FROM CHAPTER ONE
I’ve had better Wednesdays.
On Wednesdays, I’m supposed to awaken with the blaring of my alarm clock at seven. I get up, dress quickly, dash to campus, stare at Mrs. Jacklyn in set theory class, fall asleep in Mechanics 1, eat lunch, and study in the afternoon, before ending the day at band practice. For me, that was enough excitement on Wednesdays.
On the seventh Wednesday of the fall term my alarm clock didn’t go off, probably because I had thrown it across the room the day before in a fit of anger.
I was late to my first class. Ordinarily, being late to set theory would not have posed much of a problem, but when I arrived Mrs. Jacklyn was collecting a pop quiz. I hadn’t done very well on her last quiz and I wasn’t likely to do much better on this one.
I slunk into the class. With nothing important to do for a few seconds after finishing the quiz, everyone had time to turn and gawk at me. I wanted to whirl and run, but somehow I found the courage to shrivel into a seat in the back row. What continually cycled through my mind as I tried to disappear was how embarrassing it would be to flunk math, since it was the class in which I wanted to do well. Not because I liked set theory. I hated it, and it wasn’t even required for my major. No, I was in the class for one reason: I was mesmerized by Mrs. Jacklyn, and I had no trouble explaining why. Since reaching puberty, I had always adored tall women, and Mrs. Jacklyn was tall; she’d played volleyball in college, according to rumor, and was an expert in martial arts and weapons. Her slender body, lithe and graceful as a pine tree, was at least an inch taller than my six feet two inches. Her hair was black, as were her eyes, and every time she looked at me with those bottomless eyes I was captured. All she had to do was ask and I would give her anything. Unfortunately, the only thing she ever asked for were my tests, and I was too intimidated to ever speak to her.
Most of the students in the class were afraid of her, but I was both afraid of and in love with her, at least in a theoretical way. After all, I did have a girlfriend, so my dreams of love were tempered by that and Mrs. Jacklyn’s attitude toward me. She was remote and unapproachable, as difficult a goal to achieve as the set theory she was trying to teach me. The look she gave me when I slid into my seat late was cold enough to freeze fire. The look she gave me when I darted out of the class at the end of the period was even colder.
I had an hour between classes, so I rode my bike home to retrieve my Mechanics 1 textbook, which I had forgotten in my rush to find a clean pair of socks that morning. In times like these I was glad I didn’t have a car, since parking on campus was impossible, and I lived too far away to walk home and back even with an hour off. My bike was an old Schwinn five-speed, but it served me well.
Home was a slightly renovated old house a couple of blocks south of Arapahoe and a few blocks west of Broadway, close to a mile from the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. My landlady, Mrs. Lafferty, who was over ninety, had turned her family home into eight apartments. Only two of the apartments had bathrooms; the rest were just bedrooms that shared a common bath.
Two sizes smaller than the other apartments was my closet of a room. Mrs. Lafferty kept telling me it had been her children’s playroom sixty years before, but I wasn’t convinced. It was too small to be anything but a closet. But it was cheap, and with the discount I received for walking Genghis Khan each day, I could almost afford it.
The mail had already come as I panted by; I snatched it off the foyer table, tripped over Khan, regained my footing, and glanced behind me with some anxiety.
Khan had not moved even one drooping lip. I was grateful. The last thing I needed right now was a spoiled brat of a bulldog wanting his walk. Technically, I was supposed to walk him twice a day. Mrs. Lafferty’s right knee had been replaced the month before, and she was still too sore to walk him herself. Even though in general we didn’t get along too well, Khan and I had quickly come to an understanding—most of the time: I would only walk him in the afternoons and he wouldn’t complain about it to his owner. Not that he wanted to; Khan was a fat, ugly registered purebred bulldog who was over seventeen years old. Mrs. Lafferty’s family tree had primarily grown in Hungary and she’d named him after one of her heroes: Genghis Khan, the invader of Hungary. Khan’s belly bounced along the floor as he waddled (he no longer ran) and his lower lip often dragged the ground as he went. It seemed as though I was always pulling a sandspur out of that lip after one of our walks. Because of cataracts he could barely see where he was going, but there was nothing wrong with his nose: he could smell dead food eight blocks away. The deader the better. Four-day-old-squirrel roadkill (still stuck to the road, of course) was his idea of gourmet dining. It was almost impossible for me to pull him away from it even when a truck was rumbling straight at us. Once I had to scrape the squirrel off the road with my fingers and throw it onto the sidewalk to save our lives.
Still, unless Khan smelled some particularly ripe, tasty feast lying somewhere in the neighborhood, he was no more enthusiastic about his walks than I was. Our unspoken arrangement suited both of us just fine.
I examined my mail. The only mail not an ad was a notice from the campus credit union that the check I had written to The Food Market had bounced, and loudly, I presumed. That was my second bouncing to The Food Market. From now on it would be cash only for me at that store.
No money in the account! I couldn’t believe it! I should have had twenty dollars left over after that check. Now, with the bounced-check fee, I apparently was overdrawn thirty dollars and twenty cents. How could I have fouled up my checkbook so badly? It wasn’t as though I wrote a lot of checks to keep up with. It didn’t make sense.
Food was definitely going to be a problem for the next few days, until my GI Bill check came in. And worst of all, I had a date for lunch with Rosalyn. Sometimes she paid for our lunch; hopefully this would be one of those times. Otherwise I was going to be in trouble.
As it turned out, my money problem was the least of my worries.
Depressed, staring at the ground, afraid to wonder what else could possibly go wrong on this day that had hardly begun, I ran right into the Ghoul from the End of the Hall. It was like hitting a steel I-beam, and I went careening across the hall into the wall. The Ghoul just glared at me and left.
Dreamy Isle Apartments was a three-story building. Mrs. Lafferty lived on the first floor with Genghis Khan; there were four apartments on the second floor and four more on the third, five if you counted mine. While mine was certainly the smallest, the Ghoul’s was the largest, with a sitting room as well as a bedroom and a private bath. I had no proper excuse for knowing this except that I’d been in it chasing Khan. This was one thing Khan and I agreed on. Neither of us liked the Ghoul. If anything, Khan disliked him more than I did. I had no idea why, but whenever the Ghoul was around, Khan continually emitted a low-pitched growl and stayed as far away from him as possible. But when the Ghoul was out of the building, Khan often spent hours trying to break into his apartment. At least one time he was successful and I found him staring into the bathroom, his head slightly cocked to the right, lip and stomach rubbing the floor, a puddle of drool in front of him. Pulling him away from that bathroom was harder than dragging him away from one of his favorite dead squirrels, but I finally extracted him from the Ghoul’s apartment. My first inclination was to leave Khan in the hallway while I wiped up the trail of drool, but ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Let the Ghoul puzzle over the river of spit.
Of course, he really wasn’t a Ghoul, not that I was aware of, anyway. His name was Thaddeus K. Rumpkin. I had some difficulty prying this from Mrs. Lafferty, but kept asking her day after day until it slipped out of her sometimes addled mind. I don’t know why it was so important for me to find this out, but it was.
All the tenants called him the Ghoul because in some indescribable way he reminded us of one. It was hard to say why. He was thick and stubby, at least four inches shorter than me. His face was entirely without wrinkles, yet gave the appearance of being old. His expression was always neutral, never laughing, smiling, frowning, or looking puzzled. Yet a feeling of hostility always emanated from him. And his eyes … they were ancient, deep in knowledge … frightening … inhuman. I couldn’t look at them without a cold sweat breaking out on my back and my knees wobbling.
Once I had tried to be friendly. I offered to help him carry a load of groceries to his apartment since he was struggling with four obviously heavy bags, two in each arm. He stared at me, almost through me, and shook his head.
“Why?” he muttered. “I’m several times stronger than you.”
With that he bounded up the steps faster than I ever could, leaving me to shrug at Mrs. Lafferty in the foyer.
“Strange bird,” she said, staring up at him. “Pays good money, though. Never late with his rent.” With that, she turned and hobbled into her kitchen. It was the only unsolicited comment about him I ever heard from her.
I often asked her what he did for a living. She shook her head. I asked her why he didn’t come to the weekend breakfasts she fixed for all her tenants. She shook her head. I asked her if she knew why we didn’t see him for days at a time. Was he gone or in his apartment? She shook her head. She didn’t know, of course. No more than the rest of us.
As I now staggered around the hallway watching the Ghoul’s back disappear down the stairs I thought about the one time I had followed Khan into the Ghoul’s apartment. My mind couldn’t remember all the details, but what still struck me was that it was virtually bare. There was a desk or table in the sitting room, with a computer on it—at least something that was square and metallic—but the rest of the room was empty, and there was only a pad on the floor in the bedroom. I couldn’t remember anything about the bathroom except for Khan drooling in the doorway, but there was a strange presence coming from the room; perhaps that was the reason I needed so much strength to pull him away. It took me several days to admit it, but I was scared in that apartment. Terrified, actually.
Rushing away from the Ghoul, I made it back to campus for my Mechanics I class. The day had been going so badly that I had temporarily buried deep in my mind the fact that I was facing a midterm here. I had studied at least thirty hours for this test, and felt that I knew the material backwards and forwards, but the moment the test was placed in front of me, my mind went blank. The test questions appeared to be written in Sanskrit. Not one of them made any sense whatsoever.
When I finished the midterm, I was sure I had flunked it.