Opting Out

While the boss was with a client, Jim logged onto his university’s website and registered for classes. Registration was closing that day, so it was his last chance. It looked like his schedule would be exactly the same as it had been for the past three years: work the mornings at the library, go to school in the afternoon, then work at the office in the evening. Of course, he’d have to do his homework on top of it all – if he got around to it. He rarely did. He checked his grades for the current semester. All C+s or lower. They had steadily fallen since his first year. “Cs get degrees” was his adopted motto, and he stuck to it.

Noticing that his boss was done with the client, Jim closed the window on the computer and opened up the sales log. It was nearly the end of the pay period, and he’d only made four sales. The leading sales associate, a new guy, had made 20. Commission was only part of their pay – they received an hourly pittance as well – but Jim knew the boss would take him aside if he didn’t make at least 10 sales a month. He checked the log for last few months: in October he’d made 9; in November he’d made eight; and this month he’d made four. What the log didn’t say was that the majority of the sales he’d made were reactive; he didn’t make outbound calls anymore.

The phone rang. The caller ID read Keith. Jim sighed, and picked up the receiver. He absentmindedly doodled on a notepad as he answered the call.

“Exceptional Car Insurance, where you’re service is always exceptional, this is Jim. How can I help you?”

“Hey there Jim! How are ya?” a man said.

“Good,” he replied without inflection. “How are you?”

“I’m doing fantastic! Hey, I’ve got a question for ya! My daughter is gettin’ her license soon, and I wanna know how much it’ll cost to add her to our policy.”

Jim pressed his pen hard into the notepad, scribbling a tornado that swept his other doodles away. He was silent for a moment. If he spoke he’d probably swear at the man, and that kind of service wouldn’t be considered “exceptional.”

“Hello?” the man asked.

Jim hung up and dug his palms into his eyes. The phone rang a few seconds later. The ID confirmed it was Mr. Keith again. Jim took a deep breath and answered.

“I’m sorry about that.” Jim said. “The call must have gotten dropped somehow. What can I do for ya?”

“Oh, no worries. I don’t get the best service with this phone. If you could just pull up my policy and tell me how much it would be to add my daughter I would really appreciate it.”

“No problem. I’d be happy to help ya with that. I’m gonna need to know your name though.” Jim hated when people assumed he knew who they were–even when they were right.

“Oh!” the man laughed. “You mean you can’t just read my mind?” Jim rolled his eyes. “This is Mr. Keith. Ronald Keith.”


“K-E-I – “

“Thanks. Just a second. I’m gonna put you on a brief hold.” He muted the phone so he wouldn’t have to fill the silence with conversation. The company prided itself with genuinely caring about it’s customers. He unmuted the phone.

“Okay, I’ve got the policy here. Just one moment, let me take a look at it.”

Jim pulled out a process sheet that walked him through how to find the best rate when adding a young driver. Adding a new driver was a moment of truth because the price of the policy usually skyrocketed.The company wanted to make sure their customers were happy, so they were very thorough in these situations; it normally took about half an hour or longer to find the best way to do it. Jim stared at the paper for a moment, crinkled it up, threw it into the trash can, and asked Mr. Keith for his daughter’s information. A minute later Jim told him the new premium – about a hundred dollars more a month – listened to Mr. Keith’s amazement, said something about the likelihood of young drivers having an accident, thanked him for calling, and hung up the phone.

The boss was with another client by now, so Jim got on Facebook and liked a few paintings that had been added to his feed. He wondered how long it had been since he had uploaded a painting of his own. A quick look at his timeline told him it had been about 6 months. Six months? he thought, rubbing his eyes and exiting out of the window. Sure, he had changed his major to business at about that time, since his worries about making money had finally caught up to him, but he had vowed that he would never stop painting. Without deadlines and assignments, however, he had.

Jim resolved to begin a painting that very night, and pulled out his phone to set a reminder. There were quite a few old reminders in the app already, things like: Read pgs 110-112 in Business in the 21st Century; Make 10 outbound calls a day; and Buy Milk. He checked of the last one, and deleted the first two. Then he deleted all of them. A clean canvas, he thought, and typed a new goal: Paint Something. He set a reminder for later that evening. He knew he’d want to forget it, so he made sure it would go off every hour after 6:00.

The secretary brought him an envelope, which Jim opened. In it was a handwritten note from his boss. His heart dropped as he read the first line of writing:


I just wanted to take a minute and thank you for all the work you’ve done for our agency. It’s unfortunate that

He stopped, closed his eyes, took a breath, and continued reading.

we don’t have more employees like you. I just wanted to remind you that, since you’ve been with us for over three years, you get two paid days off this Christmas, plus Christmas day itself. Please accept this gift card as an additional token of my gratitude for all you do. Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

Jim breathed a sigh of relief and slowly brought his heartbeat back to its normal rate. He flipped the card over. On the back was a family Jim had never met with his boss in the center. They were standing in front of the office, smiling broadly. Under the Exceptional Car Insurance sign were the words: Wishes you a Merry Christmas. Jim smiled back at the faces of the boss’s family. He thought they must be proud of their father: he’d built the company from the ground up. Jim pocketed the gift card and sent the boss a thank you email.

He was actually smiling when he answered the next phone call.

“Exceptional Car Insurance! This is Jim -“

A computerized voice interrupted him.

“Hello. This is your Google Plus specialist.” Jim pounded the desk. He had to listen to the whole thing. Again. “Our records show that you have not confirmed your business’s digital listing. This process is simple, and only takes a few moments of your time. To confirm your Google Plus listing press one. To speak to a representative, press two. If this is not a business number, press three.To opt out of future calls, press four.”

He pounded the four and hung up. How many times did he have to opt out? It was 5:30 PM when Jim checked his digital calendar, moved his untouched to do’s to the following week and went to the bathroom. He sat on the toilet and played a game on his phone until an alarm told him it was five minutes to closing. Then he went back to his desk and pretended to work until it was time to leave.

“Thanks for your help, Jim!” his boss said as Jim left the office.

Jim did his best not to look guilty as he said good bye. He resolved to do better the next day. He almost made a reminder for himself when his phone vibrated. Paint Something popped up on the screen.


After he got home and changed, he opened frozen dinner and set it in the microwave. He read the nutrition label while he waited. Disgusted, he threw the empty box toward the garbage can. He was too tired to make anything else though. The microwave hummed in the background as Jim sifted through a stack of letters he’d gotten in the mail. There was a Past Due stamp on one of them. Then there was a catalog for a grocery store and a credit card offer. He cut it to pieces, annoyed. I wish they’d stop sending me these, he thought. Then he cut up the bill too.

Jim watched TV while he ate, and ended up microwaving another dinner when the next episode came on. He silenced the reminder on his phone twice when it went off in the middle of the show. He watched a shootout, and it made him want to play a video game. It was nearly midnight when he finally turned the console off and looked at his phone again. This was the fourth time it had gone off since he started playing.

“What do you want?”

He read the words Paint Something as he picked it up. His ears rang in the silence. He looked around. On his table was homework he needed to finish, and a trail of crinkled up scratch paper leading to an overflowing garbage can. He sighed, and picked up a few of the papers as he took his fork to the sink. The sink was also overflowing. Jim put the fork into a dirty pot on the side of the sink and tried to stuff the remnants of the frozen dinners into the garbage can. He pushed the pile down, gagging when the reek of rotting food was forced into his nostrils. How long has it been since I’ve taken this thing out? he thought. Jim stepped on the pile, and eventually stood on it, jumping up and down and using the wall to keep his balance. When he stepped down, the trash sprang back up and spilled onto the kitchen floor. Jim rubbed his temples and looked for spare garbage bags. He was out.

“I’ll clean it up tomorrow,” he said.

Jim’s words echoed off the silent walls and back at him, weighing him down. He sank to the floor and wept. He curled up into a ball and sobbed, saying unintelligible things and asking himself “why, why, why me?” He clutched himself tightly and rocked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

“No no no no no…”

After some time his rocking slowed, and he stood. He walked to the bathroom and blew his nose. He found himself looking into his own red eyes in the mirror, and he spoke.

“I can be better. I am important. I am a good person. My life is valuable. I can change.” He wasn’t sure he believed any of it, but he said it anyway. He made himself say it. He went to throw the tissue away and found a mound of toilet paper where the trash can should have been. He thought about doing it later.

“No, right now.” he said, finding the can in the mound of paper. He emptied the bathroom bin down the garbage chute and came back for the one in the kitchen. The mess he left on the way out almost refilled half the bin after he got back, but he thought the apartment would look better afterwards. It didn’t, but he felt better for having done something. For a minute or two. Until his phone alerted him again.

Paint something.

Hot tears burst from his eyes and he clenched fists tightly as he sobbed. Jim pounded his head, punching himself in the cheek as hard as he could. He had exhausted himself after a few minutes. I’ll do it later, he thought. And then the decision was made. He felt distant from the decision, as if it had been made for him, as if it hadn’t been made at all. But it had. Everything else melted away. All that remained was the decision. He stood. No. I’ll do it now.

“Right now… right now.”

Then he walked into the bedroom, opened a drawer, tasted metal, and painted the ceiling red.

The House with the Orange Walls

In the fall of 1866 I moved to a small town to work as a school teacher. I had inquired at length regarding housing, but there was only one home available. It was much larger than my need required, but cheaper than anything I had expected to find.

I took a tour of the house before I purchased it. It was mostly built of solid stone and stood like a castle on the outskirts of town. The inside of the home was neatly furnished, though it had been vacant nearly a year, and I perceived that both the carpet and the paint were relatively new. The latter of these was most incredible. Every wall of the home had been painted a bright and sickly orange. I inquired about the singular color of walls and was told that the man who had lived there previously had survived a house fire in 1865 that all but ruined the interior of the home.

The man had repaired the home, but the loss of so much of his ancestral legacy was too much for him to bear, and the general consensus was that he had gone insane. Racked with the feelings of guilt, he had painted the walls with fire to remind him of his failure. His sickness had gradually spread throughout his body, and the man died a few months afterwards.

These circumstances may have been alarming to most, but I am not a superstitious person, and, being the daughter of a wealthy businessman, I know a good deal when I see one. I purchased the home and moved in immediately.

As I have said, this move took place in the fall of the year, but I remember my first year in that house as usually cold. Whether this is due to atmospheric or mental conditions I cannot say, but the first night I spent in the home was, without a doubt, unusually cold. I moved my things into the large bedroom on the second floor, stoked the fire in the parlor downstairs, made sure the windows and doors were securely latched, and went to bed.

I do not know what awoke me that night. At first I thought it was the heat. Somehow the house had become unbearably hot, and I thought I must have fed the fire too much – until I perceived the window. The window in my apartment had been flung wide open, and the shutters clattered softly in the chill breeze. I had no idea how it had gotten open, but I resolved to leave it so and check on the fire – when I distinctly heard the distressed cry of a baby.

As I have already said, I am not a superstitious person. I have never been afraid of whip ‘o wills or ghosts or anything of the kind, but I admit that on that night in that strange and isolated house the sound of a baby crying nearly turned my blood to ice. At first I tried to go back to sleep, to hide under my covers, to pretend that I was only dreaming, that I had heard nothing. But there it was again, unmistakable and shrill: the desperate wailing of a child!

My heart pounded against my ribs as if it had gone mad, and it nearly burst at the sound of pounding on the door of my house. Immediately I sprang out of bed and lit a candle with shaking, sweaty hands. I opened the door of my room and peered tentatively down the orange hallway. The house was silent for a moment, and then the wailing commenced again, and the pounding on the door grew frantic.

I raced to the parlor leaving wet footprints on the stone floor, and as I moved the light of the candle danced on the orange walls of the house as if they were in flames. I stopped for a moment despite the crying of the child and the pounding on the door to assure myself that it was not. I smelled no smoke, but the hose was growing intensely hot. I knew not what to do, so I rushed to the parlor and threw open the door.

There, on the large rug before the blazing hearth, sat the ghostly form of an infant. I froze in terror, and the candle I was holding clattered to the ground and went out. The specter apparently heard the noise, for it turned and looked at me with tear-filled, vacant eyes. It ceased its crying – and then the banging on the door commenced again. The child started and leaned forward, placing its small hands on the floor and crying bitterly again as it began to crawl toward me. Having arrived at my feet, it reached up and pulled imploringly on my night gown.

By this time my initial alarm had somewhat lessened and was replaced almost entirely by those feelings of motherly compassion that had first induced my to become a teacher. With a lump in my throat I bent toward the poor creature and lifted it from the ground. Its crying lessened considerably, and the relative silence granted me clarity of mind. The infant, who could not have been more than ten months old, was shaking and rubbing its eyes. I held it close to my breast and tried to sooth it, but the banging at the door redoubled its cries. The flames seemed to shoot out of the hearth and dance upon the bright walls of the parlor as the banging continued.

It may seem odd that I had not as yet opened the door, but the whole of this experience had taken place within a matter of merely one or two minutes, and, not being familiar with the lore of supernatural phenomena, I had no idea how to proceed. I began rocking the child gently in my arms. I wiped my perspiring forehead and reached out with trembling fingers to wipe the tears from the small, round cheeks of the baby. I would have covered the apparition in a blanket, but the room was so warm now that I could barely stand it. The heat and the light of the fire on the walls was very unsettling, and I had to continually remind myself that the house was not burning.

I looked down at the child began to panic: I was alone in a fiery haunted house holding a ghost in my arms. I began to sing a lullaby, as much to calm the baby as myself. The silence of the house enshrouded the two of us as I sang, and the effect gave me goosebumps despite the uncomfortable heat.

Lullaby, lullaby my little one,
Lullaby my child so –

The banging at the door began again suddenly in a crazed and deafening roar that seemed to shake the very foundations of the house. The child burst into piteous screaming, and I shook with fear. It seemed that whatever was knocking the door would not be appeased until I opened it, so I stepped hesitantly toward the door and flung it open. I fully intended to tell whatever demon entreated entrance that he could not take the child – but I found there no demon. On the step of the doorway stood the specter of a deranged woman. The sight of her grizzled hair and tear-streaked face was nearly too much for me, and I almost fainted on the spot, but the child in my arms recalled me from the brink of unconsciousness.

The child stirred and reached toward the woman with small, grasping hands.

“Ma-ma, ma-ma” the infant said as it sobbed.

Beginning to understand, I slowly lifted the baby to her with my heart pounding in my ears. Her hands took the infant gently and with all the purpose of a ritual. She gazed into its eyes through tears.

“James…” she said in a voice that sounded far away.

Then mother and child disappeared slowly into the night like a wisp of smoke. Inside, the fire had gone out, and the house was as cold as death. I re-stoked the fire and sat before it all night, reliving the incredible again and again. I have had many years of good sleep in the house since then, but that night I did not sleep at all.

The next day I spoke to the man I had purchased the house from and told him in confidence of the incident. His face was pale and his hands shook by the end of my tale, and he immediately vowed to give me a full refund should I ask it of him. I asked him what was the matter and then learned the tale of the house in its entirety.

A man had lived there with his wife and child and had enlisted to fight for the Republic in 1864. He had been on his way home from the war early in the Spring of 1865 when the first floor of the house caught fire. The mother could not get to her child, who stayed in a crib in the warmest room of the house: the parlor. She opened the window of her room and leaped to the ground. She ran to the front door of the burning house, but she could not get it open. She wildly pounded and threw herself against it – but the door would not budge. The child perished in the fire, and townsfolk said the mother had died of grief on the doorstep.

When the man arrived home he found that everything he loved in life had been taken away from him. He went mad and rebuilt the home, but he muttered always of the intense heat and of the wailing of a child in the night that would not let him sleep. In his madness he had the walls of the home painted orange to remind him of what had happened to his family. His insanity consumed him, and he died that same year.

I am not a superstitious person, and I have never been one to believe in ghost stories. It may sound strange when I confess that I was skeptical of this account despite its coinciding so well with my own experience. It would take something else to convince me that what I had seen was not the merely a dream.

“What was the child’s name?” I asked him. “The one that died in the fire.”

“James,” he replied.

I’ve tried many times to paint the walls of that house, but every time I do the color inexplicably fades to the color of flames overnight; and I will swear to my dying day that on still, quiet nights I can hear through the walls orange walls of the home the faint and joyous laughter of a disembodied mother and her infant child.