Short Story Series 2: Down by the River – Part 3

[…continued from Part 2]

Later in the day I phoned the high school. Robert Hillsdale, the current principal, happens to be a colleague of mine from college, both of us having majored in history. Bob told me exactly where to find Mr. Kegan who goes by Billy to the staff at the school. He works Monday thru Friday, 6pm to midnight, so I would have no problem finding him. Bob told me to just enter the school through the back door to the gymnasium.

Around 9 pm, after dinner with my wife and son, I headed over to the high school. It wasn’t difficult to find him. The soft swish of the stringy mop against the floor was regularly interrupted by the clatter of the broom against the water bucket. I found him in the western wing inside the science lab. Apparently there was an accident that day of broken beakers and flasks, with spills that needed serious attention.

“Hello! Billy?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“My name is Blake and I’m a friend of Principal Hillsdale. He told me I could find you here tonight. “

“That you did. What can I do for you,” he asked?

“ I know it may be a sensitive topic for you, but I really would like to know the history of the church by the bridge.”

“Sorry. I don’t know anything.”

“Townsfolk say otherwise, Billy. And the stories I’ve heard now have me a little concerned. I used to walk by that church every day as a kid wondering. Now my son walks by it on the way to elementary school and…”

“You’d do best to keep your son away from that church and the river. It’s a dangerous place. I wouldn’t want to see no other kids get hurt.”

“So, kids did get hurt there, Billy?”

He was silent for a minute.

“Billy, if there really is a danger, don’t you think the best way to avoid it is to understand it?”

He was silent again. I began thinking that if there is some truth to the stories that the priests at that church might have threatened him somehow. Was it a physical threat of pain or death? Was it spiritual – that he might go to hell if he believed in a hell? And then he spoke.

“I wouldn’t want to see your son getting hurt. Just keep him away from the church and the river. That’s all. Now, I gotta work. Sloppy kids couldn’t even transfer liquids in chemistry class today. I’ve gotta clean. Good night, Mr. …”

“Call me, Blake.”

“Watch your son, Blake.” He looked at each of the windows in the room before plunging his mop into his bucket making quite a huge splash. He seemed really bothered, but not by me – by something else, someone else.

Not wanting to press him, I nodded a ‘thank you’ and made a quiet exit.

This was turning into a real mystery. Before I go off on too many tangents, it occurred to me that I should just go to the source. I should just approach the church, look for a priest and inquire there. Of course, it was so simple. Why was I getting sucked into intrigue?

The next morning I again walked with my son to school. I told him I needed the exercise and might stop by the church on the way back to talk with a priest about its history. But, just to be cautious – not to heed Billy’s warning in earnest – I told my son not to visit the grounds of the church without me. I told him that not only is it trespassing, but the river itself was dangerous, with white water rapids around the church bend.

“But, I never saw a ‘no trespassing’ sign, Dad.”

“Come to think of it, I never did either. But, son, that doesn’t matter. If a person does not have business visiting a property, one should not just casually trespass. It’s not right. People in a small town need to respect each other’s space. Kind people will make in invitation if you’re welcome. “

“Won’t you be trespassing, Dad?”

“No. My business has purpose – to inquire about the history of the church, a building in this town, my home town. It’s like selling Girl Scout cookies, selling newspapers, or needing to borrow a telephone. There is clear and virtuous intention. Anyway, I’ll try to find out more by talking with the priests, and if we are invited to come back, I’ll bring you. OK, champ?

“Sounds fine, Dad.”

It was a relatively nice day. The river was flowing as usually and the grounds looked quite beautiful. Out of the corner of my eye I saw someone disappear behind the church. I believe there was a vestry entrance in the back. I decided to walk back there and see if I could look inside. There were no windows at the rear of the church, but looking through the stain glass windows on the side I could see two monks in robes and one person I didn’t recognize in plain street clothes. I went to the vestry door and knocked. I waited for a minute and knocked again. There was no answer. I went back to the side windows and the three men I had seen just a few moments prior were now gone. I began to circle the church once looking around the grounds and then realized something for the first time – there were no outbuildings; there was no garage, no cars. In fact, besides a footpath to the front of the church there was no driveway or vehicle access. That perplexed me to no end. I supposed it had always been that way. Well, I decided to go back to the diner and talk to Barbara again. Besides, I was hungry.

Once again, upon entering I headed straight for a booth. Carla came right over with the coffee pot and before she could ask, I exclaimed, “Yes! Please! Thank you!”

“Menu, Blake?”

“Today, yes, please. Could you send your mom out at her earliest convenience? I need to talk with her.”

“Sure thing.”

Carla walked away and I opened my menu, although I knew what I wanted. I was craving a BLT and pea soup – I’d no reason why. It came to me and sounded necessary. Soon Barbara came out of the kitchen and directly took a seat.

“Hey, Blake. What’s on your mind?”

“Forget about the magic stones and the kids. I won’t bug you more. Tell me what you know about the church and what kind of clergy is affiliated with it. I went there this morning, saw several people inside, but couldn’t get their attention. Two of them in robes were talking with someone in plain clothes. They didn’t answer the door and disappeared right under my nose while I was walking around outside the church.”

“They consider everyone ‘outsiders’, Blake. They talk to people on their own terms.”

“Why aren’t there ‘no trespassing’ signs all over the place?”

“That’s advertisement they don’t need. They did have them once, but it only encouraged visitors and vandals. So, they took them all down.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not very neighborly to exist in a town such as this, so exposed to the community, and refrain from communication with the locals. What about the Sheriff’s Department?”

“She laughed. The Sheriff has been in office for 30 years, Blake. You know he’s always pulled the strings in this town. He gets the mayors and city council elected and, frankly, he’s the only one I’ve seen talk to the clergy. Except…wait a minute! Charlie something or other, the owner of the hardware store across the road from the church – I’ve seen him cross the street and disappear on the church grounds a few times. Maybe he’s had contact. ”

“That’s something. OK, thanks Barbara. You better go. Last time you talked to me, I think you pissed your husband off. “

“He doesn’t want me talking about what happened to those kids – so few people remember anyway. Can I get your order started for you,” she asked.

“Please. BLT and pea soup. Thanks!”

“You got it!”

As she walked away I was already envisioning an encounter with Charlie, the owner of the hardware store. As soon as I finished eating, I was committed to paying him a visit.

An hour later, I found myself walking near the church again it was on the walk home. I stopped to look at the church to see if I could find anyone walking the grounds, but it was peaceful and nobody was around. So, I looked at the hardware store and crossed the street. As I entered, there was a woman at the counter waiting. Seconds later, from an aisle behind the counter, came a man identical to the one I saw talking to the monks. He had dark black, salt & pepper haircut with a beard, and was wearing the same blue plaid, long-sleeved shirt and blue jeans.

“That should be the right fitting this time, Marge. Maybe next time you should leave the plumbing to Howard,” he said.

“If I did that, it would never get done, Charlie. Thanks a bunch!” She left and I was next.

“Hi. You must be Charlie,” I said. “My name is Blake. I used to live in town and just moved back.”

“Yeah, I recognize you. I remember you were in elementary school when I graduated from the high school. I knew your parents; they were friends of my parents.”

“It’s all blank to me, Charlie. So, I was hoping you could help me out a bit. I’m a historian and am trying to find out about the history behind this beautiful sandstone church across the street. Do you know anything about it?”

“Well, I know about as much as anyone else in town. A few hundred years ago, a few monks built it as a cloistered abbey. I think they intended for it to be a monastery or something with several buildings. Something happened with the funding, I believe, or maybe the rector – I forget – and when the church was finished, they stopped building. They had pews put in, but it was never used as far as I know.”

Secretly knowing I had seen him inside, I asked, “Have you ever been inside?”

“No. They don’t care for visitors,” he said. I asked once myself years ago, and a monk outside said they were a very private sect. They kindly asked the Sheriff to see that they weren’t bothered or harassed by visitors. Word traveled throughout the town and people have just left them alone.”

Now I thought I’d try to stir up the hornet’s nest with a potentially controversial inquiry.

“What do you know about the tragic story of those kids about 20 years ago,” I asked?

He laughed a little. “Oh that exaggerated misunderstood drama! There have been some rumors, but it was nothing more than some kids getting drunk…falling on the rocks…one kid hit his head and another drowned. There’s no story there.”

“What about Billy Kegan,” I asked as his smile disappeared and his face began to redden. “Billy warned me to keep my family away from the church and river. Now, why would he do that, Charlie?”

“Listen,” he said as he found some calm and his smile came back, “that river is mighty dangerous. Just listen to the rapids. You can hear them from in here. And it’s never safe to trespass. Listen! Can I help you with any hardware,” he asked more sternly, “because I have some parts to stock?”

“Not today, Charlie. Thanks for your help.”

He had been helpful although I doubt he knew how. His body language definitely exuded a cover-up here. But, more importantly, he lied about talking to the priests and being inside the church.

That evening at home, I received a phone call from Billy Kegan, who as boy told the tale of what happened only to deny it days later.

“Blake, its Billy Kegan, the janitor at the high school,” he said excitedly.

“Hi Billy, what’s up?”

“Listen, I didn’t tell you everything about the tragedy at the river. They told me never to speak of it and I…I never had evidence until today. Now, I will talk to you. I’ve been spending lots of time over the years studying at the library – studying the history of this town, the geology of the area, and origin of the church which was quite a public affair when it was erected centuries ago. I had to go back to journals and letters of the 19th century because everything afterwards was nonexistent or destroyed.”

“Go on. What did you find,” I asked?

To be continued…

© 2018 Michael Armenia