Carl awoke to sunlight sparkling on his windshield. He sat up and stared through the bug-splattered glass at a small sign a few yards ahead that read: November Falls. Pop. 58. The painted number was fresh. His car was parked in tall grass on the side of a two-lane road that ran along a narrow, gently flowing river in a gorge bordered on both sides by steep, rocky mountainsides.
He looked at his watch. It was 7:40 AM. He checked his cellphone and found it was dead. On his car radio all he got was static. He rolled down the window and inhaled the aromas of sun-heated grass, wet earth and honeysuckle. He yawned as he always did when inhaling fresh air in the morning. His mouth was dry, as if all the moisture had been absorbed by cotton that remained stuck in the back of his throat. He rubbed dirt from his hands, and then cupped them together and covered his nose and mouth with them. He exhaled. His breath smelled like garlic toast spread with Limburger cheese. He turned and searched for a bottled water among the empty whiskey bottles, beer cans and fast food wrappers lying in the back seat. He found it, but what was left in it barely moistened his tongue and did nothing to remove the acrid taste in his mouth.
He looked in the rear view mirror and then opened the glove compartment and took out a handgun. He slipped it in the waistband in the back of his pants, hid it with his shirt tail, and opened the car door.
As soon as he got out of the car he relieved himself. He then walked across a small meadow to the bank of the river where through the clear water he watched trout swim just above the rocky riverbed.
“Ahoy there, stranger,” a voice called out.
Startled, Carl quickly turned to see a man coming his way who was carrying a fishing pole and tackle box in one hand, and a can of paint and paint brush in the other. He was dressed in dark green waders and wearing a white ball cap. From a distance the man’s smile seemed to take up his entire face.
As the man walked toward him, Carl bent down and quickly washed the dirt from his hands in the river, letting the cool water soothe the blisters on his fingertips. He then scooped water into his mouth, swished it around and spat it out. He then gulped down several palm fulls and stood up just as the man was within a few yards away.
The man’s face was ruddy and lined with wrinkles. He had a thin mustache that was snowy-white. He glanced up at the sky. “Looks like it’s gonna be another beautiful day in November Falls,” he said. He then gazed at Carl. “You here to do some fishing?”
Carl shook his head. “I used to fish, but I’m just taking a look around,” he said. “To be honest, I’m not exactly sure where I am.”
The man chuckled. “Not too many people come to November Falls on purpose. Once you enter the canyon the only way to find your way out is to turn around or to go out the other end.”
“What’s the law situation in November Falls?” Carl asked.
“You know. Cops. Sheriff.”
“Oh, there’s no need for any of that in November Falls,” Myles said. He set his tackle box down in the grass. “This is my favorite fishing spot. The trout practically jump onto the hook.”
A hawk’s screech momentarily drew both men’s attention skyward. Its call echoed. It circled above the water downriver and then dived and was lost from view.
“What are you doing with the paint?” Carl asked.
“It’s my task to change the population figure on the sign,” Myles said. “I’ve been walking out here almost every day recently. I was out here twice yesterday. Changing the sign gives me an excuse to fish.”
“How far is the town from here?” Carl asked.
Myles pointed west. “It’s not really much of a town size-wise but it’s about three miles from here. You won’t find friendlier people anywhere else on this planet than you’ll find in November Falls, I suppose.”
“Is there a hotel or motel in town?” Carl asked.
Myles shook his head. “I’m afraid not, but Betty Codescu rents out rooms. Her place is on Maple Street. The road you’re on turns into Maple Street. You can’t miss her place. It’s painted canary yellow. She has a rooms-to-let sign in her window. Just tell Betty that Myles referred you to her.”
“Thanks,” Carl said. He turned and walked back to the car. Before pulling onto the road he watched Myles change the number to 53.
A short distance from where Carl had left Myles, the canyon walls bowed out on both sides, forming a crater-like bowl. The river curved, following the direction of the canyon wall it ran alongside of. A few of the houses of November Falls came quickly into view. Their pristine white painted walls and silvery slate roofs glistened in the sunlight. Carl reduced his speed and entered the town slowly. The first street sign was Maple Street.
There were fifteen buildings on the tree lined street: eleven houses, a grocery store, saloon, diner and hardware store. The facades of the businesses had been painted recently and although the houses were Victorian, they showed no sign of wear. The lawns were immaculately manicured and they all had flower gardens. Honeysuckle and roses grew everywhere. There were no cars or trucks on the street and none of the houses had driveways. Two streets branched off of Maple Street.
There were three people out; all were elderly. One stood on the front lawn of one of the houses and two others were standing in the street. All three stood absolutely still and stared up at the sky. Who’s taking care of these old people? he wondered. He slowly drove by them noticing the whiteness of their hair; it almost glowed.
He stopped briefly in front of the saloon, but seeing it was closed he continued on. A few minutes later he parked his car at the curb in front of the only house painted something other than white; an almost startling bright canary yellow. There was a rooms-to-let sign in the front window.
He got out of the car and brushed dirt from his pants and then opened the trunk. After pushing aside a shovel and two sawed-off shotguns he took out his toiletries bag and small suitcase. He walked up the cobblestone walkway to the house and peered in through the stained glass in the door at the foyer. A grandfather clock stood in one corner. He kicked dirt from his shoes and rang the bell and waited several moments before the door was opened by an elderly woman with long white hair. Though wrinkled, her face retained the beauty of a much younger woman. Her eyes were lively, full of expression.
“Are you Betty Cadescu?” Carl asked her.
“Yes, I am. Can I help you?”
“I need a room for a few days. Myles referred me.”
She looked at him, appraisingly. “How is it you know Myles?”
“Well, actually I just met him just a little while ago for the first time by the river outside of town,” he said. “My name is Carl Hendrix.”
She smiled knowingly. “Meeting him any other way would have been surprising.” She stepped back from the door. “Please come in, Carl.”
Carl stepped in. The air was scented with lilacs. Other than ticking produced by the swinging of the clock’s pendulum, it was quiet. He peeked into the living room. The furnishings were early twentieth century. The overstuffed furniture was upholstered in dark red velvet. “Nice place you got here,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied and closed the door. “Come in and sit down. You look as if you’ve had a rough journey.”
He rubbed the stubble on his square jaw. “I’ve been on the road for a few days.”
She walked into the living room and he followed. She sat in a rocking chair and he sat on the sofa. He placed the suitcase and toiletries bag across his lap.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Going?” He shifted uncomfortably on the soft sofa cushion.
“You must be going somewhere,” she said. She began rocking the chair.
“West.” He glanced out her front window. A man was standing in the street in front of her house with his head tilted back and gazing up at the sky. His white hair glistened in the sunlight. “What is it with the old folks in this town?” he said.
“I’m an old folk,” she said.
“I mean . . .” Unable to find the words to respond he stopped abruptly. He looked around the room and not seeing a television, said, “Are there televisions in the rooms?” he asked.
“No, there aren’t. I don’t own a television. No one in November Falls does.”
He ran his hand through his greasy hair. “No one? What about a radio?”
“No one owns one of those either,” she said.
“How do you folks keep up with the news?”
She brushed a loose strand of hair from her face. “What news should we know about?”
“It could save your lives,” he said. “You never know who might come through here.”
She chuckled. “That’s silly. When it’s time for our lives to end, watching the news won’t prevent it.” She stopped rocking. “You seem like a nice young man. Would you like to see your room?”
“Yes. I need a bath and I’m dog-tired.” He stood up. “How much for the room?”
“Whatever you can pay will be fine.” She stood and walked past him to the bottom of the stairs that led to the second floor. “You can get your meals over at the diner,” she said. “I’m a terrible cook.”
Late afternoon Carl left Betty’s house and slowly walked to the diner. There was a small blackboard in the window with the day’s menu written on it. There were no prices listed beside the vegetable soup, grilled cheese sandwich, or meatloaf special. A bell above the door tinkled when he went in. The whiteness of the walls and floor momentarily blinded him. The men and women sitting at the tables and at the counter all turned and looked at him with huge smiles. Their faces were wrinkled, but radiated good health; their cheeks were pink, their eyes sparkled, their white hair shone.
“Hello, Carl,” some of them called out.
Others greeted him with, “Welcome to November Falls.”
“I’m Jim,” said a man wearing a straw hat. “Glad to meet you, Carl.”
A woman with a bright pink scarf tied around her neck said, “I’m Louise. I hope you like our town.”
An elderly woman wearing a red checkered apron came from behind the counter. She was carrying a pot of coffee.
“I’m Hazel. Betty came in for lunch and said such nice things about you,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind sitting with strangers.”
He looked around the diner. There was an empty seat at two of the four square tables covered with red checkerboard tablecloths. The diners at the tables with an empty chair waved their arms and called out to him to join them.
There was an empty stool at the counter. The seat was upholstered with red leather.
“I’ll sit at the counter,” he said.
“That’s fine,” Hazel said. “I hope you don’t mind a grilled cheese sandwich. We’re out of everything else and Frank, the cook, has left.”
To the disappointed groans of the patrons at the tables, Carl sat at the counter between two men.
Hazel came around the counter and poured coffee in a cup and set it in front of him. “I apologize but we didn’t get cream or sugar with our delivery this week.”
“That’s okay.” He took a sip of the coffee and uttered a subtle moan. “That’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted,” he said.
“I’m so glad you like it. It’s made with water from the falls,” Hazel said. “I’ll be back with your sandwich in a few minutes.” She placed the coffee pot on a heating plate behind the counter and then went through a door into the kitchen.
“I’m Doug,” the man seated to Carl’s left said to him. “It’s an honor to meet someone famous.”
Carl took another sip of coffee. “What makes you think I’m famous?”
“Betty said you were interested in television and you look like someone who might be on television.”
“Since you don’t have televisions in this town how would you know that?”
“Oh, we used to have televisions, but that was some time ago. After we saw everything we needed to see we got rid of them.”
Carl took another sip of coffee. “The waitress, er, what’s her name, said Frank the cook left. Where did he go?”
“Hazel. Her name is Hazel. One of the sweetest persons you’ll ever meet,” Doug said. “Hard to say where Frank is at the moment. Distance is really hard to measure sometimes.”
The man on the stool at Carl’s right, leaned over and said, “I don’t mean to interrupt your conversation, but Myles said you were a fisherman.”
“I’m not a fisherman,” Carl said. “I fished with my dad when I was a kid.”
“Why did you stop?” the man asked.
“My dad took off,” Carl said.
Doug asked, “Where did he go?”
Hazel came through the door carrying a plate with the grilled cheese sandwich on it. She placed it in front of him. As she refilled his cup, she said, “Don’t let these two talk your ears off. I hope you enjoy your sandwich.”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” he said as he pushed the plate away. “What do I owe you?”
“It’s on the house,” she said. “Money is meaningless in November Falls.”
“Goodbye, Carl,” everyone called out as he went out the door.
Betty was sitting on her porch swing when Carl came out of the house. Purple, red and gold bands of light were fanned out across the twilight sky. The air was thick with the scent of honeysuckle. Birdsong chorused from the trees.
He leaned against a porch railing and looked out at the street. Four people were standing in the street and gazing up at the sky. One of them was Hazel. “Why do they do that?” he asked.
She rocked the swing. “Does it bother you?”
“Not really, but it’s freaky.”
She had braided her hair and rolled it into a bun on the top of her head. She played with one of the bobby pins that held it together. “Myles stopped by while you were resting. He said he’d stop by early in the morning to take you fishing.”
“I don’t have any fishing gear,” Carl said.
“Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty of that sort of thing around,” she said.
He looked down the street and saw light coming from the saloon. He licked his lips and stepped onto the top porch step. “I think I’ll take a little walk.”
She pulled the bobby pin all the way out and then reinserted it. “Stay out of trouble.”
Going down the street he passed Hazel. He stood in front of her, said hello, and waved his hand in front of her eyes. Getting no response, he shook his head and walked on, thinking, This is crazy. I’m getting out of here tomorrow.
The saloon door was open. Music he had never heard before spilled out from a jukebox. Inside, the walls were painted white. White tablecloths covered the tables. It was immaculately clean. The only person in the saloon was an old man with a gleaming white handlebar mustache who was standing behind the bar. He was wearing a white apron. Carl walked up to the bar and sat on a stool.
“Welcome to my saloon, Carl,” the bartender said. “Betty said you’d be coming here.”
“How would she know that?” Carl asked.
The bartender wiped the bar with a wet rag in front of where Carl was seated. “She has a second sense about those kinds of things.”
“I think Betty talks too much,” Carl said.
The bartender chuckled. “Maybe so. If you had asked her she would have told you that I don’t serve alcoholic drinks.”
Carl wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “No alcohol? What kind of saloon is this?”
“It’s where the people of November Falls come to socialize in the evenings.”
Carl glared at the bartender. “There aren’t any people in here.”
The bartender put a whiskey glass on the bar and filled it with water from a tall, white, slender bottle. “This is water taken from the falls west of town. Drink it. You might like it. It’s what we folks who live here drink. It will help calm you down.”
Carl swatted the glass from the bar with his hand. It hit the floor and shattered. “Everyone in this town belongs in an institution. How come there isn’t anyone in November Falls under the age of eighty?”
“We were all young once,” the bartender said.
Carl pulled his handgun from the back of his pants and aimed it at the bartender’s head. “Alright, tell me what’s going on here. None of that doubletalk either.”
“I would like to stay around and talk but it’s my time to go,” the bartender said.
He took off the apron and laid it on the bar.
“You’re not going anywhere until you answer my questions,” Carl said, waving the gun at him.
The bartender chuckled. “Sorry, but I’m due on Maple Street.” He walked around the bar and headed toward the door.
Carl aimed the gun at the back of the bartender’s head and pulled the trigger. The bullet left the barrel of the gun, froze in mid-air and fell to the floor. The bartender walked out of the saloon.
Stunned, Carl briefly stared at his gun as if seeing it for the first time and then flung it across the room. He ran out of the saloon and down the street, pushing aside several men and women who were gazing up at the starlit sky. He turned on Oak Street and ran a block before stopping, sweating and breathless.
The Victorian homes on both sides of the street were dark. The only signs of life were the birds in the trees.
He collapsed to his knees and screamed, “Where has everyone gone?”
“Everything that the town needs is brought in by a truck once a week,” Betty said. “It didn’t bring butter or jelly along with a lot of other things this week so we’ll have to eat dry toast.”
She passed a plate with four slices of burnt toast across the table to Carl.
He picked up a slice and bit into a corner. There was a resulting crunching sound. He put the toast on the table. He glowered at her. “I don’t like being talked about and even more I don’t like not having my questions answered,” he said, angrily. “Something weird is happening to the people in this town and I want to know what it is.”
She wiped toast crumbs from her lips with a napkin. “Weird things happen to people in every town,” she said. “You shouldn’t let such things upset you so.”
Carl knocked the plate of toast from the table. “Listen, lady. I went up one of your streets last night and every home on it was vacant and so are almost all of them on Maple street, so you can’t just pass that off as an every day occurrence.”
“Those aren’t homes anymore, “Betty said with a smile. “Those are just houses.”
The door bell chimed.
“Oh that must be Myles here to take you fishing,” she said. “Now get along with you.”
Carl scooted his chair back from the table and stood up. “When I get back I’m getting my things and getting out of this looney bin.” He stormed out of the kitchen. When he opened the front door, Myles was standing on the porch in dark green waders and a white ball cap, and holding two fishing poles, a tackle box, a can of white paint, and a paint brush.
“Looks like it’s going to be another beautiful day in November Falls,” Myles said with a big smile.
Carl shut the door. “When is it never a beautiful day here?” he asked sarcastically as he took the paint and paintbrush from Carl’s hand.
Walking to the car, Carl looked up and down the street. It was empty. He put everything in the trunk as Myles stood by, watching.
“What are the guns for?” Myles asked.
“I’ll give it to you straight. I’m no angel,” Carl said. “There are people looking for me and I need to protect myself.” He slammed the trunk closed.
When they got into the car, Myles said, “I always wondered what it would be like to ride in one of these.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Carl said as he started the car. A moment later he pulled away from the curb. He did a u-turn and headed east on Maple Street. Before passing the last house he looked in the rear view mirror and saw Betty standing in the street and looking up at the sky.
It wasn’t until they reached the same spot where Carl had awoken the previous morning that either of them spoke.
“Why are those people after you?” Myles asked.
Carl pulled the car into the grass a few feet from the November Falls sign. The number on it was 28. “I took some money. A lot of money. Two million dollars to be exact.” He pointed at the sign. “That number must be a mistake.”
Myles opened his door. “I never make mistakes.” He stepped out of the car, and then bent down and looked in at Carl. “Money is meaningless.”
“Only in November Falls,” Carl said and then he got out of the car.
After taking the things from the trunk, Myles set the paint and paintbrush in front of the sign.
They walked together to the riverbank.
“Sorry that I couldn’t find another pair of waders for you,” Myles said as he set the poles and tackle box in the grass. “Not too many people in November Falls fish.”
Carl sat on the ground. “That’s okay.” He took his shoes and socks off and rolled up his pants legs.
Myles opened the tackle box and took out several spinners and bright yellow plastic minnows and attached them to the line and hook. “Did you enjoy fishing with your dad?” he asked.
“It was the best times I ever had,” Carl replied as he stood up. “He used to pack baloney sandwiches and we’d go to this fishing hole that my dad liked. We’d spend the entire day talking and fishing. My dad was a great guy.”
Myles handed him a fishing pole. “What did you do after he left?”
“Tried to forget he had ever existed.”
Myles stepped into the water. “Try not to injure the fish when you take them off of the hook and put them back in the water.”
“You don’t eat them?” Carl said as he stepped into the river.
In a matter of thirty minutes the two men had caught and released twenty trout.
Carl was laughing as an eleventh fish dangled from his hook and Myles said, “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
“Not now,” Carl said. “I never knew fishing could be like this.”
As Carl watched, Myles walked out of the water, laid his pole down, took off his waders and laid them in the grass. He walked to the sign, wiped away the number on the sign, opened the can of paint, and dipped the brush into it.
Carl got out of the water laid his pole next to Myles’. “Do you have to do that now?” he said.
Myles applied the brush to the sign, and then dropped the brush. He stepped back from the sign, tilted his head back and stared up at the sky.
Carl rushed to him, grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “What’s wrong with you? Snap out of it! What you’re doing, what all the old people in this town do, is insane.”
The smile that was spread across Myles’ face didn’t wane. His eyes remained focused on the sky.
Carl looked up at the sign. The population number was 0. He ran to the riverbank and put on his shoes and socks. When he stood and turned, Myles was inside a beam of white light and being lifted into the sky. Carl watched until Myles disappeared beyond the bright blue sky. Then he ran to his car and got the shovel. He frantically dug in the spot below the sign where he had buried the money. With his fingers blistered and his hands and pants dirtied, he tossed the shovel aside and pulled out an empty white linen sack. He ripped it to shreds, looked up at the sky and screamed, “Why?”
He then looked at the sign. It read, November Falls.
He ran to his car, got in and sped away, heading west toward the town. Minutes later he knew he had entered Maple Street, but the street no longer existed. It was gone. The entire town had vanished. His handgun lay in the road. His suitcase and toiletries bag were in a bare patch of ground where Betty’s house had been. He raced on, leaving his things behind.
The last thing he saw as he drove out of the canyon was a series of small waterfalls with water so bright that it was luminescent.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 460 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr,and LGBTQ: 33 Stories,and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories,published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. He is the founder of Sweetycat Press. His Twitter is @carrsteven960. His website ishttps://www.stevecarr960.com / He is on Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/steven.carr.35977