It was a ludicrous assignment. Claire Peyton, entertainment columnist for the Mountain Valley Daily News, knew it. After their morning meeting, editor-in-chief Warren Harris pulled her aside. He casually mentioned a ghost story that had persisted in Mountain Valley, population 150,000, since after World War II. Then he let slip that he wanted her to find out if there was any truth to it.
“When you think about it, it’s a human interest story. Ordinary people crave a little silly fun because reading about terrorism becomes tedious.”
“Don’t try to package a ghost story with ‘human interest’!” Claire replied, trying to keep her anger in check.
Harris crossed his burly arms against his chest and peered down at her. “You’ve always wanted national recognition,” he began tantalizingly. “I know you’ve been looking for a way to break into TV.”
Claire took the bait. “Right,” she said wondering why she was allowing him to rope her in like this.
Harris slapped a hand on her shoulder. “This is your chance to get the hell outta Dodge,” he said proudly. “I want it in on my desk in three weeks.”
After dragging her feet the first week, Claire ran into Laura Bristow at the local Starbucks that Saturday night. Laura was an old friend who had become an English teacher at their former high school. She went on to suggest Claire interview her kids for help on the origins of the fairy tale. Claire was first introduced to the story on the playground. But as it had been a long time since elementary school, so she took Laura up on her offer.
“Good afternoon,” she began, her palms sweating. She was a journalist, not a teacher. “My name is Claire and I work for the Mountain Valley Daily News. I’m doing an article that I think you can help me out with. What can you tell me about the haunted bomb shelter?”
At first, no one spoke. Teenagers through the years have not changed, she deduced. Claire glanced at Laura for support. Laura simply smiled encouragingly and went back to grading papers.
One red haired boy raised his hand tentatively.
“Yes?” she asked, eager for any hint of intelligence.
“The way I heard it was that it was like the fifties, right? Well, this one family built a fallout shelter in like their yard. The family’s son got like trapped in it,” he said in a mumbled flurry of words, scrunched down in his chair, not even bothering to look at her.
“I heard it that way, and he kinda like wasted away eating bomb shelter food before he became like a spirit or a ghost or whatever, haunting the house forevermore,” a bottle blonde Asian girl supplied dramatically.
“People say it smells like applesauce when you like go to his house,” a mousy looking boy offered.
“His ghost has like unfinished business,” a brown haired jock added. “Any kid like our age who has ever stepped foot in that house is cursed to be like a total loser.”
“Great,” Claire encouraged them. “Do you know the name of the family?”
“Brown?” a voice piped up.
“Matthews,” another said from the back of the room.
“Nah, I think it was Smith,” yet another voice offered.
“Anders!” two dark-haired twin girls said in unison. A wave of general agreement swept through the group.
“Anne’s story was about a family named Anders, I swear,” added one of the girls.
“Thanks,” Claire said appreciatively, scribbling notes.
Back in her office, her brain was telling her that this article would set her back rather than move her up to television. ‘When was the last time they asked Barbara Walters to be a ghost hunter?’ she thought mildly. Claire peered at her framed photo of Clark Kent on the wall above her cubicle, sighing.
“What would Clark do?” she read aloud.
Claire’s not afraid to admit that it was Clark Kent who inspired her to change her major to journalism. ‘Clark would see this through,’ she decided resolutely. ‘And I will too, even if it kills me.’
“Hey Claire,” her personal assistant Aaron Stein said warmly, rapping his knuckles on the cubicle wall. He was thirty years old, and seemed happy with the direction his life was going. Aaron was cute in a teenybopper heartthrob kind of way. Claire had used a few of his ideas in some of her more popular entertainment columns, chasing leads based on his recommendations. She tried to get him a byline, but Aaron stoutly refused.
“Yeah?” she said to him, turning away from her work. She was revising her review on the latest DVD releases and welcomed the distraction.
“Warren told me about the ghost story article,” Aaron began. “I found this old book at the library for you by Anne Elliot.”
“Anne Elliot?” Claire said slowly, struggling to remember where she had heard the name before. “The movie star? I loved her in Natural Blue!”
“Me too,” he said sincerely. “I bet you didn’t know it, but she grew up in Mountain Valley. She wrote a whole chapter about the ghost story in her autobiography,” explained Aaron. “I thought it might help you out.” He gingerly placed the book on top of the papers on her already cramped desk.
“Thanks,” she said. “You didn’t have to do this, you know.”
“I know. It’s no problem,” he said, spinning on his heel to walk away.
Claire felt like she should say something more, but she didn’t quite know why.
Later that week, her curiosity got the best of her and she flopped down on her stiff white couch to read the book.
“Chapter Seven: Ghost Stories,” Claire read aloud.
“During the early sixties a story ran in the Mountain Valley Register that a young man from a prominent local family disappeared off the face of the Earth. It’s worth mentioning here because I experienced it first-hand,” Anne wrote. “Dr. and Mrs. Anders were like any normal couple after WWII. They married young and started a family. I was a freshman in high school when I met Jean, the younger of their two children. Dr. Anders was influenced heavily by his experiences in the war. He had served in the medical division of the Army in Germany. When Dr. and Mrs. Anders settled down, the good doctor built a fallout shelter because it was no secret that Hiroshima spooked him.”
Claire flipped through a few pages to get to the end of the chapter and continued reading.
“The article mentioned that the Anders family assumed that Jackson ran away to be a beatnik. I’ve never followed that train of thought, even with evidence to the contrary. When the police checked his room to find some clues as to where he might’ve gone, they found all sorts of beat literature. The police and the Anders family assumed the worst and that was that. I knew that Jackson always had his nose buried in a book when I visited Jeanie, but that explanation wasn’t good enough for me. Jackson once confided in me that he wished to travel the world. So I believe that Jackson is sitting on a beach somewhere, sipping on a pina colada with a big grin on his face. Meanwhile, generations of Mountain Valley residents allow our urban legend to stay alive after all these years. If that’s the case, I raise my glass to Mr. Anders, for giving us a little mystery to believe in our oh-so-predictable lives.”
The next morning, Claire slapped together her review of the latest Jennifer Garner movie for her entertainment column. Then she focused her research on the ghost story. Reading Anne’s first-hand account revitalized whatever little interest she had in it. For the past two weeks, she had deflected Harris’ questions about how it was coming along. She hated lying like that to her boss, but it had to be done. But now that the article was to be put to bed soon, Claire knew she had to concentrate her energy on it.
There had been rumors throughout the years as to which particular house possessed the fallout shelter. Three addresses came up on her Internet search for addresses owned by people named Anders in Mountain Valley. The first two were dead ends. It was dusk when she pulled up to the final address. It belonged to a home nestled in the almond fields of almost ideal country suburbia.
‘This might be it,’ Claire thought.
The decrepit home was in a part of Mountain Valley that hardly anyone lived in anymore. Claire flipped open her cell phone and scrolled through its phone book for a certain number.
“Hello Aaron?” Claire began. “I was, um, wondering how you were doing. I think I found the house for the fallout shelter article. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.” She shut the cell phone’s flip cover and stared at her reflection in the rearview mirror. “What am I trying to prove? He’s fifteen years younger than me!” she said loudly. Sighing, Claire removed a flashlight from the glove compartment and stepped out of her vehicle.
The very distinct stench of rotten almonds invaded Claire’s nostrils. She coughed instinctively as she swept the beam of her Maglite in front of her. The house itself was reminiscent of Levittown housing. But the beaten house looked like it had been abandoned a long time ago. She moved headlong towards the dull yellow front door. Dead leaves crunched loudly under her midnight blue Skechers.
Claire shook her head. “Not only will I not finish this article on time, but I’m going to get arrested for breaking and entering!” she scolded herself aloud.
Claire threw her weight against the splintering wood door and managed to get it open. Claire coughed again as dust filtered by the dying sunlight filled her lungs. The foyer and what appeared to be the dining room were strewn with broken furniture, clearly torn up by vandals. As she moved the flashlight’s beam into every nook and cranny, Claire screamed when she saw a country mouse scurrying across the floorboards.
“Oh God!” she shrieked, her heart pounding. Claire waited a few moments to catch her breath. She found herself talking out loud again. “Maybe I should’ve asked Santa Claus for a pair of night-vision goggles last Christmas.”
She made her way towards a well-preserved but dusty bureau. Opening a drawer, she found a broken picture frame with an old black and white family portrait. Claire knew immediately that this was the Anders family from Anne’s story. She grasped the picture between her forefinger and thumb and extracted it from the frame. Claire left the broken pieces in the drawer, stashing the picture in her jacket to be used with her article.
“Now… if I were a paranoid family doctor, where would I build my bomb shelter?” she asked herself, searching around the home.
The layout of the inside of the house was perfect for a nuclear family. Walking down the small hallway, Claire walked into the first bedroom she found. It was a girl’s bedroom because of the ripped pink curtains. Just being inside of it brought back memories of Claire’s sunny childhood. She pushed memories of her tumultuous adolescence from her head as she came upon the second bedroom though. It was a boy’s room with an astronaut motif. The master bedroom reeked of feces and urine, probably left by squatters. After peering around the living room, she ended up in the kitchen and stared out of the dusty broken kitchen window facing the backyard. “A bomb shelter would be in the backyard. Get it together, Claire.”
Claire pushed the back door with peeling white paint open and walked into the unfenced backyard. It was overrun with weeds and decaying shells from the surrounding almond trees. Claire wrapped her coat closer around her as a slight breeze kicked up. A new scent came over her as she went outside. It smelled gross and whatever it was, it was giving her a headache. Claire set her jaw and walked straight towards the stench.
“Ow!” she shrieked.
Claire tumbled forward, landing hard on her hands and knees. Her foot had caught in an object she hadn’t seen with the flashlight beam. Grabbing the flashlight, she aimed it where her foot was still stuck. It was in a wheel attached to something in the ground. Claire hauled out her ankle.
“Oh please, please, don’t be broken,” she begged.
Twisting it gingerly, she was thrilled to find out she could still move it. Her eyes moved to the wheel. She propped the flashlight up and furiously removed the weeds choking the brass spiral. The wheel was attached to a rusty metal door in the dirt. A light bulb went off in Claire’s head. The wheel was a doorknob, she realized. The rusty door gave way a little too easily and the air smelled old but not as bad she thought it would be for a fifty-year-old undiscovered bomb shelter. She fingered the cell phone in her pocket, thankful she hadn’t left it behind. She lowered herself down the hole carefully. The rickety metal ladder barely supported her weight. Jumping off the last rung, Claire swept her flashlight beam around. She had found herself in a space that was twenty feet by thirty feet by her calculations. It was supported by leaky, cinder block walls and partitioned by large, rotting pieces of plywood.
Claire fumbled for her cell phone again. “Aaron, it’s Claire again. Sorry to bother you again but you won’t believe it… I seriously think I found the house! It’s on 4700 Lucas Avenue… hello? Aaron?” The phone beeped angrily at her. “No reception. Fantastic,” she said sarcastically. She put it back in her pocket.
Claire walked around, familiarizing herself with the layout. Several large cans with old-fashioned, weathered labels were sitting in an open pantry on the left side. Reasonably new bedding was folded up neatly on the twin-sized bed on the right side.
“Ouch!” she yelled. Her voice echoed off the walls after she blindly walked straight into a nightstand where an unlit camping lantern sat and crashed to the floor in her sudden movement.
“Who’s there?” a raspy voice came from behind her.
Claire whipped around. She aimed her flashlight in the direction of the voice.
“I… come in peace?” asked Claire stupidly.
“What do you want?”
“I just want to know if this fallout shelter belongs to the Anders family,” Claire asked.
“Who wants to know?” the voice continued. It was definitely male. But she didn’t know where the voice was coming from.
‘Keep talking,’ the voice in her head coached her. ‘They would’ve killed you when you screamed.’
“Claire, um, Peyton. I work for the Mountain Valley Daily News. I have my I.D. with me, if you want it. I was sent here to write an article about the bomb shelter and its owners,” she explained slowly and carefully. She moved in a circle as she spoke. “I’m unarmed.”
“What do you want?” the voice repeated.
Claire paused. The question confused her momentarily before she spoke again. “I just… I want to know the truth about the disappearance of Jackson Anders.” Claire gasped as the voice made itself present in her beam of light.
The filthy kitchen was awash in the light of three candles. The plastic kitchen chairs barely did their job. There would be dust on her Levi’s when she got up to leave, but she didn’t care. Claire clutched a lukewarm cup of coffee between her hands. Not her favorite blend, but again, she didn’t care.
“People really think I haunt this house, huh?” Jackson Anders asked chuckling, as he finished up his life story. The man tenderly ran a finger down the photo Claire had seized from the lonely bureau drawer.
As it turns out Jackson Anders did run away. Not to be a beatnik, but to join the Navy against his parents’ wishes. He wanted to be like John Wayne in The Fighting Seabees. Jackson saw the World War II propaganda film when it replayed in the local theater during his early teens. Dr. and Mrs. Anders wanted him to follow in the footsteps of his Communist-sympathizer father and become a doctor. Dr. Anders despised the idea that Jackson wanted to join the American military. He went as far as threatening to send Jackson to “summer camp” in the Soviet Union if he did. Of course, Jackson Anders enlisted a few days after he turned eighteen, and changed the spelling of his name.
Jack Anderson traveled the world on the government’s dime, never marrying. When he retired in 1984, Jack decided he wanted to live out his final years in Mountain Valley. For reasons he never told Claire, Jack never kept in contact with the family and friends he left behind. Jean married a cowboy and disappeared after high school. The house was taken back by the bank after Dr. Anders passed soon after his wife in the early seventies. Instead of claiming what was his, Jack used his military background to survive in the fallout shelter by himself for the last ten years.
“What compelled you to take my story?” Jack asked. His voice had taken on a regular tone, very much unlike the croaky voice she was spooked with inside the fallout shelter. “You could just as easily have said no.”
Claire knitted her eyebrows. “I don’t understand the question.”
“For a reporter you sure aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed,” he said with a wink. “Why do you care?”
“At first, I didn’t care,” Claire said with an honest shrug. Jack nodded interestedly. “I want to be a TV reporter. I thought doing newspapers would help me get a jump start. But I’ve been stuck here for almost twenty years and I’ve got absolutely nothing to show for it. I got this assignment and laughed it off. But my assistant gave me Anne Elliot’s memoirs and that was just the kick in the bum I needed. I decided to see where this would take me.”
“I remember Annie, quite the looker,” Jack commented. “But is that all?”
“Okay, Dr. Anderson,” Claire teased, “what’s wrong with me?”
“I don’t know you very well Miss Peyton, but already I see a lot of myself in you.”
“How’s that?” Claire asked softly.
“First off, I can see that neither you nor I are wearing wedding rings.”
“Yes,” she said cautiously.
“I don’t know about you, but not marrying was a personal choice. I was so angry at the man my father wanted me to be that I refused the life he thought I would have. He married my mother as soon as he returned home from the European theater with all his new fangled socialist ideals. He settled down here in Mountain Valley and had Jeanie and myself. I didn’t want that life.”
“It was the sixties,” Jack replied. “There was so much political upheaval, Vietnam and all. I wanted to help our boys overseas.” He sighed bitterly, taking another sip of his coffee. “If I had the chance I think I would’ve stayed and tried to work it out. I left because I genuinely hated my dad. Looking back, maybe that wasn’t a good enough reason to leave Jeanie and Mom without saying goodbye.”
“Hate’s a strong word,” Claire argued suddenly. The elderly man looked at her knowingly. “I don’t hate my father but I hate his actions. He divorced my mother when I was in college, just out of the blue. He left us to start a new life with a new family. I sometimes wonder if it was something we didn’t do or say that could’ve kept him around. On my bad days, it’s infuriating to know we breathe the same air.”
“Hate the sin, love the sinner?” said Jack knowingly.
Before either one could say another word, sirens roared and the unmistakable red and blue lights of patrol cars flickered on the wall near the kitchen. The sound of the front door scraping against its will echoed off the moldy paneling.
“Claire?” Aaron’s voice echoed through the house. “Claire?”
“Aaron!” Claire called. She grinned at Jack but looked mystified. “Aaron’s my personal assistant.” She paused. “I wonder what he’s doing here.”
“Oh my God!” Aaron yelled, taking in the ruffian look of Jack and the muddied look of Claire. “I thought you were dead!”
Claire grinned. “You called the cops?”
“You left me two very weird messages and the last one got cut off,” Aaron reminded her. “So I called in some favors. I’ve got a fire truck and an ambulance out there too.”
“Ma’am, we just need to ask you a few questions,” the police officer at Aaron’s elbow explained.
“Okay,” Claire said, getting up and brushing the dust from her Levi’s. “Aaron, there’s someone I’d like you to meet. This is Jack Anderson. You might know him as Jackson Anders.”
“Nice to meet you Aaron,” said Jack warmly. He stood up politely to grasp Aaron’s hand and grinned at the stunned look on the younger man’s face. “You can call me Jack.”
“Anders? As in haunted bomb shelter Anders from that old movie star’s book?” an ambulance worker asked, looking around the house. “Is this the place?”
“The very same,” Jack said proudly. “I can show you around if you’d like.”
Claire stared at the computer screen silently and tried to find the perfect ending to her article. “Everything in life happens for a reason. Call it a cosmic joke, but I was meant to do this story right here, right now. I learned many things from Mr. Anderson but above all, he taught me that you should live your life without regrets.”
With a smile and a big flourish, Claire printed out the story so it could be run by Warren. As her printer noisily churned it out, Aaron appeared, carrying a Nordstrom’s box and a single red rose.
“Aaron!” she exclaimed happily. Claire eyed the box. “What’s that?”
“Congratulations,” he said warmly, handing her the box. “Your article is going to kill.”
“I suppose,” said Claire with an air of false shyness.
“Read the card,” he said, gesturing to the gift-wrapped box. “I hope it’s not too cheesy.”
She took the box from him and peeled the card away. “To Claire, for all the years I’ve had the pleasure of working for you, you are one person who deserves every bit of happiness that comes your way,” Claire read aloud, blushing slightly. “Thank you Aaron. I appreciate this.”
“Have dinner with me,” Aaron blurted out, his dark brown eyes burning into hers. Claire looked up at him speechless, as she sniffed the freshly cut rose. “Just say yes,” he prompted her.
“Yes,” she replied, blushing self-consciously.
“Thank God,” Aaron sighed. “I’ve been waiting to ask you forever.”
Claire defied the irresistible urge to touch him though. She picked up her article and gestured for Aaron to follow her to Warren’s office. “You know, I’m going to have to fire you.”
“I figured as much,” Aaron replied. “‘Never fish off the company pier.’ You told me that when I had my eye on Tiffany in op-ed.”
“I’ve taught you well grasshopper,” responded Claire proudly.
“But I’ll get over it.” Aaron looked down at her with mock sadness. “I was going to put my letter of resignation on your desk this afternoon anyways. A French restaurant asked me to run their marketing department.”
“Good for you. In fact, you just made my life that much easier.”
“I thought so,” Aaron said, as he plucked the article from her hands to read it.
“Hey!” she blurted out. “No peeking.”
Aaron grinned, only reading the title. “So you named it Requiem for a Fallout Shelter? That’s got a nice ring to it.”
Claire grinned up at him. “I thought so.”