A new short story, set in a place I know and love... and will never look at in the same way again.
The Sugar Mill
Todd Blackwood took a drink from his pint of beer, and looked down the length of the bar. He gave a wink at Fernando, the bartender, and jerked his head toward his twin brother, Keith, who was hitting on one of the waitresses with a cheerful lack of subtlety.
“Your brother like the ladies, I see,” Fernando said, polishing a glass with a towel and then turning it upside down on a rack. “Bet you do, too.”
Todd grinned and said, “When I get a chance to make a move before Keith does.”
Fernando laughed, and said, “He not gonna have much luck with Maria, I don’t think. She like to tease, nothing much more.” He leaned on the bar. “What bring you two to Lamanai?”
Todd thought for a moment. That was a hard question to answer. They hadn’t meant to end up here, at Lamanai Outpost, an out-of-the-way corner of Orange Walk District in Belize. Lamanai was mostly frequented by birdwatchers and archaeologists, and Todd and Keith were neither. They were identical twins, and had graduated from different colleges on the same date earlier that year – Todd from Cornell, majoring in political science, and Keith from the University of Virginia, majoring in economics. Neither one had any job prospects after graduation, nor any particular plans to continue into graduate school, and one night shortly after graduation they had come up with the idea of traveling down to Central America, together. It seemed a great deal more pleasant that facing the task of job hunting. So they’d packed up a few belongings and left, making their way through Mexico, and then into Guatemala, and finally to Belize, seeing some of the sights, partying whenever they could, and making the acquaintance of as many dark-eyed young women along the way as they could manage.
Todd looked up at Fernando, and gestured around him to the bar, with its bamboo thatch, its slowly revolving ceiling fans, and its wooden railings overlooking the lake, hardly visible in the twilight. “It’s a great place,” he said. “A lake to swim in, hammocks, and cold beer. What else do you need?”
Fernando laughed, revealing a row of perfect white teeth set off by skin the color of café au lait. “Look like your brother need something he not gonna be getting tonight,” he said with a chuckle, as Keith walked up.
“No luck?” Todd said, and Keith shook his head, a little sheepishly. Fernando pulled another pint and set it in front of him.
“I told you,” Fernando said.
Keith shrugged. “Still gotta try,” he said.
“Damn, you two look exactly alike,” Fernando said, shaking his head. “I never seen two twins so much alike. How your mother even tell you apart?”
Keith grinned. “Even she gets confused, sometimes.”
“We’ve got different tattoos,” Todd said. “I check mine in the mirror every morning, just to make sure I know which brother I am.”
Fernando laughed, and said, “Tattoos? Let’s see.”
Both the brothers turned, and pulled their shirts up to their shoulders – their movements so similar that it seemed that they had to be one person and his reflection. But on Todd’s shoulder was a red and orange stylized dog, its tail twisted into an elaborate knot; across Keith’s back was a Celtic eagle, green and gold.
“Nice,” Fernando said. “So your mother wants to be sure, she just tell you to take your shirt off.”
Todd and Keith both laughed, and tugged their t-shirts back into place.
“You gone up to see the Mayan ruins?” Fernando asked.
“Yeah,” Todd said. “We saw the Jaguar Temple yesterday. Very cool. Any other places we should go?”
“Oh, there’s lots of places. All kind of ruins around here, very old.”
“We haven’t been out to see that place that archaeologist told us about,” Keith said. “That old sugar mill. He said it was an easy walk from here.”
Fernando’s eyebrows went up, and his perpetual smile suddenly evaporated. “That place?” he said. “Why you wanna go there?”
Keith shrugged. “It sounded interesting. The archaeologist guy said so.”
“You talking about Dr. van Fleet?”
“Don’t listen to him,” Fernando said, his dark eyes narrowing in a scowl. “He don’t know a damn thing.”
Todd looked at the bartender, and thought, Wow, what’s up with Fernando? Sounds like we touched a nerve. “He seemed like he knew a lot about the history of this place, and all,” Todd said.
“Just what’s in books,” Fernando said, his voice scornful. “He tells all the tourists about how old all the walls and statues and pyramids are, and when the Maya were doing what. But he don’t know, not really. Not what matters.” Fernando gave a little snort. “It keep him safe, all that book learning. At least it does that much.”
“Safe from what?” Todd asked.
Fernando leaned on the counter. “That sugar mill,” he said, his voice lowering almost to a whisper, “it’s a bad place. No one who lives here go there at all. Only reason there’s still a trail is because of Dr. van Fleet and people like him. They keep safe with their dates and facts and history and all, but that don’t mean anyone else would be safe. You stay away from that place.”
“What do you know about it?” Keith asked.
“Why you wanna know?”
Keith shrugged. “Just curious.”
Fernando looked at him appraisingly, and finally said, with some reluctance, “It’s not old. Least, not old like the pyramids are. Some Englishmen built it, back about 150 years ago. They wanted to grow sugar cane here. But the jungle’s no good for sugar cane, and other places grew it better. But that’s not the real reason they abandoned it – Englishmen, they don’t give up a place just because it’s a bad idea.”
He stopped for a moment, and both brothers looked at him, waiting for him to continue.
Fernando looked down, swabbed the bar with his towel, and then seemed to come to a decision. “They built the mill on a bad place,” he said finally. “I don’t know how else to say it. The Maya knew about that place – they wouldn’t go near it. Something is there, where the sugar mill is. You go there – you get changed. Everything changes. It reaches in and rips out a piece of you, rips it out so complete you don’t even know it’s gone. It reaches back into your past, changes everything. The man who built that thing, he found out it was a bad place – he went out there by himself one night, after he knew the sugar cane wouldn’t grow and his business was failing – and when he came back, he just went crazy. He wouldn’t talk about what happened, he just yelled, ‘It’s gone, it’s gone,’ over and over, and finally they took him away and I guess he went back to England. I never heard what happened to him in the end. But the mill shut down – none of the natives would work there right from the start, and after what happened to that Englishman, the rest of the English decided that maybe they shouldn’t go there, either. And now big parts of it have fallen in. Brick walls, they don’t last in the jungle. The vines are pulling it down. Big metal gear wheels stick up through where the roof used to be, and black holes for windows.”
“You’ve been there, then?” Keith asked, and took a drink from his pint.
Fernando looked at him, his lips narrowing into a thin line. “Yeah,” he said. “Once. Only once. When I was twelve. I went out there because my cousin dared me to. I could feel the place reaching out toward me, and I ran back home as fast as I could. I was sick for a week afterwards.”
“But it didn’t actually do anything to you,” Keith said.
“No,” Fernando admitted. “But it wanted to.” He shook his head. “You’re nice boys, I know that. Stay here, have some drinks, find some girls to party with, go swimming. Stay away from that place.”
“Maybe you could put in a good word for me with Maria,” Keith said, grinning.
Fernando looked at him in silence for a moment, and then his tense face relaxed into a smile. “Hey, man, I been trying myself for two years,” he said. “I think far as that goes, you’re on your own.”
Todd was dozing in one of the outpost’s many hammocks the next afternoon when Keith came up, wearing swim trunks, water darkening his blond hair and beading on his tanned shoulders. He gave a push on the hammock. “Hey, Todd, get your lazy ass up,” he said. “You gonna sleep the day away?”
Todd yawned and stretched, and regarded his brother with a scowl. “I don’t feel like swimming,” he said.
“I’m not talking about swimming,” he said. “I just did that. You want to walk up to the sugar mill?”
Todd’s eyebrows went up. “After what Fernando told us?”
“You’re serious? You believed all that?”
Todd shrugged. “Well, Fernando did.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s all true,” Keith said. “I want to see it for myself.”
“You think we can find it?”
“You heard Van Fleet,” Keith said. “He said it was down that little trail right off the main road to the village.” He grinned. “You’re scared. Look at you. No wonder you never can get any women.”
There followed about five minutes of shoving that finally turned into a wrestling match, and Todd found himself pinned down on the leaf-strewn ground with his brother smiling down into his face.
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll let you up if you’ll either agree to go with me to the sugar mill, or else you have to say, ‘Todd Blackwood is a scared little girl.’”
“Fuck you, Keith,” Todd said, and struggled to get his arms free.
“Try again, bro,” he said. “Todd Blackwood is a scared little girl.”
“Dammit,” Todd said. “All right, whatever. I’ll go with you.” Keith cackled and swung himself up off his brother, and Todd got up, brushing the dirt and leaves from his back. “I’m not scared,” he added.
“Good,” Keith said. “Neither am I. I’m gonna go grab my camera, and we can head out.”
The dirt road from the outpost ran straight through a cut in the jungle to a little village three miles distant, but before the village was the trailhead that Dr. van Fleet had pointed out to them earlier. It was barely wide enough for two to walk side-by-side, and Keith went ahead, Todd following. A mosquito whined in Todd’s ear, and he slapped it away, regretting his decision not to put on a shirt before leaving the outpost. Underneath the eaves of the jungle it was as dim as evening; trailing vines hung down, brushing their faces as they walked, and they had to step over huge, twisted roots that crossed the trail, curling along the ground like giant gray snakes. Bird calls were everywhere, and in the distance they could hear the rough growl of a howler monkey.
“How far down this trail is it?” Todd asked, after they’d been walking for twenty minutes.
“Van Fleet said it wasn’t much more than a mile or so,” Keith said. “It can’t be too much further.”
They came on it suddenly; around a bend in the trail, and there was a change in the light – part of the canopy was thinner, and the illumination went from late evening to dusk. In front of them was a dilapidated red brick building, with gaping, arched windows opening onto blackness. Vines crawled up the sides, and had in places brought down the walls; piles of rotting bricks lay at the foot of the building. A great rusted metal gear wheel, of uncertain purpose, protruded through the vegetation.
“Wow,” Todd said.
“It’s awesome,” Keith said. “And it hasn’t stolen our souls yet,” he added cheerfully. “I told you all that stuff Fernando said was superstitious bullshit.” He lifted his camera, and took several pictures of it.
“Okay, so we saw it,” Todd said. “Let’s go back. It’s hot and sticky in here, I think I want to go swimming.”
“You just want to go back because you’re a chickenshit,” Keith said, laughing. He looked up at the sugar mill. “I want to climb up onto the top.”
“Are you kidding?” Todd said. “That wall looks like it’s ready to collapse.”
“It’s not gonna collapse,” Keith said. “Here, hold my camera.” He went up to the base of the wall, and reached up tentatively. “I could climb this. It’s no worse than that rock climbing I did last summer in the ‘Gunks.”
Todd watched his brother, trying to quell a rising sense of panic. He didn’t want to object any further; he’d been stung by the accusation of cowardice. Todd had always felt himself to be a step behind Keith in taking risks, whether it was physical or emotional ones. He was half envious watching his brother, lean muscles standing out in his bronzed back as he scaled the wall, the green and gold eagle flexing as he moved his shoulders, reaching for ever higher places to grasp.
And he finally made it to the top of the broken wall, and with one final heave pulled himself astride of it, then clambered up.
It’s coming. It’s there, waiting to grab him.
The thought came suddenly, seemingly from outside his mind, and Todd was seized with such a balls-clenching sense of terror that he was rooted to the spot, watching his brother standing, laughing on top the wall, both fists clenched in the air in a victory salute.
“C’mon, Keith, get down,” Todd said, trying to hide the desperation in his voice.
Last chance. Get out of here.
“Not until you take my picture,” Keith said, grinning.
Todd looked down at the little black camera, the initials “KB” scratched into its housing. He lifted it, zoomed in, centered it on his brother, and the shutter gave a little click as he pressed the button.
“Okay, I took a picture. C’mon, let’s get out of here.”
Keith, with one lithe, agile movement, leaned over and grabbed the top of the wall, and then swung his body down – inside the building.
“Dammit, Keith!” Todd said. “We need to get out of here!”
“I’m coming,” came Keith’s voice, a little muffled. “I just want to take a look inside. There’s got to be a way to get out from the inside.”
Todd ran up to the wall, but bottom edge of the lowest window was five feet above his head. “Keith! You don’t know what’s in there!”
Keith laughed, his voice coming from a little lower. “Just a bunch of dead leaves and branches and shit,” he said. “And it looks like there’s a door or something at the back. Just a minute, I’m almost down.” There was a crunch as Keith’s feet landed on the leaf litter inside the building, and then silence.
“Keith?” Todd said, after a minute had passed.
Too late, you had your chance.
“Keith! Goddammit!” Todd ran around to the back of the sugar mill, looking for the door that Keith had seen, and saw only a pile of rubble. The back of the building had collapsed almost completely, and Todd scrambled over the crumbled bricks, until he stood on top, looking down into what had been the interior of the building – and saw no one.
“Keith!” Todd shrieked, startling a bird that flew away out of the brickwork with a squawk. Other than that, the only sound was a small noise, thin as a knife blade, that might have been laughter.
That night, back in the outpost, Todd sat in the bar, working on his third vodka and orange juice. He sat at a table in the corner, staring vacantly at the wall, and when Maria came over and tried to strike up a conversation with him, he just stared at her, his gray eyes wide and empty, and finally she gave a shudder and turned away.
Fernando came over, and said, “You drinking a lot tonight. Struck out with the ladies?”
Todd shook his head, and said, “It isn’t that.”
“You look like you got some bad news.” The bartender sat down on a stool across from Todd.
Todd looked down, and didn’t answer for a long time. “I have a brother,” he said, finally.
“Oh, yeah?” Fernando said.
“His name’s Keith. He’s my identical twin.”
“Seriously? I always thought it’d be weird, having a twin.”
Todd shook his head. “No. It’s just the way it is.” He looked up at Fernando, a strange glint in his eye. “Problem is, my mom has never heard of him. I called her up this afternoon, called her collect from the phone in the outpost.”
Fernando gave him a little smile, a look of You’re kidding, right? “Yeah? She must be surprised she got a son she don’t know about.”
Todd didn’t answer. He pulled out a camera that had the initials “TB” scratched into the plastic housing. He pushed a few buttons, called up a series of photographs, and scrolled down to one of them – a zoomed shot of the top of the wall of the sugar mill, the center of the frame showing nothing but empty sky and a bit of the jungle canopy.
“You know where this is?” Todd said, showing it to Fernando.
Fernando looked at it, and a visible shiver ran through him. “You went out to that damn place?” he said. “I told you not to.”
Todd said, “I know.”
“No wonder you drinking tonight,” Fernando said. “Well, at least you came back safe. I can’t believe you went out there alone.”
Todd looked up toward Fernando, but his were eyes focused on a point far distant. “Yeah,” he finally said. “Neither can I.”