This story is by Grace Walker and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The town had been isolated for as long as anyone could remember. There were rumors of other places somewhere, but these could not be confirmed because nobody had any interest in leaving. There were never any newcomers in the town, so presumably nobody on the outside was interested in checking in.
In the town there was one particular boy whose eyes were a touch brighter than the others. His name was Denali, and he was just under twenty years of age, with tanned skin and bold features. He felt that anything in the world that he wanted could be his.
One day, he went to his father. It was summer, and so warm the birds were dozing in the trees.
“Father,” he said. “I wish to go beyond the town and seek my fortune in a bigger place. There is so much to this world that I will be the first to see.”
His father replied. “Son, this town has served you well, and there is nothing more for us to give. Go, and find life outside of this place.”
With much cheering on all sides, Denali returned to his home. He packed a bag for food and another for clothes and fishing lines. The next morning, he began his journey.
The edges of the farmlands were surrounded by a grove of trees, cut through by a narrow and scrubby river. Denali followed the river upstream until he had left the town far behind. For days he walked along the river. He walked until early one morning, he came upon a broad road which curved away from the river. Beyond that, he saw buildings.
And what ugly buildings they were. They were made from a uniform red stone and they stood tall and tightly packed. Streams of black smoke poured from the chimneys. They seemed to go on for miles, row upon row until they faded into a haze.
Denali strode to the nearest of the tall buildings and watched as crowds of people lined up obediently outside the doors. They went inside silently, shuffling their feet in a slow procession.
As Denali watched, he noticed another man standing only a few yards away from himself. He was much cleaner than the others, and he wore a tall hat.
“You, boy,” he said. “Get in line, don’t slack off.”
“You misunderstand, I’m not from here.” Denali replied. He gestured to the scene before them, “I have never seen anything like this before.”
“Really,” the older man sneered, “are you from one of them reservations?”
Denali was confused by this. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m from the town downstream.”
A flicker of interest crossed the mans face for the first time. He turned to look at Denali properly, eyes narrowed.
“This is the last town along the river,” he said.
Denali frowned. “Nobody has visited us in living memory, but there is a town there. I’ll admit that there are no buildings half as tall as this.”
The tall man regarded him, a strange gleam in his eye. Then he turned sharply. “Follow me,” he said. He moved back towards the buggy, with Denali trotting haplessly behind.
Denali sat in a nicely furnished room. It reminded him of the sitting rooms in his own town. Beside him sat another man, and in front of him stood a polished wooden desk. He and the man with the tall hat had been arguing heatedly for some time.
They were discussing his town, of that he was sure, but there were a lot of phrases in the conversation which he did not understand, such as “lost colonies” and “industrial opportunity.”
The tall man slammed his hand on the desk.
“Well, if you don’t come back,” he roared, “I’ll assume it was all a hoax and that will be the end of it.” With that he turned to Denali.
“Boy,” he said. “You must return to your town, and take Thomas with you.” He pointed at the other man, who was red with anger.
Denali thought about this. He had not intended on returning so soon, and he felt insulted by the older man’s behavior. However, he thought of his father and his friends, and how wonderful it would be to bring a foreigner back to the town.
“All right,” he said.
Denali was regretting his decision. He was disliking Thomas more every minute they travelled together. The man seemed to think very little of Denali.
When he had first agreed to lead Thomas back to the town, Denali had said, “I’ll need food for the journey.”
Thomas had scoffed, and pulled a hard, metal device from its place on his belt. “I can shoot my gun well enough to live on for awhile,” Thomas said.
Denali had heard stories about guns in the town. They even had one; it was hung over the mantlepiece at the government building. It was much longer than the one he saw in front of him, but he knew that this device was more dangerous than it looked.
He nodded then, and said, “I can fish.”
That was yesterday afternoon. Since then, they had been walking down the river, mostly in silence. Denali tried for a fourth time to start a conversation.
“Why hasn’t my town been found before now?”
Thomas glanced over irritably. “You really think I believe all that garbage about a town?” He snorted. “My boss might taken in, but I expect you’re drawing me out to rob me and leave me hanging from a tree. That’s why I brought this ole revolver.” He patted his belt with a grin. “Won’t be caught alone unarmed with you.”
“But my town exists,” Denali exclaimed hotly. “Why don’t you believe me?”
Thomas shrugged. “Because I’ve never heard of it and I don’t really care. If it’s not there I’ll shoot you and be on my merry way. And if it is there….” His voice trailed away, and his expression was not pleasant.
At the sound of Denali’s voice, the man jumped. “Don’t you talk to me like that,” he said sharply. “As I was saying, there are a lot of opportunities to be taken by the right people.”
“When you say the right people,” Denali said slowly, “you mean your boss?”
Thomas grunted noncommittally.
That evening Denali was deeply troubled. He had made a mistake leading the man to his home. He thought of his town, and all of the beautiful lands swallowed up by the brown buildings. He thought of the townsfolk standing with their faces blank and empty. He thought of the choking smoke.
For the first time in his life, Denali was unsure of himself. On the one hand, if he returned to the town with Thomas, everything he had ever known would disappear in the midst of factories and the ambitions of the man with the tall hat. On the other, if he wanted to protect the location of his town, Thomas would shoot him.
So he would have to lie and bend to the expectations of a stupid, stupid man.
Denali was quiet the next morning as the two prepared for the day’s trudge. He was so quiet, in fact, that Thomas took notice.
“No more questions today,” he jeered. “Have you decided to come clean and tell me your town doesn’t exist?”
Denali shrugged. “Yes, actually.”
Thomas’s eyes widened. “Hold—”
That was all he got in before Denali tackled him. He wrestled Thomas to the ground and made a snatch for the gun at his belt.
“Thief!” Thomas choked out. “I knew it, you dirty little—”
He scrabbled and kicked wildly, nailing Denali in the nose with his foot. They rolled over and over until suddenly they were falling. With a sudden rush of cold which took the breath straight from Denali’s lungs, they were in the river.
They sank down and down, thrashing. Denali’s eyes were screwed tight shut. All he knew was that Thomas must stay beneath him at all costs, and that his lungs were beginning to burn.
Then, as quickly as the fight had begun, Thomas stopped moving. Denali wasted no time in kicking for the surface (or at least, where he thought the surface was). His eyes and lips were squeezed so tightly shut they were beginning to ache. His muscles were starting to seize up as he broke the surface, gasping. He floated aimlessly down the river, blood running from his bent nose.
Eventually he mustered his strength and grabbed a tree branch hanging over the bank. He pulled himself out of the water and lay on the rocky bank, staring.
The sudden weight of everything that had happened came crashing over him. After seeing this new and bigger world at work, he was under no illusion that his town could stay safe forever. With a bitter glance down the river, Denali staggered to his feet and picked his way back up the bank to retrieve his bag.