Are You Adaptable (part three)
“Animals can sense evil,” Dan remarked.
“You’re familiar with Green Mount.” Stenner turned to Beloye, who nodded. “Nothing spooky, no creaking iron gates or weird statuary, just respectable headstones in nice little rows. I had gone about halfway to the other side. I was alone, but it wasn’t really dark—there’re streetlights at both ends. I noticed this big oak tree. Some older graves were close by, the markers sort of tilted sideways, thrown up by the roots, you’d figure. I put the dog down on the grass, played out some leash.
“I began to get the impression of movement. Something bluish white off to the right, then off to the left. A sound sort of filtered in. A kind of collection…?” He looked around at his audience, made a searching gesture. “That’s not the word I want. As though,” he decided, “someone starts out whispering, then some other noises and voices are admixed or layered gradually onto the first track.”
“But what did you see?” He was making Beloye nervous.
“Nothing, of course. Trinket took care of business. I finished our walk.”
Dan crumpled the paper lining his box and tossed it…to rebound, somewhat close for coincidence, off Nola’s bag. “So what’s the point?”
“The point is, why do people do these things?” Stenner maintained eye contact with Beloye.
“You didn’t think it was a ghost?”
“Why would I think it was a ghost?”
Well, she didn’t know Stenner. “I would have run away,” she told him.
“Sure,” he said, “you’re scared. But you have to think about motives.”
“You’re saying,” Dan said, “this was some kind of stupid joke.”
“Motives,” Stenner repeated. “Nearly everything sooner or later comes down to money, even dumb video stunts, but consider,” he leaned forward, particularly addressing Dan.
Heidi, on Stenner’s right, leaned too, putting her head between theirs. “Those people are snobs.”
Stenner sat back. “Excuse me?”
“Over at Green Mount. I don’t know anyone who’s buried there.”
“Well, Mrs. Tolhurst…” He paused. “I was about to say…consider Beloye. My story upset her, and I was only telling it. People are stupid. Unreasonable,” he added. “Emotional. Even so, you can’t…I ought to say you shouldn’t…simply pick someone at random, and play a joke that might do genuine harm.”
On small acquaintance Nola’s boyfriend was judging her, Beloye gathered, over-sensitive; or, as Dan had it, neurotic. Maybe just stupid. She wanted an ally. “Nola, what did you think when he told you the story?”
Any typical evening’s chance word might bring from Nola’s memory, just as the talk was getting good, the plot of a movie, or the doings of neighbors only she and Arnold knew. Her tone, after an unwonted reserve, sounded…
Confirmed. “I never heard the story before.”
“So what do you think?” Stenner asked.
She dropped off the stool, crossed to pick up her bag, toed Dan’s trash out of the way. “I think if we’re done eating, you should take me home.”
Beloye got up from the sofa so Stenner could join Nola at the door.
“What, Nola, you have a headache? You haven’t been here half an hour. We could play Uno. Beloye, you’re up,” Heidi said. “Get the deck.”
They slumped, then, in their seats, for one hour more, hoisting themselves to draw cards, grab handfuls of popcorn, swigs of beer…or coffee, in Beloye’s case…Dan taking stabs at cracking Stenner.
“People do stupid things. Why wouldn’t they hurt someone for no reason? Maybe they’re criminals.”
And Stenner, at the door—he and Nola now truly leaving—said again, “Seriously. My only thing is, I want to know. Just curious, Dan. I can’t exactly report seeing a ghost. Heidi, thanks.” He was treating Dan’s mother as his hostess. “Beloye.” He took her hand.
When Heidi had gone to her room, and they’d gone to theirs, and they heard the sound of the vacuum subdued by the closed door, Beloye said, “Where is Arnold?”
Dan shrugged. His socked feet plodded to the duffle he carried when he went out, and parked nights on the armchair in their bedroom. He found his phone, tapped a couple times. Beloye heard Arnold’s voice, swearing. Dan and Arnold exchanged words.
“A minute ago,” Dan told her, “he was snoozing on the sofa. You wanna talk to him?”
Lunch? Beloye texted to Nola, the next day, Saturday. Or coffee?
Nola chose Radice’s. Coffee, Beloye supposed. On the other hand, Nola might be depressed over Arnold. If I were depressed, sure, Beloye thought, I’d have doughnuts for lunch. And french fries. Radice’s could supply only the doughnuts.
Dan walked into the bedroom.
She noticed him in the mirror, coming up to stand behind her.
“That guy,” he began. “Nola’s pick-up.” He paused, watching Beloye snug a belt. “He had you figured out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He comes in here, makes up some story, gets you all jittery…and then he says it was only a joke.”
“Stenner didn’t say that, you said it.”
Are You Adaptable
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(2015, 2018, Stephanie Foster)