Meg rented office #10a where she worked most weekdays, her desk facing the door, the window raised behind her. No drapes. No blinds. Office #10, adjacent, had once connected to #10a through a door to Meg's right long ago painted shut. On the left stood Meg's couch, an ashtray on the floor beside it, an e-reader on the charger. Lazy afternoons, she lay there examining the water-stains on the ceiling in which she imagined faces, figures, and sometimes, mathematical equations. Meg looked up from her keyboard when the outer door opened, and a smart young woman entered. The girl smiled as she hung her hat on a coat-hook Meg had never noticed.
"He in yet?" the girl asked.
Meg returned a blank look.
The young lady giggled. "See you at lunch."
Meg glanced at the clock. 9:45am. When she turned back, the inter-office door was closing as the girl disappeared into the adjoining room. "Morning, Mr. Linney," the girl was saying. Meg heard a man's deep voice rumble in reply.
Meg went to the door and ran a finger over its surface and hinges coated in layers of thick paint, applied one over another for decades. The knob held firm. The lock stuck fast. This door hasn't opened for years. Laying her ear to the wood, she heard the clack of a typewriter.
Meg peered at the girl's hat. Soft and black. Smelling of lavender. A diesel engine roared in the alley beyond the open window. Meg closed the sash and sat at the desk. Any sounds from next door lost out to the din. She stared at her screen, typed something, deleted it. She lay on the couch. Droning sounds enveloped her, and soon she dozed.
When later she woke to deep quiet, Meg sensed that someone had just left the room, that if she'd opened her eyes a moment sooner, she'd have seen someone there. On her keyboard lay a handwritten note:
Missed you at lunch, Sleepyhead. Catch ya next time!
Meg looked at the sealed door, noticed a wisp of lavender hanging in the air. "If she is real," Meg said to herself, "She couldn't have gone through the door. If she is a ghost, she can't have left me this note." Meg put the paper in a drawer and called it a day.
"I think my office is haunted," Meg told her husband, Mark, at dinner that night.
Mark grinned. "Is the ghost going to split the rent?"
"Oh, ha-ha," said Meg, wishing she sold enough stories to keep him from making that joke.
"More wine?" the server popped in to ask.
"Not for me," said Meg.
Mark's phone rang, and a grimace crossed his face. "Sorry, Meg. This'll just take a minute."
"I'll go for a smoke."
They left the table in opposite directions, Meg heading outside, Mark to a quiet corner on the restaurant's dining terrace. Meg lit a cigarette and surveyed the cracked parking lot that stretched for acres, edged on three sides by retail. A furniture store here, a supermarket there, a space where the bookstore used to be. Meg had worked in a bookstore once. If Jean had come in, she might have asked for 'Romance.'
Meg's phone buzzed in her pocket: You coming back? She stubbed out the cigarette and returned to the table.
Meg worked at the office, though she could've stayed home if she liked. She didn't have deadlines. No editors or agents to meet. She had no reason to write except the passion for it. She sold a story now and then, by accident, it seemed. When her eyes drooped during afternoons with no air conditioner, she read books on the couch and smoked cigarettes until the ashtray was full. She napped and dreamt of knights on The Crusades or Vikings in Canada.
Jean appeared again one day as Meg tinkered with her query letter, rewriting it, guessing what an editor might want to hear from a writer who hadn't much to say. "Hello?" said Meg as the outer door opened and Jean entered, a paper cup of coffee in each hand.
Jean didn't reply. As she reached the inner door, she tapped it with the toe of her simple black shoe. "It's me, Mr. Linney," she called out.
"It doesn't open," Meg said.
The door swung inward, obscuring Meg's view. A gruff voice greeted Jean as she stepped out of sight. "Hello?" Meg said again to no one. The door closed, and Meg jumped up to examine it. In a moment, she was there, but thick paint sealed the door, as it always had. When she scanned the wall where Jean had hung her hat, a patched hole lay where the hook had been. She opened a desk drawer and found the note Jean had left. Catch ya later, she'd written.
Meg was dreaming, she realized, as she opened her eyes and sat up on the couch. She couldn't remember falling asleep, but here she was, waking, feeling disoriented, not discerning dream from reality. As she gathered her belongings to go home, Meg looked around for Jean's note but couldn't find it.
"You wouldn't believe the dream I had this afternoon," Meg said to Mark as he stood at the stove stirring sauce.
"Tough day at the office, eh?"
Meg sipped a diet soda. "You know how it goes." He knew.
"So what dreams, then?" Mark asked.
"The ghost again."
"That's the story you should write," he said, dipping a spoon in the pot for a cook's taste.
"What was she up to, anyway?"
"Just ghosting around."
Mark smiled across the kitchen, a husband who knew his wife's ways. He'd have her telling the whole story by the time he served her dessert. He threw a handful of noodles into boiling water.
By Meg Lewis,
This modest office building was once a gem tucked between a dress shop and a cheerful grocery with a lunch counter at the back. The fresh suburban main street came in with the post-war boom, the upswing transforming the valley's orange groves into just the places that downtown poets railed against, drunk and self-righteous in damp city basements and vegetarian restaurants. Now, the rent here is low, the neighborhood seedy, the building rundown. When I sell a story, I jump to take a lease; my first office. A real writer. I'm upstairs at the back.
My husband, Paul, buys me a couch to put under the window, but I move it to the side wall because I have no blinds. He offers to buy those, too, but I decline. I say, "I'll buy them myself when I sell another story." So, it may be a while before I can move the couch back.
I'm a writer. I live in my imagination. The walls are blank on purpose. The water stains on the ceiling are what I need. I don't feel guilty if I take a nap. Paul doesn't like the teenage boys congregating in the alley at dusk. I tell him, "There's nothing wrong with those boys." He tells me I see the world through rose-colored glasses.
Someone strolls in as I'm working busily, typing my first 500 words of the day. I'm startled, and I turn to the door. She's hanging her hat on a coat rack I haven't noticed. "Hello?" I say with a frown.
"Good morning," she says, carrying donuts in a bag as she crosses the room, her plain dress, timeless style, swishing around her hips. I'm bewildered. She smiles like a lifelong friend. "See you at lunch," she says and opens the door, which connects us to the neighboring office. That door is out of use. A chill passes through me.
I inspect the door. They've applied layer after layer of thick white paint from top to bottom. When I try to open it, it's stuck fast. I can hear the girl's voice in the next office. "Yes, Mr. Linney." I can't make out Linney's muffled reply. I cross the room to inspect the hat. Made of soft felt. Scented with lavender. I lie on the couch and listen to the voices in the next office, Linney's voice dictating, the girl's voice saying, "Yes, Mr. Linney." I don't realize I'm dropping to sleep. At 1:30, I come around and find a note on my keyboard. "Missed you at lunch, Sleepyhead. Getcha next time, Jean" And that's how I learn her name.
Meg held her head in her hands, rubbed her temples, and stretched. She flopped on the couch and lit a cigarette. For a few minutes, she lay with her eyes closed, unwinding. As her cigarette burned, she reached for a recent collection of prize-winning stories. My stuff is so amateur, Meg thought, but read on, hoping to absorb the genius. Next, she was rubbing her eyes with the book beside her where it had slipped as she'd dozed off, this time sleeping without dreams and waking in a semi-weightless state as if she'd been off the planet without realizing it.
Some days, Meg worked, some days not. Some days, she walked up to a nearby row of antique shops to pick through old times. She noticed a rhinestone brooch and imagined Jean wearing it. On the next shelf was a saint carved in black soapstone.
"Something catch your eye, Miss?" asked a man in flannel and denim.
Meg picked up the figure.
"Little St. Columba," said the man, "Whose prayers converted the Picts of ancient Scotland."
Meg was charmed and bought the figure.
Back at the office, Meg made tea and sat in her chair to drink it. She tapped the keyboard for an hour in a meandering way, feeling in the dark. Again and again, she considered what had happened with Jean, if it had happened. She expected to write it and make sense of it. But, instead, it felt banal and derivative.
A bang came from Linney's office. Someone cried out. A door slammed. Meg froze. Is this another dream? The sealed door opened. For a moment, she could see nothing; then, someone stepped out. A rush of air through the room blew open the outer door as Meg raised her arm to shield her eyes. When she recovered, she flew to the hall where a woman with a cleaning cart stood stricken. Clutching her apron, she crossed herself and fled. Meg ducked back inside and sank onto the couch, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. When she opened them again, several hours had passed, and the sun was sinking over the alley. Call 911 came the frantic thought.
But what, Meg asked herself, could she report to the authorities? I was working; a gun fired. This sealed door opened. Someone came through, but a wind came up from somewhere, and I couldn't see who it was. There was a woman in the hall; maybe she knows more? Meg decided a sane person could not call emergency services to say that. Another dream, that's it. But they were getting worse.
Meg took breaks from the office at the coffee shop on street level. When she'd first considered renting upstairs, the landlord had used the shop as a selling point for an otherwise tired building.
"Harry's has been here for decades," he assured her, "A neighborhood place. Great coffee; not the overpriced swill from Starbuck's."
Meg soon befriended the servers and stopped in whenever, walking past the window on her way upstairs, she noticed her favorite table was free. These past few weeks, she'd been too busy to visit much. Jean's story had unlocked something. Everywhere Meg went, she imagined Jean there looking demure, her plain skirt sophisticated and understated. She could sit at Harry's with a mug of coffee and a jelly donut. Maybe browsing dresses in the second-hand store. Or raising a polite hand to the cars waiting for her at the crosswalk. When Meg hurried upstairs to write, Jean was there to give inspiration. She came in every morning at 9:45am, often bringing something for Mr. Linney: a paper cup of coffee from Harry's, a donut in a bag.
"He in yet?"
"Never a peep until you arrive."
She giggled. "See you at lunch."
The mornings passed in a whirl. The rewrites were not a chore. A rhythm she'd lost months ago resurfaced. The pages increased. Jean's Ghost revealed a noir tragedy set in the building's glory days.
Jean and Linney, a down-on-his-luck attorney, are the ghosts of a couple who worked together in this office in the 1930s and carried on a torrid affair. Their passion ignites in the close confines of the office but is thwarted by his conventional wife and stifling middle-class life. He pulls Jean into a dark corner. She resists but is overcome. In Act Two, Linney is forced to take on a gang of disreputable clients to shore up his failing practice and divorce his wife. Jean's angst keeps her at home nights waiting for him to call while intimidating office visits from the new clients leave her shaken.
One night, Jean can't stand it any longer. She knows Linney is at the office for an after-hours meeting. She goes there intending to wait unnoticed and catch Linney after the thugs have left before he can disappear home to his wife. Listening at the inter-office door, she overhears a terrifying exchange, Linney pleading for more time, the gang leader threatening him with a gun. In a moment of fright, Jean gasps and gives herself away. They drag her into Linney's office, where she kneels before the aggressors. "We're in love," she cries, "Won't you give us a chance?"
"Love won't pay the bills, lady," says the killer.
Meg sat back. She stretched her shoulders and reached for her cigarettes. In a haze of smoke and afternoon sunlight, she reclined on the couch, studying the water-marked ceiling. She saw a killer's face with a scar and the long shadow lines cast by half-closed blinds. Her eyes drooped. A fly buzzed in the window casement.
The next moment, Meg was being shaken awake by a rough hand. "Get up, Sister," growled a harsh voice. Meg rubbed her eyes in astonishment. A man in a fedora hat and trench coat stood before her, a pistol in his hand. "I said, GET UP."
Meg rose, this dream world suddenly black and white, shadows lurking just beyond the light. She knew, this time, that it couldn't be real. "You got something of mine, don't ya?"
"Hand over what belongs to me."
"What do you mean?"
"Look, lady, you think I'm an idiot? I know what you're up to in here." He turned to Meg's desk. "Search the place, Boys," he said as the shadows in the background took on form and mass.
A henchman silhouetted in the window spoke up. "It ain't here, Boss."
The man turned hard eyes on Meg. "That so?"
"What are you looking for?" asked Meg. She marvelled at her office, now lit like a movie set, her own story unfolding around her, the dream writing the next chapter.
"I'm looking for them stories you've been writing, the ones you expect to sell to the papers."
"Don't play dumb."
Meg stood stunned. "I don't write for the paper."
The man sneered. "You think I'm going to let you take me down? You think I'm going to let you put the cops on me? I've been watching you. My guys have heard you from Linney's office, typing every morning, bragging to the waitresses downstairs how this is the story that'll get you noticed by The Times."
"I've said nothing to anyone." The man was close. Unlike her earlier dreams, this one didn't come with a rush of air and a sense of not quite seeing. Instead, it pressed in from everywhere.
Meg stood frozen as he raised his pistol.
"You've got it wrong," she said, "I swear."
He pulled back the hammer. The mechanism, as it clicked, tripped her mind into a panic.
"Please!" she cried, "I haven't written about you. I've barely published. I don't even have an agent!"
"Too bad," said the man with a sinister laugh. "I guess now you never will."
"Oh, don't," said Meg, "There's no need. I'm not a real writer. I'm not a writer!"