Prison Ghost Tours, Inc.
by Adam Kotlarczyk
Carol felt awful about it, but she just couldn’t find Mr. Jankowski anywhere.
“I’m sorry,” she said to his son and his son’s wife.
Mr. Jankowski’s son slid a hand across his balding head and down to his eyebrows. His children – two teenagers – were sprawled across the lobby couch, disinterestedly tapping at their phones.
“How did you lose him?” he asked. “Again?”
Mr. Jankowski’s son sighed. They all knew where he’d gone.
“Should I call the prison?” asked his wife.
The son nodded. Carol went in the back to fetch her coat.
“How’s business?” Carol asked.
“Better every day,” said Andy. Carol had known him in high school. Andy had been popular, played football and wrestled; in his mid-30’s now, he still took care of himself. She had been bookish and serious, then. They had circled different orbits.
“Yeah, well there’s a sucker born every minute,” she said.
“Suckers?” he looked genuinely hurt. “My clientele – our clientele - has an intense interest in the field of paranormal science. They come here to experience it firsthand.”
“A hundred years, Carol,” he smiled. “A hundred years of energy is stored in this old prison.” He thumped his fist against one of the gray bricks. “That’s Indiana limestone. Porous as hell. Soaks up everything that’s ever happened here, all the spiritual energy. Records it. Stores it. And now and again plays it back, just as good as playing a record.”
“Great,” she said. When she had gone away to Bowling Green for college, he’d stayed behind to do what his father did, what all their fathers had done: work at the prison. That was before it closed. She hadn’t heard much about him since, just that he’d married and divorced a girl who graduated a few years after Carol. They had a couple kids.
“So what brings you here? Looking for an excursion for your inmates?”
“Patients,” she said.
“If you say so,” he laughed. “We have group rates, you know.”
“No. It’s Mr. Jankowski.”
Andy reached for a walkie-talkie. “I better warn my guides; last time a tour group ran right into him, wandering around B Block. Scared the crap out of them. My guide almost quit.”
He talked on the walkie, told them to be on the lookout. “Let’s go see if we can find him before a customer has a heart attack.”
“Come on,” she said. “From seeing an old man?”
He led her into the old cell block. The other times he’d just sent one of his staff members with her. But it was Friday night; they all had tour groups. Other than the bars and the liquor stores, nobody did as much Friday night business as Andy.
“Never thought you’d end up back here, back in Anderson,” he said when they got to C Block. Catching her expression, he added, “I just mean I thought once someone escaped…”
“Yeah well,” she said. “It wasn’t exactly in my hands.”
She was two years into her program when the prison closed, hurling the town into a withering chaos. For a century it had existed only to serve the prison, and without it, no one knew what to do. Including her father, who tried drinking for a year, then gave up and left town. Carol had to abandon college to support her mother. She cleaned bedpans at Garden Terrace, the only job she could find. That had been fifteen years before. Fifteen years of Friday night bedpans in a small Ohio town.
“Why do you think he does it?” asked Andy after another hour of searching.
“Your patient. Why do you think he comes back here?”
“Talking to his ghosts, I guess.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in ghosts,” he said.
“Well, it was a joke,” she said; “I didn’t mean – not actual –”
His laugh echoed warmly in the cold cellblock. They walked.
“I have this theory,” she said, “About why.”
“Tell me,” he said.
“The brain, when it gets confused, like it does in old age, reverts to old patterns, to familiar territory. He probably worked here once. Or maybe he was a ‘guest.’ And so he came back.”
“You think he was happy here?”
She blew into her hand.
“Doesn’t matter. The brain just needs to repeat it, to do it again, even if it was miserable. It feels safe, safer than something new. It’s too hard to break the pattern. It gets harder every year. That’s my theory about the brain.”
“Funny,” he said, “I have that same theory about the heart.”
Before she could recover, he had already walked well ahead.
Together they searched long into the night. They went into cells and alleys, through the cold citadel of stone and steel. He talked about his divorce, his daughters, the pain of trying to start again. She talked about the boyfriend and the life she had left behind at college, a life to which she was realizing she’d never return. More than once they stopped, listening for spirits. He thought he heard them. Once, she did, too. They talked and walked and called out.
At four in the morning Carol’s pocket buzzed with a text from Garden Terrace: Mr. Jankowski had shuffled back, to the relief of his family. Whatever ghosts he had needed to speak to, whatever he’d had to say to his past, he had said enough for tonight. She slid her phone back into her pocket and walked on with Andy.
They walked until they were exhausted and out of things to talk about, then they walked on without words. She slipped her hand into his and he squeezed it. She led him through a doorway and outside into the old yard.
Day was breaking. The early morning froze in her nostrils. She shivered and leaned her body into his. Beyond the stones and bars, the cages and rusting barbed wire, the sun was just capping the distant hills, purpling the mountains with a new dawn.
Adam Kotlarczyk's fiction and scholarship have appeared in The First Line, Yellow Chair Review, Notes on American Literature, and The Illinois Association for Gifted Children Journal, among others. He has a Ph.D. in American literature and teaches at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, IL. He enjoys traveling with his wife.
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