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The things we did
Part 1: “Ghosts love apple juice”
I was always superstitious, even as a kid. I never thought that a ghost would come after me though, since I was just a college guy scraping the surface of going broke every semester. I didn’t think anything in the stories I told to be funny was possible until my hand interfered with a ghost’s.
In college, I had a friend named Steven Morgan. We were actually better friends then, and we never see each other anymore. It was as if erasing our memories of the petrifying things we saw was inclusive to erasing the people which had been a part of them.
Steven and I shared a small city-apartment, in a complex called Meadow Oaks. By the time that we had reached our junior year, we were allowed to move off campus. We even figured out that we saved money that way. The cartons of apple juice that Steven and I went through was almost a monstrosity, but buying our own food instead of using the food allowance they gave us left a little extra spending money. We both appreciated that, because we were able to go on a few cheap dates and sometimes take joy rides to dark roads with girls. I always liked when girls would curl up against me in order to feel protected.
The actual ghosts were not in play however, until our apple juice box stash fell from the refrigerator. The odd part about it was that both of us were in our rooms before we met in the kitchen in the middle of the night, woken by the sound of tumbling boxes.
“You heard a noise?” I asked.
“Yeah, you?” Steven said.
“Yeah. What did you do to the juice boxes?”
“Damn Kevin, why do you assume I would just knock them over?”
“I don’t know. Shut up.”
The anger was aimed mainly at Steven, because it would have been easier if he had just been messing with me. We did that sort of thing, being the jokesters we were. If he had just knocked over the boxes, things would have been different. We wouldn’t have had to try and explain how a force managed to rake the stacked boxes off and scatter them across the linoleum floor. Without bothering to pick up the mess we didn’t make, I stared Steven straight in the eyes. Something was simply wrong, and neither of us was smiling about it.
“You closed the door when you locked up last night, right?” He asked me, as if I could be idiotic enough to leave the front door open for an axe murderer or something to stroll in. Nope, I left it open and said hi before directing the killer to your room, I thought sarcastically.
“You’ve got to be kidding. Of course I did. But check the AC unit real fast.” I said. Steven pulled himself on top of the kitchen countertop and ran a hand along the air vent beside the refrigerator. He looked down at me, slightly smirking.
“You’re a genius dude. How am I the Phycology major?” He said, laughing and lowering himself.
“The thermostat wasn’t on very high though. I think I left it on 68 last night,” I said in response. I crossed the room and squinted at the thermostat box. The handle was bent, but we used a screw driver to turn the dial. Because of that, there was no way that you could accidentally change the temperature. My jaw clenched when I made out the number it had been set to. In faded black print, the temperature reading said 42?. I didn’t have to say a word to Steven, who had already made his way over and was gaping, mouth open and everything. It was then that I really confirmed he had nothing to do with the strange things that were occurring. Sometimes Steven could lie about small stuff like salting my ice cream, but at least the hint of a smile was always under that mask. He looked almost pale then, like the cold air had pulled pigment from his skin. I believe that he felt the same about me, because he immediately ran to the tool drawer and pulled out a screw driver. I took it from him and jabbed it into the dial of the thermostat. Wrenching it in a clockwise direction, it was all I could do to move it five degrees. When I let my muscles relax, the dial spun itself back, this time reading 30?.
“Oh my God,” Steven mumbled under his breath. “I don’t think it’s broken, Kevin.”
“So does that mean there’s a freaking ghost... in our apartment?” I said, more assertive than I felt. For once, both of us were being messed with. We were usually the ones that tried to make other people’s lives living hell.
People didn’t mess with Steven and me, and no one we knew even had the capabilities to break and enter the place so carefully. We were in fact the kings of prank, and our most revered work was getting into the girls’ dorms during marching band camp our senior year of high school. We had mixed Nair hair removal cream with the drum major’s shampoo, and even though she hadn’t gone bald, she had to wear her hair up that season because of the patchy spot on her crown. Out of instinct, I touched the top of my head to feel a full head of hair. Steven looked nervously at me, and then back at the screw driver.
“Try it again. Just see if it was stuck.” Steven said, and I did as instructed, pulling the handle and wriggling it from the hole. Fitting it back into place, I tried to turn the dial once more.
The reaction I got on this try was very different, on both a physical and mental level. My hand was interrupted by a sudden cold feeling that ran through my body, as if entering through the capillaries in my palm and jolting my heart. A shadow of some kind was struggling for control of the thermostat.
“Steven. I think the ghost just touched my hand.” I stammered. My hand dropped to my side and the screw driver lay submitted on the floor. We didn’t say anything else, and didn’t need to. I remember that our eyes were tearing up like little girls’ as we ran to the front door and made our way down the fire escape. The rails of the corkscrew staircase were hot from heat just simmering inside the stairwell, and I didn’t mind. The air vents were so active on the exterior of the apartments that the appliance leading to ours was shaking. I imagined the temperature dropping even lower, freezing the bottles of Cola on my dresser. I imagined what it may have done to me if I had slept deeper; the air would have pulled my skin into a tight and stationary ice sculpture. The thoughts were repulsive even then, and I became aware that I wasn’t quite as fearless as I pretended to be.
I never went back to that apartment. I didn’t even get within ten feet to the complex itself. I guess Steven moved on or something, because he settled back in a couple of weeks later and swore nothing crazy happened again. He dropped my stuff off at Mildred Lowry’s condo when he came back, and I lived with Mildred until the end of my senior year. She was a Music Major, going into Music Therapy or something along those lines. She wasn’t overly attractive, but I could have found worse places to stay. I had my own room and linen covered twin bed; the rent was only 150 bucks a month for my half. Mildred was nice and laughed at my jokes, and even though I didn’t think we would be good friends at first, I ended up closer to her than I ever was to Steven.
Part 2: “Monkey-Fish Bridge”
Once, when I went to college, I saw a monkey-fish. Or maybe it wasn’t a real crossbred monkey and fish, or maybe I didn’t see it at all.
Mildred once told me a story about a bridge near the college. According to Mildred, the city used to be a common destination for traveling circuses. When I think of circus acts, I picture unicyclists and acrobats and lions jumping through rings of fire. She told me that years ago genetic mutations and “freak shows” were popular. Images from a black and white “Frankenstein” come to mind immediately; I have always been afraid of the unnatural. A sick feeling rises in my throat when every science fiction novella I have ever read makes me think of unstable life forms with protruding features that shouldn’t exist.
The circus came and went in a lengthy van back then, before tractor-trailers and transport trucks existed. I am sure that the van was painted with chipping yellow paint, and contoured clown faces that rose off of the side panels. Perhaps the flower nestled against the cartoon clown’s bow-tie actually spouted water. The van’s rear would have had a hatchback door that never really locked, and that would have been why the monkey-fish slipped away.
The circus van would have had other props in it as well, she told me. The interior would have been strung with neon pink lights just dim enough to give it a tinted windows effect and bright enough to point out the surroundings. The monkey-fish was kept in a tank near the back, but it wouldn’t have had water in it. Mildred said they only kept the animal for as long as it could breathe, usually 2 or 3 weeks, and then tossed it out anyway. I think of musty, hard to breathe air with the smell of rotting skin and aresol. Clowns are scary as well, so a few of those would have been sitting on top of the mess: a couple dozen cans of stiff hold hairspray for the wigs, hulla hoops, gasoline to light the ring of fire. The mutation. Legend has it that they threw it from the bridge and it landed just below. If you leave a can of hairspray on the rail, the creature supposably appears and takes the can. It used to love to chew on the alluminum containers.
So Mildred ended up convincing me, Steven, and two kids from our Theory class to test the myth with her. It was well into July when we finally caved in, since October had been too stereotypical a month to do this kind of thing, and then it had been too cold. She never gave up though, and so there we were in a blue station wagon on the way to possible demise.
“Turn here.” Mildred instructed, even though all of us knew how to get there. Taking this route was the quickest way from our off-campus housing to the college, and we had never thought to wonder, Hey, I wonder if there’s a creepy mutated monkey under that bridge., when we drove past it.
As we trundled over a lump of gravel that meant we were there, Steven slowed down the car and drove at a speed of five miles an hour if it was even that. Mildred started to laugh, while Jeffery and Davis from Theory turned in their seats nervously.
“So why the hell did we agree to this, Kevin?” Steven asked me, grinning with his yellowed teeth.
“I actually don’t think we did. She pulled me in the car.” I said. My eyes flashed to Mildred, who was fumbling with a green Dollar Tree grocery bag. The crinkling of the plastic resulted in her pulling a jumbo can of prop hairspray out and laying it across her lap. Jeffery rolled his eyes.
“Okay. So you want us to believe you’re going to go out there and put that thing on the rail and some rabbid monkey-fish is going to snatch it up?” He said, putting air quotes around the name monkey-fish.
“Actually, I was thinking maybe one of you valliant young men might want to try it.” She said. “Also, it isn’t rabbid, stupid.”
“I’ll volunteer… not to try.” I said, laughing slightly. Jeffery and Davis nodded to that, and Steven sighed noisily.
“Goddamn, Mills. Go see your little monkey-fish already so we can get out of here. This place gives me the creeps. And its not because its dark or anything.” He said frustatedly, finally letting off the brake clamp and pushing the car into park.
Mildred pushed herself off of the sticky leather seat and opened a door. The place where she had been sitting was imprinted with sweat and a small indention from her body. Her hands held onto the can of hairspray and we watched her walk to the side of the bridge. No traffic was coming, and it probably wouldn’t.
“Dude, what if it actually does exist and eats her or something?” Said Steven.
“Come on. You really think she’d do it? She knows the story, she does the deed, man.” Said Davis. Our concentration turned to the rail when she turned around to wave at us. Her face was barely visible from the side of the car, since our headlights were dim and aimed the other way. Mildred sat the can of stiff hold hairspray on the rusting metal rail and turned back to us, mouthing words we couldn’t decifer.
She turned almost instantly then, and her arms began to wave around her, signifying that the can was gone. I think we all froze in our thoughts then, unable to believe her. You would think we questioned whether or not she shoved it over the side, but we didn’t have to. I promise you that we saw the can one second, glanced at Mildred’s face, and saw nothing the next. She wasn’t even smiling anymore, but instead looking over the side of the bridge and screaming. I was too awestruck to open my door and rush out there or do anything really. She had her hands clenched over her mouth and her pupils were swollen to a size that was almost inhuman. Steven and Jeffery cranked down the windows and we were saying things like, “Run!” and “Mills!” and “What happened?!”.
I finally snapped back to reality and pushed open the back door. Mildred came toward us in a shaky sprint and threw herself into the seat beside me. The door closed and no one said a word for a moment while they snapped together seat belts and Steven cranked the car.
Mildred’s side was pressed hard into mine, her body unmoving. I wrapped my arm around hers in a way that may have been intimate if we hadnt been in the situation we were. It was more of a gesture of comfort because her face was turning milky white and I needed to be close to her at that moment.
“What did you see?” Steven dared to ask after we passed the sign that told us we were “Entering Lexington”. Mildred hesitated, but then answered,
“The m-monkey-fish. It was actually there.” She seemed to be talking to the back of Jeffery’s head rest instead of to us, but no one minded. Her eyes looked glazed over. “It had these prying, boney hands and a fish body. But it had fur too, and the scales were rotted, and its head w-was like a human’s.” She said quietly, so that we all had to lean in to hear.
“It took the hairspray?” Davis said.
“Yeah. It did.”
That was the only discussion we had until we reached the condo and Mildred jumped out. She walked toward the door and skillfully twisted the lock, rigid legs walking to her room. I didn’t even say goodbye to Steven and the others, but we just acknowledged each other with nods before the car drove away.
I started fixing myself a scrambled egg and asked Mildred if she was hungry through the closed slab of her door. She didn’t respond and so I set a table for one. The egg wasn’t quite as satisfying as I may have liked. She didn’t come out that night or the next morning, although she probably got up to go to the bathroom at night and left when I went to work.
I took an alternate route the next day, one that didn’t require me going over the bridge. I still havent went back, even to this day. Who is to say that the monkey-fish ever died? He finally had water.