This is the fourth in a series of short stories written to music. This Old Town was written while listening to The Flying Burrito Brothers’ album The Gilded Palace of Sin.
“Jill…this town is freaking killing me.”
Jill sighed through the phone.
“You don’t have to stay,” she said.
“But I’m so close to a discovery,” said Sarah. “Like one that actually might mean something.”
“I’m just saying,” said Jill. “You know I’d come down if it wasn’t for work.”
Now it was Sarah’s turn to sigh.
“Hey I watched that episode of Louie last night with the fat girl.”
Sarah leaned back and reached for her glass of wine.
“Yeah that actress really like. Really made it… I don’t know.”
“Yeah, I got you. They got it right.”
“Yeah that’s definitely one of the best episodes ever,” said Jill.
“Oh oooh. Just wait till you get to the rest of the season.”
“Fuck me. God dammnit. I wanna go watch those right now.”
Sarah drank deeply.
“How’s the weather over there,” said Sarah.
“Its, uh. Cold. Why?”
“Just hurry up with that dig, OK?”
Jill hung up first. Sarah stared at Jill’s contact picture on her phone before it blinked away.
She put the phone away and moved to the cardboard box sitting on her floor. Dirt was rubbed into the carpet around it. She hoped the landlord wouldn’t mind. He was a weird one.
She opened the box, and pulled out a bubble wrapped rock. She stared at it, turning it over and over in her hand. There was something to this rock. On the surface it wasn’t anything special, but this rock was older than human civilization. And it had writing on it. Not english or any other language Sarah knew about, but it was definitely writing. If there hadn’t been repeating characters Sarah might have discounted it as some lucky scratches, but they weren’t. Someone had put them there.
The box was full of them, all alike and all different. She wanted to find all she could before someone else found out about her dig site.
The etchings were feint. She dragged her finger across the indentations. She looked at the clock. Unsurprisingly, two hours had passed since she’d opened the box. It had only felt like four minutes. Exactly four minutes.
Sarah careful wrapped the rock back up and it in it’s container. She fell back into her bed. It was stiff, and springy. She hated it. And the blankets were that weird shinny smooth fabric that always felt a little cold. She wanted something soft and fuzzy.
She had trouble falling asleep, again.
Sarah’s jeep bumped along the canyon landscape to her dig site. It was four in the morning.
The horizon here was endless. If there was one thing about this place that was nice it was the horizon. Golden cascades of rock. It made you believe anything was possible. Plus you could always see someone coming.
This early in the morning there was no one else out. Not in town. Not out here.
She’d started leaving this early for two reasons. One, it was nice and cool out, and the light was still good. Two, there were no people out. That was the main reason. If she left at any reasonable time, she was accosted by locals at every turn. Gerry was always asking her to come to bingo night. Sarah didn’t know how many ways she could say no.
There was one boy, named Alex who walked around barefoot in a speedo, and she had been the first person to tell him that he was weird. And now she got crap for it everywhere she went. It was like Alex was some sort of local hero for being a complete freak bag.
And the dogs. God dammit those dogs. They were everywhere. Everywhere. On top of houses, in the gas station, in the gas station bathroom, in and around the post office and how could she forget the dog that came out of the dry cleaner in a smart looking suit. Someone laughed and said Ol’ Gerry’s dog was doing it again. Seriously. What the fuck.
She parked above the pit and went around to the trunk to find her things. She pulled out her toolbox, and the big hammer that wouldn’t fit in said toolbox. She couldn’t risk any more dynamite blasts, so she had to go old fashioned.
She stopped at the crest of the pit. She heard herself squeak in response to what her eyes saw. It wasn’t possible.
Soot covered a good portion of the previously rock red pit. Disgusting, awful, jagged, black holes dotted her dig site like pimples. It had been pristine last night when she left. As pristine as a dig site can be anyway.
I hate this place, thought Sarah. She almost turned back there. She almost went home, but that same rage compelled her to stay. Obviously there was something here. Someone didn’t want her to find it.
She hopped into the pit and opened her toolkit. She started brushing at one of the damaged areas. The black soot was charred into the rock itself. She went around and checked each sabotaged spot. Nothing too bad seemed to have happened. Then again, the blasts could have destroyed any number of priceless artifacts revealing the history of mankind and she’d have no real way of knowing.
She suddenly doubted whether or not she’d remembered to lock her door. Alvin, the man who’s guest room she’d rented was the only other one with a key, but he wasn’t the mischievous type. But if someone had done this, that meant someone was gunning for her, and was watching her.
“Hey there, Miss.”
Sarah jumped, and turned. A man in a cowboy hat stood ten feet above her at the top of the hole. The sun was directly behind him, making him nothing more than a dark outline of a body.
“Hello?” she called.
“Yes?” It was five in the morning. What the hell was anyone doing out here?
“Just came to check up on ya, out here.”
She recognized his voice now. It was Sherif Sparks. That would explain the hat too.
“Hey, do you know who would have done this? I mean someone just came and vandalized my dig site.”
“Boy, well I know I sure am sorry to hear that.” He said it like a game show host. “Boy I don’t even know what I would do if something like that happened to me.”
“That’s because you’re not an archeologist.”
“That I am not. That I am not!”
“So. Do you have any ideas?”
“Not a one! Well. I do have one idea, since you asked.”
Sarah waited, but it appeared he needed some prompting.
“I recommend you going to Gerry’s bingo night! Best damn time you’ll find round these parts.”
Sarah laughed and waited for the Sherif to laugh along. After a few moments it became clear that he wasn’t going.
“Wait,” said Sarah, the smile dropping from her face. “That’s your idea?”
“Yes sir, and if you think me telling you about bingo night is a hoot just wait till you get there. Boy almighty some of the things I see there aught to send people to the penitentiary. And I should know!”
This time he chuckled. Sarah shook her head. Whatever. She didn’t need these people. She could do this herself.
“I’m going to go back to digging,” said Sarah.
“Have a good day,” said the dark figure.
She moved back to the ground and started removing her tools. When she looked back up he was still there, watching her. She stared back. It was starting to creep her out, the absolute motionlessness of his stance. And of course she couldn’t get over the fact that she couldn’t make out his face. It was like a staring contest except she couldn’t see his eyes. Eventually she figured it would be better to just ignore him.
She went about her work and at some point he left. She didn’t hear him go, and to think of it she hadn’t heard him come either.
Sarah just wanted to drink. That’s it. Well she’d had her drink at the one shit bar they had in this god forsaken place, and now she wanted home. And since she couldn’t go home yet, she supposed she’d have to settle for a bottle of wine and a bed.
The only problem was there was a lot of space between the Long Horn Tavern and her room. And that meant a chance encounter or two.
Sarah closed her eyes and practiced a few of her breathing techniques. She had wine in her room. Lord knows she’d need it.
Main street was remarkably quiet for a Monday night. Sarah decided she’d had a stroke of luck, and began walking as fast as her legs would carry her.
She picked up the pace when she saw Gerry approaching with her cane. She found her every night!
“Hi there Sarah!” Cooed Gerry. “Coming to Bingo night? We’d sure love to have you. Yep me and the whole crew, well those chillers are always asking me when that pretty young flower Sarah’s gonna drop by. You know how they are.”
She didn’t. And she didn’t want to. When she’d came here she specifically set out to meet as few people as possible. Make as few connections as she could. Not only could she not understand the way these people lived, but it would be easier when ultimately she was the villain for bringing the big dig crew back and ruining the town. She wouldn’t feel bad. These assholes didn’t even have internet.
“Sarah?” called Gerry. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah. I um. I just had a bit much to drink.”
“You don’t gotta think to play bingo! Now do you there Sherif Sparks.”
Sherif Sparks, who’d she had failed to notice standing right next to them, nodded along.
“I really just need to get going.”
“Nine o’clock at my house sweetie. It really would suit you.”
Sarah shook her head, and tried not to look too pissed as she walked away. She didn’t want to make any enemies, but she just didn’t get why this fucking god damn piece of shit bingo game was so important.
A lanky, hairy man with a bright orange mustache stood like a tower in Sarah’s way. Henrik. A motorcycle helmet obscured the rest of his hair. He wasn’t wearing a leather jacket or anything. Just a tie die and blue jeans. Sarah didn’t really understand the whole biker thing anyway. Maybe they were in to tie die?
Sarah tried to side step him, but Henrik moved to block her path. Jesus. She was not going to speak first. Henrik couldn’t talk like a normal person, and that wasn’t too strange for this town, but at least the other ones you could tune out. With Henrik there was nothing else to-
“HOWDY THERE PARTNER! GREAT DAY FOR A STROLL THROUGH THE NEIGHBORHOOD HERE DON’T IT JUST SEEM TO BE! I RECON YOU’D SAY YES BUT WHERE’S THE FUN IN LETTING YOU RESPOND. I GOT THIS WHOLE F-ING THING FIGURED OUT YES I DO. YOU SEE HOW I JUST SAID F-ING? BEEN TRYING TO CLEAN UP MY ACT YOU KNOW SO IM MORE PRESENTABLE IN PUBLIC. GETTING USED TO TAKING MY BIKE HELMET OFF, YOU KNOW SO PEOPLE CAN SEE MY HEAD. I’M JUST NOT REALLY READY FOR THAT KIND OF EXPOSURE THOUGH. GAMMA RAYS JUST MIGHT PENETRATE MY SKULL.”
“Is your….um….is your bike helmet like gamma ray proof?” Sarah hazard after a moment.
“IT’S A BIKE HELMET AINT IT!”
How do I get out of this, thought Sarah. Actually, it was more of a prayer. He was scanning her up and down like the only thing in the world he had to do was make her life hell.
“Listen,” said Sarah, “I really have to-“
“NO NO I GOT YOU. I GOT WHAT YOU NEED. I ALREADY PICKED UP MY COPY.”
“No. What are you-“
“THE BED BATH AND BEYOND CATALOGUE. I’VE GOT AN EXTRA COPY. THEIRS ONE OUT IN RINEVILLE. ITS ONLY A TWELVE HOUR DRIVE SO ITS REAL EASY TO JUST GET UP THERE AND PICK UP SOME DISH TOWELS OR WHATEVER YOU NEED I’M NOT GOING TO TELL YOU WHAT TO GET THERE. THE CATALOGUE IS SILLY!”
Henrik laughed so hard that Sarah swore she could feel it vibrating the air in her lungs. Sarah took a step back and squeezed her hands into fists. She wanted to kill this man, and Sarah was not a violent person. She’d once saved a baby bird after it fell out of it’s nest. That’s how nice of a person she was. And yet she wished she had a nice long, serrated knife like something out of a horror movie to gut this freak in front of her.
The sound of a hundred screaming dogs joined Henrik’s laughter from down the street. Henrik laughed on like nothing was the matter.
Sarah leaned to look around Henrik and sure enough… anywhere from fifty to a hundred dogs were charging straight down main street howling and yelping. She looked up and saw a second pack of dogs of all sorts running along the flat tops of the old western town’s historic down town buildings. They leapt in unison between roof tops like some sort of circus act that had escaped into the real world.
“Henrik, do you not?” said Sarah, but Henrik was gone. He was down the street having a talk with Gerry.
That’s it, thought Sarah. She began to ran. She didn’t stop running or even think about stopping until she was at her doorstep. There was nothing between her and her bottle of wine, and her rocks now. Just a nice evening. Maybe she could talk with Jill. Maybe she could just stare into the static of her TV for a couple of hours. That sounded strangely nice. Therapeutic even.
She opened up the front door and walked in. All was clear. She walked through the kitchen, and into the hallway. She could see her room at the end. She marched triumphantly and her mind began to fantasize about being alone. Truly alone.
At the door she took out her key and fit it into the door handle.
Sarah slowly turned around, keeping her hand on the door. She wasn’t sure why. Actually she was sure. She wanted to make sure she had an out.
“I got twelve out of thirteen Jamaican holidays. See what you could do,” said Alvin.
“Did you have something you wanted to talk about?” said Sarah.
“You wouldn’t believe what this man did to start working from home.”
What in the hell was he talking about.
“One weird trick to never get sick. Ten out of ten doctors hate it and-“
Sarah rushed into her room and slammed the door.
Sarah screamed and ran to her bed. She wanted to go home. She’d thought she could do it all by herself, but she hadn’t thought it would be like this.
When the anger passed all that was left was despair. Jill didn’t answer the phone when Sarah called. Sarah texted Jill the truth.
Sarah fell asleep holding an ancient artifact of stone. The grooves wound their way into her dreams.
Sarah woke to a loud banging on her door. She’d fallen asleep holding one of her rocks. She put it down and sat up.
The pounding was getting louder and faster. There were shouts now too. She opened the door to find Henrik stooped in the hallway staring in at her.
“I LOVED YOU,” he screamed.
Sarah checked her phone and noted that it was three in the morning. Great.
“Henrik. Now is really not a great time.”
But apparently it was a great time for Henrik. He grabbed Sarah’s arm and hauled her out of her room. Sarah shouted in protest and tried to push him off, but Henrik was strong despite his bone thin look.
He dragged her all the way out of her house where he let go.
“What do you want?” said Sarah, distancing herself from the man.
“It’s not what he wants,” said Gerry.
Sarah turned and saw that most of the town, two hundred or so dogs included were standing outside of her house staring at her.
Sarah backed up against the house.
“It’s what we want,” said Sherif Sparks.
Sarah realized that her keys were back in her room. She couldn’t even run if she wanted to. They were sitting on her nightstand, right where she’d left them. She’d play along for now. It had worked out for her well enough. At least she’d thought it had.
“The Bingo House has been burned to the ground!” someone yelled from the crowd.
A dog barked along enthusiastically.
Sarah’s eyes grew wide. What. So they thought…?
“I swear it wasn’t me. I was sleeping here all night.”
“Alvin?” said Sherif Sparks.
“The top ten hottest actors in Hollywood!” he screamed angrily.
“Alvin doesn’t corroborate your little tale missy,” said the Sherif.
“That’s because Alvin can’t corroborate anything!”
“That’s exactly right. Alvin can’t corroborate anything,” said Gerry.
Sarah suddenly realized why that wasn’t such a good defense on her part.
“OK, but, but why would I do it?”
“YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE WHO DOESN’T COME TO BINGO NIGHT,” said Henrik.
A few dogs shifted in the crowd. A dalmation sniffed at the air.
“You brought dynamite with you,” said Sherif Sparks.
“But…but, yeah but I still have my stash. Come on. I’ll show you,” said Sarah.
She started walking around to the side of the house where she’d parked. She stood straight and walked with confidence. They wouldn’t pin this on her. They couldn’t.
She opened the back of her trunk and her heart sunk momentarily. The dynamite wasn’t there. She started to rummage around. It had to be there somewhere.
“Can’t find it, huh,” said the Sherif.
“It’s here. Just give me a second.
She pulled back a small crate. This was it. She handed it over to the Sherif proudly. He opened it up and looked inside. He spit out some black gooey liquid.
“You know there’s nothing in here.”
That was impossible. She’d only used two sticks. There should be a whole… Sarah sat down on the trunk of her jeep.
“So what. I didn’t do it,” she said weakly.
“Well what do you think is going to happen?” said Gerry, suddenly appearing behind the Sherif.
The Sherif laughed. “She looks like she thinks we’re going to lynch her or something.”
Gerry looked amused.
“We don’t like to hold grudges around here, do we Sherif?”
“No mam,” replied the Sherif.
“Come here Paul,” said Gerry.
A dalmatian ran up to her and yipped.
“Paul here once killed a whole tour bus. Poor japs…” said Gerry. “But now look at him.”
Sarah looked, just as she was told. Paul was just a dog. Why was his name Paul? What the hell was she hearing? Why was she being let in on the details of a massacre. Why wasn’t she freaking out more.
Her hands were shaking, but somehow that didn’t seem like enough of a response for the situation. It was like her body had reached a sort of tipping point, and at a certain point it wasn’t even responding to the outside world anymore.
“Now this whole situation would be a whole lot easier to forgive if you’d just take an interest in the community. Why don’t you come to Bingo night tomorrow? Worked for Paul here,” said the Sherif.
“That’s…THAT’S all I have to do?” said Sarah laughing.
Sarah couldn’t stop laughing.
“Jill, when is Sarah getting back again?”
Jill stuffed a chip in her mouth.
“I don’t know, mom. She texted me again the other day and said she was going to spend a few more weeks down there. Guess she’s starting to get used to the place. I don’t know. Maybe she made a friend.”
“That’s good,” said mom. “It’s never good to be lonely.”