The volunteer ticket-pickers finished their distributions and signaled to Dandridge the selection process was ready. The man at the front reached under the lectern to find a green cage filled with ping pong balls.
“Awful simple,” Eriem noted out loud.
Dandridge made no proclamation. He cranked the bingo cage by its small handle. The wiry hinges squeaked just loud enough on each turn to be audible above the crowd’s murmurs. It was a rumble of curiosity. Eriem noticed a few in the audience whisper to each other, shrugging and unfamiliar with this ritual. An arbitrator was not selected often in the town of Candlestick.
Dandridge halted his motion. The ping pong balls settled at the base. He reached inside, picked one at random, and held it up to read.
“Forty-seven?” he asked. “Check your tickets. See if you’ve got forty-seven.”
Eriem turned her wrist to see the ticket pressed in her palm.
“Got it,” she said. She stood, reading the number again to be sure, and then held it up higher.
“Great! Come on over here and show, Mrs.—” Dandridge paused as Eriem approached. He looked with uncertainty to one side of the town hall. “Ah. Sorry, I thought you were someone else. Don’t know if I know your face.”
“She’s not a resident,” Pilar called from her chair. She stood. “She isn’t eligible.”
“Eriem,” a man said quickly to her right as she halted in the center of the aisle. Rain was sitting in the chair to her side. He shook his head quickly, then explained plainly to Dandridge, “Eriem’s my daughter, Wycliffe. She’s just in town to help out her mother. She doesn’t know how stuff works. Procedure and tradition. You understand, don’t you?” Rain asked it of both of them. “Happy to see she’s willing and eager to carry this kind of responsibility. But it isn’t one for her to bear.”
Eriem tweezered the ticket between her fingers like it was a business card. She remained in place.
“Correct. Can’t be done, darling,” Dandridge said. He immediately started cranking the ball picker’s handle again. “Only full-time residents are eligible.”
Eriem gripped her ticket now. Dandridge kept up steady attention on the spinning green cage. He looked Eriem in the eye. A few more turns. When everything had resettled, he reached in for a new ball.
“Two-sixteen,” he read. “Two hundred sixteen. Who has two-sixteen?”
Everyone looked down and for a moment, everyone muttered in uncertainty.
“Well, that’d be me,” a smooth man’s voice supposed from the far side of the room. Pilar worked her way out of her row into the aisle to see.
The man heading to the front with ticket two-sixteen was smiling. He was vampire-thin and beach bum-tan. His long hair was poking out from underneath his Russian-style fur hat, reaching the bottom of his neck.
“No. Fucking. Way,” Pilar said. It wasn’t shouted or distressed. It was an indoor voice, as they say. The room was just quiet enough that everyone present heard the three small words like lyrics to the start of a favorite song. “No. Fucking. Way.”
The man arrived at Dandridge’s side. He examined the ticket. “Rodelius Fenn will be the arbitrator,” Dandridge stated. The man named Rodelius Fenn did not respond, or wave, or even turn to those gathered. “I don’t need to tell all of you to do your part for this community and cooperate with his investigation. We all miss Aleph deeply—”
He went on a little further. Pilar was already heading for the exit. Eriem followed, calling to her. “Pilar! Hey. Who’s this guy? Help me out here.”
At her truck, Pilar gripped the walls of the bed and bent her head forward to scream at the pavement. She shook the vehicle’s steel walls. The rivets didn’t budge. Its construction was solid. She strained harder, gripping tighter, and the scream lowered into a wail, and she had to cover her eyes with her hand.
“What is it?” Eriem asked her, not coming too close. “Who’s that guy Fenn?”
“I d-don’t know,” Pilar stammered through emotion. “I j-just—it had to be me. Or maybe even you, if they could’ve a-allowed it-t-t. Not some random j-jagoff that’s not gonna put his wh-whole damn heart into it. Life—sh-shits in my dinner ag-again.” She cut a few shallow breaths but it was all just to gather enough air for a longer, louder scream into the night air.
Eriem snapped open the truck’s rear door. She shoved Pilar inside and closed them inside.
“Hmm. There was a surprising amount of legroom back here,” Eriem said. She faced Pilar and contemplated for a moment. “We can’t do nothing. I don’t mean that in a sorta desperate way. I mean that in a way—I mean we’re incapable of doing nothing. You and me. It’s a compulsion. This doesn’t break the promise I made to my mom. I don’t think it keeps you from—”
“Rage,” Pilar said. Her voice was still shaky but her brow was arched. “Justice.”
The passenger side door rattled. Rodelius Fenn was outside the window, struggling with the handle. “Is it locked?”
“It’s just sticky,” Eriem said, pointing. She made a harder motion for him to follow.
The handle at last obeyed and the door opened.
“You must not take many passengers,” he said. He climbed inside and shut the door. “Whoa. Lotta legroom back here. Hmm. Saw you leave. Saw you both leave and wanted to get the lowdown. So. What the fuck? Display of emotion? Not very Batman of you.”
“Watch it,” Eriem warned. “It’s been a tough week. It’s gonna get harder before it gets—”
“Softer?” Fenn suggested. “Obviously.”
“Asshole!” Pilar shouted. She reached across Eriem, stuck in the middle, to grab Fenn by his jacket lapels. She did her best to knock him against the window. The rebuilt truck’s all-steel frame was unforgiving. Pilar managed to bounce him off the windowframe a few times before pressing him all the way up against it. Eriem shouted the whole time for her to stop. Fenn pleaded.
“Hey! Hey, unproductive. Not—ahh! This glass is cold! Let up. Thank yo—ow!” Pilar bopped him again.
“You. You’re in fucking horny jail,” Pilar stated. “Useless, shameless, no-talent ski bum.”
“You don’t know him,” Eriem said.
“You don’t know me,” Fenn repeated.
“I’m not defending you,” Eriem cut back. “Listen. Both of you. You’re the ones who seem to know how this weird little place functions. And we all want to know the truth about what happened to Aleph. Right?”
“Right,” Pilar said.
“Correct,” Fenn said.
“Rodelius,” Fenn said.
“You,” Eriem said pointedly. “Have been blessed with glorious responsibility. The town, in all its wisdom, selected you at random as the arbitrator. So, what? Everyone complies with your investigation? You’re Caesar in wartime?”
“More of a Calligula at first glance,” Pilar said.
“I’m Virgil, as far as you’re concerned,” Fenn said. He pulled off his hat. Grungy hair tousled free. He was younger, likely late 20s. “And I’m not sure of first steps myself.”
“What’s your initial instinct say?” Eriem encouraged. “First thought. You need to find something about Aleph. You can go anywhere or have any question answered. Go!”
“Look at the body,” Fenn said.
“I don’t want to look at the body,” Pilar said softly, scraping her knuckle against the window’s gathering condensation. “I want to find—a more productive outlet.”
She and Eriem exchanged looks.
“What’s your very—second instinct?” Eriem asked Fenn.
“Check the scene,” Fenn stated, confident. “EMS took the body out, but the scene’s still taped off. Everyone was waiting for the arbitrator to be named before looking at it closer. Place is locked but Dandridge gave me the key a minute ago.”
Eriem nodded. “Good. Where’s the scene?”
Fenn pointed up the river, away from the ski mountain, into the night. “The gemstone quarry,” he said. Pilar climbed forward into the driver’s seat and Eriem took the passenger side. “My car—”
“Get it later,” Pilar said.
As she swung them out of the parking space and began to drive, Fenn leaned forward to talk to her. “I’m not the enemy on this,” he said. “Yeah? I’m gonna help. And you’re gonna be grateful. All this anger sprayed in every direction. Unbecoming. Of course, you’re entitled to it. I can’t deny you that. Nobody can. You were close to Aleph. Your brother, right? Pilar?”
“How’d you know that?” Eriem asked. “How’d you know her name?”
“My house might have a fence around it, but good fences make good neighbors. And I’m a good neighbor. Just keep driving. Quarry’s up here.”
“I know,” Pilar said. She double-clutched to shift the antique truck. “I know where it is.”
Instead of turning right to head up the mountain, Pilar swung them left, over the abandoned rail line, over the river at a narrow point, and to the opposite side. They continued into the night until they were well out of town and further up the wide Idaho valley. When the darkness had set, the stars gained strength, and when they came upon snow again, it shone in reply.
“Every object in existence is a mirror,” Eriem said.
“What?” Fenn asked, leaning forward to hear.
The road dipped down slightly. They traveled off the paved street onto a wide dirt road, leading down further still. There was a large object near its end, but difficult to see in the dark as the truck bounced over far too many potholes dug into the dirt road. Then it steadied and the gemstone quarry revealed itself.
A spiraling path drilled deep, deep into the stony earth. Roughly five hundred yards in diameter, Pilar followed the only road in. The road switched back a few times before it became the long, tightening spiral. The snow glimmered in the night. The stones shined even brighter.
“Garnet pebbles,” Fenn said. “Too small to make it worth digging them out. Folks say the quarry’s tapped. Still pretty though.”
“What do you do, Fenn?” Pilar asked.
“Know the honey farm that got bought early this year?”
“I’m the one that bought it.”
Pilar looked at him in the rearview mirror. She said nothing and kept following the twinkling road.
Down. Further. Deeper.
The road leveled out. The snow was deeper there at the quarry’s base. The crunch of stone was muffled into a gentle nothing beneath the truck’s tires. Pilar turned the wheel slowly, swung the headlight around, and let them fall on an old shed some thirty feet away.
She cut the engine but kept the headlights on. They each stepped out. There were a few other sheds, but this one was specifically roped off with an orange snow fence. Its roof was also still intact, while the others were somewhat more destitute. The three of them took slow, muted steps over the settled snow toward the shed with the orange fence. Fenn fished through his jacket pocket. He produced a green key attached to a ring with a bottle opener. The bottle opener was engraved with the words: ‘Always the right place. Always the right time.’
The shed drew closer. In the total silence, without the sounds of footsteps, motion itself felt motionless, and the entire world itself rotated toward them, whether they wanted it or not.
Fenn put the green key in the lock. It was smooth, new steel. He looked down at his hand. He turned the key. The action was easy and welcoming. He put his hand on the door and eased it open, also easy, also welcoming.
It was night inside the shed, too, no surprise, but the shaft of starlight was enough to draw a heavy, visible line from the threshold to the dead center of the shed, and there, resting in the cold, was a chest made of leather, and lacquer, and time-blackened wood.
Eriem slipped between the others. She held out her hand. She inched forward, aware of the darkness around her, eyes fixed on the chest at the room’s center. When she was close enough to touch it, she bent her knees to touch the latch and lifted the thing. It was unlocked. There was a spring in the latch. It flipped obediently at her touch, and just as obediently, the lid lifted away at the slightest touch.
She leaned forward and peered inside.
“Every object in existence is a mirror,” she said.
-- Alex Crumb
Follow on Twitter