A town where nothing is as it seems - and evil is all around. [WIP]
|Note From The Author: This is a work in progress rewrite of a current work in progress. The story and characters are being reworked, although the theme remains the same. At the moment I'm not allowing ratings, although any feedback you can give me as a reader would be very much appreciated via email. Enjoy, and apologies for the stuttery endings, as I said, it's a work in progress and will be updated as progress is made and uploaded.
One // Comic-Con
Hazy serpents of heat-distorted air curled and writhed against the road, seeking to leave the superheated confines of the sticky black tar surface and escape into a cooler climate. The heat of the Nevada desert was especially oppressive as the mid-afternoon sun blazed overhead, and the effects were all the more devastating within the oven-like lining of an old Jeep four-by-four. A sheen of perspiration had long ago pressed through Riley Taylor's tanned flesh, making her complexion shine as though she'd just stepped out of a shower. Her auburn hair was pulled into a haphazard ponytail in a vain attempt to keep the weight off her neck and therefore provide some ventilation - but still the thin wisps of loose hair were damp and stuck to the nape of her neck and the sides of her face.
Her travel companion seemed to be faring about the same, although the perspiration upon Hugh's person was somewhat more profuse; and somewhat less sweet-smelling. His lanky frame was doused liberally in man-sweat, and his Lurch costume was more than just a little damp under the arms, neck, and between his shoulder blades, an effect which fans of the Addams Family has been thoughtfully spared. Just what exactly the Addams' hulking butler had to do with a comic book convention escaped the comprehension of both Hugh and Riley, but the costumes had been ordered in by their boss in California and they could only scowl behind their false smiles as they readied themselves for another somebody's-gotta-do-it job.
It seemed to Riley that they were the only type of jobs she'd ever had with the Saratoga Channel Six news; the kind that nobody else was eager, or even submissively willing, to take on. Somewhere along the lines her dream of investigative journalism had turned a one-eighty and she was now living as a newsroom lackey. Instead of being awed and respected for her insight and wit, she was instead an object of attention for oglers who watched the lame stories only for a glimpse of her pretty face. In the beginning she had embraced her good looks as a strong point, something which would surely help her dream of being a lead reporter for a prominent newscast - maybe even someday a lead anchor. To be on television full time a person had to have a certain aesthetic appeal, for people to want to look at him or her for five minutes, ten, an hour. Females even more so than men. A man could look distinguished on camera and get away with it; a woman had to be attractive. In the first year of her work with the station, she had been confident that the nothing stories she told on camera were just a transition between being nobody and a super-star. But as the year turned to two and then three, her strong beliefs had turned into hopes and wishes that seemed to have no more substance than a soap-bubble, just waiting for the right opportunity to pop and leave her feeling empty and very much like a failure at the one thing she'd ever felt strongly about.
Now, at twenty-five and no better off than she had been fresh out of college, it was safe to say that she was sufficiently jaded. Her job was going nowhere fast, and she hadn't quite realized the extent of the damage until she had been made aware of a certain Fan-Club organization a month prior to her current trip. Now on some level she was constantly cursing the looks that she had once thought would make her a star. Nobody took a girl who was anything more than half-way pretty seriously. If she was pretty and not chubby and didn't have a deformity of one kind of another, she had to be a complete airhead who could only count as high as the number of one-night stands she had been drunkenly roped into. At least, that was the way things felt in sunny old California.
The American Dream, they called it. Sure, but dreams rarely ever came true.
And now here she was, in the convection oven that was the Nevada Desert, sat next to something out of a nineties kid's movie, and heading toward a Comic Book convention, a meeting of a flock of geeks and has-beens who sadly had nothing better to do with their time than let an embittered reporter prance around in golden shorts and waffle on about how exciting it was to be in a room with people who had as much passion for something as she had about her childhood dream-come-true. It was even in the script. The script also said she had to lasso some Star Trek hotshot with her patented Rope of Truth and good naturedly press him for some dark secrets about life on the set, as if she actually cared. All with a smile upon her face.
"How much farther Ri? I'm dying in here!"
So lost was she in her own reverie that she had forgotten where she was and who was with her and started slightly at High Warren's voice; He had snapped her back to the present just as she was imagining using the Rope of Truth as a handy noose to hang herself with instead. Clearing her throat before speaking, she responded. "Not sure, I'm going to get off at the next exit or service station to refill the tank and have another look at the directions Greg gave me."
"Everything out here is the same, desert, rocks, desert, rocks. Why would anybody in their right mind live here?" It was predictable coming from Hugh, who was well known for his adoration of water-sport, but Riley smiled in spite of herself.
"Maybe they're all closet sadists and enjoy the discomfort of desert heat in early autumn. I'll bet when they go on vacation somewhere they get their kicks by cranking the oven on high and standing in front of it naked until their skin turns red and starts to blister."
Hugh turned away from Riley's expression of mock-seriousness and gazed out the window at the golden sand that tracked swiftly past. "You're sick Riley. I just hope you realize that."
"Whatever you say sweetie. There's a reason I haven't spent the whole trip bitching about the broken Air-Con." At the mention of the handy little device, Riley stretched out her right arm and began toying with the console, dividing her attention between it and the road as she fumbled with the air conditioner system in question without success. The Jeep was a company affair since neither of its occupants owned a vehicle of their own - news lackey wages weren't exactly exorbitant, even in California - and of course the cheapskate company they worked for had owned the same lemon of a car for at least the past ten years or so, and did only the very minimum touch-up and repair work that was necessary to keep the thing road worthy. Comfort and style were not exactly at the top of their priority list, to say the very least.
Finally they passed a very faded hand-painted wooden sign indicating Sam's Service Station was coming up on their next right. The plank that had been used as the makeshift sign was dry, cracked and barely legible, and Riley wondered how it hadn't burst into flame ages ago, leaving nothing behind but a skeletal reminder of the severity of the desert sun. Just thinking about it left her throat parched and she silently prayed that the service station had a refrigerated beverage section along with a functional gas station and sanitary toilets.
As the Jeep slowed to enter the narrow turnoff into the service station, Riley's optimism plummeted. The service station was little more than a wooden shack erected millennia ago on the road-side, with a single old-fashioned gas pump that looked like it had been one of the first in the country, and what could almost be referred to as an ‘outhouse' around the right side of the building. Exiting the oven that was the four-by-four, and entering the oven that was the Nevada Desert, she instructed Hugh to fill the tank before she tentatively entered the service station itself.
The reporter was surprised when she stepped through the heavy and cracked wooden door and into a room filled with shelves selling snack food and refrigerated drinks and sandwiches. The interior of the service station was a good twenty degrees colder than the scorching heat outside, and immediately the wall of cool air embraced her and held her tight. A sigh of relief and pleasure escaped from her before she realized that the proprietor was watching her, and she smiled at him almost embarrassedly.
"You're a true Godsend, Sam."
The elderly man behind the counter had a gentle face, tanned and leathery from many decades thriving in the sun and heat, and deeply lined with age. His laugh lines and crows' feet were the most profound, and one could tell just by looking at him that this was a kind man who was easy to laugh and to smile. Even now, he wore a wide grin upon his countenance, and his blue eyes sparkled as if he were proudly watching a favourite grandchild playing with her friends. Riley, who was charismatic and outgoing - but also wary and often guarded around those whom she did not know - warmed to him immediately. She imagined that if she had had a grandfather, this is the kind of man he would have been.
"The cool air helps the arthritis... heat makes the joints swell, hurts like the Dickens. What can I do for you little lady? That's quite a costume you've got there, looks as if you've just landed your spacecraft on the wrong planet."
She had forgotten all about her patented Wonder Woman outfit, and joined Sam in his light laughter. "Not by choice, Sam... Not by choice. I'm in Nevada on business and unfortunately that business just happens to be Comic-Con." She paused as he snickered to himself again, and as she thought, her smile faltered. "Please tell me that the shed beside this building isn't the restroom...?"
"I was waiting for you to ask." He laughed again... such a kind and easy laugh, like he had no worries in the world. "Nah, renovated the restrooms when I had the A/C put in as well. Had an extension build around back, door's next to the refrigerators in the back, right in front of the stack of potato chips and chocolate bars." At that moment, Riley Taylor felt a sudden rush of relief greater than just about anything she had experienced in the previous twenty-five years of her life.
Entering the extension in the back of the building was like revisiting true civilization again after being out of touch with everything for years. In truth, she had been driving only since mid-morning, and they'd only entered the desert itself a couple of hours ago, but it felt as though time had slowed and she'd been travelling for weeks. Or at least a couple of days. After relieving herself - the toilets were spotless and there was a faint aroma of bleach under the automatically released raspberry room spray - she splashed icy water on her face and blotted the excess with a paper towel, dabbing the wet paper against her throat, chest, and the back of her neck.
Her face was still damp as she walked back into the main room of the service station and saw Sam gawking as Hugh stepped through the door, his arrival announced by a tinkling bell mounted just above the frame. The green grunge that the makeup lady back at the station had meticulously applied before the trip began this morning was now smudged liberally all over Hugh's face, as well as the cuffs and collar of his white shirt. He'd also undone most of the buttons, but the fabric still clung to him like a wetsuit, while the black suit hung off his lanky frame like a sumo wrestler's best tuxedo on an anorexic's skeleton - except now the jacket was discarded in the back of the Jeep.
"Don't be alarmed, he's just my cameraman," Riley called to the front of the room. She was now skulking through the aisles, hunting for food that would taste amazing but not defy her strict diet and make her hips swell exponentially. Generations of Taylor women were cursed by genetics as much as insatiable sweet-teeth and a penchant for overindulgence. After seeing her grandmother practically debilitated and unable to leave her home before succumbing to an early death, and then growing up around her mother's obese figure which caused the elder Taylor more emotional and mental scarring than physical damage, Riley had vowed never to wind up like the rest of her family. She couldn't keep count of the number of times her mother's shroud of depression over her appearance deepened into a depression over the rest of her life, how many nights and days that her mother had locked herself in her bedroom or sobbed herself to sleep.
She put down a package of Twinkies and picked up some low-sodium low-fat soda crackers instead. After picking out a few more goodies, Riley made her way to the cash register on the far left side of the building, and deposited them on the counter for Sam to ring up. Hugh was hunting down some snacks of his own, so as she chatted idly with the man about nothing in particular and waited to pay for her snacks, Riley inspected the array of flyers behind the counter. It was clear that this was kind of an open scrapbook, a collection of things that had been on display in the service station for the past many years. Some of it was new, such as advertisements to sell recreational vehicles, but Riley was surprised that there wasn't a single poster with the words "Visit Vegas" scrawled along the top.
There was one poster in particular that caught her attention and held it for far longer than the others. It was obviously very old, the paper thin and brittle, the colours faded and sepia-toned with age. It depicted a large Ferris wheel like the kinds they had at every big amusement park, and surely it was once beautiful and full of bright colours, but now it looked deserted and haunting, like something out of a ghost town in a horror movie. For some reason that she could not discern, she broke out in goose-bumps as she let her gaze trail down to the group of children at the base of the carnival ride. They were all dressed in old-fashioned clothing, the girls in prim dresses and the boys in slacks and collared shirts. They were all smiling, and it was probably a happy place... But still, Riley felt a wave of uneasiness wash over her.
Sam's words pulled Riley from her thoughts and she tore her gaze away from the poster on the wall, blinking at the elderly man with evident confusion. "I'm sorry, what?"
"The poster. It's advertising the summer fair in Kenton Ridge." The man's blue eyes were now also inspecting the poster, and his smile was soft and gentle as before, but his expression unfathomable.
"You mean there's actually something in this desert aside from a road, some sand, and a few rocks?" Riley didn't mean to be sarcastic, but she was a little shocked. She'd always thought that the only source of entertainment in Nevada was Las Vegas - Hell, the next best thing was apparently Comic-Con, which wasn't giving the desert much credence.
"Back when they first started having the fair, it was the most popular thing ‘round these parts. The only exciting thing to do in the desert. I remember when I was a boy, my uncle used to take me every year. Used to start on the first day of summer and run straight through for an entire month. A couple times we even stayed for a whole week instead of just a day or two. Some of the best memories of my childhood..." He paused, and Riley kept a respectful silence. Undoubtedly, the uncle of whom he was apparently so fond was no longer living in this world. It seemed criminal to deny an elderly man his time to think and reminisce. She wasn't sure, but Riley was almost positive that a single tear glistened at the corner of one eye - but then he blinked and shrugged at her, and she couldn't be sure.
"They stopped having the fair about... oh fifteen, twenty years back now, maybe longer. It used to be a real tourist town, people used to flock there for the summer. But there was a tragedy, some kids were messing around - probably stoned or drunk knowing the times back then, though things aren't much better nowadays. Anyway, a couple of teenagers fell from the top of the Ferris wheel, pulled a girl's four-year old sister with them. The little girl, she got caught in the gear mechanisms... Wasn't pretty. After that, less people wanted to go to the county fair, and two years later they decided to close it down for good. Now, Kenton Ridge mostly keeps to itself. People don't often go in, and I haven't had anybody stop by yet who was coming out. In fact, I'm not entirely sure the roads even go out that way any more, highway patrol doesn't bother with it anyway."
"Wow." Riley was intrigued, surprised - and excited. "Hang on, there has to be a main road... I mean, they need deliveries of food and other supplies and stuff don't they, even if they don't get a lot of holidaymakers these days?"
Again, Sam shrugged at her, and his face went thoughtful, although there was a hint of disappointment in his eyes. "The thing about Kenton Ridge is... it hasn't developed as much as the rest of the big cities have. It was one of the first towns settled out West in the desert, and the people were kind of... I wouldn't say secretive exactly, but didn't like a lot of trouble, some of them just didn't trust outsiders not to mess up their way of life. From the beginning the town was self-sustaining really. The businesses out there are all privately owned far as I can remember, no big names. You won't find an Ikea or McDonald's. So they take care of most of their own resources. Though I suppose if they do need anything from outside they must go out and fetch it for themselves." He strolled around the checkout counter, and picked up a map of Nevada, unfolded it and gently spread it flat atop the cool surface next to the cash register. "Take a look for yourself, little lady. Right here," he said, pointing a thick finger to a blank spot on the map, "is where Kenton Ridge was. Well, is."
And there was nothing. No bolded heading declaring the name of the town... no thick black line showing a branch off the interstate or a highway road. Not even a little set of dashes leading off toward the town to indicate a dirt path. It was as if Kenton Ridge just wasn't part of the Nevada landscape, as if it didn't exist and never had.
Riley was curious, she felt as though she might burst with excitement - and as her gaze slid over the old faded poster behind the counter, she had a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach; something that she couldn't discern as either an effect of her childish excitement, like a little girl on Christmas Eve; Or something more akin to a dark intuition. The poster really was haunting, she thought to herself.
"Mind if I take this with me?" She produced a five dollar bill and handed it to Sam before she pulled a red fine-tip marker from her purse and drew a small dot on the place which the elderly man had previously been touching. Beneath it, she added the words Kenton Ridge in small, neat printing.
"Not at all, but... You don't plan on going out there do you?"
The worry on Sam's face startled Riley when she looked back up at him, and her smile faltered. He was doing his best to keep a calm and normal demeanour, as happy-go-lucky as he had been up to this point. But his eyes looked hollow, they weren't sparkling with fervour anymore; his smile was there but it wasn't the same, it wasn't genuine.
"Well, it's caught my interest... And if everything you say is true, it would make a decent story. I mean, not even just that it doesn't really exist anymore, but the whole theory that it's self-sustaining. Maybe there's no story there at all, but I have a feeling that if I go there, I'll find something that might just be my own big shot at everything I always wanted." She knew she was over dramatising, but it was a bit of a habit of hers, something which she had picked up from the past few years in show business. She wouldn't admit it, but she was also trying to put Sam at ease - his change in behaviour troubled her. "Besides, it's got to be better than a comic book convention."
"Well... Be careful. The story you want, it might just find you. There might not be anything but old buildings and lots of people who don't want to talk to you, though. Try not to get your hopes up too far. But look, I've got to be getting back to work. It was nice to meet and talk to you little lady... Good luck."
This was a dismissal if ever Riley had heard one, and she wondered exactly why Sam was turning her away. They had shared some light banter and she had found herself liking this old man immensely, and had no trouble picturing him with a red suit and hat and a furry white beard, befriending small children and asking them to whisper in his ear what they wanted for Christmas. He struck her as a man who made friends quickly, and she was certain that there was barely a soul around who could possibly dislike him. And yet now he had turned on a dime and while he did look sorry to see her go, Riley was sure that there was the briefest expression of relief on his face as the bell tinkled to announce her exit from the service station.
After being within the relatively cool confines of the station itself, the re-entry into the blistering heat of the afternoon desert was devastating; Riley groaned loudly in discomfort and rushed for the shade within the superheated Jeep, taking her plastic bag of snacks with her and quickly downing one of two bottles of water she'd just purchased. Hugh finally climbed back into the passenger seat of the Jeep just as Riley finished unfolding and refolding the map, leaving a small portion flat on her lap to show her the approximate location of Kenton Ridge. The white emptiness of the map reminded her of the desolate isolation all around her right now. Never had the world seemed like such a vast place to her, but now she was very well aware of the miles of empty desert and impending darkness that surrounded her on all sides. Even though she sat right next to her somewhat smelly cameraman, Riley Taylor felt utterly alone, as though she'd just landed solo on Pluto, light years away from any civilization.
"So, how long?"
Riley smiled to herself as she started the vehicle, put it in gear, and began to drive away - she saw Sam watching their departure almost mournfully in the rear-view mirror and had another strange pang in the pit of her stomach - before she replied. "Not long at all."
"We're almost there already? I thought we weren't due to get in until this evening when stuff hit full swing. Ri, we don't have to spend the next ten hours at that place do you? Do you have any idea what kind of freaks go to these places? They'll probably have a Riley Taylor Adoration Booth set up or something, and you'll be violently assaulted on all sides the minute somebody recognizes you. I don't want any part of it. It disgusts me." Which wasn't entirely true, but not a lie either. Hugh Warren wasn't disgusted as much by the fanatic fandom personality type of the people who frequented Comic-Con every year as he professed. What really made his stomach turn was the thought of those geeks and dorks ambushing Riley; his precious, precious Riley.
"Nope!" Riley - who was not oblivious to Hugh's adoration and thought it would make their friendship and working relationship more tolerable and less awkward if she just feigned ignorance instead -, didn't elaborate. Hugh was clearly confused, but she didn't care; let him wonder for a while. But, as usual, Hugh was persistent - and argumentative. He was the kind of person who would argue his point until he passed out from oxygen deprivation and would have made a great and convincing lawyer had he held within him any measure of passion for anything aside from film, photography, and attractive women. Often, the three intermingled, but Riley never asked to see any of his work. Unfortunately for the both of them, Riley just happened to be the most headstrong, independent - and opinionated - woman he had ever encountered, but he supposed that it was one of the things that made him love her so much.
Theirs was a love-hate friendship, each drove the other crazy - but sometimes it seemed, especially in the wee morning hours as they chopped and edited their reports for the next day's morning news, that they were all the other had and the only true friend to their name.
"Riley, come on. Greg isn't expecting us back at the office until early tomorrow morning, how is it going to look if we get there," he paused to check his watch, "a full two hours ahead of schedule, waste a couple of hours, and get back to Saratoga just after midnight?"
"We're not, Hugh, don't worry. We definitely won't be home ahead of schedule." She tossed the map onto the dashboard as the neared the little red dot and squinted to read the road signs through the bright and reflected sunlight as they whizzed past. "Let me know if you see any turnoffs, it probably won't be announced, might not even have a sign."
"Might not have a sign..?"
It was less than five minutes of silence before Hugh turned in his seat and shouted out "Stop!" causing Riley to slam on the breaks and turn to him, brows raised in question. "There's a turnoff there, but I don't think it's the right one, Ri. It looks like just dirt and rocks." He continued to talk, turned around in his seat and staring out the back windows, as Riley reversed the car slowly. Traffic sped past the old Jeep and a couple of cars honked at them - but she didn't care. Let them get aggravated; this was more important. Finally she was able to manoeuvre the jeep into the narrow turn-off and onto the single lane dirt path that seemed to lead to nowhere, her teeth clacking in her skull every time the Jeep bounced through a hole in the road or skidded across the loose rocks and gravel littering the dirt. For the most part, though, the road was hard and sturdy, part of the baking effect of the Nevada sun; it was dry and cracked and full of holes, but at least there was no mud to get stuck in.
"Riley," Hugh's voice sounded more serious now, although given his carefree nature, the difference was only marginal. "There's no way this is the way to Winchester. Why are we heading toward a blank spot on a map that you bought from the Middle of Nowhere Gas Station? Why won't you answer my questions? Are we doing the story or not?"
In response, Riley only smiled at him in that infuriatingly sweet but sarcastic way that she had, and said, "yes, Hugh, we're doing a story," before muttering the word, probably under her breath. At least, she hoped they would be doing a story. As excited as she was about the prospect of doing a little researching-and-reporting in Kenton Ridge, she was also very aware of the fact that there was probably nothing there. They'd probably torn down the old County Fairgrounds, which would leave her with a small choice of far more uninteresting backdrops against which to smile pretty for the video camera. It would probably take all week to use her press sway to gain access to the town records to get details on the people who may have died at the fair. And at the end of the day, it was old news. All she could really report that people didn't already know about was that there was a place in Nevada called Kenton Ridge, and that nobody knew it was there. Still, she held out hope that something would pop up to give her the big story she needed to boost her career from comic book conventions and beauty parlour reviews into something more cutting edge and... real. Intuition told her one thing, but her restless mind kept trying to argue and rationalize against what she was doing. However, the way she saw it was, if she never took any chances, she had no hope of progressing her career beyond television eye-candy.
As they bounced down the hard dirt track a hazy shape slowly began to take form in the distance ahead, a dark but wavering square against the blue sky on the horizon's edge, almost liquid in the heat. It began to take on a more solid form as the Jeep grew closer, not yet just a mirage image that would never draw nearer to them, as illusive as the end of a rainbow, and soon it was recognizable as a nondescript gas station that marked the end of the dirt track and the beginning of a fully concreted forecourt which led to a concrete road.
A loud bang suddenly sounded around them, making Riley and Hugh both visibly flinch, and then the car began to spin uncontrollably, the steering wheel tearing out of her grip. Half-panicked, she managed to get a hold of it again, and turned into the spin and pressed on the breaks; finally, the vehicle skidded to a halt on the loose dirt and sand off the side of the road. For a prolonged moment, Riley leaned her head on the steering wheel, while Hugh exited the Jeep to go and pop the hood and examine the engine - which was smoking profusely.
"This would probably be a lot easier if I knew anything at all about cars."
Riley replied as she grabbed her purse and climbed out of the jeep, a scowl on her face. "Aren't men supposed to be able to fix anything mechanical? Well, I suppose if you can't fix it, you're going to have to push it, at least to the garage up ahead." Hugh began to protest, but Riley had already begun to walk away and he knew it would be pointless. He hated it, but he knew it.
Two // Arrival
By the time she reached the garage, Riley's body was doused in another misting of perspiration, and she had downed the remainder of her second bottle of water in an effort to soothe her parched mouth and throat. As she screwed the top back onto the bottle, she surveyed her surroundings; this garage was somewhat larger than Sam's Service Station since it catered as a vehicular repair and spare parts shop as well as a gas station, but outside were two gas pumps of a similar - if not the same - style as the ancient monstrosity which resided in front of the other station. Groaning inwardly, she made for the shop, hoping to get some more bottles of water and hire somebody to find out what had gone wrong with the Jeep this time.
But as Riley headed toward the wooden door, she was suddenly overcome by such a deep sense of isolation that she paused midstride for a moment and had to look back to reassure herself that Hugh was, indeed, in the distance behind, and that he hadn't disappeared off the face of the planet along with everyone else aside from herself. Shaking her head to rid herself of the stupid and completely unbidden notion, she threw the bottle onto a trash can next to the door and then turned the old, rusted handle. Even as the little brass bell tinkled overhead, even as the door swung open and she stepped inside, she knew there would be no helpful air conditioning system. The place looked old and unused from the outside, and inside was even worse.
The shelves were wooden, the kind that you would see in a period movie of the early twentieth century, with snacks and cans of food stacked neatly atop them. Not a single item was out of place, and Riley was astonished to find a full magazine rack on the wall next to the door. Immediately she made for the small refrigerated section in the back and pulled out two more bottles of water. The name was Ravine, something she was unfamiliar with, and to be frank, it looked like tap water in clear bottles with some fancy hand-designed labels slapped on for good measure. But by this point the heat indoors was feeling even more stuffy than she had felt outside, and she was grateful just for something wet and relatively cold to drink.
As an afterthought, she grabbed a third bottle and headed toward the cashier section. The register was an old wooden affair of the type sold nowadays at antique auctions, the kind with numbers which popped up to show the customer how much they owed. And which was probably often wrong to the benefit of the shopkeeper in question. The wood counter was badly chipped and unvarnished, and she had a feeling that everything in here was the no-nonsense original furnishings from when the place had been built. There were even bits of mold in the crevasses in the wood where somebody had spilled something and been unable to clean out the final remnants of sticky fluid.
An old brass bell sat on the counter, and she tapped the top, making it emit a shrill 'ping' and summon forth whoever was manning the shop today. Ten seconds passed. Twenty. She rang the bell again and waited, half a minute this time, but nothing. Riley couldn't hear anybody moving around in the back rooms, and the door had been closed on the garage while she was outside - it would be too hot in there on a day like today to keep the doors closed if people were at work.
Curiosity got the best of her and Riley wandered toward a wooden door to the right of the front counter, turning the rusty old knob but getting nothing but a jangling resistance in return. Locked. The place looked open, the front door had even been unlocked, but nobody seemed to be present.
Sighing, she moved back to the front counter to pick up the bottles of water and leave some change to pay for them, but something caught her eye. Something bright red, half-hidden under somebody's hardcover novel, off to the side of the counter. Lifting the book, she discovered a map of Kenton Ridge. The paper looked old and brittle, something out of a museum, but when she tenderly picked it up, she found that it wasn't as fragile as it looked. Opening it up, she discovered that the ink had not faded, although she was certain nobody had a need for maps of Kenton Ridge, and hadn't for quite a few years past. Adding a couple dollars to the tally on the counter, she took her items and stepped back outside.
Remarkably, the air outside felt cool on her flesh. It was just past four o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun would begin its descent into blackness in little over an hour, and with its disappearance so would the stifling heat of day. Riley knew from previous experience that the desert was an unfriendly adversary, blindingly hot during the day, but frigid and unfeeling in the depths of night. People and animals alike had frozen to death from a night alone outside in September, even if the fated desert rains didn't hit full-force and drown them out of memory completely. Yet for now the heat remained, and she had to raise a hand to shield her eyes as she turned to search for Hugh; and found him paused twenty yards away, leaning against the side of the Jeep and looking as though he were about ready to pass out.
"Well?" he enquired, raising his voice to be heard over the distance. Riley beckoned him toward her with a motion of her right hand before returning to the task of thrusting three bottles of water into her bulky purse.
"No luck, it looks like there's nobody here. We'll have to continue into town on foot." She unfolded the map in front of her, then looked to her right at the road which lay ahead of them, grateful that now it would be paved through to the entrance of the town. "It shouldn't be too far, maybe ten minutes until we reach the Welcome sign and enter the town proper." Without giving him a chance to recover, Riley began the march toward Kenton Ridge, her short heels clicking loudly on the concrete, his rubber soles scuffling along haphazardly behind as he lugged his portable video camera, switching it on and taking a southbound shot of Riley's back as they made their way into town - one thing that could cheer him up regardless of how annoyed and uncomfortable he was at the moment.
The trek into the town held much of the same empty desert landscape, until all at once Kenton Ridge seemed to thrust forward on top of them from nowhere. Entering the town was like walking into a legendary ghost-town that had been bought and then refurbished by a handful of residents. Most of the houses on the outside of town were surely bona fide pioneer homes that agriculturalists used to reside in, but as they ventured toward the centre - according to the map at least - of town, a few modern items stuck out at them. It was almost obscene to see old wooden houses intercepted by the occasional clean-looking brick-built condominium complex, or a narrow but tall three-floored house with bright pink aluminum siding. The place looked to Riley like something historical that had got caught halfway-through the fast-forwarding of time, a strange mix of old and new that clashed unharmoniously.
She was glad she didn't live here. While one or two places looked nice because they were either beautifully new and pristine, or graciously old and darling, in general the town itself lacked any sense of aesthetic appeal. She was glad she didn't live here. While one or two places looked nice because they were either beautifully new and pristine, or graciously old and darling, in general the town itself lacked any sense of aesthetic appeal. There was no continuity here whatsoever. A six-floor apartment block made of deep and dull grey concrete sat next to a series of charming old Victorian two-story houses with pastel toned gingerbread trim, sat next to a modern Spanish style home of pale beige, all straight lines and flat cubist surfaces, next to brick Tudor homes next to an out-of-place corner shop. It felt so mismatched that there was no way it could feel comfortable, like home.
“Where in the hell are we?”
Hugh’s voice nearly startled Riley when he spoke from directly behind her, it was so quiet here. So unnaturally quiet. People had always said that small town living was always more friendly and peaceful, but looking around at the dusty streets, she had the impression that only ghost towns were this serene.
“Kenton Ridge, I think. I hope. I couldn’t really read the sign.” When she spoke, her voice was distracted; she was still looking around at the mismatched buildings that surrounded her. Trying to think where to go first. Her mind was too busy to concentrate on what her cameraman was asking her – should they go straight to the old fairgrounds? Try to interview people? Acquaint themselves with the town? She glanced absently at her watch; nearly 6:00pm. “Let’s find a motel or something and then explore town a bit.”
Hugh’s face was a mask of confusion as he looked at her silently. So many questions to ask her. “Aren’t we going to Winchester? Why do we need a motel, we’re supposed to be back in Saratoga before sunrise.”
But Riley simply shook her head at him and smiled, “no, I think this is a little more exciting than Comic-Con.” At least she had hoped it would be, but so far disappointment was beginning to put a slight damper on her enthusiasm. Now that she was here, she didn’t know what she wanted, she was just acting on a gut instinct and expected a story to present itself to her once they arrived. “Just, try to find somebody so we can get directions to a motel or hotel or B&B or something.” With that, Hugh sighed heavily and began to walk at a medium pace, with Riley following behind him. She had pulled a portable voice recorder with her and was now dictating what she was seeing into the microphone – deserted gas station left unlocked, no aesthetic appeal, no continuity in styles, most places look neglected, nobody on the streets, why is it so eerily quiet?
As they walked along, Riley noted that there were only a handful of cars on the road, and less than half of the houses and condos they passed had attached garages or driveways. At first this baffled her, until she realized that in such a small community there wasn’t really much need for automobiles; a person could probably walk clear from one end of town to the other in a matter of hours if they needed to.
Movement at the periphery of her vision caught Riley’s attention, and she turned just in time to see a heavy-set man disappearing around a corner.