One Town Over

The men of Bethlehem’s Gate did not talk much about the neighboring town of Amber Grove. Bottoms on bar stools sat comfortably in the warm bar, the town dirthole that displayed a neon sign that read “Andy’s” above the door, and they were comfortable with that. The good old boys drank together, shot pool together, and double-dated with their wives together but they never discussed what lay five miles to the West. The town had fallen silent and they stayed away, the Grove becoming someone else’s problem. And so the boys sat in the bar each night, laughing and drinking with a ridiculous cavorting but they never acknowledged the nearby town.

Buster Craig burst through the door. Wind billowed outside, blowing snow in through the door. He turned and pushed against the wind, shutting it behind him. Patrons turned to look, strangers unusual in the small town. His scarf, blue and white wool, swirled in the howling from outside as he closed the door. A long, dark coat clung tightly to his frame over his slim slacks and expensive boots. He was what they would have called “city” between each other, and the appearance of those like Buster was rarely good. They only appeared for one reason – they were looking for the book.

“Evening, boys,” he said jovially. Two or three glanced at him and Andy, referred to by the men of the bar as “Critter” due to his rat-like visage, looked him up and down as he appraised the value of his clothes in an attempt to ascertain how much the man would spend. “What’s on tap?” the city boy called.

“Lite and easy,” Critter called back.

“Perfect,” Buster said with a smile. “I’ll take a pint.”

Critter tipped the glass and flipped the lever, filling it to overflow. The foamy head spilled down the side and he flipped the lever back. The glass he had chosen was clean, perhaps even being used for the first time, and one of the regulars at the bar had noticed and rolled his eyes. “Here you go,” Critter mumbled as he set the glass down on a napkin.

“Thank you sir,” Buster said. “My name is Buster Craig.” He reached across the bar to shake Critter’s hand. “I’ve been passing through and it is ridiculously cold outside, I thought you guys didn’t get this kind of heat anymore?” Critter was silent, unsure how to answer. “No matter,” Buster continued, “I think that your bar was just what I needed anyhow.”

“Oh fer fuck’s sake,” muttered the bar-regular, cynicism dripping in his words. “Just ask yer questions and get ‘er over with, will ya?”

Buster looked over at him, curious. “What questions? You seem to be expecting something.”

“All you boys are lookin’ fer the same thing. So g’wan, ask already.”

“I’m sorry,” Buster said, “but I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m traveling to Oklahoma to visit my Aunt Bibi, this town is literally the stop on the highway I took to get out of the blizzard. I ask again,” he said, “What questions?”

The regular sat up, threw back his beer, and squinted his eyes at the younger man, studying him. He reached up and itched his armpit through his flannel shirt. Pulling a pipe out of his pocket along with a steel container full of tobacco, he began to carefully sprinkle the brown leaves into the bowl. Buster’s eyes flicked back and forth between the man and the “No Smoking” sign on the way. Once. Twice. But he said nothing. The regular caught this and smiled to himself. “Boy’s smart, knows when ter keep his yapper shut,” he thought to himself. He stuck his hand out to Buster. “Name’s Jim. Jim Leigh, but Jim’s just fine with me.”

Buster took his hand and pumped it up and down as he gave the man his own name. “Buster, huh? What kinda name is that, anyway?”

“Parents named me after Buster Keaton.”

“Fair enough,” Jim chuckled. “Sorry I was a dick a minute ago. The most we usually get from you city boys is questions ‘bout Amber Grove.”

“Yeah, so what questions exactly?” Buster asked. “If I’m not being intrusive.”

“Nah, you ain’t. The whole thing’s pretty ugly, I just worry about those who come to sightsee on fear. The horror freaks are a pain in the ass.”

“Horror freaks? So is it a murder town or something?”

“In a way,” Jim said. He took a deep sip on his beer, the glass nearly empty. Critter had a new one queued up and ready, and when Jim finished the glass in another swallow he swapped them out. “In a way it sure is a murder town. See, the thing about Amber Grove is that there’s a lot of weird things that happened there. There was this tourist attraction and some murders and all of that, but the weird thing was the old man.”

“The old man?” Buster asked. Several other patrons had stopped what they were doing, their attention drifting to the two men as they chatted. Pool games had fizzled, pints were forgotten, and the jukebox off as Jim offered freely a pack of information that most visitors already had some knowledge of.

“Sure,” he replied. “The old man they called Harvey Jones.” One of the other drinkers plopped down on his stool hard, the wind blowing out of him in a terrified sigh. No one mentioned the old man by name. Critter had been wiping out a glass with a dirty rag and froze along with the rest of the room, his weasley eyes focused on Jim and his brow broken out with sweat. A man in the corner shook, his beer spilling over the top of his glass to splash quietly on the sticky table.

“Jim,” Critter whispered, “don’t.”

“Now, now,” Jim said, annoyed, “the man is interested in Amber Grove and isn’t here with any agenda. Don’t do no harm to chat with him a bit.” He took a drink off of the top of his new beer, wiping the foam from his mustache with the back of his hand.

“See, now, Harvey Jones was this man from somewhere down in Texas. He came up a preacher man, came to lead the Methodist church just outside of town. Almost everyone in town goes there, we all know the place. Anyway, he’s here, see, and he talks to Amber Grove and us about God and all of that. They all love him, he’s popular with the kids because he’s funny, he’s popular with the old-timers because he says everyone is going to hell, and he’s popular with the women folk because he’s handsome. Guy had everything going for him and he was straight with God on top of it.

“He gets it in his head to get back to nature, goes camping you see, and goes alone into the woods. So while he’s out there, as he tells it, he finds this cave. It leads to what he said was “reality”, whatever he meant by that. Things about ash and bones, the chill that makes the cold we got now look like nothing. He went through and, though it was freezing, got to see the floating bit that was left of his sister, or so he said. Whatever happened he came back from it, and he brought that thing back with him.”

“That thing?” Buster interjected. “What thing?”

“Well that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Jim said. “So he gets back, see, and he calls a special meetin’ at the church. Amber Grove only, says it’s where he’s gonna start. No one came out of Amber Grove but…neither did he, you know? Like he might still be there, they might all be dead.”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“No one knows for sure what happened that day. There are guesses and rumors, stories about what was said. Thoughts that he might have preached and railed against God, talked about leaving the church, even the things he read from that book he found.”

“Book?” Buster interrupted. “What book?”

“Ah,” Jim replied, “now there’s  the main event.”

“So this is the thing then? The thing?”

“That’s it,” Jim said. “The book was what he said he found in the woods and after looking it over it was disturbing. One of the men in town said it was met forth it any language you needed it to be. But you had to follow the instructions.

“Almost everyone who came that day supposedly got to see it. It takes life and gives it, whichever you need. Harvey kept his eye on everything in that book after he found it, and according to the local mythology he keeps it on-hand at all times.”

Buster sat, thinking to himself as he sipped his beer. He swirled the last of it and as he tossed it back and looked at the counter there was another one in front of him. He looked over at Critter, already over and taking beer to another table away from the bar. “How does he do that?” he thought. The clutter of sound had returned to the bar, the rest of the regulars trying to ignore what Jim had been saying. “So what exactly was the book?” he asked.

“No one knows outside of the rumors I told you,” Jim said. “It’s kind of a mystery, but it’s enticed some of the local boys to their death.” Buster looked around at the rest of the regulars, visibly crinkling his nose. “I know it isn’t what everyone wants to hear, but it’s a good thing to chit chat about. Theory is theory. No one has ever found it though.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, people have gone up there to look but we haven’t heard back from them and the book has never turned up. No one goes in there and we’ve got no way to see, not without risking the same fate.”

Buster mulled this over for a bit, then looked at Jim and rolled his eyes. “I don’t know how much of this I believed but it was entertaining.” He threw back the last of his second beer and got up, bundling his scarf and coat back on. “I hear less out in the wind and I think that mean’s it’s time to head back. Sir?” he called to the bartender as he was leaving. “Sir, what do I owe you?“

“Two-fifty apiece,” Critter called. Buster took out a ten and laid on the counter.

“All yours,” he said. Turning back to Jim, he extended his own hand and Jim took it. “I was happy to hear all of that from you. It was fascinating.”

“Any time,” Jim said. “Always happy to talk to people who aren’t here to try to find that dangerous thing.”

Buster nodded and headed for the door. He went out into the cold night, and Jim looked around at everyone. Suddenly almost all of the noise vanished. They looked at Jim. Critter scuffled up to him, scared. “Do you think it’ll be enough? Harvey wants decent ones.”

“Sure, it’ll be enough. He knows we aren’t getting the foot traffic anymore, so there are just fewer to send,” Jim said. “He shouldn’t be so demanding anyway.” Critter shuddered. “Chill, Critter. The man will be satisfied.”

“That guy seemed nice you know,” Crittern mumbled.

“Doesn’t matter. We keep sending him people from the cities, he leaves us alone. It’s a frustrating trade-off.”

“Do you think he might survive?” Critter asked.

“No,” Jim said. “None of them do.”

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