EXPLORATION AT A PRICE
The foursome sat contently for what felt like an eternity in itself, real time about an hour, before anyone spoke a word.
“So, what now?” Caleb broke the silence with an irritatingly obvious question. He wasn’t much for profound when he was alive and that didn’t stray much here in the middle. So, when he thought enough time had passed, he decided it was time to move on to something a
little more exciting and a little less pedantic.
“That’s a good question.” Aiden responded. “Let’s head over there.”
“There.” Aiden pointed in the distance and for a second Caleb couldn’t see anything specific. The vastness that was the middle swallowed up his vision and he stared blankly trying to find what Aiden was talking about. “That light blue clearing over there. It looks like a spring or lake of some sort. Let’s go take a dip, shall we?”
“That’s gotta be a hundred miles away!” Caleb said with a comic tone. “There’s no way we can walk that.”
“I don’t think we have to walk.” Aiden stood up and leaped off the side of the mountain stunning his three companions.
“Aiden!” Lydia screamed and without thinking she leapt off after him. Much to her unwarranted surprise, she wasn’t tumbling to the ground in a heap of limbs and flips. She was floating slowly down again, and again stopped in mid-air. She then noticed Aiden about a mile away swimming through the air like a fish out of water. It wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last, time she was amazed here in the middle so she chose to disregard her disbelief and swam after him. “Come on!” She screamed to the others and they followed suit.
When they arrived at the spring, Caleb let out a disappointed sigh. It was just a lake. A typical, run of the mill lake.
It wasn’t special. It wasn’t noteworthy. It wasn’t anything but a boring body of water sitting in the middle of nowhere. “What kind of dumb watering hole is this? Why’d you want to come here for anyway?”
“It’s not just any watering hole C man,” Aiden said with a laugh. He loved giving people nicknames and realized when he said Caleb’s out loud that it wasn’t his best work. “I don’t know what it is. But here in the middle I don’t think anything is just as it appears to be. You know?”
“I guess you’ve got a good point there. Hey, where are the girls?”
Aiden and Caleb scanned the area but Lydia and Erika were nowhere to be found. It was quiet, almost too quiet. And then out from behind a tree lining the side of the waterhole, Dexter Valentine showed his face. It was somber, more so than usual. “Whoa, Mr. Valentine. What are you doing here?” Caleb asked surprised, shocked, and although he would never admit it, sort of terrified.
“I was sent to retrieve you.” Dexter spoke of his orders flatly and with no explanation. “Let’s be on our way gentlemen.”
“Where’s Lydia and Erika?” Aiden asked somewhat vexed. “They were right behind us and— “
“Oh, they’re just fine Aiden, don’t you worry. Now let’s be on our way.”
There was no more explanation than that, and in a matter of seconds they were back at the
mansion inside the big red door they ran out of. Caleb and Aiden couldn’t believe how fast they had gotten back to the mansion, as if anything was unbelievable at that point.
“Why do you keep ‘retrieving’ us?” Aiden said retrieving with a long, drawn out sarcasm. He was growing tired of Valentine and his inability to explain just about everything. It was purposeful, he knew that now, but it wasn’t something Aiden could get on board with, especially with Lydia and Erika gone. He needed to find them, and he needed to do it now. Something wasn’t right, and he knew it.
“There are rules here in the middle, Aiden. And you four seem to like breaking them, which makes my job somewhat difficult. I do appreciate what you guys have created out there, though.”
It was the first time Aiden heard Dexter speak with whole hearted sincerity. It didn’t help his cause though, Aiden still disliked him. He felt compassion for him in that moment though, as if telling him he was working for something and they were making his job difficult made him wonder how much power Valentine had here in the middle, if any at all.
“If there are rules why are we not given a run-down of them? That makes no sense.” Caleb was mad now, too. Partly because he was stuck in this world of limitless wonder and came to find out that it’s not limitless at all. There were actual rules. Rules in the afterlife, how incredibly maddening.
“Well most souls are too scared to go out past the doors. They find ways to keep themselves entertained in the mansion until their time comes. You four, however, are not average souls. Some of the most adventurous I’ve seen in quite some time. But, nevertheless, you will stay in the confines of the mansion, yes?”
Aiden and Caleb answered together. “Yes.” They were both lying, and they both knew it. They figured that if Valentine was going this far to keep them confined as per the rules, something beyond their wildest dreams had to be within reach.
Dexter continued. “Erika and Lydia will be returned shortly. Their presence had been requested.”
“Requested? By who?”
“Ciao for now, gentlemen.” Dexter smirked as he walked away. He likes a good mystery, Aiden was sure of it.
“So, we don’t get a list of those rules, or?” Caleb yelled after him but he was already too far away to warrant a response.
“Their presence was requested. What the hell, I’m starting to think that Dexter Valentine is not in charge, not by a long shot.” Caleb’s voice was rising. “Where are the girls, Aiden?” He almost yelled at him, and if Aiden hadn’t felt the same infuriating confusion, he would have been quite upset with Caleb’s attitude.
“I don’t know Caleb, but we sure as hell aren’t going to wait around here for them to be returned. Let’s go.”
The two walked down through the halls and down to the main floor. They were there to find the longest running resident of the middle. If anyone was to have answers, it was going to be the soul that’s been there the longest. When they reached the main floor, they wandered into what Aiden liked to call ‘the waiting room’ which was basically a living room full of souls that didn’t have to guts to walk through any of the doors upstairs. He clapped to grab the attention of the room. As he did, every set of eyes focused on his face in confusion and discontent.
“Listen up, we’re looking for someone. The person that’s been in the middle the longest. Do any of you know who that is?”
“Why on earth would they know, they’re the most boring, uninformed souls of this place,” Caleb tried to whisper but ended up speaking loud enough for the commanded room to hear. Some dirty looks came from the faces closest to them but Caleb just shrugged in apology. He didn’t really feel bad, but he did realize that insulting the people they were asking for help wasn’t going to help get them any answers.
“I didn’t mean boring, I just meant, safe?” He said it as a question.
“Excuse me, but that’s a little rude. Just because we don’t break the rules doesn’t make us boring.” A woman from the back of the room spoke from behind the crowd. Neither Aiden nor Caleb had a clear view. The voice stood and began walking through the group of souls.
She was an older woman, probably died around the age of 70. But she was a young 70, could have been a classic actress, Caleb thought anyway. Her face was still beautiful although it had been worn. It appeared to be covered in makeup although the guys wouldn’t be able to tell the difference unless it wasn’t obvious. She was small and frail, but when she spoke her strength shone through.
“Anyway, what do you want with Quincy? He doesn’t like interaction with other souls you know. Hasn’t since I’ve been here, and from the stories I’ve heard, still doesn’t. Not by choice, though. He’s just like you guys. Adventurous. Rule breaker. He doesn’t want company because it damn well keeps getting him in trouble.”
“We need some answers and since Mr. Valentine has failed to provide any, we’re looking for the next best thing.” Caleb spoke in such a way that made it clear to Aiden why he became an actor in his previous life. His voice projection and ability to command a room in a matter of seconds was astounding. “So, are you going to tell us where to find him or not?”
“Well, I’ll tell you this much. Valentine isn’t going to like this one bit. But you can find him in the basement.”
“There’s a basement?” Aiden said obviously confused. “Where?”
“Go down the foyer, past the royal room with all the tacky gold, then you’ll hit the library. You have to find the book What We Talk About
When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. Take the book off the shelf and the leaver for the basement door is behind it. But beware. There are certain things you do and certain things you don’t do here in the middle. This here falls under the latter. Good luck boys.”
“Good luck, what did she mean by that?” Caleb asked as the boys hurried their way towards the library.
“I have no clue. Everybody in this stupid place is ridiculously vague and mysterious. She probably wasn’t even a real soul, not like us anyway. She’s probably one of Valentine’s minions or something.”
“How many do you think he has?”
“Oh, I don’t know. But we need to find the girls and then the four of us need to get out of here.”
“Where are we going to go? Valentine seems to know all. How can we escape someone who sees everything?”
“Well first off, we don’t know he sees everything. And secondly, secondly…” Aiden trailed off losing his train of thought when they arrived in the library. “Let’s just focus on finding this Quincy. One step at a time.”
“Found it!” Caleb pulled the book out and reached in for the lever. He pulled lightly and the wall began to click and ting behind the books. The shelf swung open revealing a set of stone steps straight out of a medieval scene. They were worn and cracking and went straight down, steeply. It was like the stairs to
to hell, if hell existed. The staircase was completely dark aside from the fire lit canisters hanging down at the top side of the corridor. “Creepy,” Caleb whispered as they stepped slowly from stair to stair. He glanced back at the opening to the library wondering if he was making a grave mistake. “No turning back, I guess.”
“You’re telling me,” Aiden agreed. “Hello?” He called down the stairs. Nothing but the sound of his own voice echoing rang back. “Hello?” He said again, secretly hoping no one would answer so they could turn around and look elsewhere. He caught his fear by the tail and shook himself back to bravery. He had to remind himself that he was already dead, and nothing could be worse than dead.
“I’ve been waiting for you boys.” A deep voice called out from the darkness.