The Party Downstairs
by John L Shea III
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai Podcast.
Artie Laersen woke with a start and looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand beside his bed. Who the hell would be playing jazz at this time of night? He turned to the other side of him. Gabrielle was still fast asleep, oblivious to what he was hearing. Grumbling, he tossed aside the covers and stepped on to the cold wooden floor. He shivered as his mind raced. Was he actually hearing this or was he having aural hallucinations?
He walked to the bathroom and while sitting on the toilet, listened more carefully. Yes, it was jazz. Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. At least it wasn’t the more vibrant John Coltrane or Miles Davis. He appreciated both, but 11:45 p.m. was not the time to play it so the whole neighborhood could hear. He sighed, flushed and made his rounds of the house. First to the east side. No, it wasn’t the Lindts; even their techno rap playing teenagers were asleep. Next, he went to the front door. It was too cold to open it just now but from what he could see under the streetlamp light there were no other cars parked on the street. On the west side, the Saltburns were not having a party either. They usually did have pool parties with loud noise but not in January. Finally, to the back door. The neighbors across the fence had taken down their Christmas tree beacon a week ago. They, too, were prone to pool parties but there was no other noise except the highway beyond the creek bordering their property on the southern side. Traffic was minimum right now. Only the occasional hum of an 18-wheeler barreling down the Sam Rayburn.
He stepped aside as Tucker, their German Shepherd, came through the doggie door. The dog looked up him as if to say the coyotes were not out tonight. He had seen to that, warning them earlier in the evening with his barking to let them know he was listening, on continuous patrol while Danny, their elder dog, a Blue Heeler mix, slept prone on the couch in his retirement of making backyard rounds.
Artie sighed. Maybe it was the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system with its fans humming as heat flowed through the air vents. He went to the refrigerator and filled a tumbler with water half-way up. He drank it hoping it might calm his nerves.
Except it didn’t. He still heard the music, only now it was accompanied by the clinking of glasses and murmurs of conversation. He tried to make out the words but could not do so. He was tired. Actually, he was frazzled. His mind, while asleep, was still racing on autopilot trying to come up with a satisfactory ending to the story he had written that evening before he was woken by the music. Or maybe it was the side effects of his medication withdrawal. The third stent placed in November was supposed to be the charm. But over the last week, he had sudden dizziness that continued despite a clean bill of health with the blood enzymes from the cardiac department. The CT scans of his head and neck also were negative. The doctors at the hospital thought it might have something to do with his inner ear. So now he had vestibular testing the next afternoon, something called videonystagmography-he had to look that one up. Thank goodness for internet search engines these days. The test would measure the organ in his inner ear that controlled his balance. He’d get to wear infra-red goggles that would trace his eye movement during visual stimulation and changes in position. Apparently, there were rocks or crystals there that controlled his dizziness, otoconia something or other. Gabrielle was milking this by telling friends Artie was off his rocks or needed to have his crystals realigned. Well, at least someone got a laugh. He was getting tired of his sinusoidal afternoon walks as he navigated the neighborhood, hugging the edge of the sidewalk with a very measured stride. He felt like the Weeble toy: In short, he wobbled, but didn’t fall down. At least not yet.
The testing facility’s very specific instructions were to refrain from all the anti-anxietants and muscle relaxers he relied on to help him sleep because of his cervical dystonia and the stenosis in his neck. The last thirty-six hours, with twelve more to go, had been interesting with the side effects of withdrawal, to say the least. No need to dwell on them; it only made them worse.
Back to his ideas for the story ending. He knew that if he went back to sleep, he would forget it all, so he climbed the stairs to his study. He fired up his desktop, tapped the space bar and Enter key, and waited for the display to light up. He found the story and tapped away at the keyboard with the additions he had in mind. If the music was going to keep him up, he might as well make the most of it and add to his fiction.
Four hundred words and ninety minutes later he pushed back from his desk, relieved he had gotten the words out so quickly in this draft. He’d do a proof and rewrite the next night after all the vestibular testing was over.
He took a deep breath and sighed with relief after having got those words out of his system and onto the page. He sniffed the air again. Was that cigarette smoke he smelled now?
Worried, he went to the security panel they had on the second floor. No, there was no smoke detected. He took another sniff. No, instead of nicotine, this was broiled meat. Somebody was cooking a steak now. He could even hear the sizzle.
He hurried downstairs to the kitchen, checked the knobs of the stove top and found there were no burners on. The oven was definitely off.
“I’m losing my mind,” he said to the night. Tucker was immediately by his side, expecting a treat at this late hour. He relented and gave the dog some of the blackberries he had in the fridge, taking a few for himself.
“It’s got to be those ghosts again,” he told Tucker. Every now and then Artie would hear the music, but Gabrielle would not and vice versa. Sometimes it was rock and roll; other times it was Christmas carols but in July. Sometimes even he heard the banging of pots and pans and no one was in the kitchen when he went to look. There was no logical explanation. The previous owners of the house supposedly had held seances in the living room, or so the neighbors said. Perhaps some of their spectral visitors had stayed on when they sold the house to Artie and Gabrielle some ten years ago.
Satisfied that all was well, he returned to his study, saved the copy and headed back to the bedroom.
As he walked through the family room, he stubbed his toe on what he thought might be one of Tucker’s yet unstuffed dog toys. He reached down, leaned against the coffee table, and found an empty martini glass next to the table leg. The glass, still cold to touch, had a hint of vermouth on the bottom. Then he heard the rattle of ice clattering in other glasses. He looked around but still saw nothing. No shimmering images, just the darkness in the room. He drummed his fingers on the tabletop in thought for a moment, then laughed to himself. He returned to the bedroom, surrendering to his active imagination as he settled under the blankets. Maybe there was some sort of trans-dimensional portal that only allowed sound through. And maybe not. Either way, he’d try to get some more sleep before Tucker licked his face at dawn to get his attention and breakfast of morning kibble. He started his relaxation meditation, telling his toes to relax, then the balls of his feet, then the arches, then the instep, and all up the chain of his body parts. He was out like a light when he got to the thighs.
* * *
As they were going out the door at 1:30 that night, their guests said that Kevin and Irene Browermint could really throw one hell of a dinner party.
Back inside, Kevin helped load the dishwasher as Irene rinsed and scraped off the dinner plates and cutlery.
“Do you think Chip and Gloria liked Madame Hebert’s reading of their palms tonight?” Irene asked.
“I think they like their seances like they like their steaks,” Kevin surmised.
“And what would that be?
“Medium rare,” Kevin smirked as he let that sink in for a moment then dodged the wet sponge Irene threw at him.
“They’ll come around to what might lie on the other side,” Kevin said, coming back to the sink. Then he suddenly shouted, “Stop!” They both stopped talking. “Do you hear that?” he asked his wife.
“What?” Irene asked.
Kevin reached over and turned off the running faucet and cocked his head, cupping his hand to his ear. “There it is again.”
“What?” Irene asked again.
“That tapping sound. It’s coming from upstairs.”
“Oh, that. It’s probably our ghost.”
“Ghost?” Kevin’s eyes went wide. “We have one of our own?”
“Yes,” Irene told him. “The neighbors said there was a writer who lived here who would be up all hours of the night, working on his stories. He would get his best inspiration while sleeping and would wake up to write. They could see the light in the study from the street if you walked by. I think they said he died one night while working.”
“Hmmm,” Kevin said, as he dumped the ashtrays into the rubbish bin. “And here I thought I was going crazy. Have you seen the other martini glass?”
John Shea is a technical writer with a B.S. in Communications from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and an M.F.A. in Motion Picture and Television Production from the University of Southern California. He is extensively travelled and has been known to babble in French, Spanish, German, Russian, and Japanese. He dabbles in wordplay, palindromes, and is a part-time cruciverbalist and punster. He lives in the Dallas Fort Worth with his wife (a schoolteacher), two dogs of different age and disposition (exuberant and shyly playful), and a lawn that needs constant mowing, during which he contemplates plot lines and story ideas.
About the Host
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.