As the tires of Austin's 1995 Cadillac sped down the road into the thick fog, he knew he'd taken a wrong turn. Austin Reyes' destination was Helmsley, a small rural town just miles from Arizona. But now, he had a feeling that he was no where near where he wanted to be. It was really his mistake for having picked up a hitchhiker and been so gullible for believing his directions. The hiker told him to go straight then take the first left. Well, that first left was a dirt road, certainly not leading to any big town.
A new scene. That was what he needed. The accident had almost killed him, the crash had destroyed him and his body had been so badly damaged a new start was what he needed. He didn’t remember very much about it. He knew that he had messed up on the drive home, the alcohol in his system had altered his senses and he lost his footing on the accelerator. He remembered the trees rushing towards him and then nothing. Life after that seemed hazy and grey, almost like he was in a dream.
The nightmares that followed the accident were startlingly real. Faces and places he recognised but couldn’t quite remember the names of. Everything seemed faded and time seemed to pass in an almost stop start way, like something from a clockwork animation. It was funny but Austin never felt quite the same afterwards, almost like he was living in another reality. A change of scene was exactly what he needed.
Austin's current scenery was trees, the odd building, mostly boarded up and the fog thick enough to cut with a knife. As he descended deeper and deeper into the fog, it felt as if he was driving into the abyss. Austin spotted a sign up ahead. Having to slow down in order for his eyes to peer through the fog he saw that the sign consisted of crumbling damp wood and a, once silver, rusted plate with big letters engraved. The letters read "Welcome to Greenvale."
Maybe I should turn back? That thought plagued Austin's mind. When he peered out of his back window, there were no gaps through the fog. It was like a sheet of snow on the window whereas the view straight ahead looked a little more positive and a little less intimidating to make his way through. Austin pressed down the gas and drove ahead. On the left, he noticed a small narrow house. It looked grey and was covered in black ash.
As Austin's Cadillac rolled deeper and deeper into Greenvale, he knew something was wrong. He had passed two rows of buildings and what looked like a church. They were all abandoned and a lot were covered in ash. There were no people, no cars, nothing. There was nothing except empty buildings and ash. Inky and soft, like downy fur and it coated everything that wasn’t blanketed by the fluffy white vapours. The fog faded gradually but was still clearly evident. Austin pushed down on the brake and got out of the car. The coldness in the air pinched his cheeks. He was sure that he had never been there before but there was something about the buildings that surrounded him now that was so familiar, so hauntingly familiar.
"Hello!?" Austin shouted. He was answered with a dull echo. Where was he? His feet took him forward. So far, Greenvale felt like one long singular street. He climbed back into the warmth of the car and drove down the street for a good ten minutes but he saw no turns or corners. So far, just one long road. No cars, no people, not even the sound of animals or night birds in the sky. Nothing. He also noticed that half of the buildings were boarded up but half weren't. Was there anybody in them?
Austin passed three boarded up buildings before coming to one where there was a rod of wood through the door handles; it almost looked like someone placed it there to stop whatever was inside from getting out. He took a deep breath, steadied himself and yanked it out and pulled the door open. The place looked like a school hall. There was an office section that was covered in black ash and down the corridor were rows of lockers. All the lockers were pitch black. It was hard to tell where one locker ended and another began. Austin walked further up the corridor, following faint noises.
The noise grew louder. A small clinking noise. Lots of them. Repeatedly. Austin stopped dead in his tracks when the silence was cut by loud laughter.
Where did that come from? Austin was unnerved by the laughter. Then, right in front on his eyes, a young man appeared out of nowhere, holding an empty wine glass, although that never stopped him trying to drink from the frosted glass. The man's apparel was old; he was wearing an elegant grey suit with black pinstripes on his feet a pair of highly polished black shoes. The man's eyes met Austin’s. "Glad to see you again, sir."
The man vanished. Just like that his body evaporated into ash and blew away. Austin's mind was all over the place. "Glad to see you again." What the hell was that? He felt the desperate urge to run away but the clinking noise continued. It sounded like glasses being clinked together. Austin's eye was drawn to the end of the corridor. A wall with a smear of black ash across it. Austin ran his fingers across the wall. It left coarse black marks on his finger tips.
He turned the corner to see what was making the noise. There were about twenty people in all, all in suits and dresses holding empty wine glasses repeatedly tapping them against each other. All heads turned to face Austin and in unison said the same thing; "Glad to see you again, sir." Austin stared at them with confusion on his face. All the bodies then, again, evaporated into black ash and floated away. The ash blew back down the corridor and out of a smashed window. Austin followed.
When he reached outside, Austin saw that every single building and the road and sidewalk was covered in black ash. The fog had disappeared. It was now darker than it has been before. The only light in Greenvale was the shining of the moon.
The black ash continued to blow about until it rose up to Austin's level. The black ash evolved into numerous human forms. The same people from the school he recognised, all antique coats and pretty silk dresses. Then all the people crumbled to ash again then the ash drew itself together as if drawn by a magnet and it formed the figure of one person. The man in the suit. "Hello sir, will you be staying long this time?” Austin glanced around, then wondered something. He'd been seeing black ash blow around and turning into humans who recognised him. He was in Greenvale, a place covered start to finish in black ash, a place that seemed to have been forgotten by the world. The question burned itself brightly in his brain, why wasn't he scared?
Austin stared at the man in the suit. "How do you know me? Where am I?" The man in the suit laughed then again, just as if by magic, disappeared. Austin was still not scared but felt an urge to get in his car and drive away, it was madness.
Clambering back into the car he pressed down on the accelerator and sped out of Greenvale, passing the Welcome sign again. The black ash began to disappear on the sidewalk. For a split second, it was light. Midday he guessed. But then the next moment, it was darkness. The trees around him were growing bigger and arching over touching each other like ebony fingers interlocking. No light could get through. As Austin looked up, a sudden feeling of drowsiness came upon him then blackness.
When Austin finally came back around, the trees were still arching over him, blocking out the silver light of the swollen moon. He drove forward in complete silence. Black ash began to appear again, raining down like sooty drizzle. Austin took no notice. He passed the Welcome to Greenvale sign again. Took no notice. He passed boarded up buildings again. Took no notice. He drove up the long road. Again. Then stopped and climbed out of the car looking around at the ash scattered on the ground and the buildings. The ash rose up from the ground and the people appeared again. The man in the suit emerged from the crowd and said "Glad you are back sir, we all missed you." Everyone else nodded and made sounds of agreement. Austin looked at all of them and let out a relieved sigh. The black ash on the building blew away, which caused all boarded up buildings to open. Everyone now had wine glasses. They were no longer empty. The man in the suit outstretched his arm and offered Austin a glass. Austin took the glass and placed his hand on the man in the suits shoulder. "Oh it's good to be back Smith." Austin gulped his wine as everyone followed him down the main road of Greenvale.
"It's good to be back."