It was late morning when Edward woke. He found himself alone on the backseats; Callie must have moved him. The car was not moving, but it was clear that they had done some driving while he was asleep. They were stopped at a gas station; Callie sat in the front passenger seat, Mike was outside somewhere.
Callie turned and saw that he was up. “Well good morning, sleepy-head!” she said.
“How long have you guys been up?” Edward asked.
“Oh, some time now.” Callie said, “You were so deep asleep, you didn’t even stir when I picked you up and moved you over to the seats.”
The driver’s side door opened, and Mike popped in. “Hey Ed! You up already?” he asked.
“Good. We’re gonna stop somewhere around here and have breakfast.” he said, as he got into the driver’s seat, closed the door, and started the car.
The town they were in was called Praxa, and there they went to go eat at a fast food joint called BurgerMeister.
The place was busy. After the three ordered their breakfasts, Callie went to hunt down a table while Mike went to the soda fountains to fill their cups. Edward, meanwhile, snaked his way between tables to get to the napkin and condiments tray. A hand from one of the tables to his right shot out suddenly, and grabbed his forearm in a death grip.
Startled, Edward turned and faced a wizened old woman with mad eyes and a demented smile, sitting with a family. She pulled him close, and whispered in his ear: “Bubba Death can smell you!”
“Dammit, Gladys!” a man’s voice said, “Getter off ‘im!”
The man was obviously the old woman’s son-in-law, and husband to the old woman’s daughter; who sat between the two, and across from the four kids too busy stuffing their chubby faces to comment on the contretemps.
“Sorry, kid,” the husband said to Edward, as “Gladys” tried to pry her mother’s nigh-skeletal, yet unyielding, hand off his arm, “But SOMEONE,” here he glared at Gladys, “Forgot to give Gramma her crazy pills!”
“Dammit, Ma!” the red-faced Gladys said, “Let ‘im go!”
“He’s coming for you!” Gramma cackled, as she finally let go of Edward’s arm, “You and your friends!”
Edward hurried away.
“He’ll probably get you first, old bag!” he muttered under his breath.
When he returned to Mike and Callie with the napkins and such, he told them of his little misadventure. They all shared a good hearty laugh; Bubba Death notwithstanding.
After breakfast, they were back on the road.
At lunchtime, they stopped at a small town called Erinville; and ate lunch at a small diner called Erinville’s Only Diner. True to its name, it was Erinville’s only diner.
“They’re gonna hafta change the name if another diner ever opens up there.” Callie joked.
After Erinville, the towns they passed seemed to get smaller and smaller, until they seemed to run out completely.
Not that there weren’t homes here and there, and the occasional ranch; but many of these looked lonely and decrepit.
In time, the landscape gave way to tree-spotted plains, in between patches of light-to-heavy woods.
It wasn’t until later in the afternoon, that they hit another town.
A bullet-holed sign on the side of the road read: MURGENT, in blunt black letters. Mike felt a strange fluttering sensation in his stomach as they passed it.
“Whoa!” he said.
“You felt that too?” Callie asked.
“Like I just left my stomach behind.” Mike said.
Callie nodded. “What about you, Ed?”
Edward nodded as well. “It was kinda like that feeling you get, when the rollercoaster takes a big nosedive.” he said, “Only not as fun.”
“Whatever it was, it’s gone now.” Mike said, “So that’s good.”
They passed through a time-worn wooden bridge, over a lake of filthy looking water. The bridge groaned a little, under the car, and they were all relieved when they made it to the other side.
“They better get that fixed before someone gets killed.” Mike said, “That lake don’t look too hygienic either.”
“That’s the least of their problems, Mike.” Callie said, “This place is all wrong. Look at the trees, the grass, the weeds---everything’s dried out and used up.”
Callie was right. Everything in Murgent had a desiccated and bleached look to it. Even the houses looked that way; they rotted empty in the sun, looking ancient, sentient, and evil.
In the town’s main street, the stores and places of business looked like they had met with violence at some point in their past; their windows broken, their facades charred.
The only place that looked alive was a three story building up ahead, with a wooden sign proclaiming it: THE SARRGOSET HOTEL.
It was the only place that didn’t look abandoned. Its lawns were green and lush, and its trees and flowers flourished in a circle of vitality around the hotel’s premises.
“They’re looking at us.” Callie said, in a spooked voice.
“What?! Who?” Mike asked.
“The people in that hotel.” Callie said, “Don’t you see? There are eyes peeking out of the windows at us.”
“She’s right.” Edward said, “I can see faces in some of the windows, but they’re young faces…”
“Kids.” Callie said.
Without warning, a figure ran out from behind a gnarled tree and threw himself under the wheels of their car. Mike didn’t react fast enough, and they felt the hideous bumps as the car ran over him.
Mike hit the brakes, and brought the car to a stop.
The three rushed out of the car and over to the ragdoll-like figure lying behind it.
“He came out of nowhere!” Mike stammered, “He was under the wheels before I could even think!”
They were all then startled to see the figure, an old and frail gentleman with a bald pate and a stick thin frame, get up to his feet like he hadn’t just been run over. He seemed brittle enough to have been broken by the fall, much less the two sets of wheels that should have crushed him; but there he was, standing.
“Sorry…so sorry…” the old man muttered, “Shoulda known, though. Worth a shot, though.”
“Are you okay, mister?” Mike asked.
“So sorry, though.” the old man continued to mutter, smiling mirthlessly, showing his blackened gums, “The name’s Merro, though. Merro Lhaisuber, though. Thanks you for stopping by, though. Sorry for you, though. So sorry…”
The old man pointed to the Sarrgoset Hotel with a shaky hand and bent finger. “There you go, though. There she is, though. End of the road, though. Soooo sorry…”
He limped away, still muttering his apologies.
“What the hell is going on here?” Mike asked.
“He’s insane, Mike.” Callie said, “This whole place is insane. We’ve entered Crazy Town.”
“I vote we get the freaking hell outta here.” Mike said.
“I second that emotion.” Callie said.
“Ditto.” said Edward.
The three ran back into the car post haste.
From her window in the third floor of the Sarrgoset Hotel, Zedda Stanetta watched with interest the exchange between her new guests, and Lhaisuber. It was Merro’s umpteenth suicide attempt, and he still didn’t get the picture. She had to keep an eye on him, though. Even in his insanity, there was still a sliver of the old Merro left in those squinty eyes, blade-thin nose, and down-turned mouth.
She would have him stew and flail and burn in his madness, until that sliver was bleached out. Him and the others.
As for her new guests…
“Shall I bring them in?” asked the tall shadow standing in a dark corner of the room.
“No, Mr. Blessure, they will come to us.” Zedda said, “When they see that they have no other choice.”
“They’re kids alright.” Mike said, as they drove slowly by the front of the hotel.
From the windows of the first and second floor, young faces peered at them through curtains. Their faces were difficult to read. Were they fearful? Hateful? Apathetic? Callie couldn’t tell.
From a window on the top floor, Callie saw only one face peer out at them, but it wasn’t a child’s face. She couldn’t tell if it was a male or female face, but there was something about it she definitely did not like; something in the eyes. A hunger.
Soon, and with some relief, the hotel and its mysterious inhabitants were behind them.
They left the main street, and entered the more residential part of town; and at last got a good look at the citizens of Murgent.
“Good gods…” was all Mike could say, and it was barely audible.
Callie and Edward’s mouths opened, but made not a sound.
The townsfolk came and stood by the side of the road, like gawkers at a parade; and watched them pass by. Some laughed, some gibbered, some sobbed, some just stared with blank faces. Some seemed to have clawed out their eyes, and moved their heads at their passing in a mockery of sight; watching them with their horrible black pits.
All bore the mark of madness.
“What happened to these people?” Callie whispered.
“Mike, hit the gas. Let’s just go!” Edward pleaded.
“I’m afraid to,” Mike said, “What if they start throwing themselves in front of the car, like the old man?”
“It won’t matter,” said Callie, “Look!”
Some of the trees on either side of the road were decorated with bodies swinging from nooses; bodies that still moved.
“What the hell IS this place?!” Mike shouted. He banged his fist on the steering wheel, and accidently hit the horn.
As if switched on, the townsfolk all seemed to wake from their trance-like state upon the horn-blast, and began to run wildly after the car in a rabid froth.
They threw their bodies against and under the car. A few jumped on the hood, and banged on the windshield. All of them screamed like the damned.
Those inside the car screamed as well.
“LOCK THE DOORS!” Mike yelled, swerving not to hit any of them. Failing that, Mike heeded Edward’s advice, and hit the gas.
The ride grew bumpy, as they ran over those throwing themselves under. These would then get up and join the others in chasing the car.
Callie locked her door, then closed her eyes and put her hands to her ears to drown out the sights and sounds. Edward looked back and saw a woman grinning madly at him through the back windshield as she held on somehow to the back of the car. She lost her grip and fell off, into the crowd behind them; tripping many.
Soon, the bumps stopped, as the townspeople thinned out and were left behind.
“Are they gone?” Callie asked, opening her eyes.
“Yeah,” Mike said, “They’re gone.”
Behind them, Edward poked his head out from under some blankets.
“You okay, Ed?” Callie asked.
“I’ll live.” he said, but looked doubtful.
They came to a bridge almost identical in design and age to the one they had passed upon entering town.
Mike had to slow down the car to cross it. On the other side was a weed-strewn clearing that prefaced the start of a dense wood. The road continued on into the woods, like a long snake in high grass.
There was a sign in the clearing, at the side of the road. It read: YOU ARE LEAVING MURGENT. SEE YOU AGAIN SOON!
“This is it.” Mike said, “We’re getting out of this damn town.”
“Thank the gods!” Edward said.
Upon reaching the sign, the car hit something solid, and came to a complete, sudden, and violent stop. Mike, Callie, and Edward were jerked forward a bit.
“Is everyone okay?” Mike asked.
Callie and Edward nodded.
“Lucky we were still going slow from the bridge,” Mike said, “Otherwise that might have been bad.”
“What did we hit?” Callie asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t see anything. Let me back up.”
Mike put the car in reverse and backed it up a tad, but still couldn’t see what it was that they hit. There was nothing there.
“Let’s try that again.” Mike said.
“Slowly Mike.” Callie advised.
Mike took the car out of reverse and drove them ahead slowly, as Callie had said; and again seemed to come up against an unseen, and unmoving, obstruction.
“Oh, what the shiggedy crap is this?” Edward wailed.
Mike and Callie looked at each other.
“We’re gonna hafta get out and see, you know.” Mike said.
“We lead interesting lives, don’t we?” Callie retorted.
“That we do.” Mike said, and cut the engine.
The three scanned the area behind them for any sign of townsfolk. Once they were sure that there weren’t any close by, they got out of the car and began to look around.
“I don’t see a damn thing.” Mike said, before walking into a wall that wasn’t there.
“Oww! What is this?!” Mike said. He placed his hands against something solid as stone, which could not be seen.
He turned to Callie and Edward. “Invisible wall.” he said with forced calmness, “So help me, we are now dealing with an invisible wall.”
“Thanks for clearing that up.” Callie said, as she and Edward felt along the wall, looking a bit like mimes.
“Nothing is ever easy, is it?” Edward said.
“This has to be some kind of magic…umm…thing.” Mike said.
“You think so?” Callie snorted.
“How high up do you think it is?” asked Edward.
Mike, the tallest of the three, jumped and slapped his hand at the wall. “It’s higher than us.” he replied.
“I’ll bet it encircles the whole town.” said Callie, “Remember that weird pit-of-the-stomach feeling we had when we entered?”
“I see where you’re going.” Mike said, “A magical mouse trap. We mice come in, but we can’t get out.”
“Which means we’re trapped here.”
“Certainly the townspeople never got away.”
“But who did this?” Edward asked, “And why?”
“I have a feeling we’re going to find out.” Callie answered.
“I think we all know where we have to go,” Mike said, “The hotel. It’s the only place that looks alive in the whole town.”
“You mean just show up at the door, knock, and say ‘Hi! We’re just passing through. Could you maybe show us the way out of this hell-hole’?” Callie asked.
“Basically, yes.” Mike said.
“Does the possibility occur to you that whatever messed up this town and its people is maybe inside that hotel, and will probably do the same to us?” Callie asked.
“Don’t say I never take you anywhere.” Mike replied.
“That means we’ll have to go through the townspeople again.” Edward said with a shudder, “Doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” Mike answered, “I’m afraid it does.”
The three looked back toward the town, which waited for them in eerie silence, in the haze of the afternoon sun.