None of the women in The Captain's Folly were interested in Eric Lawson's pick-up lines. He chalked it up to his Brooklyn accent and his fancy car, which was newer than anything in the parking lot by at least ten years. In fact, everything about this tiny bar in Maine was outdated. The cracked wooden floors, which bent and bowed under the boots stomping to the country- western cover band, to the calendar by the pay-phone, to even the beer on tap.
The bartender was something out of a movie. He squinted at Eric after another failed conquest, and said, "You're not from around here, they can smell it on you. Don't take it personal, there's no need."
Eric shrugged, playing with his car keys. "Eh, I'm used to it."
"From the way you're behavin, you ain't."
When the band moved on to a slow Dolly Parton song and all the dancers pulled in close, Eric took it as his cue to take a piss. The men's room, however, was locked, so he walked outside into the clear night. It was crisp, one of those autumn country evenings where the stars would have lit up the sky on their own if the moon hadn't been out to help them. Eric took in the view, his feet planted at the edge of the cliff overlooking the St. Francis River, aiming at a sapling trying against all odds to grow up through the rocks below. He whistled along with the Dolly Parton song, one of his mother's favorites. Because despite her all-black outfits and high-rise view, she always had some Georgia cracking through her New York City façade.
He tossed his beer bottle over the cliff when he was done, and then zipped up, turned, and saw her. She was all in white, shining luminescent in the moonlight, and staring open-mouthed at the sky. She had her small, delicate hand perched on a boulder at the edge of the cliff. He was dumbstruck, lost in the sight of her. And when she finally noticed him, he raised his hand in a sheepish greeting, all bravado from the bar completely gone.
"Hello," she said, smiling.
She had a French accent, and he found himself deaf to the thumping feet behind him, the twang of guitars losing themselves in the rushing of the river. His entire world became him, her, and this cliffside. This moment could stay forever.
"Hello," he said, smiling back at her. "Nice night. The music sorta doesn't fit, huh?"
"I like the music," she said. Her voice came in from far away, like an echo off the cliffs. "It's warmer inside," he said. "You could come in, join everyone."
"I do not like to go inside," she said. "I do not like crowds. I like to talk to the people alone."
She was like a coming home, welcome and familiar. Eric was drawn to her, with her silver hair and cool blue eyes. Wherever she went, he wanted to go; whatever she asked, he would do. He felt pulled to her, as if by a thread of need. And even though he hadn't moved, The Captain's Folly fell away behind him, forgotten to the moon and the stars.
"You from around here?" he asked.
"For now, yes, I am from around here. I come from France, originally," she said.
"Do you like it?"
"I enjoy the river. I enjoy the potential of it. Where it goes, where it takes people. I enjoy the road that passes through town, for the same reason. You are not from around here, no? Where is your home?"
"Brooklyn," he said. She looked at him strangely. "It's uh, in New York."
"You are traveling," she said. "Why?"
"I like to take a drive alone every year around now to see the leaves change. My family and I used to do it, and now I do it solo. My mom and I had a falling out, about money, responsibility, and my future. She always said-" She was watching him with a curious look, like she was soaking it all in. "But you don't care about all that."
"Why are you not inside? With them?"
The bar rushed back into focus, and he saw the warm glow from its windows, the shadows of the dancers having so much fun inside. The door swung open briefly, like an invitation. He wanted to go inside, it was a good idea -- the bartender would be waiting for him. But no, he brushed all that away, turning back to the silver woman. She stood smiling at him, her hair blowing in the wind. So beautiful.
"It's a long story," he said.
"They did not like you. No?"
"It's typical of places like this. I'll get out of here tomorrow, and stick to Holiday Inns." He laughed nervously. She didn't seem to get the joke.
"The people here do not want to be known."
"The moon, it is pretty." She stepped closer to Eric, and he went weak in the knees.
"Would none of them dance with you, in there?"
"No, but it's okay. I'm used to it."
"It is the sort of music for dancing, no?"
Eric listened, and couldn't recognize the song. "I'm not a good dancer."
"Dance with me, please," she said. "It could bring you luck on your travels. A man who does not take in the pleasures of life is doomed to live a life of hardship."
And smiling a small smile, she took Eric's hand in hers. He expected her hand to be cold from the chill, but it was warm, and nice to hold. Her hand was smooth, and so tiny in his. She wrapped his arm around her waist, and took his other hand in the air, when the band, as if on cue, fell into the opening bars of Johnny Cash's "Rusty Cage." Waltzing music.
Eric tried to recall every dancing lesson his mother made him take. Don't watch your feet. Look into her eyes. And those eyes were so calm and so blue with that small smile still on her face as Eric turned her and swept her across the mossy ground, the stars lighting up the night as their only audience. He got dizzy as the dance went on, leading her this way, that way, moving forward, and then back. He couldn't remember knowing how to dance this well. His lessons came back to him, and then some. The band played flawlessly, and she laughed, her head tipped back revealing her throat, thin and glowing, and his heart filled with more joy than he could remember. And then it ended, so perfect, so well done, that he stepped away and actually bowed. But she curtsied quick and methodical, like she was embarrassed.
"I must go," she said, hurrying down the path toward the river.
"Wait!" Eric chased after her, but she did not stop. "What's your name?"
"Brigitte," she said.
She continued to run, with Eric running after her. But Brigitte's footing was secure over the tumbling rocks and pebbles. She stepped lightly over the jutting roots and crevasses. Eric was much less familiar and slow, trying very hard not to twist his ankle, or fall and break his neck.
"Can I see you tomorrow?" He was yelling now.
"No. You cannot."
"But I want to!"
"You will never come to see me, or you will regret it. Au revoir, Eric Lawson."
Brigitte turned when she reached the river bank, the moonlight shining off her and the water like they were made from the same stuff. Eric imagined she was dancing as she dodged through the trees and brush, and as he stood on the path, still watching the spot where she'd disappeared, the cold crept in, and loneliness, in all its sorrow, bore its terrible weight down upon him.
The next evening, Eric walked into The Captain's Folly with more determination than he'd had in his entire life. He carried a bouquet of autumn flowers, which got him identical squints from the bartender and line cook -- a tall, weird-looking woman wearing a pair of too-short chef's pants.
"Those for me?" the bartender asked.
"No, they're for Brigitte," Eric said. "Do you know where she lives?"
"Brigitte?" the bartender asked. The line cook frowned at Eric before hurrying into the kitchen. "You met Brigitte."
"Yeah. I gotta see her. It's a guy thing. You understand."
"No. I don't. Did you dance with her?"
Eric was getting another familiar look from the bartender. One his mother gave him three years ago when she cut him off and told him to get a real job with a real company and stop wasting his life. No more chasing bad girls and pipe dreams. Well, he would show this guy the way he showed her, he was his own man, and always would be.
"What's it to you?" he asked.
"I know you did, else you wouldn't be standin here," the bartender said. "Don't go lookin for her, or you won't go lookin for nothin else the rest of your life."
"Who the hell do you think you are, thinking you can tell me what to do?"
"I'm the one that's got answers. All you got is questions, a fancy car, and a belief that life goes on forever."
"You don't get it."
"I do get it." And the bartender turned away, walking back toward the kitchen. "Just don't want your wildest dreams to come true is all."
He was gone. Eric sat there, strangling the flowers in his hand, his teeth clenched, his mind racing. He had to find Brigitte. He had to tell her she was all he ever wanted, and to take her back to Brooklyn to meet his mother, and show her he could get married to a fancy French girl, and wouldn't she be sorry she wasn't invited to the wedding, thank you very much. That'd show her, that would show this guy, that would show everyone. Eric Lawson could live life going for what he wanted. He wasn't all empty promises and lost causes.
He stalked out to the car, kicking gravel as he went, and stood by the door trying to calm down. He didn't want to drive angry. He had to collect his thoughts. Brigitte had run north up the riverbank. All Eric had to do was follow the river until he found a house, and go in. Not so bad. It would just add a few more days to his trip. Totally worth it.
He was standing by the car when the front door burst open and the line cook ran out, toward him.
"Wait!" she said. "I'll take you to her."
"I thought you were with the bartender," Eric said.
"I have to see her, too," she said.
"Because I need answers," she said. "And you need a story. Drive, and I'll tell it to you."
The line cook's name was Marie Baudin, and she told Eric to drive for 30 minutes to a forgotten overlook, and from there, they'd have to walk. Or so she'd heard. The road was winding and in need of repair, making the trip bumpy and noisy, despite all the car's features for a silent and secure ride. Marie seemed not to care, because three minutes in, she started talking.
"This story is about a ship bound for Quebec but never made it there," Marie said. "The ship was called The Captain's Folly, and it sailed from France in 1785."
"Same name as the bar," Eric said.
"Yes, same name as the bar," Marie said. "The voyage of The Captain's Folly was miraculously free of a single casualty. Every single person survived the trip across the Atlantic Ocean, with nobody even getting seasick. The entire trip was free of tragedy, until, at least, the last part.
"The ship was supposed to arrive in a small port town in Quebec that isn't there anymore. But before it could make port, it had to travel a ways down the St. Lawrence River. It was around there that tragedy struck."
Eric took a quick glance at Marie. She wasn't looking at him, instead gazing out the window, her bony hand pressed against the glass. She needed to say this, he could hear it in the telling.
"It was a clear night, like last night," she said. "The cold had moved in with a fierce wind when the first mate saw an unfamiliar sight up ahead. Something was wrong. He needed the Captain, and now.
"The ship had missed its mark, and not by a little. By a lot. The ship was not heading toward the St. Lawrence River, as planned, but the much smaller St. Francis. A river too small for The Captain's Folly. Chaos broke out. The first mate ran to grab the Captain, but he wouldn't come out of his cabin, no matter how hard the first mate pounded and screamed. Soon all the crewmen were at the door, crying and pleading for their lives, begging the Captain to come out. They knew the rapids of the St. Francis were totally unnavigable without him, they thought they would die if he didn't come out. And they thought right.
"When the people of The Captain's Folly came on shore from the wreckage of the ship, they found their Captain on the rocky bank, all bloodied and broken. When the first mate tried to assess his wounds, the Captain was only saying one word, over and over ..."
Marie turned to Eric. "It was a name: 'Brigitte. Brigitte. Brigitte.'"
He eased his foot off the gas, not so eager to get to where they were going anymore. His hands were slick on the steering wheel, and his mouth was dry, like he hadn't had a drink in weeks. But it couldn't be his Brigitte, this story was from hundreds of years ago. It was all superstition and coincidence. These old New England towns were full of stories like this, and had always been. He and his friends used to go to Sleepy Hollow every Halloween in high school as a joke, trying to summon up the ghost of Ichabod Crane. But he never believed then, so why start now?
But Marie wasn't done.
"When I came from the wreckage and saw my Captain dead on the rocks, I cried so hard. When our first mate set camp that night, I didn't want to sleep under that cruel moon. The strangest thing though was the next morning. Because when we woke up, we were filled with weird sensations. I wasn't hungry, and whatever I did, I never got tired. I wasn't cold, despite the snow on the ground, but I wasn't warm either, and I never would be, ever again.
The car swerved itself onto the shoulder, its tires screeching off the road and nearly running itself into a guard rail. Eric couldn't have done it, Eric could hardly breathe. His vision had tunneled, his breathing was coming in quick, like he'd run too far and too fast and there wasn't enough air in the entire world to make up for it. He held onto the steering wheel because it was something he knew was real, that existed. This car was real. He ran through the numbers. He still owed four years on it, and he had room on his credit card for at least one of those. He wished he had water, or, fuck that, whisky. Something to dull the senses and make him come back to his own. But she was still talking, why was she still talking?
"Some people say Brigitte stole our souls that night," Marie said. "I need to see for myself."
He had to get control back. He needed some questions answered. None of this made sense. It was a trick, Marie and the bartender were trying to scare him away from Brigitte, the woman of his dreams, the girl he was going to marry, and show everyone he wasn't just some washed up kid delving further into debt with no future plan. If he thought about this logically, he could explain everything. He counted to 20 and slowed his breathing the way his yoga instructor taught him.
"You're saying this happened in 1785?" he asked.
"When's your birthday?"
A classic bouncer move. He remembered this maneuver from the days of fake IDs.
"Seventeenth of May, 1761."
"And the bartender?"
"Twelfth of November, 1747."
"I don't believe you," he said.
He was okay now. He knew what was what.
"You're making this all up."
"Fine," Marie said. "Then turn the car around, because you won't find what you want up ahead."
"You don't know that."
"I do," she said.
"You're just like everyone else." He pulled the car back onto the road the same way he'd left it. "We're going. And we'll show each other the real truth. One of us is right."
There was no place on earth where Marie's story made sense, except Hollywood. And since they were over 3,000 miles away from there, and she was too weird-looking to ever be famous, he tuned her out. All her advice giving, all her warnings, and especially when she said, "What I'm most afraid of is you'll find exactly what you're looking for."
Eric's was the only car parked at the overlook, and he and Marie didn't stop to enjoy the view before starting down the overgrown path to the riverbank. Like the road to get there, the path was old and in need of repair. What was left of the steps was rotten and falling apart, strewn with rocks and ancient beer cans, but Marie took to it like she'd walked it before, leaving Eric to trail behind, treading carefully while trying not to look at the jutting rocks below.
A small clearing was soon overtaken by pine trees, thick and tall with age, their branches heavy and blocking their view through the forest. But Marie soon found a small path, wide enough for them to travel single file, which they did, Eric clutching his bouquet, watching Marie's back as she hunched over, as if expecting something. The roar of the river was muffled here, its angry pass over the rapids made more soothing by the thickness of tree cover, but Eric didn't notice the lack of birdsong, or that the path of pine needles hadn't been disturbed by anything, not even a small animal.
They stopped at a cliff wall, covered in thick streams of ivy. Marie hesitated, but Eric didn't, drawing back the ivy with an impatient swing and stepping in, Marie moving quickly behind him. The cave was hushed, silencing even the vines that swished shut behind them. It was warm somehow, but not from a fire, but lit as if one were present. But that wasn't what stopped Eric dead after stepping over the threshold. What he saw was too unreal to be believed, it confirmed too much of what he'd heard, what everyone had said. So much so that he reached behind him, grabbing Marie's hand, and she took it, holding on tight.
What he saw were hundreds of tiny little coffins, perfectly crafted, and stacked as if they were on display. Some were older than the rest, the wood molding and showing age in the cracks; others newer, the woodgrain too pale to see. And they were impossibly small, too small for any human being, not even a child. But he could feel that the warmth was coming from them, and filled the cave to the ivy all the way to the bed of old flowers, which looked to have been recently slept in.
Eric laid his bouquet with the rest, and walked to the coffins, drawn to them.
"We should open these," he said, pulling out his pocket knife.
"No," Marie said. "We should leave."
"You wanted answers. And the answers are in these things." He shimmied the blade under the lid. "One won't hurt."
As he worked, Marie fidgeted, muttering to herself in French. He wished she would shut up, she wanted to come here as much as he did, and she was right, wasn't she? This was what she wanted. The lid was proving harder to remove than he'd thought, the nails were driven deep into the body, and he felt like the longer he worked, the harder it got, like the coffin was fighting him. But he kept working, and Marie kept fidgeting, and more and more, he was feeling like they weren't alone in here.
When the lid cracked off, Eric was overwhelmed with fatigue and curiosity. Exhausted, he reached into the coffin, pulling out the prize between his thumb and forefinger, and showed it to Marie. It was a gold ring, scuffed on the outside, but shining inside with all its original glory. Her face was colorless from shock, her mouth hanging open. Eric couldn't tell if she was afraid or in awe.
"That's ... my wedding ring," she said.
"Here," he said, "take it. It's yours."
But when Marie moved to take it, he felt the ring pulling her in like a siphon. Her eyes went dull and her hand grew pale. The room started getting colder, and Eric felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness, as if it were he himself that were lost, locked up in that coffin for hundreds of years, and finally found. Like he was being siphoned away, little bits of himself were leaving as Marie took another step forward and he had to hold on tighter to keep the ring from flying out of his hand. And then he saw Marie's face. She looked like a woman orphaned to time, lost among memory. He had to stop this, the ring was destroying her.
She was almost touching it when he wrestled the ring away, and threw it in the coffin. And Marie stumbled back into herself, gasping for air. But the cave itself responded when he closed the lid, it felt more crowded, and the entire space filled with whispers in so many different languages, Eric couldn't hear himself think.
"There's got to be something for everyone in the town in those things," Eric said, grabbing Marie's hand. "And then some. We found your answers, now let's go."
They were opening the ivy curtain and about to run out when an echoing voice said from behind them, "They are such pretty flowers, Eric Lawson. For me, yes?"
Marie froze in place, and Eric turned around, the pocket knife still in his hand. He held it in front of him, brandishing it like a weapon.
"I told you not to come. But you did come, yes?" Brigitte said, cradling the bouquet like a baby. She didn't feel welcoming or comforting this time. She was like oil on his soul, all wrong. "I had to see."
"So you have seen, no? Did you like what you saw?"
"I have so many questions," he said, still in fighting posture.
"I do not like to answer questions," she said, tossing the flowers away like an angry child. "That is not a fun game. Come, Eric. Dance with me again, out by the water's edge. That is a game I like."
"No," Eric said. "You had your dance. I'm through with you and your sick games."
Marie said nothing, did nothing. No help as usual. So Eric grabbed her hand burst through the ivy curtain, rushing in a panic through the trees. His arms flailing wildly to knock away low hanging branches that might slow him down. He wanted to get away, no, he needed to get away. This he knew more than anything he knew in his entire life.
But Brigitte's laughter followed them through the forest, cutting through so clearly it was like she was running with them. But she was nowhere, he couldn't see her. He had to get out of Maine and back to New York, where things made sense. At the clearing, Marie took off without him, scrambling up the path like it was made for her. She didn't look back once. Eric was slower, and once he reached the forgotten footpath, he turned to look back at the forest, where Brigitte stood looking bathed in moonlight despite the setting sun.
"I ask for one more dance," she said. "That is all."
This wasn't happening. He told himself he'd wake up in his bed, and this would all be over. As he made his slow, laborious way up the dilapidated path, he told himself he was dreaming. That this wasn't real, it couldn't be real. All this was so unbelievable, beyond any realm of possibility, there was no way it could be happening to him. While he climbed he pinched himself, bit his tongue, tried to remember phone numbers, but nothing worked. This was real.
When Eric reached the overlook, Marie wasn't the only one there. Brigitte stood between him and the car, reaching out for his hand, a breeze blowing through her silver hair.
"One little dance, for luck, Eric Lawson."
But he took a step forward, his fists balled up, his mind set. "Fuck off, Brigitte," he said. "It's not happening, we're leaving."
Brigitte's hand darted out with an inhuman screech and grabbed Eric's arm in her strong, cold grasp. She dragged him to the cliff, Eric fighting the entire way, but she was too strong for him. Her cold hand making his blood run cold, his heart pump slower. He felt like a worm skewered on a hook. Marie faded into the background, watching from the car, doing nothing.
"Stop, you're hurting me," he said.
"I only wanted to dance," she said. "It is only polite to dance with a lady when she asks, no? You were such a gentleman last night. But today you only say 'Non, Brigitte.' I will show you why it is you should always be a gentleman. Au revioir, Eric Lawson."
She lifted him up above the cliffs, above the jutting rocks below. He was like a doll in her hands, limp and yielding, a plaything, and he waited for his life to come flashing before his eyes, like everyone said it would. All those moments of fun and glory, of love and appreciation -- all those things you did, and made, and shouldn't have said, rushing in like the river below and crashing over the rapids until you died. But then it hit him, how did people know that actually happened? No one had lived to tell the tale.
He saw the car, red and shining and glorious. And Marie standing next to it, too tall in her too-short pants. She was staring at him, watching him like someone watches a movie where they already know the end. But she did know the end, "they found their Captain on the rocky bank, all bloodied and broken." He just didn't believe it could happen to him. His life did rush before his eyes then, all the times he didn't listen, every time he didn't take the hint, and all the moments opportunity passed him by because he wanted to do it his way. This wasn't what he wanted to see, but as he flew through the air, rushing so fast he couldn't catch his breath, he could only hear his mother saying, "I'm so disappointed in you."
Hours later, Eric lay splayed out on the rocks, his body bloodied and broken, waiting for the help that never came. While he waited, slowly dying, he whispered the only word that came to mind. It was a name.
"Brigitte... Brigitte... Brigitte..."
A week later, a stranger appeared in that small town in Maine. One they'd seen at the bar one night, with a fancy car and funny accent. But this time they took him in, coming together and building him a house, on the first floor of which he placed a restaurant.
The Slice of Life pizzeria caught on more with neighboring towns than it did the locals, but Eric Lawson did well enough for himself in the years and decades that followed to spend his nights off in The Captain's Folly, drinking while everyone danced to the country-western band that only played Dolly Parton occasionally.
A month after he moved in, someone towed his old car into town, matching the registration to his address. But he couldn't find the keys anywhere. He had always carried them in his pocket, as he cared about them more than he cared about most people. But now, they were lost forever, even though he had a pretty good idea where they were. He just knew he was never going to get them back.
The keys lay in their tiny coffin, the wood-dust still settling on the lid. They thought about Eric often, and the adventures they used to have. Going to see the leaves change in the fall, or off to the Hamptons for a week of partying on the beach. But now, there was only darkness, and cold, and the memories they kept to themselves, waiting, and hoping, for the day Eric would come to reclaim them.
© Jordan Kurella, 2016