My boss was smiling as he tossed the flier onto my desk. I could see Jasper and Marcus turning to smile at me as well and I picked up the notice and scowled at it.
I’ve been at Farseer News for about six months now, but its far from my first brush with journalism. I used to write for a news source in Washington that I won’t name, they probably don’t want to be brought into all of this, and before that, I wrote for my college newspaper. That's where I received my degree in English and Journalism, and that was back when my future seemed so bright.
I worked as a journalist for six years, but that was before everything went to hell.
I don’t want to go into details, but it was a story that everyone said I should have left alone. I wouldn’t, though. I was young and still looking for my big break, and the story seemed perfect. It was, I guess. Perfectly capable of ripping my career to shreds. When it was all said and done, no one would touch me. I couldn’t even get a job cleaning toilets in a building with news ties, and I had thought it was over until the call came from Farseer.
It's a paper in Gavin, one of the larger cities in the tristate area, but it’s as far from DC as it gets in terms of journalism. Out here, I’d be covering cattle auctions, ladies' auxiliary bake sales, and state fairs. I started to turn them down, but after some rumination, and a lot of alcohol, I decided that it might be just the thing to fix my credibility. Maybe after a few years of writing about less sensational stories, I could go back to writing about serious topics again. I could fix my image, maybe find a little public corruption to open the shades on, and get on with something more grand. I could work my way back into the industry and get my name back, then I’d find somewhere away from politics and get back on my feet.
I couldn’t have known, however, that the head of my department was someone who liked to screw with people.
My boss, Andrew, and his buddies Jasper and Marcus are as far from journalists as you can get. They all have degrees from the local community college in English or Journalism, but the dynamic around the bullpen is more like the one you’d find in The Office. Andrew is the Michael Scott of our department, handing down judgments and “comedy” in equal parts. Marcus is like a less likable Jim and Jasper is the Stanley, older and constantly sleeping through his deadlines. I guess that makes me the Dwight, and they don’t mind using me as the butt for their jokes.
You should have seen Andrew during my interview as he realized my credentials.
He looked almost gleeful at the prospect of having a real journalist on his team that he could mess with.
Case in point, the flier he had just tossed down was for the closing of a local institution in the neighboring town of Forman.
The closing of a Discount Warehouse Store that had existed on the corner of Beck and Mills since the Depression.
“What's this?” looking up from a story I was writing about last week's “big event”.
“That's your assignment for today, oh Junior Field Journalist.”
Junior Field Journalist was another thing that Andrew had made up to demean me. He knew I had been a hotshot columnist in the big city and decided to take me down a peg with the Big Stories he handed down. The stories were everything from Dog Fashion Shows to Pumpkins that looked a little like Elvis. He found these obscure stories seemingly from nowhere and he handed them to me with the air of someone bestowing great honor on a lesser.
He mostly did it so he and the other community college journalists could laugh at me as I went off to chase the story.
I sighed, “Can’t anyone else do this? I’m working on the Governor's clean air initiative piece.”
“Actually, I sent your notes over to Jasper so you’d have a free afternoon to give this story your full attention.”
I ground my teeth and listened to my molars groan like sails in a high breeze, “You did what?”
“No need to thank me,” Andrew said, grinning, “I mean, it’s not every day that a historic institution like the Discount Warehouse goes out of business. We want your full attention on this story so you can tell us all about the last great sale of this time capsule of Americana. Feel free to use that line, if you like,” he said, walking off as Marcus and Jasper snickered at me.
The whole thing just felt way too much like the actions of a cartoon villain.
With little choice left, I packed up my things and went off to chase the story.
I was fuming as I drove the thirty-odd miles to Forman. I was tired of being treated this way by people who had learned everything about news reporting from their high school AV Clubs. The stories that the Farseer took on were often fluffy pieces and sometimes even bordered on tabloid news. For every serious story we took on, there were a dozen others about beauty pageant winners, food-eating contests, or pieces just labeled “local color.” I was sick of being stuck with these nothing filler bits. What's worse is that they weren’t even anything you could hang a new career on. No respectable paper would want to see your name attached to a Drunken Fiddle Contest and no one would be impressed by my dissection of the Little Miss South West Regional Pageant. I had been hoping to craft this into a new start, but it looked like I would be stuck at the Farseer for the foreseeable future.
The money was nice, though, so that was a plus.
The interstate was fairly uneventful and I arrived in Forman without too much fanfare. When they tell you that Gavin is the largest city in the tri-state area, they mean it. Gavin, as it happens, has a population of about twenty-five thousand in a good census year. The whole area is very rural, which meant there were a lot of very nice cows and pigs to look at as I drove. Gavin has five restaurants, a city hall, a public pool, a drive-in, several strip malls that are slowly expiring, and a Walmart that is being outsold by any one of the five Dollar Generals in the area. There are twenty traffic lights in the whole town, and the rest of the roads are watched over by stop signs and good manners.
If Gavin is a big town, then Forman is a pothole. You can tell that you’re pulling into Forman because of the seemingly endless array of trailer parks on the outskirts. They have cute little names like “Shady Pines” “Whispering Oaks” or “Sunnydale” but what they amount to is a sea of plastic and chrome that stretches for well over ten miles. I’m pretty certain that the trailer parks are bigger than the whole town, but that's just a guess. As sad as all that humanity on display is, the town is downright tragic. They were once a thriving burge, I’ve been told, that relied mostly on the pulpwood industry and the small coal mining operations that took place in the area. Now coal is played out, the pulpwood is going out, and Forman is a town that seems unaware that it's dying. If you drive up the Mainstreet you can see more buildings for rent than there are open. It has a City Municipal Building that doubles as a City Hall, a working railroad that will likely outlive the town, and several strip malls with the usual collection of pizza joints and cell phone stores. A few Pawnshops and Hardware stores seem to be struggling along, but the only thing in Forman doing any business is the Moose Head Pub and the small local police force waiting for drunks outside the pub.
I supposed the lack of business was why I was here, though.
I kept expecting to see a Walmart or, at the least, a Dollar General or a Family Dollar but the longer I drove without seeing one, the odder it felt.
Had Discount Warehouse been that big of an institution?
I supposed the little discount chains would pop up like mushrooms now that Thriftmire was forced to loosen his grip on the region.
Discount Warehouse sat in a historical building that had once been a Thriftmire All Goods Store. Mr. Thirftmire, who I assume had changed his name for marketing reasons, had owned a chain of Thrift Mire All Good Stores across the tri-county area. They rebranded as Discount Warehouse in the late seventies and incorporated furniture and housewares into his business model. Discount Warehouse was more like a small Walmart or a Large Dollar General and the economy had started weeding them out in the late 2000’s. This was the last of the Thriftmire line, and today would end his legacy as a housewares and small appliance juggernaut.
You like that?
It’s the opening of my article, and all with nothing more than thirty minutes in my car and a Google search.
I did a little more looking and discovered that the Thriftmires still owned the chain. Thriftmire Senior had died right around the time of the rebrand in nineteen seventy-eight, but his son was just as business savvy as his old man, it appeared. Jacob Thruftmire Jr. had been running his father's stores since he was in his mid-twenties, and he was still managing the stores well into his eighties. The article said that he had hoped to rebrand again and keep the business open, but the bank had other ideas and would not extend his loan anymore. The stores had been operating in the red for years, and the tab had finally come due.
Jacob Thriftmire had begrudgingly signed over his business to the bank and was getting ready to enter retirement.
I felt for the old guy, but I supposed all good things had to come to an end.
I wasn’t exactly sure I would call the parking lot I was currently in a “Good Thing,” however.
The building was a large brick box with a black awning that appeared to have been added after the fact. The doors were not the fancy sliding ones that most stores had but large glass ones with handles that jutted from their fronts. The concrete parking lot was old and rutted, the pavement in sad need of leveling and repainting. The people who had gathered here looked like cattle at an auction, and they all just sort of milled about aimlessly. There were some children among them, pale youths holding their parent's hands, and it was here that I saw some emotion. Most of them were jittering around like kids will do, and all of them seemed to possess a certain air of excitement.
As I got out of my car, notebook in hand, and went to join the collected humanity, I heard the snap of plastic from above. I looked up to see small flags had been hung on a rope running from the awning to the light poles that dotted the parking lot. They were black and white, the wind pushing them aimlessly, and it made me think of a funeral. This whole event was a funeral, I supposed, and as I got close, a banner fell to block the awning and the illusion was complete.
It was white with black letters, and the sentiment would seem very fitting later on.
EVERYTHING MUST GO it proclaimed, and the sight of it gave me the willies.
A small stage had been erected and there was a cheery man in a cheap suit standing beside an old stooped man in a much nicer suit. He had to be Jacob Thriftmire junior, but the younger man was unknown to me. He was beaming out at the crowd, looking happy to be there or anywhere on a day such as this. He glanced towards the sky as the wind snapped at the flags, and his smile seemed to wither a little. The clouds were becoming dark, and it looked like the weather might wash out the last great sale of the Discount Warehouse.
Would everything still go in the rain?
I supposed it would, and I was right.
I wish I hadn’t been.
“I’m proud to see so many of Forman’s finest out to say goodbye to a city institution that's been here since the town was little more than a logging hub.”
Logging hub might have been a stretch, but I supposed this must be the mayor of Forman.
“I’ve shopped here with my family for as long as I can remember, and the deals we’ve all found at the Discount Warehouse were like nothing seen anywhere else. Jacob Thriftmire has helped keep the specter of corporate greed from overtaking our town, and we will be sorry to see him go. Mr Thriftmire himself would like to say a few words, and I think we owe him that much.”
The applause were scattered and half-hearted and the old man approached the mic slowly before trying to lower it to his level. The banner kept catching my attention, and it just seemed off somehow. Everything must go. I had never thought about the statement before, but it was a little foreboding if you looked at it in a certain light, the kind of light that hovered around here, for example. Everything Must Go. If everything went, then what would be left? Would Forman remain? Would Gavin be safe? How much would be left behind once everything had gone?
The reedy voice of Jacob Thriftmire Jr. brought me back to the stage.
“Thank you, Mr. Mayor. My Father opened up Thriftmire Allgoods a year before the great depression really sunk its claws into this county. I have strived to keep his legacy afloat, but it seems I have failed. I have failed this town, I have failed all of you, and now we must pay the price.”
I furrowed my brow as I took a shorthand missive of the speech. This was a weird one, even for the ramblings of geriatric store owners. The people seemed as confused as he was, but the children seemed to know already. While the parents stood in polite boredom, the children were looking around with what I thought was excitement, but I quickly realized it was fear. Their neck hair was up for some reason and they all seemed on the edge of fleeing. It was like house pets just before a tornado hits. They sense the change in pressure, the change in the air, but they can do nothing but wait for it to hit and hope it doesn’t simply squash them flat.
That should’ve been a Warning, but I ignored it yet again.
I was here to get a story, and I meant to be done with it before my whole day was wasted.
“This store held the town together, in hard times and good times. Many of you have bought your furniture here for your first place, the cribs for your first babies, the groceries for your last meal, but today, it all comes to an end. Today is the final moments of Forman, so drink them in while you can.”
The mayor was looking at him oddly, some of those who had come to watch looking up as if his words had broken through their daze. The children, however, stood straight as fence posts, just waiting for whatever was to come. They seemed to sense the portents, and I remember thinking that some of them might make it out, though I don't know why the thought occurred. Make it out of what? What would they need to escape?
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this store has not existed on its own all these years. When my father opened his doors in nineteen thirty-two, he was full of hope for the future. He just knew that this would bring his family stability, bring them wealth, and so it did. Even through the great depression, Dad made money hand over fist, and he was very generous with the community. Forman thrived because of my Father’s money, but somewhere along the way, you all forgot that.”
The mayor's pasted-on smile was beginning to slip, but when he reached for the mic Jacob Thriftmire Junior gave him a stony look and he backed away.
Thriftmire was going to say his piece, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
“It’s true, and you all know it’s true. I kept the riff raff out, I kept the Dollar Generals and the Family Dollars and even the likes of Sam Waltons monstrosity out of this town, and how did you all repay me? You turned your noses up at the local business, at the business that had made this town great, and you drove to Gavin of Brison or,” he spat onto the hot top, “McCalister to shop at Walmart and Target and Costco as the town died around you. You put pennys over people, and now you reap what you have sown.”
He looked out across the crowd, looking furious with them as they looked down sheepishly.
I was astonished.
Did he blame them for the fall of his empire?
“Don’t bother looking contrite. I know that you all think that those vultures will be here to nibble my corpse once my store is closed, but you are wrong. You don’t live as long as I have without picking up some tricks, and today I give you all my last deal.”
He wetted his lips, preparing to speak the words that must be spoken.
He turned to the doors and when he thrust his hands towards them, they opened to reveal the horror they had been holding at bay.
“EVERYTHING MUST GO!”
As he said it, the doors came open and a thick, black smoke came pouring out. It was almost like floating tar, the cloud impenetrable as it hovered out, and the effect was galvanizing. The sleepy crowd began to murmur and then to back away. They were unsure what to make of this, but as it got closer, they began to scream and run from the encroaching smoke bank. Some of them, however, stood mesmerized by it, some even walked towards it, and those who disappeared into it were lost within it.
I saw most of this, however, from the inside of my car.
The final declaration, the negation of the town itself, had moved me as it moved the doors, and I was bringing my car to life before I realized I had moved at all. The car seemed sluggish to start, the engine making a sleepy grinding noise as it came to life, and before pulling away from the store, I looked back at the old man as he stood atop the podium. His hands were raised in exaltation, his eyes cast skyward, and as the cloud pressed against his back, I thought it might reject him for the briefest of moments.
Then it gobbled him up along with the stunned mayor and I was leaving the lot on squealing tires.
As I drove out of town, I saw the smoke rising behind me. It swallowed the town in a plume of thick, gray death but I seemed to be the only car leaving town. The people I passed on the sidewalk, the ones coming out to look at the smoke, seemed to be mesmerized by the smoke. They didn’t run like the ones out front of the store had, and I was tempted to stop and shout at them. I wanted them to run, to escape the smoke, but most of them seemed to have accepted their fate.
The farther I drove, the more I feared that the smoke would never stop and would simply engulf everything.
Every mile I drove, the less I believed I would make it home.
When I made it to my apartment, it hardly filled me with a sense of security.
I’m on the couch now, my phone ringing off the hook as the office tries to get a hold of me. They want to know the same thing that the news anchors want to know; what happened to Forman? They say the town is simply missing, the smoke cloud having cleared to reveal raw earth and nothing else. The streets, the buildings, the trailer parks, the main street, everything was gone. It had been removed down to the dirt, and no one seemed to have escaped whatever had happened. They were looking for witnesses, for anyone with information, and my boss and his friends seemed to be doing the same. I guess I was the only one who’d seen what happened, and it was something that would stick with me for a long time.
I don’t know what to do now, but I know one thing for sure.
The signs didn’t lie.
Everything had to go, and so everything went.
About the Creator
Writer, reader, game crafter, screen writer, comedian, playwright, aging hipster, and writer of fine horror.
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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters
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Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions