Riley Thorn and the Dead Guy Next Door
10:02 p.m., Saturday, July 4
The dead talked to Riley Thorn in her dreams. The living inconveniently telegraphed their secrets to her over grocery conveyor belts and in crowded restaurants.
She did her best to ignore them all.
In fact, right now, the only thing she was talking to was her breasts.
“Heading south on 83 toward the bridge. We’ve got company,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Oh my God. She’s lost it. She’s talking to her tits,” one of her backseat passengers whined.
“I talk to mine all the time. Don’t you?” another announced.
“I do not know if I speak to any body part,” the only man in the vehicle mused. “Perhaps I should try it.”
“You people are not normal,” complained the final backseat tagalong.
Normal had been Riley’s rebellion against a patchouli-scented, home-grown vegetable-selling, seance-attending childhood. Normal was her middle name. Well, not technically. Her legal middle name was the worst possible middle name in the history of middle names. She’d change it if it didn’t involve actually writing it down on paperwork and handing it to another human being.
Normal was what she longed for now as she jammed her foot down on the accelerator. The stolen pickup truck lumbered up to speed while Ram Jam howled “Black Betty” at full volume.
Her front-seat passenger slapped fresh magazines into her guns.
“It looks like the cops,” Riley reported, wondering if she should pull over or if it would be the last mistake she’d ever make. Red and blue lights flashed on in her rearview mirror. “You can’t shoot at cops!”
There was a loud bang, and one of her backseat passengers shrieked. “They’re shooting at us! Bad cops!”
Just then the night sky lit up to the right.
“They’re not shooting at us,” Riley insisted over the music. Fireworks exploded to their right as City Island’s pyrotechnics crew went balls to the Fourth-of-July-wall. There was a baseball stadium full of families enjoying both the nation’s favorite pastime and birthday, completely unaware that the bad guys were closing in on a group of—what had been until last week—relatively normal citizens.
She desperately wished she could have been one of them. Innocent. Happy. Her only concern the inflated prices at the beer stand. But no. She’d made one stupid mistake, one seemingly innocent decision, and now she was going to end up in the Susquehanna River in a stolen truck full of weirdos.
The unmarked sedan behind her veered into the left lane, and she knew exactly what the occupants were going to do. It blared into her mind in high definition.
“Everybody get down!” she shouted and slammed on the brakes.
All five of her passengers hit the deck just before a hail of bullets took out the windows on the driver’s side.
“Pretty sure they’re shooting at us now,” one of the smartasses pointed out.
“You think?” Riley yelled back.
Glass rained down, and the smell of burning rubber assailed her nostrils.
“We’re taking fire,” Riley yelled in the vicinity of her breasts. If anyone was talking back, she couldn’t hear them. Not over the fireworks or the screaming or the rock song wailing at full blast on the radio with the broken volume knob.
She peeked over the wheel. Black tire tracks led up to the car sitting sideways across two of the bridge’s three southbound lanes. Two men stood in front of the car, legs braced, guns drawn. She couldn’t go back. There was only one way to get past gun-toting bad guys barricading the road to freedom. She could only hope the truck’s massive engine block would protect them enough to make it work.
“Everybody hang on,” she said grimly as she revved the engine. A shower of golden sparkles rained down from the sky above, drifting toward the inky black of the river.
“What’s the plan?” her front-seat passenger asked, calmly chambering rounds in both guns.
“I’m gonna ram them.”
Step one. Accelerate to thirty miles per hour.
“I blame you, Nick Santiago,” she yelled to her breasts again and mashed the gas pedal to the floor. She couldn’t tell which pops and booms were fireworks and which were bullets peppering the front of the truck.
“Ohhhhhhmmmmmmm,” hummed the large black man wedged into the back seat in the midst of three shell-shocked waitresses.
“What the hell is Beefcake doing?”
“How should I know? Maybe we should hum with him?”
Riley blocked out the back seat ohms.
Step two. Aim for the center of the front wheel.
Her passengers abandoned their ohm and joined together in a chorus of screams and regrets. Bits and pieces from each of their lives flashed before Riley’s eyes. She had half a second to appreciate the irony that it was other peoples’ lives and not her own. Because that’s what her quest for normal had earned her. A too-quiet, forgettable life.
“I should have stayed in school!”
“I never should have given that guy a BJ!”
“I should have had that second hot fudge sundae!”
Riley never should have answered the knock on her door two weeks ago.
6:55 a.m., Tuesday, June 16
The soothing sounds of digital wind chimes and chanting monks yanked Riley from an unsettling dream about an elderly woman obsessed with lymph nodes.
She slapped at the buttons on the expensive gradual progression monstrosity she’d stolen from a very stupid man and pulled the blanket over her head. Here, in the space between sleep and work, she was alone. Blissfully, quietly alone.
No intrusive thoughts from strangers to acknowledge. No dead grandmothers to appease.
Here, under the covers, everything was normal.
Well, as normal as a broke, divorced, 34-year-old proofreader who hailed from a long and distinguished line of female… Never mind. She didn’t like to think about the special “talents” that ran in her family. Especially not first thing in the morning.
It was a summer Tuesday. Which meant her cubicle mate, Bud, would bring in sushi just past its expiration date and then spend most of the afternoon in the bathroom. Donna, the front desk gargoyle, would be wearing a withering glare and take out her Monday night church bingo losses on anyone who wandered past her desk.
It also meant that Riley would treat herself to the one and only fancy coffee drink she budgeted for the week.
With the siren’s call of caffeine fresh in her mind, she dragged herself out of bed and shuffled for the bathroom in the hall.
“Riley!” A thin, reedy voice called from one of the lower floors. “Fred needs help with his Kindle again.”
“Okay, Lily,” she yelled back.
Riley’s mother took a ceramics class with Lily Bogdanovich. So when Riley had found herself on the other side of a changed lock on the front porch formerly known as hers, Lily had happily opened her attic.
The crumbling stone mansion on Front Street belonged to the Bogdanovich twins. Lily and Fred were elderly siblings who had inherited the house, half of a racehorse, and every issue of Playboy Magazine published between 1972 and 1984.
Never having families themselves, the Bogdanovich twins had set up an off-the-books flophouse in the mansion, opening up their guest bedrooms to complete strangers.
Riley had space on the third floor that included room for a bed, a small living area, and a microscopic kitchenette that couldn’t handle much more than microwave popcorn and toast.
The plaster ceiling followed the odd, grandiose rooflines of the ancient architectural wreck in hard angles and weird slants. But the dormer windows offered a decent view of the Susquehanna River as it meandered its way south on the other side of Front Street.
“Keep it down out there,” the downside snarled from behind his closed door.
Riley shared a bathroom with the tenant across the hall. Dickie Frick was a grumpy, presumably perverted old man. His welcome mat said Fuck Off, and he always left his dirty underwear on the floor in front of the sink. She didn’t know much more about him except that he sometimes remembered to flush the toilet, had a job that involved working late, and that, depending on his mood, he liked to watch NCIS reruns or porn.
Ignoring Dickie, she left the bushy rose wallpaper and hunter green woodwork of the hall behind and stepped into the bathroom.
There they were. The tighty-not-so-whities. On a yawn, she reached under the sink and pulled out the pair of plastic salad tongs she’d stashed there. Trying not to look too closely—she’d made that mistake once—she made the short journey to Dickie’s door and tossed the briefs over the knob before returning to the bathroom.
The room had a decades-past-its-heyday charm. The sink was bile yellow as was the clawfoot tub. The floor was covered in a dingy black and white checkered tile. It creaked dangerously whenever she got into the tub, but it had yet to give up the good fight against gravity.
She shoved a toothbrush into her mouth and a hairbrush into her thick, shoulder-length hair. Her mother’s side’s Ukrainian genes had won the genetic wrestling match. Her hair was dark brown. Her eyes were the same, just a little too big for her face. Heavy lids made her look bored even when she wasn’t. The upside was, if she took the time to bother with eyeshadow, she could really rock the hell out of a good come-hither stare.
Not that she was come-hithering anyone right now. The divorce still stung. And there was that whole being broke thing. She didn’t want to meet someone new and have to explain to him why her roommates were all on Medicare. If anyone with a badge asked, she was supposed to call them all Aunt and Uncle So-and-So.
Morning bathroom business taken care of, Riley returned to her room, still yawning. She’d been short on sleep for most of her life. It was the dreams. They’d only gotten more… annoying, more insistent, the older she got. Turning on the TV, she listened to the perky news team banter about the latest vigilante activity in the city while she dressed. A group of unidentified adults in masks had tracked down a repeat offender of the litterbug classification and filled his car—incidentally illegally parked in a handicap spot—to the roof with trash.
“Harrisburg Mayor Nolan Flemming had this to say about the vigilantes.”
The screen cut to a shot of the mayor—whose main claim to fame since his election was his Kennedy-esque hotness—on the steps outside his office building downtown. “I have full confidence in our police department. No one in our fair city is above the law, and citizens must remember that though justice may move slowly, it will still be served. Taking the law into your own hands is not only dangerous—it’s illegal.”
Dressed for the day, Riley grabbed her leftovers out of the fridge and headed down the skinny back staircase. It was a tight corkscrew, dangerous for anyone who wore a shoe size above a woman’s eight. Down three flights she went, catching signs of life on every floor.
She peeled off into the kitchen on the first floor, a sunny room with butcher block counters and ancient mint green cabinets that required a step ladder to access.
Fred, the oddly muscular senior citizen, was wearing his side-part toupee and a Hall and Oates t-shirt. He happily handed over his e-reader to her so she could work her youngish person magic, which consisted of connecting to the Wi-Fi and hitting Sync.
“You’re the best, Riley,” Fred chirped while his Yoga Poses for Sexy Seniors downloaded.
“Don’t pull any muscles,” she warned. “See you later, Mr. Willicott,” she said to her other neighbor.
“Who the hell are you?” groused the elderly version of Denzel Washington as he poured coffee into a bowl. She wasn’t sure if his memory was faulty or if Mr. Willicott just didn’t give a shit about anything.
Ducking out the backdoor, she inhaled a breath of fresh almost-summer. June in Pennsylvania was nice.
Maybe she’d take an hour or two of vacation time and leave early today, she mused as she unlocked her Jeep.
“Yeah, maybe do some fishing.”
“I’m not going fishing, Uncle Jimmy,” she muttered, turning the key and cranking the stereo. The Jeep had belonged to her now-deceased uncle. It became hers after she’d had to return the BMW her ex-husband had tried to surprise her with after forgetting her birthday. Again.
Jimmy, her father’s brother, had died doing what he loved best. Napping in his boat after drinking a six-pack of cheap beer. The coronary took him out before he could wake up and finish his triple-decker roast beef and fried onion sandwich. The man was dead but not exactly gone. His spirit lingered in the Jeep she’d inherited. Her sister refused to ride anywhere with Riley, claiming she could still smell the ghost of the Styrofoam cooler of fish the man had once forgotten about for a week in the dead of summer.
She pulled out onto Front Street with the river to her right and Harrisburg to her left. As the state capital, parts of the city were almost impressive. The capitol complex, with its green-glazed terra cotta dome and post-modern fountain, drew crowds for tours year-round. Then there were the not-so-nice parts. The “don’t walk down the street alone at night” parts, the easily flooded parts, and the “what’s that weird smell?” parts.
Of course, it wasn’t just crime and weird smells that had given Harrisburg its notoriety. There was that brush with bankruptcy thanks to an incinerator debacle, and then there were the millions of city dollars tied up in a collection of Wild West artifacts for a museum that never happened.
Despite all this, revitalization was slowly oozing in from the city’s borders. Festivals along the riverfront drew huge crowds. Family-friendly 5ks snaked their way down city streets. Breweries and restaurants popped up in once-abandoned storefronts. And long-empty buildings found new owners with renovation budgets.
Little Amps was a hip coffee shop that roasted its own beans and attracted the kinds of people who enjoyed the inconvenience of not going through a chain drive-thru. The coffee was excellent. But the parking was stupid. The building sat on a corner on the skinny, one-way Green Street. Riley circled twice before getting desperate and slipping into a spot down the block tagged with a faded paper sign that read No Parking Until Further Notice, Harrisburg Parking Enforcement.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Uncle Jimmy’s voice sang in her head.
She ignored it. The sign had been there for the last six weeks, and as far as she could tell, the parking office was just screwing with drivers at this point.
She waited for a rusted-out pickup and a shiny Tesla to cruise past before crossing the street. A guy with dreadlocks and a lot of facial piercings held the door for her as she jogged up the two concrete steps into the shop. There was a line, as there always was on weekday mornings. But no one else seemed to be in the hurry that Riley always was. They all probably had make-your-own schedules or work-from-home jobs.
The higher-ups at the marketing firm where she worked had freaked out over the suggestion.
Employees were required to be in the building for exactly eight hours a day, five days a week, in order to get paid. Her boss, Leon Tuffley Jr., a crotch-scratching “charmer,” told them all that there was no way he was paying employees to “pretend” to work when he knew damn well they’d all be “drinking beer naked and farting around.”
In an unspoken rebellion, the offended employees had since dedicated wildly inappropriate amounts of time to social media and computer games during work hours. It had been the only thing to unite them.
Riley shifted her weight from foot to foot, tantalized by the smell of Honduran dark roast. Unless everyone in front of her was ordering a black coffee, she was going to be late. Again. And Donna, the front desk sentinel of indeterminate age and humanity, was going to be a pain in the ass about it. Again.
After nearly a year at Sullivan, Hartfield, Aster, Reynolds, and Tuffley, Riley had yet to see the woman smile, say “excuse me” when she elbowed someone out of her way in the snack room, or wash her hands before leaving the restroom.
“Should I shave the ol’ bikini line in case we have sex tonight? Or should I not shave it and hold out for one more date?”
Instinctively, Riley glanced over her shoulder. The woman behind her was studying the menu board, but apparently her mind was on more important things. Things that a stranger such as herself should not be eavesdropping on.
Opening a news app, Riley drowned out the private thoughts of strangers and focused on more local happenings.
“Welcome to Little Amps,” the barista said cheerfully when she arrived at the front of the line. “What can I get you?”
Her hair was chopped short and shaved on one side. Her cat-eye glasses were a bright shade of raspberry that matched the tips of her hair. The tattoo at the base of her thumb was a penguin with heart eyes. She also had swollen lymph nodes on one side of her neck.
Not that Riley could actually tell. But she knew.
Oh, shit. Not again. Not here.
Her nose twitched.
“Uh, I’ll have the cold jar, please,” she croaked, looking everywhere but the girl’s neck.
“Tell her,” the grandmotherly figure from her dreams insisted. “Tell her. Tell her. Tell her.”
Riley pressed her lips together. She wasn’t doing this again. She’d already had to stop going to her favorite sandwich shop for lunch. And then there was the dive bar over on Fifth Street that she’d never set foot in again.
She rubbed a palm over her nose. It was still twitching.
These stupid messages were ruining her life. She needed a damn mute button. It wasn’t like they were true. They felt true, but they were probably just deranged compulsions.
On cue, her phone rang.
“Hi, Mom,” Riley said. The barista was pouring milk over ice and cold brew into a to-go jar. If customers brought their jar back, they got ten percent off their next order. She really wanted that discount.
“What’s wrong?” Blossom Basil-Thorn demanded. The nasally Wisconsin accent was always more pronounced when she was worried about her daughters.
“Nothing,” Riley lied.
“Lying. Skip to the part where you tell me the truth. Was it another dream?”
She heard a bang and a clunk on her mom’s end of the call. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Making homemade laundry detergent while your father makes the leak in the sink worse,” she said. “Now, tell me about the dream.”
“Can’t right now,” Riley hedged. The barista screwed on the lid, whistling a jazzy little tune, completely unaware of the battle that was waging inside her customer.
It wasn’t even real, she told herself. It was just a stupid dream, and the girl in front of her had perfectly normal lymph nodes. She probably didn’t even have a dead grandmother.
“Ah,” her mother said, understanding. “You need to tell whoever it is whatever it is, Riley. It’s a gift. You’re wasting your talents by ignoring them.”
“It’s not a gift,” she argued. She handed the girl cash, and when their fingers brushed, she saw the barista as a five-year-old standing on a stool in Great-Grandma Ida’s kitchen as a very alive Ida taught her how to mix pancake batter.
“I gotta go, Mom,” Riley said and disconnected. She stood rooted to the spot for a second, debating whether she should wait for her change or just run.
She’d forked over a twenty. She needed that change.
“Tell her this instant!”
Riley wondered if death had made this Ida lady more authoritative or if she’d always been that way.
“Here’s your change,” the barista sang, handing over the bills.
Visions of lymph nodes danced in Riley’s head. She stuffed a dollar in the tip jar and cleared her throat. “Ida wants you to get your lymph nodes checked,” she whispered.
There. Happy, Ida? Another public place officially ruined. She was definitely going to have to start going to coffee shops and restaurants in disguise so she could at least keep coming back after these stupid revelations.
“Wait. What? Who?” The barista’s mouth fell open in an O, and she stared.
See? She didn’t even have a Great-Grandma Ida.
“Do you mean my great-grandma?” the girl asked.
Riley started to back away. “Just get them checked. Right away.”
“Wait!” the girl called after her. The rest of the customers who weren’t jamming out to indie folk-rock in their earbuds watched Riley hurry toward the door.
Skidding to a halt, she swore, then dashed back to the register. “I’m just going to take this,” she said, her cheeks flaming as she grabbed the coffee.
She could kiss that ten percent discount goodbye. Because this jar was never coming back.