Authors: Samantha Durante
Tags: #Science Fiction
Copyright © 2012 Samantha Durante
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0985804610 (Kindle)
ISBN-13: 978-0-9858046-1-9 (Kindle)
To my family, for always being there
every step of the way.
Table of Contents
She woke to the sound of heavy boot steps marching down the hall and the familiar pang in her hip bones wrought from too many nights on a rigid metal cot. The back of her throat ached from the icy air that’d ravaged her lungs all night; she could almost see her breath as she let out a weary sigh, resigned to another day in this hell.
What time was it? It was always difficult to tell from within her dim windowless cell. She listened as the footsteps approached, attuned to the jangle of the keys in the guard’s pocket and the soft clap of the rifle against his back. Then she heard something she hadn’t noticed before – a second set of footsteps, softer than the guard’s, following slightly behind.
She shot up with a quick gasp, adrenaline surging through her body and firmly shaking off the last wisps of her semi-peaceful slumber. The footsteps paused outside her door as she registered the soft whooshing of a lab coat and the gentle tapping of fingertips against a tablet. She was certain now that they had finally come to fulfill their grisly promise.
She had known this was a risk when she’d been briefed on her mission, and she had accepted it anyway. Now she cursed her own arrogance, and the sorry luck that had landed her here. She had failed in her mission, and now she was going to reap her recompense.
She was only glad that
wasn’t close enough to hear her impending screams. One by one she had listened from within her own lonely chamber as the others cried out in agony, and she’d been unable to drown them out with nothing but her fingertips to plug her ears. After the riot they had staged early on, the guards had learned that it was necessary to separate her from him, and she hadn’t seen or heard from him for weeks, maybe months, so she knew for certain that he wasn’t nearby. That one small mercy almost made the ordeal ahead of her bearable. Almost.
As the heavy automatic locks on her cell door released with a tumultuous clang, she turned to face her captors. Thinking only of him, she steeled her resolve for whatever unspeakable nightmare awaited her.
Alessa dropped her pen and looked longingly at the clock. She had little more than twelve hours until the exam and she just could not focus on the words swimming on the page in front of her. Instead, all she could think about was the ghost.
She turned back to the diagram in her textbook, but it was no use. The only image she could see was his piercing sapphire eyes, brimming with melancholy and longing. What could he be so sad about? The little information she’d been able to dig up about the history of her sorority house contained nothing which might indicate who the soulful young man she’d been seeing was or what he could possibly be thinking of as he stared out into whatever plane of existence he was inhabiting. Alessa guessed she’d probably never know.
She let out a quiet groan of exasperation which drew withering glances from the handful of other students studying in this corner of the library. She supposed it was probably time to go. She certainly wasn’t being productive, sitting here with a head filled up with fantasies about a person she didn’t even know. A person who wasn’t even alive, no less.
Alessa closed the lid on her laptop and slid her pen into the spiral of her notebook. She was resigned. If she didn’t know the basics of physics by now, she certainly wasn’t going to learn them by tomorrow.
She’d never really been the studying type and had spent her high school years relying on the knowledge she absorbed during class to get her through exams just fine. She was lucky to have the ability to learn quickly, usually only having to pay attention to a subject once or twice before she mastered it. As a result, she just didn’t understand how everyone in this library had the patience to devote hours to reading and re-reading all the same material they’d been learning day in and day out all semester long. Alessa just couldn’t do it.
At least the midterm was open book. She may not get the A she was used to, but she was confident that she’d be able to wring out at least a B without wasting any more time staring at a textbook page she couldn’t bring herself to actually read. She slid her belongings into her backpack as quietly as she could, hoping not to provoke any more derisive looks from her neighbors.
Alessa needed to stop obsessing about the ghost. Her disdain for studying notwithstanding, her new fixation was getting in the way of her grades and her social life. Ever since she’d started seeing him a few weeks ago, he’d been all she could think about. And the unnerving recurring dreams she’d been having weren’t helping either.
At first the ghost had scared her senseless – a normal enough reaction to waking to a strange man standing at the foot of her bed while she slept or appearing out of nowhere behind her in the bathroom mirror – but after three or four encounters it soon became apparent that the ghost wasn’t even aware of her presence. Once she realized that, her fear was overtaken by curiosity and she took to studying the elusive figure whenever she got the opportunity, instead of sprinting from the room in terror.
What she’d learned in the latest handful of encounters hadn’t amounted to much. Though she’d resolved to stick around and see what she could learn, the ghost apparently had different ideas. His apparition never lasted more than a few seconds, which wasn’t a lot of time for Alessa to gain much insight. Overall she’d probably spent less than a minute in his presence in the seven or eight times she’d seen him over the first 12 weeks of the semester.
So far she’d been able to determine that he seemed about her age – maybe a little younger than her 19 years – and that, judging by his clothes, he was probably from the early twentieth century. Besides the clothes, he looked like any other athletic male teenager she’d known – tall and lean, with tousled brown hair and unbridled energy brimming just below the surface of his skin.
The only thing particularly notable about him was his eyes. Despite the transparency of his form, his blue eyes shown clearly, flecked with green and gold and shining with a subtle indigo light. They looked like the eyes of a television or movie actor, just unnaturally blue. Alessa had never seen eyes like that in real life and had always thought that those actors were digitally enhanced. Now she wondered if people really did have eyes that vivid.
Even more striking than the color of his eyes, however, was the hint of torment that they almost always conveyed. He was constantly gazing out at the distance, a wistful look upon his face. Often Alessa had seen him clench his jaw and swallow, then breathe deep and close his eyes, exhaling with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. It was as if he were fighting back a feeling, resolving himself for some struggle ahead.
Only on one occasion had Alessa seen him anything other than distraught. He’d turned rapidly, as if in response to someone calling his name, and looked directly through Alessa as his face lit up with the most beautiful smile she had ever seen, one so genuinely overflowing with love and pride and just a hint of amusement that it brought tears to her eyes. That was the way Alessa’s parents used to look at her, before everything happened.
So she had no idea who the ghost was, or what he was thinking about, or why he kept appearing to her, and these questions had become the only thing she could focus on, much to the detriment of her schoolwork and the few friendships she’d begun to develop in the first weeks of the semester.
And then the nightmares had started – always the same immobilizing fear buzzing through her in that dark, dank cell – and the lack of sleep was only compounding the distraction she felt in her waking hours. Alessa knew it wasn’t healthy to let a specter take over her life, but she felt powerless to resist. Who or whatever he was, she was determined to learn the truth.
As Alessa stepped out onto the quad, she breathed deep and let the crisp fall evening wash over her. She always felt better being outside. Her head felt clearer than it had all afternoon as the cool November air lightly stung her eyes and worked its way from her lungs into her bloodstream, bringing the feeling back to her limbs. She’d been cramped at that uncomfortable library desk for six hours and had little to show for it besides a sharp pang of hunger welling up in her gut. She decided to grab a sandwich and head back to the house to see what Janie was up to.
Wandering her way across the quad, Alessa headed toward Van Husen Hall, hoping the student-run café in the basement was still open. Leaves crunched beneath her feet as Alessa made her way towards the stately brick building ahead of her. The façade was laced with ivy and decked by massive old-growth trees still clinging to their last clumps of foliage as winter threatened to descend. The facilities department had carefully placed up-lighting behind the trees, highlighting the building’s grand turn-of-the-century architecture and casting dramatic shadows across the entrance. The campus was beautiful, that much she had to admit.
Alessa had not been thrilled when she’d received her acceptance to the university. She’d felt relieved she supposed, but in truth, she was more disappointed than anything. Up until her senior year of high school, her grades had been flawless and she’d racked up an impressive resume of extracurricular accomplishments. As her last year of high school had begun, she’d known she was on the right path towards achieving her dream of getting into one of the elite private universities she’d always strived for. Then everything had gone wrong.
On a Friday a couple weeks into the school year, her parents had had plans to go to a party at the nearby home of a family friend. Alessa had been invited, but she had plans to go to the big homecoming game and join some friends at another party afterward instead. That morning on her way out the door to school, Alessa had gotten in a big fight with her mom over something petty.
Her memories of that day were a blur, but it might have been the length of her shorts – the summer heat had persisted well into September, and Alessa’s old-fashioned mother always had something to say about her attire. Alessa had expressed her frustration a little too vividly and her mom had grounded her for the night. Alessa had been fuming as she left for school and refused to speak to her parents when she got home, marching straight up to her room and slamming the door behind her, a move she knew would get right under her father’s skin.
Despite her bratty behavior, her ever-patient parents had come up to say goodbye before they left for the party and to remind her that they’d be home by midnight. Alessa had still been furious about being grounded and refused to let them in, so they had said an exasperated, “I love you,” through the door, a sentiment that Alessa had begrudgingly returned. She was immensely grateful now that she did; it was the last thing she’d ever say to them.
Alessa had fallen asleep on the couch that night watching reruns of some terrible reality show, so she hadn’t noticed when midnight rolled around with no sign of her parents. It wasn’t until the doorbell rang at 1:15 in the morning that she’d realized something was wrong. She’d stumbled to the door in a stupor to find a pair of grim looking police officers. “Are you Alessa Khole?” they began. And in a matter of moments, her entire world had come crashing down.
Her parents had been killed in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver who, incidentally, was coming from the same party that Alessa had planned to attend. They’d been on a dark, winding road and something, maybe a deer, had caused the young driver to swerve into the oncoming lane, smashing head on into Alessa’s parents. Everyone had been killed instantly.
It was an all too familiar story, almost a cliché, and Alessa could not believe that her parents were gone. When she had woken in the morning, she’d thought that perhaps it was all a bad dream, until she'd gone downstairs to an empty kitchen.
Alessa had been on her own since then. She’d turned 18 a few days before the accident, so she was legally empowered to make her own decisions in the aftermath. She assumed control of her parents’ finances and decided to stay at her house and finish out her last year at her own school, instead of moving in with her cousins who lived on the other side of the country. In retrospect, this may not have been the best decision, but at the time, Alessa just couldn’t imagine losing her whole life in addition to her parents. So she’d stayed put and made do.
As might be expected, the ordeal had taken a major toll on her performance in school. She struggled to accept the reality of the situation and fell into a thick depression which left her unmotivated to do her work or devote time to her activities, or even show up to class. The fall passed by in a haze and when December had rolled around – bringing with it college application season – she was practically failing out of school.
She’d tried her best to pull together a few halfway decent applications to the list of selective schools she had been planning to apply to, and had asked the guidance counselor to include a note in her recommendation explaining what had happened in Alessa’s personal life. She’d hoped that the admissions officers would have some sympathy and give her a pass for this year’s academic performance, in light of the strength of her transcript from previous years. But they didn’t – these schools only had room for exceptional students, young people who were ready to change the world. At this point, Alessa could barely even change her own clothes, and it showed.
Reality had set in once the rejection letters started piling up in late March. Alessa began putting more effort into her schoolwork to salvage her GPA, and her teachers had taken pity on her and given her passing grades. When it had finally sunk in that her old dreams of collegiate glory were out of her grasp, she’d taken stock of her options and decided to apply to some less selective schools. It turned out that a few big state schools were still accepting rolling admissions, and one – Eastern State University, home of the Fighting Gophers – was willing to overlook the disaster of the last seven months.
That was how Alessa had ended up where she now stood, reaching towards the door of Van Husen Hall in search of a late dinner. Alessa caught a glimpse of herself in the glass and was surprised at how haggard she looked. Mercifully, her long, dark hair hung straight in neat layers that framed her face. That was about the only thing her hair would ever agree to do and the only reason why she looked halfway presentable, since she certainly hadn’t taken any measures to tame her appearance.
Thanks to her glossy chestnut locks, if an outside observer didn’t look closely, they might not notice the bags under her green eyes, or her lackluster skin, or the jeans hanging loosely from her hips after months spent absent the desire for food. Alessa realized the sandwich she was about to buy was the first thing she’d eaten all day.
She entered the hall and steered toward the large marble staircase directly ahead of her, trailing her hand on the heavy mahogany banister as she descended to the basement. Alessa was relieved to find that the café was indeed still open. She grabbed one of the premade sandwiches out of the refrigerator case and paid at the counter with a swipe of her meal card.
Heading back outside, Alessa turned onto the wide cobblestone path that led to the far side of campus where her sorority house resided.
Approaching the porch of the chapter house, Alessa took note once again of the myriad surveillance cameras flanking her from every side. A widely-publicized hazing scandal had embroiled the university in a drawn out lawsuit, a disastrous PR spectacle which could have ended months ago with proper video evidence to prove that the university’s expulsions had been justified. The administration had learned from their mistake and promptly installed a state-of-the-art surveillance network across the entire ESU campus.
Though Alessa could only see two cameras on the porch – one pointing down towards the front door and one looking out towards the walkway she’d followed here – she knew there were others as well, peeking out of bushes and camouflaged behind rocks and benches.
Alessa had first noticed the hidden cameras on one of her first days on campus. She’d been sitting on a bench between classes eating a sandwich and doing some reading, and when she’d gotten up to toss her wrapper in a nearby garbage can, subtle movement in the bush across from her had caught her attention.
At first she’d thought it was a squirrel, but the glint of sunlight off glass had held her eye as the camera followed her movement. Curious, she’d approached the bush for a better look, but before she could brush the leaves aside, a burly security guard had appeared out of nowhere. “Please do not disturb the foliage, miss,” he’d commanded. It was an innocent enough request, but the menacing look that had accompanied his entreaty had chilled her straight to the bone.
Alessa knew the cameras were there for her own protection, but something about their presence made her uneasy. She didn’t like the feeling of being watched whenever she left her home. And worse, a lot of the students didn’t even seem to notice that they were under constant surveillance. Something about the whole setup just seemed like a violation.
She eyed the camera on the porch, her lips pressed into a hard line. The relentless gaze of that cool glass lens just felt somehow insidious to her – she couldn’t explain exactly why.
On the plus side, the administration’s over-the-top reaction
enabled Alessa to score a great room in this beautiful old house, instead of one of the standard cinderblock cells usually reserved for freshmen. To discourage future hazing incidents, in addition to the camera system, the school had also done away with rush week. Instead, they decreed that any freshman who wished to join a Greek organization had only to read the descriptions of each house and check a box on their housing form.
Though Alessa had never really been interested in joining a sorority – she didn’t consider herself the “sorority type” – after living alone for most of the last year, she’d thought it might be good for her to be around other people. So she had picked the house she liked the most – Zeta Epsilon Pi’s big white farmhouse with a wraparound porch – checked the appropriate boxes, and hoped for the best.
By a stroke of luck, Alessa had won one of the two available rooms. The other had gone to another freshman, Janie, who had quickly become Alessa’s closest friend at ESU.
The chapter house itself turned out to be a dream come true. Just as the photo on the housing application showed, it was a gorgeous old white colonial farmhouse with stark black shutters, more of a mansion than a house really. Outside it had a large wraparound porch stretching the entire front and right side of the building – which came in handy when the sorority’s parties got a little too congested – and it looked out over acres upon acres of rolling green hills, what was once probably farmland.
The house had a big kitchen, dining room, and living room on the main floor which the sorority used as shared space. The upper floor had been divided into 14 bedrooms, half of which still had the elaborate original fireplace mantles.
Alessa was lucky enough to have gotten one of the fireplace rooms, though she was disappointed to find that all of the hearths had been boarded up for safety reasons. She’d been pleased to find that her room was somewhat larger than those in the solemn gray freshman dormitory, and much more homey, with thick carpeting and chair rail moldings instead of linoleum and white-washed cinderblock walls.
The bathroom renovations were the one area where the university had unfortunately gutted most of the house’s charm in favor of a more functional approach. The only spot they had overlooked was a finely-crafted old clawfoot tub housed in a tiny bathroom on the attic floor. Alessa supposed it wasn’t worth the university’s time or expense to remove the heavy fixture, so it remained perched on the top floor overlooking a round porthole window and was rarely used, though Alessa had been surprised to learn that it was still functional.
So even though the last year had not gone at all as Alessa had planned, in the end she supposed she was grateful for where she had ended up. After all, if it wasn’t for this house, she would never have met Janie. And she would never have seen the ghost.