For the month of October, we thought we’d treat you to scary stories. This is the first one.
Our prompts were: Art of the state, after the gold rush, sex at sixty.
Orion originally wrote this one by herself. Here’s some of what the prompts brought to mind: Old, deserted gold-mining town, detour off Interstate, wizened gold miner as the caretaker of the town, no businesses left, there used to be a brothel (called Sex at Mile Sixty-Nine, which refers to an old stage stop), shiny metal statue on its side poking up through the wind-blown sand at the entrance or center of town depicting a minor politician or the founder of the town that the miner calls ‘Art of the State’ because it was put up by the state with no okay from the citizens. Maybe the town doesn’t like the person represented. Maybe the caretaker/miner makes a pass at the traveler, saying “Sex at 60 is a real bang, yes, sir!”
She used some of these ideas in the story, but it evolved wayyy beyond those ideas! Hope you the finished story that resulted.
SHADOWS OF THE PAST
The road sign popped up out of nowhere, the first indication of life we’d seen in countless miles of prairie. At some time in it’s past it had probably been bright green, but now it was a weathered mossy-gray. Tilting every so slightly to the right, it proclaimed, “Treasure Trove, population: 2,117.” A barely visible arrow pointed off to the right.
Looking over at my husband, Alex, I winked. “Care for an adventure?”
The driver of our air-conditioned home-on-wheels fixed me with that lovely lazy smile of his. “Why not?”
We lurched off the interstate onto a pair of sandy ruts which meandered their way through the mesquite, creosote, and cacti. Climbing the slight rise to our right, white crosses and headstones marched in once-ordered rows, surrounded by the black fingers of a wrought iron fence.
Rounding the hill, we came to a cluster of buildings and another sign. “Treasure Trove” had been crossed out and replaced by chicken-scratch letters stating, “Fortune’s Fool, population: 0.”
At least this one said “Welcome.”
Our RV lumbered along the dusty main street between one- and two-story bleached wooden buildings. One low storefront with mullioned windows sported fancy black scrollwork declaring, “Casper’s Gallery, Finest Art of the State of New Mexico.”
The one exception to the endless wooden structures was a single story brick affair.
“Must be the bank,” my husband said. “How about we park and explore on foot? We’ll never get a feel for the town inside this monstrosity.”
He pulled to a stop in front of a two-story building with tall arched windows down below and a once-white balcony jutting out from the second story. A sign in once-red-and-gilt letters stretched across the entire structure proclaiming, “Marley’s Pride, Finest Hotel West of El Paso.”
We tried peering in a window, but could see nothing but the dust and grime on the glass. My antiquer’s eye told me that the glass was very old. It’d gone thicker at the bottom, the way handmade glass always reacts to gravity and years.
Startled, I swung about, finding a wizened old man in torn up jeans and a flannel shirt. His ten-gallon hat was several years past beat up and about six gallons short. His blue eyes may have been faded, but they twinkled with good humor.
Now where the hell did he beam in from? I wondered.
“Didn’t mean to startle ya none, ma’am,” said the old timer, holding up his hands. “Just being friendly.”
My husband cleared his throat. “We just wanted to explore your town. Hope that’s okay with you?”
The little man snorted, then said in a warm, gravelly voice, “Shore is. Don’t get many visitors ‘round these parts. Most folks just speed on past our sign, never even noticing it.”
“Could we go inside?” I asked hesitantly.
He beamed like the sun, if the sun could be so deeply wrinkled.
“T’ain’t locked. Not like there’s many folks tromping through here.”
He followed us through the large double doors.
Inside, the chill odor of decay greeted us. The sunlight pouring in behind us causing our shadows to race for the far wall. As our eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, the interior of the building crawled free of the gloom.
Along one side ran a dark wooden bar, its glass mirror glowing softly with reflected sunlight. Bottles of clear, brown and cobalt glass lined the shelf beneath it.
A piano with a smile of ivory keys gleamed out of the shadows by the shuttered windows at the front of the room. Strewn about the center of the room were several sets of well-worn wooden pedestal tables and barrel chairs. Beneath their shroud of dust, their arrangement brought to mind childhood memories of dancers waiting for a fiddle and caller to begin a square dance.
Straight ahead, the hotel’s desk stood, a silent bulwark across the back of the room. The ledger sat open, awaiting the next guest. Behind it rose a bank of shadowy cubby holes. All of the residents must have been safely tucked away in their rooms, because not one key hung from the numbered hooks. Alex wandered over and consulted the book.
“Hey, hon, the last name in here is William Hickock. Wonder if that was Wild Bill?”
The old man laughed. “Mebbe.”
I noticed a herd of overstuffed chairs and sofas slumbering off to my left. Rounding the stairs to the second floor rooms, I wandered over for a closer look. The ancient furniture was clad in rusty brown fabric and thick layers of accumulated dust. Here and there, tufts of cotton batting poked out. As I stepped around the bare bones of a chair and headed toward a sofa missing its front legs, a mouse scurried across my foot. I bit my tongue on a startled shriek.
The old man, standing unnoticed behind me, chuckled. “He’s more skeered of you than you are a’ him.”
“Not possible. If he was more scared than me, he’d be dead.”
He got a crafty look. “Say, you want see a real fancy place? Ya’ oughta see the buildin’ at the end of the street. ‘Sex at Mile Sixty-Nine’. Says so right there on the sign. It was the biggest brothel in the whole area. Well, during the gold rush, afore ever’one left. Had the on’y bathtubs around. Real big ‘uns. Copper, they were. They shore was somethin’,” he finished, a reminiscent smile on his face.
My husband’s long lean shadow passed over me as he came around the stairs from the check-in desk. I loved the way the light from the doorway briefly haloed his white hair. Still, something sent a shiver down my spine. What was wrong with this picture?
“Say, where’d the old geezer go?” he asked, looking around like maybe he’d find the old man hiding behind a dusty sofa.
“Huh? He was right here….” My voice trailed off as realization hit me. A chill soaked into my bones. Grabbing my husband’s arm, I forced a smile onto my face and into my voice. “I think I’ve had enough exploring for one day. Let’s hit the road, dear. We still have several hours ‘til the next town.”
He shrugged good-naturedly. Outside, we were met by a rising wind and scudding clouds. Fearing bad weather, we made a run for our land-yacht, and lurched our way back onto the highway. Just as we climbed onto the interstate, rain broke. The windshield became a waterfall, isolating us from the world we drove through.
I kept quiet about my observations until we were several miles down the road.
“Honey? Did you happen to notice anything odd about that old man?”
He spared me a glance from the endless highway spooling wetly out in front of us. “No. He seemed harmless enough. Why?”
Icy fingers that had nothing to do with the air conditioning crawled across my skin.
“That harmless old man? He didn’t have a shadow.”