Riverbend

Author: Cesar Villatoro

goa After a crappy cup of black coffee and a pack of Marlboro Reds, Nathan still couldn’t decide if he wanted to go in. He pulled out the business card from his shirt’s breast pocket and inspected it again, as if he’d notice something different this time around as opposed to the other ninety-nine tries. But nothing. Printed in vantablack on porcelain white were the words “Chapter Black. 7475 Cockrill Bend Blvd. Tonight.” He flipped the card around and held it up against the blinking street light, as he did the other ninety-nine times, and once again found no answers.
    When he inspected the building in front of the address that was painted on the roadside curb, nothing about it seemed all that conspicuous. At least compared to the rest of the derelict shops on the block. The front of the two-story building had five cement steps that led up to an old wooden door that saw most of its original red paint peeled away. On both sides of the door were two blacked-out windows behind reinforced iron bars, with two more above them on the second floor.
    As Nathan paced back and forth, smoking the last of his cigarettes, he paused and took one last glance around. It was night after all, and it didn’t look like any of these buildings had been in service for quite some time. The uncertainty had become unbearable. He didn’t even know why he got up out of bed when he heard knocking on his apartment door in the middle of the night, let alone why he opened it only to find the card on his doormat. Fuck it. He flicked the butt of his cigarette out into the street and walked right up to the door. 
    When he entered the building, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but a long, narrow hallway dimly lit by a single ceiling light was not it. Every step he took made the wooden floor creak, and with every step taken, his heart beat faster. The sweat from his armpits made his flannel shirt stick uncomfortably to his body. When he finally made his way to the end, he was greeted by a single black door, obscured in the darkness. He reached down to grab the door handle only to realize there wasn’t one. In its place was a vertical thin slot but with no markings around it. Confused, Nathan pushed against the door, hoping to open it by force. It was cold to the touch and didn’t budge an inch. He looked down at the slot once more and a thought came to him.
    The card.
    He pulled it out of his back pocket and inspected it. It seemed the right shape and size but it didn’t look like any key he recognized. Right then it was suddenly yanked out of his hand by some force before inserting itself into the thin slot and disappearing.
    Nathan simply stared at his hand, then back at the door, and back at his empty hand once more. He could feel his heartbeat in his throat, it’s deafening thump blasting in his ears. Sweat began to drip from his forehead all the way down to his chin before falling onto the wooden floor, its splash echoing throughout the long hallway. His breathing grew heavier and quicker, and when he tried to move his legs, he felt them weak and unable. Nathan remained standing there, completely still except for his chest which expanded with every breath.
    The door then unlocked itself and began to slowly screech as it moved outwards. It reverberated in his ears, causing him to wince. When it completely opened, the door locked itself into place with a deafening mechanical click that snapped him out of his altered state.
    The room was pitch black and from where Nathan was standing, he couldn’t make anything out. No silhouettes, no sounds, not even a smell. He had to get a closer look if he wanted to know what lay beyond. He took a deep breath and trudged forward, inching his way closer to the darkness.
    Finally, he reached the doorway. It felt as though he would fall down into some endless abyss if he took just one step into the room. The thought made him pause and take one look back at the entrance door at the other end of the hall.
    When he turned his head back around, Nathan was greeted by a sudden illumination, causing him to raise his hands to his face and cover his eyes. When he opened them, he saw that the room was not the abyss he feared but a well-lit room, completely empty except for a single metal table with two chairs at opposite ends and a door at the other end of the room. As he entered the room, the door behind him shut and closed.
    “Please, take a seat,” a voice from above spoke.
    It must have been a familiar voice, one he had heard many times in his life because Nathan complied without resistance. In front of him, atop the table, was a large silver covered platter. He was tempted to remove the lid and see what contents lay inside, but fear kept him motionless.
    “Remove the lid. Enjoy,” said the voice.
    He sat there staring at it for a moment, gazing at his own face off of the reflection from the lid, his breath slowly fogging the surface of this silver mirror. As he reached over and removed the covering, steam burst forth and blew upwards at his face. It was a fresh cooked meal: fried pork chops, mashed potatoes with gravy, french fries, and peach pie with vanilla ice cream. For some reason there was only a plastic spork next to the large plate instead of a fork or knife. Nathan hesitated, looking around the room in all directions. The steam was still rising off of the plate, its scent entering his nostrils, whetting his appetite. He picked up the spork and took a small scoop of the mashed potatoes and ate it. It was delicious. He then moved on to the pork chops and fries. It was all delicious. Before he knew it, he was consuming everything on the plate and after a few moments he had eaten the entire meal. That was probably the best meal he had in years. As Nathan sat there letting the food digest, he hadn’t even thought about the events leading up to this moment. But reality had slowly started to sink in.
    “Stand up. Walk towards the door,” the voice spoke.
    Wiping his hands on his jeans, Nathan complied and began walking towards the black door at the end of the room. He saw that this one had a handle so he placed his hand on it as if to turn it. Something in his gut told him it was unlocked, all he’d need to do was turn it. Still, there was a hesitation. He closed his eyes and held onto the handle for what felt like an eternity, questioning himself in his mind a thousand times over whether he was ready to enter the next room. Nathan opened his eyes, took in a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and turned the handle.
    One final room, one final chair. I guess it’s my turn, Ole Smokey.
    As Nathan sat down, the guard beside him strapped him into the chair and put the black hood over his head. The last thing Nathan heard was the crank of the lever.