In Idling, a young woman is not sure how to react when her date pulls his truck outside his old apartment, idles the engine, and proceeds to tell her a spooky story.
About the Author
Melanie Faith is a poet, professor, and photographer. She collects twinkly costume-jewelry pins.
Melanie has written two craft books for writers that are available on Amazon: In a Flash!: Writing & Publishing Dynamic Flash Prose and Poetry Power.
Melanie has a short story forthcoming from Red Coyote, and her poetry will soon appear in Meniscus Literary Journal and Up North Lit.
Learn more about Melanie and her works at her website: melaniedfaith.com
Idling by Melanie Faith
“See that window?” he says.
I look up. “Yeah.” There are boring beige blinds where he points through the truck window.
“I used to live in that apartment three semesters ago.”
“Oh, yeah?” I ask, my hand near his on the seat. We haven’t held hands yet. This is our second time out for dinner.
“Cool place?” I ask, wondering if any of my coral lipstick is left after we devoured the burritos and bowl of chips at Las Palmeras.
Janelle introduced us at the student union and then left when she got a text. She’d pre-arranged the text so she could vamoose, of course.
“You could say that,” he says. Something in his voice turns a bit odd, a bit different. As a human-psychology minor, I live for this stuff.
“Did something happen here?” I ask. “Something weird?”
I can’t see his eyes in the dark or remember if they’re green or brown. Things are new, that new. I am still deciding if we might click.
“Do you think secret doors are weird?” He turns to face me, his breath shallow. He is trying to decide if we might click, too. I almost touch his hand but then decide against it.
Janelle had said, “He’s a really nice guy. Not a jerk. Not a Baron.” But they’ve only shared a lab together; how can Janelle be sure?
“No way,” I say, but he can’t know if I mean that I don’t think secret doors are weird, or if I doubt there really is a secret door up there. I crane my neck to see if the view is any better from four inches closer to him in the passenger seat. But all I see is the same boring beige blinds, drawn tight.
His cologne is comforting, like soap and leaves. A part of me wants to hug him, to find out if I like the scent even more up close.
“Yep,” he says. “It’s true.”
He isn’t exhibiting any of the traits of liars—no trumped-up details, no side-eyes as he’s talking or nervous ticks.
“How did you find out about the door?” I ask, studying the old house that’s been carved into apartments. The house has turrets and carefully-painted gingerbread molding, like somebody inside cares a whole lot. Who’d want to go to all of that trouble just to rent it out, though? Unless . . .
He says, “This is gonna sound . . .” But he doesn’t finish.
“Come on. You can tell me,” I say, not at all sure that he will tell me. “You can’t just drive me here on the way home and then dangle a secret door without explanation.”
We idle, double-parked on the side street. Is he the kind of guy who will pull forward when the inevitable car behind us honks or will he aggressively remain idling in the same spot, as Baron would. Until this moment, it hasn’t occurred to me how sketchy we must look to neighbors or anyone walking home: two figures parked and gazing upward, pointing at a second-story window. I half wish somebody would pull up behind us, so we’d have to get out of here.
“Okay,” he says, about to tell me the story. We don’t move. “I was up ‘til 4,” he says, “studying for the O Chem final, right? I like to study with classical music to keep focused if it’s late at night. But that night, for some reason, I kept my iPod in my desk. It was quiet. Pin-drop quiet. A lot was riding on that final—it was worth three times what our quizzes were.”
I say, “I hate when profs do that. Why make one test worth so much? To be lazy jerks, that’s why.”
He rewards me with a grin. Janelle was right . . . super cute!
“Exactly,” he says. “So I was studying and the next thing I know, mad scurrying. This giant mouse—out of nowhere—shoots across the floor and bee-lines for the bookcase.”
“You okay with mice?” I ask, not wanting to use the word afraid. Guys can be weird about that word, as I’d found out with Baron.
“Yeah, they don’t bother me. But this one?” He shrugs. “What got me was he made it to the bookcase and then disappeared. How’d he do that? I needed to know, and it was more fun than O Chem notes.”
We chuckle. Is he a Type A, tighty-whities student, or is he a normal crammer, like every sane person on the planet including me? I make a mental note to text Janelle.
It doesn’t seem like anybody in the house even notices us idling outside. The same beige blinds, nobody even on the front porch, despite a couple of Adirondack chairs and a swing without any slats missing. It is the kind of swing that in my neighborhood would have been populated with people at any time of day or night. I wouldn’t mind living here.
He says, “So I knelt down and ran my hand along where the mouse had disappeared, ready to leap back should . . . I don’t even know what I was expecting, but I noticed a door jamb I hadn’t seen before.”
Goosebumps prickle my arms. I wish I’d brought a sweater, but it was 85 earlier. Weird for mid-October.
We’re both looking up when a light flickers and then burns bright in the apartment, but nobody opens the blinds or anything.
“When I pushed,” he says, “the wall gave way.” He turns to face me. “There was a room in there.”
The whole story—I don’t know. It’s like a kid’s cartoon, the way he tells it. Like something is missing from the story. I don’t make a practice of mistrusting people until they give me a reason, but I can’t help making the comparison: I really don’t want him to turn out a rotten liar like somebody whose name starts with a B. If that makes me a horrible person, well, award me the badge.
“A room?” I ask. Janelle really doesn’t know him all that well. I mean, he seems nice and cute, but . . . there are psychopaths in the world for reals.
Any other time, the cars stream through this neighborhood, even down the alley we’re parked in. Tonight, it’s only like 10:30 and, inexplicably, nobody.
My pulse hammers in my ears with that ear-stuffed feeling like when your car goes up a mountain.
I want to go home. I also want to stay with him in the slightly damp cab, listening to him, listening to whatever comes next.
“Are you going to tell me there was a little old woman in there reading to a skeleton propped in the other chair?” I ask, remembering the punch-line of a ghost story from Camp Wemowahl.
He shakes his head.
I swallow twice to try to pop my ears; they stay clogged. I want to know what he is going to come up with next. Make it good, I will him, entertain me. One thing about Baron, he couldn’t keep up with me.
We both jolt a little when the apartment lights go out. As if we’re waiting on something . . . or someone.
Bad things happen in the dark in pretty houses, too. After a few silent moments, we realize nobody’s going to pop open a window and shout at us . . . or worse, pop a gun on us. We’re still breathing, anyway.
“What was in there?” I ask. “The secret room, I mean.” I sound both flirtier and quieter than my friends know me to be. Must be the truck. Or the unexpected detour. Or him.
His grin detonates funny flutters in my ribcage.
“Just an old card table,” he says.
I make a fist and hit his upper arm but with no force behind it. “If you’re gonna bring me here, you better give me at least a creepy clown mask or a jewelry box that plays on its own,” I say, only half kidding.
He laughs in a friendly way. But is it an attracted-to-me way, or a your-my-new-buddy-with-burrito-breath way?
He shifts gears and checks twice before we turn left out of the alley. Totally tighty-whities.
“How about cobwebs?” he asks at the stop sign. “Will those do?”
I want to ask him why he moved somewhere else if it was just a stupid table and once he found the room, did he spend all of his time there hoping something kooky would go down, but I wait. There’s time for that.
I say, “If there’s a six-foot black-widow spider that used to inhabit the body of a woman named Wilmette, then yes, cobwebs will do.” Where do I come up with these things? Sometimes, even I don’t know.
“You literature majors are something else,” he says. “Aren’t you?”
“Are you intimating Something Wicked This Way Comes?” I joke, hoping he interprets the Bradbury allusion as wit and not weirdo.
Behold: he laughs.
A block from Drembar Avenue, I decide if the goodnight kiss is half as good as I anticipate, I’ll hit him with a zinger about taking his girlfriends to the secret room, see if he starts sweating.
About the Story
Idling was written by Melanie Faith. The story was sparked by a photograph Melanie saw on the internet of a door that opened a sliver to reveal a secret room. The photo teased her Muse into figuring out what was back there! Suddenly, in her mind, two characters appeared, parked in an alley, gazing upward.
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