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Welcome to small, rural USA. Inhabitants: few. Highlights: none. Career prospects: infinite negative. Times two. You say desolate and I’ll reply by pointing out my new home: Hellhole, USA. Who cares about its real name.

I've seen too many dead-end towns, mere twinkles along the highway, little ink splotches on the map of nothingness. You can imagine how enthusiastic I am about adding yet another entry to my growing list of places I don't want to be. Little towns with small schools and matching minds. If you're lucky they have one department store, two supermarkets, three bars, and only half the houses are boarded up. Those are the better ones.

I’ll fit right in.

Mom drives our blue Ford onto Main Street. The town is bigger than I expected. Then again, I was expecting a large hole in the ground covered by a stone, so there you go. I’m surprised there's a town at all at our destination.

Once on our way in I see signs giving directions to a shopping mall, and I spot something which may be a Starbucks knock-off. Promising. Main Street is lined with the regular mixture of old houses in dire need of repairs, empty plots with wrecked and abandoned cars, and the occasional hardware store. Great to be back, I tell myself. The further we drive into town, the older the buildings get. It doesn't get entirely medieval, but I wouldn't have been surprised to encounter a knight on horseback. If not knights then at least a gunslinger or two, this is the west after all.

Then I see one. He's sitting on a pale grey horse, leaning on the saddlehorn, a pair of six-shooters on his hips. The butt of a rifle sticks out from a saddle holster. A large hat shades his eyes against the sun. When we pass him there's a flash of metal on his chest. I feel his narrowed eyes rest on me and acknowledge his attention with a polite nod. He tips two fingers against his hat, then turns his translucent horse to ride straight into a brick wall and disappears. Ghosts do that sometimes. I throw a glance at Mom and decide not to mention the rider. Next thing you know she'll be scheduling an appointment with the local shrink to discuss my 'delusions'. Even when Mom's the one who believes in magic. Parents...

At the town center, a small church welcomes us. It's painted bright white and stands out like a beacon between all the, ah, well-seasoned buildings we've seen so far. A single tower rises up, stained glass windows tell biblical stories, and a lonely sign informs me there's still some chance to save my mortal soul. I give it an A for effort.

The church is flanked on the left by an Irish bar with lots of green clovers. On the opposite side of the church, there's a diner sharing parking space with this house of the lord. A red-white painted chain with a big sturdy lock has managed to keep the lot empty. A turned-off neon sign claims the diner should be open twenty-four-seven. A smaller, unlit sign adds: 'except Saturdays and Sundays'. It isn't the weekend yet, so one of those signs must be wrong. It doesn't look like the diner needs its shared parking places anytime soon though. The place is deserted and the windows are dirty.

The Irish bar does a better job if the thumping music and the number of bikes parked under a ‘no parking’ sign are any indication. There’s also a police car, and a cop happily writing parking tickets.

On the other side of the street sits an old, grey stone building with a pillared facade, Greek or Roman-inspired. Bold chiseled letters claim it to be the library. In general, I do like libraries but this one looks more like a mausoleum for books. Directly next to the library is where we are heading: the Sonata Grand Hotel. And grand it is. I bet the only thing ‘grand’ about the place is the list of health and safety violations. It looks like the whole building lists a little to the left, trying to get away from the library as far as the laws of physics allow. I guess some of the bricks are about to make their escape as I eye the crumbling mortar.

I'm not sure if I would describe the scenery as 'quaint', 'picturesque', or 'the one place on earth both God and Satan conveniently forgot during Armageddon last summer'. I might even be able to come up with something positive but you would have to pay me. Upfront.

"Well, here we are," Mom says. She parks then shuts down the engine. "I hope they still have a room available."

I pointedly look at the parking spaces in front of the hotel: only two are occupied. A tired-looking minibus, the remains of swirling pink flowers barely visible underneath the rust and grime, may have been parked there since Woodstock. Next to it sits another relic: a shiny wagon sporting faux-wood paneling. The sticker on its rear bumper proudly proclaims ‘I don’t brake for sinners.’ I know that’s a lie. There aren't any blood spatters visible, and I have yet to see a town without sin. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.

"Come on dear," Mom says.

I sigh, and quickly check my phone before I get out. At least I have some coverage here, though I know that will only be temporary. Mom will find us a permanent place, and without a doubt, it won't have Internet nor mobile coverage. She always does that to me.

I get out and examine the wagon. It's too clean and smells of car polish. I step on the sidewalk and study the front. I find no dents and no blood. Thought so. The minivan does have some red splotches, but I suspect those are paint, matching the other creative swirls of blue and pink. Mom calls my name. I shrug and walk back, grabbing my stuff from the rear seat.

An old Freightliner semi drives up the street, a shiny new black SUV in its wake. A good thing too as I was about to check our own truck for a hidden flux capacitor. We might have ended up in the wrong century, just like Marty McFly, but he drove a DeLorean and had a home to get back to. I have neither. There’s no telling who's inside the SUV, hiding behind those black tinted windows. It could be the local school choir, a bunch of demons looking for a place to picnic, or a Mexican drug lord on his way to their yearly peace convention. Maybe it's a businessman doing early Christmas shopping. I lick my dry lips, and wonder if he has a fridge in there.

When the SUV passes us time slows down. Unseen eyes study me, and I hold my breath until the SUV turns right at the next crossing before it disappears out of view. I shake my head and start breathing again. That wasn’t the weirdest thing today, but still.

I guess I'm not the only one freaked out. Mom stares at the corner where the SUV disappeared. She hides her scowl when she notices me watching. Without a word she turns towards the hotel, and I meekly follow.

The meek always follow.

… into a hotel that has seen better times.

It's always great to be right, except when I like to be wrong. The beds creak, the curtains are worn and frayed, the carpet has faded, and the furniture consists of two mismatching chairs and a rickety table under a stained mirror. I'm happy the few lamps don't give off much light, who knows what else I might see.

The bathroom then… I carefully push open the door, hit the switch, and when the tube light finally flickers to life I sigh. The bathroom has been refurbished in several shades of brown and orange, no more than half a century ago. I’ve seen Mom’s bathroom, and hers was decorated in stylish browns and greens. That looked even worse. Good for her.

I close the curtains to keep the sun outside. Mom’s room has an air conditioner, mine doesn’t. I watched her trying to coast the thing to life, but it just coughed before starting to fill the room with white smoke and the acrid smell of something burning. For me the right moment to hide my smile and retreat to my own room. At least I have reached the age I no longer have to share a room with her when we have money to spare, rare if ever. The only modern touch to the otherwise retro-seventies look is the small flat screen television from some unknown and unpronounceable Korean or Chinese brand. I suspect they just slap on some random letters to pester the consumer. The remote works and I browse through the free channels.

Sports… I couldn't care less. News… All the news stations are talking about a chain of suicides, related to some new party drug. There are few bodies but many houses on fire, and it takes me a moment before I realize the narrative changed to the bush fires further down south. I skip the next two channels - documentaries - and end up on a text-only channel with local news, augmented by a voice-over from a local radio station. I let it run for a while. There's little of interest, an interview with a shopkeeper complaining about the increasing crime levels, that it's time for the re-elected Sheriff to do something about something, an announcement of the final summer fair, and more on drugs and how it destroys small communities like Hellhole. I've seen and heard it all, and go back to one of the bigger news channels. More fires, more suicides, then an endless droning on rising and falling stock prices. I turn down the volume until it's just background noise.

My two suitcases are waiting for me, standing next to each other like good soldiers. The battered grey one with the many stickers, a gift from Uncle Charlie, and the slim black case with the combination lock, the one Mom gave me for my thirteenth birthday. The latter is getting a bit scuffed around the corners, and there are dark stains on one side I’d rather not investigate, but it still is a nice case. I'm about to enter the code when my phone throws a tantrum. I smile when I see the caller's name pop up.

“Hey Speckles!” she yells in my ear when I pick it up, before I can get out a simple ‘hello’.

“Hey to you too.” I let myself fall backward on the bed, holding on to the phone as if it is a lifeline. And it is.

I think Sweets is the only real friend I got left. I'm not sure if I should count Uncle Charlie as a friend, and even if he's still alive I probably shouldn't. Sweets is. Mom doesn’t like her, but there are few people Mom likes, so that doesn’t count either.

“God, am I happy to hear your voice,” I tell her.

“Is it that bad?”

I nod. I know she can’t see me nodding, but I know her and she knows me. We’ve been friends for a long time. She's like family. Sweet claims we are somehow related though that can’t be true. She's the Nordic type, blond, light-skinned, and some of my roots must be Mediterranean with perhaps a dash of Middle-East or something more exotic. She and I look nothing alike. To be honest, neither do Mom and I. Whatever makes me tan that easily has skipped Mom's generation, leaving her with pale white skin and an addiction to sun blockers. My eyes are pure green, hers are blueish with hints of green and brown. My hair's purple, and Mom's is whatever came out of the box last week. Still, Sweets, Mom and I, we all have noses, eyes, and the same number of arms and legs. That must count for something.

Sweets being family… that's complicated, and to be honest unlikely. Somehow she and I both consider my Uncle Charlie a relative. I know he's mine, that's something even Mom confirmed, but Sweets never explained how he can be her uncle as well. I can’t ask anyone. Mom won't answer, and it seems Sweets' family has their own closets and skeletons they don't like to talk about.

No matter. Sweets still is my best friend. Now if only I could remember her real name...

 

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About the author

The Real Angel Jay

Bio: I write bad fiction. In poor English. In all other aspects I'm just like a normal person. Please note that I'm a not a native English speaker (so any help is welcome).

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