Behind my screams I was remembering how this had all started: I’d been depressed over my grandfather’s death for nearly a year and my wife was finally fed up. “You need to see someone.”
“An old witch lady who does things for people who need them,” Erika said.
“Sounds sketchy,” I frowned. “Have you been to see her?”
Erika shifted on the couch next to me and reached for her purse. “It’s not something I can talk about, Ray,” she said then scribbled something on a scrap of paper. “Here.” She handed me the piece of paper. “Just go and I’ll see you when you get back.”
I looked at the scrap and then back at my lovely, supportive wife. “Beatrice Chandler? Wait a second…” She kissed me on the cheek.
“Be safe,” Erika said and went to the laundry room. She closed the door behind her.
Obviously we survived those falls. I don’t know how Wilber maneuvered the Sherilynn over that precipice and down the seventy feet of raging water into the churning pool at the bottom, then over the shorter falls half a mile on that were less treacherous, but in between those two events I resolved to do exactly what the skipper of the ship said and belted myself to the bench and tried not to yell too much.
When we arrived in relatively calm water I unlatched the buckle at my waist and vomited all the bourbon I’d drunk along with the burger, chips and vegetables over the side. Wilber laughed. “An excellent offering to the river gods, my friend, excellent!” I stared at him in disbelief before another wave of nausea overcame me and I was making another ‘offering’ that left my throat raw and my belly empty. “Drink some water,” the skipper said, still laughing. “There are some cold bottles in the cooler under that bench. You could get me one if you’re of a mind to. We’ll both feel better.”
“How long ‘til we get there?” I asked Wilber, snapping the plastic ring on a bottle. I handed one to him.
“My children would ask me that when we took car vacations back in ancient times. I would always tell them that it takes as long as it takes and when we get there, we’ll know it.” Wilber laughed out loud again and gave the wheel a big spin. “Relax, mister. It’s going to be a while. Make yourself comfortable.”
The gentle rocking of the boat eventually lulled me to sleep. I saw colors and shapes dancing across a field of black velvet. I tried to touch them, follow them with my eyes, then ran after them and came into a brightly lit park, the one I had proposed to Erika in. She was sitting on the bench we thought of as ‘ours’, smiling at me. It was that smile that had drawn me across the crowded room the first time I’d seen it, but she was younger than I’d ever known her, so different but so obviously Erika, too. I sat next to her.
“There’s a lot you don’t know, Ray,” she said dreamily. “There’s a lot that can hurt you there. I hope you’ll forgive me. Come back, okay?”
The mother of my children and the love of my life, Erika stood up and walked away from me. There was a glow around her, white then green, and I heard a low rumbling sound like a huge bomber going overhead. I reached out but it was like trying to swim in syrup. The rumbling seemed to be coming from everywhere.
Tiny red squares bombarded me, then, followed by baby blue rectangles that whirled end over end. I was stung by the red squares, but the rectangles hurt when they slammed into me. I fell in a heap and tried to cover my head.
Wilber was shaking my shoulder. “We’re here, mister,” he said. “Time for you to go.” For a moment his eyes were red and his face was blue and I started, ripping away from his grasp. I’m sure I looked pretty crazy to him, but he let go and stood up straight.
I came back to myself and stood up, dazed. I rolled my shoulder and elbow to relieve some of the cranky aches of early middle age. Not excruciating, but far from pleasant. “Already? How long was I asleep?”
“I don’t know, as long as it took to get here.” Wilber held out his hand. “You gotta pay now.”
I was surprised. “We never discussed a price, did we?” I reached for my wallet.
“No,” he said. “Just give me what’s in your coat pocket there. Everything in it.”
I reached in my pocket and felt the earpiece and lenses. “These are prescription. I can’t see without my glasses.”
“That’s the price: something personal. Everything what’s in your pocket.” Wilber was slightly impatient and waving his hand around as he talked while keeping it open.
“Now, if you please.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. I found the two fifty cent pieces and held them out on my palm for him. Wilber smiled wide, and then reached out for them. “You really want my glasses, too? Really?”
Wilber looked up at me as if he were hungry. “Yes.”
I carefully stepped off the boat and onto the dock to get my first real look at the castle, fuzzy though it was. It looked to be limestone topped with green metal roofs and maybe four stories tall. The moon high above the tallest of the peaks cast an eerie glow through the clouds. Decidedly Midwestern, it wasn’t what I expected of a castle. The pathway was well lit and surrounded by lots of old trees and I could see a largish fountain off at the corner of the building. Wilber called to me as he cast off.
“They’re expecting you. Don’t dawdle.”
I tried to wonder how we’d get back up the river, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the castle. Focused and nervous I walked up to the porch. I heard Wilber kick the motor over and the Sherilynn seemed far away. So far everything seemed to be about going forward, so I didn’t look back. What light there was escaped through the lead crystal windows or shone from the moon. I tried to look through the glass but I couldn’t see anything but vague shapes. I gave two quick raps on the door that seemed to echo, if only in my head.
The door opened and an old man in a tuxedo was there. He looked impassive and stood silent. “I --- I’m Ray Briscoe,” I said. “I’m here to --- “
The old man stood aside and nodded his head to the interior. When I didn’t move, he nodded again so I stepped past him. He closed the door behind me and put a hand on my elbow guiding me into the parlor. Portraits of people that looked vaguely familiar lined the little hall. The décor otherwise was nondescript though vaguely reminiscent of several styles, all faded from popularity. He indicated a red leather wingback chair and when I seated myself, poured a brandy at the sideboard and handed it to me.
The old man was stiff, standing in the center of the largish parlor very naturally at home. “You are welcome in the Castle, Rayburn Thomas Briscoe.”
“How did you know my ---?” Don’t be foolish, I heard Beatrice Chandler say in my head. They’re expecting you, Wilber had said. “Thank you,” I said. “Can you --- what happens next?”
“Drink your brandy and a guide will be with you momentarily.” He bowed at the waist then and turned to leave but stopped at the door. “Right,” he said. He didn’t look back over his shoulder. “Do you have any questions?”
“Dozens. What do you do here?”
The old man turned back to face me, patient. “I am George Hodgkins, the caretaker of the Castle. It tells me what it needs and I provide.” He cocked his head to the left and stared at a corner of the ceiling. He smiled and nodded. “At once,” he said. “I must leave you now, sir. Your guide will be along in a moment.
“You might be in some danger here, Mr. Briscoe. Generally the guests are safe but I’m being told --- no, that can’t be right.”
He turned to me, serious, and there was weight behind his words. “Do you know someone named Emily?”
“No,” I said.
Hodgkins’s face darkened. “Be careful, Mr. Briscoe.” He left the room then and I was alone with a glass of brandy and a great deal of fear. Maybe it was too many ghost hunting TV shows or my misspent youth with Lovecraft, Crowley and the mysteries of the impenetrable Dark Beyond.
The scream came just before the sound of breaking glass. The lights went out.
Continued in Part 3 next Wednesday! CLICK HERE FOR PART THREE
©2009 By Jason Arnett.
Some Rights Reserved under a Creative Commons Attribution-
Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
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