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The Haunting at Midnight

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The old man walked gingerly down the dim lighted back alley official known as Keegan Street.  Once a bustling commercial area of Porterville, the old street was now in a state of decay and long forgotten by most people living in the area.  He walked silently, head down, much like any other man in his late 80’s.  But Argus McKane was not like other men.  That’s for sure.

McKane stopped at an old grey door with peeling paint and fumbled for his keys.  Argus had lived at 105 Keegan Street for longer than he could remember and could walk the area almost blindfolded.  Which was good given his failing eye sight and feeble condition.

The old man opened the door and went inside.  The stairs immediately behind the front door took McKane up to a modest one bedroom apartment that he was renting.  Over the years, Argus had paid enough in rent to actually own the whole building if he had just been wise enough to purchase it over 31 years old.  But that had not been the case and Argus didn’t care.

McKane went up the stairs and entered the small kitchen area.  He turned on the old stove and started to prepare a can of soup for dinner.  He didn’t eat much and tended to have the same meals on most days.  Canned soup and white bread.  It made shopping easy for Argus.

People in Porterville had a hard time remembering Argus even though he had lived in the area all his life.  He was a quiet man, a man of few words.  In fact, many people had trouble remembering anything that he had said.  He generally just nodded or grunted if approached by anyone in town.

But Argus had a history, a long forgotten history that he had successfully covered up for years.  In truth, Argus had once been a successful businessman, operating a mill which had once been located at the eastern most end of Keegan Street.  The mill had once dominated wheat processing in southwestern Ohio.  McKane had established the business with his best friend, Jonathan Grugen.  Together, the two men worked long hours and through their sweat, they built a milling empire which at its peak had employed 215 men.  But over the years, the mill started to falter and employment cuts had to be made to keep the business solvent.  Then there was the fire that largely consumed the mill building.  What was left of the old structure was shuttered and ultimately torn down in favor of new development.  Over the years, the business that had provided growth for the small town that became Porterville was largely forgotten.

McKane put his hot soup on a snack table in the living room area of the apartment and turned on the radio.  Argus was too cheap to have a TV.  He did have a set a number of years ago.  An old Zenith black and white set with vacuum tubes.  But when the TV failed and Argus found no stores in southwestern Ohio which carried vacuum tubes any longer, he just decided not to bother replacing the old Zenith.  That was back in 1984.

The old radio was not in much better condition than the Zenith but at least it still worked.  Argus had the radio tuned to an AM station that he listened to for news.  The dial was never changed so he didn’t have to deal with finding another channel with failing eye sight.

The radio news for this evening was boring and monotonous so soon Argus was dosing off.   His sleep; however, was interrupted by a familiar voice that seemed to come from the radio.

“Argus, Argus” the voice called out as the old man woke in a start.  “Argus why did you kill me?”  The voice was initially calm but became shrill as the words “kill me” came forth.

“Who, who’s there?” asked the old man as he nervously looked around the modestly furnished room in a state of fear.

“You know damn well who’s here” came the reply which seemed to emanate from the radio.

Argus rose from his chair and walked nervously around the room.  It couldn’t be.  There is no way this could be happening.

“Jonathan, is that you?”

“Yes, Argus.  I have come to see you.  I have come back to find out why you left me to die in that fire.”

The old man started to sweat as he continued to walk around the room.  “You can’t be here.  You’re dead.  You died in the mill fire.”

“Did I?  My body was never found Argus.  How can you be so sure?”

The old man continued to move around the room in an effort to find any actual corporal being within his apartment.  No one was around.

“Jonathan, I didn’t kill you.  I, I tried to find you but the fire was too strong.”

“Liar!  You knew where I was.  I was calling for your help and you ignored me.”

“Jonathan, that’s not true.  You have always been my friend.  I cared about you.  I still care about you…”

“You only cared about the money.  That is why you started the fire.  The money.  The insurance we had on the mill.”

“No Jonathan.  That’s not true.”

“Argus, where is the money?  Where have you hidden our money?”

The old man was perspiring more than ever as his eyes darted around the room.  This just couldn’t be happening.  The fire was nearly 50 years ago.

“I, I haven’t spent any.  I can’t….”  The old man stuttered as he tried to reply.  He turned the volume knob on the old radio to “off” but the voice still continued.

“You can’t spend it because you worship having it.  It’s your god.  You can’t tolerate the thought of spending any of it.”

The old man looked around, not knowing what to say in reply.  Then the voice spoke again.

“Argus, you know what you must do.  It’s been too long.  You must make amends….”

As if in a stupor, the old man walked into the kitchen and picked up a pen.  The note was short since there was not much to say.  He put the pen down and walked to the old gas stove.  As if in a trance, Argus turned on all of the burners and let the gas fill the room.  He fell to the ground and sat against the wall of the room.  Would he finally have peace?

 

Epilogue

 

The fire department and police came to 105 Keegan Street early the next morning when a 911 call came in for a gas odor at the building.  The gas to the building was turned off and when the firemen entered, they found the limp body of the old man.  The note on the stove seemed strange but after investigating scene, the police decided that the wishes outlined in the note should be honored.

Emily Grugen, the only child of the late Jonathan Grugen, seemed puzzled when summoned to the Porterville Police Department.  She explained to the officer that she did not know of anyone named Argus McKane and to be honest, she had barely even known her biological father.  As she explained, her father had been killed in an unfortunate fire many, many years ago and as a result, she had been raised by her mother and stepfather.

The officer escorted Emily to the Porterville Community Bank where she was handed the key to safe deposit box #34 and then ultimately shown to a private room. Inside the room, Emily opened the box that once had belonged to Argus McKane and shuffled through the papers.  To her astonishment, she found cash inside multiple unmarked envelopes which totaled $530,000.  The cash was in crisp, uncirculated bills which were all dated in September 1965.

A yellowed newspaper article tucked inside the safe deposit box provided a brief story about a 1964 fire which had occurred at the McKane-Grugen Mill and how Jonathan Grugen had presumably perished in the fire.  The article stated that the old mill had been in decline for years and how it was unlikely that the surviving partner, Argus McKane, would rebuild the business.  The estimate business loss quoted in the article was a value of approximate one half a million dollars.  Nothing else was in the safe deposit box.

 

The End

Author’s Bio: Tom Schmidt is a Chemical Engineer working in medical diagnostics in upstate New York.  He enjoys creative writing and is currently working on the “Paul Garigan Crime Mysteries”, a collection of short stories centered around a Malibu based police detective which he hopes to publish in the future.

 

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