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As the light faded he switched the headlights on. There were a few clouds in the sky, but it looked as though it was going to be a nice evening.
He’d been on the road for hours now and was becoming more and more agitated. The conference was going to start in ninety minutes and he finally admitted he was lost. He couldn’t afford to miss this one. Too many important contacts in the journalist world attending. Either the map was wrong or he was incapable of reading one.
The lights caught a sign on the right pointing to a turning. It was the first sign of life he’d seen for at least an hour. He slowed down and stopped.
“Hanging Birch. People are dying to stay here,” he read.
He noticed the population number had been crossed out a number of times and the latest number was 74.
“Small town, but at least they’ll know where they are.” He swung the car into the turning and continued down the quickly darkening country road.
It was at least fifteen minutes before John Farley reached the main thoroughfare. Looking like a one street town there were lights in some of the shops that revealed flaky paint on the signs over the windows. Paper and rubbish lay on the ground as though it hadn’t been swept for months. A large banner across the street saying ‘Welcome’, half flopped over covering the first letter. Cars parked along the sidewalk were dusty as though they hadn’t been touched in a long while.
John caught a sign reading ‘Press Office’ above one of the shop fronts. A light shone out onto the sidewalk. Ahh! Maybe they’ll know about the conference, thought John. He stopped the car in the conveniently empty space outside the front and got out.
A quick stretch saw him reach his full height of 6 feet 2 inches. His slender frame heaved as he breathed in, but spluttered and coughed as the stale smell in the air lodged in his throat.
As he became accustomed to the atmosphere John was hit with an eerie silence and a lifeless feeling. It was like a blanket suffocating him. He’d never experience it before and he’d been in some one horse towns on more occasions than he’d liked. Feeling uneasy he quickly entered the building.
The uneasiness didn’t leave once inside. It was cold and musty and felt devoid of life.
The inside space contained three desks. Typewriters sat on two of them. The third was covered in books and papers. The dull light from the lamps on each desk revealed the covering of dust that had never been disturbed. John thought about calling out for someone, but decided against it. A feeling of anxiety slowly enveloped him.
He almost jumped out of his skin and his heart started racing as one of the phones started ringing. Motionless, he waited for someone to answer it, but knowing deep down no one would. Could it really be for him? Who knows he’s here?
It kept on ringing. Putting his questions aside he picked up the receiver.
“Hello?” he said tentatively.
A rough, gravely voice spoke.
“Welcome to the town everyone’s dying to stay in. I hope you have a long and happy stay here.”
The laughter rumbled down the line like a coming thunderstorm.
“Who is this?” John asked.
There was a click and the line was dead. John stared at the mouthpiece for a few seconds and a chilling dread filled his soul. Dropping it he ran. Outside something made him look to his left. There was nothing there. He looked up and down the street, but it was empty.
He noticed a Sheriffs office two hundred yards away with its lights on. Eyes darting from left to right, he quickly made his way over to the office. The door was ajar. Pushing it open he shouted, “Is anyone there?”
A rank smell wafted over John’s nose as he crossed the threshold. The doorway led to a small corridor. He walked the short distance to the internal doorless doorway and peered round the corner. The horror he saw made him step back in revulsion.
The small office contained a desk and a row of filing cabinets. Above the chair by the desk hung a corpse. The body, or what was left of it, was dressed in a Sheriffs uniform with a hat adorning the scalped head. What would have been exposed flesh was stripped from the body and the tendons had stuck together with congealed blood.
John almost vomited from the sight and smell before him. He staggered backwards almost tripping over himself, trying to get out the door. Outside he bent over and coughed and spat trying to get the lingering taste from his throat and mouth. His eyes began to water and he felt his heart pounding away at his chest as if trying to get out.
Fumbling around in his pocket he dug out his phone. No signal. He looked up. His car! He ran over to it almost falling in the road. The sight that greeted him made his heart sink. Slashed tyres and a wrecked steering column. “Shit! What the hells happening!” he screamed.
Something made him turn round; a feeling in the depths of his mind. The hairs started to stand up on the back of his neck. There it was. A figure standing at the same end of the street he had entered the town from. It was silhouetted in the lights from behind. All John could make out was a long coat and long hair and swinging at the figures side, in his hand, was an axe.
John filled with horror and a panic set in. Frantically he looked for somewhere to run, but indecision took over and he froze on the spot.
The figure began to move towards him; the axe’s sharp edge catching the light on the downward swing as it got closer.
This seemed to kick John into action. He darted off, deeper into the town until he came across an open door to a shop on his left. He wasn’t going to try to hide. There was no point. He needed to get back to the main road. If he could get out the back of one of these buildings he could double back, past his pursuer and back to the main road that way.
The figure made him forget his previous experiences of the buildings in the town. He ran straight in and almost collided with another carcass hanging from the ceiling. John noticed that this one wasn’t so fresh and the flesh had rotted from the bones. It was also dressed. A ragged pink dress hung off of the bones and dried blood stains coated the lower half.
Quickly he looked round the room. A door over in the right hand corner gave him his exit to the rear. The small light on the counter lit the way and within seconds he was through the door.
He fumbled for a light switch on the wall to his left and when he switched it on he found himself in a smaller room; a living area with table and chairs and a sink in the corner. Directly opposite was the door to the back yard. Without looking back he yanked the door open and charged through.
The fresh, cool air was noticeable compared to the closeness and foul smelling air inside. He was in a small, empty yard and the high walls on all sides made him panic once again as his breathing started to race. It was all he could to stop himself from hyperventilating.
Then he spotted it; a drain cover. It looked big enough for him to fit through. He dropped to his knees beside it and stuck his fingers through the grate. It was stuck. No matter how hard he pulled it wouldn’t budge. A crashing door told him the figure was close. He tried again to move the drain cover, but it would not move.
Something caught his eye as he looked around and when he looked closer he could see it was a tyre lever. He moved as fast as he could and jammed the lever into the drain cover. With all his might he yanked the lever over dislodging the cover and falling over in the process. He didn’t have time to climb down the ladder as the figure burst through the yard door. John jumped down into the drain.
He seemed to fall for what he thought was an age until he hit the ground hard. He fell onto his back and into a couple of inches of water. Slightly dazed, the cold water touching his skin began to shake him back to reality.