by Tom Billings
Michigan, United States
genre: General

“I need to take this.” she says, looking down to see who’s calling. “Back in a sec.”

   She navigates the tables with a gentle sway, the phone against her ear.

Meeting Kate was like a dream. I’d walked down to the brewery to hear a local band play. They had already started by the time I paid my cover. The place was packed. The night was warm. I bought tacos at the food truck and sank into the crowd.

   “Sorry,” I said, as I stepped back into her—she was standing right behind me.

   “No worries,” she said. Without even asking, she snatched a taco off my plate. She took a bite and nodded. I liked her right away.

   We talked about tacos and music and the weather. We talked about the moon and its pull on tides and people. She said that history was her passion, that she owned a little store and lived just up the street. It surprised me that I’d never run into her before. I’ve been going there for years and she told me the same, that she rarely missed a week.

   Halfway through the set, the band stopped for a break. Everybody scattered. We went out into the parking lot where cars were still arriving. People stood in clusters, passing tiny embers. A super moon was on its way. We walked and talked and watched as it rose above the trees.

“Sorry,” she says, coming back to join me. She slides her phone into her purse and herself into her seat.

   “Everything okay?” I ask. I know her, but I don’t—tonight is our first date.

   “Uh-huh,” she says. She manages a smirk with her mouth full of spaghetti. I like the air of mystery. I like her little gestures. I like her subtle rasp and the way she says her t’s.

   After dinner, we stroll up and down Main Street. Picture-perfect weather. Something’s grilling somewhere. Twilight forms a backdrop for brilliant yellow leaves. Everyone is out tonight, walking dogs, eating ice cream, families out for dinner, couples on a date. A magician with a rope and ring has the people puzzled. A little girl is crying and a boy is looking guilty. A woman by the fountain strums a chord and sings.

   Kate sure knows her history—it’s as if I had a guide. She takes me on a tour through the oldest part of town. She speaks of swamps and bears and encounters with the natives, of people lost to typhoid, tuberculosis, smallpox and Spanish flu. She talks of men who went to war and were never seen again. She points to a house where a woman killed her husband with a soup of poison mushrooms and a pond behind the mill where seven children drowned.

   We pass the hotel that’s rumored to be haunted and turn left at the school that’s now a hip cafe. “It took two years to build this little one-room school,” she says, as if she can’t believe it. “But it was finally finished, in 1847.” She tells me that no one really liked the school’s first teacher—a spinster born in London who had first taught in New York.

   We cross a yard behind a church. The date on the cornerstone is 1832. Kate explains that it was founded by a handsome man from Dublin. She laughs when she tells me that they should’ve seen it coming—he got a married woman pregnant and was forced to leave the town. 

   We finally make a stop at a narrow wooden building. A sign above the steps reads: Brückner’s General Store. The place is closed but looks inviting. The porch is decked with pumpkins. Rocking chairs sit in a row. Windows flank a rustic door; bushel baskets full of produce sit behind them on display.

   “I need to check on something,” she says. She unlocks the door. She goes in and gets the lights and I follow her inside. It smells like wood and apples. A ceiling fan spins slowly. The floorboards flex and squeak. “Feel free to look around,” she says. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”

   She unlocks a door behind the counter and leaves me here to wander. I’m amazed at all the merchandise. There’s an aisle with jams and oils and sauces, another one with things for baking and one with snacks and drinks. But most the items in the store are not for sale at all. It’s like a museum filled with goods for pioneers. There are locks and nails and hinges, bolts of Chinese silk, whale oil lamps with double wicks, a jar filled with buttons and another full of beads. I find a leather whip and a single barrel shotgun. A shelf is lined with perfumes. Above the shelf, hangs a photo of the founders: Rolf and Katja Brückner. They’re standing by a wagon full of lumber, years before the Civil War, when the town was just a dream.

   Someone’s knocking at the door. A man has seen the lights and thinks the store is open. There’s something strange about him—he seems too glad to see me. Through the glass, he looks me over. He sits in a rocking chair and acts as if he’s waiting. I’m surprised he didn’t leave when I told him that it’s closed.

   “Kate!” I yell. “I think you’ve got a customer!”

   But Kate doesn’t answer. I go behind the counter and push against the door. It opens to a room no bigger than a closet. Steps lead down into the ground. Everything is dark. “Kate?”

   Still, she doesn’t answer. The air is cool and earthy. I descend into the darkness with the flashlight on my phone. Once I’m at the bottom, it turns into a tunnel. I have to stoop to walk. The floor is dirt; the ceiling and the walls are made of local stones. I follow a straight passage for what feels like forever. Sometimes it gets so narrow that I barely make it through.

   The tunnel comes to an end at what looks like a chamber. I scan it with my flashlight and can’t believe my eyes. It’s a cave, like some underground cathedral: The walls are high and convoluted; rock formations, glistening like strange organs, hang down from above and rise up from the floor; a spring meanders down the middle; the sound of flowing water echoes off the walls.

   I walk along the spring to where it gathers in a pool. The water’s clear as crystal, but it’s too deep to see the bottom. It gets wider as I walk. Here and there are signs of life: shards of glass; a rusted iron skillet; running shoes, caked in mud; a meat hook on a rope; a hand-rolled cigarette; bits of broken bone. A massive stone sits in the middle of the pool like some ancient altar; its sides are square, as if it’s been chiseled, and it’s flat across the top. Something moves behind it. I walk along the pool and see a candle on the water. It’s reflecting from the other side. It casts a meager glow.

   “Kate?” I step a little closer. Metal clinks. The candle flickers. Shadows dance across the stones. She’s sitting at a table just across the water, drinking something from a bowl. “Is that you?”

   She looks up as if she’s angry and speaks to me in German. Her words are harsh, but I can’t understand them. Her face is soaked in something, and her hands are black with dirt. I hear a moan and see a man, chained against the wall.

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