Craig Petree Author
Craig Petree     Author

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THE DOOR IN THE CEILING

 

           Frank Gillespie walked from his office at Sheppard Ford toward the employee parking lot. His work day was over. He was in new car sales. He’d been working at the dealership for fifteen years. Frank lived and worked in Riverside, California.

As he walked, he took off his grey herringbone suit coat. He looked down and noticed his expanding waistline and a stain on his aquamarine shirt from the burger he had at lunch. He picked at it, trying to remove it. He hadn’t had that belly when he started working here. But like everything, change was inevitable.

He pulled his pants up. It was a constant effort throughout the day. With the spare tire he carried, his pants constantly slide down his hips, shifting ever lower. He thought to himself. What are the other names for an expanding waistline? Gut bomb? Beer belly? Tub of Goo! Whatever! I’ll work on it later – maybe tomorrow. It was always tomorrow.

He pulled his tie loose and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt collar. The tie was a favorite of his. There were splashes of aquamarine covering swirls of various shades of gray. It reminded him of his work. It’s what he dabbled in every day as a car salesman, shades of gray, in life, in morality, in the simple difference between right and wrong. He unbuttoned the cuffs of his long sleeved shirt, then folding each cuff up twice. He smiled as his inner thoughts continued. I’ve got it! I’m going to switch to suspenders. Then I won’t have to keep pulling my pants up. Yeah that’s it! Forget the exercising for now. I’ll do that later; when I have time. Forget all that and think about the money you made today!

 

Frank held his jacket by the collar and draped it over his shoulder. He walked with a bounce in his step. As a Car Salesman, Frank was at what was probably the zenith of his career. He was thirty-five; top salesman at the dealership for six year’s running. He made great money selling cars and he was a natural.

Frank was one of those guys who could sell ice to Eskimos in the middle of a blizzard. He was a smooth talker, willing and able to help you talk yourself into a shiny new car. He sold most of his cars at sticker price and could still make you feel good about it when you left the lot. This gained him hefty commissions. Just the other day, Terry Schnell, the Sales Manager told him how good he was.

“Frank, you’re one of the best salesmen I’ve ever seen. You could sell ice to the Devil himself and he wouldn’t know he’d been ripped off until he got it home!”

They had a good laugh over that.

Today had been one of Frank’s best days in months. He’d sold five cars. The two that stood out he sold to Mary and Elizabeth, both senior citizens. Elizabeth had come with Mary to keep her from getting ripped off at the dealership. Frank ended up selling her a car too, both at the sticker price. What a great day! Both ladies commented on what a nice young man he was, how honest. For an ever so brief moment, he felt guilty, his moral compass shouted out to him, screaming at him, telling him to stop. But he swept if from his mind, out of sight as he’d done so many times. He pushed it back where he could neither hear it nor feel it. He’d been trying to silence that voice for years. He was hearing from it less with the passage of time, it rarely made a peep anymore.

Frank wasn’t married. He didn’t go out much either. The dealership and his job were his life. He lived in an expensive one-bedroom apartment on the east side of town. He had everything he wanted, except a life. But the luxuries in life made up for that. Frank got to his car, a Ford Mustang GT, painted Red Candy Metallic, and pressed the remote, unlocking the door. He got in, threw his jacket on the passenger seat and started the car. It came to life with that reassuring deep-throated growl he had grown accustomed to. This car was great; fast, sleek, and it embodied the way he felt he lived life – on the edge.

He put the car in gear and drove out of the parking lot and onto Main Street, with a smile on his face. On the way home, he stopped by a fast food joint; ordered a large Cola, two double burgers with cheese, and a large order of fries. As an afterthought, he ordered two peach pie empanadas, all to-go. When he had his order, he drove out of the drive-thru and into afternoon traffic. He drove straight home. He was famished and ready to eat. He told himself. This is why I have this gut bomb attached to me – fast food. It’s all I’ve eaten since I started working at the dealership. Note to self, work on weaning self from this crap! Soon!

Frank’s apartment complex lay ahead on the right. It was newer, multi-storied and expensive. He pressed a button on the dash of the car to open the underground parking gate and turned into the complex. He parked and took the elevator up to his apartment. Inside he closed and locked the door and dropped his keys in a golden ceramic bowl that sat on a wooden table with a brown marble top. He walked into the kitchen and threw his coat over the island countertop onto a chair at the breakfast bar. It landed perfectly. Am I good or what?

He pulled a gold-colored charger from one of the oak cabinets in the kitchen and a Mikasa collection, earth-tone plate from another cabinet. He unwrapped the burgers and placed them on the plate. He mounded the fries around the burgers. Frank believed it transformed the food into something different, more civilized, with far more panache than just plain old fast food. He opened another cabinet and took out a large glass beer stein and poured the cola into it. He grabbed his plate and the stein and walked into the living room. He placed the items on a walnut TV tray by his recliner as he sat down. He shifted around in the recliner, trying to find that comfortable spot, that sweet spot, then settled in. He turned on his fifty-five inch, LED flat screen TV, and flipped through the channels. There was nothing that drew his interest. He settled on a movie he’d seen before. He ate his dinner and polished off the soda. He looked down at his belly again and noticed secret sauce from one of the burgers had made its way onto to his shirt, adding another stain to match the one from lunch. He reached down with his finger and scooped what sauce he could onto his finger and licked it clean. He moved the tray to the side, leaned back in the recliner and raised the foot rest. He was ready to settle in and watch the movie.

He fell asleep during the movie; waking only as the credits were scrolling up the screen. His stomach was churning and he had a side of heartburn to go with it. It was close to seven P.M. He knew he had to be at work by six the next morning. He decided to watch one more movie, settling on one from the On-Demand listings. It was another movie he’d seen, but that was ok. It was a good movie, even if he’d seen it five times. During the movie he fell asleep and began snoring. He began dreaming he was in bed asleep when a voice woke him.

“Frank, it’s time to go. I’m a busy guy. Places to go and people to see. Many people.” He woke with a start and looked around him. Nothing! It was just a dream. He rubbed at his chest. His heartburn was in overdrive. He watched the rest of the movie, then got up, put his dishes in the sink, and walked into the bedroom. He got ready for bed, opened the bedroom window, and turned on the ceiling fan.

He had to have the fan on. It was a rule of his. It was that reassuring hum of the motor, the swish of the blades cutting through the air that made him sleep better. The background noise had to be there. He couldn’t sleep without it. He stripped down to his boxers and got into bed, and settled in. He pulled the sheet and bedspread up; it was a cool evening. He looked over and saw the sheer inner curtains undulating softly as the evening breeze filtered through the window. He looked around the room. There was a brick fireplace by his bed that filled the corner of the room. A King’s throne chair made of dark mahogany with black leather cushions sat between the fireplace and the window. He reached over to the light on the nightstand table and turned it off, feeling secure.

He thought he’d be asleep in minutes, but instead he lay awake for what seemed like hours, tossing and turning. His heartburn was giving him fits. He looked up at the fan, watching the faux wood blades turn, thinking about the day he had and his heartburn. The constant in the room was the sound of the fan. He knew he needed to focus on it if he was going to get any sleep. Finally, the night beckoned to him and slumber fell on him like a warm blanket. He slept fitfully at first, the dreams came.

Not cheery dreams. These were dreams that nightmares grew from. Flashes of horror, anguish and suffering. But it was him that was suffering. It was one of those dreams that frightened you far beyond a nightmare. It grabbed hold of Frank, creeping under every inch of his flesh, holding him like a vise. This dream made him curl into the fetal position; wanting to be in that protected position from what he knew was coming for him. Frank began to shiver as goose bumps covered his flesh. Fear began to ooze out of every pore of his body. It was the kind of fear a predator could smell on you and relish. Frank woke from the dream but kept his eyes closed tight. He was afraid to open them. He couldn’t remember the dream, but he felt the fear it left in him. But like so many dreams, as soon as he woke it began to dissolve from his memory. Like a built-in safety valve to protect you and your mind from the terror of the night.

Frank lay there trembling as a fear of the unknown filled his heart and mind. He didn’t want to open his eyes. It was the fear of what he might see when he opened them. He lay there, curled up in a tight little ball, trying to build up the courage to open his eyes. He hadn’t heard anything out of the ordinary – he’d been listening for several minutes. The fear in his mind surrounded a single question. What was in the room with him? Was it an ominous being? He didn’t know, but he felt it; the fear inside him felt it. He believed as soon as he opened his eyes he would be confronted with the likes of a monster from the movie, “Alien”, inches from his face, leering at him, wanting to rip his face off.

He knew he couldn’t stay like this forever and slowly opened his eyes. He was ready to close them and wish whatever it was out of the room, out of his home and back to whatever dimension of hell it had come from. The first thing he saw was the clock on the nightstand. The glowing red numbers weren’t glowing red eyes. The numbers signified it was three twenty-eight in the morning. He started taking deep breaths, trying to calm himself, as he began to glance around the room. His eyes stopped. The chair that had been against the wall had been moved. It now sat between him and the window. He squinted to bring everything into better focus. He could see the curtains blowing softly inward behind the chair. He focused on the chair. He could see the outline of what looked like a large man sitting in it. His eyes froze to the chair as his pupils dilated from the fear inside him. His heart twisted with terror and began racing. The smell of rotting garbage filled his nostrils and his mind was racing. What do I do? Should I scream for help? Who is this? Can I run? I can’t get far in the shape I’m in. Maybe if I close my eyes it will go away?

Frank closed his eyes and held them shut for a moment.

“Hello, Frank!”

It was a male voice, deep but not threatening, not as scary as the outline of the man was. Frank opened his eyes to mere slits. He could make out the upper shoulders and profile of the face against the backdrop of the window. The shoulders were broad, muscular. The chin and forehead stood out. The chin came to a dull point at the end, but the tip of it was curved, aquiline. The forehead slanted backward. He could hear breathing, the exhalation and inhalation, of every breath. A whistling sound came with each inhalation. Each exhalation had the sound of a deep rattle in it, like that of a dying animal.

Frank told himself. Move, you idiot, you’ve got to move! You can’t stay here! Get up! Fight! Don’t be a coward, be a man! Do something!

His movements were quick, but awkward. He reached out to turn on the light, almost knocking it off the nightstand. He succeeded in knocking over several framed pictures. One fell to the floor. The glass in the frame shattered on the tile. The light came on and he threw the sheet and bedspread off him, in one swift movement and sat up. He wasn’t prepared to fight, but he couldn’t stay lying in bed with someone in the room! In his home! His thoughts were more along the lines of escape, running!

He looked at the chair in the light. Nothing! He spun around believing whoever it was might be behind him. Nothing! He was more panicked. Where was the intruder? He jumped up from the bed, turning around, pushing himself backward, up against the wall where it met the fireplace. His eyes franticly searched the room from top to bottom! There was nothing! Was it possible he was dreaming the entire thing? He ran to the adjoining bathroom and turned on the lights and checked it. No one there. He searched the rest of the apartment. Every closet, every hiding space – nothing! No one! He checked the front door. It was locked, the deadbolt secure. He ran back to his room and the open window. Maybe the intruder went out the window. He moved the sheer inner curtains open with both hands. The screen was in place. Besides, he was two stories up. He pressed his face up against the screen slowly, fearfully looking out the window and down. There was no ladder against the wall and nothing out there.

His heart began slowing. He was starting to believe he was alone in the apartment. Maybe it was just a dream? He kept telling himself that as he walked back to his bed. He heard the crunch of glass beneath his feet, and stopped, not putting any further weight down. He lifted his foot. A piece of glass was stuck to the bottom. It didn’t pierce the skin; it just stuck to the bottom of his bare foot. He brushed the piece of glass back to the floor and stepped back. He went to the kitchen and retrieved a dustpan and broom. He started to sweep the glass into the dustpan, and then froze. There was one place he hadn’t looked – under the bed.

The fear entered him again, but he pushed it back. He had to look. He was more afraid to run than look; he was too close to the bed. He bent down on one knee. He held the broom in his hands for protection, as well as to keep his hands from shaking. He leaned forward at the waist until he could see under the bed.

There was nothing. He breathed a sigh of relief and stood up. He put the picture frames that hadn’t broken back on the nightstand. He swept up the glass from the floor and took out the other bits of broken glass from the smashed picture frame and placed it back on the nightstand. He dumped the broken glass in the garbage and put up the broom and dustpan.

He didn’t have a gun but wanted something for protection near him tonight, within arm’s reach. He checked the kitchen drawers and found a butcher knife with a ten-inch blade. He grabbed the knife, went back to his room and laid it on the nightstand. He sat on the bed for several minutes, composing himself. Knowing he needed to go back to sleep. He could feel the adrenaline that flowed through his body waning. He was starting to feel worn out, tired. Fear has a way of sapping your strength.

Frank lay back on the mattress and covered himself with the sheet and bedspread. He left the light on and began watching the ceiling fan as the blades turned. Within a few moments he grew tired. He reached over and turned off the light.

The voice came from the chair again.

“Frank, what’s with all this drama? Did you think it was going to be that easy to get rid of me?”

Frank bolted upright in bed and turned the light on. His heart began racing again, pounding in his chest, burning. No one was in the chair. He glanced around the room. There was nothing. He tried to calm himself. Just take deep breaths, he told himself. He thought it through in his mind. There’s no one in the apartment. Or did I miss something? He got up and checked every room in the apartment, again finding nothing. Everything was secure.

He sat back on the bed, cradling his head in his hands. Is my mind playing tricks on him? Maybe not enough sleep? Too much fast food? Am I still dreaming right now? How do I tell if I’m still asleep if I’m dreaming? Maybe this is part of my dream? Maybe it isn’t over?

He told himself. Either go to sleep, or stay up! Make a choice, but you’re not going to be worth a damn at work today, and you’ve checked the entire apartment twice, you idiot!

Frank made up his mind. If he was dreaming, he might as well answer whoever it was in the chair. Maybe listening to the voice and answering might get him through the dream and let him get some rest. He knew he couldn’t sleep with the light on. He’d tried that before. He leaned back on the mattress, reached over, and turned off the light then leaned back onto his pillow.

“Ok, Frank, are you done?”

Frank swallowed hard; he could feel his heart beating faster.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Can you carry on a conversation now?” the voice asked.

“I think so.” Frank said. “Am I still dreaming?”

“No Frank. This is real, very real.”

There was an air of finality in the voice.

“Who are you?”

“You may call me Thanatos.”

“Is that Asian?”

The figure in the chair breathed a heavy sigh.

“No Frank. It’s Greek – ancient Greek. Why don’t you start with the questions you have, so we can move on. Okay?”

“Alright, where are you from?

“Oh, here and there – I travel quite often. I guess you could say my home is wherever I am. Does that answer your question?”

“I guess.”

Frank’s fear was dissipating, ever so slowly. If Thanatos were here to harm him, why would he carry on a conversation with him? It didn’t make sense. He was sure he was dreaming.

“Thanatos, are you, like a guardian angel?”

“No, no, nothing even remotely close. In fact, I do believe your guardian angel left you some time ago.”

There was no emotion in Thanatos’ response; he simply said it as a matter of fact.

Frank’s heart beat a little faster.

“How would you know?” he asked.

“Oh, I know a few things. That one I’m sure of!”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well for one thing, if your guardian angel were around, I wouldn’t be here. Besides, think about it, Frank. Do you think you’re a good person?”

“Well, I don’t think I’m any worse than most, and I’m better than some.”

“Frank, are you a good person?” The tone of Thanatos’ voice changed; it was lower, deeper. What he said was in the form of question, but spoken as a demand.

“Well, uh, no!” Frank said quickly.

“Ok, then why would you have a guardian angel?”

“I thought everyone did.”

“Now think that through Frank. In your world, many people believe in guardian angels that watch over you, protect you, yet these angels are unseen. And you believe these guardian angels are there to protect you from evil, right? That age old battle between good and evil.”

“Well, yes!”

“But if you don’t believe you are a good person, why would you have one? Why would you be entitled to one?”

Thanatos said it with a hint of contempt in his voice. Frank couldn’t see it but he felt Thanatos sneering at him as he said it.

Frank didn’t want to sound cowardly.

“Alright, alright, so why are we even talking?”

“Simply put, Frank, you’re on my list. I have a busy schedule, but I like to take a moment with each subject before I move on to the next location. It makes people feel a little more at ease before it’s time to go. It gives me a chance to break the news slowly. My mother, Nyx, feels it’s a good ice breaker, and I do believe, based on my experience, she’s correct.”

“Break what news?”

“Well, Frank, you’re probably thinking you’re dreaming right now. In a way, that might be true. You see, I’m here on a very important task, something critical to both of us.”

“So, why are you here?”

Thanatos leaned forward in the chair.

“Alright, Frank. I guess it’s time to let you in on the reason for my visit. Besides, I have to get moving to my next appointment. You see, Frank, my mother Nyx is the goddess of the night. And if you were to look up my name, you would find that the name Thanatos has a very specific meaning in ancient Greek. I am what you would simply call, Death!”

Frank noticed a distinct difference in the voice now. The voice was growing steadily deeper, eerie – evil. Frank’s hands began to tremble, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end as a chill ran down his spine.

“Are you here for me?” Frank asked.

It was almost a whimper. He swallowed hard after he said it.

“Yes, Frank. I am. I’ve come a long way. You see, when your time comes and you have no guardian angel, I pay a visit; to take you to your new home. I wish I could say it would be to that nice place you hear about. But it won’t be. This place is somewhere you couldn’t even dream of in your worst nightmares. But this will be your existence from this day forward. For I am the reaper, come to collect; and it’s time for you to sow what you have reaped!”

Frank froze. Above him, on the ceiling, on the opposite side of the room, a door appeared as if from nowhere, surreal. The door was half the size of a normal door, floating in the air like a hologram on the ceiling. The door was old, weathered; the color dark, ugly, a sickening shade of brown. The molding around the door was wide; carvings of animals surrounded the door. The carvings were Gryphons. They moved back and forth eerily, like sentries standing watch.

Frank hadn’t said anything, but Thanatos said.

“They’re Gryphons, Frank. But those are to keep you in. I’m the only one who can come and go through the door – no other, ever. Now it’s time to go, Frank.” Thanatos voice was now pure evil. “I always like to end our meeting with an old Irish phrase I’ve twisted a little. May you be in hell a half hour before the devil knows you're dead! It’s the one thing you can pray for, Frank. It’s the one prayer you can hope will be answered! Ready, Frank?”

Thanatos was on him before he finished saying Frank’s name, on top of him, enveloping him with his arms and legs, squeezing him in an iron grip. Thanatos’ face was inches away from his. His eyes were jaundiced. The corneas of his eyes looked like flowing blood. The pupils’ were black, piercing through Frank. Thanatos’ skin was cracked, peeling and flaking off in places - dead. Thanatos’ mouth was open as he leered at him and the stench of death filled Frank’s nostrils. Something beyond fear gripped him, as a laugh started to emit from Thanatos; a deep, slow, evil laugh, but like a recording at half speed. Frank tried to break free, but couldn’t. Thanatos’ grasp was a vise he couldn’t break free from.

With one movement, Thanatos flew backwards through the air, towards the door in the ceiling, with Frank in his grasp. Frank let out a shrill terrified scream that didn’t stop. As they hit the threshold of the door, Frank tried to stop himself with his hands. It was the only thing he could move. His fingers touched the threshold. He could feel his fingers sliding over it. He dug his fingernails into the wood. He smashed his forehead into Thanatos’ face, hoping that would release his grasp on him. Thanatos didn’t even flinch, black blood began streaming from his nose and a gash opened over his left eye. Thanatos’ blood spilled onto Frank’s face. It was warm. Then the heat intensified, ever hotter. Thanatos’ blood burst into flames on Frank’s face. Thanatos laughed, his grip on Frank never ceasing, only tightening. Frank’s fingernails were still sliding across the wood as they dug small scratches in the surface of the door’s threshold. Frank dug his nails in further, trying to stop from passing through the threshold. He knew if he passed through this door, there was no coming back. His fingernails were breaking off, past the quick, some being pulled from his fingertips with the effort he was exerting as the fire burning on his face spread. Thanatos smiled for just a moment then the smile turned into a sneer as the laugh began again. They broke the threshold of the door. Thanatos had only been toying with him.

They were in a different world, a world of misery, desolation and destruction. It hung in the air. It was a world without hope. You could feel it in every breath. Like a steam bath. The air was heavy, hot and humid. Every breath full of pain and sorrow. Frank prayed he would wake from his dream. He heard the door slam shut behind him with finality, as his scream continued.

#

They found Frank’s body the next morning. His service manager had been worried when he didn’t show up for work. Frank was always on time and never missed a day. They called the police to have them do a welfare check on Frank. Officer Raul Castillo responded. He knocked and pounded on Frank’s door without a response. The apartment manager let the officer in. Officer Castillo searched the apartment. He found Frank in the bedroom, lying on his back on the bed, his lower body angled to the left. Frank’s left leg hung over the edge of the bed, bent at the knee. A twisted look a fear was on Frank’s face. Officer Castillo conducted his investigation. There were no signs of foul play or forced entry and the officer treated it as an unattended death. The Coroner was notified and the Coroner’s transport unit responded.

Coroner’s Technician’s, James Phelps and Dicky Coz arrived in dark suits, with a gurney in tow, to collect Frank’s remains for autopsy. The scene had already been processed and Frank’s body was ready for pickup. James conducted an inventory of the body, as Dicky filled out the inventory form. The only items were two gold rings, one with nine white diamonds on the middle finger of the left hand and the other a ring with nine emeralds on the middle finger of the right hand. The stones were lined in an oval, with the Car Manufacturers emblem in the center. Both were rings Frank had won for Salesman of the Year, one from the dealership, the other from the car manufacturer. James handed the rings to Dicky, who placed them in a clear plastic inventory bag. Officer Castillo signed the Coroner’s inventory paperwork without so much as a glance and stood by while they lifted Frank into a black body bag, zipped it closed and then placed him on the gurney. As always, Officer Castillo could smell the stench of death when they moved Frank. It was a fact of life. When the dead are moved, the smell wafts gently onto the air. It never changes; it’s always the same. Officer Castillo followed them to the front door of the apartment.

“Thanks guys! See you next time.”

“You can bet on that!” Dicky said and laughed.

Officer Castillo twisted the lock on the doorknob and closed the door behind him.

James and Dicky wheeled the gurney into the elevator and down to the Coroner’s van. The van was white, unmarked. They opened the back doors. There were four other full body bags in the back of the van. The pushed the gurney into place, locked it in position on the floor, and closed the doors. James got in the driver’s side. Dicky got in on the passenger side and placed the bag with the rings in his right inside jacket pocket. As they drove to the office, Dicky reviewed the paperwork he’d prepared. He had made it look good, like he was diligently writing down the information, but under the heading marked jewelry, Dicky listed: none.

From the moment Dicky had seen the rings, he knew they were valuable and he meant to have them. Unless something happened, the rings were his. The cop had even signed the inventory form listing no jewelry. He hadn’t even looked at it; he just signed it. Dicky had made a hefty sum of money over the years stealing from the dead. Besides, who would complain? Certainly not the dead! He’d covered his tracks well and he could only remember two times in the past five years when the whereabouts of some item had even been questioned. Each time, the family dropped the matter, not wanting to keep stirring up the past of a deceased loved one.

He was guessing the rings would fetch at least fifteen hundred dollars – not bad for a day’s pay. He barely made that in two week’s with the Coroner’s office. They pushed the gurney with Frank’s body into the refrigerated morgue, then lifted him onto a stainless steel dripless body pan at the Coroner’s office. Dicky slammed the door shut. He finished out his day with no questions. On his way home, he stopped by the Pawn shop on Market Ave. He sold both rings for sixteen hundred, more than he thought. It had been a good day’s work. He went home and later, after he and his wife had gone to bed, he woke from a bad dream.

“Hi, Dicky,” the voice said.

Sometimes we change the course of our lives by our actions. The problem there lies in the fact that a bill always comes due and someone has to pay. If not in this life, then maybe in the next…

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