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Room Where No One Died Part 3

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    Posted: June/24/2007 at 4:08pm
Third and final installment.

Shaw and Cole sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee, while Hudson used the wall phone next to the refrigerator. There were three rings and then Palmer’s gruff voice said, “Hello.”
     
“Good afternoon, Mr. Palmer. And how are you today?”
     
“Who the hell is this?”
     
“It’s Hudson. I stopped by your apartment the other day.”
     
“Jesus (i'm 12 and just learned how to swear)in’ Christ, you people just don’t give up, do you? What do I have to do to get you to water off?”
     
“I was just wondering if you might like to drop by the old homestead for a little chat.”
     
“You must be outta your goddamn mind. I ain’t going nowhere.”
     
“You sure you won’t reconsider? I’m sure your old friend Hob would love to see you again.”
     
Silence on the line for almost a full minute. Then, “Who?”
     
“Hob. I’m sure he’d love for you to pay a visit.”
     
“I don’t know anybody by that name.”
     
“You mean to say you don’t remember your old pal? Why, I thought you and Hob were going to be friends forever.”
     
More silence. Hudson could hear Palmer breathing, loud and wheezy like an asthmatic.
     
“Mr. Palmer, are you still there?”
     
“How do you know about Hob?” So soft as to be nearly inaudible.
     
“It seems your friend Hob is still hanging around the house.”
     
Palmer snorted a laugh that had no humor in it. “That’s impossible. What do you people want from me?”
     
“We would merely like to get to the bottom of things, get some answers. Are you ready to accept my invitation?”
     
Silence again. “I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” And the line went dead.
     
Hudson hung up the phone and crossed to the table. He took the cup of coffee Cole had made him and took a sip, pleased by the rich flavor. Gay guys always made the best coffee, he didn’t know why that was. “He’s on his way. Should be here in half an hour.”
     
“Are we sure that’s safe?” Shaw said. “I mean, for all we know, he killed this Hob and buried him under the house or something.”
     
“I don’t think so.”
     
“How can you be sure?” Cole asked.
     
“Ghosts who were murder victims have a tendency to be destructive and violent, as if they’re still full of rage and a need for vengeance that they can never have. As you two have already pointed out, this presence is more playful than anything else.”
     
Cole finished off his coffee then got up to make another cup. “So we’re operating under the assumption that the ghost in the room is in fact this Hob?”
     
“It seems the most likely assumption to make.”
     
“I just can’t wrap my head around all this,” Shaw said, staring into the dregs of his coffee. “I mean, who is Hob? A friend, a relative, what?”
     
“I don’t know,” Hudson said truthfully, “but hopefully we’re about to find out.”

* * *
     
Palmer arrived forty-five minutes later. Hudson was starting to wonder if the man had decided not to come when the doorbell rang. Hudson looked like he had dressed in a hurry, wearing blue sweatpants and a purple button-up shirt that was too small for him, his gut straining against the buttons. The hair over his ears was sticking up in tufts, and his eyes were bloodshot. His eyes took in the living room with its deep beige carpet and dark mahogany bookcases and end tables.
     
“We did a little remodeling after we moved in,” Cole said. “Guess it looks a lot different than when you lived here.”
     
“I ain’t set foot in this house since I was seventeen,” Palmer said quietly, the words wafting out on his breath.
     
Shaw frowned. “You never visited your folks here?”
     
Palmer’s eyes snapped back from whatever past they’d been looking into, and Hudson could tell the man was on the defensive again. “No,” he said simply. “Now what’s all this bull(censored) about Hob still hanging around here?”
     
Hudson, standing by the archway that led into the hall, held out an arm and said, “Follow us and we’ll explain everything.”
     
The further they walked down the hall, the slower Palmer’s steps became. It was like his battery was running down, and it finally ran out of juice while he was still several feet from the door at the end of the hallway.
     
“Something wrong?” Hudson asked.
     
“Nothing, I just wanna know what you guys are trying to pull.”
     
“We’re not trying to pull anything, I assure you.” Hudson opened the door and flipped on the overhead light. “After you.”
     
Palmer made no move, as if his feet had been glued to the floor. Hudson noticed that the man’s hands were shaking.
     
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Hudson said in his most reassuring voice, which with his deep, gravely voice wasn’t all that reassuring. “It’s just the room your parents used for storage, right?”
     
“Uhm, yeah, that’s right.”
     
“Step inside. There’s something I want you to see.”
     
Palmer looked at Shaw and Cole, as if the couple could save him, but when they offered him no support, he started shuffling forward toward the doorway. Hudson went in first to put him at ease then watched as he slowly made his way inside the room, looking like a man walking the plank of a ship in some old pirate movie.
     
Palmer’s gasp upon seeing the walls was so extreme that Hudson feared he would suck all the air out of the room. The paint thinner and rags were still piled on the floor, and the air still smelled unpleasant, but Palmer only had eyes for the walls. Not the few patches that were still painted over white, but for the one section where the games and drawing and message had been revealed. Especially the message.
     
“Seems you did spend a little time in this room after all,” Hudson said. “You and Hob.”
     
When Palmer turned on Hudson, his eyes were blazing with fury and accusation, so much so that Hudson actually found himself taking a step back. “Why’d you do this? What point does it serve digging up the past like this? What’d I ever do to you?” Then, turning to Shaw and Cole who hovered in the doorway, “What’d I do to any of you for you to want to hurt me like this?”
     
“No one wants to hurt you,” Shaw said, obviously stung by the man’s words. “We just want to be able to live in our house in peace.”
     
“That’s all I want, too. Some peace. Which would be a lot easier if you people would stop pulling me into the past.”
     
“Mr. Palmer,” Hudson said, stepping forward again, trying to soften his voice. This next part had to be handled delicately. “Let me ask you, do you believe in life after death?”
     
“What?”
     
“Do you believe the spirit goes on after the body has passed away?”
     
“What the (i'm 12 and just learned how to swear) does that have to do with anything?”
     
Hudson took a deep breath and just dove in headfirst. “Hob’s ghost still haunts this room. For whatever reason, he has not moved on but lingers here, still wanting to play games.”

Palmer was utterly still and quiet for a few seconds and then broke into a raucous fit of laughter. The laugher quaked through his body, causing him to bend over at the waist and tears to leak from the corners of his eyes. Of all the possible reactions Hudson had expected, this wasn’t one of them, and Hudson was almost impossible to surprise.
     
“This isn’t a joke,” Cole said, and he and Shaw stepped into the room. “We’re serious. This room is haunted.”
     
Having to speak up to be heard over Palmer’s laughter, Hudson said, “It is my hope that if we find out exactly who Hob was, we can persuade him to move on from this place.”
     
Finally Palmer’s laughter began to taper, and he wiped the tears from his cheeks. “Oh, you people are priceless. I don’t know what con you guys are trying to run, but you made a big mistake here. It’s impossible for Hob to be haunting this room.”
     
“Mr. Palmer, I realize that the concept of ghosts is hard for many people to swallow—”
     
“Oh, it ain’t that. I can deal with all that supernatural stuff, but a ghost has to be the spirit of someone who was once alive, right?”
     
“Yes,” Hudson said, suddenly uncertain as to where this conversation was leading.
     
“Well, Hob was never alive. He was my imaginary friend when I was a kid.”

* * *
     
All four of them sat in the living room, sipping coffee that had been spiked with a healthy dose of whiskey. After Palmer had revealed that Hob had been his imaginary friend, he had started crying. And his tears were just as vigorous as his laughter had been. Cole and Shaw had led him back to the living room while Hudson fetched the coffee. Palmer hadn’t spoken a word since.

“Mr. Palmer,” Hudson said, sitting on the edge of the coffee table so that he was facing the man, “I am sorry if this is bringing up painful memories for you, but we need to get to the bottom of this.”
     
Palmer sniffled a few times and took a gulp of his coffee. It was still hot and must have burned his tongue, but he seemed not to care. He looked up at Hudson, the flesh of his cheek sand chin shagging as if his face were melting. “I already told you, Hob was my imaginary friend. I made him up when I was about four or five.”
     
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Cole said, sitting across the room on a sofa with Shaw. “If Hob was never a real person then who the hell is haunting that back room?”
     
Hudson had a hunch, but it was wild, wilder than anything he’d ever experienced, and he wanted a little more information before voicing the theory. “Mr. Palmer, what happened to you in that room?”
     
“My parents used it for storage.”
     
“I know the standard answer you gave me before, but now I want the truth. What happened in that room?”
     
Palmer’s eyes moistened, and Hudson was afraid the man was going to break down again, but then Palmer fought off the tears. “It was where my parents put me when I was bad.”
     
“Like a time-out room?” Shaw asked, his voice soft and tentative.
     
“Something like that,” Palmer said with a dry laugh. “Only they would leave me in there for hours. Sometimes days.”
     
“My God,” Cole said, taking hold of Shaw’s hand.
     
“How old were you when they started putting you in there?” Hudson asked.
     
“About four, I think. Would be for anything. If I accidentally broke a lamp, or I got a C on my report card, or I forgot to make my bed, or I had the TV on too loud, or I just looked at my parents in a way they thought was disrespectful. They would drag me down the hall, kicking and screaming sometimes, and lock me in that room. They had a deadbolt on the hall side of the door back then, but I guess they took it down after I was no longer in the house.”
     
“Was there anything in the room?”
     
“A couple of balls, a coloring book, some paper, some magic markers. Not much. They would leave me in there and wouldn’t talk to me or feed me, no matter how long I was in there, no matter how much I screamed and cried and beat on the door. I would get so lonely in there, and scared. Especially at night. It got so dark in there I could barely see my hand in front of my face.”
     
“And Hob…?”
     
“I invented him so I didn’t have to be alone in there,” Palmer said, his face splitting open in a smile that was almost grotesque in its pain. “I made him up to be my friend, to chant nursery rhymes with me when I got scared of the dark, to play games with me. When we ran out of paper, we’d play them on the walls. Hob was the only way I could keep my sanity under those circumstances.”
     
“And how long was Hob in your life?”
     
Palmer looked up sheepishly, and Hudson could read the embarrassment in his eyes. “Until I was a teenager. All the way up ‘til I finally left at seventeen. I dropped out of school, got a job at a textile mill, and moved out. I never spoke to my parents again. I was actually shocked when they died and I found out they left me this house in their will. Once I left here, though, I no longer had a need for Hob.”
     
“So you left him behind, still in that room waiting to play with you.”
     
Silence descended on the room like a shroud, closing them off from the world in their own little bubble. Several minutes ticked by with no one speaking. Palmer began to cry again, but his sobs were quiet and muffled.
     
Cole was the first to break the silence. “I don’t understand what this means. How can Hob still be in that room if he never really existed in the first place?”
     
Hudson leaned back and sighed deeply. It was time to lay out his theory. “Have any of you ever heard of a poltergeist haunting?”
     
Shaw frowned. “You mean like in that movie with the little blonde girl who got stuck in the TV? ‘They’re here’?”
     
Hudson grunted and shook his head. “That movie got it all wrong. A poltergeist haunting isn’t a true haunting at all. It usually revolves around a child or adolescent, and typically one that is experiencing inordinately high levels of stress. The poltergeist manifests itself through objects moving on their own, phantom writing, things like that.”
     
“But you said it wasn’t a true haunting,” Cole said. “So what is it?”
     
“A form of telekinesis.”
     
Now Cole had a frown to match his partner’s. “You mean moving objects with only the power of your mind?”
     
“Exactly, only it is a latent ability, unconscious. The child is causing the events to occur without even realizing it, and that’s why it is often mistaken for a haunting.” Turning back to Palmer, Hudson said, “Did Hob ever make the balls roll or bounce on their own? Did he ever do any of the drawings on the walls himself?”
     
Confusion stamped itself on Palmer’s face like a tattoo. “Well, I used to think he did, but I was just imagining it. It was all make-believe.”
     
“Maybe it started out that way, but I believe you eventually began to turn make-believe into reality.”
     
“What are you saying?” Palmer said, his voice raw and scratchy. “That not only did I create an imaginary friend, but that with the power of my mind I made that friend real?”
     
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
     
“That’s ridiculous.”
     
“I have to agree,” Cole said. “I mean, Mr. Palmer hasn’t lived here in a decade and a half. Why would there still be poltergeist activity in that room?”
     
Not taking his eyes off Palmer, Hudson said, “It is my belief that the pain Mr. Palmer suffered as a child was so traumatic that it left an imprint on that room, an echo. In effect, he created a being that did not exist until he willed it into existence. Hob isn’t a ghost, but he isn’t merely a poltergeist either. He’s something in between, something unprecedented even in the field of the paranormal.”
     
In Palmer’s eyes Hudson saw doubt but not disbelief, and that was something. “So you’re saying Hob is still in that room in some form or another?”
     
“Yes. I think he’s waiting for you, still wanting to comfort you and play with you and make you feel safe.”
     
“And what do you want me to do about it?”
     
“I want you to go in that room, thank Hob for all he did for you, and tell him he’s not needed anymore.”
     
“No, I can’t go back in that room. I just can’t.”
     
“It’s okay, Lance. Your parents are gone; they can’t hurt you anymore. I’ll go in the room with you if you want.”
     
Hudson held out his hand, and after a momentary hesitation, Palmer took it.

* * *
     
The two of them stood in the center of the room. The door was closed, Shaw and Cole still in the living room. Palmer was fidgety and looked like he might start crying again at any moment. Either that or bolt.
     
“What do you want me to do?” Palmer asked.
     
“Say hello.”
     
“That’s stupid. I’m not a kid anymore; I can’t say hello to my imaginary friend.”
     
At that moment, a red rubber ball came rolling across the floor and hit up against Palmer’s foot. The man stared down at it for moment before finally reaching down and retrieving it. He looked back toward the window, the direction from which the ball had come, then turned to Hudson. “How’d you do that?”
     
“I didn’t do it. Hob did.” Motioning toward the wall behind Palmer with his chin, Hudson said, “Look.”
     
Palmer turned around and let out a sound that was half gasp/half sob. On the wall behind him, a patch that was still white like unused paper, was scrawled a message in black magic marker. HELLO LANCE LONG TIME NO SEE! That message had most definitely not been there when the two men had entered the room.
     
Palmer walked slowly to the wall and laid his fingers on the words, lightly tracing the letters. “Hob,” he said. “Is that really you?”
     
Musical laughter played on the air like wind chimes. Palmer sagged against the wall.
     
“Do you want to be alone?” Hudson asked. He wasn’t completely without sensitivity.
     
Without looking around, Palmer said, “Yes, if you don’t mind.”
     
Hudson quietly took his leave. As he closed the door behind him, he saw Palmer on his knees, using a black magic marker to place an X in the center square of a fresh Tic-Tac-Toe grid.

* * *
     
Palmer came out after half an hour. He said that he’d made his peace, said his goodbyes, and that Cole and Shaw shouldn’t have anymore problems. After thanking them awkwardly, he left, and Hudson thought the man stood straighter, as if some weight he’d been carrying most of his life had been lifted. But Hudson wasn’t really one to spend too much time on such philosophical ponderings.
     
Hudson spent almost an hour in the room after Palmer left, calling out Hob’s name, making Tic-Tac-Toe grids on the wall, trying to draw the presence out. Nothing. He informed the couple that the room was ready for repainting and could be turned back into Shaw’s office.
     
“You were amazing,” Cole said, shaking Hudson’s hand vigorously. “I mean, you really exceeded all my expectations.”
     
When Hudson’s hand was finally free from Cole’s grip, Shaw snatched it up and started pumping it. “I don’t know how we can ever repay you for what you’ve done.”
     
“Well,” Hudson said, extracting his hand, “you could always pay me.”
     
“Oh, of course,” Cole said, and went to get his checkbook.
     
“You really helped Mr. Palmer,” Shaw said to Hudson as they waited. “I think his life is going to get a lot better because of you.”
     
Hudson shrugged. “All is a day’s work.”
     
Cole returned with the check. “Come on, this is more than a job. It’s a calling.”
     
“No,” Hudson disagreed, taking the check. “It’s a job.”
     
After enduring another ten minutes of embarrassing gratitude and handshakes from the couple, Hudson finally managed to make it out of the house. As he walked toward his car, he looked down at the check and all those wonderful zeros. Sure, it felt good to know that he had helped Palmer get rid of some of the baggage he’d been carrying, but it felt better to have this nice chunk of change to deposit in his account.
     
Tuning the car radio to an oldies rock station, Hudson drove off into the night, satisfied with a job well done and eager for his next case.

THE END
We are not strangers to ourselves, we only try to be. --Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote breezit Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: June/25/2007 at 3:37am
Very well done, FinalExam. I think this one is the best of the short stories I've read from you. I like the stylistic writing (in particular, the "eyes darting around like pinballs" sentence). This story also has a good twist at the end, I didn't expect it.

Minor criticisms: I thought the bit about the check at the end was kind of anti-climactic -- I probably would have ended it with Palmer making his peace with the ghost. Also, Shaw and Cole didn't seem to have much personality -- I realize they're supporting characters, but it would have been nice to give them more color. I like reading dialog that supplies insight into character, as opposed to expositional dialog that is just designed to push the story forward.   
"In the real world as in dreams, nothing is quite what it seems.” Dean Koontz

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote FinalExam Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: June/25/2007 at 8:30am
Thanks for your comments and your criticsms. I actually sort of left Cole and Shaw undeveloped on purpose. Since the story was from Hudson's point of view, he just isn't interested in anyone's life, just getting the job done. I do understand how that could be considered frustrating for the reader, though.

I plan to do a series of stories about Hudson's investigations. I am already writing the second one, entitled "Breaking Up is Hard to Do."
We are not strangers to ourselves, we only try to be. --Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote FinalExam Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: June/26/2007 at 12:03am
Well, I submitted the story yesterday to that anthology, and today I got a rejection that said simply, "This story is not a fit for this anthology." Disappointing, but not to be all ego-crazy, but I really believe in this story and will keep putting it out there. Then again, many of the stories I've believed in over the years have never found homes, while stories I think are mediocre or pure crap place in magazines right away. Still, I consider this a high point in my recent work.
We are not strangers to ourselves, we only try to be. --Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Oddy Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: July/01/2007 at 5:47pm
Originally posted by FinalExam FinalExam wrote:

Thanks for your comments and your criticsms. I actually sort of left Cole and Shaw undeveloped on purpose. Since the story was from Hudson's point of view, he just isn't interested in anyone's life, just getting the job done. I do understand how that could be considered frustrating for the reader, though.

I plan to do a series of stories about Hudson's investigations. I am already writing the second one, entitled "Breaking Up is Hard to Do."


That's great news because after finishing the story I thought that Hudson had potential to be a series character. I liked the twist at the end. Very enjoyable story.

Before my next comment, let me say I am not homophobic, and I am not against gay people. I think this was discussed, but can the gay couples reoccuring be hindering your work? Can gay prejudice be a factor?

Anyway, PLEASE post the next Hudson as soon as it's finished. I loved the "moving on" nod to Odd thomas. Lingering spirits.
"I'm not superstitious, but I am a little stitious"
~Michael Scott in The Office
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