It was hot and noisy. Dozens of people of all sorts and descriptions, all sexes and species, were working over hot stoves, at hot ovens, stirring hot, enormous pots on pillars of stainless steel. The writer, the Seeker, the lover and the butler negotiated the busy aisles between stations. "Behind you," a ring-tailed Procyon said as he bustled through with a stack of dirty dishes.
Frank moved to let the creature pass, and bumped a human man at a stove. "Sorry," he said to the man, who was wearing only a long apron.
"You should bet on the Cowboys," the man said and turned back to his work stirring the pot. Frank nodded and moved on.
"What's the fastest way out of here?" Ray was shouting as Brad slumped against him. "I can't carry him forever."
There was an enormous crashing of metal pots and pans across the kitchen. "Uh oh," a woman said. Ray's eyes widened. "Chef Jimmy's having a fit again," she said.
"Erika?" He looked at Frank and handed Brad over to him. "Erika, it's Ray."
She saw him and smiled. "Pleased to meet you," she said. "Isn't this a wonderful dream?" The young woman smiled vaguely.
He couldn't help but stare at her. Everything he remembered her being was in front of him again, he was overwhelmed. "I suppose it is."
"Ray!" Frank was forty feet away, near a set of double doors. "Ray, don't stop! Come on!"
The writer leaned in to speak in the woman's ear. "My name's Raymond George Briscoe and I'm going to marry you, we're going to have a long life together. Remember my name and when we meet that I'm going to love you more than anything else in the world for my entire existence."
Frank's voice seemed so far away, like he was underwater. Ray kissed Erika on the cheek and whipped around to make his way through the crowded kitchen to where he thought the double doors were.
"Over here," Frank said. Ray came through a clutch of men carrying armloads of vegetables. "You can't break off like that without me. You'll be lost." Frank hefted Brad up and all three went through the door that the butler Hodgkins was holding open.
"Gentlemen, we're running out of time," he told the three. "We really have to hurry."
They moved quickly into the hall. "Down the stairs again," Hodgkins said. "As quickly as we can."
Since the stairs were wide enough to accommodate four people abreast, Ray took Brad's free arm and put it over his shoulder. "Let's go," he said.
Brad's head lolled forward as they walked. "Keep going down," he said, his voice thick and slow. "Keep going down's what she said. The castle. Keep going down the castle."
"That's what we're doing, buddy," Ray said. He caught Frank's eye. "What's wrong with him?"
"I don't know," Frank said. "Could be he's just worn out. He's been working for a long time to get here."
The stairs widened at the eighth landing and there were sounds on the other sides of the walls of the stairwell but still no doors. They kept walking with Hodgkins leading the way. By the time they reached the bottom of the stairs, sixteen flights down from the kitchen, the stairs were wide enough to lay two men full length across them.
"Sir," Hodgkins said to Brad. "Sir, this is where you are to walk on your own. This is what you came here for but you have to do the rest by yourself. Do you want to go on?" He bent down to look into Brad's half-closed eyes. "Sir? Do you hear me?"
"Hear," Brad said. "C'n I have a minute?" He wobbled and moved Frank and Ray to the left a step. Shaking his head, Brad's eyes opened a little wider. "Marion's here," he said, gaining a little strength.
"Yes, sir," Hodgkins said. "She's through that door there and you can see her when you go through it, but you have to do it yourself. Your friends cannot help you. You must stand on your own. You must open the door."
Brad took his arm from Frank and almost tipped over, caught himself by grabbing harder at Ray's shoulder with the other hand. "I'm okay," he said. "Okay." Ray watched the old man's face.
"I'm just tired," Brad said. "It’s been so long. I'm just tired." He nodded at Ray, then stood completely up, removed his hand and arm from around Ray's shoulder. "I feel good now," he said and straightened his coat, rolled his neck, closed his eyes and breathed in and out slowly.
He opened his eyes. "I'm ready."
There was no creak, no sound at all as the door opened inward. Brad went through first, then Ray who was followed by Frank and Hodgkins. The room was another library, but much larger, extending back for what seemed like miles. Rows upon rows of twelve-foot tall bookshelves, each with a ladder jammed full of esoteric and exotic volumes. The door closed silently behind them.
"Calm down, now," a sweet female voice said off to their right. "It's going to be okay."
Ahead of them was a beautiful, dark-haired woman who knelt in front of a young man whose eyes were bright red and face puffy from crying. He was probably eleven or twelve years old. "Tell me what happened," she said, her voice was gentle as a fall evening breeze blowing an errant oak leaf across the street.
"I took my glasses off to rub my eyes," the boy said in between hucking, deep sobs. "And now I can't find 'em."
"Jesus Christ," Ray said under his breath.
"Oh," the librarian said. "Do you remember what books you were looking at when you took your glasses off?"
"No," the boy said a little impatiently. He seemed to regain his composure then. "Wait, maybe I was trying to find that one book by Asimov, the physics one."
"We should go look there then, shouldn't we?" She stood up and smoothed her skirt down over her thigh. "If they're not there, we can look in the lost and found box and see if someone turned them in, okay?"
"Okay," the boy said. He pointed to the group of men staring at the scene. "Who're those guys?"
"Don't you worry about them, Raymond," the librarian said. "They'll wait for a minute while we find your glasses." She nodded at them and walked the boy down the stacks.
Frank looked a question at Ray, who nodded.
"I remember that day," Ray said. He watched the two disappear into a row between two shelves, then turned to the group. "Frank, I was in fifth grade and terrified that my parents were going to kill me for losing my glasses."
"You don't wear glasses," Brad said.
"I did until my first trip here," Ray said. "Not blind as a bat, but enough astigmatism for seven people. My eye doctor couldn't believe the change. She swore up and down that I must've gotten lasik surgery without consulting her. She wouldn't see me for two years, wouldn't let anyone in the office see me, either."
Frank looked at Hodgkins. "What did we see here, then?"
"A mixture of realities," the butler said. "It's part of what the castle does."
"I thought the castle was neutral?"
Hodgkins shook his head and put on a sad smile. "I'm afraid I don't know everything about the castle, sir," he said. "I'm only a caretaker. Here she comes."
The librarian was all business as she approached them. Brad was invigorated. "Marion," he said.
The lights in the room winked out behind her as she passed each stack. Every step seemed to take an eternity, but her progress was steady. She walked right up to the old man and put her hands on his cheeks. "My love," she said and kissed him.
"I'm sorry," Marion said to Brad, patting his cheek. "I'm so sorry I allowed this to happen."
He didn't say anything back, only touched his forehead to hers and rested his hands on her hips. "My heart," he said.
"I know," Marion said. "It's okay to lie down now. I'm here and I'll take care of you." She looked to Frank and asked for help with her eyes. They eased Brad to the floor with Frank rolling his coat up so that he could put it under the old man's head to make him comfortable. "Rest now, darling," Marion said. She put her hand on his chest, where she seemed to write something invisibly but for the slight trails of yellow light the gestures left behind.
Brad closed his eyes and breathed evenly. "He's asleep," Marion said.
"We don't have much time, ma'am," Hodgkins said.
"I know," she said, standing up. "Thank you for guiding them, Hodgkins." Marion clapped her hands together and rubbed them.
"Ray," she said. "You saw yourself?"
The writer nodded. "I remember you," he said. "You really worked at the library when I was a kid. You helped me find my glasses that time. I remember you being so beautiful and so nice."
Marion smiled. "I'm glad," she said. "I enjoyed that part of my life so much."
"I remember you guiding me through the castle, too," Ray said. "What happened when I gave you that parchment?"
"You gave me the opportunity to be free," she said. "I woke up and made my way back to the castle where I've been ever since, gathering strength and knowledge for the next battle."
Frank, satisfied that Brad was only asleep, stood. "Strangiato's dead," he said. "I don't know how."
Marion closed her eyes, seemed to say something under her breath and turned her palms upward. A moment later, she looked at Frank and took a deep breath. "I'd heard," she said, "but I didn't want to believe. You saw him?"
"Yes," Frank said. "Eyre recruited me to replace him."
"Ah," Marion said.
"So what do we do now?" Ray pointed to the ceiling. The lights were going out all around the large room and shadows crawled across the floor away from them, deepening and lengthening.
"Now," Marion said. "We have to escape."
Thanks for reading Reader.
©2010 By Jason Arnett.
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