Maggie took a pillow from her bed and lay down on the couch. She closed her eyes and began tallying a mental account of the positives and negatives in her life. Positives included Jess, her apartment’s gorgeous view, and . . ., she paused. She could not think of any more positives. The negatives included the creepy building and its history, Debbie, Susie, and probably Bruce. Of course, the death of Cory was a negative, but there was nothing she could do about that. Before she dozed off, she debated whether she should call Ethel, Mr. Zimmerman, the cashier and the old woman at Lenny’s, a positive or a negative. They could go either way, she thought.
Her slumber was interrupted by the sound of a door slamming shut. Was it Bruce’s? She looked at her watch; it was one in the afternoon. After she took a shower and grabbed a Diet Pepsi from the refrigerator, she decided to walk downstairs and out to the backyard. When she walked by Ethel’s door, she stopped. For a moment she had thought about speaking with the seer; after all, Ethel did invite her to stop by her apartment. Instead, Maggie continued walking out to the back porch.
The air was fresh and invigorating. It was if she walked outside a bubble, a bubble filled with a suffocating oily liquid.
Maggie turned and saw Ethel sitting in a rocking chair at the end of the porch. “Hi, Ethel. Out enjoying this beautiful day?”
“Yes, I suppose I am.” She coughed and then lit a wood tip cigar. “Or to have a smoke.”
“Care to join me?” Ethel said with her sandpaper voice as she pointed to the rocking chair next to hers.
“Sure, I’d love to.” Maggie walked down the creaky planks and sat in the creaky rocker.
“Are you doing all right?”
“It’s taking a little getting used to living here.” Maggie watched the wind gently ruffle Ethel’s loose gypsy skirt. “I could use a new lock, but I can’t get a hold of Mr. Zimmerman. Have you seen him?”
Ethel blew a puff of smoke and adjusted the green scarf wrapped around her head. “He’s usually in his apartment on the third floor. You may have to just go up there.”
Ethel rolled the ashes into the ashtray sitting on the small table between the two rockers. “No one else will tell you, but I will. This place is not all that it seems.”
“I know about the building’s history, but that was then and this is now.”
“True, but sometimes then is now, and now is then.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Ethel rocked back and forth. Back and forth. “I wanted to tell you to watch that friend of yours. I get a bad feeling about her.”
“You’re not the first one that’s told me that,” Maggie said. “An old lady at the grocery store said the same thing.”
Ethel laughed and coughed at the same time. “That must be Claudia. We go way back. When I was a receptionist here, back in the sixties, Claudia and I used to belong to a group called The Seers. We would have séance’s right here in the basement of this building during the sixties. We were quite powerful back then; now we’re just a couple old hags. I don’t think she even knows I live here.”
“What did you do in the séances?”
“We communicated with spirits,” Ethel said, smiling as if recalling the memories were pleasurable. “Claudia and I would take turns being the medium in charge of the séance. People would come from all around to speak with their deceased loved ones or have us tell their future. We made quite a living helping people,” Ethel puffed the cigar. “But we were not frauds, not our group.”
“Do you still have séances in the basement?”
“No, absolutely not.” Ethel’s pleasant thoughts must have turned to bad memories because she stopped rocking, and the hand holding the wood tip quivered. “We innocently contacted something evil, something from Hell and have not held a séance since then . . . not anywhere.”
“What happened?” Even though Maggie did not necessarily believe in the paranormal, her interest was piqued.
Ethel stared off into the distant blue horizon, where the lake blended with the sky. She took a deep breath and said, “We used a crystal ball back then. I still have it, but I don’t touch it now. There would be anywhere from three to six people who would sit around a table in, what we called the scrying room, in the basement. This place was a psychiatric hospital back then. Claudia and I were good friends with the manager, mostly because we got into contact with his deceased wife, making him happy so he let us do the séances here . . . As long as we would contact spirits for him whenever he asked. So time went on, and all was well until . . . January of 1969. That was when something other than the dead relatives of clients came to us.”
Ethel paused and then continued. “A couple came to us, wanting to speak with their deceased daughter who had died of influenza. They were heartbroken and full of emotion because of their grief. Anyway, it was my turn to use the crystal ball. Claudia lit candles and dimmed the lights because it helped me go into a trance. I was having difficulty contacting the little girl, probably because she was in heaven—it is only when souls are in purgatory or are earthbound that I can communicate with them. Anyway, the couple was sobbing, almost out of control, so I went into a deeper level of trance, and that was when the crystal ball turned black, and I mean the blackest of black. An inky black that seemed to draw goodness toward it, absorb it, and then release evil in exchange.”
Ethel’s hand trembled so bad she dropped the cigar onto the deck’s peeling paint. She picked it up, drew in a deep breath of cancer, and continued. “My hands were pushed away from it as I came out of the trance. The evil had taken over the crystal ball, and there was nothing I could do about it. The couple stopped sobbing, began cursing at me, calling me a witch, and ran out of the room and the building. Claudia then put her hands on the crystal and began chanting positive, white spells, but the sinister spirit inside the ball shot out and into Claudia.”
Maggie could tell the conversation was affecting Ethel because her tremors increased and she inhaled the cigar like a cigarette. “I’m sorry, but you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
Ethel looked at Maggie. “I want to talk about it. Not for me, but for you.”
“Yes, because you live here, now, and I want you to be aware of its dark side . . . I think you were drawn here for some reason. A reason that I have not figured out, yet. I would need to use the crystal ball again to find out.”
Maybe Ethel was not imagining things; this place was strange and felt strange. “If you don’t mind talking about it, what happened to Claudia when the evil spirit went inside her?”
“Her eyes turned black, like coal stones pushed into the face of a snowman. When it left her, shortly after entering, her eyesight was never the same. Neither was this place. Anyone who worked here or was a patient here became strange and sinister. The manager began drinking heavily, the staff treated the patients like dogs, and the symptoms of the psych patients became worse. I remember one little girl who came here around that time. She had a mental illness that caused her to be calm one moment and suddenly grow angry and vicious the next. But the girl’s violent nature became worse, so much so that she supposedly got hold of something sharp and killed an orderly. Then, because the staff was all messed up, she accidentally died while in restraints. They closed this place later that year because of accusations of abuse by the staff toward the patients.”
“That happened here?”
“It happened on the second floor. That’s where they kept violent patients that needed to be locked up.”
Maggie liked Sandpiper Bluff less and less. “Were you affected by that evil spirit?”
“Claudia and I have always used spells of protection, I still do.”
“Why are you still living here? I would’ve moved out a long time ago after seeing all that.”
“Look around,” Ethel said, moving her hand in front of her like a skinny model showing off a new car. “The place is beautiful, no place like it around.” She looked at Maggie and winked. “And the rent is cheap.”
“Is that spirit still around?”
Ethel shrugged. “Like I said, I haven’t used the crystal ball since, but I get feelings that it’s still here. After they stopped using this place as a psych hospital, only Mr. Zimmerman and I have lived here. He was the maintenance man back then, pretty much still is. I taught him how to protect himself, spiritually. Then in 2010, it was bought and turned into apartments, but that ended a couple years later when no one would live here because of ghosts . . . Now you’re here.”
Maggie sighed as she thought about the positive and negative list she had tallied in her mind earlier that day. Evil spirit to the negative list. After they had talked for a while longer, she stood up and stretched. “Well, thank you, Ethel, for the additional knowledge about this place.” Not really. “But I’m going for a walk.”
“I hope I didn’t upset you,” Ethel said, acting as though she wanted to continue talking about the séances and the building.
“No, not at all. It’s good to know what’s going on.” But sometimes ignorance was bliss, she thought.
She stepped off the porch and walked along the bluff toward the rickety stairway leading to the beach. When she reached the topmost landing, she leaned against the wobbly rail and soaked in the warm sunshine from above, the sounds of waves, and the long mew calls of the gulls below.
Maggie turned and looked back at the old building. When she first arrived at the place the remodeling seemed recent, but the longer she stayed there, the more run-down it looked. Either Mr. Zimmerman was majorly slacking on his duties or the place had a mind of its own.
She looked up at the third-floor windows, hoping to see Mr. Zimmerman moving around inside so that she could go up and ask about getting another lock for her apartment, but the windows were dark. Then she looked at her windows, hoping no one was inside her apartment. There was no movement. Good.
She smiled as her mind wandered back to the fun—if that was what a person would call it—her and Jess had last night. No, not fun, she thought. Tolerance or maybe a numbing of memories. Then she thought about the desk calendar and the initials JP. Maybe she should call Jim and ask about his meetings with Cory, but then, maybe not. Whoever JP was always seemed to show up when Maggie was not around.
Then the words of Ethel and Claudia flashed in her mind and the words warning about Jess. Jess Pinter. Maggie shook her head; no way did JP refer to Jess. What reason would Jess have for going to see Cory? Either they were planning a surprise party for her or . . . Or Jess was sleeping with Cory.