America's Living Ghost Town
Submission for the Brown Paper Box
If you haven’t heard of the town of Cobbesfield, you're not alone--most haven’t. This little community is home to less than 100 living citizens as well as over 1200 dead. You can find it between the two stoplight towns of Gotchead, New Hampshire (though when passing through, you’ll see that the “c” was marked out and a question mark was added to the end) and Morose, Vermont (whose sign had yet to be vandalized). Still, Cobbesfield is recognized as a town as they had their very own charter, their very own sheriff’s station, farmer’s market, Church of Christ, diner, and a combination general store/gas station. The community lacked a mayor, a library, a school system, any stoplights, they had no fire department, and were the chronic victim of gerrymandering. The already small pool of voters (and the even smaller pool of those registered) are divided between which city council is responsible for the mess that Cobbesfield is. If you really wanted to draw out the borders, look no further than the cemetery as it makes up more than 90% of Cobbesfield.
A permanent residency for over a thousand once-living patrons of both Gotchead and Morose, Cobbesfield seemed like a good place to bury loved ones until the taxes went up in Morse and the housing crisis stomped through Gotchead and the rest of New Hampshire. Thus, a few well-to-do individuals had the same idea of making things work halfway between their two less-than-ideal surroundings.
Behind on nearly every trend and always the last to learn about breaking news, Cobbesfield exists in a sort of perennial ignorance that many would not expect to find themselves jealous of. It’s one dreadful feeling to think you don’t matter, but it’s surprisingly freeing to know that you don’t. This keeps Cobbesfield small, which keeps the two mayors from considering, it seems this place matters, why don’t we add a stoplight, a couple studio apartments and then begin a 5-year plan on gentrification? Nobody wants that. Not in Cobbesfield, they don’t.
All in all, this makes Cobbesfield the perfect place to disappear. It has that hidden-in-plain-sight mystique that no one would suspect out-of-the-ordinary-occurrences to occur. It has an innocence that one could hide a large secret. Whatever secret that could be, Hanson wanted to expose. Hanson Rowe, an aspiring journalist who had yet to be published in any news outlet, had been visiting Cobbesfield every other day for the past four months and as September transitioned to October, he questioned whether his summer passion project had overstayed its welcome. Driving past what looks like endless rows of cornstalks mirrored by endless rows of tombstones before reaching the square mile-town, Hanson had become quite fond of the 70-minute drive (he was even more fond of making it in a tight 55 minutes if traffic permitted). Today it hadn’t.
Entering the town, Hanson had picked up on an unsettling feeling that hung in the air. Granted, Cobbesfield wasn’t a town you would visit if you wanted to feel warm or welcomed—it always had a strange energy that made it seem unreal. Not like how everything in Williamsburg was a staged replica, more like visiting school during the summertime or going to the grocery store in the middle of the night—everything is there ready for use but is never used. Today was entirely different in that there was a buzz about the town. Over the four months he’d been visiting, Hanson came to recognize all of the town’s patrons, whether it was through conversation or just recognizing them as “the man who smokes outside the general store.” Today, Hanson was surprised to see them all gathered in one place. Cobbesfield didn’t have a town square or a fountain that could be considered their central hub, but there was a PO box that took deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays. If there was a “heart” to their town it would be located there (figuratively speaking of course, anatomically, the PO box was closer to the larynx of the town).
This was the first time Hanson had come upon a scene without having to create one himself. He was known to the locals of Cobbesfield as the guy who ruined the only vending machine in town with his “fancy city money.” The truth was Hanson put in a Hawaiian quarter that the machine didn’t recognize and then the ancient dispenser went belly up after what had to have been 70 or 80 years of operation. Exiting his “fancy city car” which was a used 2011 Hyundai Sonata, complete with hail damage and a loose gas cap that flipped open if the wind caught it just right, Hanson pushed his way to the front of the crowd to see a brown paper box sitting atop the PO box. Hanson caught bits of judgmental murmurs and accusatory whispers as to who the package belonged to—one particularly biting comment of “commie scum” came from the man who smokes outside of the general store, but Hanson had wasted enough time before entertaining the man's notions of how Cobbesfield was the only place safe from the government despite them technically belonging to two separate state laws.
It was Ellie Howell, the waitress at The Diner, who had the gall to approach the miscellaneous box which received a dramatic gasp from Laura Foster, the wife of the pastor from the Church of Christ.
“Would you relax? I’m just looking for a name,” Ellie said to the shock of many who, in that moment, learned her server voice was fabricated.
Gary Lawngarner, a volunteer fireman, interjected telling Ellie, “If that package belonged to you, you’da pick’t it up on Tuesday!” The crowd agreed with him, and the herd of negativity was enough to deter Miss Howell from getting any closer.
“Well, who’s gonna take care of it then? If it don’t belong to you and it don’t belong to me,” Ellie said to Gary whose face was twisted into a frown.
“Let the police deal with it,” a voice called from the back of the crowd. Dale Deckerd, Cobbesfield’s Sheriff, rubbed his beard as though he was thinking but it was easy to tell he didn’t want anything to do with this package either. A combination of supportive comments and critical insults were enough to move Dale to the front where he tried to calm the crowd.
“Look, what we have here is obviously a mistaken delivery,” he said with conviction in his voice, “our pal Angie must’ve left it here on accident.”
“How come she didn’t pick it up today then? Yesterday it was leaning on the ground and today it’s on top of the PO. She wanted us to see it,” the same accusatory tone came from Gary again which was met with more murmurs of individuals who seemed to agree.
“Now, hold on just a minute. We’re letting all our imaginations run away with us over a bit of brown paper, people. There’s no need to get up in arms over nothing,” Dale said in his southern drawl. There was a lot to take in on arrival and Hanson didn’t want to miss a moment of it. He pulled out his phone to begin recording which caught the ire of Laura Foster who accused him of putting the package there.
“Why would I do that?” Hanson said sounding more defensive, and as a result, more guilty than he tried.
“Well who knows? You’re always coming through our town tryna cause a stirrup. Pokin’ your nose where it don’t belong.” Laura Foster pointed her finger in his face.
“Hey! That’s the guy who broke the pop machine,” the voice from the back called out, “let’s get him!” Dale fired his gun in the air to quell the rising emotions.
“Now look, I said that there was nothin’ to be worried about and now we near got a riot on our hands. Listen here, I don’t like you,” Dale was speaking directly to Hanson. This was their first conversation and Hanson already had his back against the wall. Dale continued, “but I seen you around more than a handful of times always doing who-knows-what. Now if you got any knowledge on this here package, I suggest you spill the beans before you get into some real trouble.” Hanson had a lot to process. It appears he had been public enemy number one for longer than he knew—some journalist he was if he couldn’t even pick up on that. Hanson considered his options before the crowd. He could run away, potentially incite a mob, and never return to Cobbesfield. He could open the box and face the repercussions that came with it no matter what was inside or who it belonged to. He could try and plead his case, but the outcome of that scenario ended very similarly to the first.
He stepped up to the PO box and leveled his gaze with the mysterious package. No larger than a shoebox and wrapped in brown kraft paper and patchy strands of scotch tape, it looked as though it were a present for the world’s saddest birthday party. All that was written on the outside was Cobbesfield in black marker. With no other visible indications as to what was inside, Hanson had to pick it up.
The fear of uncertainty began to weigh down Hanson’s arms as he reached for it which drew more audible gasping from Laura Foster. This being the most exciting event that Cobbesfield ever hosted, it was ironically also the quietest the town has ever been. Placing his hands on either side of it, the box was lighter than expected and lifted very easily. Hanson turned towards the crowd whose radius around him and Dale had grown with little shuffles backward. Dale watched Hanson’s hands intensely, his left hand still on his holster. Hanson had no clue what it could have been just by guessing its weight, and he didn’t dare shake it. He tried rotating it and the weight of the contents shifted to his lower hand, startling Hanson, and causing him to drop the box which provoked multiple screams from the crowd. Nothing came of this and after a brief moment of terror, Hanson looked to the staring crowd, unsure of whether he should continue his investigation.
He lowered himself to the ground and started removing the brown paper wrapping. As the wrapping came off, an offensive smell protruded from the seal that made Hanson’s stomach turn.
It did turn out to be a shoebox, a pair of children’s light-up sneakers were used to transport this ghastly nightmare that derailed every citizen’s Friday plans—to some citizens of Cobbesfield this reveal may have been enough excitement as you’d be hard pressed to find footwear that was not some sort of boot. Inside the cardboard coffin was a hamster that lay there dead. Its body sat upon a pillow of straw and shredded paper and there was a stone that said Colby Jack written in marker. This drew some exclamations of disgust from the crowd, a few scoffs of disappointment and a quiet aww from Ellie Howell. Written on the inside of the lid was a note that read When my grandma died, we went to Cobbesfield. I think that is where Colby Jack should go too. He can be with her. A sweet sentiment, clearly written by a child who could recognize death but was not sure how to follow it. Seemingly, from their experience, things die and go elsewhere—that was what they had seen before—so in an act of love and responsibility for their own pet, this child got a coffin, a bed, and a tombstone and mailed him to America’s Living Ghost Town where they thought their grandmother could look over them.