Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Little Midnight Reading by Jess Harris


The man’s muscles rippled under olive-skin that glistened in the moonlight. Helen’s gaze bonded to his Adonis-worthy physique, covered by only sandals and a short exomis. He extended his hand, and Helen accepted it. He led her through the front doorway toward a narrow boat, which (as can only happen in a dream) was anchored in shallow water just outside her house where her street should have been. Her close-cropped grass was now a beach of pebbles, worn round and smooth by the patient sea.
His eyes drew her toward him, into the water.

Helen faltered when the waves touched her feet. The man tugged gently for a moment, then released her and continued alone. A soundless wind filled the sails and the vessel gave a low groan before slipping away from shore. His continued to face her, bearing a remorseful though not quite pleading expression, as he shrank into the night.

Helen plunged into the icy tide and cried out, “Wait!”

“Wait!” Helen woke from the sound of her own voice, sitting bolt upright, sheets a jumble, cold sweat beading on her face.

She’d had this dream before. She loved, and hated it. Mostly, she resented the way it interrupted her sleep.

Warm milk and a bit of midnight reading usually returned her to a comfortable drowse, so she shuffled groggily toward the kitchen.

As she passed the glass patio doors, where only a few hours before she’d enjoyed a glass of amorgiano and a few chapters of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, she saw an open book on the table outside.
Disturbing.

In all these years alone in her house, Helen had never, to the best of her formidable memory, left a book outdoors unattended. Yet there it was amongst pine straw and beech leaves on her otherwise gleaming glass-topped patio table.

Bad enough that this absurd dream roused me in the middle of the night, now I have to worry whether I’m losing my mind.

The microwave clock read twelve-seventeen as she placed a cup of milk inside. Two and a half minutes would warm it nicely.

But first she would have to retrieve her book and clean the patio table – Helen could no more abide messy nature remnants on her furnishings than she could leave a beloved book exposed to the elements, once she was aware of either.

As she made her way toward the patio, she paused to straighten a hardcover book on the end table.

Northanger Abbey.

Helen froze.

If Northanger Abbey was here, then what book was on the patio table?

Her arms prickled with gooseflesh as the more important question, who put it there? occurred to her.

She put her hand over the soft flesh of her throat which was puling with the beat of her heart.
An intruder.

Helen laid one arm protectively across her bosom and wished she was wearing more than a nightshirt.

911, call 911… Helen reached for the telephone, lifted the receiver, then put it back down.
And tell them what, that I’ve left my book outside, and would they please retrieve it for me?

Old Mrs. Bergren next door would have a jolly laugh at that.

No police; Helen was on her own.

She lifted her umbrella from its rack by the door and crept down the hall to the bedroom.
A screeching sound pierced the air and Helen jumped, hitting the wall, then felt foolish when she realized that it was only the timer alarm of the microwave.

Helen understood that her thumping had cost her the element of surprise, yet composed herself and continued, cat-quiet, ears perked for even the slightest sound. She pressed her back against the wall as she approached the threshold to her bedroom, then took a long, slow breath. She threw herself inside, umbrella aloft like a samurai’s kitana.

Nothing.

She probed the air, thrusting the umbrella into her closets and under her bed. Satisfied that her boudoir – the most private sanctum of her very private life – was free of outsiders, she donned a robe and continued her search.

She skulked from room to room, sweat dripping from her brow as she grew increasingly certain that, even though she had not yet found the invader, she was not alone.

Helen came last of all to the place she should have suspected foremost, given the sign that had first alerted her. She entered her study.

It appeared perfectly normal at first glance, but something was out of place. She ran her fingers across the rows of books on the wall-to-wall shelves, starting in reference, working through the popular titles, on to the classics…

There – between The Theban poems and The Odyssey, where The Iliad should have been slumbering – a gap.

Her fear turned to rage as she ran through the house and flung open the patio door.

She scanned the small yard, umbrella before her as both sword and shield. The high privacy fence and sparse shrubbery provided a clear view and little concealment.

The yard was empty.

She cocked her head, hands on her hips.

What an odd intrusion.

She had not so much as looked at Homer in months, so there could be no mistaking it; someone had been in her home. They had removed only one item – a thing of no great monetary value – and did not even take it away, but merely left it on the...

Right beneath her gaze, a page turned in the breathless night.

She blinked, squinted, stared at the empty chair.

“Who are you?”

It was a curious thing that now, after the fierce arousal of the previous minutes, Helen felt remarkably un-fearful. She was more than a little irritated, but not in the least afraid. She felt…anticipation? Dare she say even hopefulness?

“Who are you?” She demanded of the nothingness before her.

A head appeared first, flickering like a trick of moonlight. Then she saw freckled arms emerging from a blue shirt. The man – ordinary, middle-aged, with graying brown hair – solidified somewhat as he turned toward her.

Helen’s heartbeat fell from the gallop of confrontation to the familiar shuffle of disappointment.

“You’re not my dream man.”

The ghost looked up, left eyebrow raised in a quizzical arch. Pages flipped, stopping at a woodcut illustration. A diaphanous finger touched the image of the face that launched a thousand ships.

His head tilted upward with a sardonic grin.

“OK, I’m no Helen of Troy either.”

She became aware that her robe had slipped open in her haste. She pulled it shut and said, “I should change into something more appropriate.”

The ghost shrugged and returned his attention to Homer.

“I suppose this is going to be a purely platonic relationship.”

The ghost nodded without glancing away from the book.

Helen huffed.

She returned to the kitchen, silenced the microwave, and tested her milk. She gave it another thirty seconds, sampled it a second time, and was satisfied.

She retrieved Northanger Abbey from the end table before returning to the patio. As she sat next to the once-again invisible reader, she noticed that the pine straw and leaves were missing from the table.

“Where did the nature mess go?”

The reader in the blue polo shirt glimmered back into translucency, and thrust a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the yard next door.

“Well,” Helen said, “you have some usefulness.”

She sipped her milk and settled in for a little midnight reading.

* * * *

Jess Harris is an internationally published writer who is not quite ready to give up his day job as a US Army officer. He is a member of MinnSpec Writers’ Network, MN8 Novelists’ Retreat, founder of SoFriedSpecFic, and adjunct member (strap-hanger) of SA-based Adamaster Writer’s Guild.

He writes: dark science fiction; urban fantasy alternate history; high fantasy with practically no magic; mysteries where anyone, including the lead detective, might wind up dead; humorous horror; and “literary crime fiction” (whatever that means.) His biggest challenge is often deciding what genre a particular piece falls into.

3 comments:

  1. This was simply adorable! Clever little short.

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  2. A reading ghost...why not?

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  3. Loved it! Thanks so much for sharing.

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