The hallway was dark in the way that space is empty. I could make Marion’s figure out but only barely and behind her was another set of stairs that were so narrow I might have to walk up them turned sideways. I tried to see her face but could only see the slight halo of light on her hair from the other hall. Marion pointed up. “You’re going to seventeen.”
“Seventeen?” I said.
“You have to go on your own now.” She looked at me. “Ray? You have something to give me.”
“I don’t know what it might be. The boatman and Mrs. Chandler…”
“You’d have to break the seal before I could take it, Ray.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh!” I pulled the parchment from my coat pocket. Only a little worse for wear, I held it out to her.
“You have to do it, Ray. Please.”
Her voice had shaken just a little there. I looked at where I knew the parchment was in my hands but I couldn’t see it. I hesitated a moment, but the wax snapped easily. The hall was flooded with light. I could see the tears on Marion’s cheek as she took the parchment from me and her finger lightly brushed mine and she smiled sadly. “Goodbye, Ray. It was nice meeting you.”
She brushed past me and disappeared into the light. I heard a door close far away. I went up the stairs.
The landing at each floor showed a plaque with a number, but there wasn’t any order to them, one floor was twelve the next six the third forty-seven and so I lost count of how many flights I went up before I got to seventeen and I was seriously winded. There was only one door, and I could see light underneath it. I put my hand on the doorknob. It was hot to the touch, and the longer I held my hand there the more it hurt so I turned it, opened the door.
I didn’t expect to see both of them.
They were so young, their whole lives ahead of them. He was only half as handsome as she was beautiful, but she was the most beautiful woman in town when they met. She saw me first. “Ray! Come in!”
“Don’t dawdle, you ain’t got much time.” I hadn’t been aware of the third person in the room. I failed to hide my surprise at seeing Bea Chandler in that room.
“Old witches know things you ain’t dreamed up, yet.” She chuckled to herself and stood in the open doorway. “I’ll be waitin’ for ya down the dock.” I was left in the room with the ghosts of my grandparents.
“You look good, Ray,” Gran’ma said. “It’s been so long. How much weight did you lose?” She ushered me into their little suite and sat on the couch across from me. My grandfather stood behind her, every inch the athlete
“How was your trip, Ray?” he asked me, sipping from a delicate coffee cup. He was smoking, something I hadn’t seen him do since I was a child. It was the cigarettes that likely killed him, so I was surprised that he was on them again. “How are your parents?”
I tried to keep it together. “They’re good, I think. Sometimes it’s hard to tell for sure. I worry about them. Getting older.”
“Aren’t we all?” Gran’ma said and smiled. “I guess technically not, but I feel older anyway.”
“You look great,” I said. “Both of you.”
Gran’pa came ‘round the end of the couch and sat with his wife, put his arm across her shoulder. He wasn’t the old man I’d known for the greater part of my life, but the virile baseball player I’d only seen in pictures. He always underplayed his abilities and good looks, but plainly adored my grandmother and had continually sung her praises for as long as I’d known him. This was the man I’d imagined he’d been, but had never met.
“Well, Ray,” he said. “You’re here.”
This was my destination, after all. “I need a story. It feels a little like we’re forgetting you at the family gatherings. We didn’t forget Gran’ma because you wouldn’t let us, you always talked about her.”
“You were so sweet that way,” Gran’ma said and kissed him on the cheek.
“I figured that if I came here and found you, I could maybe take a story back with me. One that maybe you hadn’t told us, or that you hadn’t told in a long time.” I sat back in my chair, worried and feeling silly after saying all that out loud. “It’s just ---“
“I miss you both and I don’t want anyone to forget you.”
Gran’pa waited a long time to speak. “You’ve got what you came for, Ray.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You tell this story.” Gran’pa said. “Tell it around the table after dinner and before dessert. Tell it once and wait to be asked to tell it again. If it’s a good story, you’ll get requests. If not, work on it and write it down. Tell it again after a suitable time in between. You’ll know how long. You have the gift.”
They beamed at me.
I left my grandparents’ suite relieved. I turned the corner to go back down the stairs and found myself back in the parlor. Hodgkins was there behind the leather chair with another glass of brandy “To calm your nerves for the journey home,” he said. He asked how I was and nodded when I replied that I was okay, then left promising to return momentarily. The parlor was silent now, so still in contrast to the ruckus upon my arrival. The brandy was excellent and I allowed myself to relax.
Hodgkins came back to tell me that the Sherilynn was at the dock. He saw me to the door and I made my way down to the river. Wilber Davidson helped me back onto the boat when I was a little unsteady and hesitated taking the step. Beatrice Chandler was there, too. She smiled at me. “I love the ride home,” she said.
“You got the gift, Ray,” Mrs. Chandler said to me once we were pushing back up the Kaw. “You’re a teller.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not half as charming as he was. We all wanted his attention; he held court like he was king of the world and we all listened to him.”
“Y’re not payin’ attention, son,” Wilber said from behind the wheel. “Listen t’Miz Chandler.”
“You tell the story so no one forgets, but you change the names, you move the Castle. You did a service tonight, and it had to be you doin’ it or it wouldn’t’ve never been done.
“You tell the story and don’t leave anything out, ‘specially not parts about your wife. You’re the teller he wasn’t, you just don’t know it yet.”
The rest of the ride was silent. I was left alone with my thoughts, turning them over and over in my mind.
It was Christmas Eve when I got home. Erika was there with a long hug, a kiss and a pot of hot coffee. The children were asleep in their beds and we sat in the kitchen. Minus some details, I told her the story and she stopped me before I ran up all those stairs.
“Did you give it to her?”
“What?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s important, Ray. Did you give her the parchment?”
“I gave it to her, yeah, but how did you know?”
She poured coffee for both of us. “Did you see him?”
“I saw them both.”
“What was that like?”
I smiled. “Amazing. Stunning. I don’t know. I don’t have the words.”
“You’ll find them,” Erika said. “You’ll go into your office tomorrow after dinner and you’ll work until you find the words. Finish the story, though. Did you get your glasses back?”
“I don’t need ‘em anymore. Go figure.”
When it was done, we sat there for a while drinking coffee. I gasped.
“The presents! Did you get everything wrapped? Tomorrow’s Christmas and the kids ---“
“Calm down,” she said. “I covered for you. Actually Santa did. It’s all good.”
We walked into the living room and looked at the tree, sat on the couch. I put my arm around her.
“That’s strange,” Erika said.
“That box, the square one, I didn’t wrap it.”
“Really? You’re not playing with me?”
“I swear I’m not. You know I’m a terrible liar, Ray. You know it.” She made to get up and take a closer look.
“No,” I said. “Leave it for tomorrow.”
She sat back and put my arm around her shoulder, nestled close and put her hand on my chest.
“Tell me the story again, Ray. Don’t leave anything out.”
©2009 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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