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By Paul Willis
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Paul Willis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShutting off the lights was becoming an ominous chore for Jeff Shields.
He didn't care to admit it, but his pre-bedtime routine was undergoing a metamorphosis as suspicion began to govern his every move. It began as a nightly glance out the living room window before he closed the drapes, escalated to a lengthy, scrutinized survey of the block, and now was evolving into outright paranoia.
Tonight, it was exceedingly difficult to get to bed on time. The wind was overly potent for a midsummer night, or any night, for that matter. It whipped through the trees, creating an eerie cacophony of rustling leaves and branches layered with the subtle whine of a freight train's whistle in the far distance. To Jeff, the shrill sound, a clamor generally reserved for the winter months, carried a menacing tone.
It was still above 80 degrees on this mid-July Colorado night, and in most circumstances, the gale would have been a welcome reprieve from the dry, near-100-degree temperatures that had encompassed the area most of the past three weeks. Not tonight. But then again, the way things had recently transpired, he probably could have found something menacing about the models' poses in his newest swimsuit issue.
He lived alone in the Denver-area suburb of Archer, and things just hadn't been right the past few months. Things, little things, were becoming peculiar around the house. And the mysterious little quirks were increasing.
He had recently lost his roommate, Roger Jordan, who moved out in April to buy his own place. Because Jeff was doing the same with his current home and was starting to make more money, finding another roommate wasn't a priority. He was leaning toward not getting one at all.
Although Roger still knew the code to the garage, the strange happenings could not be attributed to him. The two remained buddies, and Roger, a website designer, was far too busy and too grounded to concoct an elaborate scheme to mess with Jeff. In fact, Roger didn't even know about the oddities because Jeff was too embarrassed to tell him – or anyone else.
Jeff recently earned a promotion at Sanstrom Enterprises in downtown Denver, where he held an accounting job. His Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5 workweek began tomorrow. The digital clock beside the living room television read 11:13 p.m., meaning it was time to think about turning in.
He found himself reluctant to turn off the late-night sports program and kill the lights.
He was no wimp, but he was edgy because of the recent events. It would be much easier to concentrate on the day's highlights than to fall asleep in his current state. At this point, he wouldn't have been surprised to walk into his room, only to find a vagrant stretched out on his bed with a sign begging for food. Or perhaps the bedroom door would shut behind him with a sinister thud, eternally locking him from the outside world.
"OK," he thought aloud. "Time to go to sleep if I'm going to be worth a crap at work tomorrow."
House lights off. OK.
"Wow," Jeff thought to himself. "I'm like a regular 28-year-old. I'm not afraid of the dark."
It was 11:31 when he crawled into bed, and for the first time in roughly a week, sleep was smooth, deep and effective. But that was the final night of seamless rest for quite some time.
* * *
A butter knife stuck to the counter by peanut butter usually doesn't carry a macabre connotation, but that was the first of the bizarre happenings. In early May, Jeff returned home from work and noticed the sticky knife on his countertop, merely a leftover from someone who didn't clean up after making a sandwich.
Although it was something he could envision himself doing, he had no recollection of making anything with peanut butter in the past month. Maybe he had craved a midnight snack and was too tired to remember? Nope. He had cleaned the kitchen spotless the previous night, and it remained that way after his pre-work cereal that morning.
So it had happened during the day while he was gone. Roger, the only other person with house access, had been at work in Highlands Ranch more than 40 minutes away. Plus, Roger wouldn't visit without letting Jeff know, and he was no mess-maker anyway.
Many friends had visited Jeff's place, but he knew of none who would force their way in, eat a sandwich then blaze without making mention. His parents lived in Oregon, so they certainly did not play a role in peanut butter-gate.
This particular instance didn't frighten Jeff, just made him wonder what the heck had happened. He had dismissed the occurrence after a few days, because, how long can you dwell on something that was ultimately irrelevant?
But that was only the beginning.
Additional minor incidents began to surface. Twice, Jeff returned home from work to see a burner left on. Each time, he was sure he hadn't touched the oven that morning. Yet another time, the pantry door was open.
He didn't have a dog or any other pet for that matter. He did have seven fish in a 55-gallon tank in his living room, but he doubted a tinfoil barb would escape the tank, flop to kitchen, hook up a PBJ, then, sensing a shortage of breath, realize that he'd better return to his tank instead of cleaning up.
Since moving to Colorado six years ago after graduating from Oregon State, he had lived in this home and witnessed no odd activity. If something supernatural possessed the house, things would have surfaced long ago, right?
The mind-boggling aspect to these kitchen peculiarities was nothing was threatening about them. They were just strange. He convinced himself simply to ignore them, because if thieves were to blame, they would have stolen all his valuables by now. He persuaded himself that his recent increased workload might have allowed him to overlook a few mundane details.
In the back of his mind he knew this wasn't the case. When he thought it out on a purely factual basis, he realized how undeniably abnormal this was. It was when he viewed it from this perspective that he became uneasy.
Just when he was ready to dismiss everything, more disturbing occurrences unfolded away from the house. He innately sensed a connection.
Just last month, he left Sanstrom Enterprises at 5 p.m. on a Thursday, ready to meet Roger and some other buddies for cocktails at Maloney's. When he retrieved his Nissan Maxima from the parking lot, he swore it was in a different spot than where he parked in the morning. He recalled being in the row closest to the street, but there it was, in Row 3 when he returned. At first, he expected to see his vehicle completely stripped down, only the bare bones remaining. But when he entered the car, his iPod was still there, as was the $13 he left in the center console. Everything was there. But he swore he hadn't parked there. He had eaten lunch at Quizno's across the street, so he hadn't left for lunch and spaced out that he had re-parked.
It got worse four days later.
He returned to the same parking lot after work, and his Maxima was gone. Vanished. He hustled back to the office, roughly a seven-minute trek, and reported the vehicle missing. When he returned to the lot to wait for the police, the car was there. It wasn't in the same spot he parked it that morning, but it was returned. He checked inside. Nothing was gone. His cell phone remained in the center console, and he used to it to call the authorities and tell them not to respond. Embarrassed, he concocted a story that he'd forgotten his girlfriend had borrowed the car.
He knew he wasn't undergoing temporary dementia. When he started the car, he noticed the temperature gauge. The car was already warm. Just to confirm, he popped the hood and, as he suspected, the engine was hot as if it had been driven.
He considered the possibilities as he left the lot. He owned two keys for the car – the one on his key chain and one inside a magnetic case concealed on the underside of the driver's-side front tire. Like many, he kept the spare in that location in case he lost his keys. Apparently, someone figured out the secret.
There was a simple troubleshooting solution: He removed the spare key. At least logic prevailed in this instance. His car remained stationary from then on.
Although a month had passed since the Maxima was temporarily molested, he still felt a link between his car's disappearance and the happenings at the house. At least now he'd dismissed any ridiculous notion that the in-house activity could have been attributed to a ghost. More than a few times, he envisioned a spirit-like presence rummaging through the kitchen in quest of anything edible. Famished from years of eternal fast, the apparition finally realizes it had been decades since it last fed and, rather than feasting on an Outback steak or something equally tantalizing, raids Jeff's modest, bachelor-like supply of food.
He didn't truly entertain that notion, but hey, it was as plausible as anything else he had imagined.
The most recent episode, however, was starting to get personal. Just Friday, he returned home and saw that someone had been sleeping on his bed. Not under the covers or anything, but on top of the comforter. Ruffles on the bedspread and an overall disheveled look gave it away.
But who would do that? And why? What is wrong with criminals these days? Can't they just come in, rob something and turn over a few couches for dramatic effect? Why would someone find a way to break into the house, crash out for a few hours then flee without as much as merely checking to see if anything valuable could be heisted?
These questions circled Jeff's head throughout the weekend, and now he half expected to see something bizarre every time he returned home. Now Monday, as he drove home after a rare workday in which he felt fully rested, he couldn't help wonder what was next. That's why he was only mildly stricken with fear when he walked through the door.
* * *
Jeff typically would have been relieved to get home. Wading through rush-hour traffic from Denver to Archer was never a pleasant task, but today it wasn't as painstaking as usual.
Attempting not to be reluctant to enter his own house, he ignited the garage door with his Lift Master remote and pulled the Maxima into its spot. It was scalding hot in the garage, undoubtedly several degrees higher than the 98 outside.
As he loosened his tie while he walked into the house, he contemplated calling Roger to grab a few beers instead of settling for his normal Monday chill-at-home session. Roger undoubtedly would be up for it, because he rarely turned down a few cold ones.
Jeff froze in his tracks. Coffee beans on the linoleum. Tons of them scattered about. Pots, pans and blood. Not an abundance of blood, just traces of a congealed red substance that didn't leave much room for the imagination. Apparently, an intruder had made another sizeable meal, this time spaghetti, and made a mistake with a utensil. Whoever it was didn't bother to put the dishes in the dishwasher or wipe up the residue from their small kitchen wound.
The sight of blood, though sparse, gave Jeff the creeps and he was reluctant to scour the rest of the house. Before he went anywhere, he placed the pans in the dishwasher, applied a few sprays of 409 to the countertop and removed any trace of the incident.
Bad idea, he realized moments afterwards. He had just erased any smidgen of evidence that an unwanted guest had been present. A forensics team could have easily taken a sample of blood and perhaps linked it to whoever the prowler was. He still felt better knowing it was gone.
Next step the bedroom. He grabbed his largest kitchen knife and headed that way, expecting the worst. His bed was as he left it in the morning, tidily made. He peeked in his closet. Nothing there either. He searched the remainder of the house. It was free of sociopaths, psychos or any sign that anyone or anything had invaded the premises.
Whoever this was, whatever it was, undoubtedly was toying with Jeff. The incidents were growing from merely odd to overly peculiar, and he suspected the degree of intensity would only increase. He had to figure things out immediately before a devastating scene unfolded.
He had to get out of the house. He had to tell someone. He had kept it all to himself to this point, only because he knew people would think he was a whack job if he told them. He had always been straight up with Roger Jordan, though, and he figured his longtime buddy and former roommate might understand. Well, he'd hear him out anyway.
* * *
There are plenty of reasons why summer is nearly everybody's favorite season: The warmth, the outdoor activity, the hotties in skimpy clothes. All of that was appealing to Jeff, but his favorite facet of summer was how long the days lasted. It was 8:10 p.m. as he pulled into Boston's in Highlands Ranch, Roger's favorite hangout, and nearly an hour of daylight remained.
The 40-minute, post-rush-hour drive was much more endurable than the daily trek home from work, plus it gave Jeff an avenue to escape the thoughts of his pseudo-haunted house.
He strolled into Boston's and found Roger sitting in a booth near the back on the window side, two cold Coors Lights ready to be polished. Roger had positioned himself in prime position to take in the Colorado Rockies game on one television and the Hooters bikini contest on the other. Jeff would have to settle for just baseball on his side of the table.
"What up, man?" Roger asked, extending for a handshake followed by a fist-to-fist tap.
"Not shit," Jeff replied, although there was enough to fill a double-seat outhouse.
After they exchanged pleasantries and talked about things that regularly would have been interesting, he decided to finally divulge.
"Things are getting weird at home," he began.
Thirty-five minutes later, he had told Roger Jordan everything, every excruciating detail, down to the consistency of the ripples on his mattress after the unwanted snooze.
"Have any enemies?" Roger asked. "Any chick you shut down who might be pissed?"
"I wish that was the case," Jeff answered. "Somehow, I feel this is deeper than some emotional girl. Plus, no chick digs me that much. You know that."
Roger gave Jeff plenty of ideas. He told him vary his routine. Perhaps staying home from work one day would catch the perpetrator off guard. He advised changing the garage code. Install a security system. Cleverly place a video camera somewhere in the house. Get a dog. And not some "wimpy-ass" dog, either.
The ideas were proactive, but Jeff felt he'd be acting overly paranoid if he put any of them into effect. After all, he hadn't been robbed or harmed in any way. Not yet, anyway.
Excerpted from Displaced by Paul Willis Copyright © 2011 by Paul Willis. Excerpted by permission.
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