When Judith noticed the sign pointing to the small town of New Crest had changed since her last trip, she eased her Caprice Classic to the shoulder and stared at the sign. Had the population been modified? She couldn’t remember the original number—somewhere around 1100—but it now read 968. Despite that, Judith was sure the sign appeared older somehow: the once vibrant green, metal sign now sported patches of rust and eroded paint. She could still make out “New Crest” and the population, but it was surrounded by age.
Just like me, she thought.
She slowly pushed her 73-year-old frame from the driver’s seat. Using the car as support, Judith scooted along until she found herself leaning against the front of the car. Too much work to move the walker from the passenger seat and over her weak frame just to check out what she really was seeing. Her cane would have been perfect, but she left that at home. Perhaps she should buy a second cane just to keep in the car. Maybe after church she’ll stop by the hardware store and see what they have this week.
Judith smiled. Chatting with charming Mr. Tolton wouldn’t be so bad either. She never thought at her age she’d be flirting with a man a few years older than herself. She kept it respectable—not like the teenagers and their tank-tops and extremely short shorts. Her granddaughter dressed like that to get the attention of boys and Judith always fought the urge to show her how to flirt like a lady.
If she continued to think about Mr. Tolton, she might miss church.
As she turned, she noticed the grass and weeds in the surrounding ditches rising to a level she’d never seen before. Four or five inches? A few stalks wrapped around the bottom of the signpost and even more spilled into the adjacent cornfield. Mr. Johnson better get out here and mow these ditches. How could he have let them get this bad? He usually attended the 8:15 a.m. church; she’d remind him then.
Mr. Johnson was not at church. In fact, attendance at the First Lutheran United dropped dramatically since last week. The congregation count from last Sunday was still posted and read 118. But Judith definitely didn’t see near the amount this week.
The pews were in two sections, split down the middle. With seven rows to a side, Judith always took a spot on the left side in the fourth row. God could see her no matter where she sat so why sit up close to have your ears blasted when Pastor Thurmon exacted one of his tirades on the congregation? And why sit in the back next to all the sleeping attendees and their heavy breathing and occasional snoring? Fourth row, right on the aisle.
Her watch moved to 8:13 and she counted on both hands the number of church-goers who decided to get up this morning. Mr. Tolton sat with an arm on the back of the pew two rows ahead of Judith; her neighbor who lived a mile away sat across the aisle with her husband and two kids; Donald, the school’s janitor, sat one row ahead of them, directly in front of the kids; and the grain elevator owner enjoyed a front row seat. Seven others besides her. Why weren’t there more people in here? Did it have something to do with the strange change in population?
Before she could answer her own questions, Pastor Thurmon emerged from the rectory and bowed in front of Jesus. He turned.
Judith gasped. Luckily, no one noticed.
Pastor Thurmon looked older somehow. Judith knew he was around 55-years-old, but now—with the thin, white hair, patchy bloodspots on top of his head, his slow and slouched stroll to the altar and extremely wrinkled skin—the Pastor appeared ninety. Maybe even a hundred. His robes hung too big on his body, like another Pastor could fit under there.
Judith glanced around at the others. The expressions on their faces remained stoic, inattentive. Did they not see what she saw?
The Pastor opened his Bible and looked out to the crowd. “Please stand,” he said. His voice spit out in more of a whisper than a solid sound. A raspy cough followed. “Let us invite the Lord Savior into our hearts on this glorious morning.” Each word floated methodically from his mouth, as if it took every ounce of energy to speak.
The rest of the sermon went the same way. Judith struggled to pay attention and for the first time, she nodded off to sleep. She couldn’t blame herself: Pastor Thurmon’s new way of speaking was the culprit. Had any of the others shut their eyes for a moment? With quick, furtive movements, she passed her eyes over the other seven people. They were listening intently to Pastor Thurmon, entranced. Judith honestly thought that if the Pastor asked his sheep—though small in numbers today—to follow him off the side of a cliff, they would.
This day’s church service didn’t play a closing hymn. Instead, the Pastor moved up the aisle to the doors in silence. It took him nearly five minutes from the altar to reach the last pew. Judith was the only one to track his movements. The Pastor reached the doors and eased them open. When the final creak resounded through the church, everyone stood and shuffled out, greeting Pastor Thurmon and wishing him a blessed day.
Judith proffered her hand as she approached the Pastor and he shook it.
“Judith. Nice to see you,” he managed.
“Are you okay, Pastor?”
He gave her a quizzical look. “Of course. I get a little tired preparing for Sunday’s service, but other than that I feel great.”
“You look a little pale.”
“Do I?” For some odd reason, the Pastor caressed a cheek. “Maybe I need a little sun.” He peeked out the door. “Today seems like a good day to do that! God has surely blessed this Earth with a wonderful day.”
“Yes, He has.”
“Well, Judith, I must get to the retirement home before it gets too late.” Pastor Thurmon clamped his hand on her shoulder and guided her to the sidewalk. “Have a blessed day, Judith.”
She nodded and headed back to her car.
Judith wasn’t in the mood to stop by the hardware store. Her mood directed her home, past the restaurant, past the post office and past the sign that confused her earlier. As she passed the spot where she pulled over, she saw the vegetation had grown even taller in the hour and a half she spent at church. Most of the corn in the field, though sprouted to its full height, was brown and wilted and the ears had fallen to the ground, brown and most likely useless.
Impossible, she thought. This was the same road—actually the only road—she took into town no matter where she went. And really, she only visited a few places in New Crest on a weekly basis. The grocery store, the post office and sometimes the hardware store were her main attractions. Every once in a while, she’d eat at the New Crest Diner, but that was only on special occasions like her birthday and her deceased husband’s birthday and their anniversary. When she visited Esther, she’d go to the retirement home, but other than those places, that was it. And it was always the same road, no matter what she decided to do. To go to the grocery store: drive down 4000 Road. To go to the post office: drive down 4000 Road. To go to the New Crest Diner: drive down 4000 Road. To go the hardware store: drive down 4000 Road. To visit Esther: drive down 4000 Road.
About halfway home, the ditches eventually reverted back to a trimmed state. As if a classically-trained barber blended in the sideburns with the rest of the hair.
She pulled into her drive and went into her house. A nice lunch and a nap were in order to dissolve the morning’s strangeness into nothingness.
The nap turned into full-fledged sleep. Judith woke up the next day around 9:30 in the morning. She jumped from bed with a shock, delirious at first, but as the seconds went by, her mind cleared. Judith was mad at herself for wasting yesterday and most of the morning. Six-thirty in the morning was her normal wake-up time and dammit to herself for waking up this late. Calm down, she thought. No reason to get that angry. She needed to complete some errands so breakfast and a shower were in order.
After nourished and refreshed, Judith snatched her cane and left.
One mile from her house, Judith slowed the car, gazing around her. The growth had moved closer to her house and had started covering the road, which was now cracked and weathered. The yellow lines were now faded and peeling. She veered to the center of 4000 Road cruising around 20 MPH and watched for thicker plants and weeds. No sense in being reckless. She wanted to get her three letters mailed.
Judith passed the New Crest sign, or what she could see of it. The only reason she knew it was the New Crest sign was because of her repetitive journeys down this road. It was even possible she could drive from her house to the town with her eyes closed. With each little divot in the road, rise of the ground and unique cosmetic feature she could tell exactly where she was.
Judith reached the edge of town and crunched over large stalks of a plant that had yellow and red blooms protruding from the ends. The type of flower escaped her, but it looked like a large Rhododendron. As she drove down Main Street to the post office, many more of this type of plant lined the sidewalks, as if they were spectators to a parade and she was the lead car. The flower parts swayed like swiveling heads in the light breeze as she crept by.
A few minutes later she pulled into a parking spot right in front of the door.
Judith clumsily pushed through the door. Opening a door and dragging a cane at the same time was difficult for her. She was glad she brought it though: the walker would just be a nuisance.
A musty scent greeted her as she made her way to the main counter. Many of the wall decorations and advertisements for the newest stamps and shipping options had fallen to the floor. The P.O. boxes lined on the far right wall exhibited vast amounts of rust; something that should normally take about ten to fifteen years only took six days—which was her last visit.
She placed her letters on the counter. “Hello?” She called out.
There was no answer. Instead, a shadow flittered behind the mail bins on the other side of the counter. Second later, a door open and Ronald, a mail carrier, emerged with a wide grin on his face.
“Judith! How are you?” He slapped his hand on the envelopes and slid them to him.
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“Wonderful. Stupendous. Magnificent!” He glanced over the addresses. “Just these?”
“Yes.” Judith watched Ronald emphatically type zip codes and prices into the computer. He was too excited. His eyes gleamed with sneaky abandon as they darted across the information appearing on the screen before him. Suddenly, Ronald shot his hand up and rubbed his fingers on his cheek. When he lowered his hand back down, Judith noticed it was shaking. “Why are you watching the counter today?” She asked him.
“Beth’s out of town today. She’s sick. She doesn’t have a babysitter. Beth had a death in the family.”
“Which is it, Ronald?”
He looked at Judith as if she had just entered the building. “Which is what?” His hand stopped shaking and the glint in his eyes was now gone. Ronald tossed the letters into a bin marked Out of Town and punched a button. A total popped on the register screen. “There’s your total,” he said.
She paid him and took the receipt. “Can I ask you a question?” Judith asked.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“Have you seen anything strange in town today or yesterday?”
Ronald paused before answering and Judith hoped that the pause was indicative of a positive response. Why yes, Judith, I sure as hell have seen weird plants and decaying roads all over town. I’m glad you brought it up because I’m scared shitless about it. Judith snapped her head to the left. Her thoughts were getting away from her. She knew it was possible she was frightened and projecting her fear, but she didn’t have to swear.
“No, can’t say I have. Why?”
Judith smiled. “Well, I was wondering if you’ve noticed any changes in the scenery of New Crest. Plant life, roads turning bad, dead crops?”
“What about your boxes over there? Do you see them?”
“Yeah, I see them every day,” he said with slight irritancy.
“No. Do you see them? They’re all rusty and broken.”
Ronald took a minute to look at the mailboxes. Judith watched him sincerely pass over the section within his view. He shook his head. “Sorry, Judith. They look fine to me.”
Inside her, Judith felt her body warming. Her face got hotter with each passing second. How could he not see these things! New Crest was falling apart right in front of him! When she clenched her fists, Judith knew she needed to calm down. She inhaled a deep breath and closed her eyes. As she exhaled, she told her mind and body to relax.
“Ronald, I’ll be right back. I have to show you something.”
“If you say, Judith. I’ll be right here.”
Judith left the post office and stood just outside the door trying to find the oddest-looking plant she could. Many of the flowers and plants were larger, intimidating versions of those she knew. However, the one she wanted to show Ronald grew just across the street, pushing through a crack in the sidewalk. She slowly made her way over the growth as it tugged and gripped her shoes in sticky-like manner.
For one moment, when Judith hit the middle of the street and looked down, one of the plant’s roots swirled around the bottom of the cane and slowly made its way up. Judith tried to take a step with the cane, but the root tightened its grip, holding the cane steadfast. She gave the titanium pole a sharp tug. Her lack of strength and age was no match for the vegetation.
She was only ten feet away from the large, overly-red plant that reminded her of a tulip. Judith released her cane, nearly regretting the decision immediately, and hobbled towards the red flower.
When she awkwardly approached the tulip, it angled towards her, as if in greeting. Judith imagined that if the flower had hands, it would be offering one to shake.
Nearly five times the size of her fist, the red flower tilted towards her and opened its petals, revealing a collection of yellow, green and pink stamens. Like eyes on the end of antennae, the ends twirled and aimed at Judith, watching her.
Judith used both hands to grasp the plant below the head. She’d have to give it her all on the first tug; otherwise, who knew if she’d have enough strength to do it again. Just don’t fall, she thought. A smile formed on her face: now that she thought it, it was probably going to happen. That’s how it always worked right?
Closing her eyes allowed Judith to focus her energy to her hands. She braced her feet and violently jerked backwards. She stumbled, pinwheeling her arms and stomping her feet for purchase. Her eyes flew open and saw that she wasn’t falling and this excited her. After staggering into the plant-covered street, Judith managed to catch herself.
Her heart pounded and her stomach wanted to lurch, but she suppressed any pain and urges to puke and looked in her right hand. She had the top of the plant.
A new energy sailed around her body. Judith turned and walked quickly—quicker than her normal pace—to the Post Office. She easily pushed through the door and made her way to the counter. Ronald still maintained his posture.
“I have it, Ronald!” Judith set the red flower on the scale. On the screen, 8 LBS appeared. Was it that heavy? Judith didn’t notice.
Ronald glanced around. “What do you have?”
“That!” She pointed to the scale. There it was, sitting on the scale. “The red flower. I don’t know what it’s called but it weights an amazing eight pounds!”
“Sorry, Judith, there’s nothing there.” A chuckle escaped Ronald. “You okay? Let me get you some water.”
Before Judith could decline, Ronald vanished into a back room.
She stood there in the stuffy, outer portion of the Post Office, as if she were waiting her turn to mail a package. First Class, please, she would say. Delivery confirmation or insurance? They would ask her. No, just confirm that I’m not crazy and give me assurance that I’m not in a nightmare, she would plead. Sorry, Ma’am, can’t do that.
“Can’t do that,” Judith whispered to herself.
A Post Office box door eased free from the wall and tumbled end over end to the ground, finally erupting into a deafening clank. The door bounced, scraping on the tile, unnerving Judith.
“Ronald?” She called.
When she heard no answer, Judith moved into the hallway and opened the door that lead behind the counter.
Judith walked through the service area behind the counter and pushed through a swinging door into a smaller hallway. The silence surrounded her, driving her fear to the front part of her mind. The door to her right opened to a sorting room. Right now, nothing moved. She saw abandoned letters and boxes paused on the conveyor belts, waiting for their turn in the loading bays.
The next two doors on the right were offices and the two doors on her left were obviously bathrooms, Judith noticed despite the faded plastic Men’s and Women’s signs.
One final door stood at the end of the hall. A handwritten sign—on lined paper—read Employee Breakroom…Employees Only. Judith chuckled at the fact someone had to specify who was exactly allowed in the Employee Breakroom. Ronald must be in there.
She opened the door and before she entered she called out once again. “Ronald? Are you in here?”
Through the crack, Judith saw two shoes, toes down. “Ronald!” Judith whipped the door open and she grabbed onto the door jamb to keep herself steady.
Ronald lay on the floor, fused to the tile. His skin had melted, spilling to the sides like curtains. In a few spots, bones were exposed, playing a sick game of hide and seek, except without the hide. The worst part was Ronald’s body continued to dissolve. Right in front of her eyes! Like a gradually-slowing boil, Ronald’s mass soon turned into nothingness. Except for bones and clothes.
Judith immediately puked. Her yellow eject shot across the room, hitting one of the tables and leaving a trail back to her. She turned and ran—as fast as her legs could carry her—back through the hallway, behind the counter and back into the waiting area. The room now looked even more decrepit: the cracked floor gave way to growing foliage; the walls were starting to crumble. The dirty and dusty windows blocked any view to the outside.
Sprinting to the door, she shoved through and breathed in fresh air. Without stopping for any length, Judith found her car and headed towards the Caprice. Her Caprice. Her sweet Caprice. A couple hundred feet.
One of the older buildings let loose a corner of the roof. It cascaded violently to the ground, splattering the sidewalk with brick. A few of the plants around the crash tilted downwards and absorbed the crumbs. Behind her, she heard a leg-breaking rumble. Looking back, the road half a block down bowed upwards like a volcano in the making. Debris and vegetation broke away and rolled down the inclines.
A hundred feet now.
Houses on her left and right imploded on themselves, sending up massive amounts of dust and cement residue. Wood exploded upwards, as if someone were underneath the houses purposely throwing them into the air.
Near the edge of town, a long, horizontal section of the road suddenly disappeared into the Earth. Just like that. There was no way she could get the Caprice over that opening. Maybe if she got it going fast enough. Judith could see the horizon, but she wasn’t sure just how wide the gap went.
Judith fumbled for the door handle and finally got the door open. Trees fell all around her, narrowly missing the car. She jumped in, feeling the tickle of a branch of leaves caressing her. The car started easily and she plunked it into Drive.
At first, the rear wheels slipped on the plants. She felt no traction. Judith laid her head on the steering wheel. This was it. How could she get out of here when the wheels just spun around and around on plants and flowers?
Rock the car, something in her mind told her.
She leaned back and flipped the gearshift to Reverse. The Caprice lurched backwards. Now, to Drive. The car moved forward about a foot before slipping again. Almost. Back to Reverse. The road gave her more.
On the count of three, Judith whipped the gear to Drive and floored the accelerator. The tires spun for a second, but had enough momentum to move forward. The tires caught a small patch of the tar and the Caprice shot forward and quickly climbed to twenty miles an hour.
She sped down Main Street, careful of the crumbling buildings around her. They threw parts of themselves at her, trying to slow her down or worse, stop her. Judith maneuvered around the rise in the middle of the road. She actually had to pop onto the sidewalk for a moment. Ahead of her was the edge of town, the opposite side she was use to.
That’s okay, she thought, I’m getting out of here!
Thirty second later, she passed the last of the houses and found herself in the country again. The corn in the fields on both sides of her were stiffening back, becoming healthy and green again. The soil changed from dry and cracked to damp and usable. The road ahead of her eventually became void of plants and overgrown vegetation.
Judith slowed the car and glanced in her rearview mirror. Behind her, the town was slowly putting itself back together. The bulge on Main Street subsided and the street returned to the flat road she was used to. Buildings repaired themselves and soon looked like nothing had ever occurred to them. The clouds of dust and debris she had pushed the Caprice through dissipated into the air, leaving a bright sun to shine its rays onto a gorgeous backdrop.
She eased the Caprice to the side of the road and cautiously got out. Her legs almost gave out; they strained as the adrenaline disappeared. Judith leaned on the car and watched the rest of the town return to normal in front of her. Around her, the world pretended like nothing happened.
A signpost caught Judith’s attention. She looked up at the road sign as it indicated she stood on Route 14.
She smiled. This will have to be the new route into town.
This is my new way.
BIO: Gregory M. Thompson is a Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror writer with publishing credits in Macabre Realms, Digizine, Aphelion Webzine, Concisely, Digital Dragon Magazine, Dark Gothic Resurrected and The Fringe Magazine. He also has an award-nominated science fiction piece in the collection, Steampunk Anthology, published by Sonar4 Publications. Nightcry and The Golden Door are two of his novels, released in March and June of 2011 respectively. For more information visit his official site at http://www.nightcrynovel.com.