The Town

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Flash Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
While driving through the American desert in the middle of the night, a man comes across a rather peculiar town.

Submitted: October 27, 2013

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Submitted: October 27, 2013

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Paul McBride glanced at the digital clock on the dashboard.  The spectral green numbers hovered in the blackness, the only light in the car.

12:01

“Midnight”, he whispered, then said again, louder, “Midnight”.  It was the first human voice he had heard since the attendant at the station had given him directions that afternoon.  This thought struck him as odd, for the meeting felt like it had come from another life rather than from the same day.

“Jus’ follow your shadow until you see a tree,” the attendant told Paul, “then head south.  When you think you done reached the end of the earth, you’re halfway there.”  The man grinned, his chiseled face like the dry cracked ground they both stood on.  

“How do I tell which tree to turn at?”

At this the attendant just laughed, or, more appropriately, wheezed.  Paul could see the rows of aged yellow teeth, cracked like the man’s skin.

“Ain’t none but one tree in this hell-hole.  You’ll know it when you see it.”

Paul had passed this very tree (if you could call it a tree) a couple of hours later.  As he looked, he couldn’t help but notice how the hopelessly twisted branches reached straight up instead of out, as if it had long given up on the rain and was concentrating all of its efforts on catching the sun.  Even as he passed it, he watched with his rearview mirrors until the cruel desert mirages eventually enveloped it with their snake-like nothingness.  

* * *

In a flash, he jerked his head from the steering wheel and swerved to avoid the ditch on the side of the road.  The wheels made an awful scraping sound against the poorly laid pavement, kicking up dust that shone in the headlights like an animal’s eyes.  Paul immediately snapped back into the cold desert night, the terror radiating in every fiber of his being.  As quickly as he had lost control, however, he had gained it, as if nothing had happened.  Palpitating uncontrollably, his heart felt as if it were in five places at once.

“Jesus!” he exhaled, releasing the tension in his muscles. As soon as he relaxed, however, he felt the danger creeping once again into his eyelids.  The lull of the motor was a siren’s song that he heard only sometimes; at others, it was curiously absent from his consciousness.  Only when he realized this did he jolt awake once again and assess his situation aloud.

“I have to stop.  That’s the only choice here, isn’t it?  I can’t keep going like this.  Maybe if you just pulled over... wouldn’t disturb nobody... hasn’t been a single car on this road for hours. But... God, what’ll I do when the lights are all out and the night is too dark, too silent?  No, I have to... keep going.  That’s the only way to be safe.  You’re safe, you hear me, as long as you stay in motion and leave the lights on and the motor running.  For goodness sake, that’s the only way to prove you’re alive out here.  There’s not a soul on this earth that knows I’m here, no, not a single soul.”  

He turned on the radio. Empty static filled the car.  The sound immediately sent a chill down his spine, for which he blamed the heat.  Shivering, he turned his attention to the road ahead, where the black night lay indefinitely beyond the reach of the headlights.  Something waited in the abyss, and Paul could feel it coming long before he saw it.

“Oh thank God!” he cried exuberantly.  “Can it be real?  Or is it a cruel trick of the desert night?”  Pressing harder on the gas pedal, he strained his eyes greedily.  In the distance, the thing grew ever larger and more definite, until it seemed to fill his very being with divine light.  He felt a strange prickle at the nape of his neck that spread to his entire body.

And so, with his heart in his throat, Paul left the desolate night behind him and sped toward the unearthly glow that enveloped the town.

* * *

The gas station was quaint and not very well kept.  As he pulled next to the pump, Paul realized that there were no attendants around.  For some odd reason, he had half-expected the man with the overalls to be standing against the wall, smoking a cigarette, exactly how Paul had found him at the last station that afternoon.

“Silly,” he said aloud.  “Of course there’s nobody here.  It’s almost one o’clock in the morning.”  Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched from a distance.  He glanced at the road from which he came, beyond the boundary between the streetlights and nothingness, and felt as if the darkness were slowly advancing upon him.  He fell to muttering.

“No... I’m safe now.  This is my sanctuary.  You,” he gestured a shaking finger at the black night, “will not… claim...me.  I am safe.  Safe and in good company… good company…”

Only now did he realize that he had spoken all this aloud.  Hurriedly, he glanced around to see if someone had seen him talking to himself for fear that he would be mistaken for insane.  Then he remembered.

After he filled up his car, he pulled the door open stepped into the station itself.  A single flickering light hung from the ceiling to which the grey moths were drawn like a magnet.

Like flies on a corpse, thought Paul, shuddering.  He took out a twenty, folded it in half, and lay it on the counter so that the man working here would see it when he returned in the morning.  

When Paul re-entered the dusty night, he half expected someone to jump out from behind the station door.  Glancing all about him, he hurried into his car, slammed the door shut, and started the engine.  

“Crazy!  Stop torturing yourself!  You need to rest; the desert heat is making you paranoid.  What a fool I am!” he chuckled in spite of himself, “Or... perhaps it is that I jump at my own shadow because I have nothing else to jump at.  No, I must remain in control.  The mastery of fear eradicates the reason; if I refuse fear, I have nothing to fear.  Oh, Lord, I’m babbling again...”  He continued along the town’s main street under the eerie fluorescent lights until he found what he was looking for.  

Like the gas station, the motel was small and rugged-looking, resembling a Native American longhouse with windows.  Paul counted the rooms aloud; there were six of them.  Not a single one had its light on.

“They’re all sleeping,” he addressed no one.  “Of course.  All the world is asleep.  I must be the only one awake for miles” he laughed softly.  Summoning his courage, he slowly opened the door to what he guessed to be the lobby, but it only revealed a darkness so deep, so awfully empty that it seemed to reach for him.  He slammed the door shut and recoiled from the knob as if it had given him an electric shock.  Then, very deliberately, he turned and fought the instinct to run all the way back to his car.  

* * *

Something was festering within him.  It began at the base of his neck, where his hairs stood on end, and developed to a point where he felt as if his skin were covered in spiders.  Indeed it was a dark suspicion, albeit an irrational one, that caused this sensation, and Paul hoped for all he was worth that it was not confirmed.  He considered leaving immediately without spending the night at all, counting the endless ways he could keep the exhaustion at bay.  Yet, a strange, sadistic part of himself just wanted to be absolutely sure either way.  

By the time he became aware of his surroundings, he found himself in the residential area of the town.  On either side, the ghostly white houses silently watched, as if waiting to see what he would do next.  Paul’s eyes were constantly drawn to the rear view mirrors, as if acting independently of his will.

But what am I checking for?

The question seemed to echo in his mind, then manifest into a pattern.  What? What am I checking for?  What do I expect to see?  What? What?

His hand suddenly shot to his lips.  They were still moving, his voice breathless.

What? What? What? What?

The word became louder and faster until it was a hum in his chest.

What? What? WHAT!?

A laugh escaped him.  It was suddenly all too ridiculous.  He was instantly seized by an acute awareness of himself as well as every detail of his surroundings, and it was within this strange state of perception that he noticed the house that stood facing him at the end of the street.  All of the lights were on.

Like a moth, he felt himself drawn to it...

* * *

The porch light fell across his face, casting shadows about his eyes.  Mechanically, he rang the rusted doorbell twice, listening to the tinny echoes as they reverberated within the empty house.  It was then he noticed the front door had already been open a crack, as if for the mere purpose of taunting him.

His hand acted on its own accord and very gently pushed on the wooden frame.  Then, with a silence that surprised him, his body slid gingerly across the threshold.

A dead woman was staring at him.

She was propped up in the rocking chair, her head erect, her eyes open, her hands resting gracefully in her lap, as if listening politely to a lecture.  Her raven hair formed a black shroud that covered the rest of her body.

Paul did not move.  He did not speak.  He simply stared.  In that moment, it would have been quite difficult to discern the dead person from the living one.  Then she spoke, softly at first and without any movement of her lips, but Paul heard the words clearly as they came to him in the voiceless tones of the wind.

There’s nobody home

Paul sank to his knees, convulsing slightly.  The woman’s face distorted.  Her two empty eyes became two black coals; her skin began to dissolve from her face.  She was openly grinning now, and from the black space that was her mouth, millions of spiders began to claw and scuttle across the floor towards where Paul knelt.  He did not resist.  He waited as they covered him completely, a writhing mass of legs and pincers.  Over him, the woman simply laughed, her terrible voice echoing infinitely, inescapably, universally…

Nobody… home… nobody… home...

* * *

They found Paul McBride the next morning, approximately twenty feet from his car.  His wallet was still intact; that’s how they identified him.  There were no signs of a struggle.  In fact, the body was almost entirely pristine, save the attempts of the desert sands to permanently incorporate it into their ageless constitution.

The cause of death was dehydration, or so it was labeled in the coroner’s report.  “Because what else can a person die from out here?” the sheriff lit a cigarette and glanced about the empty horizon.  “There’s no killer more thorough or more merciless than this god-forsaken desert”.

“And we can’t even condemn it” the coroner laughed in his own twisted way, tugging off his gloves one by one.

There remained, however, a single curious fact for which neither man could procure a plausible explanation: approximately 150 yards from the body, laying entirely untouched on a solitary slab of bedrock, was a single twenty-dollar-bill, folded carefully in half.  


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