The prompt this time was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It made me wonder how such ruins could have been concealed, and why.
“The hanging gardens of Babylon still exist,” a voice slurred behind me.
I turned. A disreputable looking young man, shirt partly untucked from his pants, a section of hair standing up in the back, and smelling distinctly of beer, gazed earnestly at me.
“Do they now?” I asked.
Clearly he’d overheard part of my discussion with fellow archeologists, musing on whether or not we’d ever be able to safely explore under the waters of the Euphrates, and discover if the gardens had in fact been flooded.
“Yeah. Underwater. You can see ‘em by boat, though, with a flashlight.” He raised a hand, folded some fingers, squinted at his digits, and rearranged them. “Scout’s honor.”
“Ridiculous. If it were that simple, we’d have discovered the gardens already.”
“You hafta be in the riiight spot.”
“Of course.” I stood, grabbed my satchel, and nodded to my colleagues. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tragically, I didn’t see Gustavo the next day, or any after. He and Brynn had stayed to listen to the drunk, and then she’d retired for the evening, leaving Gus behind.
No one paid much attention to the two men leaving the bar, both weaving and in good spirits. A parking lot camera caught them disappearing into the darkness. And that was the end of the trail, a paucity of information that meant there was no way to know if it was misadventure or malice behind Gus’ disappearance.
Though I’d never been particularly fond of Gus, knowing that I’d contributed to his end was painful. If I’d demanded the drunk leave us alone, maybe Gus would still be alive.
Fifteen years later, I still thought of Gus from time to time, a worn-down ‘what could have been’ type of worry. Especially as I sat in a pub as I did now, the remnants of a substandard meal in front of me.
And then I spotted that same drunk–his straw-brown hair sticking up on the side, in a t-shirt and shorts instead of a button-down. But the same exact red-flushed face, with a constellation of freckles, and watery brown eyes.
Impossible. He hadn’t aged a day. Maybe a son, or a brother, or some other relation.
He waved a hand, and my heart leapt. The drunk from before had been missing his two smallest fingers on his left hand, only stumps remaining. Ugly remnants that had caught my attention, because you’d usually get that surgically neatened up.
It had to be him. Impossible, yet somehow true.
I had to know.
Settling into a corner, I nursed a variety of non-alcoholic beers, until he finally made his goodbyes and left. I slipped out after him a minute later, scanning the parking lot for his stumbling form.
My ears strained as I turned in a slow circle. Nothing but the whine of crickets. Deflated, I headed to my car, keys jingling.
The lock popped, and I opened the door. A hand fell on my shoulder, grip so hard I yelped.
“It’s you again, isn’t it?” It was the drunk, only he wasn’t drunk. His gaze was steady and cold, and he no longer wobbled in place.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I swept my arm out to knock his hand off me, but my forearm clanged painfully off his.
He snickered. “You weren’t as subtle as you thought you were.” His gazed flickered past my shoulder, and he smiled. I wasn’t generally prone to exaggeration, but his expression was… evil.
Someone cleared their throat from behind me. I whipped around, straining to turn with the man still gripping my shoulder.
It was Gus, unchanged from my memory of the last time I’d seen him fifteen years ago.
He smiled. “You shouldn’t have left so early. You missed an amazing discussion.”
“What? How?” I couldn’t marshal my thoughts. This was simply too much.
“If you survive the conversion, I’ll explain,” Gus said. “And you’ll finally get to see the hanging gardens for yourself.”
The man behind me shifted his grip, and clamped a cloth over my face. As the world swam and darkened at the edges, I found myself wondering which I hoped for–answers, or an escape from whatever had claimed Gus?