This story takes place in December, 2005
I don't believe in ghosts. Or to be more precise, I don't believe that the various phenomena that come under the heading of "ghosts" are the spirits of the dead, and I'm not at all sure that any of the phenomena are in fact objectively real. I'm precise here not just because Cecelia will gig me if I'm not, but because I want to be clear as to my meaning. For in a certain sense I did in fact see a ghost.
It was the 16th of December and I was sitting in my office wishing it hadn't snowed, and wishing all the snow were gone, and thinking, as I think every winter, that there is nothing so miserable as cold. While I was doing all this thinking with one part of my mind, I was using another part to research a case I'd taken on a couple of days before. It was the kind I like – not too difficult, not at all mucky, and requiring just enough mental activity to keep me from getting bored. Once I got independent means, after Tony and Anna died and left me a respectable sum, I didn't have to work full time and I quit doing it, but since I married Cecelia, and especially since Darlia was born, I've slacked off more and more. I don't need the money at all – if I never worked another day, between Cecelia and I there's enough money to keep us in a style far more lavish than we're accustomed to – and I find that more and more I want to be with my family, enjoying the world, rather than working. Even though I enjoy the work, after nearly 20 years it retains few surprises for me.
So I was sitting at the computer, thinking thoughts of snow and winter in one compartment of my mind, and doing searches online with the other. I needed to find, if possible, where a man's great grandfather had last lived. He had the genealogy, but he wanted to be able to visit the place and get some sort of emotional connection that way. It's not the kind of work I usually do, but by being different from the usual it piqued my interest. And I was finding that I was going to have to devise narrower search terms; every database I tried gave me about a zillion hits – or none at all.
I had reached that point, but kept trying on the principle of "don't give up until you're way behind," when the intercom went off. I reached behind me and hit the button by feel without taking my eyes from the screen. "Yeah," I said.
My part-time secretary's voice came over the speaker: "Darv, there's a lady here who would like to see you."
Marla was in that day, the first time that week. She's in college, at the University of New Mexico, and her schedule fits around classes and her own life. She's going to be a cop when she graduates, she says, and since I don't run a busy office her hit-or-miss workdays are just fine. As it is, she frequently runs out of things to do – and so she studies, or reads, or comes into my office and sits on the edge of my desk and talks my ear off, or I talk her ear off. Maybe it's mutual.
I said, loudly so that the intercom could pick it up, "If she's willing to watch me for a few minutes while I get to a stopping place, you can send her in."
I heard the click of the intercom going off, and then the door opening, and shutting again. Steps came across the floor, and a chair scraped just a bit as someone sat in it – no doubt the lady Marla had mentioned. I closed out browser screens as database after database proved itself resistant to generalities. Finally I was indeed at a stopping place, and turned around.
The visitor was a lady, perhaps 60, maybe a little more, but I didn't think so. She might very well be younger – in fact, as I looked at her I decided 60 was almost certainly too high. She appeared to be an Anglo, except for a slight brown coloring that seemed natural rather than a tan, and her dark hair was short and framed her face. Her coat looked like it had been expensive new, and still looked good. It was buttoned, and she was sitting, so I couldn't see what else she was wearing. At that, I wouldn't have thought at all of her clothing if I weren't married to Cecelia; until I met her the only reason I ever noticed women's clothes was when I needed to describe someone. Now I notice, and compare with my wife, and she always comes out ahead.
Before I could speak the lady did. "I knew there couldn't be two men in the world named Darvin Carpenter."
"I've certainly never met another one with my first name. But you say the name like you know it from somewhere else."
"I confess I don't know you. Where have you encountered my name?"
"But you do know me."
"I do?" I searched her face, and it did, now that I was looking for it, seem vaguely familiar. I couldn't, though, make any connection.
"You do – or at least you did a long time ago."
I was blank. I shrugged my shoulders; this conversation was taking a route that I didn't know how to follow. They say silence is golden, and if that's true I was coining bullion now.
"Darvin, you did know me, and you last saw me in Red Hawk." Her voice was low, unaccented – she wasn't an Okie, or if she was she'd trained herself out of the accent. But I hadn't known any natives of Oklahoma well enough for them to approach me like this. I hadn't known any women in Red Hawk that well.
But I had. I felt myself standing up; it wasn't something I knew I was going to do until I did it, and as I did it I felt like I was watching someone else. "Tina?" I said, and my voice sounded very far away.
"Yes, Darvin." I seemed to sway, and my appearance must have altered for suddenly there was alarm on her face. "Darvin, are you all right?"
I don't remember anything else until I saw the woman's face – Tina's face – above me, between me and the ceiling. I must be on the floor. Marla was there too, looking concerned. I had fainted, it seemed – though not having done it before, I had no basis for comparison.
The two ladies got me up, and back in my chair. I sat and looked at the visitor. Now that I knew, I could see Tina Morales in the features – features I hadn't seen in nearly 20 years. If an actual ghost had risen up out of the floor and spoken to me, it wouldn't have been more of a shock. Tina Morales...
Tina wasn't the first woman I went to bed with. That one was a high school student, when I was still in junior high. So were the next several. But Tina was the one who mattered. She was the one who was more than just a good time in bed. I met her when I was 15, and moved in with her after I graduated from high school. She was 12 years older than I was. She'd never been married, and though I wasn't her first, she'd never really been serious about anyone before. When I left California in 1986 it was with the understanding that when I got settled she'd come and join me – and she did. We were together for six years, counting the time when I was still in school, and were planning to get married, when I became a Christian. Realizing that I needed to get out of an un-Christian situation, I did an un-Christian thing – without even a note, I settled up my affairs and left her behind. I'd never seen her since, nor been able to find out what had happened to her.
And now she was here, in Albuquerque, sitting in my office.
"Are you okay, Darvin?" she asked me.
"Yeah, I guess. I didn't think I had that in me."
"If I had known you were going to react like that, believe me, I wouldn't have sprung it on you as I did."
"Shoot, Tina, how can you predict something like that? I couldn't have predicted it, and I'm the one who lives in this skull."
"But I know you, Darvin – or at least I did. And I don't think you've changed all that drastically. You never were a physical weakling."
"Nor was I Arnold Schwarzenegger."
"No – but then most people aren't."
We paused. After 17 years, what do you say to the one you left behind? What does she say to you? "I'm sorry" is about as useful as a pet rock; however true it may be, it is thoroughly inadequate. And what would she say? No matter how much she'd planned for the moment, when it came planning would fall apart in the face of reality.
It was Tina who broke the silence. "Who's the picture of?" she asked, pointing to the framed portrait on my desk, though from her angle she just saw the back of the frame. It had to be the prominent position that caught her attention.
I made my voice gentle when I answered. "That's my wife."
Tina reached across the desk and picked up the photo in its golden frame, and turned it around. "She's beautiful," she said after a moment.
That's not the reaction most people have. It wasn't my own initial reaction. Her face is narrow, with thin lips and a broad nose. Her skin is the color of broken milk chocolate, and smooth, with just the lines around the eyes and corners of the mouth that time and smiling create. She has character, but beauty isn't there – at least, not right on the surface. When I first saw her I'd thought of her as hatchet-faced.
Tina was still looking at the picture. Now she raised her eyes, and looked at the large photograph on the wall. It shows me, and Cecelia, and Darlia. "Is that your daughter?" Tina asked.
"Yeah. She's eight."
"She is an absolutely glorious child."
"I no doubt have a bias in her favor – but yeah, I agree with you."
"How long have you been married?"
The silence hung for a moment, heavy, and then she said it: "It could have been 16 years..."
.... There is more of this story ...