Used to be a town here. He points in the direction of the setting sun. It cuts into the horizon, bleeding orange fire. Over there, Lender’s Donuts. Over there, The Kilt. Over there—his hand is swinging now as he gets into the role of storyteller and tour guide. Over there, and his hand passes over a burnt out clump of shrubs and cinderblocks, the Six and Ten. He pauses, lights a cigarette. Used to be a town here, man.
Burned down, he says, like I can’t see that.
He shrugs, turns in a slow circle. The prairie is threatening to creep back in. Already has in some places, tall grasses eating into ruin and foundation. A sunflower nods from a bedroom window. Let’s get a drink, he says. Smoke leaks from his lips. We leave the ruins behind.
It’s an itch between her shoulder blades, like someone’s locked eyes on her and won’t stop staring. She turns and peers out the window over the kitchen sink, but the only thing beyond is her backyard, trimmed and slick with morning dew, still shrouded in night. Mae’s swing set creaks softly in the summer breeze. The house is dead still, like a corpse in its berth. Like the world is holding its breath. She stares a moment longer, whispers to herself. Fuck. She cracks the window, and the sere scent of burnt grass comes to her. Only for an instant. Only for a heartbeat. Just an illusion, a wayward synapse firing and dying. She shudders, shuts the window. It sticks, and slams into the sill. She jumps, lets a nervous laugh. Waits. The house remains quiet. Soft now. Soft. Like satin wrapped around a fist. She turns from the window and sits at the kitchen table. Picks up the craft circular and pages through it. Soft, the turning of pages. Soft.
The bar is the color of day-old shit. Smells like it, too. The sign in neon is a bucket, perpetually tipping, never spilling. Like an orgasm that won’t come. Everything else is brown. The floors, the walls, the nicotine-stained ceiling. Andy tips up a Bud and sucks at the mouth like a man reminiscing for a nipple. The cigarette in his hand sends out party streamers of smoke as he punctuates his sentences.
“Tell me about the town.”
Why you want to know so much about that shithole, anyway? Wasn’t nothing more than a spot where God dropped a turd and someone built a road through it.
He sighs. Sucks down another mouthful. The air is filled with the stink of hops and conversation. He taps out a fat chunk of ash from the end of his smoke, takes another drag. You want to know about Whitlock? Fine. Whitlock was a hole. But I digress. He shoots a grin. It might have been charming once. But these days, it looks like an erection on a dog. Sick. Sad. His eyes are rimmed in red, dark circles under. The smile slips. Get me drunk, man, he crushes the cigarette out, lights another. Get me real drunk. The waitress brings a few stronger drinks. Something that smells like turpentine and hate. He chugs it all down. Man can hold his liquor. There’s a languor in his eyes after an hour. He taps a cigarette against the coaster. Thinks about lighting it. Taps it again. Fine. Whitlock. Lissen here. His Ts have slipped, become sibilant. The only concession to the damage he’s done his liver. Lissen here.
She remembers them. Pale flesh and black eyes. The adults might have forgotten—it happened sixteen years ago, after all. But she wasn’t in denial. Not like her mother, standing in her kitchen, wondering where the time went. Thinking Wilson burned because of economic anxiety or a gas leak or some other lie they told themselves. The things in the night—they’d come in October. Of course they’d come in October. The witching year, the witching month. The air smelled like wheat chaff and ice and they’d come. Hungry. Ruthless. No Edward here. No gods. Just… hungry. She remembers, even if she says she doesn’t, because who might be listening? She remembers. She dreams at night of a desert with no night. It’s safe there. She crawls along the endless dunes, thirst tearing at her throat like a wolf. But they aren’t here. Anyway. You got a few dollars, mister?
Sure, she remembers Whitlock. Great place for a drink, little dance. They had this hall, what was it? The First Sin. Dance all night, get a little drunk, maybe fuck if you found the right person. She blushes. Her skin is the color of fresh-turned soil. Smooth as silk. Her laugh, when she finds it, is light and somehow throaty at the same time. Grace, the goodtime girl. Grace the party girl. She blushes again at the memory, and a frown crosses her face. You gotta understand. Whitlock was just a bump on the road. You had to make your own fun. Fun is where you find it, her grandmomma used to say, and she’d be damned if she’d let a hole like Whitlock steal that from her. She pauses, looks off onto the dance floor. Something bass-heavy and fast kicks into the sound system, and she blinks. Come dance, she says. I take her hand.
They’d come like wolves.
He was on his sixth beer. Begged off the whiskey, said it screwed with his thinking too much. He needed to be a little sharp to recall. More brave, fewer brains. The cold ones. The ones with the blank eyes and the whispering tongues. Cutting through the night like sharks. Had to burn. Most of the population—not more than a couple hundred—thought the place went down because Koch had set that fire on the edge of his property. Burning off late summer weeds. Bullshit. Wind was blowing the wrong way.
“Why’d it burn, then?”
He grinned. A savage, feral thing. I burned it.
He sucks in a lungful of air. Looks out across the bar. It’s filling up now, patrons filing in from the grain elevators and train yards and fields. They wear the look of men whose lives are just one rut. Cattle herded into a corral. Why not, right? Something’s infected, you burn it out. The old docs, they knew that.
“Were you a doctor?”
He scoffs. Nah. Just an old farmhand. But it’s the same with the calves, right? They get a cut, you gotta seal it somehow. Little bit of fire, burn away the bad meat. Just… cook it right out.
His hand is clammy. It shakes a little, and he fumbles with a pill case, pops a little white one out, swallows it dry. Whitlock? Yeah, I remember Whitlock. What a hole. Best thing that could have happened, that fire.
The town was hungry. You get that? It was swallowing us whole, devouring us piece by piece. Ain’t a thing to do or see in a place like that. You get into a rut. A routine that wears a groove in your soul. Small towns—they ain’t all 20/20 makes them to be. People get nasty in those towns. You know that saying about familiarity and contempt? Yeah, that.
“So, you don’t miss it?”
Fuck no. He taps the pill container against the table. Tap tap tap. It rattles in time. Got me a life here. A real life. He looks out the diner window, at the passing traffic. Not that undead, creeping existence filled with bigots and idiots. A real life. His face changes, twists a little. He looks at me, plaintive, eager to be done with the conversation, on to the next fix. You holding or not?
“Anyone get out?”
Oh sure, a few people. He names them one by one, and I take notes. Shouldn’t be too hard to track them down. People when they move go to one extreme or another—either as far away as possible, or a town over.
Hey, don’t you want to stick around, get more beer? Some ladies over there. I don’t. Still, I oblige him. He kicks the rungs of his stool, sends a few drinks to a girl with big hair and sad eyes. That’s the one. He can tell, you know. The easy ones. He smells like fermented grain and lust, and I nod as he lights another cigarette. Yeah, this one, I think. This is the one.
“So, what’d you do?” Mal asks. His feet dangle from the swing. It rocks and sways gently in the breeze, the chain creaking.
“I found them.”
I lift my chin to the window in the house across from us. A face appears in it, fear writ large. I stand.
“And,” I say.
Hunger moves me. The hunger of a thousand years. Of teeth between the stars, of the wolf at the door.
The face disappears, and I start toward the house.