The dead are not the worst thing about a ghost town...
|“It’s a ghost town, Mack,” Katrina said, stretching before she slammed the door of their little green Volvo. “There’s no one here.”
Mackenzie looked around, surveying the derelict neighborhood, her eyes continually drawn back to the yellow house with the faded red shutters and its wind chimes on the porch … and its rustling curtains in the second story window...
She knew it was a ghost town. The pamphlet from the highway rest stop proclaimed it in tacky, olde English lettering that was undoubtedly meant to both spook and entice traveling motorists. Jay, Katrina’s for-the-moment boyfriend, had taken the bait, and plucked it from the shelf the second they entered the pleasantly air conditioned building. Making the slight detour took little convincing on his part, and the girls agreed the stop would amount to one more experience to commemorate their road trip home for summer break.
Back on the highway, on the ride over, the three friends had passed a joint around the car, while Jay read them the pamphlet from the back seat. It turned out the town was called Flagstaff, and had a population of just under 800 before it was abandoned 40 years ago.
“Why’d they leave?” Katrina asked, passing the joint to Mackenzie and rolling the wheel right to get off at the exit.
Jay scanned the glossy brochure before coughing out a puff of smoke. “Bad water,” he managed before he was seized by a fit of laughing and coughing. The girls shared a smile while he regained his composure. When Mackenzie made to pass the joint into the back seat, he waved it away, his red, swollen eyes blinking back tears.
“There was some chemical in the water,” Jay continued after a final, wheezing cough. “It got into the soil, and crops. They still don’t know exactly what it was, but this pamphlet compared it to Thalidomide. There were birth defects, but it affected the adults too. Facial deformities,” he begin reading, “as well as cognitive and behavioral abnormalities.”
“Fuck. That.” Mackenzie said, stubbing out the joint and stashing it in the ashtray. “I’m not getting exposed to whatever screwed those people up. You know, I might want kids, someday.”
But Jay persisted, citing the pamphlet’s promise that the town was now safe. Katrina was in agreement, and between the pot, and her friend’s assurances, Mackenzie sat back in her seat and gave in, watching the rustic country side roll by through her window.
The windchimes on the porch of the yellow house tinkled in the breeze, bringing Mack’s thoughts back to the here and now. Yes, she knew it was a ghost town. But what did that mean? That no one could be here? We’re here, she thought, but are we alone? Once more she looked up to the second story window, recalling how she saw the curtains sway just after she climbed out of the car, and hoping the shadow she saw moving behind them was nothing more than a trick of the light.
“What a dump,” Jay whistled as he climbed out of the car, the smell of pot and Drakkar Noir wafting out after him.
He wasn’t wrong, Mackenzie observed. In the simmering, orange glow of sundown, Flagstaff had a quality that reminded her of the wastelands of Mad Max. Everything was covered in a film of grime. Amorphous trash, washed of all color by decades of rain and sun, blew lazily through the street and clumped in the thirsty brown weeds struggling up from the gutters. The large display window of the general store was broken. Dust and grit had worn down the sharp edges of the glass, leaving the impression of a giant mouth full of dull, jagged teeth. At some point, the town’s single stoplight had rotted off of its wires and crashed to the craggy asphalt below. That heap of rust and broken glass, Mackenzie decided, summarized the town more accurately than she could ever do with words.
“Let’s look around.” Katrina spritzed herself with bug spray and offered some to her boyfriend, but he declined. Mackenzie took the bottle and gave herself a spray before placing it on the ground, beside the wheel well, so she could tie her hair back with an elastic.
Jay suggested they start with the yellow house. Mackenzie shot him down without a second thought.
“That was someone’s home, it wouldn’t feel right,” she said.
In truth, she didn’t hold 40 year-old privacies sacred, but that house left a sick, cold feeling in her stomach, and she had no desire to find out what was inside.
“How about there,” Katrina suggested, nodding towards the general store with the broken window. “There’s bound to be some neat shit inside.”
The three friends agreed and made their way across the street. Once they climbed onto the sidewalk in front of the building, they had a better look inside. Still, with the sun setting, they could not make out much more than a tangle of musty shadows, but here and there something glinted or shined and the friends remained interested. Jay tried the doorknob, but it was locked.
“Through the window, than,” he said, shrugging.
Mackenzie and Jay went through easily, but Katrina had a harder time. Her short denim skirt wasn’t well suited for the high, awkward step need to clear the sill and broken glass. But eventually she made it and they were all inside.
Flies and gnats buzzed all around in the damp gloom of the abandoned store. Jay slapped back and forth to wave them away. “Ack! Gimmie some of that bug spray,” he said.
Mackenzie patted her pockets and frowned. “Left it by the car. Sorry…”
Jay made a face but said nothing.
Rusted cans, their labels rotted off, lined the shelves, sparsely. There was a display of what might have once been sweatshirts, but had since been reduced to soft piles of mold. The exploration yielded little more than a growing sense of disquiet. A putrid smell hung in the air, Mackenzie though it smelled like an infected wound. Up on the wall, above a framed, faded bill (Slough Groceries First Dollar,) was a water waterlogged photo of an elderly man, smiling. The weathered image had the look of a bloated corpse face, and Mackenzie felt as though its eyes followed her through the room.
“I want to leave,” she said, unselfconsciously. “I want to get back to the car, and on the road.”
When she turned to face her friends, she saw expressions on their faces that mirrored how she felt. Katrina’s arms were folded and she and Jay were standing with their shoulders pressed together. They nodded.
“Yeah,” Katrina agreed. “There is something off about this place.
Rather than climbing back out the window, Katrina strode to the front door in long, quick strides and twisted the lock until there was a satisfying click. She pulled open the door and hurried out. Mackenzie followed close behind her, with Jay, on her own heels, but when Katrina stopped short, sucking in her breath in a hiss, their little conga line came to a halt.
“Mack?” Katrina’s voice was deep, cautious, just a bit too loud. “Did you do this?”
Mackenzie pushed passed her friend, slightly irritated. “What are talking abo-”
The can of bug spray was sitting on the pavement, not five feet from the door.
“What? N-no..” Mackenzie stammered. “I left it by the car…”
Jay bulled passed the girls. He snatched up the bug spray, turning to face them. “Are you two trying to fuck with me?” He asked, holding the can out before them. Mack could see he was frightened and this validated her own fears and increased them.
“You watched us go inside!” She shot back. “You know we didn’t do that.”
His expression was suspicious. His nostrils flared as he tried to puzzle out what was happening. Whether he came to any kind of conclusion, Mack would never know. From the building beside them two men emerged. They were filthy, barefoot, dressed in ragged, bib overalls. One was skinny to the point of emaciation; the other, fat. Despite his skeletal visage, the thin man looked relatively normal. Not so, his counterpart. The fat one had small snarls of flesh where his ears should have been. A flap of skin hung down over his right eye and fused to his cheek. His bottom lip was too low and too wide. It followed the line of his jaw in an obscenely broad smile and left his gums and bottom teeth exposed. When they were close enough to reach out and touch, the fat man did just that. He lifted his arm towards Jay, and to Mackenzies horror, she saw that his hand had no fingers. It was nothing more than a swollen mitten of flesh. A single brown claw, sharp and thick jutted from the tip.
Katrina screamed and bolted for the car.
Mackenzie stood, frozen in shock.
“You wanna get knocked out?!” Jay shouted. He lifted his fist to strike one of them and cocked it back. The motion threw his elbow back and it connected with Mackenzie’s temple in a meaty thud. She fell, hard on her ass, and sat, dazed watching the scene unfold before her.
More residents of the town were emerging from the surrounding buildings. Jay knocked out the skinnier of the two assailants, but others encircled him and he was unable to fight his way through. That fat man chased Katrina to the car. For a second, it looked as if she might make it through the passenger door, but then he tackled her over the hood of the car, and the two of them rolled out of sight.
“Please wait! NO! Please, no! Don’t!” Jay was screaming. There were five, maybe six of them on him now. He kicked at them feebly as they dragged him into the general store, screaming. Mackenzie caught a single glimpse of his terrified, bloodshot eye before he disappeared.
Though no one touched her, she could see them standing all around her. A sea of deformity. Cleft palletes, teeth growing through cheeks, and more of those terrible mitten claws. They only watched her as she sat, head throbbing in her terrible stupor.
Mackenzie wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but she could no longer hear Jay struggling when hands seized her under her arms and dragged her to her feet. There were two of them, on either side. To her right, was what might have been a women, but her features were too melted and twisted to be certain. The man on her left looked completely normal, save for the small hideous head, no larger than a tangerine, growing from the side of his neck.
“Where are you taking me,” she asked, her toes dragging across the ground as they carried her.
“There,” the man nodded towards the yellow house. “You mother. Be mother..”
“Please no,” she whined, too weak to fight.
As they approached the Volvo, Mackenzie saw Katrina. Only her head and her arm, resting on the hood, were in view. Her eyes, glazed over and lifeless, starred up at the stars as she rocked, gently back and forth. As they came closer, Mackenzie could see the fat man standing over her. He had torn her chest cavity open and was digging through her insides, shoving bloody chunks of organs and meat into his mouth. And when they came a little closer, Mack saw what else he was doing…
“Noooo!” she screamed in rage, and disgust, and fear. She fought with all of her strength, but her captors held tight.
Katrina’s skirt was hiked up around her hips. The fat man stood between her legs, thrusting gracelessly as he ate, his mouth smacking and slurping with each mouthful.
The man holding Mack's left arm barked something unintelligible and the fat man looked up, blood dripping down his chin, Katrina momentarily forgotten.
“Can eat, or make mother,” he scolded. “Not both.”
On the porch of the yellow house a row of small figures were gathered, the wind chimes behind them tinkled softly. Though it was too dark to make them out in any detail, they were clearly children, but just as deformed as the rest of the inhabitants of Flagstaff. Their arms were too long or too short, heads, too large or too small. All of them were naked, their bellies swollen and distended.
"Your babies," said the man to her left. The small twisted face at his neck stared at her with cruel, dumb eyes, it's mouth opening and closing. "You're mother now. Will feed babies. Make more babies."
The grotesque creature on Mackenzie's right reached over and with a filthy, clawed hand, squeezed her breast, cackling. "Too small," her breath had the same rotten odor as the general store: fever and decay. "Little milk. Not enough."
The two argued back and forth, only one out of every three words understandable. From behind her, Mackenzie could hear the the slow steady rocking of the Volvo again, wet ripping sounds of the fat thing eating her friend. The children were slowly descending the stairs to approach her. "Mumma," they were all droning, stretching out their misshapen hands.
"You sleep upstairs," said the man with the second head, pointing.
Mackenzie looked up to the second story window. The curtains swayed. They carried her forward.