The darkness consumed me as I crunched along the sand. The bobbing light of the lantern splashed across my path, revealing puddles of earth as I went.
Without warning, the ground shot straight up into the air. After a moment, I realized it was the wall of a small mud hut. I walked around it, looking for a door, and noticed a dozen others. I couldn’t tell for sure in the scant light, but they all appeared to be the same style, same color, with the same single door with a window to the left of it. Not a single shutter, front stoop, garden, or even a plastic pink flamingo.
As I reached the door of the nearest hut, my inner skeptic took over for a moment and knocked first. Hearing no reply, I opened the door.
I lifted my lantern high so I could scan the interior before entering. Just to the right of the doorway was a simple wooden desk, topped with a blotter and an oil lamp, and a Shaker-style chair. Across the room from me was a wood-frame bed with a single pillow. To the left of the door was a small, round table upon which sat a tray with a decanter and a single glass. An impressive layer of dust blanketed it all.
I placed my lantern on the desk and pulled out the chair to sit down. There was only one drawer, which I eased open. There was a blank notepad and a pen. I pulled them out and peered further into the drawer. Nothing. I returned the pad and pen and closed the drawer.
Dropping to all fours next to the bed, I peered beneath it. Just a warden of dust bunnies.
I went to the table, picked up the decanter, and poured its contents into the glass. Empty. Too bad, too. I was getting thirsty.
Judging by the abundance of dust and the lack of personal possessions, it had been a long time since anyone was last here. It didn’t look as though they’d be coming back, either. Maybe the next hut would hold some information.
I closed the door behind me on my way out. I strode to the next hut and opened the door. This one contained a faint scent of leather. There was a portrait of a horse hanging on the wall over the bed, positioned across the room as in the previous hut.
On the table to the left of the door was a large bowl with only a few dusty, withered apples in it. My stomach grumbled as I realized I hadn’t eaten since lunch. Something told me not to try these, though.
Under the layer of dust coating the desk was a pair of riding gloves, lying next to what looked like a flyer. I brushed off the paper. It was a schedule from a horse show, dated 1993. There was a battered copy of a book in the drawer: The Blind Connemara. Wow, I hadn’t read that book in years. I placed it back into the drawer.
That was it here. I pulled the hut door closed behind me.
The next hut had the same floor plan. Table to the left, desk to the right, bed straight ahead. There were pieces of tape holding torn paper to the wall in clusters, as if someone had torn posters down.
Was that sheet music on the table? Blowing the thin film of dust off, the title of the song was visible: Gone Away, by the Offspring. I mourned for the loved ones it reminded me of, then shook my head to focus. I put the music back and went to the desk. There was nothing on top of it. In the drawer was a harmonica.
I wondered what Gone Away sounded like on the harmonica and blew into it. Yikes. Not like that. Maybe someday I’d learn how to play. I dumped it back into the drawer.
Although everyone was gone, no one seemed to have left at the same time. That first hut was quite dusty, but this one couldn’t have been vacated more than a few weeks ago. What could have made the residents of a village all leave, one by one?
Intuitively, I knew the answer wouldn’t be in the next hut, but I couldn’t help myself. This one appeared to have belonged to a writer. There was a dictionary and a laptop-sized void in the dust on the desk, a Writer’s Digest from December 2004 on the table, and in the drawer, a letter congratulating Kathy Owens on placing third in a writing contest.
My initials again. Weird.
None of these items were just left behind. Somehow, I knew they were chosen and placed deliberately. But why?
I conceded I’d find no answers there, but checked one last hut, anyway. No dust! It was as if its occupant had just walked out the door. Despite this, I knew no one would return.
I sat at the desk, feeling tired, and wondered how I’d make it all the way back to the pick safe.
Newspaper articles littered the desktop: the Craig’s List Killer, Phil Spector, Gary Ridgway. What kind of sick bastard . . . I opened the drawer to find a job bid form. For Police Sergeant? A cop had lived here. I’d have followed those cases, I supposed, had I been a cop.
A piece of paper on the table caught my eye. I stood stiffly and shuffled to the table to get a closer look. It was a note:
If you’re reading this, it’s too late to save us. A plague has taken this village, one citizen at a time. You must leave, before it takes you, too. Although I fear you have been infected just by coming here. You must fight the infection. You must leave! Now, before it is too late to save you, too.
What was all that about? It sure gave me the creeps. Time to go.
At the door, I looked back. I could relate to the people who had lived in these huts: a rider, a musician, a writer, a cop. I had wanted to be each of these people, over the years. It had never worked out. If I ever got a chance . . .
I closed the hut door behind me to punctuate my unfinished thought. It was a long journey back. I shouldn’t have come here.
I retraced my steps, following the path that led back to the pier. Had it always been this long? Perhaps if I rested a moment . . .