The Ghost of the Spire
“Let me get this straight.” He coughed, a bit theatrically, hand cupped at his mouth. Gathering himself. Trying not to offend me, though everything in his demeanor was patronizing.
It wasn’t just the incredulity, but the concern in his features. Like I needed help, but not the kind I was asking him for.
“You don’t believe in ghosts, but you think a ghost killed her.” He stroked his moustache, probing me with his faux detective gaze. “I need you on the record if I’m going to reopen this investigation. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. I realize you’re dealing with a lot of grief, but you have to meet me half way.”
I met his gaze, unwavering. “I believe there was foul play of a kind I can’t explain. That’s how I would word it. I don’t need another investigation, I just want permission to view the tape.” At this point I looked down. “For myself.”
The security guard scribbled something on his legal pad. “Have you considered that you might regret this?” His chubby face brightened to a red, painful-looking hue. He reached out a meaty hand, impromptu, and clasped it on my shoulder from across the table. “Some things can’t be unseen, son.”
Not only did he think he was an FBI agent, but my father as well, apparently. I gave him what I thought was an appreciative smile, and felt relieved as the weight of his hand fell away.
“That’s what they’re saying, I just want you to know.” He oozed certainty, this consummate chief of mall intelligence. “The kids. Younger than you, I mean. The kind that more or less live here, you know the kind.”
I did know the kind. Knew them well at this point. They were punks.
“I know they’re just punks, but the story is that the ghost of the Spire murdered your girlfriend.” He sputtered. “Sorry, your ex-girlfriend. And now I’m thinking it’s you who’s gotten this started. These tales. You need to think about her family, son.”
I wasn’t going to belabor the nuances of love with a mall cop who couldn’t remember my name ten minutes into a conversation about my dead girlfriend. Excuse me, ex-girlfriend. But the ex, mind you. The one against whom all others will be measured. You cannot inventory the contents of the heart with Facebook statuses, no matter what the mall urchins whisper behind my back.
“I think about her family all the time,” I said. “One more reason why I’m here. I know she didn’t kill herself. And no one else was around, apparently. So she either fell, or…”
His face inflated even more, like a puffer fish. Expectant.
“I don’t think the ghost of the Spire murdered my ex.”
The truth is, I did. Because when every other possibility falls away, at least all the emotionally accessible ones, you go ghost hunting.
I needed my Exhibit A. “Please let me see the tape.”
He unfolded his arms. “The tape was the property of the state. Now that it’s been determined a suicide, it’s settled, as much as that might hurt.”
He rose from the table, twisting his mouth in a constrained way. Like an awkward uncle. “You couldn’t see it then. You’re not a relative or a spouse. Now it’s property of Spire Inc., which probably means the same thing.”
I rose too. We were done here, it seemed. He ushered me out of the room with a paternal paw on the small of my back.
I looked behind me for just a moment, at the screens. They lined the entirety of an enormous wall, every one displaying a crisp, black-and-white scene of tranquility. The commercial status quo buzzing along.
Except for the one, an anomaly flickering among the others. Its image was the balcony, cordoned off. The iron railing looked treacherous to me now. I had leaned on it with her maybe a hundred times.
“I’ll let you know first thing Monday morning,” he said, closing the door and breaking my trance. “But I wouldn’t get my hopes up. There’s no valid reason to allow it. Ghosts, or whatever unexplained phenomena, don’t count.”
Dejected, I trudged through the Spire, always odd at closing time. The bustle dying by degrees. The footfalls of customers, assimilated into the collective noise by day, took on a singular quality now. They echoed off the walls, themselves distorted in a fluorescent light that now seemed gratuitous. This place did not sleep. Not truly.
When you left the Spire, you left civilization, for it was the alpha and omega of this ghost town. Its existence was a contradiction, this sleek, massive shopping mall in the heart of nowhere. And yet flock to it the residents did, with money summoned out of shadow.
To exit the Spire at this time of night, you had to leave through its crown jewel, the Quickness discount department store. Its sales were to die for. That was one of a growing number of its tag lines. Its profits accounted for more than 80% of the mall’s revenue. It was so successful that it spawned a chain of such stores in malls the world over. Even more than the Spire itself, Quickness is the greatest success story this town has ever known. The only success story.
So when Emily told me that she was going to take a break after high school to work as a cashier at Quickness, to save up money for college, it seemed a respectable decision. When one year became two, well, there was a recession going on. But when two bled into three and I watched her solidify into a fixture under those fluorescent lights, I became restless.
I mean, you can’t put off life forever. And I found myself doing that. For her. Staying in a dying town I had vowed to leave as soon as I was old enough to conceive of the notion. I worked in a factory for three years, and I despised it. I left work every night with bile rising in my throat. Then I would go to the Spire, and up the escalators past intricate maps and garish sale signs and zombie greeters, to the Quickness.
There I would find Emily laughing with some mouth-breathing customer, good-natured after eight hours of drudgery that should have been driving her mad. Eventually I snapped. For the both of us.
The night I drew my line in the sand, the night I put a deadline on our arrested development, was typical enough at first. The custom was to party in the employee break room after closing. This was against policy, something to which our dutiful security agent must have turned a blind eye. I am convinced there are cameras even in there. The Spire is nothing if not adequately surveilled.
We sang karaoke, one among a rotating set of mundane pastimes. Anything to drown out the sadness. If anyone were actually quiet, especially in the preternatural calm of the Spire afterhours, they would have to confront their own broken dreams. No one’s going to do that, so we mimed played-out songs on a karaoke machine “requisitioned” from the Quickness audio department.
The one thing that made it worth it was her. That night she sang “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She hit every note with effortless precision, swaying, drunk yet graceful. She was so happy, and so beautiful. But too content. Watching her there, shining amid such ruin, I wanted to weep at the tragedy of it.
She belonged on a stage in Manhattan or Los Angeles, playing to sold-out crowds. She deserved the universe, and she was settling into a comfort zone-sized coffin. Her empty friends enabled her steady decay. It made their own rot seem permissible. I drank far too much and told her all of this, in those words.
We stood alone, my hands clammy against the cold of the iron railing. The endless empty storefronts of the Spire fell away beneath us, floor after floor after floor.
She made some excuses, things I had heard before. Things I had even begun to tell myself in moments of weakness, when the hum of the factory’s engines didn’t seem so oppressive. I told her if we did not move within the year, I would go without her. That I loved her, but I had to.
We both had tears in our eyes, thickened by intoxication. She said that I was asking too much. That to issue such an ultimatum meant I did not love her. That we should break up.
Neither of us wanted this. Even as I agreed, I felt the pull of that perverse magnetism that compelled us together.
I felt it pulling me back to her as I rode the elevator to the ground floor of the Spire. I shot down the bright, empty floors at a speed that seemed to dwarf its day-time velocity, and I looked up through that glass capsule at her. A solitary figure, a beautiful ruin teetering over the balcony, fading away into a silhouette.
That’s all I can bring to mind now, even as that magnetism still drives me toward a dead girl. Just her silhouette, despite the years of intimacy. That, and a picture in my head of her mangled, splattered corpse strewn about the bottom floor of the Spire like a piece of performance art. A thousand different flavors of crimson, lovely even in death. I never saw her body, but if that scene exists I am certain it has been repurposed as some sick commercial for Quickness. For the Spire. For this house of consumption and death.
The legend of the ghost of the Spire began at its inception, when it was no more than a skeleton of mortar. I passed by it every day on the way to school, marveling at the possibility. The raw act of creation. But the construction workers, once stoic in their jackhammering, began to drop away like flies.
They had to overhaul the construction, hiring a separate company with a gilded safety record. The deaths and mutilations slaked off, but not entirely. And although the building was completed, fortified upon that sea of blood, the ghost did not relent.
The disappearances and acts of random violence at the Spire are themselves becoming the stuff of legend, launching our town’s per capita crime rate into the stratosphere. We make a lot of dubious “Top Ten” lists on the internet, mostly thanks to the ghost.
Or so the gutter punks who never leave the mall would have everyone believe. They cornered me, breathless in their starchy, still-tagged clothing, exhorting me to believe. That Emily was clearly the ghost’s latest victim.
I love her. Not in a wistful way. I still actively love her. So when they said that to me, their eyes huge and buoyant, my skeptic’s heart at last began to melt.
It’s always the ghost’s fault.
I’m staying in this town. I knew that the second I learned of her death. That there was no moving forward, ever, now. I might even get a job at Quickness. And if I am going to be one of them, I should join them in their belief as well. It must be the ghost. Because otherwise it’s me, and I can’t abide that. I can’t have her sweet blood on my hands.
On Monday morning I sit in the waiting area of the Spire’s security complex, a fortress unto itself. Listening for the familiar, husky breathing of its chief official.
The police investigated thoroughly. Their forensics team examined her corpse. We have people of some skill on hand, attracted by the mounting death toll. White knights, riding in with their cavalry to tell me she killed herself. I don’t think so. They aren’t looking for the right clues.
Their protocol is confined by reason, as mine was before the specter of this place lodged itself in my bones. They search only as the light permits, when they have to probe the shadows. Things unseen.
“Good morning,” I say.
He shuffles into the room, and despite his panting his face is a chilly white. He never looked at the tape until now, it occurs to me. Only the police did.
He grabs my hand abruptly and places a zip drive in it. When he does this he curls my fingers about it, ensuring my grip is tight.
“Go home and watch it,” he says in a voice that is half whisper. The assuredness that was his trademark has fled him. He is fat and scared. A protector of a house of blood, and he has only now realized it.
I am scared too.
“Do not tell anyone,” he says, enunciating each syllable as if I were a child. “The police, I think they were paid off.” His breath is so shallow I worry he might faint. “It’s Spire. They don’t want any bad PR. Any more stigma. They’re burying this, and they’ll bury us with it, if they have to.”
I stare at him as I backtrack out the door. Afraid of what’s in my hand, but afraid of him, too. That he might be insane. That this detective stuff has gone to his head.
But as I close the door and make my familiar trek through the Spire, I think perhaps he is right.
I can feel the pulse of its evil heart, even now in the day time. I can see the opiate spell it places upon its victims, the far-off look in their eyes as they try on shoes, stuff pretzels in their gaping mouths, and salivate on each other among the benches.
The unnatural light is fiercer than ever. It sears into my eyes, demanding fidelity. I dart into the Quickness discount store and buy a new phone. It’s my fourth one this year. How it shines. I think that the ghost is happy. That maybe he’ll call me soon. Or at least text.
I do not think I will watch the tape. To do so would be to blaspheme against this temple that is my only source of succor. If I exorcise its dark heart, its infrastructure might crumble entirely, and we would all fall with it into the black earth.
We would join her.
And as much as I love her, I cannot do that. I am too busy to die. I am saving up for college. Or a new tablet computer. I can’t remember which.
My shift starts soon. If you’ll excuse me, I must clock in.
© 2015 Joe Vance