by R.W. Van Sant
Once home, they collapsed on the couch in exhaustion. Jerry ached from the electrically induced strain on his muscles. Ted brought in a six-pack of beer and more DVDs. Ted had recorded several taped documentaries about on diving and shipwrecks. They were entertaining, but by no means intended to be instructional. Still, Jerry watched, trying to glean any useful information he could. The elephant in the room grew with every tape he viewed. Each one implied that a novice should never attempt that kind of dive. Even if he were the most naturally gifted student in the world, he could never be ready by the end of the week and neither could Ted. That was the real risk, inexperience, and it was more deadly than a school of sharks.
Ted was just starting to cook the hamburger helper he’d planned for dinner in what Jerry assumed was an attempt to convince him there were worse things than death. Food poisoning, for instance.
A light rapping at the door startled Jerry.
He turned off the DVD, coerced his body from the comfort of the sofa and headed stiffly toward the door. Jerry pulled on the knob and leaned backward, allowing his weight help the creaking door to open instead of his sore muscles. It opened quickly, to Jerry’s dismay. He stumbled back, nearly falling on his ass. Ellie stood in the doorway; a twinkle of amusement in her eyes and pizza boxes in her hands. Atop the steaming boxes sat a neat pile of official-looking papers. The food was a bribe, but he did not care if it saved him from the hamburger helper.
“Company!” Jerry called.
“Who is it?”
“Pizza!” Jerry motioned her to enter. She smiled conspiratorially as he raised a finger to his lips to gain her silence.
“Yeah right,” Ted called back. “No one delivers this far out, I know. I’ve tried that.”
“I’ve got connections,” Jerry said. “Bring out three plates!”
“You’ve got to be joking.” Ted came out of the kitchen. One look at the pizzas and another at Ellie sent him back into the dining room. “Three plates coming up.”
“Let’s eat in the dining room,” Jerry suggested. “There’s more room on the big table for the papers.”
“Sure.” Ellie moved into the room tentatively, her eyes scanning every corner.
“I’ve never been inside before. It’s kind of strange. I mean, every town has its haunted houses.”
“It’s a bit run down and creepy I’ll admit, but I’ve yet to see a ghost,” Jerry said. He remembered the shape on the reef and suppressed a shudder.
“You should watch more horror movies. New owners are always in denial until, wham it hits, the voices from nowhere and walls bleed blood. Then it is too late.” Ellie said.
“I don’t believe in ghosts.” Jerry motioned to the table. “Put them down anywhere.”
“Neither do I. Still, it is a bit… strange”. She set the bundle down and handed Jerry the small pile of papers. “This enough paperwork?”
“The pizza might help.” He sat on a chair on the other side of the table from the pizza and put the pile on the table before him. “But we should avoid food stains. They don’t appreciate those in the business office. Ted can be a little messy.”
“Me?” He entered with plates and glasses. “I didn’t eat with a bib till I was eight.”
“That was Arturo, not me.”
“I meant Arty.” Ted winked. “Our cousin, a real slob.”
“I brought one cheese and one combination. Is that okay?” She opened the boxes to reveal two steaming pizzas. Jerryhanded out napkins for each of them.
Jerry did his best to eat as carefully as possible. He did not want to embarrass himself again, in front of Ellie. Ted, it appeared, did not have that problem. In fact, he made liberal use of several napkins. Ellie did not seem to take notice; she had seen worse at the restaurant.
Ted cleaned up the table afterward, moving what remained of the pizzas into the kitchen. Jerry wiped the grease from his hands and grabbed Eli’s pile of paperwork. She sat next to him and helped him sort out the relevant forms. He showed her how to fill each one out, bringing back memories of his first semester. She reached for her tax returns, and her arm brushed against his. His blood raced through his veins. Jerry went to open a window while she looked through her documents. If he could have splashed water on his face without her noticing, he would have. Ellie was a quick study and completed the forms quickly.
“The next step is to apply to a few universities. Then just sit back and wait for the acceptance letters.” Jerry said.
“Thanks a lot,” Ellie said. “I’ll get these in the mail tomorrow.”
“You can probably apply online. Then you can find out in about a week.”
“We don’t have an internet connection,” Ellie said.
“Afraid not,” Ellie said. “My dad is a bit technophobic. The only computer Paul owns is in the shop, and it’s not connected to the internet.”
“The library should have one you can use. You should be connected. Even if you just get a smartphone or a tablet. It will make everything easier. Most universities do everything on the computer now; you can’t even register for classes without a connection.”
“Well, then I’m sure if it’s necessary for school I can talk Uncle Paul into getting the Internet.”
“I’m going to give Ted a hand in the kitchen,” Jerry told her as she re-ordered her papers. “Do you want a drink?”
“I’ll take a coke.”
“Sure, back in a sec.” Ellie grabbed her papers and sat on the couch while Jerry headed into the kitchen. Ted was washing the plates. “I don’t think either one of us is up to diving on a wreck yet.” He kept his voice low, not wanting to be overheard outside the kitchen.
“You’re not giving up, are you?” He turned. “I need you.”
“No,” Jerry said. “We are going to need help. I think we need to bring in someone else with a lot more experience than either of us.”
“Not a good idea,” he said. “But just for the sake of argument, who are you willing to split one-third our birthright with?”
“Ellie,” Jerry said.
“You’re thinking with the wrong head.” He laughed. “As long as it’s just you and me, we have a clear title. I’m not sure about salvage laws when someone else is involved. It’s not worth the risk. Don’t worry. It’ll be a cake walk. I’ve figured it all out.”
“Well then…” Jerry watched his brother’s expression. “I want to ask her to give us lessons. I promise I won’t say a word about our plans”.
“Any excuse. I don’t think it’ll work. She’s still out of your league.”
“She’s a good teacher, right?”
“Yeah, she’s okay.”
“We’re going to need any edge we can get,” Jerry said. “I don’t feel like I can be ready in time.”
“Ellie’s pretty smart. I wouldn’t underestimate her. She’ll know something is up.”
“We’ll make something up,” Jerry said.
“Tell her that we’re looking for a family heirloom, one of those head statues rich people have.” Ted offered.
“A bust? That sounds plausible.”
“A bust of our great, great grandmother, something that might have been lost in the wreck. An item with value only to family. She might fall for that.” Ted agreed.
“It’s simple, but the best lies are.” Jerry opened the refrigerator.
“If we keep our stories straight, she shouldn’t get wise.”
“And we won’t have to hide our preparations from her.” Jerry found two cokes and closed the door. “Great, I’ll ask her.”
“Okay, but don’t get carried away. If she’ll help fine, if not—drop it.”
“Better too prepared than not prepared enough.”
“Where have I heard that before?” Ted asked.
“Grandma,” Jerry took the drinks and left the kitchen. The living room was empty. “Eleanor?” Jerry called.
“Upstairs,” her voice echoed down the stairwell. “Where’s your bathroom?”
“First on the right, before the metal staircase.”
“Found it, thanks!”
After several minutes, Ellie sauntered down the stairs. Jerry was waiting on the couch. “Never wandered around a haunted house before.”
“Yours.” He handed her a can of soda. “You picked a good one.”
“Have you seen it?”
“Yeah, I’ve been staying here.”
“No, not the house.” She said. “The ghost, old man Teller. Uncle Paul says he saw him in a window once.”
“You believe in ghosts?” Jerry was not sure if he was amused or annoyed.
Ellie shrugged. “It’s pounded into you around here. I’m sorry. I don’t really, but being here, I just kind of expect to see something you know, out of the corner of my eye.” Her face turned a light shade of pink. “I have to be going soon, early morning.”
Jerry was not sure how to broach the subject of hiring her. Ellie stood up and collected her paperwork, then headed for the door. If he didn’t ask her before she left, he might not get another chance. “I’d like to hire you.”
“Excuse me?” Ellie looked startled.
“Diving lessons, I mean.”
“Oh, is Ted’s style a little too rough for you?”
“Something like that. I’ve heard you are more experienced.” Jerry said. ‘I’ll pay you twice your usual rate.”
“How many lessons are we talking about?” She asked.
“As many as you can give me in a week.” He said.
“Why the rush?” She inquired.
“I’m only here for the week. And we want to look for something in the cove before I go. Something my grandmother lost.” He lied.
“Not a good idea.” She protested. “That area is known for powerful currents, and you and Ted are pretty green.”
“If we decide to sell the place, it’ll be lost forever. We want something, some connection to the past.” He continued. “You probably don’t understand.”
“Did Ted talk you into this? Ted!” Ellie yelled.
“Yeah,” Ted came in, wiping his hands on a dishtowel.
“Are you both nuts? What could be worth dying over?” She said.
“A statue. It is the only piece of history we have left.” Ted said. “Can’t you understand? We lost everything when our grandmother died. This is the last thing we can do for her. We’ll take precautions.” Jerry thought Ted was very convincing; maybe there was more truth in his explanation than he let on. Could all this be about somehow making peace with Grandma?
“Like shark sticks and PODs,” She said.
“Ted talks a lot.” Jerry wondered who else had Paul had told. “So, will you teach me what I need to know?”
“You need to know that you’re in over your head.” She huffed and stood, pacing around the coffee table a few times. “Five hundred, in advance. And you are at my beck and call. If you miss a session, it’s over, and I keep the money. Deal?”
“Deal.” Jerry went upstairs for his checkbook. He wanted to pay her before she could change her mind.
“We’ll start bright and early in the morning.” She called up the stairs. “Be ready by six. I have to work the lunch rush. Be prepared to work hard.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jerry called back. “Ready at six.”
“It’ll be okay,” Ted told her.
“Ted, you’ll get him killed. You’re as crazy as a—”Ellie stopped talking and sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean.”
“It’s alright; Paul’s said it to me too. Jer and I are not Tellers. We just got his stuff.”
“Here.” Jerry handed Ellie the check.
“I gotta go.” She put the check atop her pile of papers.
“I’ll walk you out.” Jerry opened the door for her.
Jerry was careful to show her which parts of the porch that were safe to walk on. She stopped and looked over the decimated punching bag. “Did a job on that. You gotta be very careful with shark sticks, you know. Sometimes they hit what you don’t want them to.”
“I’ll be careful.” Jerry opened the car door.
“We should just forget this.” She held the check out, but Jerry did not take it.
“This is important to us.” He said. “And we’ll do it anyway. With your help, it might be a whole lot safer.”
She closed the door with a frown and started the car. The window rolled down. “Tomorrow then, but you’ll regret it.”
The small car bounced down the long dirt road back to the highway. Jerry stood there watching her headlights disappear down the freeway.
“Well?” Ted asked from the porch.
“You’re right; she’s not stupid. But I think she bought the story.”
“Who’d make up something like that?” He said.
Jerry opened a beer, grabbed another couple of slices of the pizza, and slumped on the couch. Still famished, he ate with less finesse.
“You like her, huh?” Ted asked.
Jerry took a deep drink of the beer. “For all the good it’ll do. She’s already let me know she’s not interested.”
“I’m sorry Jer.”
“As you said, she’s out of my league. To her, I’m the guy who helps her with college paperwork. If I’m lucky, I might make it into her friend’s category. I’ve been there before. I recognize the terrain.”
“Only time will tell, but don’t listen to me about women, Jerry. I’m jaded.” Ted put his hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to bed, remember six o’clock. You couldn’t have made it nine?”
“She set the time. I wasn’t about to argue.”
“Geez, she’s already got you whipped.” Ted laughed and went up the stairs.
“Jerry!” Ted’s voice rang down the stairway.
“Were you in my room?” Ted came down the stairs.
“No, I’ve been down here all night. Why?”
“I left my door closed. Now it’s open a crack.” Ted said.
“You’re not saying there’s a ghost?”
“No, but we may have been broken into. Look for an open or broken window. I’ll look upstairs.”
“Ellie went upstairs. Maybe she opened your door when she was looking for a bathroom.”
“She went upstairs? When?”
“When I came out of the kitchen.” Jerry frowned.
Ted walked into his bedroom, Jerry followed. Ted’s room was almost twice the size of his. If he had gotten there first, he would have taken the largest room for himself, too. The furniture looked old, but at least the ceiling cracks were patched, and the walls painted white. Ted walked around his bed to the antique dresser and started to look through the top drawer.
“Is anything missing?” Jerry did not want to believe that Ellie was a thief.
“No, I don’t think she looked in here.”
“Maybe she just opened the wrong door.”
“It’s possible.” Ted’s face remained tense. He moved to a large trunk at the foot of his bed and rattled the new master lock. It was secure. On top of the dresser was a small, familiar box. Ted had shown it to him almost six months prior. It contained the ring that he was going to give Rebecca before she dumped him.
“Do you think she was looking through your stuff?” Jerry asked.
“I don’t think so. She never struck me as dishonest; in fact, Paul says she’s precisely the opposite. Too straight, she makes him nervous. He thinks his brother sent her to live with him to spy on him, keep him on the straight and narrow.”
“The captain’s journal is here. I’m just paranoid. I’m going to bed.”
“Yeah, okay.” Most girls who tried to take advantage of Jerry generally came on strong and sexy. Ellie did not do that at all. “We should probably keep an eye on her.”
“Good idea.” Jerry went to his room to sleep.