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Ghost Town: A Short Story by Author Jennifer Arnett
The town of Welton sprang up in the last gold rush but had lain dormant and abandoned since the early 1900s. For over a hundred years the dry heat of the Mohave desert had turned boom town mansions into rotting, dusty skeletons.
Mark stood on the corner of what would have been Main Street and looked down the long row of abandoned buildings. He stepped up on the boardwalk, next to the old butcher shop, and tested every board before shifting his weight to the next foot. His curiosity overtook him and he gently made his way towards the open door frame of the butcher shop.
Christy watched him nervously, tracing her footsteps behind his. "Mark, I think we should keep going."
He turned back to her, half enjoying watching her face turn pale and frightened. "Just because a town is deserted, doesn't mean it isn't inhabited," he said.
"You can really be annoying sometimes," she said, her foot landing on a rotten board that gave way. She shrieked and stumbled back, the weight of her pack almost taking her down.
Mark stretched out is hand for hers, but she reluctantly refused. "I'm just saying that there could be other hikers out here," he said.
"Mark we've been hiking for three days. Do you really think that there are that many more nuts out here? Clearly no one's been here for decades."
Mark walked into the butcher shop and rustled around in the debris. He pulled out a beer bottle with last year's super bowl ad on it. "I wouldn't say that," he said. "Clearly, someone's been here." He threw the bottle back into the debris pile.
The latch on the giant freezer door, where all of the meat would have been stored, was broken. Mark shoved the door open with a loud creak. "We've been talking about this trip for months." he said.
"But it was your idea," Christy said, stepping over the femur bone of a cow. "What is that smell?" she asked.
"I don't think they cleaned out the freezer when they left," he said. "If you don't want to be here, then why did you come?"
"Because I'm not going to go on vacation to Hawaii alone. This is seriously gross, if you have to go exploring, can you pick something other than a butcher shop?
Mark held up a rusty meat hook and jabbed at the air as if it were a weapon. "I promise we'll do that next year." He set down the hook and led the way out the door.
"You said that last year, Mark."
Entering into the old doctor's office, with the roof caving in, he turned back to her. "You're not making this trip any fun. I should have left you at my mother's. You two could have got your nails done and gone shopping—all of those girly things."
"So you think I'm that type of girl."
"We've been married for two years." Mark picked through a pile of medical supplies and found a scalpel that still had blood on the tip. "You sleep six inches away. I think I know you well enough by now."
"If you know me so well, they why did you force me fifty miles out into the desert? getting burned in this heat is so much better than lounging by a pool in Maui." She could almost taste the hallucination of a pina colda in her mouth.
"Either way, you're getting a tan." He found a jar with a severed eyeball, still perfectly preserved in a milky fluid. "I thought you liked this type of stuff," he said, holding the jar up for her to see. She let out a squeal and turned away. "You said you used to enjoy camping with your father."
"Yes, camping— as in drive to Yosemite, eat at the Ahwahnee, and pitch a tent next to bathrooms and a hot shower," she said, exiting back onto Main Street.
"You really want a hot shower now?" Mark asked. Just try to enjoy yourself. The desert can be beautiful, it just depends upon how you look at it."
She looked down Main Street, and beyond to the dry, dusty land that went on until the edge of the earth began to curve. "Yes, I can see six different types of dirt without turning my head."
Mark stopped walking. "Why do we fight like this all of the time?"
"Because we're newlyweds, that's what we do."
"Wait until 15 years into it."
"Oh baby am I looking forward to it." He kissed her on the forehead. "Honey, I'm sorry you're not having a good time. I wanted to share this with you. How many times do you get to spend the night in a hundred year old ghost town?"
"You're right. I'm sorry, I've been so stressed out." She picked up the pace. "I really did want to come. I just forgot how difficult it would be."
"Good. So can I buy my lady a drink?" He asked. As they passed an old bar, he turned on his best western accent. "Right this way Ma'am, into Harold's Saloon. Yes Ma'am best bar in town—well, the only bar in town. I must say the scotch has aged nicely."
She laughed. "You really should drink some water before you start hallucinating lines like, 'This town ain't big enough for the both of us.'"
"Look at that, an inn with a no vacancy sign. Kind of creepy, huh?"
"You're really not helping are you?" she asked.
"You highly underestimate me, Mr. Mark Wayne," she terrorized him with her piercingly seductive smile.
"I like the sound of that. Want to reserve the honeymoon suite?"
"That would be appropriate," she said dryly, under her breath.
"Don't bring that up again. "
"You didn't get the job," she stabbed back at him.
"I told you, we'll go on a nice honeymoon next summer."
"Two years, Mark. I don't want to wait any longer."
"Babe, I'm trying to make this work," he said.
"You married me then flew off to New Jersey."
"I left the next morning, " he said, defensively.
"You fell asleep right after the reception."
"We danced until 4 am, I was tired."
"We could have left the week after," she said, tensing up at the sound of a bang coming from one of the decrepit store fronts.
"Birds," he said. "I wasn't sure if I'd start the job and we would have to move the week after the wedding."
"But you didn't get the job."
"I didn't know a honeymoon was that important to you." Mark held his composure as something rustled in the bushes behind the cemetery. They past several graves of children— ones that had either succumbed to the flu or a fallen mine shaft. Either way, it was disturbing how many of them there were.
"You don't seem to know anything about me," she said, leaning down to read the inscription of a whole family that had perished from small box.
"You're right. Why don't you hail a taxi and get on out of here. You're making this trip miserable."
"You can be such a jerk." She stood up and took a sip out of her water bottle, then flung the rest of it at him.
"Stop wasting water," he said scampering away from her. "It's two days back to the spring."
"I should have listened to my father," she muttered under her breath.
" What is that supposed to mean?" he asked.
"It means exactly what you think it means."
"You have to bring that up again."
At the end of Main Street, Christy stopped. "Do you hear something?"
Mark, ten paces ahead, stopped to listen. "No," he said. "Stop trying to change the subject."
"I'm not. It's just weird to hear a man singing this far out here. Please tell me you don't hear that?"
He strained to listen. "Where do you hear it from?"
"That way." She pointed towards a dusty hill with a dark hole in the side.
"What else do you think I'm pointing at? There's nothing out here but dirt."
"My father tried to convince me not to marry you," she said.
"On our wedding night. I know, I've heard the story a thousand times. Your're really good at your punch line."
"Shh," she said, raising her hand up to block his mouth shut.
"There really is someone down there. Want to find out?"
"I'm not crawling down that thing," she said.
"So, you want to be left alone in a ghost town? Suit yourself. I'm going in."
After a few seconds of pouting. She finally followed him in.
You shall cross the barren desert, the voice sang out.
"That's appropriate," Mark said.
You shall wander far in safety, though you do not know the way
You shall speak your words to refugees and all will understand.
"Isn't that a hymn?" Mark asked.
"Ya. How do we know he's not crazy?" Christy asked.
Come follow Me and I will give you rest.
"We don't," he said. "But, he's asking us to follow him. We've already come this far."
The shaft was held up by several four by fours jammed into the hillside. As they crept deeper into the darkness, the singing stopped and only the sound of their feet echoed off of the walls. Parts had caved in, leaving sunken passagways dropping into the endless abyss.
"Hello? Is anybody in here?"
"Why did he stop singing?"
"I guess we spooked him. I don't hear anything."
"Sir? Are you down here?" Mark's small flashlight beamed down several shafts, illuminating only endless darkness.
"How deep are these?" Christy asked.
"A couple hundred feet. I wouldn't fall down one."
"After the fight we just had, I figured you'd push me down one. Stop going so fast. I can hardly see anything. You're light doesn't work very well."
"It's not meant for mine spelunking," he said.
"Exactly why we shouldn't be here," she said. "Did you see that?"
"It was only a shadow from my light."
"No. I saw something."
"You really should drink more water."
The mine opened up into a chamber with three different passageways shooting off in unorganized directions. "What if we get lost and can't find our way out? We don't know where these go," she said. She tripped on some small rocks and grunted in frustration. "This is not the way I was planning on fixing our marriage."
"Let's not discuss that right now," he said.
"Then when are we going to discuss it? We're running out of time."
"I can take as long as I want with the papers—if that's what I decide."
"We only have a month," she said.
"We could do it next week, next month, next year. It doesn't matter."
"No, Mark. One month," she said.
He stopped walking and shinned the light back in her direction. "You really want out of this don't you?"
"What are you talking about. I can't get out of it—not this," she said. "Not easily."
"It's just a signature."
"It's not just a signature! It's a life. Mark, I'm pregnant. What are you talking about?"
"The divorce," he said.
"What divorce? You want to divorce me?"
"No, I just thought that that was what you were talking about. You were threatening that if we didn't fix us, then—"
"Then, I wouldn't have the baby. We can't have one if we can't even control ourselves. I though you knew," she said.
"You never said anything."
"I only found out the morning we left on the trip. You want to divorce me? What? Are you going to run off with Marianne?
He beings to swing at her but stops midair.
"Go ahead, be like your father, be a man. Come on hit me. Hit your pregnant wife."
"Babe, I wasn't going to hit you. I told you, Marianne and I are just friends."
"You stay out and drink with your friends until 1 am?" she asked.
"I do it with the boys from work, all the time, and you don't care."
"But alone? With another woman?"
"We were just talking business," he said.
"I don't want you seeing her anymore."
"She's my accountant. I have to see her," he said.
"You could fire her."
"For what? Working overtime? I can't do that!"
"It's better than being served with divorce papers," she said.
"It was so much easier when I was single."
"You can go back to that pathetic existence if you like," she said.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that save a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now—
"You children won't stop bickering will you. She's having a baby. He wants a divorce. She thinks he's having an affair. I've been listening to this for almost a half hour. When will I get some peace and quiet?" A gruff old man appeared from around the next bend.
"You knew we were here?" Mark asked.
"I think the whole town knows that you're here." He paused for a moment to sit back down in his wooden chair at the far end of the cavern. From across the room he could still see the puzzled faces of the two travelers. "That was a joke," he said. "I'm John Baptiste."
"I'm Mark and this is my wife Christy."
"Has the war ended? Has it?"
"How long have you been down here?" Mark asked.
"Lord knows. What year is it?"
"By golly, I thought you'd say '85. I returned in '72 with this here leg. Makes me wobbly. What's it like out there?"
Mark and Christy, realizing he was a harmless old man, walked farther into his cavern. "Lot's of dirt," she said.
"The world?" He asked. She could smell his putrid breath from several feet away. "They blew it up into a pile of dirt, eh? I knew it!"
Mark came in closer and sat down next to the man. "I don't know—big, crowded. The war ended in '73— at least the one you're talking about. The USSR broke up, we've bombed the hell out of the Middle East, Disney and Elvis croaked. That's about all you need to know. Oh, and they think the world is ending."
"I knew it, the dolphins! They were always smarter than us."
"I meant that either China will nuke us or global warming will flood the planet."
"Build an ark, my gents," he said, bounding from his chair and raising his staff like Moses over the Jordan River. "And the Lord will strike down upon thee." He struck his staff on the ground. "The dolphins are coming."
Christy tapped Mark on the shoulder. "Mark, may I speak to you a moment?" She asked.
They both turned their back to the eccentric hermit. "What?" Mark asked.
"This man is senile. He might be dangerous," she said.
"Sure a sixty year old man with a bum leg is going to chop us up into a million pieces and eat us for dinner. Relax, he's kind of entertaining."
"John, does anyone know you're down here?"
"I sees three people walk by here since Nam. They doesn't know I'as here. They thoughts I was a ghost. I don't think they ever left."
"We should be going Mr. Baptiste," Christy said.
"'I ain't going to let the two of you go," John said, raising his staff to block their exit.
"Mark, let's get out of here," Christy said, her voice transitioning to panic.
"Until you sit down and have a glass of water. Then I'll send you on your way." The hermit laughed and scurried his way over to a clay pitcher of water. "This is the best water yous ever tasted. Yes, sir, I pulled it up myself from the river this morning."
"Did you say river? That's twenty miles away," Mark said.
"No, the one behind the mine. I believe it was the cause of the mine being shut down—the flood," he said. "How else do yous think I stay so clean?"
"Honey, this man is filthy. He's go to be hallucinating," Christy said to her husband.
"I'd offer you locusts, maybe some jack rabbit. I don't know if that would interest you folks."
"Thank you, but we're on a bit of a schedule and must pound away a few more miles before dusk."
"Don't forget to take a dip in the river on your way out. It has a way of cleaning away more than the dust, if you know what I mean."
They excited the mine and began walking towards the direction of the river that John had found.
"Something about that guy gave me the creeps," Christy said.
"He seemed nice," Mark said.
"Did you see the way he was staring at my boobs?"
"He probably hasn't seen any in over thirty years. I don't blame him."
"You obviously don't have a problem staring at Marianne's."
"Stop bringing that up," he said.
"You can't be having an affair if we're starting a family."
"I'm not having an affair."
"Then what was it?" She asked, sipping at her water bottle, but realizing that it was empty. "Hey, do you have any water?" she asked.
"We went out a few times, casually, to talk finances—you'd have plenty of water if you hadn't flung it all over me at the cemetery."
"Then why did you come home a day late from your trip to Miami? Common, I'm really thirsty. Can I just have a sip?"
Mark pulled the water bottle out of his pack and held it up to the light. There was only a dribble left. "Here, stop whining." He threw her the bottle. "We'll be at the river in a few minutes, anyway. I told you, my flight got canceled."
"Then what was going on between the two of you."
"She asked me out to dinner to discuss business, so I went. It was going well, until dessert arrived, and she tried to kiss me."
"Did you kiss her back?"
"I tired to dodge her, but she was very aggressive."
"You kissed her?"
"No, she kissed me."
"Did you want to kiss her?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"You didn't say 'no'."
"You're not exactly old faithful either."
"Go ahead, change the subject. I'm really thirsty," she said, sweat pouring down her neck. There was no shade and the sun was relentless.
"I can hear the water," he said.
"The water is so clear," Christy said, jumping into the water with her clothes on.
Mark splashed the water all over his face, then started drinking it.
"You should boil that," Christy said.
"I don't care. It feel so good." Mark dove in after her.
Mark and Christy swam over to the waterfall and let the cold water wash their bodies. "That old man wasn't senile after all," she said.
"We really should be going, though," he said, shaking the water out of his hair. "We need to make it back to camp by nightfall."
"We should fill our water bottles before we go."
"Good idea, the sun is going down in a few hours and we've got a long walk back," he said.
As they walked, their boots kicked up the loose dirt from the desert floor. It clung to their wet socks and made its way up their bodies. Soon, they were no longer clean from the river, but covered in dirt.
"Christy, I'm sorry about this afternoon—about this trip. Gosh, I'm sorry about the last two years. It was selfish and I'm sorry," Mark said.
Christy was taken aback and stunned by Mark's apology. "You know, this is the first time you've apologized."
"I know. I'm sorry that I can't give you what you need."
"Mark, It was never about Hawaii. I don't care about sitting on the beach, I just want time away with you— your attention—you're whole attention."
He stopped and took a look around at the landscape. Turning slowly, he looked North, South, East, and West, looking for anything familiar.
"You don't know where we're going, don't you."
"Yes." he said, doing another circle.
"No, actually, just give me a minute."
"So we're lost?" she asked.
"No—just temporarily displaced."
"Lost!" she said.
"Ok, we're lost. We should go sit under that tree and think about it before we get more......lost."
"See, we are lost—and that's not a tree, that's a dead piece of wood. Mark, what are we going to do?"
"Just stay calm. We'll figure it out."
"Fine," she said. She walked over to the tree and sat in the small corner of shade.
"You're not going to help?" He asked.
"What do you want me to do? I thought you were navigating. I have no idea where we are. It's hot and the heat is making me feel sick.
"I can't do anything to change that."
"But you got us lost."
"Me? You don't know the way back either," he said.
"So what are we going to do."
"Wait," he said.
"Wait?" she asked.
"Yes, someone will find us."
"Other than the crazy guy in the cave, we've been out here for 5 days and have not seen a soul. We'll die of thirst before someone finds us."
"We have to think positive."
"Wow, what beautiful colors of dirt," she said.
"Why do you have to be like that?" He asked.
"Like that—all pouty," he said.
Christy put down her face and tried to shelter her eyes from her husband so that he would not see the tears falling down her face. "Because I'm scared."
Mark put down his bag and came over to the log she was sitting on. "Honey, we will get through this."
"I'm trying to be strong for you," she said, between sobs.
"We've got some water left and the sun will set soon, and it won't be so hot." mark held Christy in his arms, pulling her in tight. "We'll get through the night together. I promise it will be fine."
Christy watched as Mark ran around, in the late evening light, collecting dry brush and pieces of wood. "What are you doing?" She asked.
"Building a fire," he said.
"I have matches in my pack. I was a boy scout, you know. At least we can stay warm tonight."
Even though it was a terrible position to be in, and the accommodations were nothing short of horrendous, she admired his resourcefulness. Mark lit a match and the pile of deadwood lit up the night. He pulled a sweater out of his pack, crumpled it up into a ball, and offered it to Christy. "A pillow," he said.
Christy put her head on the make-shift pillow and curled up by the fire. "It's no different than camping, I guess."
"You wanted time alone together," he said.
Within a few minutes, Christy was fast asleep. Mark brushed her hair with his fingers and noticed how beautiful she looked in the warm light of the fire.
He stoked the fire, sending sparks of light up into the night sky. Soon, the fire started to die down and turn to hot red coals. Satisfied, he closed his eyes to sleep.
A flash of light woke Mark up. He sat up and looked across the desert floor. When he saw it again, he nudged Christy. "Christy, wake up. I see something."
Christy rubbed her eyes and stared out in the direction Mark was pointing.
"There, I see it," Mark said, pointing at headlights in the distance.
"It's a truck!" Christy said.
They both stood up. Mark grabbed a long branch and lit it on fire. He held it up like a torch and waved it back and forth. The headlights flicked on and off and headed straight for them.
"He sees us!" Mark said.
The truck pulled up to the little camp site and the driver rolled down the window. "You guys Ok out here?" He asked.
"We lost our basecamp," Mark said.
"Hop in," the driver said.
Mark put out the fire while Christy gathered up their things. Hopping in the truck, the driver said,"The name's Sam. I'm with the Park Service. What the heck are the two of you doing out here?"
"Hiking," Mark said.
"I'm surprised to find you folks out here—I saw your fire. No one really comes out this way. I take some supplies, once a week, up to a research facility way up in the mountains. You're lucky to find anyone. Do you know where you are?"
"We were exploring a ghost town I'd read about online, then we followed a voice down into an old mine in the hillside. We met a man down there who told us about a river, we got side-tracked and couldn't figure out which way was back to camp."
"I hate to tell you folks this, but this land is part of a government missile testing ground. There ain't nothing out here. The closest river is thirty miles to the west. There's nothing but a dry lake behind the mine—been dry for a couple of years because of the drought."
"We met a man who was living down in the mine—he's been here for years," Mark said.
"The desert can play funny tricks on you. People hallucinate all sorts of things when they're tired, thirsty, and walking in circles. Everything looks the same out here—it becomes hard to tell one rock from another. It's funny though, I heard a story a few years back about a group of hikers who went exploring in the mine. They heard a man singing and went down to investigate—one of their party stayed behind. The rest were never found. They vanished into thin air—must have fallen down a mine shaft."
Other Short Stories by Author Jennifer Arnett
- Flash Fiction: The Clearing
A woman creeps through a snow covered forest in the middle of the night.
- The Bridge to Nowhere: A Short Story by Author Jenni...
Author Jennifer Arnett is offering her short story, The Bridge to Nowhere for free to the HubPages Community. A hike, a creepy cult, and the power of manipulation might cost Anna more than her soul.
The Stunning Mojave Desert
Enter Into A Real Abandoned Mojave Mine
What Do You Think?
Was John Baptiste and the river a figment of imagination?
Did you like how the story was dialogue driven?
© 2014 Jennifer Arnett