Amidst an early winter storm Emmett finds himself trapped in the small town of Julian. Together they feed off the memories of the other, depleting life until there is only one decision left to make.
“Mr. Fenton, how are you today? Didn’t expect anyone to be around seeing that the county is foreseeing a road closure due to the snow. I just heard it about an hour before you darkened my door. You might be stuck here. “Said Mr. Pelingrass.
“Yup, just heard it on the way here. Not even sure if I’m gonna make it back to the cabin. Barely made it here, even with my snow chains. You know if the Inn down the street is open? You know, in case I gotta settle in for the night? Don’t wanna take any chances.” said Mr. Fenton to proprietors and Emmett to his friends, if he had had any.
Emmett had about as much personality as a stone wall, at least it seemed that way to people who didn’t know him, which was most. He wasn’t unfriendly when approached, but was most often unapproachable.
“Not sure. Let me call over for you and find out.” He cautiously said while reaching for the phone so as to not give the straggling customer in front of him the opportunity to refuse. For some unexplainable reason the thought of having to put Emmett up overnight in his own house scared him a little but he wasn’t sure why. Emmett had never been rude, even went out of his way on occasion to let tourists go ahead of him in line who were always rushing here and there. He certainly never posed as any kind of threat. In fact, he had known him, or at least seen him around, for over twenty years now. Yet for some reason, now standing in front of this man was like being underwater. His vision started to blur and his thoughts slowly began to melt. As he dialed his fingers barely caught the numbers because they were vibrating so much. The ringing in his ear became a voice.
“Hello…” catching only the back of Emmett as he had already turned to walk away, Mr. Pelingrass put the phone back in the cradle.
The bell sounded as he headed through the doorway of the overpriced market/deli, although the deli counter was rarely open. The one summer he had seen someone was about the only time he had ever remembered even noticing the deli counter, and even that one day he had forgotten to pack a lunch some fifteen years ago, the woman who was behind the counter seemed cold and lifeless, probably some relative of Mr. Pelingrass who was called in from the city last minute to fill in for some other relative who didn’t show.
Just what every old lady wants to do, drive 50 miles through the windy mountain roads fighting the tourist traffic just to sit behind the counter and make crappy sandwiches for snotty kids and self-entitled city dwellers.
This very peculiar memory suddenly caused Emmett to give in to a sense of urgency that appeared out of nowhere and get one last look at that deli counter, as if he were looking for someone who he had left behind, someone he brought with him. Although he was alone and very aware of that fact which made him a little befuddled. He turned back, the door already closing in after him, and noticed the lights had gone black. Mr. Pelingrass had always been polite but apparently the onset of the storm had taken over his sense of hospitality and manners. He must have been in a hurry to get home, so it had occurred to Emmett. He had just mentioned that not five minutes earlier, the roads being most likely closed. That was most likely the reason.
But the crack between the door and the frame, which only stayed open for a split second, revealed something to Emmett that unnerved his already anxious state of mind. Not sure if it was the cold air piercing his body with the strength of a thousand icy fists or the shadowy image appearing behind the deli counter just as the door fell into its place that suddenly caused him to shiver in all of the dark places.
The white earth crunched loudly below with every step as Emmett made his way through the white rain to his small pickup. In all his years of coming here he had never seen Julian struggle in the way it was struggling now, craning its neck towards the heavens trying to survive this onslaught of inclement weather. After getting back to his truck he lifted the handle and pulled until the door was fully extended. He made his way into the tiny cab and quickly shut the door. Starting the motor and fiddling with the vents were the only things distracting him from the shadow which now stood on the hood of that little truck. Gazing upwards as he flicked on the headlights Emmett was a millisecond too late to witness anything else but the dark and empty road ahead of him.
He imagined himself a beggar in the night looking for a place to sleep as headed towards the Inn. The windshield wipers slowly waved back and forth, smearing white flakes of snow into watery trails that streaked down into the engine compartment. Inside the cab was finally heating up. Emmett shivered as the cold became warm. He craned his neck all around, scanning for any sign of life. So far only dark shapes of tools, wood burning stoves and hanging dream catchers consumed the storefronts alike. Thinking to himself how cliché it was that every single town surrounded by more than ten trees thought it necessary to capitalize on Native American culture with some cheap imitation of a once deeply held tradition. The thought created a void in his reality which came fast.
Crawling up to the four-way stop a sudden gust of wind blasted from somewhere deep in the dark outskirts of town and into the side of the feeble little cab. Emmett felt the wind wrap its invisible tentacles around the truck and gently squeeze like a hungry python. His heart skipped an unwanted beat. And after a moment of self-condolence he continued.
Julian was a place that existed in, of, and by itself. On the map it was only 50 miles from the nearest town yet every time Emmett made the trip it seemed to take hours. One trip he even remembered guzzling an entire thermos of coffee which usually only required half a thermos. But today was a day that did not concern itself with how much time it took to get here. His only focus now was how to get home. But if the Inn was closed he could at least go back to the market, assuming Mr. Pelingrass hadn’t already tried to leave town. And if the roads really were closed he wouldn’t be able to leave anyway. The thought comforted him a little, but then this one replaced it.
“I might be in real trouble here. What the hell am I gonna do if the Inn really is closed and Mr. Pelingrass was somehow able to leave?”
The words bounced around the inside of the cab even though he did not speak them aloud.
From the snow blinded street corner she stared at him, but again he did not notice.
There were only three houses within a 50 mile radius of Julian, one of which was Emmett’s. Resurrecting on the south side of town and cradled deep in the Redwoods it usually went unnoticed. And the shrubs invaded his driveway so frequently that no one knew it was even there. Most trips Emmett spent a good chunk of his time trying to get rid of them. Although every once in a while some tourist would buy into the crazy rumors floating around Julian and swear they saw a light on at Emmett’s cabin. Some years ago one of the shopkeeper’s relatives had said she was driving home after closing one night and passed by the house near the south entrance seeing a light on inside. Emmett knew for a fact it was bullshit because the only power at the cabin was summoned by a generator. He would have known for sure if he had left it running. Besides, everyone knew that Sheriff Dunhill loved reading ghost stories and probably fashioned the whole story from one of his books, probably told her about the whole thing, innocently encouraging her to spread the rumor. This brought more tourists to the struggling little town, which meant more revenue. Emmett even went as far as to theorize that Dunhill was so lonely that he needed those tourists to find any sense of reprieve.
When Emmett arrived at the cabin on his next trip, the light was off, but he did not think about it.
The second house was built after Emmett’s back in the late 70’s and was about halfway to Julian. Emmett was a little pissed when it was built because he knew that was just the beginning if it’s demise. Overcrowding and electricity would be next, destroying any kind of real solitude. But he never saw anyone there, which was odd because it was so well kept. The growth around it remained neatly trimmed and the driveway, although always dark, remained clear, unlike his own.
The remaining house was about 25 miles North of Julian. And even though it seemed innocuous, it had this way ripping out your feelings and showing them to you. People always talked about how they would break down emotionally or suddenly feel a sense of impending doom while looking at it, then run away because it was too much. But later they would be drawn back by a sense of immense guilt for leaving it out there in the woods all alone. Emmett even overheard a heated discussion in line at the coffee shop one summer about whether or not there was a woman standing on top of the roof of the old house, staring at the minivan as it drove by. The boy was convinced that if they drove back she would still be there. Then his mother would see.
“Come on honey. Stop your blubbering. It’s bothering that poor gentleman in front of us. Now go pick out a treat for Jezebel. She’s been in the car waiting patiently. And when we get home I’ll make you your favorite, Mac and Cheese” Mom had said with a suspicious tone while holding her son’s shoulders.
After finally reaching the darkened Inn panic began to seep out from under Emmett’s skin when he saw that there were no lights on. And considering that it took him ten minutes to drive two blocks, he surrendered to the notion that if he were to go anywhere else today it would have to be by foot.
The wind was blowing so hard he had to use two hands to push open the little door of his truck as he swung his legs out into the white desert. Letting go of the door caused a bang that sounded like a shotgun as the door flung itself back into place without any effort from Emmett. He started up the sloping driveway. After slipping twice but gracefully pulling himself back into walking position without falling he made it to level ground. Pulling the glove from his right hand with his teeth he raised his clenched fist to the massive door.
Tap Tap Tap Tap!
Each tap was followed by a pain much worse than the last.
Emmett turned to face the driveway, contemplating the downhill walk back to his truck. He shoved both elbows backwards against the door.
He put his glove back on and headed back down the driveway; carefully stepping sideways so he wouldn’t crack his head wide open on the ice. Suddenly he became hyper vigilant of his surroundings.
Finally he reached the truck and flung the door open. Sliding into the cab he felt the wind fight its way in. He shut the door and breathed heavily. Fatigue was only a shadow's length away when it came to walking around in this kind of weather. After a few minutes he caught his breath and made the decision to keep moving.
He opened the door without much effort. The wind had died down but the snow was still falling. This time he shut the motor off and took the keys with him as he headed back towards the deli.
“Who was that woman behind the deli counter? It can’t be her! From fifteen years ago? That’s impossible! Wait! The counter was dark when I walked in. Did that place even have a deli counter? I can’t remember!” Emmett's voice did not carry.
The dark seemed darker than before.
As long as history had been written Julian had never been one to welcome stragglers after dark. Counting on this the tourists seemed to get quite a rush out of trying to escape just before the claw of darkness sunk into the day’s end. It was the only town Emmett had ever even known without street lights or street signs. Between the rumors and the darkness, no one ever stayed past sunset, not even the twenty something’s and their thrill seeking girlfriends. You could sometimes hear them out on the makeshift sidewalks during the brightness of day talking up a big game, how they’re not afraid and that there’s no such thing as a ghosts yet every single one of them mysteriously disappeared the minute dark began its nightly journey through town.
The shadows had begun their assault on this isolated place. Even with nothing left to defend it from the lightless omnipresence Julian did not seem to mind. But Emmett did. His worry became full-fledged terror as he looked around.
“This is it.” He thought to himself. The words had slid out over his numbing lips and floated away into the frozen air.
“I could always break into one of the stores as a last resort. The sheriff would understand. I would pay for the damages. I’ve been coming here for 20 years; they know I wouldn’t destroy property unless it was an emergency.” The thought comforted him only a little.
“I am gonna die tonight. I have always known it would be here.”
The last part caused a brief and electric shock to his nerves. Every inch of his skin was suddenly pulled tight from the inside.
Not all ideas were good, and not all ideas were bad. Thoughts needed to be sorted out. Emmett had learned that the hard way over the years, mostly by trial and error. But the one thing he did know for sure was that there was never a question as to where they came from. They were his. They have always been his. It was a simple truth that he had known his whole life, and never questioned it. He never had a reason to, until now.
Something was happening to his mind. Rational thinking and common sense no longer seemed common. He could sense a presence that didn’t belong. Unnerving as it was he shook his head as if to sober himself up from the mental drunkenness that now resided where his thoughts used to be, swirling around and meshing into one another creating a typhoon of madness.
Then all at once, as if the typhoon of incomprehensible fog of thoughts which had replaced his mind was sucked out with an invisible vacuum, clarity appeared, and so did the light up ahead.
The reality of his knowing what he was looking at yanked away any trepidation. His mind settled, as did the palpitations in his heart. Wanting to walk faster he refrained because he knew a thing or two about this kind of weather. There was probably black ice under the fresh snow and if he walked any faster he would end up on the ground. Up ahead, the light shone faintly through the falling winter. Emmett now had a glimmer of hope that he would be okay, that he would find someone left over from the summer who was still cleaning up, probably Mr. Pelingrass. Come to think of it he never saw any cars leave from the time he had left the market. It had to be him. And the distance from the market to the end of the street was only two or three blocks. That made perfect sense to Emmett. It had to be him. It needed to be him.
“At this point I don’t even care who it is because no matter what they won’t make me stay outside overnight in this storm. I’ll freeze to death.” Emmett muttered to himself.
He walked faster with excitement. Almost slipping on the frozen ice below the snow he stopped abruptly, catching himself and his breath. Then he noticed that it had an echo.
The beat of his heart suddenly became the only identifiable sign of life emanating from his otherwise transfixed body. The echo’s breath was thick and seemed impenetrable as it pushed aside the large flakes of snow making its way above. It was coming from across the street.
In that moment Emmett longed for the shadows of daylight.
Thinking at himself the words were just lies, “It's just a mountain lion, or a lone deer that came in from out of the storm looking for food.”
Before the words even had a chance to settle something leapt out from underneath the breath and trotted down the wooden planked sidewalk. Emmett followed the sound with his ears until a few seconds later a dog jumped out into the street and headed down the middle of the snowy road towards the light, which Emmett did not notice until now.
His heart thrashed wildly inside his chest threatening to escape. Seeing the light meant hope but did not come long enough after the sudden scare to settle his nerves. He looked back towards dark shadow underneath the awning across the street. A swirl of breath floated from just under the awning.
“Hello?………… Hello?…………… Hey! Anyone there?” His body shook almost vibrantly back and forth, silently and uncontrollably.
Emmett stared with intent. But only the silence stared back. He turned to face the direction of the dim light. It was most likely coming from a lantern he thought, by its yellowish glow.
“Who would be using a lantern these days?” He thought as one foot stepped out in front of him to lead the way.
The thought came suddenly that some time ago he was shopping for batteries and couldn't find any. He thought it was really odd and even went to three stores and all three shopkeepers told him that they didn’t sell them anywhere in Julian. BUut there was one store that sold lanterns but it had closed down a long time ago. In fact it was right where the deli/market is now.
“God I hope that light doesn’t belong to Mr. Pelingrass! That would be just my damn luck!” He shuddered at the notion.
But Emmett knew he had to continue if he wanted out of this place. Mr. Pelingrass, or whoever was shining that light at the end of the road, was his only hope now; though he decided to walk the rest of the way in the middle of the street, away from the sidewalks, away from the dark places.
He stepped out onto the open road and into the thick streaming tears of mother earth. He could hardly see now because they were falling so fast. Yet the silence grew as did his thoughts.
To himself he thought, “I can’t really see where the dog went. Is that it?”
A blurred image began to appear as he made his way down the street.
“Hello? Here buddy!” Come here!” Nothing. The image became clearer but did not move. It just sat there in the middle of the street, like a statue claiming its’ ground.
“Maybe it’s not even a dog. What if it's something else? Something bad?” Emmett considered to himself.
“I swear it was a dog that jumped out from underneath the awning!” Reassuring.
But when you looked back the breath was still there wasn’t it?
“How is it possible that 30 minutes ago I was in the store talking to Mr. Pelingrass and now here I am walking down the empty street trying to find a sign of life, any life? Am I imagining this? Is this a dream? I have never felt so …..felt so….who’s there?…..” Although speaking in his mind the words bore a palpable weight. He had stopped to wonder this.
“Is that?” He felt relief and anxiety all at once.
“Adeline!” Emmett cried softly in his mind, but only a faint breath escaped. Her tail began to wag and the smile on her face grew bigger.
The light suddenly flickered, which caught Emmett’s attention. He looked up and to his left, finally noticing where it was coming from. Meanwhile Adeline sprang from her stance and bounded up the stairs two at a time.
“Adeline!” His voice stopped short within a few yards. She didn’t hear him.
He watched as she disappeared just over the crest of the stairs. Suddenly he felt a sadness as he was alone once again. Like the sun being dragged into the earth he sunk into the place where he stood.
“What is happening? How is this real? She’s been gone for years. It must be a coincidence. Mr. Pelingrass has always been a little weird though. Maybe he had heard me call her name once years ago and liked it so much he kept it for himself. I’m sure she wasn’t the only dog in the world with that name.”
Emmett slowly rose at this slightest bit of hope and began to ascend the icy stairs.
“The graveyard. I forgot about this place.” Emmett thought out loud.
Each step became more difficult to climb. Winter’s claw had reached inside his throat and removed his breath. He had to stop. He turned to look behind him at the street below when he noticed them.
“If shadow’s had shadows.” he thought.
They suddenly arose from the depths of Mother’s white blanket A crack in his vision revealed these streams of whirling seducers of thought. He stood on the icy stairway, entranced, staring into its eye when suddenly her bark broke the spell.
He turned back towards the light and slowly continued up the stairs.
“Hello? Hello? Adeline?!” He yelled loudly enough to be heard by the living but softly enough as to not disturb the dead.
Graveyards always bothered him. That’s why he had never seen this one up close before. The locals loved it though, being the ghost story fanatics that they were. But not Emmett. Even on those occasions when he went into the bookstore across the street he had to make an effort to not think about the place across the street. And he forced himself not to look at it. Occasionally a glance would come his way accidentally. Those were long moments.
Below Emmett’s conscious thought was a decision to turn back and look at the bookstore. So he followed it.
Now there he was, looking right at it from the graveyard. An open mouth filled with literary teeth formed by the printed word. Forced to remain enslaved each word was buried and left to rot just like the bodies which lay buried across the street. Now useless, both are laid to rest.
The stairs ended as Emmett’s boots were now feeling the dirt below the snow. He was close to the light. He could hear Adeline’s breath.
“Why doesn’t he try to help me? Bastard! He’s gotta hear me by now. I hope it’s not that guy who works in the bookstore across the street. He’s weird and creepy, even for my taste. ” He thought to himself and then hoped deeply it was Mr. Pelingrass.
Emmett rarely went into The Reader's’ Den. He had probably only been in there a few times over the last twenty years of coming here. He usually brought his own book but every once in awhile would forget to bring it with him so instead of being bored to death after nightfall he would go into town and get one from The Reader’s Den. The last time he went in that guy was there again. He always stared at Emmett, no smile, no grin, no frown, no scowl, nothing, just empty staring. And the last time he went in the guy just appeared behind him in the Fiction nook and said,
“Please make sure to keep the cap on your drink sir. Otherwise it makes the books nervous.”
This made Emmett nervous. It was an odd comment coming from an odd man. Also thinking about it now Emmett remembered how they didn’t creak that day.
He looked up again and realized he had reached the top of the hill. The soft yellow light was emanating from a lantern that was perched in a small tree and shining through the thick flakes of snow and into an open grave.
Suddenly he started to feel woozy, abstract, although his vision seemed to expand, exposing every artery of thought.
“Is this real?”
The grave rose up to meet him.
“It is real.”
Emmett noticed that the snowflakes disappeared as they passed through its opening. He didn’t understand but knew he no longer needed someone to save him from the terrible storm. It was a revelation that suddenly became intuitive thought. If Emmett would not leave, he would never move on, living the life he chose to live and loving only the people he wanted to love. It was a choice he could not make until now.
He noticed Adeline at his side. Her breath created a cloud of life around her. He smiled at her and she wagged her tail. It really was here.
“It’s okay girl, I’m coming too.”
Emmett crouched down next to her and gently caressed her smooth coat. She leaned into him.
Their shadows became shadows.
The snow began to fall into the open grave, landing gently on the boy’s face, becoming tears.