” Eric said. “I inhale the smoke deep down into my lungs and let it stay there.”

“Me too,” Stan said. “I’m always going to smoke for as long as I live.”

“My mother told me if she ever caught me smoking a cigarette she’d knock it down my throat,” Squeamy said.

“Doesn’t she smoke?” Eric asked.

“Of course she does. They all smoke.”

“Then why does she care?”

“Because I’m in fifth grade.”

“She’s a hypocrite,” Stan said.

Buster had never smoked before except for a quick puff off his mother’s cigarette when she wasn’t looking. He didn’t like the taste of it, but he wasn’t going to be the only one not to smoke.

Several times, he took the smoke into his mouth and quickly blew it out again. He wanted to have the others see him with smoke coming out his nose like a dragon, but he wasn’t sure how to do it without inhaling.

“Don’t you like smoking, Buster?” Squeamy asked.

“Yeah, I like it all right. I smoke all the time when my mother isn’t looking.”

“Well, finish your cigarettes, ladies,” Eric said. “We’ve still got a lot of territory to cover.”

They went over a couple of blocks to another neighborhood where the treats were bound to be good. They covered several blocks, both sides of the street, in just under an hour.

“My bag is getting really heavy,” Squeamy said. “I think I’d probably better go on home now.”

“Somebody gave me a guitar pick as a treat. Isn’t that weird?”

“Hey, it looks like it’s going to rain! If our bags get wet, they’ll bust through on the bottom and all our candy will spill out!”

“What time is it?”

“I think it’s about a quarter to ten.”

“I think we should call it a night.”

Some older kids, sixteen and seventeen, came up behind them with the intention of stealing their candy, so they began running furiously into the dark to get away from them. Stan knew the neighborhood better than the others, so they all followed him.

He led them around in a circuitous loop over to Main Street, where there were lots of lots of lights, people and cars.

“I think we outran them!” he said.

“Can you imagine the nerve?” Eric said. “We’ve been out all night trick-or-treating for our candy, and somebody thinks they can just come along and take it from us? What is the world coming to?”

Some of the businesses on Main Street were giving out treats. A lady at a bakery gave them day-old pumpkin cookies, which they devoured like hungry wolves.

A man standing in front of a tavern was giving out treats from a large plastic pumpkin. “You kids need to be home in bed,” he said.

“If we come inside, will you give us a beer?” Stan asked.

“Come back in ten years,” the man said.

There was a big crowd at the Regal Theatre, a long line of people waiting to buy tickets to the Halloween double feature: Bride of the Gorilla and The Terror of Tiny Town. Anybody in costume could get in for half-price.

“If we had enough money, we could go,” Stan said.

“Aw, I can’t stay out that late,” Buster said. “My mother would come looking for me.”

They were about to walk past the theatre, but Squeamy spotted Oda May in the ticket line in the gorilla mask and stopped. She wasn’t alone, either.

“She’s with a little kid and he’s a cowboy!” Squeamy said. “Her boyfriend is a child and a cowboy! That’s why she didn’t want us to meet him!”

From where they were standing, they all had a good look at the little cowboy. When he turned around to look at the line behind him, Buster saw his face. “That’s no little kid,” he said. “That’s a midget!”

“A what?”

“Oda May’s boyfriend is a midget and his face is all wrinkled! He must be thirty years old!”

“Oh, boy!” Squeamy said. “I’m really going to tell on her now!”

“I think we should go over and say ‘hi’ to her,” Eric said.

“No!” Squeamy said. “She’ll think we’ve been following her!”

They stood and watched Oda May and the midget cowboy move up in the line. When it was their turn, Oda May moved around behind the midget, put her hands on his waist and lifted him up so he could buy the tickets and then set him down again. Several people in line behind them laughed, but they seemed not to notice.

“Now I’m seen everything!” Squeamy said. “Can you imagine what their children will be like? I don’t even want to think about it.”

“Let’s go,” Stan said. “It’s ten o’clock and it’s starting to rain again.”

They decided to walk home with Stan, since he lived the closest. The interesting thing about Stan was that his father was an undertaker and the family lived above the funeral parlor. It was a subject of endless fascination to Stan’s friends.

“I think I’m going to call it a night,” Stan said when they were at the corner near his house. “Thanks for walking me home.”

“Do you mean you’re not going to ask us in after we’ve come all this way?” Squeamy said.

“Do you have a body in a casket we can look at?” Eric asked.

“Stan’s right,” Buster said. “I should be getting home, too.”

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Squeamy said. “I don’t think I can wait until I get home.”

“Oh, all right!” Stan said. “You can come in but you have to wipe your feet first.”

Stan’s parents were out for the evening, so they had the place to themselves. Stan took them down to the basement to show them around but made them promise not to touch anything. First he showed them the room where the embalming was done with its white cabinets full of jars and bottles and then a separate room where bodies were dressed and prepared for burial. The most impressive part of the tour was the casket room, where more than fifty caskets were opened up so people could see inside them. Eric, Buster and Squeamy took turns taking off their shoes and getting into a casket to see what it felt like, while Stan closed the lid on each of them for a few seconds and then made them get out.

“My dad wouldn’t like it if he knew we were down here,” he said.

“Let us know when there’s a body so we can come back and see it,” Eric said.

“I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies. It’s people you don’t know. You don’t feel anything looking at them.”

“You are so lucky! I’ve never seen a dead body!”

“I need to get home,” Buster said. “It’s getting late.”

Buster walked part of the way home with Squeamy and Eric, but they left him at the corner by the church and he had to walk the last four blocks alone. He held his bag of candy in his arms because it was heavy and soggy and he didn’t want the bottom breaking through. He didn’t see a single other person on his way home. Everybody was finished for the night. Halloween was over for another year.

Mother was sitting on the couch in her bathrobe and slippers watching a Charlie Chan movie on TV. “Did you have a nice time?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was okay.”

“I’m glad you’re home.”

“Why?

“I always worry about you when you’re out by yourself.”

“I wasn’t by myself.”

“There’s an escapee on the loose killing people. I just heard it on TV.”

“We just missed him.”

“Now don’t eat all that candy at once. You’ll make yourself sick. You still have to eat your fruits and vegetables.”

“I know. I want to go to bed now. I’m tired.”

She was saying something else as he went up the stairs, but he didn’t hear what it was.

He weighed himself on the bathroom scale, first without the bag and then with it. He weighed eighty-four pounds without the bag and ninety-five pounds with it. Eleven pounds of candy. One pound for every year of his life.

He undressed and put on his pajamas and set the bag of candy on top of the chest of drawers where he could see it from the bed. He got into bed, took one last look at it, turned off the light. Before he could have counted to ten, he was asleep.

Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp

The Haunted Cigarette ~ A Short Story

The Haunted Cigarette image 4
The Haunted Cigarette
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~  

Constanza was confused when she woke up. She couldn’t remember anything that happened the day or the night before. She looked over at the clock and seeing that it had stopped and not knowing the time only added to her confusion. She sat up in the bed and pulled a pillow up behind her so that it was between her back and the headboard and smoked a cigarette and then she remembered the reason for her confusion. She had been sick, she had had a high fever, and the doctor gave her some pills to help make her sleep.

She got out of the bed and slipped into her bathrobe and went into the kitchen. She was glad to see that her husband had gone to the store and bought groceries. He was always good to help out with the housework whenever she wasn’t feeling well. There were milk and oranges in the refrigerator and a loaf of bread on the counter and plenty of cigarettes. She made some coffee and sat down at the table and smoked another cigarette and looked out the window at the gray, hazy sky and waited for the coffee to brew.

She drank half a cup of the coffee and took a few bites of a piece of toast, but she had no appetite and she soon went back into the bedroom and lay down again on the bed. She had a terrible headache and a searing pain in her throat and chest. She took another of her pills and pulled a pillow lightly over her face; in a little while she was able to stop thinking about how bad she felt and she fell again into a very deep sleep.

The next time she awoke, the room was dark. She had slept throughout the entire day and it was night again. She got out of bed and turned on the lights and went into the kitchen, expecting her husband to be there, but he was nowhere in the apartment. She looked at the kitchen clock and saw that it had stopped at exactly two-ten, the same time that the clock in the bedroom had stopped. She thought the pills must be playing tricks on her mind.

Her husband would surely be coming home soon. She felt bad that she kept missing him and hadn’t seen him for what seemed like days, but she couldn’t be sure how long it had been because she had been sleeping so much from the pills. He had been coming home and then leaving again, not wanting to disturb her; that much was obvious. His coffee cup was in a different place, he had left a plate in the sink to be washed, and a jacket he always wore had been taken out of the closet and draped over the back of a chair. She was comforted by these little signs of his presence.

She would sit up and stay awake and wait for him to come home and then she would fix him some dinner and they would talk. He would laugh when she told him she had slept the whole day through and had lost all track of time. He would tell her about things that had been happening to him at work and then she would feel better.

Being awake and alert when he came home suddenly seemed very important to her. She turned on the radio for some company, turning the dial until she found a station that was playing some soothing music, and then she picked up a magazine and sat down on the couch and began looking through it. She smoked a cigarette and then another one. She read a story in the magazine to make herself stay alert, but before she finished the story she was overwhelmed again with drowsiness. She lay full-length on the couch and let her magazine fall to the floor. She would just take a little nap. When her husband came in the door, that would wake her up and he need never know she had been asleep again.

When she awoke it was the next morning and voices on the radio startled her; she thought there were strangers in the room with her. She stood up from the couch rather shakily and turned off the radio and then, thinking that her husband must still be asleep, she went into the bedroom, expecting him to be in the bed, but he wasn’t there. She went into the kitchen, hoping to see him sitting at the table looking through the morning paper, but he wasn’t there, either. He had made some coffee, though. Or had he? When she realized the coffee was cold, she thought maybe it was the coffee she had made the day before, but she couldn’t be sure.

She dressed and had a bite of breakfast and then she took another of her pills. She lit a cigarette and tried calling the doctor to tell him how the pills were making her feel and to ask him whether or not she should keep taking them, but there was no answer; she thought maybe it was Sunday and his office was closed.

She made the bed and washed the dishes and cleaned up the apartment a little until she became tired. She was still not over being sick and her stamina was not what it should be. She lay down on the bed in her clothes and soon she went to sleep.

Then it was night again and she was awakened by a clamor on the street in front of the building. There were excited voices and a sound like bells ringing and a roar that she couldn’t identify. She got up and ran to the window to see what was going on, but there was nothing out of the ordinary happening in front of the building. The stoplight at the intersection turned from red to green and back to red again serenely, with no cars in sight. She thought she must surely have been dreaming the sounds.

In this way several days passed. She continued to take the pills. She slept and woke and then slept again. Time had lost its meaning for her; it seemed fragmented instead of continuous. A day might seem like a minute or a minute an hour. Days and nights were jumbled together. Every time she woke, she expected her husband to be nearby, but he was never there. She wasn’t sure why she kept missing him, but she felt certain he had been there and had left again.

At times she was awakened by a popping sound and the sound of screaming and running somewhere in the building, but she could never be sure if these sounds were real or if they were happening only inside her head. When she heard these sounds, her heart beat rapidly and she went to the door and opened it and stepped out into the hallway, but by then the sounds would cease and the hallway would be quiet. At other times she believed she smelled smoke but when she investigated she wasn’t able to find any source of smoke. Sometimes she would wake with a sensation of heat all over her body, but it went away just as soon as she became aware of it.

Most disturbing of all, though, were the sounds coming from the street. Every night at what seemed exactly the same time she heard the bells and the roaring and the loud voices, and every time she went to the window and looked out, all was quiet. She concluded that the only explanation was that she was going insane.

She hadn’t been out of the apartment for days; she couldn’t remember how long it had been since she had dressed and gone out. Maybe being out in the fresh air would make her feel better, she thought. Just the idea of being someplace other than the apartment cheered her up.

She cleaned herself up and put on her clothes and combed her hair and put on some lipstick. After she put on her shoes, she was ready to go. She opened the door and stepped out into the hallway and locked the door behind her and went down the stairs to the street.

The sunlight hurt her eyes and the traffic noise made her head ache. People she saw seemed indistinct, as though they were out of focus. When she was standing on a corner waiting to cross the street, a couple of women jostled her rudely and knocked her off-balance.

Six blocks away was a little park that she and her husband often walked to on hot summer nights. She made her way to the park and, finding it nearly deserted, found a place to sit on a bench facing a small duck pond. Out in the middle of the pond were two lone ducks swimming side by side. She watched the ducks for a while and then she looked disinterestedly at the sky and at the trees off in the distance and at the few people who passed.

Near the bench on which she sat was a trashcan in which somebody had discarded a newspaper. In startling print, the newspaper proclaimed to the world: Eight Die in Apartment Blaze. She might easily have seen it, but she didn’t. It would have explained so much to her.

The fire department was summoned to the Grove Apartments on June the twenty-first at two-ten in the morning. She and seven other people, including three children, perished in the blaze. Her husband made it out of the building alive; that’s why she was never able to find him. The building was destroyed. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

She was the first to die before the fire spread to the rest of the building. Her husband had warned her repeatedly about not smoking in bed. The pills she took made her do things she would not ordinarily have done.

She would continue to exist in the in-between world of darkness and confusion. Every day and every night she would relive bits of what happened the night of the fire—the shouts, the commotion in the street in front of the building, the panicked footsteps, the smoke stealing her breath and, finally, the searing heat and flames enveloping her.

In time, though, she would pay her penance, if penance is what it was, and the night of the fire would be wiped from her memory. She would remember nothing, only that she had died and passed on to a different kind of existence.

Copyright 2022 by Allen Kopp