The Ghost in the Closet
No sooner than she entered the Archinhauser Shelter for Homeless Women, Dumdie Swartz dug her fingernails into her palms. Nothing the social workers at Catholic Relief Services had said prepared her for the gut-wrenching chill churning in her gut. Dumdie closed her eyes and swayed.
You should’ve known there’d be some catch to getting out your car and into a building. Hope there’s nothing here to turn my grey hair white.
“You okay?” whispered Hanna, the friend from the gym’s back parking lot who had also survived the hit-and-run. “You’re as pale as a clean sheet.”
The comment drew Dumdie’s attention away from the shelter’s supervisor. After careful thought, she replied, “Don’t have f-flowers sc-scattered over my face.”
Tension wrapped around her spine as Dumdie struggled to appear normal. She had grown too comfortable living in her car behind the Tenth Street gym, out of sight of the traffic, after losing her job and apartment. Dumdie fought to meet the curious glances of her fellow inmates when the warden explained the rules for sharing the living room.
As if I care about the hours when I can turn on the TV. As usual, she kept up a running sass in her head, even though she seldom confronted people. I’m sure my room’ll be much more comfortable.
Hanna patted her shoulder, not minding when Dumdie stepped away. After years of studying how people reacted, she knew Hanna’s warm smiles meant she supported her. Other smiles were cold and hard, ready to stab her as if she were a target. Dumdie shook the thought out of her head. The Archinhauser Shelter offered her and Hanna a chance to get back on their feet.
Maybe in an apartment of our own. If we can ever find jobs again.
Dumdie pulled a vague mask over her face and pretended to listen. Her gaze wandered around the rooms they traveled through. Automatically, her mind began counting things in an attempt to calm itself.
Later, Dumdie glanced around the small room tucked in under the eaves with its large dormer windows. At least the shelter will be more comfortable than our cars. Her fingers clutched at her hands and twisted.
Turning her back on the sparsely furnished room, she stared out the third-story window at the sparkling snow. The hoopla was over, and the rooms assigned. Dumdie’s knees had protested at each stair she climbed, and though she appreciated having the room nearer the stairs, the place felt as cold as charity. Her nose wrinkled as she remembered the tour given by their warden.
The old house sat in the middle of a huge lawn sliding down to the river, for all it was in the middle of town. In the distance, the trees crowded together, and the moon shone above them.
Maybe I could ride the moon to Never-Never-Land, and no one would mind if I were different.”
Smashing the fanciful thought down, Dumdie shook her head, knowing she had to fit in. Nothing but trouble came from letting her thoughts roam free. With a shudder she remembered swinging and singing to herself, “dum-de-dum-de-dum.” Her sisters took to teasing her and calling her Dumdie, a name she had never escaped. Ignoring the unhappy memory, she began to unpack and arrange the possessions she had salvaged from her former life.
The closet was colder than the room, making her shiver harder. Rather than hang a sweater on the rail, she put it on. It’s nice to be in a real room again even if it’s so small.
Though the ceiling was high enough Dumdie didn’t have to stoop, the room still felt like a straight jacket with its small desk and chair and the narrow bed and three-drawer dresser. Her shoulders hunched together as she tried to avoid the pressure of their presence. Dumdie plopped down on the bed and examined the room. Stared at the closet, a gaping hole in the faded flowers of the wallpaper.
Strange. Someone put wallpaper in an attic room? Dumdie thought hard as she tried to figure out an acceptable answer to her question. Oh, it was the maid’s room.
Still, the closet bothered her, a scratching on the back of her mind. Nothing strange should lurk in there. It was a bare nook with a rod running across it for hangers. She had counted thirty of them, snuggled up together as if they liked each other. Touching. Dumdie shivered. Though she tolerated Hanna being near her, people pawing at her bothered her. The walls of the room were almost as bad. If she stretched her arms out, it’d take two side steps to reach the wall. Maybe if the dresser were out of the room, it’d feel larger? The closet’s large enough to hold it since I don’t have many clothes.
The dresser rolled easily into the closet on its squeaky wheels. The shift opened up a long expanse of uninterrupted wall. Dumdie grabbed her two suitcases to pack the dresser when a bone-chilling fist hit her in the gut. Dumdie dropped the cases as she staggered back. The cold wrapped its fingers around her neck, and tears trickled down her cheeks. After months of controlling her fits, they had returned, as sharp as knives, to torture her.
Slumped on the narrow bed, shoulders hunched, Dumdie’s gaze stuck to the open closet door. Thin ribbons of cold snaked up her back. Tendrils of Arctic ice stabbed at her from across the room, pushing her knees hard against the mean excuse for a bed. She closed her eyes and struggled against the frigid weight. Sweat trickled down through her gray hair down to her wrinkled brow.
Memories of her last exit interview rose, her pale-faced boss hemming and hawing about her excessive daydreaming. What he really feared were my so-called TIAs, Dumdie harrumphed. Easier to think I was having small strokes rather than seeing things. Stupid man thought I’d increase the store’s health insurance premiums.
Knowing his books better than he did, she couldn’t bring herself to blame him. She took her Social Security early but couldn’t find another job. Without enough to live on, she lost her apartment when her poker winnings couldn’t make the rent even if her card counting put her ahead of the game. She didn’t dare win too much.
Dumdie shoved her anger under a mental rock. Displaying emotions got her into trouble, even as a child. She pushed the memories of screaming in frustration when nobody understood and of being locked in the broom closet, aside.
“Noooo.” Dumdie murmured. “Please don’t let me see something that’s not there. I can’t go into a crazy trance so soon after moving into the shelter. Only Hanna knows me here.”
All her hopes of staying warm through the coming winter shattered like icicles in the wind. A hot spike of fear shook her.
They put old men in jail for being weird. Maybe they’d put me in jail. Even Dumdie appreciated the humor. I would be warm in jail.
The thought didn’t comfort.
What if they lock me in an asylum this time?
While Dumdie clutched her knobby hands, her mind counted the steps to the closet door of the attic room, four normal paces away. Ten baby steps. Two leaps. Six feet by tape measure.
When the cold had attacked her, she had jumped back across the room, touching the floor once. The two, dropped suitcases, holding most of what she had salvaged from her life before the lay-off, lay open, her clothes scattered around the closet door. The two empty garbage bags that had held her sleeping bag, quilts, and towels lay on the floor where the three-drawer chest had crowded the cot. She refused to call the narrow sleeping device a bed, even though her mama’s quilt lay over the top.
Struggling to keep control, Dumdie peered through the open door into the pulsing darkness. No scenes appeared, but she didn’t relax.
But darkness shouldn’t move. The closet’s why this room gave me the creeps. Dumdie rubbed her thin arms to stop the shivers, fought to stay in touch with reality. I won’t go into a trance. I refuse to go into a trance.
With a shudder, Dumdie walked the four paces again, only to push against a wall of invisible ice. She shuddered. Living in the woman’s shelter might prove worse than sleeping in her minivan in the strip mall parking lot.
Luck of the draw or just more plain damn bad luck? Or, am I here for a purpose?
In Dumdie’s past experience, all were possibilities.
A knock interrupted her thoughts, and Hanna peered around the door before she responded. Her round face, topped with hacked-at dark curls, showed she was much to young too collect Social Security. Light danced in her black button eyes. Dumdie stood with her hands clasped in front of her, tall and dour where Hanna beamed with good cheer.
“Gruesome, isn’t it?”
“Looks to me like you’re already in.” Dumdie’s voice kept its monotone in spite of her stiff smile.
“Shit, those stairs’re a long climb up. Like to be the death of me.” Her dark curls bounced as she talked. “But I think we’ll like being up on the third floor by ourselves. Look at that view across the lawn and down to the river. It’s almost worth all the dumb speeches we had to listen to!”
Turning her back on the sparsely furnished room, Dumdie stared out the attic window next to the nook opening at the sparkling snow. She rubbed her arms again.
Hanna said, “This room feels colder than the outside. Mine didn’t feel this bad. Guess you could haunt the TV room if you can’t get warm.”
Dumdie heaved a sigh. Wished she dare say preferred the strip mail parking lot, but the cops would be patrolling for vagrants after they learned they were sleeping in their cars under the lights covering the shops’ back doors. Turning, she forced herself to smile at Hanna’s cheerful face.
Hanna grinned, her ever-hopeful self. “Ooooh, I like how you moved things around. It feels so much larger without the dresser in the room, but you’re going to have to pick up your clothes. Don’t think the warden would like the mess.” Hanna’s voice changed pitch. “We expect you la-a-a-dies to be neat and tidy.”
The warble almost made Dumdie smile again. Hanna always made her feel normal. Hanna was contagious.
“You’re lucky to have the closet. With the chair and desk in one corner and the bed in the other, you can pretend this is a normal-sized room. Why didn’t I think of pushing my bed against the wall? Love that patchwork quilt. Was that in the garbage bag?”
“Did they ring the bell for dinner already? I didn’t hear it.” Dumdie shivered again, hoping her face had not contorted into a weird expression. I’d still have my job if a trance hadn’t taken me so often.
“Not yet. Just came in to see what’s on the other side of the locked door in my room. My room seems so much smaller now. I only got some hooks along the wallboard to hang clothes on and a dresser. You’re so lucky to get a real closet.” Hanna poked her head into the closet. “This is big enough to hold a toilet with one of those camp showers. Wish they had put one in. We wouldn’t have to go down the stairs. You think we can improvise thunder mugs? You know I always have to get up in the middle of the night and pee. Sometimes two or three times.”
The rising full moon rose above the twenty-one trees, crowding around the hundred yards of lawn, while Dumdie listened to Hanna’s chatter. She wished she dared go outside to bathe in the moonlight. A Hansel-and-Gretel scene burst into her head, but Dumdie smashed the vision out as if it were a tennis ball. Nothing good came from letting wisps of impossible thoughts grow and roam free in her head. She never know what they’d link with.
Didn’t I get my awful nickname by talking about things no one else saw and singing songs that no one had ever heard before?
She shuddered as her mind heard her two sisters trailing behind her and singing “dum-de-dum-de-de.” Dumdie ignored the memories as she struggled to follow Hanna’s comments through the maze of her twisting thoughts. Her two sisters had lived their own lives without her for decades, and she hadn’t missed them ... much. If she had to choose a companion, it’d be Hanna.
“Do you think the place has bed bugs?” Hanna had picked up the clothes and putting the suitcases in the closet. She stood in the middle of the room, wrinkling her nose. “I wonder if they sterilized the mattresses. I hope so.”
“The carpenters probably left the closet as-is to save money. Haven’t you noticed all the short-cuts in the house remodeling? All the places the boards don’t even meet.” Dumdie stopped before she said she’d seen nine corners where there were gaps in the trim. Fifty-two places where the paint coat was uneven, and she was only passing through the rooms on the tour.
Hanna pulled a face. “The house reeks of charity, but the public rooms were much nicer than the bedrooms. Must have been part of the original rooms. The two bathrooms still have the old fixtures, but I kind of like those deep old bathtubs. Think of the wonderful soaks we’ll have. Much nicer than the showers the janitor at the fitness club let us use in the mornings.”
The janitor at the gym had called them Mutt and Jeff. Dumdie was tall and dour, and while the shorter and thinner, Hanna beamed with good cheer even as she described the shelter’s shortcomings. Dumdie wished she could be more like Hanna.
“This place could be worse. Granted, my bed has more lumps than under-cooked porridge.” She poked her head back into the closet. “At least they didn’t try to squeeze someone else in there. It’s big enough for a cot and chair if they put hooks on the wall. That’d make our rooms smaller to fit in a hallway to the landing.” Her nose contorted. “Think we’ll have ta get up at an ungodly hour to get a bath? The seven of us will cause a log jam in the mornings, otherwise.”
“Seven old ladies fighting for the lavatory.”
With a laugh, Hanna waltzed over to the bed and plunked down with a sniff. “Oh, we’ll find all the faults of this place as time passes.” Hanna scrunched her bushy eyebrows together and sighed. “I hope I can adjust to all the silly rules. The car seats were softer, but my toes were starting to freeze off.”
Enjoying the monolog, Dumdie nodded her agreement, glad that she never had seen much sense in wearing make-up when you had to work harder to take it off.
“Don’t they have to sterilize mattresses? I still think they should’ve put a bathroom in up here. I wouldn’t mind only having a shower if we didn’t have to share with the other five ... laaadies.”
Saying nothing, Dumdie disagreed in her head, the place where she did most of her talking. If I can’t get my suitcases in there, how would I ever use a bathroom? “A shower wouldn’t fit.”
“Would in the closet. Weren’t you listening? You get one of those super small trailer showers. The fixtures would be in a row along the wall, like a railroad car.” Hanna giggled. The bunch of metal bracelets on her arm jangled. “Come on. Can’t you imagine seven women, all of us fighting to get into the second-floor bathroom? Doubt if anyone would share the basin if they were naked in the tub. Not the way those laaaadies look. We’re charmers compared to them.” When Dumdie raised her eyebrows, Hanna said, “Not that that jittery warden would mind our misery. She has her own private bath. Why be a watchdog otherwise?”
“Like you said, best to get to the johns early before the others wake. Glad I don’t wear makeup.” Dumdie paused. “Don’t have a job to force me to wear it anymore, either.”
“Oh, I can do that in my room. There’s a lamp and a mirror on the wall. Do you think they’ll really find us real, full-time jobs? The board lady promised they’d get us jobs when we signed the agreements to abide by the rules. Oh, how I’d love one better’n the half time at the bakery I got now. If I had a full-time job, we could get an apartment of our own.” Hanna chortled. “Can’t you see those society harpies blackmailing the town’s good ol’ boys in the Chamber of Commerce to give us jobs? Bet they have loads of scandal to use as ammunition going all the way back to their crawling days.”
“Didn’t you read the fine print? We have to work for free doing community service if we can’t find paying work for the subsidized rent? It’s part of some silly will or other.”
Hanna wrinkled her nose. “Be glad that the Archinhauser lady’s will set up the shelter for us. Our asses would be half their size now trying to keep food in our mouths.”
“You didn’t have much of an ass to begin with. Unlike me.”A buzzer blared three times from below.
Being homeless isn’t Dumdie Swartz’s biggest problem, she’s been haunted by ghosts all her life. Now she must help the ghost haunting her new room at a private homeless shelter find her lost will – if Dumdie’s to save the shelter and herself.
The Ghost in the Closet
Amazon B&N Nook kobo iBooks iTunes
Smashwords, in several different formats
Amazon B&N Nook kobo iBooks iTunes
Smashwords, in several different formats
M. K. Theodoratus, Fantasy Writer