Set your story in a town that is teetering on the edge of something dark, literally or metaphorically.
In the cozy town of Plumesboro, nothing ever really happens. The weekdays are routine and the weekends were just as predictable. I too, would find myself blindly following a routine day to day, that is, of course, the day everything changed; the day I caught my first glimpse of the coming doom. It all started last Saturday. I woke up that morning feeling quite refreshed and went down the street to my favorite diner, Ma’s Kitchen. Ever since I moved to Plumesboro nearly ten years ago, I frequented that diner almost every weekend. The staff knew me by name and the owners were an elderly couple that always went out of their way to say hello whenever they saw me come in. However, on this particular morning, the usually bustling diner was quieter than it should have been at 9am. Only one server, a petite girl named Sarah, ran the floor while Ma and Pa furiously scrambled about the kitchen trying to fill order on their own.
“I’ll be with you in just a second,” Sarah called. She struggled to move around the floor as her skinny arms bore the weight of a family sized order. “Please seat yourself wherever you like.”
I looked at her and then to the family receiving their food. They stared at her with an agitated hunger.
“No, problem,” I said, “Take your time. Do you mind if I help myself to some of your coffee.”
“Go ahead,” she said and smiled at me as if to say “thank you for being so understanding” before disappearing into the kitchen. After pouring myself a cup of coffee, I sat down at a corner table. I took one sip of coffee and my face puckered.
Why is it so bitter and burnt? It never tastes like this.
I placed the mug down and shrugged.
Why was it so quiet?
I took another look around. Usually this place was alive with friendly conversation, but now nearly everyone was on their phone, thumbs sliding predictably up and down to scroll through the latest feed.
I took another sip of my coffee and ignored the bitter taste it left in my mouth. Three tables to my left, two friends sat and hovered over a single phone.
“Look,” one of them said, pointing to a stock chart on the screen, “You just buy the stock here and then ride it up.”
“But what if the prices goes down?” asked the other.
The first one looked at the second like he just asked a stupid question.
“That’s called a buying opportunity!” he said, “It’ll go up again and then you sell when you make money.”
I smiled. I remembered when I first started investing. A lot of lessons learned through heavy losses compounded by speculative buying, not realizing that wealth is created over decades.
“Sorry for the wait,” said Sarah, “Are you having the usual?”
I nodded and then asked, “Are you the only one working today?”
“Yeah,” she said and jotted my order down on her notepad, “Ma and Pa had to let a couple of people go.”
“Really? What for?”
The server shrugged and slid her notepad into her apron pocket.
“Dunno. They wouldn’t tell me,” she said and then ran off to put my order in.
After breakfast, I tipped more than usual, and noticed how nice it was outside for a September morning. I decided to go on a walk. A crisp chill clung to each gentle breeze that swept through the street, taking with it loose autumn leaves. I held my head high as I walked and listened to the sounds of the season when I noticed a woman approach me coming from the opposite direction. When I was about twenty paces from her, she suddenly stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked up at me. Even from a distance I could see a look of frightened terror in her face that she did not do well at hiding. I stopped as I tried to figure out what was going on. She looked to me and then to the other side of the street and then back to me. Before I could call out and ask if she was okay, she dashed across the street, doing her best to make it look like it had been her intention the entire time. I shrugged and kept on walking.
After about another mile, I entered a residential area and started walking toward a local park on the other end. As I made my way through the neighborhood, I was reluctant to see that the streets and sidewalks were empty. Usually around this time, people would be outside and enjoying the sunshine but as I walked by each house, the only sign that someone lived there was the faint flickering light of the TV peaking through the small divide between the drawn curtains. It reminded me of the last time a heavy storm passed. Even at the park, albeit for one or two families, the well cut fields and open playgrounds were empty. I heard a crow caw nearby. A couple of its brethren replied in the same eerie tone.
Where is everybody?
A nervous chill ran down my spine. My mouth suddenly went dry as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end. A stiff wind blew. There was something within it that put me on edge, like the anxiety one got just before speaking to a large crowd. I took a couple deep breaths and centered myself. Once I calmed down, I shrugged, and thought I must be thirsty from my journey. I knew their to be a grocery store not to far from the park, so I made my way in that direction. Along the way, I bumped into Mike who, like me, was taking advantage of the nice weather but unlike me, his head was hung low.
“Hey, Mike,” I said. I had met Mike about five years ago at a local bar and we had been good friends ever since. He had always been a jolly fellow, never had I seen him like this before. Something was troubling him. “Is something wrong?”
He stopped, looked up at me, and then gave a loud sigh.
“Oh, nothin’ I can do anything about,” he said.
I gave him a puzzled look and asked him what he meant.
“I dunno,” he said and then rubbed his thick fingers, calloused from nearly a decade of working at the steel mill, upon his stubbled chin. He looked past me for a moment to gather his thoughts. Thick black bags hung underneath each blood shot eye.
“Ever feel like you have a lot of people counting on you but also know you don’t have the strength to continue doing what they expect you to do?”
“Can’t say I have,” I said.
He put his hands in his pockets, stared up at the blue sky, and sighed. Before I could ask him anything else, he continued on past me, mumbling to himself as he did so. I watched him go. I heard a couple of weeks ago that the mill was having trouble hiring skilled labor.
Maybe that had something to do with it.
I shrugged and continued on my way to the store. When I got there, I grabbed a bottle of coconut water and stood in line at check out. While I was standing there, I heard the cashier ask the person he was helping if he found everything his he was looking for.
“Not really,” said the customer, “You guys didn’t have my favorite brand of milk or eggs.”
The cashier didn’t even look up at the person he was helping.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, “We haven’t been able to keep up with demand lately. A lot of people have been buying in bulk and stocking up lately.”
“Also whats with the price of meat?” the customer asked, “Its skyrocketed over the past few weeks!”
The cashier shrugged. “I don’t make the prices, man.”
The man being helped looked at me and shook his head, indignantly.
“Things aren't what they used to be,” he mumbled.
I made it back to my apartment about an hour later, and spent the rest of the day doing busy work until I finally allowed myself to relax in the evening and sip some after dinner tea on the back patio. The shadows of downtown grew as the sun made its downward descent toward the horizon. Across the street from my apartment the local pub was alive with people. Music played while everyone’s loud chatter amalgamated into one disorienting conversation. I was about to take another sip when I heard someone shout from down the street, “Unreal!”. I looked to the gas station on the corner. There was a man there filling up his truck at one of the pumps. He shook his head as he crossed his arms and watch the numbers on the pump rise. I looked to the sign above the gas station that displayed the price of gas. It was up 20 cents since yesterday.
That’s when I was overcome with a sudden sinking feeling. My senses heightened. My hand started to shake. I was barely able to put my teacup down in time before my strength gave out. A faint ticking sound echoed all around me, growing louder with each repetition, its rhythmic beat becoming the focus of my reality. Immediately, I looked down at my watch. Each movement of the seconds hand was like a deep, reverberating drum. My heart thumped in my chest. My breathing quickened. I looked up to the horizon. A dark shadow loomed there.
For some reason, I felt the need to run, though I did not know from what. I wanted to get up and shout, warning the patrons of the pub that something was coming. The darkness grew across the horizon like the shadow of an emerging colossus rising up from the Earth. It blanketed everything in its path, desecrating everything in it touched. Buildings crumbled, streets cracked, and trees withered as it passed. People screamed as they shriveled up, plagued with weeks worth of starvation in a matter of seconds. Their skin turned a sickly white and they dropped to their knees.
“Woe is me!” they cried, their voice like a mournful song.
I immediately jumped from my chair and scrambled to get back inside. To my horror, I found the sliding glass door to be locked and no matter how hard I yanked or pulled, the door would not budge. I whipped myself around and pressed my back against the glass. The shadow drifted ominously close. I shut my eyes tight and threw my hands up as if it would stop the coming darkness.
“Oh, God,” I shouted, “Save me!”
I awaited my grisly end, but it never came. The ticking of my watch slowly dissipated and I eased my eyes open. Everything was as it had been. The town restored and the people below were alive and well. I blinked, cautiously scanning the horizon as I got myself under control. The sky was clear except for a single dark cloud that loomed in the east. The longer I stared at it, the more unsettled I became. It was like an unwanted stain on an almost perfect canvas. I looked away and sat down on my patio chair. As the sun continued to set and the shadows grew, the image of that lone, dark cloud remained at the forefront my mind. I shrugged and stared down at the bar below.
At least they were having fun.