Ethan and Renfield Stoker-Belle have been married six months. Although the future is always uncertain, one should think that the Stoker-Belles have the ingredients necessary for an eighty-year marriage. Of course the future seems easy, Early On, when both parties are fresh and pretty and full of happy surprises; before the erosive winds of time blow in and expose the true sizes of the “little things.” So far, however, Ethan hasn’t found Renfield’s verbal catchall “Right?” anything less than charming; and Renfield has yet to detect sarcasm in Ethan’s “Aye-aye, you’re the captain” whenever she’s driving. Only 1/160th into the mortal portion of forever and ever, optimism is high with the newlyweds. So high, that they have decided to test the strength of their vows via the insane act of buying a house.
Cosmic Law requires young marrieds to get in debt as soon as possible. It’s unnatural for people to be young, healthy, happily in love, and well-to-do all at the same time; it chafes at the fabric of the universe. The two best ways to get right with the law involve making children and buying a home. Some couples do both at the same time as though there is a prize for creating marital stress in a special hurry. And then there are couples such as the Stoker-Belles, who adore other people’s children as long as they remain other people’s children, yet still have it in their heads to buy a house. Ironically, it’s the process that provokes the appearance of children that has motivated the Belles to comply with the law. A process the newlyweds call “Congenial Acts of Friendship,” or, “CAF”:
“Did you hear that, sweetheart?” Renfield asked Ethan one morning in the hall of their apartment building as they were leaving for work. She was carrying a paper bag that contained their recycling: one wine bottle and six spent aerosol cans of a popular dessert topping.
“Hear what, honey?” Ethan said as he turned the key.
“3-B flushed the toilet.”
“Oh, that,” he said. “You’d think for a grand a month, we’d get thicker walls. I sometimes hear three TVs going when I check the mail.”
“Good thing our walls are thicker than the others,” Renfield said. She then shook the recycling playfully, yet meaningfully, below his face.
Fortunately this late-coming revelation has done nothing to dampen the Stoker-Belle’s enthusiasm for CAF. The practice remains as vigorous, as seemingly continuous, and as boisterously loud as ever. Yet within the cool aftermath the notion of performing for an audience has become increasingly difficult to overlook. Enter the perils of house hunting; enter the search for the Wow Signal Emoji.
The newlyweds were born in the 1990s; they grew up in the Age of the Public Diary. Nearly every action they take (save for CAF) goes on social media. There’s nothing particularly vain or self-involved going on here—the truth be told, the Stoker-Belles often consider this a necessary chore; it would be ill-mannered not to post an update here and there, and if a pic of a small mammal doing something adorable gets in along the way, so be it.
At work, Renfield whipped up a house-hunting blog based on the emoji. It’s a simple thing that shows a pic of an investigated property with an emoji explaining why the property is rejected. She’s titled it “Seekers of the Wow Signal Emoji”—whose title character will appear only at the successful end of the quest. Renfield is notoriously gusty when it comes to writing (she has yet to devise a sense-making tweet within the character limit), but she has a knack for computer animation.
“I love it,” Ethan said when he first got a load of the star-struck, Wow Signal Emoji. “It looks rapturous.”
Even though the title icon is a shameless reworking of a “Holy Emoji,” the expression on its face is, well, orgasmic. Since it is designed to be used just once, a stable of lesser emoji are applied to properties that aren’t Wow Signal Emoji timber. The workhorse is a hobo-like emoji who shows empty pockets—meet the 3HYMoji (Three-hundred-year Mortgage-Emoji). There are plenty of reasons for that emoji to get around; even in the Stoker-Belle’s humble hometown of Charleston, Washington, Pacific Northwest property values are ridiculously high. Others include the bored Snoozer-emoji, the derelict ShoesOverTheLines-emoji, and the scowling NFW-emoji. The last has been attached to the image of a prospect home just once. Here’s why:
“Oh, let’s stop and get a flyer,” Renfield said. They had just tagged the 3HYMoji on a nearby house, before discovering another property that hadn’t been on their list. They were in the car that handy Renfield has been restoring since high school. It’s a heavily muscled, metallic blue 1967 Dodge Charger convertible with “three-on-the-tree.” Even though Ethan is an engineer, he will never get the knack of the three-speed manual column-transmission. This means Renfield does the driving and hears plenty of the following:
“Aye, aye, you’re the captain.”
In two, maybe three years, those erosive winds of time may expose something facetious lying below this oft-repeated comment. But in the kindly Early On, Renfield invariably reacts to it with a flirty salute.
They entered the house’s small front yard and began ticking off the structure’s lows and highs in pop-culture-speak.
“The garage has a bad case of the Eeyore droops,” Renfield said.
“Thank you for noticing,” Ethan said. “I like the To Kill a Mockingbird porch,” he said. “It smells like lemonade.”
“Right?” Renfield said for perhaps the eighth time since breakfast.
The house went to hell the moment the couple took the top porch step to fetch a flyer. A plump gray rat appeared at the head of the stairs as though it had been expecting company.
The shocked Stoker-Belles clasped hands and slowly stepped backwards half way down the path; then they turned and made a mad dash for the car. “Hurry! I think it’s gonna charge us!” Ethan yelled. Fifteen years down the line, this might be the atypical every Stoker-Belle for him- or herself situation, but as it goes in the Early On, both Ethan and Renfield had fussed over the other’s safety so long at the car that if the rat had had charging in mind, it could have easily done so. When the Charger finally made a rooster-tail composed dirt and gravel, the rat sat down on the top step and watched the Stoker-Belles flee into the distance with an amused expression on its pinched-face.
“How ‘bout haunted?” Ethan asked one cheerful September Saturday morning. As always, the Stoker-Belles had kicked off their weekend house hunt at ATHYRIO (And The Horse You Rode In On) Espresso—a retro-kitschy kind of joint where the baristas deliberately (yet cleanly and reasonably PC) insult the patrons and give large discounts to customers who beat them in a put down smack-down. Renfield had won 40% off for “Love your hair—I didn’t know Pet Smart was for people, too.”
“At work, I read an online rumor that says the realtor at the Temple sometimes specializes in haunted.”
“And I’m just hearing this now? “
“I’m sorry, Captain,” he said, “I had forgotten that it’s un-American to dismiss online rumors.”
The Temple of the Dow Lady has been the local institution of the absurd since the 1930s. Located near Philo Bay in Charleston’s dubious Corson Street district, it’s a three-story, barnlike structure whose come-and-go tenants usually feature tattoo parlors, head shops, franchise DUI attorneys.
A self-described “mysterian” named Madame Zarp had founded the Temple, which she’d envisioned as a “college of the occult,” but it wound up as an early take on the strip mall, which it has remained as to this day. Few living persons remember the “Dow Lady” for whom the Temple is said to honor (she had been a graveyard ghost whose legend had petered out during World War II), but nearly everybody knows of Madame Zarp. Even though the original mysterian entered the astral plane years ago, there continues to be a “Madame Zarp” on duty at the fortune teller/novelty shop/curiosity museum that the Great Lady had opened in the Temple’s ground floor over eighty years ago. Zarps come and go like popes.
L &P Realty rents space on the top floor. It’s an anonymous grandfather-granddaughter enterprise that has been at the Temple for untold ages. The senior half of the establishment was in when the Stoker-Belles paid a call—roughly ten minutes after Ethan had said “How ‘bout haunted?”
The fellow behind the desk looked as though he could stand a good dusting. And Renfield experienced the briefest touch of de ja’ vu upon looking at him, but she didn’t have time to follow that line of thinking because the gentleman nodded at two chairs in front of the desk and said, “Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Stoker-Belle. Please call me Lennie. I’ve been expecting you.”
Bemused, the Belles (who hadn’t called ahead) sat down in the chairs. “Do I know you, sir?” Renfield asked sweetly. “You look familiar.”
“Not that I recall,” Lennie said.
“But you know our names,” Ethan said.
“And I don’t see a crystal ball,” Renfield added.
Something related to a smile formed in Lennie’s deeply cragged face. “Zarp the 9th has the ball downstairs for repairs—it won’t pick up HBO,” he said. Then he leaned forward, the Stoker-Belles couldn’t help but do the same. “My granddaughter, Penny, was—probably still is—at the next table in the coffee shop. She overheard your conversation in regards to our special client. Since you left there for here like a shot, she had to get your names from the barmaid with the hair, and then called me directly.
“’Special client’?” Renfield and Ethan said together.
Lennie doesn’t do much work “afield” nowadays. Too many stairs. He leaves that to his granddaughter, Penny, whom the Belles met up with at an oddly self-assured house that’s about five miles north of Charleston, in what passes for the countryside in Torqwamni County.
The newlyweds got out of the Charger and gazed at the trees all around them. They’re apartment dwellers who work in nearby Seattle; they seldom see trees that aren’t in captivity.
“Geez,” Ethan said with an awed whisper, “there’s nothing like being young at a haunted house located where the roads are bad, the hills have eyes, and the cell service is intermittent.”
“Right?” Renfield said. “This sort of thing always works out so well in the movies.”
The house is a cheerful little thing, hardly what one would expect from a haunted house. Not much more than a two-story cottage, it’s white with green trim, and its sturdy garage has nothing in common with Eeyore. An out of control rhododendron and a pair of feral rose bushes grow profusely in the front yard, and the scent of grapes ripe for the picking emanate from the back.
“I remember you,” Renfield said when Penny came out on the porch to greet them. “You got a free drink for ‘Your Mama’s cooking smells like barbecued diarrhea.’”
Maybe thirty-five, Penny was attractive and professional, and had long shots of silver interspersed throughout her dark hair. Gregarious and full of enthusiasm, Penny laughed, and without stopping to introduce herself, quickly ushered the newlyweds through the house and into the kitchen where a table and three chairs were waiting. All the way there, she spoke of the resident ghost as though the existence of such was an accepted fact.
“I hope you’re the right people for the wall-glimmer,” Penny said, as she politely nodded at the chairs—a motion which reminded Renfield of the lady’s grandfather back at the Temple. “And vice-versa,” Penny continued, “so many people are unaware of the benefits that having a healthy Spirit around provide.”
The Stoker-Belles are still close enough to their trusting childhoods to hear a person out before they decide the person is crazy. Wide-eyed and fully hooked, they were the perfect audience.
Penny paused and cocked her head and regarded the Stoker-Belles with a crooked smile. “Right about now, most people would say ‘Wall-glimmer?’ I think the old boy may have got it right this time. He’s getting on, but he’s still got a keen eye for possibilities.”
Renfield couldn’t help but jump the line, just a little. “What’s the backstory?” she asked. “Is there murder and scandal?”
“Oh, no,” Penny said. “Still, to be honest, almost nothing is known about the wall-glimmer. This house went up in 1986 and has had three owners, and each owner was a young couple who used it as a starter home to build credit and work their way up into a larger home. As you certainly have noticed, this wonderful little house is scarcely more than a cottage. Not a soul has crossed-over here; nor had any owner noticed paranormal activity while they lived here—although that isn’t necessarily an item that sellers are truthful about.”
“I don’t get it,” Ethan said. “We researched your company on the way over and discovered that your grandfather has been moving real estate in this area for almost forty years, and that you joined the firm in ‘06. Yet only recently has a rumor come up that links you to the paranormal—which, you don’t seem too shy to discuss.”
“My compliments,” Penny said. “But I would have been disappointed if you hadn’t dug in. This property aside, our trade is as normal as it gets. In fact you could say that we mostly sell homes that you’d tag with the three-hundred-year-mortgage emoji.”
Both Renfield and Ethan laughed. “I guess we aren’t the only ones who have dug in,” Renfield said.
“I am a student of the occult as well as a real estate agent,” Penny said. “I actually knew the original Madame Zarp when I was a little girl, and she instilled the love for the other side in me. She had made a lifetime study of spirit classes—shadow ghosts, orbs, disembodied voices, and such. And she had decided that every spirit that chooses to communicate with the mortal realm comes and goes through a spirit-specific egress that only he or she may pass through. Madame Zarp had also believed that these egresses aren’t necessarily fixed points—natural disturbances in the earth’s magnetic fields, or those caused by coronal activity can move an egress.” Penny paused seemingly in an effort to gather her thoughts. “This is merely a theory, mind you. But I think that the house simply shifted into the path of the wall-glimmer’s egress; I doubt there is much else to it.”
“How did you find out about this Spirit? And why a ‘wall-glimmer’?” Renfield asked. She didn’t know about Ethan, but even though Penny didn’t seem like a loon, it seemed like the time for her to produce the ghost, or at least a few answers.
“I saw her first,” Penny said, almost forcefully, like a child laying claim. Then her eyes inferred it as a joke, yet did so a bit late. “The house hit the market last year and the owner wanted to make an obscene profit off it, which the old boy talked him down from to something more reasonable. I came by to have a look and got the sense that I was, well, in good company. Then I saw her—and even though I can’t prove it, I’m certain what Zarp would have called a wall-glimmer is female. She didn’t speak to me directly, but ever since I’ve felt great joy, within and without this little house, whenever I come to it.”
Renfield had to agree. Since their arrival, she could feel a gentle euphoria all around her. A deep look into Ethan’s eyes informed her that she wasn’t alone in this assessment.
Renfield’s phone chirruped, but the call had been dropped before she could take it.
Penny nodded her head knowingly. “When spirits are nearby they sometimes beep electronics, yet never to the degree of disruption. Would you like to meet her?”
“Right?” Ethan said.
With the skill of a person long-versed in customer service, Penny led the Stoker-Belles to what was probably the laundry room by actually following them. Ahead, a tiny, circular radiance, roughly the size of a fifty-cent piece was of, not in or on, the pastel wall. Even though the orb was still, it gave the same impression of life that distinguishes the dead from the sleeping.
Renfield’s phone chirruped again, and kept at it, but the Stoker-Belles ignored it. The radiance expanded within the wall and took a shape that had been designed to be posted only once.
“Holy smokes, Captain,” Ethan said. “It’s the—“
“Wow Signal Emoji,” Renfield finished.
“This is so cool,” Ethan said. Then he turned to Penny to ask her a billion or so questions, but she was nowhere in sight. Suddenly from the depths of his mind a thought formed: The agent didn’t have a car.
All the while, Renfield’s phone recorded this message: “Hi, this is Penny from L&P. I’m running a little late—I hope to arrive in five minutes or so.”
Banner Image:-Terry Robinson [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons