We stared at the highway, adorned with colorful graffiti, marred with cracks. The old section of Route 61 had been shut down for over a decade, and neither one of us had been back since when we’d left, forsaking the place of our youth, our home. Now, we stood upon deceiving colorful pictures and words, the silence surrounding us suffocating. Eerie. As if in just one more moment, the world would warp, or the ground would give out and we’d plummet into the darkness, our screams growing fainter until they went silent altogether. Or perhaps, we would just stand in silence forever, staring at the empty stretch of road, pondering what it meant. 

“Well shit,” Nathan said finally. There was laughter in his voice, but it was uneasy. He nudged a crudely drawn heart with K+E written it with his foot. “Wonder if they’re still together.” A sly smirk played onto his lips, and he snickered, “Wonder if they even made it past high school.” 

“Nathan,” I said. We had just gotten here, but I was already drained as if the trees took in my energy instead of carbon dioxide. Greif clung to my bones, glued my feet to the asphalt. In my mind, I could see everything as it had been back when I was a kid, back when there was more life than just shrubbery, when there was laughter and neighborhood barbecues, birthday parties and joy.

Nathan’s mouth slipped back to a straight line. “Sorry,” he said softly. He slung an arm around my shoulder. “It’s okay, Conner.”

“Yeah,” I murmured. Despite leading to the bones of a city, life flourished on both sides of the road, bright green just in time for spring. It was the kind of thing you saw in an instagram post along with a stupid caption like, “If the path is beautiful, ask not where it leads- Anatole France”. The path was beautiful all right, but all it led to was destruction and disaster.

Smoke drifted lazily between the cracks in the ground- a painful reminder of the coal seam fire that raged on below our feet, licking away at the walls of the underground tunnels of our old mine town.

“I can’t believe it.” I didn’t bother specifying what I meant, I wouldn’t have been able to. My heart was so heavy that I wondered if it’s weight would make me fall to my knees. My tastebuds screamed with the bitter sweet taste of nostalgia, mixed with something that felt like melancholy. Trees swaying in the wind, a perfect blue sky overhead, I wasn’t even sure this was reality anymore. “Is this real?” 

Nathan gave me a weird look, shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket. “Yeah. It’s real.” 


Nathan let out a heavy sigh. “This is where it all started.” He spread his arms wide and a pained smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “This is Centralia.” The name of my hometown send a made my heart pang with a longing for something long lost, something that would never be found. Never be saved.

“It’s not anything anymore,” I said, the words hollow, just the slightest bit sour.

“Sure it is,” Nathan said easily. Like the trees, he swayed in the wind, not a worry in the world despite the fire roaring beneath our feet. It had burned for 27 years. It could burn for centuries more. “This is where you and I were born, where we grew up.”

“That was twenty five years ago.”

“Damn. I feel old now.” He nudged me with his arm. “But seriously Conner, you’re missing the point.” 

“Mmm.” My thoughts were spiraling, down down down. Straining to reach the ground of a bottomless pit, they would go on forever.

As if reading my mind, Nathan placed his hands on my shoulders and forced my eyes to meet his. “Don’t get in your head about this or I’m never taking you anywhere again.” 

I shook his hands off me. “I’m fine with that.”

He rolled his eyes. “Don’t take the fun out of this.”

“This isn’t fun,” I spat. “Are you forgetting the shit we saw here? We watched out neighbors cat fall into a sinkhole, hell, we saw a kid fall into a sinkhole. And, down the road, our old elementary school is crumbling down to the ground, and a few streets from that, there’s an empty lot where your house used to be, before it was plowed down, just like mine, just like every other one on the street, in the neighborhood, in the whole goddamn town. Our entire childhood doesn’t exist anymore, Nathan! The playground is rusted, the arcade is gone. Even the literal air we’re breathing is tainted. There’s smoke rising from the ground because the places we loved is burning from the inside out.” I shook my head, my anger evaporating, tears in my eyes. My heart had stopped clenching, had stopped doing anything for that matter. It’s familiar pulse had come to a halt, my fingers and toes felt cold from blood loss. In its place, an emptiness swelled, only to deflate and start it’s cycle again. “I don’t know why you wanted to come back. There’s nothing left.” 

Eyes cast to the ground, Nathan spoke in a quiet voice. “I know. I know the bakery on the corner is gone; so is every other building. And I know everyone left, except seven. And I know it kills you to see all this graffiti, because these people didn’t care about Centralia until it was burning itself down. Truth be told, I wanted to come back to see if maybe it was all a lie. I wanted to find everything intact, and it’s not, but you’re wrong. There’s something left.” He looked up, eyes meeting mine. “Buildings don’t make it home, Conner. Neither does a zip code, or an address. Centralia doesn’t have any of that anymore; it’ll never have anything but toxic gases. We had to leave; you know that. We didn’t abandon it.”

“I know,” I said finally. The words were swallowed by the breeze.

A grin found its way to Nathan’s eyes, making its way to his mouth. “And besides, the best Centralia had to offer is still here.” 

I rolled my eyes, fighting back a smile. “And what’s that?”


I laughed, and slowly but surely, the warmth returned to my body. “That was disgustingly cheesy.” 

“Better than a fucking graffiti heart on an abandoned highway.” He cast a pointed glare to the red shape. “Wonder what happened to K and E. You think they got married?” 

I snorted, heading back towards the car. Maybe at some point, Centralia would just be a folk tale; maybe it would crumble to dust, or be consumed by the fire raging beneath its surface altogether, but Nathan was right. Home was more than a point on a map. “K and E,” I mused, opening the car door. “You know, I have to say, I doubt they even made it past high school.”

August 24, 2019 00:56

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