Many thanks to Connie Phlipot for sharing her Ghost Town story based on the following SWC prompt:
From Japan to Spain, regional populations are now dwindling; entire areas are returning to wilderness, leaving ghost towns visited only be packs of wolves, roaming bears, and the very occasional adventurers…like the character/s in your story. What happens when they make it into such a town just after sunset?
By Connie Phlipot
The sun slipped like a blob on butter on a hot knife into the river — a splotch of gold spreading in circles from one bank to the other. The magpies clapped and cackled until the last lick of sun was gone. Artyom buttoned his coat, a heavy denim one that he had found in his grandfather’s closet, its mustiness engulfing him. He put his arm around Anya. She was wearing a skimpy sweater that had belonged to their grandmother. Artyom had told her to go into the cedar chest to find something warmer, but she refused. “It’s too private,” she said. “But they’ll never be back.” “We don’t know that, do we?”
The birds had settled down for the night, their bustling replaced by peeping of tiny frogs, the clicking of insects. It wasn’t quiet as Artyom imagined; all the people gone. In fact, it seemed noisier than in the city, or here when he had been growing up and the village throbbed with horses clumping in the field, motorbikes puttering up the hill and children screeching. There had been so many children then, at least when he came to visit. Had any of them lived there full time? He couldn’t remember. But there was a school. Just up a few hundred meters from the wide place in the river where they had swum. A concrete square building, nondescript except for the painting of red and white mushrooms, like fairies and trolls used as table tops, on the front fence. “Let’s see if any of the buildings stand,” Anya nodded her assent, but didn’t speak. Her cheeks were damp — tears or the last drips of rain from the birch trees above? They couldn’t find the path they used to take from the river to the road. Artyom swung his flashlight, trying to catch the opening in the underbrush. All grown over. Monstrously grown over with wild grapes, barberry bushes, roses. The forest denying entrance to trespassers. “We’ll have to go back to the road the way we came.”
His flashlight caught a bit of stone and gravel just as they started to turn back. He pointed the light in that direction. A path — not the make-shift, social path, that he and Aya had used as a shortcut from river to their grandparents’ home. Someone had deliberately cleared the over growth, gathered pebbles and stones from the river bank. Artyom took Anya’s hand and they stepped into the woods.
The beige path led through a dark tunnel of growth. The animal sounds had vanished. Only a whisper of leaves in a breath of wind, slight crunching of their feet on stone. The flash light illuminated nothing but the trail.
They shouldn’t be doing this. People warned of the animals— lynxes, wolves, other nocturnal mammals that prowled at night now that the people were gone. Others talked of demons — dead souls who claimed the lives that had been taken from them. Artyom was calm, though. Anya’s hand that he still held was light as a spirit. She walked confidently, no longer shivering. It was warmer in the woods — the thickness of the vegetation like Grandma’s feather comforter against the creeping chilliness of the late spring night.
He turned his flashlight upward. Something had caught his eye. A wild bee hive in the notch of a tree. Grandma had mentioned once how the old people would cultivate wild bees. “It took such courage and patience to do it,” she said with a shudder, thinking of a cloud of angry bees.
He motioned for Anya to be quiet, so as not to awake the bees. That explains the path, someone is harvesting the wild honey. He licked his lips with the memory of pure honey, from the sweet flowering herbs of the village. The path continued, but not toward the road as he expected, but parallel the river, away from housing. A small clearing in the woods swelled the path ahead of them. Bricks were arranged in a circle along its perimeter. Otherwise no sign of human activity — no embers from a fire, no remnants of food.
There was an unusual smell. Artyom prided himself on his ability to discern odors, but he didn’t have the words to describe this one. Woodsy in a way, like earth and rotten mushrooms, but with a under scent of something musky, animal. A prickle of unease, not yet fear, down his back. He tightened his grip on Anya’s hand — she looked at him — her eyes tightened. She raised her eyebrows to question their continuing. He shook his head, yes then pointed the flashlight ahead. The path too a sharp left turn. The chips of mica in the grey asphalt road blinked at them. They walked faster putting the dense greenness behind them.
They could barely see the once brilliant fairy tale scenes of the school fence. Half of it had fallen; the paint worn to a pale memory on the rest of it. They walked past it quickly, toward the rest of the town. Artyom sniffed again — the funky smell of the woods had been replaced by the more familiar smokiness of a home fireplace. “Yes, I smell it, too,’ Anya said without being asked. She pulled her shoulders together; it had gotten cold outside the woods. They passed rows of houses, each separated by courtyards, once vibrant with ducks, pigs, chickens. Now silent. The gates dangled from broken hinges — nothing to keep in or out any longer. The houses were dark — windows broken.
And then off to the right, a thread of smoke against the moonless sky. The gate to the hut it rose from was newly repaired; the hinges untarnished, bright against the worn wooden slats. Artyom reached his hand over the tope to unlatch the hook. He opened the gate. Anya nodded.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus. She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe.