I plan my third trip to Ostium a little better than the previous two. I dig out my cooler from a pile of dust and forgotten things in my tiny attic space. It takes some scouring and cleaning out, then I fill it with sandwiches, snack bars, protein bars, candy bars, whatever I can find really. And lots of water. Yesterday, with my heart running faster than my brain and lungs for pretty much the whole day, with everything that happened, I knew at the time if I’d had a sugary and/or salty pick-me-up, it would’ve done wonders for my constitution and confidence.
So, anyways . . .
Other than a venti coffee, I avoid stopping at any coffee-serving or fast food locales. I also spend most of the trip thinking about the Facebook messages and email I read last night while enjoying a nightcap of some port I forgot I had; it really hit the spot. The Facebook IMs were just from a couple of coworkers checking in on me, making sure I was okay and whatever plague I was suffering from wasn’t too bad, and if I needed anything. The girl and guy both knew I lived alone and didn’t have any family support to speak of, and not that many friends.
Okay, time for some more personal info. I’m . . . an orphan. My parents both died in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. They were in their car on the Bay Bridge when the quake struck, heading out of the city. If you know the bridge at all, you know that traffic leaving the city drives on the underside level, while traffic coming into the city drives on the top level. Yeah. The upper level collapsed into the bottom level. It was pretty horrific. But the one positive of the whole thing was that they were killed instantly. I was staying with my grandfather at the point and from then on that’s who I lived with until he died while I was going to UC Berkeley. I know there’s other family out there, spread around the country, but there aren’t any aunts or uncles and my parents never had any interest in reconnecting with anyone.
So now it’s just me. I got some inheritance from my grandfather. And my dad did have a life insurance policy. So that helped.
Okay, that’s enough about me.
Going back to those coworkers messaging me: I didn’t think we were that close, but it was nice that someone was concerned. And the email was from a friend. We’re big on the San Francisco Giants and have gone to a number of games together. He was just checking to see if I wanted to pick the next game for us to go to together.
I felt a distance with these people that wasn’t there before.
It’s starting to feel kind of like my job and going to Giants games with Brandon is part of a past life, and my current life isn’t really linked with that in any way. I feel there’s a deep chasm dividing me between the time before Ostium, and the time after Ostium. I’m not going to lie. I’m kind of scared.
I park in my usual spot, trying to hide the vehicle under the tree.
As I grab my cooler and head for the gate I wonder what I’ll do if that padlock has both mysteriously and miraculously returned. I think I’ve still got those bolt cutters in the trunk. I also have the crowbar with the spare that will work in a pinch. But then I reach the gate and find it sans padlock, just like yesterday.
Walking through the empty town, there’s an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I feel an intangible connection to this place; a connection that seems to be growing by the minutes and hours that I spend within its walls.
There’s definitely something going on here.
And I think it’s beyond my control. It’s a lot bigger and stronger than me. I know that much.
Part of me is definitely scared, terrified in fact.
But another part of me is excited and thrilled in a way I’ve never been in my life.
It’s a big wave of serotonin that I’m going to keep riding.
I reach the door with the first number on it. I wonder for a split second if it will open again or everything could be over. Just like that.
I go in and close the door behind me.
It’s exactly as I left it: four bare walls with three doors. The wooden map table is in the center of the room, untouched and clear of dust like someone came in a few hours ago, dusted it down and polished it. It’s gleaming in the sunlight streaming through the two windows either side of the doorway. It’s beautiful.
Then I see that one of the doors isn’t fully closed. It’s in that in between state where it’s not fully closed and not exactly ajar. It’s on the edge of becoming one or the other. Schrodinger’s door.
I cast my mind back to yesterday, searching through the pictures of my memory. I’m almost a hundred percent sure both doors were solidly closed. Yeah, 99.9%. If one of the doors had been like this yesterday I would’ve seen it. It would’ve grabbed my attention like flies on . . . well, you know what. It would’ve stopped me from checking out what was behind door number two.
So what does that mean?
Well, my dear Watson, whatever solution presents itself, no matter how preposterous or unbelievable, if it’s the only one that remains, then that’s it. Or something to that effect.
Someone has been here and gone through that door.
That someone might be here now?
That momentarily paralyzes me and gets my heart racing. Faster than before.
I have two options. Two doors to choose from. But there’s only one really.
I suck in a breath, stride across the room, and rip open the door.
Nothing attacks. Nothing jumps out at me. Nothing even moves.
I wait a few more seconds, to see if there’s some delayed reaction, but no.
It’s a small room where everything is pretty obvious. There’s a twin bed along one wall. A bed frame. A bare mattress. And on top of the bed is a dark blue sleeping bag and a pillow. The pillowcase has a daffodil design on it. The sleeping bag is opened up. Like someone was sleeping in it recently.
There’s a door on one wall. Like quickly ripping off a band aid, I jog over and throw it open.
It’s a bathroom. There’s a sink and mirror. A toilet. A small shower stall with a sliding glass door. The door is open but I still stick my head in the cubicle to be sure. There’s a bottle of Head & Shoulders on the floor of the shower stall. It’s the 2-in-1 with conditioner for smooth and silky hair.
The mirror on the wall is just a normal mirror, no medicine cabinet behind. I look in it, wondering if there’s some hidden recess I’m missing where something’s going to jump out at me. I turn on the cold water faucet. Water comes streaming out. I turn on the hot water faucet. I can tell the water is hot. Really hot. Steams starts billowing up. On top of the simple toilet is a roll of toilet paper. It’s almost a full roll. On a hunch I look behind the toilet on the ground and see a package with five extra rolls.
Well, that’s that, I think. Can’t do anything about it right now. I head back into the main room, closing the door to how it was before: not quite ajar, not quite closed. Then I head over to the other mystery door and pull it open.
It’s a kitchen. There’s a simple one-burner stove. There are cabinets around it and above it. There’s a sink and a faucet. I don’t bother checking the water in here. I’m pretty certain it works. I start looking through the cabinets. Canned goods. Lots of canned goods. Lots of different types. Meats. Vegetables. Fruits. Soups. I don’t see my ideal meal here, but it’s the sort of thing I’d expect to find in an air raid shelter or a nuclear bunker.
Or somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
This is survival food.
In the cabinet next to the stove I find a bottle of propane attached with a hose.
In another cabinet I find pots and lids. Another has paper plates and cups and sporks. Lots of sporks. Whoever stocked this kitchen likes to simplify and economize. In the final cabinet on the other side of the sink I find plastic gallon-bottles of water. All the labels have been removed. These bottles have been reused. There’s also an industrial-sized bottle of dish soap – with added grease remover! – and a brush.
I touch the bristles.
I step back into the main room, closing the door behind me; I walk over to the wooden map that never seems to age and try to think.
Someone has been here.
Someone was here recently.
They’re very likely doing what I’m doing.
That’s the only thing that makes sense.
Going through doors.
Are they traveling to other places, other times like I am?
They’re likely staying here, maybe even living here. There were no signs of a vehicle outside. Not that I thoroughly checked, but I would’ve noticed something obvious. Probably . . . hopefully. I make a mental note to check when I get back to my car later. However much later that might be.
I put my cooler on the counter in the kitchen. Grab a couple snack bars that disappear in one of the deep pockets of my jacket. Grab one of the PB&J sandwiches and a big bottle of water. As I start eating the sandwich I check the map for where door number three is. It’s down a street on the far side from here, on the other side of the entrance. I map my route looking at the streets then head out.
By the time I make it to the door with the number three on it the sandwich is gone as is half the water. The snack bars are staying in a pocket until I get hungry again. I put the half full (or is that half empty?) bottle of water in another deep pocket. I rub my hands on my jeans and then turn the handle on the door.
It opens like any unlocked door. I close my eyes and step through.
I keep my eyes closed on the other side, wanting to take things in with my other senses.
It doesn’t take me long to realize I’m rocking side to side. I open my eyes and look down. My feet are solidly planted on the ground . . . a wooden ground.
I’m on a boat.
Cue the song.
I can see interlocking planking around my feet. But it’s kind of slipshod, not exactly high craftsmanship. There’s no fancy varnish or finish to it as I would expect on a luxury yacht, or even just an ordinary, modern, everyday yacht. You know; the one we all have for fun?
So what does that tell me? This is something older. I’m on a boat that’s . . . old.
I take a few steps on the deck and automatically look back at the open doorway to Ostium. Even though this is only time number two, I’m pretty certain now that special portal across time and space will remain open and unhindered. Okay, maybe my previous experience is riding on the creative minds of some science fiction writers, but I’m still fairly confident. It’s then that I notice above the doorway the thin curve of wood before it becomes the roof – or is that the bottom of the upper deck. I don’t know. Anyway, what’s interesting is that across that piece of wood over the portal is a wooden placard with a word burned into it in clear, defined capital letters. Yep, you guessed it. OSTIUM.
I guess that way I won’t have any problems finding my way back. Not that I can’t look through and see a street and a couple of opposing doorways bearing numbers that clearly tell me it can only be one place that I might be starting to call home. And the fact that I have absolutely no reason to close the door. I check it, the door, moving it back and forth a little to see how loose it is. With the swaying and movement of the boat it’s conceivable the door could swing shut. That’s when I discover a piece of string attached to the handle; on the cabin wall the door leans against when fully open is a jutting piece of wood. I tie the string to it, securing the door. This is a boat after all where things like doors need to be secured during high seas.
This isn’t my first time on a big boat. Living in the Bay Area, you want to avoid having to drive from place to place as much as possible because you can never really predict what traffic is going to be like, which means public transit. There are three options: the BART train system, MUNI buses, or taking the ferry. Whenever I have the chance, I elect to take the ferry. You get some great views and while you might not get to where you’re going as fast as BART, it’s a very low-key and laid-back way to commute.
And now I was on a boat again. A boat from another time. An old boat; maybe ancient. For all I knew I could stick my head up out of the hold – I think that’s what it’s called – and be looking at ancient Rome or something. Then again I could be in some throwback vessel in 2016.
There was only one way to find out, and it would go a long way to answering a number of questions.
I headed from room to room looking for some stairs leading up. I passed through what looked like a dining room with a big empty table, though I wasn’t really taking in the details right now. I just wanted to get above decks.
I should’ve paid more attention to what I was walking past, but I’ll get to that in due course.
I found the stairs and put my foot on the first one and then stopped.
I didn’t expect there to be anyone on this boat, because there hadn’t been anyone behind door number two, so it was merely logical the world behind door number three would be just as lonely. But I wasn’t certain.
There were just ordinary boat sounds, insofar as what I imagined ordinary boat sounds to sound like. A constant creaking and groaning as the boat seesawed in the water. And the sound of my own breathing. That was it.
Wait! What was that?
It sounded like a long, drawn-out moan.
Echoey and distant.
Was that something on the boat?
Something in the water?
Or just an ordinary sound of the sea I didn’t know about?
I sucked in a breath and started going up the stairs.
There weren’t that many, less than fifteen. The hatch was open at the top and I could see out to blue sky and bright sunshine. I made it to the top, stepped out on deck and released my pent up breath in a gasp.
The sun was warm, hot on my skin. The sky was clear as far as the eye could see. I was surrounded by ocean, a deep dark blue ocean, like the Pacific. That meant it was deep, real deep. I made a slow circle, searching the horizon all around me but couldn’t see anything on the water. No other vessels. No sign whatsoever of land.
I was all alone out here.
I walked around deck, going first to the front of the boat – the bow – then to the rear – the stern. I’d come out from below somewhere in the middle of the vessels, amidships I think they call it. Whoever they are.
It was your ordinary big old ocean-going vessel from the nineteenth century. Lots of wood and ropes and shackles. Nothing electronic or automated. I thought of the Pequod from Moby-Dick. Yeah, this was kind of like one of those old whaling vessels, though not as big.
That was when I started to hear the small sound. Incredibly distant. A crackling, like someone microwaving popcorn in the house across the street on a quiet day. Or the sound of rice grains being shaken in a can. Only really far away. But as I kept listening I heard it getting a little louder.
Whatever it was it was coming closer.
I scanned the horizon once more and didn’t see it at first. There was nothing out there to see. But I kept watching, scrutinizing; trying to focus my sight for anything. I caught something from the edge of my vision. Like when you stare at a painting at a museum, then you walk on to the next one, but you catch a different image of the first painting out of the corner of your eye. I was catching that image now and it was very unsettling.
Once I knew to look for it, it was easy to spot: a black band running along the entire horizon. I made a complete circle again and saw it was everywhere, three hundred and sixty degrees. It hadn’t been there before when I first looked around. As I watched it I saw it get bigger, coming closer. That sound getting just a little louder. It was bordering on insignificant at the moment, but the message it was sending was ominous: I’m coming for you.
I had no clue what it was, but I knew it couldn’t be good. With the creepy sounds and that absorbing black. No way, Jose.
Was this something unique to this place? To this specific door I went through? Was it something about Ostium? When you went through a door, whatever was on this other side, did this start to happen? I hadn’t heard or seen anything in Roanoke, but then there were trees and palisades all around me, so I couldn’t have seen anything. And I hadn’t really been listening for anything. I hadn’t even been there that long.
These thoughts fluttered through my mind like a deck of cards, one thought following the other.
Was this a ticking clock? Was this approaching blackness signaling the end of this place I was in? When the blackness reached this ship, would it swallow it up? Like an enormous black hole, and that would be the end of it? The end of everything? The end of me?
It seemed as reasonable idea as any. Meaning I only had so much time to spend on this ship. Only so much time to do what I needed to do. Which was what exactly? No clue. Maybe I needed to find something? That sounded like the start of a potentially good idea.
As I took another glance at the growing blackness which had started to rise up like a growing, all-encircling tidal wave of night, the sound was clearly audible. I ducked down below, sliding down the stairs to get into the bowels of the ship as quick as possible. I figured inside it was where I would find whatever I needed to find. Plus I also needed to be close to that doorway back to Ostium. I could peep through the portholes along either side of the boat – port and starboard – to see how much time I had left.
My heart was racing, my breath coming fast, but I had a sense of direction for once and started looking.
I took the stairs quickly, familiar with them now. A machine gun fire of footsteps and I was back below decks once more. I immediately heard that haunting moan again. It was still unfamiliar, but this time I was certain it was coming from somewhere inside the boat. Its echoing nature made it seem like it was coming from down a long concrete hallway, but there was nothing like that on this ship of sound-deadening wood.
I was already a number of steps beyond unsettled; that sound added a mile. I could feel myself shaking.
To take my mind off the sound, which came again now, just as loud and clear, I started looking around. I was in the room that had that big dining table. There were wooden chairs around it, about fifteen of them. The table was solid, thick wood, attached to the floor so it wouldn’t move during turbulent sees. The chairs weren’t affixed. There were place settings for fifteen people. Utensils for multiple courses. A large plate for the main course, a smaller place for the first course. A bread plate. One wine glass. A precisely folded napkin.
In the center of the table was a raised wooden platform for the showcase, the main dish. That prize-winning turkey, or succulent ham, or impressive side of beef, or whatever went for good food back in this time. Carved into the surface of the platform, ornately done, were two words.
This was obviously the name of the ship.
I was on board the Mary Celeste.
Those words may mean nothing to you. Or they may mean something. They may mean a lot.
Time for a brief history lesson.
On November 7th, 1872, the Mary Celeste left New York harbor bound for Genoa via Gibraltar. She never made it to her destination. Meanwhile in nearby Hoboken, New Jersey, the shipping vessel Del Gratia left port on November 15, also bound for Genoa via Gibraltar. At about 1pm on Wednesday, December 4th the Del Gratia was midway between the Azores and the coast of Portugal, at the coordinates 38°20’N, 17°15’W. This was land time mind you; Thursday, December 5th sea time. Apparently “sea time” in the 19th century was 12 hours ahead of land time, for some reason, with the new day starting at noon. I know, weird. Anyway, as Captain Morehouse of the Del Gratia came on deck, the helmsman reported a vessel about six miles away, moving erratically. As they got closer, they noticed a strange set to her sails, not logical for the current wind conditions. The vessel was lazily moving towards the Del Gratia. Captain Morehouse began to suspect something was wrong. When they were in sight of the deck of the vessel, he could see no one about, and there was no reply to signals that were sent. He sent two men in a boat to investigate. They discovered the name of the vessel to be the Mary Celeste. They discovered no one aboard, with some of the sails in poor condition or missing altogether; rigging damaged; ropes hanging loosely over the side. The ship’s single lifeboat was missing.
One supposed fact about the Mary Celeste is that there was a full meal left steaming and untouched on the dining table. But after doing some more research, I discovered it to be more of an urban legend to add more mystery and intrigue to the story. D-rama!
And now here I was, apparently, on the very intriguing and mysterious vessel known as the Mary Celeste. There was no meal laid out, but from what I could see, there were plenty of stores, and things seemed mostly untouched. It felt like the sort of setting where people would be coming through a door any minute to have a snack, or sit down to read, or start making preparations for dinner.
The moan came again. Louder now. It felt like it was coming closer.
I could feel myself physically shaking now. Like when you’re cold . . . with terror.
And to make matters that much more peachy, I could now hear that strange popcorny crunching sound. That black tsunami of doom was getting a lot closer.
I didn’t have much time.
What was I supposed to do?
I put my hands on the dining table, spread apart, and started looking at each place setting, moving from one to the other. I’d felt drawn to this particular cabin, to this specific place. Why? Was there something I was missing?
The simple answer, I soon discovered, was yes.
There was something in the wine glass, right under my nose. I got to it after studying all the other place settings. It looked metal and heavy. I stuck my index and middle finger in the glass and scissored it out. It was a heavy ring. It looked to be made of gold, a little tarnished, though I could’ve been totally wrong.
It was a signet ring. I’m not going to kid myself or you. When I saw it was a big heavy O I was shocked. It reminded me a bit of the Obama “O” logo. A little elongated. But it was clearly the letter O. I turned the ring over to see if there was anything stamped on the inside to indicate its owner, where it was made, perhaps how old it was.
There was a single number stamped on the underside of the signet.
It was the number 3.
A number of things happened simultaneously when I saw this.
I felt an icy shiver run up and down my spine, as I felt goose pimples rise up over, like, every inch of my body.
The crackling sound from outside noticeably increased in volume, as if it had taken a logarithmic jump.
The moan started again, loud now, and turned to an anguished shriek.
I also saw something white and transparent out of the corner of my eye, off to my left.
I could’ve turned and investigated, but I’m not insane. At least I don’t think so. Yet. I also value my life and sanity, and had had enough of this ghost ship to last a life time.
I turned to the right (starboard) and ran.
The shriek seemed to follow me, so I ran faster, headed for that special doorway.
I soon reached my top speed and because this was a ship, it didn’t take me long at all to reach the open door.
I wasn’t taking any chance. If it was a ghost, I knew what happened when you pissed them off.
I dove through the doorway.
Even though I hadn’t grabbed for or even touched the door – which was still presumably secured to the cabin wall by that strong – I heard it slam closed behind me a split second before I crash landed on to the street of Ostium.
I stayed lying down, with my face in the dirt for some time. It was one of those falls that makes your whole body hurt, and then you stay there, not moving, taking inventory. I gingerly stood up and spat pebbles and dust out of my mouth. I felt a warm trickle running down the side of my face; knew it was blood; figured it was just a minor scratch. Nothing to worry about right now. I brushed my shirt and pants off with my hands and then realized that my fingers were empty.
I fell to my knees and started scrambling around on the ground like someone who’s just lost a priceless heirloom, or a small key that leads to a small door that leads to a dragon’s hoard of gold and jewels.
I don’t know how, but I knew that ring was important.
Then it was in my hand again, and I clutched it tightly to my chest, feeling that knot inside me loosen, my heart rate begin to slow.
I put the ring safely in my pants pocket and headed to the clock tower, munching on some much needed salt and sugar. I walked fast, almost a jog. It didn’t take long.
The hands of the clock still pointed together, skyward.
I opened doors like I’d always lived here, going straight to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror, I could see my graze was more of a severe cut. The right side of my forehead had found the jagged edge of a stone. There was a surprising amount of blood.
I turned on the water; it was icy cool. I wiped it away as best I could. Then washed my face and hands. Found some paper towels nearby and dried myself off. Then I took the ring out of my pocket and headed to the main room.
The time had come.
I stood before the wooden map table. Feeling its importance. Feeling its power now.
I put my hands on the table, feeling it take my weight; the ring trapped between my right palm and the glossy wood. I looked at the building I was standing in with the number one on it, then I moved over to the building with the number three, where I’d just been.
My right hand was starting to feel warm. Hot in fact. Not like my left.
Something wasn’t right.
I looked down at it and saw a glowing red through the skin, like when you wrap your palm around a flashlight and turn it on.
It was the ring!
I ripped my hand away, feeling it cool immediately, and saw the ring was glowing.
The heavy, gold signet ring that was an O. With a three on the back of it.
I looked at the little carved box with the three on it. Bolstered my courage. Gritted my teeth and picked up the ring and quickly placed it on top of the number three. Then I waited.
At first nothing happened, except for the glowing that is. Then the wooden square beneath it also started to glow a bright white. The glow expanded, seeming to reach up and envelop the ring. It drew the ring into itself, and then the piece of jewelry just wasn’t there anymore. The glow weakened, then disappeared. The number that had once been black was now a solid gold. I ran my finger over it. It was warm to the touch, a different temperature to the wood surrounding it.
Whatever was supposed to happen was done. Finished.
Level. Complete were the words I heard in my head. Along with that sound on Super Mario Brothers when he jumps on an escaping mushroom.
I looked at the number one. It was still black. Then I looked over at the number two and gasped.
It was solid gold. Just like the number three.
It hadn’t been that way before. I was almost certain of it. I’d looked at this wooden map a number of times today and yesterday. I would’ve noticed a shiny gold number two.
So what did that mean?
That something had come back from . . . Roanoke?
And been placed on the number and it had turned to gold.
Seemed logical enough. In this crazy place.
But the problem was, as far as I was aware, I hadn’t brought back anything from Roanoke. And even if I had, I definitely hadn’t placed it on this map table.
Which meant that someone else had.
Someone who had been here.
Someone. Had been here.
I jumped into action, going quickly into all the rooms again, searching. It didn’t take long.
There was no one here.
This was too much.
I needed to leave.
I grabbed my backpack and left, not bothering to close the door behind me. I didn’t care. I went through the gate, not bothering to close it this time. I got in my car and got out of there as fast as I could.
It was another long, quiet drive home. This time I didn’t think much, just collected my thoughts.
When I got home, I made myself another calorie-heavy meal, gorged, and recorded this next thrilling installment about Ostium.
I’ll decide what I’m going to do next tomorrow.
Now I’m going to bed.
[End Credit Music]