This is in answer to the 3 Word Wednesday prompt. The words were Barren, Intense and Worry, which are highlighted in the text. My inspiration for the story was this gravestone which I found in my local churchyard.
Aaron stared across the barren wastes, took another look at the decrepit map in his work-hardened hands and tried not to feel beaten. He’d been walking all day under the relentless sun without so much as a hint he was heading in the right direction. His right heel was blistered, his left ankle twisted on a concealed rock and his head pounded from dehydration and exhaustion.
“Damn it, Paul, why’d’ya have ta up ‘n’ die on me, huh?”
His elder brother has turned up out of the blue three weeks ago waving around the map Aaron now held. Paul’d sworn three ways to Sunday he’d won it from a gold prospector in a poker game, but Aaron had his suspicions. Neither of Mrs Fallon’s sons were fools, but they weren’t all that straight either, and they’d both done their fair share of time for assorted charges of robbery and assault. Aaron had finally got it together, got a job, a girl, a place and he’d been none too pleased when his dissolute big brother had come a-knocking with another hare-brained scheme to get rich quick.
A night of whiskey and nostalgia had finally guilted Aaron into a road trip with Paul. He’d used his savings to buy an ancient truck and the pair had lit out, following their crumbling, faded map to Eldorado. It hadn’t gone well. The first day had seen two blown tires, a left which should have been a right and four lost hours in the back of beyond before they managed to get back on the trail of the mine. That night, itching, certain the fleabag motel was exactly that, Aaron had taken a lot of persuasion to stay with Paul. He’d wanted out, as the hours passed, becoming more convinced the map was either a fake or some worked out seam, the wily old goat having duped big brother onto the road to nowhere.
Only the money he’d invested in the truck kept Aaron rolling through day two. The weather turned the vehicle into a microwave leaving them feeling like they’d been boiled from the inside out, until crispy and brittle. The road was now a dirt track winding from nowhere to nowhere with not so much as a garage in between. They’d lost more time doubling back three hours to the last rest stop to stock up on water and ask how far to the next town. Deciding to drive through the night to catch up, Aaron had been dozing when the car left the road. Paul, slaughtered on a bottle of whiskey he’d smuggled out of the rest stop, lost control, hit a boulder and rolled the car three times.
When Aaron – probably saved by wearing his seatbelt – came to, Paul was already dead. Aaron was no doctor, but the lack of a head, replaced by a shard of metal from the roof, was a big clue. He’d clambered out of the passenger side window, thrown up, decided against looking for his brother’s head, and come to the conclusion that moving on was the best bet. He’d packed up as much water as he could carry; aware the next town was a good fifty miles distant and set out whilst there was still some cool night air.
Periodically, as now, Aaron had tried his phone, but the misbegotten bit of hell he was currently straggling across appeared to fall under no coverage by anyone. Head down, back of his neck prickling with heat, he studied the map. Where was the damn town? It was one of the few parts of the map which hadn’t faded or been obscured by folds and creases; Ganston, marked with a little cross which Aaron assumed was a church. The thought of the cool confines of a church made the intense itch in his sunburned skin deepen. His worry, as he scanned the horizon, was that he’d somehow gotten turned around in the night, and was either circling the same spot or was headed back the way he’d come.
Either way, standing around wasn’t going to get him to water or help. Aaron struck out, heading toward the sun, his only point of reference, and he was on the verge of collapse when he finally saw it. He didn’t believe his eyes at first; happily telling himself about mirages and delirium from heatstroke, but it was real. He passed a wooden sign which hung by one chain, the other rusting in the baked earth; Ganston – Pop. 124. Geez, did any place that small still exist in the world? Although the broken sign did make him wonder what he might find.
His worst fears were well founded. Ganston was a ghost town, a place of smashed windows, rotting and sun-bleached shacks sucked so dry of life they looked ready to blow away at a breath. He found the water pump outside a hostelry which could have been at home on the set of any cowboy picture, pumped the handle a few times and got nothing but a sigh of air and a faintly rank smell of decay. He sat on the porch of a shack for a while, pondering what to do as the sun slipped down the sky. Staying seemed like a bad move, his nerves were too stretched to stay the night in Deadsville, but he really didn’t want to walk any more. Thinking, chasing his mind round and around, Aaron slipped into sleep.
It was full dark when he awoke with a start, cursing at the time he’d allowed to slip by. Surely the next town had to be close now. The road ran on out of town, better maintained, even had hardtop. He got up, stretched, bent to pick up the last of his water and caught a gasp of surprise. He’d noted the small church on his arrival, a sad affair of tumbledown plaster and boards with a lop-sided board cross atop it. Attached was a small graveyard, after all, how many plots could Tinytown need? At present it appeared the dead folks were having a bash because the graveyard was lit up like Christmas with hundreds of ghostly white lights flickering in and out of the grave markers.
Curious, Aaron made his way over, vaulted the gate and headed in amongst the graves. The lights – he wondered if they were some strange species of firefly – seemed to funnel around and before him, almost guiding him to a single stone which stood alone in the very centre of small plot. It listed gently to the right, and slightly forward, but it could not obscure the image of an angel hovering over a seemingly mummified figure. Just right of centre a name was carved, Mary Louise Wells. Aaron felt his knees buckle, his gorge rise, tears starting to his eyes as he was deposited on his ass before the stone, staring in disbelief.
“No, ya can’t be here, Mary-Lou, ya can’t.” he whimpered, scrubbing at his eyes, his vision blurred by tears, “Ya buried up home. This ain’t you; tell me it ain’t you!”
His voice rose, the words ending on a pleading wail as visions of a golden haired teen filled his mind. So pretty, a smile to brighten the world, chatting to her friend and crossing the road. Aaron and Paul had been stoned, drunk, too numb to care when they’d picked her up, assaulted her and dumped her under a bridge. They didn’t even remember until three days later when she’d been found, dead from hypothermia the papers said. Images of her distraught parents, her friends, crowded his mind now, of attending the funeral, of telling her mother how tragic it all was. Paul hadn’t really cared beyond the fact they never got caught, but it had eaten away at Aaron’s soul, sent him on a downward spiral for twenty years.He reached out, ran his hand over the name and sobbed, spilling apologies, the stone suddenly icy to the touch. Brilliant white light suddenly shot up and out of the headstone, Aaron cowering back in abject terror as the angel on the carving materialised and reached a single finger to touch Aaron’s chest. His heart stopped.
Back in the dive by the docks The Judge felt the frisson of a job completed, rose and sauntered out the door. His prospector guise slewed away, his body morphing into something new, someone suited to reel in the next job.