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The Presence

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From: Beth Fremont
To: Jennifer Scribner-Snyder
Sent: Thurs, 12/6/2001 10:32 AM
Subject: emergency

There’s something in the walls at Lincoln’s place. Or the pipes, I don’t know. But something.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> In the walls? Like termites?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Not termites. I would know if it were termites. You know how I would know? Because Chris had termites in that basement the guys used to rent in his senior year, and he did nothing about them for that entire year, until all the paneling had rotted through. So, I am au fait with termites.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Okay. Not termites. So what is it? Mice? Or like, someone living in the crawlspace?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Someone living in the crawlspace? Has that ever happened?

<<Jennifer to Beth>> I heard about it happening in Japan once.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Everything terrifying is attributed to Japan. It’s like Tokyo is built on a hellmouth.
       But no, not mice, or a person. More like — a Presence.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> That’s a very Dickinsonian em-dash. I’m proud of you.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Thank you. I felt the situation warranted it.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> But how do you know there’s a Presence? For that matter, how do you know it’s in the walls? Maybe you’re pregnant. Maybe the Presence is coming from inside your body.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> I’m not pregnant. I guarantee it.
       It was late last night, maybe close to midnight? And I was alone at Lincoln’s place because he was at his D&D game. And I felt some kind of spectral being. Not in the room with me, exactly, but in the apartment itself, in the walls. I felt the building get cold and very quiet around me, even though I could still hear the people in the other apartments - but everything was muffled. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the book I was reading fall off the bedside table, even though I’m sure it was nowhere near the edge. And I sat very still for five minutes, and then I didn’t feel it anymore.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Sometimes these old buildings can just be kind of creepy, though. (Also, you realize that it’s no longer “Lincoln’s place”? You moved in two months ago. You had a party. I was there.)

<<Beth to Jennifer>> I think it should be a truth universally acknowledged that when one member of a couple moves in with the other, it doesn’t become “theirs” for a year, at minimum. Because yes, we are technically, officially cohabiting. Yes, I have my own chest of drawers and I covered half his living room with retro-kitsch movie posters. But the soul of the place takes time to transition to joint ownership.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Maybe the soul of the place is what’s inhabiting your walls.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Lincoln’s walls. Maybe.

 

From: Jennifer Scribner-Snyder
To: Beth Fremont
Sent: Mon, 12/10/2001 11:19 AM
Subject: Can a thirteen-month-old baby be too fat?

Because my mother certainly seems to think so. She came over yesterday and kept bringing up how “healthy” Eleanor is. Which, if you know her like I do, you will know is code for “my granddaughter is Chubby McChubberson and it is entirely Jennifer's fault for overfeeding her”.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> That’s horrible. Eleanor is the perfect baby and the perfect size.
       And anyway, I don’t think you can overfeed a breastfed baby. That’s science, I’m pretty sure.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> I know. Mitch said the same. To my mother’s face, even. But I’m pretty sure she is going to show up next week with a bag full of celery sticks and iceberg lettuce.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> I hate celery. It is the worst of all possible vegetables. Giving celery to a child is tantamount to abuse.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> As someone who had to eat a lot of celery as a child, I agree. Vehemently. And I hope your weekend was better than mine.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Saturday was pretty good. We went to see the Harry Potter film again, which was a much more enjoyable experience without the huge opening night crowds, and afterwards we ate at that Japanese place downtown. But then yesterday evening, when we were winding down, the Presence returned.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> It’s back? How do you know? Maybe the Harry Potter ghosts have just primed your mind to make you think supernatural things are happening.
       (At least I think there are ghosts. I haven’t seen the film.)

<<Beth to Jennifer>> There are ghosts. But this is real, not a movie. I haven’t lost my grip on reality just yet. And Lincoln was with me this time.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> So how do you know the Presence has returned?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Okay. Three things. One: the room got a whole lot colder all of a sudden. Like, probably seven or eight degrees, even though the heating was still running. Two, even though Lincoln was sitting right next to me on the couch, and his arm was around me, I felt a deep and irrevocable surge of loneliness. Like everyone I knew was gone and would never return. And three, the neighbor’s cat started yowling like a banshee.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Why is that a sign? The cat thing, I mean.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Cats don’t like ghosts. Everybody knows that. They can sense their presence.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Did Lincoln feel it too?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> He felt it get cold. But he’s not convinced by the Presence. He says these old buildings can get drafty, especially in winter. But I’ve never heard that cat yowl like that before.

 

From: Beth Fremont
To: Jennifer Scribner-Snyder
Sent: Thurs, 12/13/2001  3:42 PM
Subject: What would you buy for an exorcism?

Hypothetically, I mean.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> You’re performing an exorcism? Do you have a priest?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Do they have priests at Safeway? Because I’m only making one stop, and I already want some of those frozen yeast rolls.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Are garlic and holy water only a vampire thing? I feel like crosses are useful in general, for exorcism-type activities. And do you have a Bible?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Do I have a Bible? Me, the well-behaved girl from the churchgoing family? Me, the girl who never dared to hem her skirts above the knees until she was seventeen, and who never touched a drop of alcohol until it was fully legal and therefore boring?
       Of course not. I’m making Lincoln borrow one from Eve. Apparently she got supremely excited when he asked her, and invited us to join them at church with the boys on Sunday. He thinks he crushed her holy spirit by telling her about the Presence.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> I thought he didn’t believe in the Presence.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> He doesn’t. He keeps pointing out (unfairly I think) that it’s only a couple of months since I dragged him to see The Others three times in theaters, and maybe I’m blurring the line between reality and Nicole Kidman. To which I pointed out that in that case, we would be the ghosts, disrupting the Presence’s pleasant evening in with a snifter of brandy and a dusty edition of Thomas Hardy.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> You think the Presence would be the type of person to enjoy Tess of the d'Urbervilles? That sounds almost too prosaic.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> I’m envisioning an elderly gentleman who wears house slippers every evening, the same pair for twenty years.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> I think you need to name him. Ghosts are easier to banish when they have names.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> I haven’t thought about names. That feels like a momentous decision. Almost like naming a child.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Maybe you should take a leaf out of Mitch’s book and name him Cody.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> It works for everything!
       Cody-the-ghost. I kind of like it.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Cody it is. So what else are you getting for the exorcism?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> I’ve heard salt is useful against ghosts. If you put down a circle of salt, they can’t pass over it. And we already have salt, so it’s convenient.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Poor Cody. He doesn’t even get salt bought especially for his own exorcism.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Cody doesn’t deserve his own salt. I forgot to mention why we’re performing an exorcism. When I came home yesterday, my chest of drawers was lying flat on its front, with all of my clothes spilling out of it.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Maybe it was an earthquake. Or a freak localized tornado.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> How is that any more believable than a ghost?
       What bugs me is that Cody almost seems to be targeting me, specifically, instead of Lincoln. I’m the only one who’s really felt him, and now he chooses my clothes to scatter all over the bedroom? Lincoln is humoring me, but in the same way you humor a child who thinks there’s a monster in the closet.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Maybe Lincoln is behind it all. Like a badly thought-out prank.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Or like that old movie, where the husband turns the gaslights on and off to drive his wife crazy. But I know he wouldn’t do that. You know he wouldn’t do that.

 

From: Jennifer Scribner-Snyder
To: Beth Fremont
Sent: Fri, 12/14/2001 9:03 AM
Subject: So, how did it go?

Did you return Cody to the dread land from whence he came?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Hold on, I haven’t even had breakfast yet. Let me compose my thoughts.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Breakfast can wait. I read somewhere that it’s not even an essential part of our diet. It was in Women’s Health, I think, in the dentist’s waiting room. A lot of nutritionists say we can get by just fine eating once a day.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Breakfast is an essential part of my diet. But okay. I have my oatmeal. I’ll eat while typing and get it all over the keyboard, and then the IT guy will lecture me again about how mishandling company equipment is essentially stealing from the Courier.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Just blame the night shift. Blaming them for messes is one of the great perks of having a night shift.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> They know it’s me. I’m the only one who eats oatmeal at this desk. It’s like a morning ritual.
       Speaking of rituals…

<<Jennifer to Beth>> What happened??? I know something did, or you wouldn’t be so coy about it.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Okay, so. Last night. We got home at around seven or so, and we prepared everything for the exorcism. Which mostly consisted of lighting a few candles on the grounds that they were “spooky”, even though the only ones I could find were the lemon-scented ones that my mother gave us for the housewarming.
       Lincoln persuaded me not to sprinkle salt everywhere because he is the one who does the vacuuming, and I gave in because I don’t want to do the vacuuming. And I practiced silently intoning some Bible verses that the Internet said might be helpful for expelling vengeful spirits.
       (Though I don’t know what Cody would be vengeful for. It’s fair for him to be annoyed at Lincoln, who has after all been there longer and who had a six-hour gaming session with his D&D friends last week. But I feel like if Cody was annoyed by that, he should be more discerning in how he expresses his irritation.)

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Maybe he’s used to Lincoln. He’s been there for years. You’ve been there for six minutes and you’re already hanging up terrible movie posters.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Those posters are high art. Anyway. We finished preparing, and then Lincoln began getting antsy about the prospect of performing an "unauthorized exorcism". That is a direct quote, like it should have been sanctioned by a priest or something. I don’t know if it was some deep-seated Christian urge to avoid communing with demons, or if he felt like something was wrong, or.
       But he agreed to go ahead. And I began reciting the Bible verses. And then I spoke to Cody, asking him to leave the apartment, or at least be less vitriolic about our presence there. Because I guess a lot of ghosts can’t just leave the place they’re connected to? And when I stopped, everything was quiet for a moment.
       AND THEN.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> AND THEN? What happened next???
       WELL?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Sorry. One of the guys from advertising wanted to borrow a ruler.
       And then the lights went out. And then cold air rustled through the room, and the candles flickered and went out. And Lincoln and I were holding onto each other at that point, because it didn’t feel like a fun game anymore. And then a flash of light illuminated the room, just for a second, and we saw him.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Hold up. You SAW him? Why didn’t you lead with that?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Because that would be like a trailer giving away the twist five seconds in. I’m trying to craft a narrative here.
       But yes, we saw him - or I guess it was him. He was an old-ish man, maybe fifty-five, sitting at the kitchen table. And he looked tired. Not threatening at all, not angry. We only saw him for a moment, and then the lights flickered back on and he vanished. And Lincoln and I looked at each other, like - did that just happen? And holy crapola, we have a ghost.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> So he believes you now? Heck, I believe you now, and I haven’t believed in anything supernatural since my high school vampire phase. This is Weird with a capital W.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> You had a high school vampire phase? Like you dressed up as Dracula, or you wanted to date him?

<<Jennifer to Beth>> More like I wanted to date the vampire Lestat. I had a sensitive soul in those days. Marriage and motherhood have stripped it from me.

 

From: Beth Fremont
To: Jennifer Scribner-Snyder
Sent: Wed, 12/19/2001  2:10 PM
Subject: I talked to Doris

At lunch, just now.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> You talked to Doris? About what, life advice? Pinochle tips?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> No, about the ghost. You remember she used to live in that apartment? Apparently she lived there for decades, ever since she got married. So I figured she might have seen the ghost at some point, maybe even interacted with him. Maybe she knew how to deal with having a haunted apartment.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Makes sense. I can see her as a Ghostbuster, actually. She has the temperament for it. She could take down a ghost battalion.
       So what did she say?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Well, I sat her down at the break room table and I started out with innocuous conversation - you know, how is the retirement tower, how’s the dating scene, are you still seeing that guy Raj? And apparently things are going very well with Raj, in case you were curious.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Good for Doris. I can’t wait till I’m her age and nobody can judge me for dating five different guys at once. (Though I guess that would mean Mitch was either dead or also dating five different people at once, and I’m not sure which would suck more.)

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Or you could be senior swingers. Apparently there’s a big community for that kind of thing.
       Anyway, so then I brought the conversation around to the apartment, and I asked her if she’d ever experienced anything strange there, because we’d been noticing some weird things. And she asked what kind of things, so I told her about the things falling over and the sudden temperature changes, and she said, “Yeah, that place has always been drafty”, but I could tell she wasn’t taking me seriously, you know?
       And then I told her about seeing Cody. And she asked what he looked like, and I told her as best I could remember - the greying hair, the work boots he was wearing, the way he was sitting at our kitchen table like he’d been a fixture there for decades. And Doris just looked at me, and I thought for a second she was going to ask if I was on drugs. But instead she just said, “Oh honey, that’s my Paul.”

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Her husband?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Yup. He died fifteen years ago. Not in the apartment, but I guess that’s where his soul got stuck.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> That’s kind of sad. Like he was watching over her all those years, keeping her safe, and then she moved on to her next apartment but he can’t move on, ever.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Yeah. My theory is that he’s been quiet up until recently because Lincoln was living there as a single guy, and maybe he sort of reminded Paul of himself - or maybe Paul thought of him as a roommate.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> But then you moved in, and he had to watch you and Lincoln being painfully cute together. (Which you are, by the way. It’s hard to look at sometimes. Mitch and I have never been that cute together.)

<<Beth to Jennifer>> That is a bare-faced lie. (Can lies be bare-faced when they’re typed?) You and Mitch are horrifically cute, especially now you have Eleanor. You are a greeting-card family. Remember when he made that scavenger hunt for your birthday?

<<Jennifer to Beth>> That was cute, but also I will never be able to top it or even come close, which makes me irrationally mad at him for doing it. I need him to give me a vacuum cleaner for Christmas so I can finally outdo him on gifts.
       So now you know that Cody is really Paul, what are you going to do?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Doris is going to come over this weekend to try talking to him.
       She was awkwardly apologetic about the whole thing, as if it’s her fault that Paul is haunting us. She said he always got emotional at this time of year, too. I guess she used to set a place for him at Christmas every year after he was gone, and now he doesn’t even have that.

 

From: Jennifer Scribner-Snyder
To: Beth Fremont
Sent: Mon, 12/24/2001  9:04 PM
Subject: Merry almost-Christmas!

Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, what happened with Doris and Paul? Was it a Hallmark moment? Did he materialize one last time to express his heartfelt love and devotion to her? Did they kiss under the mistletoe as he faded out of existence for good?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> We don't have mistletoe. Who has mistletoe in real life? I thought that was just a cheesy plot device.
       But Doris did come over on Saturday night. She brought Raj, which was kind of unexpected. I mean, even though Paul is dead, there's something odd about bringing your new man to an intervention with your ex, right? But then I thought, well, Paul watched her date these guys for fifteen years without a peep, so I guess it didn't bother him all that much.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> Good for him. He's clearly very secure in himself, as ghosts go.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Exactly. And Doris said that she and Raj had already had plans to meet up, and he jumped at the chance to attend a real-life ghostbusting. Which I think is a great quality to find in a man.
       Anyway, Paul had been kind of acting up all day, like he knew we were planning something. At least I think it was him. The TV kept turning itself off for no apparent reason, and one of the books I was planning to read over the holidays flew right off the kitchen table and into the sink when I was doing the dishes. So thanks, Paul, I guess now I'll have to settle for rereading some Agatha Christie. (Though I've been wanting to reread Death on the Nile, so that's not a horrible loss.) And the neighbor's cat was going crazy the whole time.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> So what did Doris do? Did she give Paul a talking-to about his behavior?

<<Beth to Jennifer>> Well, we called her in advance to tell her what was going on - to warn her, I mean. I wasn't sure if she should come over after all, if it would just rile him up more. But she laughed and said that if she could handle him fine when he was a foot taller than her, she can darn well take care of herself when he doesn't even have a body. And that Paul should know by now not to antagonize her.
       And the thing is, when she walked through the door, it was like all the tension in the place just evaporated. All the balled-up anger and frustration that Paul had been feeling. I guess we'd been feeling it too, but we'd just accepted it, like background noise you tune out after a while. But it just felt like the apartment was finally exhaling.
       And Doris sat down at the kitchen table, without saying anything, and she just - stayed sitting there, for hours. And Lincoln and Raj and I hung around awkwardly for a few minutes, until she told us to leave her to it, so we went and watched a movie in the living room. (Sleepy Hollow, if you were wondering, which is just as good at Christmastime as it is at Halloween.) And finally she stood up and dusted herself off, and said, "Well, I don't think you'll be having any more trouble, but we'll be coming to Christmas dinner if that's not a problem." Which of course is fine with us, because Lincoln's mom has threatened to bring enough food for a week and we do not have the storage space for that.
       And I think it worked. The talking-to, or not-talking-to, I mean. It feels like a calmness has settled over the apartment. I don't think Paul is gone, just that he understands, maybe.

<<Jennifer to Beth>> I guess you'll have to set a place for him at Christmas dinner, like Doris used to.

<<Beth to Jennifer>> We will. I'm kind of excited about dining with a ghost. Are you and Mitch still planning to come over after the annual Tour of the Grandparents?

<<Jennifer to Beth>> You kidding? I wouldn't miss it for the world. I just hope your wine cellar is large enough for me to drown my annoyance at my mother. Christmas is her favorite holiday for a reason, and the reason is that it gives her so many fat-shaming opportunities.

 

It had been a weird year and a weirder December. Lincoln was still unused to the prospect of a permanent visitor in the apartment he'd been occupying for two years, and to the unexplained mechanics of it all - could Paul see him? Like, in the shower? Was this just what life would be from now on, stepping around the fact that they weren't the only ones here? Then again, it seemed like Paul had begrudgingly accepted the fact of Lincoln and Beth living there, and when you thought about it, they were intruding on his territory, not the other way round. And maybe having a resident Presence would come in useful at times, or at least interesting. Lincoln could live with interesting.

But all that was for Future Lincoln to worry about. For now, he was surrounded by the glow of the holidays and by his odd, found family. His mother, who had brought an entire carful of incredible dishes despite Lincoln’s protestations that they would cook, really, they knew how to cook, didn’t she remember that delicious risotto Beth had made. Jennifer and Mitch and Eleanor, all bedecked in party hats and looking relieved to have escaped Jennifer's mother with their sanity intact. Doris, polishing off an extra-large slice of his mother's Christmas pudding, with Raj on one side and a carefully laid out space for Paul on the other. And Beth, sitting as close to him as she possibly could and turning, laughing, to kiss him briefly over her shoulder.

Home, that was what this felt like. He had spent so long looking for it, had barely believed it could be real for someone like him until Beth sat down next to him in that movie theater. For Paul, too, this had been home: seemingly endless years and Christmases with Doris and their basset hounds, even after death, until the apartment had shifted around him, coalescing into an image of happy warmth with no place for a half-forgotten ghost. Maybe that was why Lincoln felt a strange sort of kinship with him.

He raised his glass, and the room fell silent aside from the sound of Eleanor's hiccups. "I just wanted to say," he began, relieved that his voice wasn't cracking. "To homecomings, and bright moments in dark seasons, and the family we build for ourselves." Glasses clinked around the table in a murmur of assent, and for a half-second he thought he saw Paul out of the corner of his eye, raising a translucent, ghostly glass in silent agreement. Then he blinked, and the world went back to normal, and Beth was leaning over to kiss him again.