After the car was packed up, Robert Fowler looked over the map and decided to leave before it got too dark. It was a very warm summer and he did not have to carry too many items this time. He wanted to move in for the week planned and did not want to get lost on any of the side roads indicated on the map. Instead, he planned to get there by late afternoon and hopefully he would be able to convince the local townsfolk that he was not a bad guy at all. It was a plan; not that he was thinking too much about plans and small towns. This was a job. This was something he had to do.
The cashier, looking closely at Robert’s map, was trying to figure out the direction that would best help his only customer of the afternoon. He had worked at the stop for five years after finishing high school, and had never had to point out any of the small towns to outsiders. The counter was now covered with the map and it fell heavily on the lighters, matches and other goodies by the register. They could hear the fridges and coolers humming in the back and the occasional car pass out front.
Robert pointed at the name again.
‘Hmm…I think that if you take Old Miller Road up north, you’ll be all right.’
‘Thanks. I was a little lost.’ He put the map in the paper bag the clerk loaded for him. ‘I hope I get there before it gets too dark.’
‘Right, right, sir.’ The clerk was still looking closely at Fowler’s face. ‘You have never been here before, sir?’
‘Well, this area, yes, but not up that way.’
‘So, this is your first time up there?’
‘Um, yes. I have to head up there for…’
‘Sir,’ the clerk was trying to say something while his tongue clicked, ‘you know anything about that place?’
‘No, not really. I have to go up and find out things…’
‘Sir, they don’t really take well to visitors once you head out of town.’
Was there a change in the light in the store? Robert looked at the man’s eyes and could not see his own reflection.
‘They don’t like visitors?’
‘They don’t like anyone. You might hear it from them, but they just don’t want anyone up there they don’t know. There have been a lot of stories of people not coming back…’
‘But, you didn’t even know the town.’
‘I know the area.’ The clerk did not blink at all. They were staring at each other now and Robert thought that there was a threat there; something unsettled was in the air now.
‘Okay, well, thank you.’
‘Bye, sir. And, be careful.’
The clerk did not smile. Robert heard the machines hum as he walked to his car. It was still bright out and he wondered why he felt so cold.
’25 on number four.’
The attendant, almost a stand-in for the last clerk, looked over at the car under the stand and punched in a few numbers as the cash register clicked and beeped open.
Robert noted the state of this small station as he took back his change. There was one small cooler in the back that was not humming and one overhead fan disturbing the warm air above them. He looked back at the attendant.
‘Could I ask you about a town nearby?’
The map was under his arm and he held it in front of the small counter as he gestured. The boy, half-awake during the shift, froze. His eyes grew like living gems and he frowned hard in a very soft and heavy face.
‘You ain’t going there, are you?’
‘Yes, actually I am.’
‘Seriously, I…’ The attendant ran his hand over the counter and stared down at the lottery tickets and candies in the small round plastic drums in the cash. Was he looking for something underneath it, Fowler wondered? ‘Just that…no one goes there unless they have to.’
‘Well, I have to.’
‘No, really, you don’t.’
‘I do.’ Robert was getting a little uncomfortable shifting his weight from one leg to the other.
‘Do you know anything about that place? Do you know the stories?’
‘Yeah, stories. Some people don’t like to talk about them, but we all know about them. How people get attacked and cars disappear and don’t ever show up again when people stop for the night and just how it does not feel right when you end up there.’
‘Those are just stories.’
‘Yeah, and I know people who say they are true.’
‘Have you been there?’
The attendant smiled a dead grin, showing the advanced nicotine addiction that coloured his teeth and gums. ‘I am still young and dumb, but I ain’t going up there if I can avoid it.’
‘Right, okay. Well, if anything happens, I’ll remember you told me so. But I gotta go…’
Fowler walked over to the pump, noting the lack of cars on the road now. The sun was still high enough to gleam off the metal of the car and signs, and as he put down the visor, he saw that the young man was looking straight at him through the dirty windows and past the advertising faded and dull. There was no smile now, only that grin that seemed like a message. It said something that he could not really place as he drove off into the light.
He could not resist. It would be at least one hour before he made it to the town but he had to have some of the goodies for sale by the side of the gravel embankment. And they seemed like a charming old couple. He was in overalls and a blue-check shirt with a trucker cap on; she had a wonderful summer dress and sandals with no hat. It looked like they were closing up for the day, but it was just one last stop before he found his destination. And he loved peaches.
‘Hi and hello!’
‘Hi. I hope I’m not stopping you from closing up.’
‘No,’ she continued. Her husband put down one of the baskets in the booth and looked him over. ‘This lug over here was complaining that we don’t get enough people stopping by at this time of year no how anymore.’
‘And this young lady will always flirt her way to a sale.’
She playfully slapped at his arm and they both grinned. Yeah, he was glad he stopped.
‘These look wonderful.’
She picked up a basket of peaches on the counter. ‘Now, you are just being too kind. Try one first.’
He did. And it was.
‘Are you from around here?’ The old man now had friendly eyes once he saw Robert take his wallet out.
‘Oh, it is a little ways out. I have to leave for work and see what I can do for my boss.’
‘Shame. This is the best time of year for our peaches. Just ripe.’
‘And where are you headed?’
This was the moment when he would decide to not make any more stops on the way there. He would not stop even if his car broke down and he was forced to push it all the way there. As soon as the couple heard the name, they had the same stare as the clerk and attendant, but this look had no shades of nuance to it. It was raw and fearful.
‘I know. I have heard all the stories about it.’
She did not blink. ‘Sir, if you go there…’
He did not blink. ‘You know the stories?’
‘I have only heard rumours…’
‘But you are going…?’
‘I have to go.’
She was almost in tears now, wiping her face with a napkin and looking at the peaches.
‘You know…and you are still…’
It was no use. The old man now put an arm around her and she let the tears flow. He could not think of anything to say to them once he picked up the basket. And he did not bother to ask for directions, or the change. He had to get there before sunset.
His timing was off. It was already quite dark once he entered the little town. A few street lights began to glow, and there seemed to be only one set of traffic lights leading into it. He drove down one road until he saw an old sign for the road the office mentioned to him. This was where they set him up for his stay.
The thing was, he did not see anyone on the road. It was not late in the day and there were more houses on the way to his place than he expected, but he did not see one person out on the town. No lights lit up the places he saw. Even the one café and bar he saw were closed. Strange on a Friday night, no matter the size of the town.
Finally, he saw the path he needed to take. The gravel road led to an old house that was covered in flaking white paint and had a tire swing on the side. It was quiet in the dark. And that was when Robert wondered about the rumours and stories that were now stirring in his head. Did they really hate people to the point where they would attack him, send him ugly letters, spray paint obscenities on his car and the rental? He doubted it.
The inside of the house itself was a nice enough. Some old furniture and a pleasant mix of odours he guessed were moth balls and incense. There was a TV, a radio, and even a desktop computer that lit up and indicated that wi-fi was available. He packed some provisions into the fridge and found his bedroom. He would only be there for a week but he wanted to be comfortable. A beautiful four-poster greeted him and he noted the lamp on an end table that lit up over a small writing pad next to the landline phone.
So, no surprises anywhere in the house. There was no basement that he could find, and the attic was only available by pulling down a rope in the ceiling and climbing the ladder that fell out underneath. No, not a thing.
He took some peaches with him to the front porch. He knew that he would have to make dinner, but the peaches really were delicious. And it was still a beautiful night. He had noticed the old rocking chair someone left behind.
He stepped outside and saw it from a distance.
It was a dog.
Relief drifted through his chest. Not a bear or some even wilder human. Just a dog.
It came closer, walking past the car and stopping at the steps leading up to the house. That was when he noticed that there was something in its mouth.
A rubber ball.
The dog was a beautiful golden retriever that panted and eventually dropped the ball on the gravel walkway. Robert just stared at it as they both waited for something to happen.
Was this a test? A signal?
The dog did not move. And they were both just looking each other over.
Robert Fowler, a man who had not owned a dog since he was a young boy, walked down the steps with a careful pace, picked up the ball (red and blue with the familiar white stripe on it) and threw it down the path.
He saw the dog bounce back with it, look carefully at him, and then let it slobber onto the ground.
When Robert looked at the ball, he knew that he would have to do this for a while. The ball was overchewed and pockmarked. But there was something comfortable about picking it up and throwing it.
Was there hesitation there? The dog, watching the arc of the throw, slowly turned, and then quickly ran into the long grass and found the ball. He returned with some speed, rested his head on Robert’s lap as his new owner sat on the porch, and dropped the ball for another run.
I guess some people just don’t like dogs, he thought.
It ran back into the darkness and searched for it.
He would be just fine here.