A GHOST OF A SMELL

The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
HONORABLE MENTION, Summer 2015

BY JOHN REAVES

Holly took Steven’s dinner out of the microwave and set it in front of him. She sat down across the table, determined to get his attention before he opened his laptop and pulled up a financial newsletter to read as he ate. “Steven,” she said, “I had lunch with Mom today.”

He looked up at her, squinting. “Let me guess. She wanted to borrow more money.”

She started to protest that her mother had borrowed from them only once, well, twice really, but she didn’t want to be distracted. “She met with Uncle Mike’s attorney. He showed her the will.”

“And?”

“He left me his house.”

“That old rat’s nest? It’ll probably be condemned.”

“It’s not that bad. Besides, he also left me $50,000 to fix it up.”

Steven pushed his plate forward and stood up. “Let’s think about this legacy,” he said. “What kinds of strings are attached? Do you have to keep the damned thing, or can we unload it the second we get the deed? Fifty thousand won’t be nearly enough to make it marketable, by the way.”

“I don’t know.”

“Why you? He had other nieces and nephews.”

“I have no idea.”

“Maybe we ought to just refuse it, let the house go back into the estate. Then someone else would have to deal with fixing it up and selling it. You’d get your share of it instead of the whole thing, but we’d avoid all the hassle.” He sat down again and picked up his fork. “There’s no sense talking about this now,” he said. “We don’t have enough information to make a decision. It seems like you could have gotten some details out of your mother, but you didn’t, so never mind. I’ll call the attorney tomorrow.”

Dismissed, Holly went upstairs and looked for a picture of her Uncle Mike. She found one in a closet. She looked at it a long time, speculating about her mother’s bachelor brother, what his life must have been like, why in the world he would leave his house to her. He was a big man, and in the picture he was wearing a thick woolen coat that made him look even bigger. His hair was long, thin on top, tied in a queue in the back. He had a pipe in his mouth. She realized she had seldom seen him without a pipe or cigar. The truth was, she didn’t know him very well. He was always at family gatherings, talking, taking pictures, handing out small gifts of money to the kids, but it had been decades since she’d had more than a five-minute conversation with him. In her early years the family often celebrated birthdays and holidays at his house, which had been his parents’ home, but those visits became less and less frequent as she grew up. Mike was not a good housekeeper, and he smoked all over the house. The house had a musty, forbidding smell. His sisters started taking turns inviting the family to their houses for special occasions.

So she felt like an intruder the next day when she got the key from the attorney and went over to have a look. The neighborhood, she noticed, was getting better—yards were mowed, shrubs trimmed, houses and picket fences newly painted. A house near her uncle’s, an 1890s mansion that she remembered as a dilapidated rooming house, had apparently been restored as a single family home with a pool house in the back. She began to think her uncle’s house (“My house,” she corrected herself) might be worth more than Steven thought.

But she had to admit it was an eyesore, all the more noticeable because the houses on each side of it had been recently remodeled. On the front porch was an old glider with a pillowed cover she could smell from the street. That’ll be the first thing to go, she thought. Inside, the smell was almost too much to bear. She went from room to room, raising the windows that could be raised, sticking her head out each time to suck in fresh air like a swimmer between dives. By the time she had finished, the smell had abated somewhat, enough that she could have a look around without gagging.

Apparently her uncle had occupied the living room, kitchen, and one bedroom. The other rooms were coated with thick dust, as if no air had stirred inside them for ages, probably since Holly’s grandmother died more than twenty years before. The rooms he used were dusty now as well but with a thinner, less stable coating. Ashtrays filled with cigar stubs and pipe ashes were everywhere. The rugs and upholstery were covered with dog hair and dotted with burn holes. “This will all have to go,” she said aloud. As if to confirm her opinion, a stench like rotting cabbage seemed to rise from nowhere and assail her nostrils. She reminded herself to bring a mask the next time she came over.

She began to look at the pictures propped up on the mantel and hung on the walls. There were a few paintings, possibly valuable, she thought, but mostly there were framed photographs of family and scenes from her uncle’s travels. Her cousins, her mother, her aunts, her grandparents were all well represented, but where, she wondered, were pictures of her? She was in the group photos, but there were no individual pictures of her. She went through all the rooms again, specifically looking for a single photograph of herself. There were none. How odd, she thought. Didn’t Uncle Mike like me?

She stopped in the living room, looking for . . . what? She noticed a large indentation in the couch, evidence that her uncle’s sheepdog had slept there often. She wondered what had happened to the dog. He must have died first. And then it occurred to her that Uncle Mike had died in this house. She shivered, but she also was intrigued. Where, exactly, did he die? Probably in the bed. She went into the bedroom, looking for clues—what kind of clues, she had no idea. She supposed she could ask someone, but who? Would her mom know? Her aunts? She wasn’t sure who found the body or how long he had been dead when someone found him. She decided she didn’t want to ask; she would figure it out.

A cross breeze blew through the house, and for once she could breathe almost freely. A different smell was wafted on the breeze, an almost pleasant smell. It was sort of like a cake in the oven, maybe a cake just starting to burn. It seemed to be coming from the living room. She followed the smell and found herself standing in front of an enormous leather recliner. A piece of crocheted cloth, something like a shawl, hung over one arm of the chair. On a table within reach of the chair were a lamp and some books and magazines, plus the inevitable ashtray, a couple of pipes, and a pouch of tobacco, which she picked up, opened, and sniffed. It was this smell that had brought her here, the smell of this particular tobacco burning. It was one of several brands Mike smoked, the only one she had found the least bit pleasant. “He died here,” she said with conviction. “Right here. I know it.” She surprised herself by starting to cry.

Then her cell phone jingled.

“Where are you?” Steven asked. “I made a point of getting home by 7:00 so we could eat together, and you’re not here. As far as I can tell, you haven’t been here. There’s nothing cooked. What’s going on?”

“I’m at Uncle Mike’s house,” she said. “I just wanted to see it again, maybe figure out why he wanted me to have it. I lost track of the time.”

“Well, you may be over there a lot in the next few weeks. Turns out we can sell it, but the only way we can get the fifty thou is to put it into the house. It’s in a dedicated fund. We’ll have to spend our own money on repairs and then get reimbursed up to fifty. Be sure you keep a receipt for every nickel. I don’t want any of my money going down that toilet.”

“Aren’t you going to oversee the repairs? You know I’m not very comfortable with that sort of thing.”

“You know I can’t do that. I’m tied up till next summer. You’ll be fine. Just check with me before you do anything expensive.”

“I wish you’d at least help me with it.”

“Cannot do. You can do this. Besides, it wasn’t my uncle who died and left us a white elephant.”

“Okay, I’ll see you in about an hour. I’ve got to close this place up before I can leave. Do you want me to pick up some take-out?”

“No, I’ve got to go back to the office for an hour or so. I’ll see you when I get home.”

During the following week, Holly developed a routine. She would rush home from work, change, and leave Steven a note suggesting something he could warm up for dinner. Then she would go to Uncle Mike’s house, stopping on the way to pick up a sandwich, and work for as long as she could stand it, sometimes until 9:00 or later. Her goal was to rid the house of its smell. She pulled down the curtains in the rooms that Mike had occupied, washed them, and put them back up. She swept and mopped and vacuumed, sprayed air freshener by the gallon, but she did not move any of Mike’s personal belongings. She did her best to leave things the way he had left them, to just clean around them. Moving them seemed wrong somehow, arrogant, insensitive. But by the end of the week, when the smell had dissipated but was still very noticeably present, she decided it was time to take decisive action. The culprit, she believed, was the pipes and ashtrays. She wondered briefly if some of the pipes might not be collectors’ items, but how could she know, whom could she ask? She imagined taking a boxful of smelly used pipes into an antique shop and asking what they were worth. Surely nobody collects used pipes, she told herself. So she doubled a black garbage bag and started through the house, tossing in pipes and tobacco and ashtrays. The ashtrays could be cleaned, she supposed, but what would she do with them? Goodwill? Probably not, and she didn’t know anyone who smoked. So she tossed them into the bag and dragged them to the curb.

When she got back in the house, the smell was stronger than before, much stronger—as strong, in fact, as it had been a week before when she first opened the door. She started to clean the surfaces where the pipes and ashtrays had been, but the smell overwhelmed the lemon-scented cleaner and almost choked her. It seemed to spin around her like a whirlwind, but the curtains were motionless, the leaves on the trees outside the windows perfectly still. It was tobacco smoke and stale beer, spoiled bean dip, belched broccoli, rancid grease, rotten onions, a hint of spoiled fish. It was flame orange and angry, angry at her. She felt her face pucker like a gargoyle’s; her eyes teared up. She fled without even closing the windows.

Later she tried to tell herself she had imagined the whole experience. She was tired, stressed, had been spending too much time alone. Smells can’t be felt on the skin, they don’t have color, they don’t get angry. They don’t attack. But below her interior voice of reason was another voice—smaller, more primitive, more insistent. It said, But it did. It attacked me.

The next day after work she went back just to close the windows. She noticed her hand shaking a little as she fumbled with the lock. She half expected a family of squatters to have climbed in through the open windows and set up housekeeping, and of course, she feared another attack. Inside, though, the house definitely did smell better. She walked through the living room, peeked into the bedroom, then entered the kitchen, sniffing the corners like a drug dog. The house was nowhere near as antiseptically odor free as the suburban home where she and Steven lived, but it was bearable, almost ready to be shown to a potential buyer. She began to feel elated, as if she had fought hard against a formidable foe and won. She began to imagine what the old house might look like after it was renovated. The kitchen was really too small. There was a small porch on one corner that could be closed in to add extra space, and beside the door to the porch was another door she had hardly noticed before. A closet? A butler’s pantry? She wasn’t sure. She tried the door and found it locked. Wait, somewhere she had seen a ring of keys. Where would Uncle Mike keep keys he didn’t use every day? After a fruitless search of the kitchen, she found the keys on a hook above the mantle in the living room and tried them one by one until the bolt slipped and she could push the door open.

She found a deep, narrow room, perhaps five feet by twelve, without shelves or furniture. A single, small window that reminded her of the slots she had seen in the walls of castles allowed in just enough light to let her know the room was empty. She had started to close the door when she noticed things hanging on the walls. Her fingertips and the dim light told her these were picture frames, but she couldn’t make out the pictures. Carefully she took one down and stepped out into the kitchen where the light was better.

It was a picture of a tiny baby, no more than a week old. Just a baby. She couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. She turned the frame over to see if there was some identification on the back, but there was none.

Then she saw a string dangling from a naked light bulb near the ceiling. She pulled it, and suddenly she could see that both walls were covered with pictures. She replaced the picture she had taken down and began to look at the others one by one. Next was another baby, or perhaps the same baby a few weeks older. And the next and the next, each one a little older, until she found a picture she recognized, one she had seen among her mother’s photos. This child was a little girl, maybe eighteen months old. She wore a stiff white dress, and a ribbon pinned to her tight sausage curls was slightly askew. One eye was almost closed, as if she were trying to wink at the camera. “My God,” she said aloud. “That’s me.” And a moment later, after looking at half a dozen more, she said, “Sweet Baby Jesus, they’re all me.” She moved along the left wall and then back along the opposite wall, dazedly reliving moments from her life, some momentous, some trivial. There were graduations from kindergarten, fifth grade, and high school, birthday parties, Christmas mornings. In most of the pictures she was alone, but in a few she was with her mother or cousins or friends. Near the end was a picture of her and Steven dressed up for their senior prom. In the last picture of all, taken two years after the prom, she was feeding Steven wedding cake.

It’s as if my whole life flashed before my eyes, she thought. All but the past twelve years of it anyway. Does that mean I’m about to die? She shivered and turned quickly toward the door, half expecting to see her uncle staring down at her, his huge frame blocking her escape. He was not there, or at least she could not see him, but she caught a whiff of that cake-in-the-oven smell of his pipe tobacco, an aroma that grew so strong she was convinced he was standing just outside the door, puffing away. What will I do if he touches me? she wondered. What if he puts his arm around my shoulders and pulls me to him?

She didn’t stay around to find out.

“Was Uncle Mike some kind of pervert?” she asked her mother at lunch the next day.

“No, he was not,” her mother said. “What gave you that idea?”

“I found some pictures.”

“Pornography?”

“No. Just pictures. Of me. They cover two walls of the butler’s pantry, or whatever that room was. It’s like a shrine, and I’m the goddess,” she said. “It’s creeping me out. I’m not sure I want to go back over there.”

“My brother was a sweet, good man,” her mother said. “I’ve always believed he would have been a wonderful husband and father if he could have mustered the courage to ask a girl for a date, but he could not do it. It was just too much for him, too scary. He simply could not handle rejection. I tried to fix him up with my friends. It was always a disaster.”

“But why me? If he had some love/hate thing going on with women, why didn’t he fill his little gallery with pictures of movie stars or something?”

“Because he loved you more than anybody else on this planet. He told me once, when he had had about three gin and tonics too many, that he considered you the daughter he never had. I guess because he was always close to me, and your father was out of the picture. . . .”

“But we never were particularly close.”

“Actually you were, when you were little. You used to crawl all over him, and he would pull you around the yard in your little wagon or push you on the swing.”

“I don’t remember that. Well, maybe a little. But for the past twenty-five years or so, I’ve hardly spoken to him, outside of normal niece-uncle chitchat at family gatherings. What happened?

“You rejected him. You were too little to know what you were doing, but you pulled away and insulted him.”

“How?”

“You told him he smelled bad.”

“I did? I can’t believe I was that rude.”

“You were a little kid, maybe four or five, possibly three. You were an imperious little tyrant at times, and you blurted out just about anything that crossed your mind.”

“I was? Then how did I turn into such a dishrag?”

“That’s a whole different conversation we can have some other time. Right now, I want you to know that you really hurt your Uncle Mike, damned near killed him, but I don’t want you to start beating yourself up about it. You were a little kid. You did what little kids do.”

“What, exactly, did I say to him? Were you there?”

“I was. He grabbed you as you ran by and set you down on the arm of his chair, just like he’d done a thousand times before, but when he put his arm around you, you sat up really straight and stiff and said, ‘No. No. No. Won’t sit here. You smell like Prissy’s poopy box.’ It was kind of funny, but Mike didn’t laugh. I could tell you’d hit a nerve. He left a few minutes later, and he came over less often after that. He stopped picking at you the way he had before. He was friendly to you. He loved kids. And he even tried to clean up after that, washed his clothes more often and took more showers, but it was hopeless. He couldn’t stop smoking. And he always was flatulent, poor boy. Our daddy called him Whistle Britches.”

Holly laughed, but her eyes were burning. Their food came and for a few minutes, they concentrated on eating. They commented on the food, the weather, the number of dogs you see downtown these days. Then Holly blurted out something she had promised herself she wouldn’t tell anybody. “He’s still there, Mom. I think he’s still there.”

“Who’s still where?” he mother asked. “What are you talking about?”

“Uncle Mike. I think he’s still in that house. I can smell him.”

Holly’s mother almost choked on her beet salad. She laid her fork down and fumbled in her purse for Kleenex. She dabbed at her eyes. “You’re making this up,” she said at last. “I always said you should be a novelist.” She started to laugh again but then stopped abruptly. “You’re not laughing. My God, you’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Never mind,” Holly said. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sure it’s just my imagination anyway, but I swear I can feel his presence. And when he doesn’t like something, like I start moving his stuff, the smell gets overpowering.”

“So that’s how you communicate with him?” She tried to imitate Holly’s voice. “Are you comfortable in the afterlife, Uncle Mike? Fart once for yes, fart twice for no.”

“Mom, please. This is your little brother we’re talking about.”

Holly’s mother abruptly stopped laughing. “You don’t have to remind me,” she said. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I did, if I believed for a second that Mike was still in that house and that I might be able to go over there and be with him and know that he’s okay, I‘d be on my way over there right now. But I don’t believe it. He’s gone forever, sweetie. It’s your house now. And soon the smell will be gone and you’ll forget it was ever there.”

In the parking lot, before they parted ways, Holly’s mother hesitated, then spoke softly. “I read a book about ghosts once,” she said. “A couple of books, actually. The books said that when a person’s spirit stays behind, it’s because they have unfinished business in this world. If they can somehow finish it, or you can finish it for them, they’ll go on to the next world. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“It’s okay, Mom. It’s probably just my imagination. Remember my imaginary friend?”

“Of course I do, honey. By the way, Mike had one too. That’s something you and he have in common.” She quickly corrected herself: “Something you had in common. He’s gone, baby. Let him go. Try to enjoy the house.”

When Holly arrived at Uncle Mike’s house that evening, Steven’s Lexus was in the driveway. She found Steven in the narrow side yard. At first she thought he was doing push-ups, but then she realized he was trying to look under the house without getting his suit dirty. When he jumped to his feet, she noticed that his tie was tucked into his shirt so that it wouldn’t touch the ground.

“Come on,” she said. “I’ll give you the grand tour.”

She took him around to the front entrance and pointed out the wide stone steps, the curved wrap-around porch with sturdy posts, almost pillars, supporting it. “I haven’t noticed any sagging,” she said. “Of course, I’ll have to get an engineer to look at it at some point. Now look at this door. It’s got to be original, but it’s still in great shape. It may need refinishing, but it would be a crime to replace it.”

Inside she pointed out the abundance of varnished wood, darkened with age—the baseboards, chair rails, a curving staircase. She pulled open heavy pocket doors, four inches thick, with one finger, showing him how, after all these years, they were still perfectly balanced on their rollers. She told him about her idea to use the porch and the butler’s pantry to enlarge the kitchen and make it sunnier.

After a few minutes, he interrupted her in midsentence. “Okay, okay, so what have you actually done?” he asked. “You’ve been over here every afternoon and every night for two weeks, and what do you have to show for it?”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” she said. “I’ve gotten really familiar with it. I’ve cleaned up a lot—thrown away a bunch of moldy, smelly stuff—washed the curtains—I know that doesn’t sound like much.”

“Well, you’re right about that. It doesn’t sound like much at all. Here’s some free advice. Hire a cleaning service. They’ll have this place cleaned up in an afternoon. Call a general contractor. Get an estimate, not to make this anybody’s dream house, just to make it presentable. The idea is to spend $50,000 and then dump it. I’m afraid you’ve gotten distracted. Focus never was your long suit.”

“I told you this is not my kind of thing. I wanted you to help.”

“Okay, so now I’m helping. Hire professionals, and then start coming home after work and paying some attention to your husband. I haven’t had a home-cooked meal in two weeks.”

After Steven left, Holly realized the smell was back. Her eyes were burning; she felt like she might throw up. She was certain Steven had noticed it. No wonder he thought she hadn’t accomplished anything. Funny he hadn’t mentioned it, though. It was not something anyone could ignore. This time it was mostly cabbage—sour, rotten cabbage—or maybe it was the smell of a flatulent old man who loved sauerkraut and wieners and ate a lot of it.

In the days that followed, she tried to stay away from the house. She came home from work, had a meal ready at 7:00. More often than not, she gave up and ate alone at 8:00 and then nuked Steven’s dinner for him whenever he showed up. But she couldn’t stop thinking about the house. She called a cleaning service and made an appointment, then called back a few hours later and canceled. She just couldn’t do that to Uncle Mike. If he really was still there, he’d be upset by all the noise and activity, by the presence of strangers, especially strange women, in his personal space. She told herself she would work on the house herself for an hour after work each day, then go home and still have time to cook, but it seemed that something always drew her in, needed more attention than she had anticipated, and she found herself staying longer and longer. One day she was still cooking when Steven got home, and she tried feebly to explain that she had run by Uncle Mike’s house and gotten more involved than she had intended. She felt like a little girl trying to explain how her jeans got muddy and her lunch got lost. Then one day he got home at 7:00 and she was still at Uncle Mike’s. He didn’t say much, but it was clear that he was furious. The next day when she arrived at Uncle Mike’s house, there was a “For Sale” sign in the front yard.

“There’s been some kind of mistake,” she told the woman at the realtor’s office. “My house is not for sale.”

“I’m sorry. Do you want to buy a house or sell one? I can have an agent call you.”

“No. I already own this house, and one of your agents has put a sign in the yard. You’re advertising the wrong house.”

“What’s the address?”

“1400 Mabry Street.”

“It’s for sale, all right. The owner is Steven Bradley. I can have Ms. Wilkins call you.”

“Don’t bother. Just tell her to come get her sign. She’ll find it under the front porch. I may have damaged it a little when I pulled it up.”

That night she got home before Steven did. She nuked his supper and then excused herself, saying she felt bad. She didn’t tell him she was angry. What was the point? The next day, instead of going to work, she packed her clothes and toiletries, a couple of paintings, several boxes of books, and a few of her favorite dishes. She ferried all of that across town in three loads, but then she remembered the house plants. Steven would let them all die. She stuffed as many as she could into her little SUV, leaving the ones that were too big for her to handle by herself.

She had intended to finish by 5:00, take a shower, and cook a simple supper for her and Steven. She would tell him calmly why she was leaving and then make a graceful exit. But by the time she had lugged the last plant up onto the porch she was exhausted. She decided to lie down on the couch for a few minutes before she went home. When she awoke, it was dark, and her phone was jingling.

“I see you’ve been busy,” Steven said. “Stay where you are. I’ll be right there.”

She met him on the porch, hoping to talk outside, but he insisted on coming in. “Everyone knows everyone’s business in these old neighborhoods,” he said. “The houses are so close together. You’re always looking in someone’s window.”

Inside it seemed that he had brought the smell with him. It was back in force. Holly wanted to open the windows, but she knew what Steven would say. The smell swirled around her, almost as intense as it had been the day she tossed out the pipes and ashtrays. If Steven noticed, he didn’t mention it.

Once he was out of earshot of the neighbors, he let her have it. He said she had lost her goddamned mind, that he was giving her one chance to come back home, and if she didn’t leave this house right now and promise never to even drive through this neighborhood again, he was having her committed. She tried very hard not to cry, but the smell was stinging her eyes and assaulting her nostrils. She lost control. She slipped back into her usual response to Steven’s anger. She sobbed. She groveled. She made excuses.

“So it’s settled, then,” he said. “Let’s ride together. We can pick up your car in the morning.”

She gathered up her purse, her sunglasses, her keys—and then she stopped. She set everything down and stood up very straight. “I’m not going home with you, Steven,” she said. “Not tonight. Maybe not ever. I can’t explain it, not even to myself. I’ve got to stay here. I’ve got to finish what I’ve started. I want you to go home now and leave me here.”

She walked to the car with him and tried to give him a kiss on the cheek, but he pushed her away. She watched the Lexus pull away and felt nothing, just empty, drained of all emotion.

She watched television for a while, some cop show whose plot she didn’t try to follow. She was hungry, but she didn’t have any food in the house and didn’t feel like going anywhere. She tried to stop replaying the scene with Steven, but she could not. She hated herself for breaking down, letting him see her cry. It was the smell, she decided. It was so intense, so awful. Like Steven’s anger. But I stood up to him, she thought. I didn’t let him bully me. Why? What happened? In her mind she recreated that moment, and it felt good. She remembered standing up straight and pulling in a deep breath. Yes, she thought, a deep breath. There had been no smell at that moment—and none since.

When, exactly, had the smell gone away? And why was it so intense in the first place? What had Uncle Mike been trying to communicate? The smell started when Steven entered the house and got more intense as his voice grew louder and more vicious. Maybe Uncle Mike just hated conflict. Or maybe he had gotten used to her, had forgiven her for throwing out his stuff, but resented having a virtual stranger invade his space.

Or maybe he didn’t like Steven. The thought had never occurred to her before, and she pondered it. She tried to recall occasions when the two of them had interacted. Very few examples came to mind. Instead she remembered a couple of times when Uncle Mike broke off a conversation with her when Steven entered the room.

The smell went away, she decided, when she stood up straight, at the moment she grew a backbone, so to speak.

So now it all made sense to her, but she couldn’t be sure her memory hadn’t rearranged things a little. She’d always had an overactive imagination. She knew she sometimes remembered things that weren’t quite true.

Sometime after midnight she went to bed in the downstairs bedroom, the one Uncle Mike had slept in. She couldn’t sleep. At about 1:00 she started feeling sorry for herself and having second thoughts. She even thought about calling Steven and asking if she could still come home. By 2:00 she was up and pacing, becoming more and more agitated, and by 3:00 she had curled up exhausted and depressed in the big chair in the living room, unwilling to return to the lumpy—and lonely—bed.

She awoke to bright sunlight streaming in through the east windows. She closed her eyes and snuggled into the chair, feeling warm and secure, reluctant to get up and face the day. After a few delicious moments she tried to stretch, but her arms were restricted by a kind of cocoon. Another moment passed before her sleep-fogged brain realized it was a blanket. She untucked it and laid it aside, thinking she must have felt cold during the night and gotten up and found it, but after a second, she rejected that idea. She never sleepwalked, never failed to remember any sleepless nighttime moments, not even trips to the bathroom. And the blanket had been under her on both sides. She could not have done that herself. He tucked me in, she thought. Oh my God, he tucked me in.

“Thank you, Uncle Mike,” she said aloud.

The room filled with that cake-in-the-oven smell of burning pipe tobacco.

She called the library where she worked and told them she would not be in that day. Then she called her mother and said, “Meet me at Panera.”

She told her mother about the “For Sale” sign in the yard, about the conversation with the woman at the real estate office, about moving out, and about the confrontation with Steven. She did not tell her about the chair or the blanket.

“So now you’re living with your imaginary friend,” her mother said. “So how’s he doing?”

“I thought my imaginary friend was a girl.”

“The first one was. The new one is a middle-aged man who communicates by farting.”

“That’s not funny, Mom,” Holly said. “Besides, I think Uncle Mike will be leaving soon. I think he may have concluded his unfinished business.”

“Well, if he’s still there when you get back, give him my love.”

She said she would, but when she arrived at her house, she didn’t have any sense of his presence. The house was odorless, or as nearly odorless as old houses ever get. She thought she caught a whiff of the pipe smoke, just the faintest whiff, but she wasn’t sure.



JohnJohn Reaves, a retired English professor, is the co-author of a nonfiction book published in hardcover by Henry Holt and in paperback by HarperCollins. He has published three other short stories, one of which won a national contest. He lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains with his wife, Candance W. Reaves, a poet.

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