Sam was rendered immobile. There was almost too much to process. First, that Ange could see ghosts and apparently knew these ones. Second, that the guy formerly considered the cool one was a) the menacing creature from the café, and b) responsible for Casey’s death, which certainly made him a threat. And third was too horrifying to even vocalize silently. But the pieces, once laid, would not keep the big picture from coming further into focus. The buzzing of a text message nearly didn’t register, but the surprise of discovering there was a signal out here was enough to pull Sam from a spiral of terrifying realizations. The text came from an unknown number but it was obviously from Alex or Herb at the cafe, asking Sam to call. Torn between wanting to know what they had to say, but desperate to hear the interaction between Angelié and the ghosts, Sam sent a quick text asking for clarity, and then tried to look busy while listening closely.
Angelié froze. The idiots from earlier were walking over to her yammering about murder like it was no big deal. She counted her blessings that Sam and Shooter were oblivious to such things, and found herself wishing she was, if these two were representative of what dead people were like. She glanced up at the van and could see Shooter and Sam grabbing gear and getting set up for the next shot. She needed to get rid of these two somehow. They were not put off in the least by her studiously ignoring them.
Blane spoke first.
“Hey there, I like the outfit. Is dressing in prints reminiscent of predatory animals intentional? Like, your brand is killer kitty sort of thing? I see that you brought a film crew this time. I don’t know if you had considered this, darlin’, but documenting your crimes is rarely a good idea. It’s why I did all my killing on the down low, regardless of how awesome the kills were, and I never left witnesses.”
Angelié cast a look back toward the van and then turned to face the water, hissing under her breath.
“What are you doing here? Are you following me?”
Blane shook his head.
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you? To think that you’re so impressive that we’d follow you around like a hungry puppy. Well, this one might.” He jerked a thumb at Nathan. “He’s been going on and on about how instrumental he was in telling people about this place in an attempt to draw people out here, but it doesn’t seem to have worked on anyone but you. Meanwhile, I’ve been showing the young padawan the great variety of places and ways I’ve murdered people over the years, contributing to feeding the hunger in my own small way.”
“I’m guessing that’s not the only thing about you that’s small. Were you this annoying while alive too?” She cast a glance back at the two by the van, but they seemed engrossed in their work.
“Interesting choices of companions, killer kitty. I’m curious to know how you plan to take that behemoth down, for one. And interesting that you’d bring along another person who can see and talk to ghosts?”
Angelié went pale.
“Are you talking about Sam? Sam can see and hear you? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Maybe, maybe not. All I know is, I was minding my own business and suddenly there was this light which pulled me into it. I barely had time to shift my appearance, given that I didn’t know who or what was on the other side. It could have been heaven, for all I knew…”
“Unlikely.” Angelié interrupted. Blane gave her a look.
“Anyhow, turns out it was your friend over there, with some sort of artifact or charm. It was obvious I was not expected. And it definitely wasn’t heaven, not my idea of it anyway. Because my version would not be a fucking diner with my brother and his annoying friends. It was pretty hilarious to see the looks on their faces though. Even the one I already killed was scared.”
Nathan piped up at this.
“You saw Casey? Was Tommy there? Is she a ghost too?”
Blane rolled his eyes.
“She’s not gonna fuck you, bro. Even if you hadn’t accidentally killed her, you didn’t have a hope. That one is more her type, you know, if she was still alive.” He gestured to Shooter, who was walking down the small hill toward the dock.
“Hey babe? You still mad? Sam didn’t mean anything by it. We’re all set up whenever you want to do the next part. The light is really good right now, if we get you over to the left of the house, the shimmer from the lake will make you look amazing. It seems a little bright down here.”
Angelié tilted her head at him.
“Out of curiosity, where is it brightest? That you can see?”
He gestured to her left, almost immediately where Blane and Nathan stood.
“Just there. Did you want to do it here?”
She shook her head, perplexed by how everyone and his dog could suddenly see ghosts, or at least, the impression of them. She beamed a smile at Shooter that did not entirely reach her eyes.
“That sounds perfect, baby. While you two finish up, I’m going to take a quick stroll to get a feel for the place, so I can really get into the spirit of the piece, you know? Get it? Spirit?”
Shooter laughed, his relief obvious. Sam, watching the exchange, wasn’t fooled for a moment and lamented that her conversation with the ghosts would continue out of range.
Angelié stepped off the dock and headed into the forest, toward a section of half built cabins. Finding herself out of sight and earshot, she turned on the two ghosts still following her.
“As you’re likely well aware, there are things at work here which are further reaching than some insignificant desire for recognition. You think I care about likes and subscribes? Fuck no. Internet fame is merely a means to a much grander end. Now tell me everything you know about that diner, and the town, and the people in it. I have some very carefully laid plans that I do not want them interfering in.”
Alex huffed, setting her phone down.
“Sam asked for clarity, said they’re in the middle of something. I’m hesitant to text that you and Casey remembered your brother using that phrase the creepy ghost used, since Sam doesn’t know anything about all that and it could just be more confusing. How could that have been your brother? Everyone else looks like themselves, why would he have changed?”
“I don’t know, but I feel like Blane is mixed up in this somehow. If Casey and Tommy are back, why wouldn’t he and maybe even Nathan be as well?”
“Well if that’s the case, does that mean that Kirk is around here somewhere?”
“Again, I don’t know. I mean, Kirk wasn’t technically murdered. Maybe that’s the difference? Though if Sam is right, we’re likely surrounded by spooky things we can’t see on a regular basis. No offense, Casey.”
“And what happened to Tommy? Why did she disappear when Sam left, but Casey stayed? Casey, can you remember anything more about who told you to warn me about Herb? I can’t imagine who or what would think that Herb would ever hurt me.”
Casey shook his head.
“So there was nothing, it was as though I was in a dream I couldn’t pull out of, like I was made of molasses or something heavy like that. And then there was this voice, but it wasn’t coming from outside me, it was like it was inside my brain. And then I felt like I was being pushed, and the voice was more insistent, like it needed me to hurry. I don’t know if you’ve ever dreamed you were made of molasses but it’s really tough to move quickly, that’s why it’s such a good metaphor for moving slowly.”
Alex inhaled and slowly let the breath out. It seemed as though she was counting.
“Ok, nice that you’re so aware of the physical properties of molasses but you’re not actually made of it so can you please get to the point?”
“How do you know? I mean, how many ghosts do you know? It could be that I have a very similar chemical makeup to…”
“Ok, sis. Jeez. Where was I? Right, the voice. It told me, ‘her greatest threat is the caretaker.’ Yeah, that’s what it said, greatest threat.”
Herb and Alex did not seem impressed by Casey’s recall.
“That’s it. Her greatest threat is the caretaker. That’s all it said. No other context.”
“I mean, to be fair, I was still getting accustomed to the fact that I was dead and potentially made of molasses. How about a little consideration?”
Alex rolled her eyes and turned to Herb.
“I’m sure there must be more to it. I cannot imagine you being my greatest threat. Unless you messed with my sauce.”
Herb ran a hand through his hair.
“I don’t think this is the time for jokes. Try Sam again. We need to clearly convey that the three of them are potentially in danger. Who knows what sort of afterlife shenanigans my brother is up to. Also? People like a tangy sauce.”
The door slamming against the wall caused all three of them to jump. The flashlight, whose beam had been illuminating Casey, rolled off the table and shut off upon contact with the floor causing Casey to vanish. Alex and Herb turned to the door and watched Lydia examine the wall to ensure she hadn’t done any damage. She turned and smiled at the duo as she made her way to over to them.
“Looks okay, but you should probably get that fixed.”
“It’s on the list. How’s everything at the museum? Any excitement?”
“About as much as you’d expect in a town as quiet as this one.” She didn’t notice the look Alex and Herb exchanged as she was taking a seat at the counter. She popped the lid from the cardboard tube she carried. “Except that Doris stopped by and said you wanted to see these.” She removed and unfurled three topographic maps, overlapping each other. She looked up to find nothing but confusion gazing back at her.
“I never said anything to Doris, did you, Herb?” Herb shook his head. “Did she say us specifically? Or the café? Because there are some folks from out of town who were curious about the place. They intended to visit the museum, but haven’t made it yet. Maybe she meant they wanted to see the maps?”
“No, she specifically said you and Herb. I’d say that’s strange, but it’s sort of par for the course around here.” Lydia adjusted her glasses and peered at the map once more. “There must be some reason she asked me to come by.”
Herb tilted his head, trying to work out which way was up.
“I don’t even know what I’m looking at. Is that here?”
Lydia nodded, pointing to a cluster of lines and squares at the bottom of the map.
“Here’s the town, and this part of the highway was where the train tracks used to be. This is the highway heading south, through the park. The restaurant is here,” she tapped her finger on a small square set apart from the rest, on the outskirts. “As you can see from the circles denoting elevation, behind us is the mountain. Here is where they put in a road toward the old mine, and over here is where the new road was punched in, to that development on the lake.”
Herb leaned in, following Lydia’s finger with his eyes. He noticed a thin line bisecting the map, running between the mine and the resort.
“Is this an old road? I don’t remember seeing it at any point, and I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the area.”
“Oh no, that’s a river. It starts up here, past the mine, and eventually empties into the lake. You’ve probably never seen it because the majority of it is underground. It creates an interesting boundary between the wilderness and the town. I’ve read that there were concerns about it wiped out when they were blasting, not from the engineers so much as the townsfolk. There is this really interesting document from around that time regarding a town meeting between the residents and the mining company. The company wanted to divert the river, insisting it wasn’t necessary to the continuation of the town, and they’re right, there are plenty of water sources. But the townsfolk insisted there would be literal hell to pay if they messed with the trajectory of the river. That’s a direct quote from the minutes.”
Alex and Herb exchanged another look, but Lydia caught it this time.
“I feel like there is something going on here that I’m unaware of. Which is kind of unfair since I’m the local historian.”
“Well, I’m local history.”
The voice came from the entry way, causing them all to jump. Alex let out a sound which might have been a fervent exhalation and might have been a mild oath. Doris stood in the open doorway, a broad smile on her face.
“Doris!” Herb called. “We didn’t hear you come in.”
“Probably because I didn’t slam the door against the wall like everyone else does. Some restaurants install a little bell that rings when the door opens. But I suppose we’ve never really been conventional, have we?”
Alex had caught her breath.
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to fix that. Been a little distracted lately.”
“Oh, I can imagine. Lots of excitement, what with the uptick in visitors and such. Has the café been so busy that you’re out of slaw? I know that Bert would pitch a fit if he knew I’d stopped by and didn’t bring him any.” Given that the three of them knew Bert pretty well, ‘pitching a fit’ was not something they could imagine him ever doing. Nonetheless, Alex stepped into the kitchen to get some from the fridge. Doris came and looked at the map over Lydia’s shoulder.
“Mighty sweet of you to bring those maps by, Lydia. Have you shown them the others as well?”
“No, we’ve just been orienting ourselves on what’s what, and talking about the river. It’s funny, it’s barely marked on here, and not even named.” She flipped to the map below, which had the town, but not the mine or the highway heading south. There were train tracks marked on an east/west direction, but no other indication of access to the town. The river was much more prominent on this map, large enough that it had warranted naming.
“Leth? What kind of a name is Leth?”
“Who is Leth?” Alex had returned with a largish container of slaw, and handed it to Doris with a smile. The older woman reciprocated and turned to Herb.
“It’s pronounced LEE-thee. It’s one of the five rivers of the underworld, also known as the river of oblivion. The dead drink from it so that they can forget their lives here, and pass unburdened into Hades. So you can imagine why we might put up a fuss if it were subverted, diverted or otherwise interfered with.”
“Did we just move from sci-fi to fantasy?”
“What was that, Herb?”
Herb blinked a few times and then shook his head, his brow furrowed in a very familiar way.
“Nothing. Just thinking out loud. Please continue.”
Doris gave him a smile and pointed to a space on the map to just south of the river. She traced a circle, then moved her finger to where the mine was, traced another circle, then moved it across to where the resort lay. She drew one more circle and then a line back down to where she’d started, to create the appearance of an upside down triangle.
“You’ve spent enough time up there, Herb. Any idea of what sits more or less on this spot?”
Herb’s brow furrowed deeper.
“Is that the site of the homestead?” Doris nodded.
“There are boundaries and barriers both natural and man-made as a variety of fail-safes. If one point is weakened, it’s not the end of the world because there are others. But if two points are taken out, there is an excess of pressure on what remains. So it’s good to have a contingency plan.” This time, she drew a circle around the town at the center, then moved to a point at the left side of the map, across to the right, and back to the center, creating a second triangle. “It’s the strongest shape. It just makes sense.”
“So, the town, the motel, and the café are some sort of backup?”
“Not backup so much as a preventative of sorts. A triangulation of minor impedance. The town is friendly enough, but it’s not the sort of place most people have any desire to stay in overlong. Did you notice that on this map, at one point there was no other way to get here besides the train? For a long time, this place was completely undisturbed. This notion of caretakers or gatekeepers was unnecessary. But civilization encroached. The railroad came through and people came with it, looking to build and settle. And so the need for diversion was born. Deflection might be a better word.”
“How come you never shared this with me in all the years I worked here?”
“I mean, you never really asked. You didn’t seem all that interested in the history of the place, which is fair, you had your own weight to bear. And, to be honest, you didn’t really need any direction. You settled into the role of gatekeeper so well it was as though you were born to it. Also, I hoped I’d never have to. When the mine was built, there were concerns and a couple of close calls, but ultimately the result was more expense than profit. That took a lot of planning and interference, let me tell you. After they finally gave up on it, the barrier was tenuous but it seemed to be holding. Until that nonsense with the summer camp or whatever it was intended to be.”
“How did the developers get past the defenses where others are easily diverted?”
“Never underestimate the single-mindedness of a hungry animal, Alex.”
“So, how long has this been going on? Watching and guarding?”
“Longer than I’ve been at the helm, and that’s a long time. But of course, you know that there are those who have been at it even further back than maps or memory extend.”
Lydia held up her hands.
“I feel like I should know what you’re talking about, but I’m so lost right now.”
Doris turned to her with a smile.
“Do you remember when you came here, Lydia?”
“Of course, it was about three, no five years ago…no wait, it was eight years…was it more? How come I can’t remember how long I’ve been here?”
“It’s like that with most of us. Well, not me, and likely not this one.” She tilted her head toward Alex, who wanted to ask so many questions but decided it might be better to let Doris continue. “The world is filled with people who don’t suit it, not quite. Not as it is, anyhow. Most of the time, people learn how to hide from that discomfort, find ways to get by. But then there are those who can’t, or perhaps refuse to, and the realization of that is a difficult place to exist in. Loneliness has no face, no definitive identity to connect with, no way to express a lack of connection to people who conflate busy with happy. Most of the people who ended up here, and stayed, did so because it never occurred to them not to. There was no real conscious decision made, except in a couple of cases.” She winked at Alex, who found herself sure that she was the only one who had noticed.
“I know this is a lot to take in, and I promise I’ll come by the museum and tell you more tomorrow. In the meantime, I felt it necessary to convey the importance of protecting the barrier. I understand there has been some activity up there recently, and I’m worried for the stability of the safeguards. There’s a low wall running along the north side of the homestead, you may have noticed it, Herb.”
“Yeah, I thought it was a retaining wall for soil erosion.” Light dawned in his eyes. “It is a retaining wall, isn’t it? But not for soil. And the stones used to build it, are not ordinary stones.”
“So you see how imperative it is that they not be disturbed?”
Herb nodded, his face grim.
“I should probably get going. I feel like warning Sam and the others of the potential danger they’re in is critical. We can work out what to do next once they’re clear of the place. Less bodies up in those woods, the better.”