Sitting in a coffee shop, Joe examined his watch and frowned. The gold monstrosity had been a retirement gift from the material sciences department when he had worked at the university. He had never understood the point of giving someone a timepiece at the very moment that they no longer needed to be anywhere on time. Watches had fallen out of favor since everyone had started carrying around cell phones, but traditions die hard, even among scientifically minded people who should know better.
He’d already waited for ten minutes past when Zoey had arranged to meet him but decided to give her five more before he gave up and left. She had called him last night, insisting that she had found something on the video they had taken at his apartment. He’d assumed that he’d heard the last of Zoey and her friends once the video had gone up on the Internet and had been labeled a hoax. She had been insistent, however, and lacking anything better to do, he had agreed to meet her.
A last sip of java, bitter and lukewarm, rested at the bottom of his cup. He tipped the mug back and drained it, and swirled the last few drops around in the bottom. The girl – No, he reminded himself, not a girl. She was twenty and only looked like a girl to his old eyes – burst through the door. She was anxious and out of breath, and promptly slumped down into the chair opposite Joe.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I had the wrong place.”
“That’s all right,” said Joe, half-heartedly. “They all kind of look the same nowadays. What was so important?”
Fetching a tablet from her shoulder bag, she tapped the screen and handed it to Joe. He took it and saw a paused video on the screen. It showed the three young ghost hunters standing in his kitchen. He looked up at her puzzled, but she nodded and pointed to the device. He pressed the play icon. The video was the same one that he had seen before, but slowed down several times so that everyone moved like they were stuck in molasses.
“Pay close attention to the frying pan,” said Zoey.
Joe watched but he knew what was going to happen. The pan lifted up off the stove and flew across the room, striking Zoey with a glancing blow to the head. “What’s the point in making me watch this?” asked Joe. He already felt bad about what had happened to her and didn’t need to relive it again.
“I used the original uncompressed video to zoom in on the frying pan. You can barely see it, but it’s there.”
The video went black for a moment and then restarted, this time on a slightly grainy close-up of his stove top. Joe watched as his pan sat there for half-a-minute and then started to move on its own. Thin wisps of gray mist rose up from the surface of his counter and stove. They seemed to coil around the pan like phantom tentacles that grabbed it and hurled it away. Just as quickly as they had appeared, the tendrils vanished, leaving no trace.
“What am I looking at here?” asked Joe. “It almost looks like smoke from the element.”
“Except the stove wasn’t on,” said Zoey, “or else I would have been burned as well.”
Joe felt another pang of guilt when she mentioned getting hit and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Since she had been in his apartment with her friends, he had come to learn that he was one responsible for the attack through some unconscious ability that he couldn’t understand or explain. His situation had gotten progressively worse until his friend Louise had helped him accept that his grief and guilt over having feelings for a woman other than his dead wife had somehow triggered the attacks. They would still occur from time to time when he was upset or angry, but for the most part he had them under control.
The stitches on her scalp just above her hairline were a reminder however that he was at least partly responsible for her pain. He had been angry with her for bringing up his wife, Clara, and must have subconsciously taken it out on her with the frying pan. “How is your head, by the way. Any permanent damage?”
“What? No, I had a headache for a day or so but otherwise I’m fine.”
“What about the stitches?” asked Joe.
Her hand automatically went to the side of her head, as though she wanted to check that the stitches were still there. “That’s nothing. I didn’t even think I needed them, but the doctor insisted. They itch sometimes, otherwise I forget they’re there. It’s not the first time I’ve had stitches you know. I may not look it now, but I used to be quite the tomboy.” She flashed him what seemed like a genuine smile. If he wa forty years younger, he might have thought she was flirting with him.
The video fascinated him, but with the close zoom it could have been a processing artifact. He wasn’t ready to sign off on the mystical explanation that the girl had obviously jumped to almost immediately. He handed the tablet back to her and asked, “So what do you think that is?”
“It’s difficult to say exactly,” she said. “but it can’t be a coincidence that smoke appeared right before pan moved. There is something there, but it’s hard to say exactly what it is. We need more information, Joe. What I’d like to do is come back to your apartment and set up our gear and maybe…”
“No, absolutely not.” Joe’s tone was soft but resolute.
“Look, I know you’re a skeptic and don’t believe in the supernatural, and I respect that. The truth is I’m a skeptic too. We need more evidence to help us solve this mystery. Without it, anything we say is just speculation.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Joe. “It’s stopped happening.”
Zoey leaned in closer and lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “Joe, I know you’re upset, but you don’t have to lie to me. I’m sorry about bringing up your wife before. That was insensitive of me. It’s obvious that still care for her deeply, and that’s a credit to your character. We’re only trying to help you understand what’s going on.”
“I knew it was a mistake to come here,” said Joe. “I should have just left well enough alone.”
Zoey rested a reassuring hand on Joe’s arm. “Whatever the problem is,” she said, “I’m sure we can work around it.”
“No, you don’t understand,” he said, pulling away from her touch. Joe knew she would keep hounding him unless he left or told her the truth. He considered just barreling out of there and never talking to her again, but it just seemed rude. Except for the one faux pas of bringing up his wife, she had been nothing but kind and understanding. All he had given her in return was a head wound. He did need help, even if he was too proud to admit it out loud. He had to trust someone; it might as well be her. “There never was any ghost. It turns out it was me all along.”
“What do you mean?”
Joe looked around. The few people who were in the coffee shop were absorbed in their own conversations or had their eyes glued to their phones and laptops. Joe picked up his empty coffee mug and set it in the middle of the small table. He took one more furtive glance, and then, without touching it, the mug slid across the table into his waiting hands.
He had thought that she would beg him to do it again, maybe even pull out a camera right there, but instead she stood up and said, “C’mon, Joe. Walk with me.” She went straight out the door without even looking back.
Puzzled, Joe followed after her. He found her waiting just outside the door, and she immediately took his arm and led him away from the coffee shop. “That was incredible. Absolutely incredible. But you shouldn’t do that again in public. It could get you some unwanted attention.”
“I don’t understand,” said Joe.
“There have been stories of people with special abilities all throughout history,” said Zoey. “From Achilles and Hercules, to David and Samson, right up to the faith healers and psychics of today. We usually dismiss the stories as myth, but time and again it’s been shown that there is often a factual basis for legends.”
“It’s different though,” said Joe. “Just because we’ve found giant squid, it doesn’t mean the Kraken is real.
“I’ve had this argument with Nick. He agrees with you, but I’ve been doing a ton of research on just this sort of thing since we met. I believe that there are some people in the world, even today, that have special abilities. What if you’re one in a million, different from everyone else?”
“That still doesn’t explain how or why,” said Joe. “Or the hasty retreat from the coffee shop. What was that about?”
“If I’m right, and you are special, then others might be interested in the things you can do. Others who might not care about how it affects you, only how they can control or profit from it. I left like that to make sure no one was following you.”
Joe looked around but all he saw were the same innocuous faces that were always on the streets. There were no suspicious characters darting into doorways or peering at him over a newspaper. “I think we gave them the slip.”
“I’m serious, Joe,” she said. “If the wrong people were to find out about you, there’s no telling what lengths they would go to figure out how you made that mug move.” She slapped her head in sudden realization and grimaced at the twinge of pain from the stitches. “And I led them right to you with that video. I’ve got to pull that down now.” She stopped walking, pulled out her tablet, and began tapping furiously.
Joe stood beside her and waited for her to finish. Despite not taking the threat seriously, he took another look around to see if anyone was watching. “So what’s the next step?”
“First, we need to do some controlled experiments so we exactly what we’re dealing with. Once we have the data, we can go public with it. I think you would be safest if the truth was out in the open.”
“I’m not sure I like this plan. I don’t want to be the poster child for telekinesis.”
“I can’t prove that there are people out exploit you, but if there are, it would be a lot harder to make you disappear if you were in the public eye. Either way, we need to document your ability if we’re going to understand it, so we’ll start there. We can debate what happens next after. I’m going to call the guys and see if we can book some time in the university lab.”
The idea of going back to his old haunts appealed to Joe, even if the circumstances were bizarre. At the very least, it would be a chance to reconnect and catch up with the few friends he still had there. “All right. I’ll do it.”
To be continued…