Fiction for Cliffhanger contest.
|Married life started out great for Mark and Emily Gibson. First there was the wedding in Denver last March, then after a brief, but expensive, honeymoon trip to Cancun, they started settling in to reality. Mark's dad said theirs was a DINK family (dual income no kids) and in fact they were doing well financially. Emily was a photographer for a prestigious architecture magazine and Mark was a writer for an equally prestigious travel magazine. They had met when their magazines collaborated on setting up a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright homes across the country. Within six months after the tour, they were engaged.
That seemed like a lifetime ago, now, a year later. About three months after they were married, Mark lost his job when his company downsized. He looked for work for months with no luck and finally resorted to doing freelance writing, selling articles, reviews or short stories wherever he could find someone to pay for them.
Emily continued with her photography career for about four more months, until she too was a victim of downsizing. Being no more successful than Mark in finding another job, she began selling her photographs online.
They had moved to a smaller apartment and sold one of the cars, but still struggled with some debt from their honeymoon trip. They were confident things would get better, that soon they would get better jobs, but the constant struggle was wearing on them. They found themselves picking at each other for no good reason.
They made plans for an anniversary dinner at a local restaurant. It wasn't as nice as the places they used to go to, but it was what they could afford now. As they were getting ready to go, Emily noticed that Mark was acting kind of strange. He seemed nervous, but at the same time kind of excited. She almost asked him what was going on, but decided against it. She just couldn't handle any more bad news right now.
At the restaurant they ordered, but didn't speak much until after the food arrived. Mark, still looking nervous said, "Emily, I've got good news and bad news!"
"OK, what's the good news?" Emily asked, getting a little nervous, herself, now.
Mark explained, "I was contacted by a guy who wants a story about an old town out west. I told him my dad had traced his family back to a mining town called Red Creek in Wyoming. He wants an in depth look at what life was like in the town back in the mining days. I told him about you and he said he wants me to write the story and you to do the photography. And he's offering a big cash advance."
"Well," Emily said slowly, "that does sound like good news. So what's the bad news?"
"It's a ghost town," said Mark, "With no hotels, within a hundred miles. We'd be roughing it."
"You mean like sleeping bags in a tent?" Emily asked incredulously.
"Yeah, I'm afraid so. And he wants us to be there next week. So it'll still be pretty cold."
"Oh, great! So we not only have to sleep on the ground, we have to sleep on the cold, hard ground!"
Mark sighed, "Yeah, but think of the cold, hard cash! He's giving us fifty thousand dollars with half in advance. Can we really turn that down right now?"
"No, I guess you're right," Emily agreed reluctantly. "Let's go find a tent."
They spent a good part of the next week getting the equipment they would need, and on Friday, at about noon, they loaded up the car and headed for Wyoming. The town wasn't listed on Google maps, but with a little help from Mark's dad, they found a small town called Jeffrey City about seventy miles from where they thought Red Creek should be. After asking for directions several times, they finally found the old dirt road and followed it to the deserted town of Red Creek.
It had taken nearly seven hours to get to Jeffrey City. Now after driving the seventy or so miles on a bumpy dirt road to get to Red Creek, they were ready to stop for the night when they saw the outline of the old town in the failing evening light. They decided to park there and pitch their tent so they could get an early start in the morning.
When they woke the next morning, it was cold, so they put on their heavy coats. Emily got her camera gear together and Mark got his digital recorder to make notes, and since it didn't seem very far, decided to walk to the town. They hadn't gone far before they noticed that the town seemed to be shimmering.
"Must be a mirage." Mark said. "There's probably some lake nearby causing it." Emily wasn't convinced since mirages don't appear in cold weather, but didn't say anything. They continued walking and suddenly, not only was the shimmering gone, but it was hot, dry and dusty.
Taking their coats off, they noticed an old man with his chair leaned up against a wall. There were a couple of large metal tubs hanging on the wall with a hand written sign reading, "Hot Bath 2 bits. Cold 5 cents." "Must be a reenactment of some kind going on." said Emily. Let's talk to him.
Mark walked up to the man and said, "Hey old timer, what's going on here?" The man looked at Emily seeming to fixate on her jeans. After a few seconds he said, "I recon you must be the new schoolmarm, but I'll be jiggered if I can figure out what in tarnation you're wearin'." Then shaking his head he said, "They don't make them like they used to!"
That's when they heard the gunshots and the pounding horses hooves. Emily looked at Mark and said, "Where in the world are we?"
"I think," said Mark, "the question is 'When are we?'."