“I’m a little lost,” I said.
Beatrice Chandler was an old lady when I first met her twenty years ago, and she was as freaky now as back then. When Mike, John and I would skip out of high school Chemistry we’d head over to the Laundromat where we met Bea. We thought she was entertaining, but she had a lot of interesting information for young men looking for strange ways to spend Friday nights in Kansas. That I’d come seeking her help as an older man didn’t surprise her. “You go to Falls City, Nebraska, and find ol’ Wilber Davidson,” she said. “He’s a cantankerous cuss, but good people. He’ll have a little shack on the river where he sells knickknacks and such and you tell him I sent you. He’ll charge a fair price to bring you downriver to the Castle.”
She lowered her voice, as if conspiring. “He’ll take you to the dock, but he won’t go up to the Castle no matter how much you offer.” Bea smiled then, and relaxed. “He’s a little superstitious, you know, but good people. Hard worker.”
“Why go there just to come back?” She dismissed my obvious question with a wave.
“Don’t be foolish, Ray; it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” She stood up and held out her hand.
I handed over the money she required for all this. In return she gave me a rolled up parchment sealed with wax in which was stamped a stylized ‘M’.
“Don’t open it unless you’re told, Ray. Bad things’ll happen if you do. No kiddin’. Don’t open it. Got all that?” Bea turned and shuffled off into her kitchen. “You want some tea now,” she called back. It wasn’t a question.
We drank the strong black tea in her sitting room and passed the time by talking about her great grandchildren and how her own children were no good. She stopped talking and I heard her hum a little to herself. She looked me dead in the eye.
“You go now, right now to Nebraska or you don’t go at all. No questions, no protests, no stops along the way.”
She looked right through me with hard, ancient eyes the color of onyx and I felt cold. I wondered how my wife had known about Bea, then why Erika thought I should come see her. I was about to say I didn’t want to go through with it when she smiled. “That’s your choice made, Ray. You’re going. Leave now or you’ll never see the castle.”
I made it to Falls City in record time under a gibbous moon and with only fumes to spare in the gas tank. I spent a chunk of the early morning tracking down Wilber’s place on the river. It was ramshackle, to be sure, but he was there with a hot cup of coffee for me and exactly as Beatrice Chandler promised. He told me to go into town, where to drink and eat. “Be ready to go at sundown.”
The bar wasn’t quite a dive --- that would have been a higher form of establishment --- but it had a dingy kind of elegance that one finds mostly in comic books and film noir. The bar top was actually a door: a flat panel of mahogany with gold hinges on the customer side and a very stylish, almost deco-styled handle on the bartender’s side. It was held off the floor by two very large oaken casks, held together with shiny black iron bands, that were big enough to hold two adults folded inside. Behind this setup was a buffet that had an array of a dozen or so top shelf liquors, a white dishtowel, and half a dozen glasses. There was no one in the place but the man behind the bar and me.
The bartender himself (I never got his name) was a large man in the way that tractor tires are large when compared to the wheels of shopping carts. His right arm was ornately tattooed and his left was scarred and pink; he never looked at me straight on but rather out of the corners of his eyes. He finally spoke when I told him that Wilber sent me.
“What’ll it be, then?” he said.
“Bourbon,” I told him then looked at my watch. I smiled at the bartender, put a ten on the bar. “Can you top that off with some Coke? I didn’t notice the time.”
He gave me two fifty-cent pieces in change that I put in my outer coat pocket with my glasses. I took my drink, then noticed that there were four single chairs at four tiny tables scattered across the room. I picked one and sat facing the door, waiting for sundown and Wilber Davidson to collect me. I sipped my drink. It seemed odd to me that there were no windows, or even mirrors, but I put it out of my mind.
Finishing it, I asked where I could get some lunch.
“You’re not s’posed to leave,” the barman said.
“For, what,” I said, “another six hours until the sun goes down?”
No reply from the mountain across the small room, so I stood up.
“Sit,” he said in a rumble of thunder.
I did and he went through a door that soon vented the smell of food being cooked.
When the bartender put a plate down in front of me, I looked up at him. “Eat all of it,” he said and then went back to wiping the remaining five glasses. There was a burger and a bag of chips with a torn leaf of lettuce and two very red tomato slices under a whole slice of red onion for garnish. “While it’s hot,” the bartender said. “You’ll need it for your trip tonight.”
“What do you know about the castle?” I asked him as I put the vegetables on the burger.
“Only what I hear from guys like you,” he said as the towel squeaked along the inside of the glass in his right hand. “You wanna ‘nother bourbon?”
Wilber Davidson finally arrived just as dusk was falling and pulled up a second chair.
“How much you had to drink?” he asked. He looked about a mile away and ten miles tall; still, the shadows covered his features while I held fast to the table.
“I lost count somewhere around seven.”
Wilber turned to the barman. “Wha’d’ya think? He ready?” The chair didn’t stay on its feet as I stood, thinking I was showing I could hang with these tough, corn-fed Nebraska types and I swayed a little. The room itself was spinning like a tiltawhirl that I couldn’t get off of. Wilber looked me up and down. “If you c’n walk, follow me.”
The boat was a ramshackle version of Quint’s ‘Orca’ to my untrained and boozy eye. I was assured of its solidity and abilities to carry us to my destination. “Who’s Sherilynn?” I pointed at the name on her stern.
Wilber laughed. “Someone who used to own the business.” He didn’t say another word until we were out in the current of the river.
“You’ll wanna be holding on there. Best strap yourself down.” He pointed to a bench and a seatbelt in the back of the cabin. “It’s goin’ to be a bit of a rough ride here.”
“I’ll stand,” I said. “I want to see what’s coming. I’ve never been on the river like this.” The boat lurched, and I felt the burger colluding with the bourbon in my stomach to turn on me. I think I turned green.
“Suit yourself,” Wilber said. “Fair warning: the falls’re not a nice ride.”
I was going to ask what he meant by that, but he cut me off. “What’s your business to the castle, if you don’t mind me askin’?”
“I’m looking for a story,” I said. “Actually a storyteller. My wife sent me to Beatrice Chandler and she sent me to you.”
“How’d your wife know about the castle?”
“She didn’t say she did,” I said. “She sent me to Mrs. Chandler.”
Wilber spun the wheel. “Once they been there they don’t discuss much of what they saw on the ride back.”
There was a lot I didn’t know about my wife before I met her, and usually I liked that. This, however, didn’t feel good. My stomach warned again that the liquor and food were mixing badly with the heavy sway and swell of the river.
“Tha’s why I never go up. The ones who’ve gone for a second trip are different than the first time. Hollow, almost. ‘Course it’s rare to take anyone twice, but it’s happened.”
“Why do they go back?”
“Couldn’t say,” was all I got back from Wilber. “You’d better grab onto something now. The falls’re comin’ up.”
I looked through the glass in front of Wilber and all I could see was a mass of foam and spray, but the roar of water was getting louder. “How high are the falls here, Wilber?”
“’High enough to kill us if I don’t do this just right.”
Continued in Part 2 next Wednesday! Click here for Part Two
©2009 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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