Maury leaned against the charred oak tree in his front yard. Its leaves had been burned away by fire, along with his childhood home.
Only the blackened stone foundation remained. He drew the lines of the house in his mind—the front porch, white siding, the windows marking the living room, Ma and Pa’s room, Lula’s, Willem’s. He imagined them in their usual places. Ma, sewing. Pa in his shop. Willem, helping him. Lula at her piano, practicing scales, which had always annoyed Maury.
He would give his life to hear her play now.
Everything and everyone but him was gone—because he didn’t get the measles. It had infected his little brother and sister, and his mother had stayed home to take care of them. Pa had likely stopped in to check on them. All of them, together…
Maury squeezed his eyes shut, forcing out the tears. He’d been a brat that morning. It was a beautiful late-spring day, and he’d wanted to stay home, too.
“No,” Constance had said. “School is important.”
How important was school now? If Ma had just said yes, Maury would be with them now. His mother’s soft voice sounded in his ear, telling him what he knew she’d say: This was how his life was meant to be. She’d said such things as a comfort, but staring at the ruin of his home, Maury didn’t feel comforted, just broken and alone.
The sun crept low in the sky, washing golden rays over the scorched meadow behind Maury’s house. He pushed himself off the tree and whispered goodbye to his home and to the dead.
“See you tomorrow,” he said.
He walked toward town, past a collection of foundations that were once his neighborhood. He remembered every house and who had lived there. Wood and bone, both burned to ash in a few minutes’ time. It was a horrible way to die—at least fate had spared him that much. Ma would say he’d been saved for some purpose, but it was easy for the dead to say such things. The dozens of children orphaned that day asked themselves why, but no one living had an answer.
As Maury neared town, evidence of the fire dwindled to a few charred trees and the burnt frames of the buildings that still stood. Then, two miles from his house, every sign of the fire vanished, as if the explosion hadn’t happened at all. Everything was untouched—the striped awnings and benches, the fountain in the town square, the hardware store, the barber shop, ice cream shop, pharmacist.
The survivors were supposed to accept the official explanation—that a gas leak had caused the explosion. Accept it and then move out of town and on with their lives. Maury didn’t believe the story, and he wasn’t the only one, but everyone who had voiced such concerns publicly had been silenced one way or another. The fire chief’s body had been found in an empty field two weeks before. The father of Maury’s friend, Shep Mills, talked to the paper and then disappeared. Maury may have been only seventeen, but he wasn’t stupid. He understood what people would do to keep a secret.
Maybe that was the purpose fate had saved him for: to honor the dead by uncovering the truth.
He walked through the abandoned streets, searching for clues to a mystery he didn’t understand. Someone had destroyed his hometown for a reason, and that someone wanted to keep that reason secret. To destroy evidence, maybe? Was there some valuable resource like oil or gold beneath the soil? Maury had lived here his whole life, and he saw no value in the place other than it was the place he grew up.
He stopped in the center of the street. After this block came the iron truss bridge, which spanned the black waters of Deephole Run. On the other side of the bridge, the road shot into a countryside dotted with the occasional house and farm. Maury stared at the blue mountains to the west, which caught the pale-yellow light of the setting sun. The woods to the north remained dark and impenetrable.
Who would choose to live in Centralia? There was nothing to do here. It was in the middle of nowhere, a hundred miles from any city that mattered.
A remote town in the boonies was the perfect place to hide. But who needed a whole town to hide in?
A yellow light flared on the horizon north of town, emerging quickly from the woods and down the hill toward him. Headlights. Twenty more pairs followed behind the first. Maury bolted off the street and toward the nearest building, which was Centralia Housing and Loan. He plastered himself against its mural of the Smoky Mountains, painted sometime in the fifties by schoolchildren. Its cartoonish animals—red wolf, cougar, black bear—peered blindly across the landscape, toward the cars now whizzing over the bridge one by one. A Bentley, Cadillac Coupe deVille, Aston Martin, a row of vans. When the last one passed, Maury crept to the edge of the building and peered around the corner and into town.
Pairs of taillights lined up in the middle of the street, glowing like red eyes. Maury turned onto the sidewalk and ran back toward town, quietly as he could. A couple blocks from the closest van, he ducked into an alley and took out his camera. Black-clad figures emerged from the vehicles. He snapped their pictures as they pointed east into town, and unfamiliar voices called out indistinct commands. Strangers walked into the square, down side streets. Van doors were opened and bulky items were hauled out and carried down the street. There must have been a hundred people.
“I can smell you!” a voice called, soft and polite.
Maury hadn’t noticed that one of the figures had broken off from the rest and now stood on the street’s center line, a mere fifty feet from where he hid. Maury snapped the man’s picture; he was tall and broad shouldered, but it was too dark to see his face. The man breathed in a deep pull of air.
“How strange. I thought you had all left.”
A pause. The man took a few steps forward, his form black against the silvered lines of Ginny’s Beauty Salon.
“I imagine you’re having a hard time letting go. I can understand that.” The stranger’s voice echoed eerily. “But you need to understand something in return. You no longer live here. This is no longer your home, and you must leave.”
The stranger’s head pivoted, and Maury assumed he was searching for him. He pressed his body tighter against the building.
Maury couldn’t explain what happened next. He felt a hand slide between his body and the building and… push against his head, shoulders, back, legs. The violent, jarring shove steered him out of the alley and into the street, the pain spreading inward to squeeze his muscles, organs, bones. He’d never been more afraid. It was worse than the day of the explosion, when he’d huddled inside his English classroom and the floor trembled beneath his feet. He was more afraid than when he ran toward home and saw a great ball of black smoke above his neighborhood.
The fire chief and Mr. Mills were right—it wasn’t a gas leak. Now Maury knew the truth: It was these people. Whoever they were, they were the ones who had destroyed his hometown and killed his family and a hundred other souls. These people wanted to hide in Centralia.
As he was shoved across the bridge, Maury tried to fight it. He needed to face them and get the answers the dead deserved. But instead he ran. Faster than he thought possible. He ran past the bridge and down the road, past the houses and farms. By the time he reached the town sign, his entire body was aching with cramps, and his lungs were on fire.
A Mountain Playground
It was his home, not theirs. Ma and Pa, Lula and Willem—their souls rested in Centralia, and he couldn’t leave them. Maury tried to take a step forward, back into town, but his feet were glued to the asphalt. He tensed every muscle in his body and tried to yank himself free, but he felt the skin on the bottom of his feet begin to tear and fell to his knees.
Crickets sang in the fields, and the moon was high. He sat there in the road, staring at Centralia hidden on the horizon within the trees. He imagined his home as it was, its lines and rooms and the happy noises inside. He cried until his entire body hurt, wishing again he’d died that day, too. Dying was easier than this.
Ma was wrong. This wasn’t how his life was meant to be. To hell with fate and purpose. He just wanted to hear Lula play the piano again.
Photo Courtesy w.marsh, Flickr Creative Commons