Under the Weather By Don Hornbostel
Nineteen fifty-eight was a bad year for Paul Rimola. Lost his wife to cancer and his job to cheap labor down in Mexico. And the fates still weren't finished with him.
Despite his depression, Rimola vowed to make the most of what he had left and took a job as a janitor at the Stevenson Arms apartments over on Mill Street. Two dollars an hour, Sundays off, and a modest pension plan sustained his hopes. But a month into the new job, he found he could no longer afford to make his house payments and began searching for something in the seventy-five to eighty a month range. It was about then that I met him, when I was working the counter at a smoke shop around the corner from the room he rented in an old Victorian on Freeman Street.
"White Owl cigars," he said, eyes going shelf to shelf behind me in a half-hearted search. He was the wire-rim type, thick lenses and poorly fitting. Fifty, maybe a little more. Mousy little guy. Usually had on a work uniform and had his hair oiled down so you couldn't tell how bad it needed to be cut.
"How many?" I slid open a door at my knees and reached into the display. "Regulars are two for fifteen."
Rimola nodded. "Two. Don't need any more than that. Mrs. Richmond won't allow me to smoke in my room anyway."
"Oh, you're boarding with that widow down the street?"
He looked over his glasses at me thoughtfully while counting out nickels and pennies. "Not a bad place."
"I hear the lady's got a temper, though?"
"She don't like noise." The coins clicked and tinked on the glass countertop.
"Please." He seemed the lonely type. A talker with nobody to listen. "Mind?" He unwrapped the cigar, slipped off the band, and nipped off the tip.
"No, go ahead, light up." I retrieved a butt from my ashtray and refired it.
After a good long puff, Rimola leaned against the counter and checked the place for other customers. We were alone. "Know anything about my landlady?" he whispered conspiratorially.
I braced an elbow on the glass and mouthed my smoke off to one side so I could talk around it. "Like what?"
He rolled the cigar between his fingers and stared off toward the humidor display. I was expecting some question about Mrs. Richmond, like how long ago Mr. Richmond had passed along. Or, maybe, if she had any gentleman callers. But Rimola caught me totally by surprise, a left hook out of left field. "She ever mention anything about her place being... haunted?"
I blinked away the thick smoke and straightened up. "You mean like ghosts and evil spirits?"
He made a study of my face before he went on. I kept it slack, wide-eyed, and ready to listen. "I'm in that south-end room on the second floor. The one under the big spire up on the roof. It's got curved walls and a domed ceiling."
"You hear noises, see things.... What?"
"Noises, like the wind blowing. Only at night, when all the lights are off."
"Could just be the wind outside."
"When I turn on the lamp next to my bed, the sound stops."
"Yeah?" Right then I was thinking the guy was maybe two deuces short of a deck, but I kept up the conversation. "Could be water in the pipes?"
"It's not the pipes." He twisted his mouth this way and that, like he was deciding something. "It blows things around in my room."
"You left a window open. Gotta be."
"Nope. First thing I checked. No cracks anywhere either. And it's been on the calmest nights sometimes. Not even the slightest breeze outside. That big oak that stands just outside my window... not a leaf moving."
I stubbed out my smoke and rubbed my face to get the blood going. "You tell Mrs. Richmond?"
"No. I'm afraid she'll think I've been drinking and ask me to leave."
"Darndest thing I've heard in a while," I said and left it that way.
Rimola tucked the other cigar into his pocket and left, easing shut the door of my shop like a man with his nerves on edge.
More than a week went by before I saw Paul Rimola again. Looked a little worse for wear this time. Bags under his eyes, that gray cast to his skin. He plunked fifteen cents on the counter and pointed to where he knew his brand was. While I grabbed up the cigars, he again made sure we were alone.
"White Owls, right?"
"That's them." His mouth worked from side to side, then opened slowly. "Wind's back," he said like it was a secret.
"The wind in your room?"
"Blew a calendar off the wall last night. Took my shirt off the back of a chair where I'd hung it." His brow arched like he was waiting for some words of amazement from me.
"Everything shut up tight?"
Rimola nodded. "Checked every possible place air might leak in."
"You still think it's ghosts?"
"No." His eyes got this glazed-over look, and he turned away. "A lot worse than that."
When he turned back to face me, his eyes were red-rimmed and his nose crinkled. I thought he was about to cry. Fear can do that to a man. Fear about something that's out of your control.
"It rained on me last night," Rimola said in choked words. "Rain. In my room. While I laid there in bed. Scared the hell outta me!" A shudder racked his body.
It was plain he wasn't lying. No man would wring himself through emotions like that unless it was the honest-to-goodness truth. And everything about him told me it was. "Rain?" I asked to be sure I heard right.
His face was a pale mask. "It woke me. Cold, it was." He crossed his arms and shivered at the memory. "When I opened my eyes the room was full of...." His eyes pinched shut with a long blink. "Clouds. How else can I describe what was happening? Fog. A damp mist. Cold rain." His arms spread wide with the words, and his face turned upward as if he could still feel the drops on his skin.
"And you don't drink?"
"You still haven't told Mrs. Richmond?"
"What, I should tell her her house is full of evil spirits that only bother me? She'd throw me out."
"Do you own a camera?"
"Only a Kodak that belonged to my wife. One of those clumsy black box things. It sure won't take pictures in the dark. Sometimes a little moonlight gets in through my window, but not enough to photograph with."
I said, "I have a camera. Photography is kind of a hobby of mine. With the right film and a fast lens, I think we can catch this... this thing in your room."
"You'd help me?"
"It's for me too. You've got my curiosity stirred up. I'd like to see this for myself, get some proof on film."
"The weather in my room... there's no pattern. Some nights there's nothing."
"Doesn't matter," I told him. "When it starts to happen, give me a call. I can be at your place in say... ten minutes."
Rimola nodded. "Be ready, my friend; I'll call you."
It was a Saturday night, just before 2 AM, when the phone rang. "This is Paul Rimola," the voice said thinly. "It's starting. I've got clouds, a cool breeze. It smells like it could rain."
I sprang up in bed and almost yelled into the phone, "Don't get up! Don't turn on the lights. Don't move! Okay?"
My wife, Jeanie, sat up, eyes wide, and was just about to scream when I clamped a hand over her mouth. "It's that guy. The one I told you about."
I moved my hand away, and her eyes narrowed as she said, "With the weird stuff going on?"
"That's him. Look, it's starting again and I have to get over there."
"Don't forget your camera bag." She always reminds. Good woman.
Then I remembered the phone call; I had nearly forgotten it, although the receiver was still clutched tightly in my other hand. I said into it, "Rimola, you still there?"
"Did he hang up?" Jeanie asked.
"Yeah... no... wait...."
I could hear it through the phone lines. Wind. Whistling, like through trees. This, though, I guessed, was through furniture, curtains, and stuff. Made me think twice about walking into something that went against all of nature's laws. But I went anyway. Threw my equipment into the backseat of the DeSoto and hauled over there faster than I thought I could.
As I rolled up to the curb in front of that big clapboard Victorian, I cut my headlights and tried to be as quiet as I could. I don't know, I guess I just thought I might disturb something going on inside, and I didn't want to jinx my chance.
The place was gloomy, huddled down in a dense thicket of shrubbery and stunted evergreens. Between dark swaths of oak branches I could see Rimola's window. Then it occurred to me: how was I supposed to get in? Surely the doors would be locked. On the chance that they weren't (Mrs. Richmond had three or four boarders), I carried my equipment across the front porch and put a hand on the door handle. It was one of those fancy brass jobs with a tapered vertical bar and a thumb-polished tongue.
Suddenly the door opened, and Alva Richmond snapped, "Yes?"
Scared the living bejeebers outta me!
There I stood with all that photographic equipment at that indecent hour of the morning, stumbling for words. "Sorry. I was, uh... looking...." I think is all I got out before I realized the lady was all dressed up--frilly flowered dress, jewelry, hair primly done, and about an inch of pasty-white makeup that cracked along every wrinkle in her face like fault lines waiting to slide. She was a slim woman, and, all things considered, not bad looking for her seventy-odd years.
Mrs. Richmond folded her arms across her chest and stared right through me with round, knowing eyes. "Are you looking to rent a room? I may have an opening soon." One hand went to her mouth, and I could see the pinch in her flesh where a wedding ring used to be.
"No, no. I'm just here to visit a sick friend. Mr. Rimola." I threw a glance upward so that she would think I was familiar with his place on the second floor.
"Mr. Rimola is in." She unlocked her gaze and stepped aside to reveal a steep stairway lit by a stained-glass sconce in the shape of a palm leaf. "Be careful," she said softly as I passed.
"The steps." She pointed to the stairway. "They're narrow. Had a guest fall and break his neck just last year."
Climbing those narrow stairs proved difficult with all my photographic supplies slung across my back, and it didn't help that Alva Richmond stood there and watched my every move. All the way up I couldn't help but think about somebody getting killed on those very stairs. Last year? I read the paper every morning and worked about a block away, but I didn't remember hearing about anything like that.
"It's the second door to your right," Mrs. Richmond said when I'd reached the top. I turned back to thank her, but she was already gone.
I stood there a moment, trying to put some reality, some perspective, something, into what I was about to get myself into. Nothing fit anywhere into anything I had ever seen. For me, this whole thing truly fell into the realm of the unknown. I mean, I had read about stuff like this, but I never found it really scary or anything--it was fiction, and happening to some guy who wasn't real either.
But there I was.
My hand automatically balled into a fist to knock on the door, but stopped in midair. I realized I might turn off whatever weird was happening inside by disturbing things, so I stepped closer and pressed an ear to the wood. Nothing. Could be I was too late. I pressed harder.
The door swung right open.
A cold breeze slapped my in the face. I could feel the dampness, like I was walking into a night hung with heavy fog. Something way down inside of me curdled up and froze.
"You feel it?"
It was Rimola's hushed voice. I could make out his shape on the bed curled up in a knot of quilts and sheets.
"Yeah, but I don't believe it." I clicked the door shut and immediately began setting up the tripod. Still hoping this was all a trick, I looked around for electric fans, some sort of drip pipe apparatus spraying water from the ceiling. I'd seen pictures of how they do rain effects in Hollywood and figured this guy may have the same sort of setup. Why he would do that was beyond me.
My search, though, revealed nothing. Knowing that I wasn't being tricked didn't help my nerves in the least. Everything I was seeing was real, really happening-- weather, rain, wind inside Rimola's room--and only in his room. I remembered reading once that Albert Speer had designed this huge domed structure for Hitler. Supposed to hold something like a couple hundred thousand people. It was never built because experts determined that that number of people all in one place, with their warm bodies, breath, and sweat, would create a weather system indoors.
But, I reminded myself, it was happening here with only one person in a cramped little room.
"What did I miss?" I said just loudly enough to be heard.
Rimola replied at the same level. "It's been like this since just before I telephoned you. The wind, the clouds."
I fastened my 35mm Leica (made waterproof by a waxed canvas shield) onto the tripod and checked the settings as best I could. My light meter barely registered the little moonlight that filtered in through the only window. In anticipation of just such a predicament, I had put in the fastest black-and-white film I could get on short notice--ISO 400. It would have to do. I selected a wide-angle lens, adjusted the aperture, screwed my remote bulb wire into the shutter button, and attempted to focus.
That's when things really got strange.
Lightning. I swear it.
Rimola cringed down under his bed covers and moaned something about that never happening before.
But it was happening now. I looked up toward the domed ceiling just as a flash of brilliance set the room aglow. It was dim, as if far off in the distance, but its color convinced me it couldn't be anything else. I started to count, like I did as a boy, to measure the distance. Then a smile came to my face. You can't estimate the distance, I reminded myself unless you hear the--
Thunder. A rolling rumble, as if far off in the distance, but nonetheless most certainly thunder.
I stuck my head out into the hall. Mrs. Richmond and the other tenants must surely have heard that. They'd come running to see what's happening. Then it occurred to me that out in the hallway I couldn't hear a thing, couldn't even smell the dampness. Not a clue as to the storm raging within those four walls.
I pulled back into the room. With shaking fingers I groped for my remote bulb, turned the lens toward the busiest display of activity and snapped a picture--just as another flash of lightning flared right in the middle of the room, only a few steps from my lens. The photograph, of course, would be ruined, a smear of gray-white glare. Not evidence to convince anyone of the unearthly events happening right there before my eyes.
"You all right?" I called to Rimola. He moved but didn't answer. I could see in brief displays of light that his entire bed was soaked. Small streams of water rushed along the creases and folds and splashed to the floor. A particularly dark cloud seemed to hover just above the headboard, drenching the bedding, the rug, the dresser against a nearby wall.
"Damn!" I said to myself in disbelief. "This can't be real."
But there was no other explanation. The storm was intensifying--seemingly angry that I was there and interfering with its course or purpose or whatever.
"It's coming closer!" Rimola screamed from his bed.
He hadn't even looked, but he was right. The rain was falling in torrents. The wind picked up, spinning air with no place to go, sweeping up whatever it could, toppling whatever was too heavy for it to lift. It was like being stuck in a mad carnival ride caught up in a disaster of supernatural origin.
Within a flicker of lightning I grabbed for my camera, unable to see clearly with the rain in my eyes and Rimola's clothes and books and belongings wildly blowing around. Blindly, I snapped off most of a roll of film against the hope that at least one frame would develop as positive proof of what was happening.
A small table crashed into the wall next to me. Arcs of lightning lit the room with an eerie blue-green glow. Static electricity played with my hair. Sparks jumped everywhere. Dewiness surrounded me, my brain spinning like it had come loose inside my skull.
"The light." I could just barely make out Rimola's words. Wind whipped his hair and squinted his eyes. "I'll turn on the lamp."
His hand found the bedside light and followed the tubular base up to the switch. I know it turned, but the light never came on. "No use!" he screamed as a burst of wind snatched the heavy lamp from its table, banged the metal shades against the wall, and popped both bulbs. The cord snapped with a fireworks of electricity. He brought his hand down on the phone and strong-armed the receiver to press it against his ear. But he dropped it immediately. "Dead!" he yelled. "It's dead!"
"We've got to get out of here," I shouted to Rimola. I'm not sure he heard me above the howl of the wind and the clap of nearing thunder. "Let's go!"
"Yeah!" he finally answered. "Downstairs! The police. We can call from there!"
Then I saw the bed shift and slide toward me with the force of an all-out gale driving it. Marble-sized hail clicked against the floor and woodwork, bouncing crazily here and there, making it impossible to walk. Rimola sat up as all the bedding was swept from his drenched body, and lightning revealed the absolute terror in his eyes as I yanked at the door and fell into the strange calmness of the hallway. The force of the wind pinned my leg between the heavy wooden door and the jamb, but between gusts I managed to pull it free.
I guess I just laid there, flat on my back on the hall carpet runner. It was dry, quiet, and peaceful-- not the slightest hint of the raging storm ripping through the room only a few feet from my head.
Suddenly, two realizations stuck me: I was dry. Completely dry! And Rimola was still trapped in that room; he hadn't followed me out.
Struggling to my knees, I grabbed the doorknob in both hands. It was either locked or stuck or warped solidly shut.
Mrs. Richmond. She'd have a key. I had to find her.
Half stumbling, half falling down the stairs, I came to a door off to the left at the bottom and pounded my fists as hard as I could against it. "Help!" I yelled. "Help! Mrs. Richmond?"
She had to have heard me, but the door was locked, and there was no answer to my calls.
The police. I had to get to a phone somewhere and call the police. The smoke shop! I raced out the front door and down the porch steps. As I reached the street, I was puffing out at a full run, but managed to look up at the lone window at the top of that big oak.
And I saw it. The bolt that killed him. Sure as everything on this earth that's real, a blinding bolt of lightning appeared in that poor man's room and took him from this world.
Officer Oscar Danth, gun on one hip, flashlight on the other, finally arrived at the house and had no trouble waking Mrs. Richmond. "Noise?" she said thoughtfully. She tied the belt of her flannel night robe and adjusted the thick net that held her now braided hair. "I'm afraid I never heard a thing."
Calm as you please, she unlocked Rimola's door while Danth and I waited off to one side. I don't mind telling you, I was busy scraping together whatever courage I had left inside me, because I didn't want to go back in there. The ghosts, evil spirits, or whatever the hell had possession of that room could have all my camera equipment if they'd just leave me alone.
The lock turned, and the door swung smoothly open into a dark room. Danth, a well-fed man with determination written across his heavy brow, stepped inside first, the beam of his flashlight sweeping corner to corner along the opposite wall. I could hear his steps on the hardwood floor and his nose taking in the smells.
Relief, I told myself. Evidence. Another witness.
"Get some water," he called back. "Smells like something's burning in here."
About then, a thin wisp of smoke curled back through the upper portions of the open door, carrying with it the unmistakable stench of burnt flesh.
"Mr. Rimola! Is it Mr. Rimola?" I held my breath and against all common sense stepped into that room.
Mrs. Richmond switched on the bedside lamp with no difficulty. It was right in its place on the table.
Everything was in place. Not a stick of furniture, not a curtain, nothing was out of place. And dry. Every last thing in the room was dry. No clouds up in the dome. No thunder. No lightning. Only Paul Rimola's body there in the bed all curled and twisted and burnt charcoal black. Soulless sockets stared nowhere. The bedding was barely singed. My voice left me and I was barely able to catch a breath.
"I told him not to smoke in bed," Mrs. Richmond said, shaking her finger at the corpse. "Those cigars he couldn't give up finally killed him."
Danth seemed puzzled, pacing around the bed, examining the sheets and quilts. With a pencil from his pocket he poked Rimola's brittle black pajamas at the collar fold where they still glowed with sparks.
Mrs. Richmond left, clucking her tongue and muttering something about her insurance rates going through the roof.
I turned away, for the first time seeing my camera equipment shoved off to one side-- in perfect condition. Dry, not a scratch, neatly put away into the bag, every lens, every flash bulb, every single piece of equipment in its correct slot or pocket. The tripod was folded and tied to the base of the case, as I always did when I took the time.
"Officer?" I asked, stunned. "You don't think this was a simple case of a guy smoking in bed?"
His face wrinkled with obvious puzzlement. "I don't know. Damn peculiar. Like somebody's nightmare came true." Then he looked at me. "No smoking material anywhere that I see. You know for sure if the man smoked?"
"White Owl cigars," I answered.
Danth hmmed to himself. "Well, I'll get homicide on this. Maybe they can make some sense of a man burning to death this way." Then he turned to me and in a totally different voice said, "I'll need your name and address."
I scribbled the information on the inside of a ripped-open film box and got out of that room. I was in a hurry, a hurry to get home to my darkroom and print the film in my camera. Excitement charged my heart in spite of a little voice in the back of my head that kept saying, 'You don't want to do that. You don't want to see what's on that film.'
One by one I watched the prints appear on paper. Blurry. Nothing. A streak of white--could be anything. At least the tedium was calming my nerves.
The last picture though, sent my blood pressure into the pounding piston range. Sweat beaded up on my face, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up.
Clouds. Sharp and distinct, but two-dimensional like a painting from the Middle Ages. And there in this little clear patch was a formation of stars. Real heavenly stars. Only they weren't randomly scattered, like you'd expect. These were clustered into perfect circles, interlocking rings. Seven, I counted. And faintly, mere whisps of nothingness inside each star circle, was a face. Young people mostly. Twenties. Thirties, I think. Kind of hard to tell. All were overlit from behind, and their features were soft and smooth.
As I stared in disbelief, I got the feeling that all of this had happened to other people--people all over the world since the beginning of time. And that it was okay, nothing evil or menacing in the least. No, Paul Rimola had been chosen. This magnificent vision in the photograph was the last thing he was privileged to see in this life.
After putting the print through the final rinse, I hung it up to dry, sat back on my stool, and stared at it. Couldn't believe it. To this very minute, I still cannot believe what I saw.
The next day I took my evidence to the smoke shop, intending to thumbtack it to the wall next to the cash register. My plan was to show it to everybody who came in--see if they recognized any of the faces, or if they had some idea as to the significance of the star circles. But, as the point of the tack punctured the picture, the paper burst into flames right there in my hands. Burned to ashes, it did. What really scared me, though, is that the black ashes didn't drop to the floor like you'd expect--they dripped to the floor. Slimy wet. Figure that?
Copyright 2002, Don Hornbostel
About the Author
Don Hornbostel lives in the Phoenix area, where he spends the cooler hours hiking mountain trails and haunting the book stores and libraries. He is also an avid movie fan and even sees those the critics hate, just to see if he agrees.
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