Ghost Writer

Issue 39 by Patrick Peotto

Ghost Writer

The first time I heard crying from the guest room in my new century home was moving day, three months ago. Woke me in the middle of the night. With the windows wide open to catch a breeze, it was hard to tell if it originated from inside or outside the house. Add to that an eight-hour drive, three hours directing movers, and too many pints at the local pub over dinner, and I thought I was hearing things. I put the incident down to fatigue, stress, and alcohol, discarding it from my memory.

It made an encore performance on Celeste’s nineteenth birthday.

Much to my disappointment, she’d opted to study at McGill instead of the University of Ottawa, where I used to teach property law. In response, I searched for new positions far from the nation’s capitol. She needed to move away and grow up. I wanted a fresh start.

I’d done my best to persuade her to fly to Thunder Bay to celebrate, as it was Thanksgiving weekend, but my ex, Pam, beat me to the punch and invited her to Ottawa. To be fair, it was her turn. Since the separation six years ago, we’d alternated on major holidays, but I’d always taken Celeste out to dinner a few days before or after her birthday. Not this year. Deep within pangs of jealousy stirred.

It was Friday and a special occasion, so I popped into the liquor store after my last lecture to pick up an assortment of British beers, plus a bottle of red wine. I knew full well I’d drink it all. The alcohol helped ease the passage of time. After that, I cruised to the Metro to buy a box of frozen chicken wings, the spicy variety. To add balance, I grabbed a pre-packaged Caesar salad and two large bags of white cheddar popcorn for the fibre.

When I arrived home, I checked my messages for the umpteenth time. I’d sent happy birthday wishes via text ten hours ago buy had yet to receive a reply. This was unusual, as the phone was usually glued to her hip. I assumed she was busy traveling or dropping in on old friends. She’d text back when she got the chance.

Since restraint wasn’t on the night’s menu, I finished the box of wings, the beer, the bottle of wine, and all but a few crumbs of the first popcorn bag. I watched Chris Stapleton on Austin City Limits, and when that ended, threw in a DVD of the twenty-fifth anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert. The more I drank, the higher the volume inched. Tears trickled down my cheeks when I listened to Bonnie Raitt sing Love has no Pride. When the song ended, and the cheering died down, I heard the sobs again coming from upstairs; so distinct they gave me shivers. I flicked the television off.

Must be an animal. I’ve got squirrels in the attic. The irony made me giggle.

Uncertain what I’d encounter, I snatched a hammer from the hall closet. The cries grew louder as I mounted the stairs. They reminded me of Celeste when she was little. Not the day she fell off her bike and broke her arm, but the time I told her I was moving out, and we were selling the house. What the hell? I wondered.

When I reached the top, I strained to catch my breath and felt lightheaded. I’m drunk. Doubting my senses, I stood at the threshold of the guest room for a moment or two. Am I hearing things? A lamppost outside the large window overlooking the front yard illuminated the compact space. Part of me wanted to go back downstairs to watch the rest of the concert, but I had to find the source of the sounds, so I stepped inside. There was a single bed in the middle and a white armoire on my left. The place was empty. My ears directed me to my right. The cries were coming from behind the door of a narrow walk-in closet.

Ready to strike if something rushed out, I walked over with hammer raised, gripped the crystal doorknob, yanked it open, and stepped back. The crying stopped. I peered inside, weapon cocked just in case. In the murky light I made out three boxes I’d yet to unpack and some winter clothes hanging on a bar. I pulled the cord to turn on the bulb, but it didn’t work. The flashlight app on my phone came in handy as I used it to scan the area, and to my relief, nothing attacked me from out of the shadows.

God, I’ve got to stop drinking. If I only had a dime for every time I uttered those words since the separation.

I placed the hammer down on the bed, poked my head inside the closet, held my breath, and listened. Silence. Next, I pounded on the plaster with the palm of my hand, hoping to stir the intruder from hiding. There was no discernable reaction. Determined to find whatever it was, I dragged the boxes out and investigated my surroundings.

Why didn’t I notice that before? A necklace dangled from a hook just inside the doorframe. I plucked it off and admired the pattern of blue, green and crystal beads. An oblong turquoise stone hung off the chain. It looked familiar, so I placed it on the stack of books. All the way in the back, a crack between the oak baseboards and plaster caught my attention, so I reached down, jammed two fingers into the gap, and pried the wood off. It exposed a rectangular opening about eight inches high and twenty inches wide.

To peer inside, I had to get down on all fours. Someone had hidden a small diary, now covered in dust, up against a stud. A flick of my hand brushed it off, revealing a pink cover, leather strapping, and gold latch. When I pressed the miniature button, it snapped open, and I thumbed through a few pages. Beautiful cursive, written with an old-fashioned fountain pen, filled the book. I searched for a name but couldn’t find one. The date on the first entry was October 11, 2013, six years ago to the day. Can’t be, I thought.

It started, “Should be excited, but I’m sad. They’re fighting again. Always these days. It scares me. What kinda birthday will it be?” Even in my inebriated state, the coincidence wasn’t lost on me.

I was reluctant to invade someone’s private thoughts, but something compelled me to sit down on the bed and turn the pages. The second entry elicited tears. There was no date. “Mom told me tonight, while Dad was at work. They’re getting a divorce. Can’t believe it. How can they do this to me? It’s his fault for yelling all the time. No one wants to live with a bully. I hate him! He’s so selfish.”

Sudden onset nausea hit me. The combination of the hot wings and alcohol produced a bout of heartburn. I took two deep breaths to regain my equilibrium. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I cracked the window to let in some fresh air and placed the diary on the bedside table. My surroundings were spinning, so I lay down with one foot on the floor. I drifted off, but for how long, I don’t know. At some point, I sensed that someone was watching me, so I opened my eyes. That’s when I saw her.

She stood with her back to the only source of light, so I couldn’t discern her precise features. The only things that stuck out were the outline of a delicate nose and her silver-blue eyes. An oversized black T-shirt with “Bluesfest” in multi-coloured letters on the chest hung from her small shoulders.

“You’re not well,” she said.

“Who are you?” I tried to sit up, but dizziness kept me glued to the bed. “Did you write the diary? I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist reading it.”

She looked at the bedside table. “Your words, not mine.”

“What do you mean?”

“How did it make you feel?”

I closed my eyes and pressed the crook of my arm over my forehead to stop the pounding. Perspiration soaked my Senators’ hoody.

“Sad,” I replied.

“You blame yourself.”

“How could something that happened to you years ago be my fault?”

“It’s not.”

“I’m confused. Why are you here?”

“To save you.”

“From what?”

“Yourself.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

She sniggered. “Is it? You regret the past and fear the future, all the while trying to commit slow suicide.”

“Who are you?” I asked again.

“You know.”

She stepped closer, leaned over, and gave me a hug. The pressure on my chest made me cringe. Pain radiated to my neck and back.

After releasing her grip, she said, “Call them.”

“Who?”

My cellphone vibrated and lit up. Celeste. Finally. I lifted the phone to eye level but didn’t have the strength to open the text. Instead, I pressed the side and volume buttons, holding on as long as possible.

“Stay with me,” she whispered.

I remember telling her my name and address. No idea why. Then I drifted off until the whirring of sirens roused me. I opened my eyes and watched red and white lights dance across the bedroom walls and ceiling. Someone called out from below, but I was in no condition to respond. I blacked out.

Sometime later, I woke to the sounds of the Food Channel, but I didn’t have the energy to open my eyes. I ran my tongue over my parched lips and would have killed for some water. My lower back was aching, so I tried to adjust my rear end, but the movement sent a sharp pain through my ribcage.

A squeaking noise from my left caught my attention. A mouse? I pried my eyelids apart and saw a figure sitting cross-legged in a chair beside the bed. My vision was blurry at first, but then I made out a red sweatshirt with white lettering. After a few blinks, I recognized the title of the book she was reading, Devil’s Bargain. I managed a weak smile.

There was a wall of glass behind Celeste, and the sun was shining. Her tight, dirty blonde curls draped over the pages as she read and marked passages with a yellow highlighter. I loved the way her delicate nose crinkled when she concentrated.

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. After swallowing, I gave it a second attempt and emitted a croak. Celeste looked over.

“Oh, my God. You’re awake!” She let her book fall to the floor and raced over to my side.

My lips smacked as I tried to open them again.

“I’ll get you a drink of water,” she said while manoeuvring to a table on my right. She grabbed a pitcher and poured a glass. A drawn curtain behind her obscured the rest of the room. It took a moment for me to focus on the I.V. pole and bag. When I glanced down, I noticed my right hand resting on top of the blanket with tubing leading into an injection site. What the hell happened?

Celeste held a straw to my mouth while I sucked. The tepid liquid soothed my throat. She pulled it away for me to swallow, then offered another drink.

“How…?”

“You had a heart attack.”

“No…”

She nodded. “Afraid so. They found you passed out in the guest room.”

I motioned for more water. Memories of the evening flooded in.

“Were you trying to find something in that closet? You moved some heavy boxes of books, and they think it might have triggered the attack.”

Shame made me speechless. My mother had suffered from dementia and early onset Alzheimer’s, while my father had been a functioning alcoholic for years before succumbing to cancer. Was I walking in their footsteps?

“There was a noise from the closet. A racoon or something,” I lied.

“You scared me to death. Thought I’d lose you.” The tears flowed, causing her black cat’s eye mascara to leach onto her chubby cheeks. I sobbed in response.

She regained her composure and took a few Kleenexes to wipe her face and nose. I tried to shift upwards, but the pain in my chest stopped me cold.

“Let me elevate your head,” she offered while adjusting the bed. Once I was sitting up, she leaned over to fluff my pillows and gave me a kiss on the cheek. As she did, her necklace escaped from under her collar and dangled above my nose.

“Where did you get that?” I asked.

She fingered the turquoise stone. “Don’t you remember? You gave it to me for Christmas last year. Found it lying on the boxes outside the guestroom closet. Must have left it when I came up in August.”

At that moment, I understood. Celeste discovered the hiding place in the summer and stashed her diary inside. I had no idea why. Now I had to decide what to do. Should I confront her and risk reopening old wounds? I could simply ignore it and hope any residual resentment would fade over time. Of course, I chose the path of least resistance.

“How are classes?” I asked to change the subject.

“Great. A couple of my professors are boring, but otherwise, I’m having fun. What about you?”

“Aside from this, things are fantastic. The university is treating me well, I really like my students, and the pace of life is so much slower than Ottawa.”

Approaching footsteps put an end to our conversation, and a man in his mid-fifties appeared from behind the curtain. “Good morning, Mr. Welsh. I’m Doctor Ghuman. How are you feeling?”

“Like someone whacked me in the ribs with a two-by-four. Otherwise, not too bad.”

“You’ve had a myocardial infarction, and we had to implant a stent in one of your arteries. There doesn’t appear to be any lasting damage. You should make a full recovery.”

“That’s good news.”

He addressed Celeste. “Do you mind leaving us alone for ten minutes?”

“No problem,” Celeste replied. “I’m going to grab a cup of coffee.”

The doctor checked my vital signs, the surgical site, and my dressings. He scanned my chart in silence before making eye contact. “You were very lucky. If you’d passed out on that bed….”

I nodded. That was me. Lucky Tom.

“Your blood alcohol level was elevated. Are you all right?”

“That’s nothing. I overdid it a little.”

“That blockage in your artery didn’t happen overnight.”

“I’ve lived on my own for a few years, so I guess I occasionally eat too much junk food and drink a few too many beers, but I can control both. I don’t exercise nearly enough. This is a good wake-up call.”

“It has to be. You’ve got to make some lifestyle changes.” He placed two cards on the bedside table. “I’d like you to follow up with our clinical psychologist and dietician.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“It’s not optional. Tell me a little about yourself.”

“I’m a professor at the law school.”

“You said you live alone. Do you have any family in town?”

“No. I moved here this summer. My daughter goes to school in Montreal, I’ve got an older brother in Vancouver, and a younger sister in Newmarket, where I grew up.”

“Any close friends in town?”

I shook my head while he jotted down a few notes.

Celeste appeared and asked, “Can I come in?”

“Please do. We’re just about done,” the doctor replied.

“How long before I can go home?” I asked.

“We’ll monitor you overnight and conduct a few tests tomorrow morning. If all looks good, I can send you home tomorrow afternoon,” he answered. “Don’t rush it, but you can get back to work in a week.”

“Does he need someone to look after him?” Celeste asked.

“No. We’ll provide strict instructions on what to do in recovery, and if he follows them, things should go smoothly. He’ll have a follow-up appointment in three or four days.”

“Excellent,” I said. “Mid-terms are coming up, and I’ve got to prep my students.”

The doctor left us alone, and Celeste hung around until visiting hours were over.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said.

“Thanks for coming. When do you fly out?”

“Monday evening, but I’ll stay longer if you need me.”

“No worries. I’ll be fine. Looks like we’re spending Thanksgiving together after all. Sorry to mess up your weekend.”

After she left, I drifted into a deep sleep, filled with vivid dreams. In the last, my childhood dog Daisy was licking my hand, trying to get my attention. I woke to a nurse inspecting my intravenous site. “Sorry to wake you,” she whispered before leaving the room.

My back was getting sore, but I couldn’t flip onto my side, so I jimmied my hips and rotated my head towards the window. She was standing beside the bed, her eyes glimmering in the residual light.

“What’re you doing here?” I asked.

“We both know this isn’t over yet.”

“The doctor said I’m going to make a full recovery.”

Count Your Blessings.”

“What?”

“You remember the book.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Berenstain Bears. One of your favourites.”

“More like yours.”

“What do you mean? You loved that story.”

“I loved reading with you, but it was kinda preachy for me. You wanted to teach me to appreciate the little things in life, rather than being jealous of stuff other kids had.”

“Fair enough. It’s a great message.”

“You don’t believe it anymore.”

“How can you say that?”

“When’s the last time you felt thankful?”

I paused. “You’re too young to understand. Sometimes I get sad. I’ve lost a lot.”

“Like what?”

“You know. The love of my life. A great family. Friends.”

“You spend more time regretting what you say you’ve lost than being grateful for what you have.”

“That’s crazy.”

She nodded.

“No.” I tried to prop myself up on my elbow, but my heart wasn’t having it. My head sank down into my pillow and I said, “You understand what I mean. Why am I talking to a figment of my imagination?”

But she was gone. I was left staring at a distant planet until the medication forced me to drift off again.

By ten thirty the next morning, Dr. Ghuman had given me the green light to go home, but not before making me swear to make appointments with the psychologist and dietician next week. He also arranged a visit for Thursday afternoon. I called Celeste, and she had the car ready outside the main entrance at eleven.

On the ride home, a debate raged in my mind over whether I should mention her diary. She must have found it on the bed and knew I’d read it. Was she angry? Would I lose her too? I avoided the topic and concentrated on the Rolling Stones over the car speakers.

As we walked to the house, I saw three blue recycling bags filled with empty beer cans and wine bottles resting beside the trash bins. Celeste didn’t say a word. My first impulse was anger, but I controlled myself and followed her in while repeating the Serenity Prayer in my head.

“I want to go upstairs and check out that closet in the guest room,” I said.

“Why?”

“I told you. There might be racoons or squirrels nesting in the walls. I need to take a look.”

“Can I help?”

“I’ll be fine.” I half expected her to object and make an excuse to run up before me, but she simply went about making a pot of coffee.

The bed was a mess. Celeste never enjoyed cleaning her room. I closed the door and checked the bedside table. Nothing. With an ear open for footsteps on the stairs, I looked through the drawers in the armoire. No sign of the diary. I gingerly got down on all fours, worried that she’d come in, and peered under the bed, thinking it might have fallen from my hands, but there were only dust balls. Celeste has it.

Her suitcase was open in the corner. Should I go through it? I stood over the bag for at least a minute, pondering the implications. It wasn’t worth the risk.

Then my focus shifted to the closet. I stepped around the boxes, expecting to see the baseboard sitting on the floor, but it rested in place. She put everything back. Was it possible she’d hidden the diary again? Did she want me to read it? My fingers pried at the wood, only to discover it was securely fastened to the wall. No gap. No hiding spot. Did I imagine the whole thing? The heart attack mixed with the alcohol?

Celeste prepared boneless chicken breasts and a healthy salad for Thanksgiving dinner. I nibbled around the edges and tried my best to make small talk. After supper I lay down on the couch and poured through a set of essays on wrongful dismissal. Most were dismal. She nestled in a big chair, reading her political science textbook. On three occasions, I opened my mouth to tell her about the ghostwriter, but my courage failed each time.

The night passed without incident, and the next day sped by. Before I knew it, Celeste was kissing me goodbye before stepping into the cab.

“I could have driven you,” I insisted.

“The doctor said you shouldn’t drive for a few days. You of all people ought to understand the liability implications.”

“I love you.”

“Love you too. Hate to leave you alone. You sure you don’t want me to stay the week?”

“Thanks for offering, but I’ll be just fine. Four days working from home and following the doctor’s orders to the letter. Should be right as rain soon.”

She lingered before leaving. As the car accelerated down the block, I wiped a tear from the corner of my eye.

Once in the house, the cabinet above the stove called out to me. Inside was a bottle of Scotch that the Dean of the Law School gave me as a present. One drink to ease the anxiety. I grabbed a glass but stood frozen in the middle of the kitchen as faint cries swept down the stairs. I put the tumbler down and climbed up to the guest bedroom.

When I stepped in, the view out the window made me pause. The sun had dipped below the horizon, painting the western sky in shades of pink and lavender. It bathed the room in a soothing glow. My breathing slowed and my pulse steadied.

After a few moments, I walked over to the boxes, rummaged to the bottom of one, and pulled out a large cookie tin. From a perch on the bed, I removed several envelopes of family photos. They’d been sealed away for at least six years. The first contained a series of black-and-white shots from my wedding, taken by a photographer friend of Pam’s. I grinned. She was beautiful. I was lucky to love you. Another envelope held vacation snaps from Mexico. The best was a shot from the top of the main pyramid in Uxmal. Nobody could take these memories from me.

I thumbed through the envelopes and came across Celeste’s baby pictures. The one of her napping on my chest was my favourite. It conveyed utter contentment and warmth as her little heart beat next to mine. I stared at it in the fading light, all the while touching my fresh scar.

A noise drew my attention into the dim recesses of the closet. From the back, I saw a smiling young girl. I couldn’t help reciprocating.

I sat gazing out the window until the streetlamp turned on and the stars came out. Vibrations from my pocket startled me, and I took out my phone. There was a text from Celeste. “Just arrived in Toronto. My connection to Montreal leaves in 45. Love you.”

After packing away the envelopes, I called her.

“Dad, you okay?”

“Yeah. Fine. Listen, now’s not a good time, but maybe tomorrow I’ll ring you and we can talk about the divorce?”

Things were silent for a moment before she replied, “I’d like that.”

“Love you. Safe flight home. Text me when you arrive.”

“Will do. Love you too.”

About the Author

Patrick Peotto

Patrick Peotto is a former litigation lawyer, teacher and vice principal who now wants to concentrate on writing fiction. He's been writing since he was a teenager. He's written two legal mysteries, Violent Annulments and Defending the Innocents, and several short stories.