A young journalist moves to a small town to escape her storied past, but this town...
Being a journalist in a small southern town presents its own unique set of challenges. But when I first arrived in Walskit last fall it didn’t much matter to me what the town had to offer. I wasn’t running toward something. I wasn’t combing over brochures for towns, taking a discerning look at the unique value of each place. In fact, to be totally honest, I didn’t entirely know where I was when I got here. I just kind of followed where the road took me, making turns at random points, hoping to somehow be further away from where I left. Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months and eventually, I found myself slowly winding up a mountain road with no particular destination in mind. I stopped at one of those scenic overlooks and groaned as I stretched my back. Suddenly when I looked up, I noticed this dog staring at me from the edge of the woods. He kind of looked like a german shepherd but his fur was white and gray. He wasn’t barking. He didn’t seem particularly friendly or unfriendly. He was just standing there. Staring. I got back in my car and he took off into the dense forest, disappearing behind the orange and red leaves. I kept driving in the same direction I was originally headed, the same direction the dog was running towards, and eventually, I came across a sign. ‘Welcome to Walskit - Population 2,170.’ What a stupid name for a town. Doesn’t sound like a place I’d want to be - and yet over two-thousand people have made it their home. I decided to stop in and check it out. Partially out of curiosity. Partially because I needed more car snacks.
And yet, when I arrived...I fell in love. The beauty of this tiny mountain town is so breathtaking it almost suffocates you. Especially in the fall. The leaves are alive with color. There’s a brisk chill in the air. There’s a smell of a burning fireplace from the quietly aging residents. Something here was begging me to come home.
Yes, Walskit welcomed me with a warm, inviting autumn embrace, and offered to let me hide under its mountain canopy and shield me from the demons chasing me. As perfect as this town is, unfortunately, I make my living writing stories about things that happen, and Walskit? Well...things just don’t happen here. The Walskit Warbler (the town’s juvenilely named newspaper) does their best to fill the pages every day. Winter & Spring offer a dearth of newsworthy events, and time ends up rolling by slowly as my windshield changes from frost-covered to pollen-covered. But when the heat of summer began to set in, something happened. The air felt different and strange. The humidity stuck in the air like glue and left you constantly feeling like you left something behind.
It took me a while to get used to the slower pace of small town life. It’s really weird going from a life where you are constantly rushing to get to the next thing to a life where you never need to rush again. The grocery store is a five minute walk from my house. The office is only ten. And anything else I could possibly need is reachable by my own two feet or, if I really want to get there faster, on my bike. But I managed to settle in to this life well. Every day the same. Wake up, exercise, breakfast, daily news cycle meeting, walk around town to “research”, work on a story, tweak an existing one, slap it on the Editor’s desk and off I go.
There wasn’t really a space for stress in this life. What would I have stressed out about? Work was easy. Living was easy. I would call my Dad in California every so often. “Aren’t you lonely?” he’d echo from almost three-thousand miles away. Loneliness is a funny concept to me. If there’s one feeling I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life, it’s loneliness. Maybe I just don’t rely on other people as much as some people do. Maybe I’m fiercely independent. Maybe I’m kidding myself.
Perhaps one day it will all catch up to me. I suppose I could find myself sitting in this same house, in this same town, decades from now wondering “How did I get here? What is this strange sensation i’m experiencing? Am I...lonely?” But it’s an alien concept to me as of now. I know exactly what brought me here. I know exactly how I got here and you know what? I’m happy. If there’s one thing that’s not hard to imagine about living in a small-town, it’s the simplicity. There’s not a lot of complex ideas, events, or schedules. It’s like everyone says: you know your neighbors, you could leave your door unlocked if you really wanted to, and, more than anything it’s charming. Everyone you meet and everything you see is polite, friendly, and likeable.
But the real pull of Walskit is the nature. While autumn is the most inviting, and ultimately what appeared before me when I first arrived and beckoned me to join in, autumn changed to winter, as it does. The vibrant, colorful leaves danced to the ground, snow and frost crept into the town, and Main Street went from a gentle quiet to total dead silence. Christmas wasn’t so bad. I covered Santa’s visit to the town square in the Warbler, decorated my house with a few tasteful white lights, and helped my elderly neighbors pull their tacky, dusty, decades old decorations from their basements & attics and hang them for all 2,171 of us to see. It was the least I could do, being a younger presence in an aging community. I cracked open a beer, toasted the town that had so far let me be me, without apology, and drank up. Merry Freakin’ Christmas.
Of course I called my Dad that day too. He went on and on about some drama happening in his community about carolers or something...I don’t really remember because I didn’t exactly care. “How’s Mom?” I asked.
“Does she know it’s Christmas?”
“I think so.”
“Maybe she doesn’t.”
“Well…” he struggled with a retort…”then she’s probably happier than the both of us.”
Winter turned to Spring and I was smacked in the face by this torturous, yellow dust that covers everything on earth with a sticky yellow film -- pollen. Apparently I’m allergic to it. Something I didn’t discover until this moment in my life because I never had to before. Pollen wasn’t an issue where I used to live. But of course, as Walskit does, it offers a unique blessing with every tormentous natural occurrence. Spring is beautiful. The trees bloom. The flowers grow. Rain comes in by the buckets but provides. I adopted a cat. Well, I didn’t exactly go to a shelter, fill out paperwork, and officially adopt a cat. Walskit doesn’t have stuff like that. Really I just came home one day and there was a cat sitting on my porch. “Excuse me?” I asked. “Can I help you?”
The cat just stared at me like I was stupid, said “Meow” and waited for me to open the door. When I did, he followed me inside. I told him that he had the wrong house, but he certainly didn’t seem to think so. I told a few people in town about it, waited a few days, and after that I didn’t really have a choice. He was mine. So I got him a collar, put some meow mix in a bowl, and I figured that was that. I guess I own a cat now. The first few nights were rough. I kept waking up to the sound of scratching and when I went to investigate, I discovered him clawing at the front door. I’d let him out, thinking he would go back to his real home, but every morning I’d open my door to discover him there on the porch. I went into town the next day and bought supplies to make him a cat door. He liked to wander. I understand.
Part of the deal in a southeastern summer, even in a mountain town, is the heat and humidity of August. Soon, I’d be coming up on my one-year anniversary in Walskit. But it wasn’t the anniversary I was looking forward to, it was the cooler temperatures and beautiful sights of fall. My house in Walskit is at the top of a very long, very steep hill. It’s quite treacherous on any given day, let alone the icy conditions of winter. If I want to get a jog in during August, it has to be at dawn. It’s the only time the temperatures are tolerable enough for me to stay alive.
I strapped on my running shoes, headed out the door, and shuffled my way down the steep hill into town. The air was still just crisp enough with morning and a peaceful silence blanketed Main Street. No one was awake yet. My favorite time of day. I passed the grocery store, The Walskit Warbler, and the Town Square, and headed across the street to the park. Fresh dew still covered the grass in the park and the few items of playground equipment. There was a short trail that circled the park and led off into the mountains on the back end. Knowing I’d have to conquer the hill on my way back up, I decided to just circle the park and head home.
As I came across the edge of the mountain trail, I was nearly knocked over by a crow diving down at my face. Not sure what his problem was. Because he knocked me off my normal course, I was facing the entrance to the mountain trail, and I noticed something slightly unusual. There was a shoe sitting there in the trail, not on it’s side or upside down, just sitting there perfectly as if someone had sat down right there, taken off one shoe, and placed it there. Don’t get me wrong, on a park trail in the city, this wouldn’t even phase me, but after 11 months in Walskit I felt I knew this town well enough to know that people don’t just leave things lying around here. Everyone contributes to keeping the community clean & safe. And there was something else weird about the shoe. It was a child’s shoe.
My curiosity got the best of me and I walked the few paces into the mountain trail to get a closer look at the shoe. It was still tied, propped up on a root on the trail, just waiting to be found. I was going to pick it up and examine it when suddenly I started to think about how ridiculous this all was and figured I should just be on my way. In a town where nothing happens, I suppose it makes sense that I’d be over-interested in an abandoned shoe. But as I turned to leave something else caught my eye. There was a glimpse of something red in the brush - an artificial red, like another item of clothing or junk. I took a few steps forward and that’s when I first saw it. It was another item of clothing - a red sweatshirt - but it wasn’t just abandoned here. The sweatshirt was being worn. It was on the body of a dead child.