I went there to kill myself, not to solve the mystery.
I kind of hoped it was true, that there really were ghosts in the old railroad warehouse. Maybe they would grab my soul and keep it there, and I could hang around and see if anyone missed me. Then again, leaving was the point. Nothing good would ever happen in this shit town.
The stories had been going around for weeks, bigger every time because people here did nothing but talk. Odd flashing lights. Noises – rattling, a dog barking, a baby crying. They said the ghosts of the old railroad’s dead had come back to ride the warehouse down into hell.
I said this town was hell, and it was just trying to get away like the rest of us. Besides, the reservoir was its destination; the river had eroded lower and lower into the canyon over the decades, leaving the warehouse perched on the edge of its seat, waiting for something to happen. One of these days, the warehouse would escape. Tonight it was my turn.
I walked the river trail into town in pitch darkness. I shivered, telling myself it was the night air; it was always chilly by the river at night, even in July. Water roared in my ears, drowning out the crunching of stones under my feet, even the pounding of my heart, until my world consisted only of that inexorable rush of life passing me by at two thousand cubic feet per second. I breathed in the scent of willow and Russian olive trees, and an underlying hint of fish.
In that air was the history of the river: in my mind’s eye, I could see all the wildlife that ever had been, all the different peoples of the area coming and going away again. Covered wagons, fur trappers, the gold rush, locomotives steaming through. Withering, fading to the nothing of today and the pitiful people sitting and gossiping, bullying and hurting.
The warehouse loomed, long and narrow, with its only windows high on the walls, just below the roofline all around. Whenever anyone heard noises, they had to go and find someone with a key, and by then it was gone. If it ever had been.
I’d come here months ago, sent by my teacher to retrieve a box from the school’s rented storage space. Naturally, I’d copied the key. But I hadn’t been back till now.
I glanced around; as always, I was alone. I let myself in.
Something was different. I wandered around in the gloom, distant streetlights barely stabbing through the grime. The boxes were piled differently, and a little room at the end was open and empty. It had been stuffed full of boxes before, but now I could see from the rusty pipes that it had once been a bathroom. Yellowed pages of ancient mail-order catalogues clung grimly to the walls, and shreds of them littered the floor around a gaping drain pipe.
A rope hung from the single bare bulb’s pull-chain, trailing to the floor. I considered its utility for hanging – it was a sturdy rope, but I was never great with knots. I could just jump into the river, instead of dying in this dingy warehouse. I swallowed that thought. I had a pocketful of pills to take, no need for improvisation. No mess, no pain, no more.
I sat on the floor, entombed in thoughts of darkness, the hushed sound of the river, and memories of life in a shit town full of shit people. No joy, no meaning, no hope.
I froze. No way that was a ghost. Was it? I wondered if other kids had copied the key. Oh, god, had I decided to kill myself in the no-tell motel?
Something cold, fast, wet, and definitely alive slithered across my lap, and I couldn’t even scream. Or breathe.
The moon had come up over the canyon wall, and now it made its way into the warehouse, a beam cutting through the grime and illuminating the scene around me.
One sat on a box.
One was tossing a rock from one hand to the other.
One stood staring at me.
I felt dizzy and realized I wasn’t breathing. I sucked in dusty air and barked out a laugh. As one, they ran the length of the room and leaped into the drain hole.
I struggled to my feet, which had fallen asleep, and staggered to the bathroom to peer down the pipe. I was afraid they were stuck. I thought they were gone. I was sure they were figments of my imagination. Then I squeaked as a sleek, inquisitive face popped out of the drain, followed by two more, and they weren’t ghosts. They were otters.
There had never been otters in this river, not for, what, a hundred and fifty years? Fur-trappers had slaughtered them wholesale. Now I was the only one who knew they were back.
They had apparently decided I was ok, as they busied themselves shredding paper with great abandon, squeaking, barking and running up and down the piles of boxes. The last part of the mystery was solved when one otter grabbed the light-pull rope in his paws and rolled around on the floor with it, turning the light on and off, on and off. Time after time, they ran to the pipe and jumped in.
I went outside and clambered partway down the riverbank to watch as they popped out at the bottom and slid through the mud, in and out of the water and then back up the pipe. Moonlight cavorted with them on the river, splashes of pure white light bouncing in joy and camaraderie. A canoe cut through the darkness, and I held my breath as the lone paddler reversed and slowed in the eddies at the other bank. He simply sat watching, unspoken companionship that seemed to warm the night with its sharing of secrets. I nodded, and he nodded back, and it was enough.
Somewhere before dawn, I realized my soul had been grabbed after all: these little spirits had captured it, and they would keep me here. If they could return after all this time, and find joy in this place, I could find my way too.