The first time I left town was in a fit of childish rage. I shoved my stuffed rabbit into a tattered backpack adorned with patches and trekked off down the road, vaulting from one yellow line to the next on the sun-worn asphalt. When my tantrum, but not my stubbornness, had faded in the bright daylight, I sat down on the side of the road to wait for whichever panicked parent chased after me first. I fell asleep with my head resting on my backpack and woke up terrified. The sun was setting, and no one had come to get me. Worried I’d been forgotten, I sprinted back down the road to our small town.
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The whole experience must have left me unsettled. For weeks afterward, I was convinced that my mother wasn’t really my mother. My parents finally took me to the town counselor, who was also the mayor’s secretary and the local hairdresser. She’d gotten a college degree online, earning herself a title as the smartest person in town, a position she eagerly embraced. Whatever you needed to know, she’d happily tell you, whether she knew the right answer or not. She managed to convince me that since the woman claiming to be my mother looked like my mother, and sounded like my mother, and acted very much like my mother, she must indeed be my mother. My argument that “she smiled too much” was chalked up to an overactive imagination.
The second time I left town, I hadn’t intended to leave at all. I started down the main street past the brick buildings with “for rent” and “going out of business” signs taped in their dusty windows, and when I reached the edge of town, I just kept walking, kicking at loose pebbles as I went. Like most small towns, we were drying up. The younger residents had filtered out until it felt like I was the only one left. Only the elders remained, as decrepit and decaying as their buildings and just as cemented here.
“You can take the town out of the person, but you can’t take the person out of the town,” they croaked whenever anyone mentioned leaving.
It should’ve been painted on the peeling welcome sign, adopted as our official motto. Not that anyone would see it. We never had visitors.
The wind gusted across the open fields, shoving at me as I trudged down the road. The town had faded onto the horizon, and I was about to turn back when I noticed a small clump of buildings ahead of me. As far as I knew, only open fields and country roads lay between us and the rest of the world. I walked forward, curious. Gray clouds rolled over the sun, and I hunched my shoulders against the growing chill.
As the buildings loomed into view, I laughed. Apparently all small towns looked the same: parallel rows of red brick buildings lining a cracked street, high glass windows and awnings set into their bare faces. But as I reached the first building, I realized it didn’t just look like our town. It was our town. Smithson’s General Store was painted in faded white letters over the window and next to it stood Gregry’s Hardware, both names I’d known since before I could read them.
I stared back down the road lined with eternal fields of choppy stalks and in the distance, green clumps of trees. It all looked the same, and I convinced myself, though I knew I hadn’t, that I must have turned around and simply forgotten.
I jogged up the small flight of stairs leading into the building serving as the town hall, library, and post office, though the library was only a single wall of shelves. A mostly blank sign-out sheet was tacked on the wall next to it with a pen swaying on a silver chain. I had always thought it ironic that we were free to take and return books as we pleased but the pen was chained.
Ms. Vincent, the librarian, archivist, and town hall receptionist, looked up from behind the heavy wooden counter, huge glasses balancing on the tip of her nose, and smiled. She was a tiny wrinkled woman, one of the elders, who had lived here as long as I could remember.
“Something I can do for you?” she asked.
“Are there any other towns around here?” I wasn’t sure why I’d come in here except I was almost positive a town had faded on the horizon behind me and another grown on the horizon in front of me. Maybe there was another explanation for my confusion.
“You can check the map,” she said, motioning to a faded poster on the wall.
Our town was drawn in cartoonishly large buildings in the center surrounded by stretches of empty land fading to blank paper and a single compass rose in the corner. But there was no other town.
Ms. Vincent was bustling around, shoving ledgers and papers under the counter. A soft smile hovered on her lips as she worked. “It’s almost time for the community dinner,” she said, straightening up. “Walk with me.”
Every week the town gathered in the church hall for dinner and gossip, and I had completely forgotten today was the day. I followed Ms. Vincent back out to the street. She pulled the heavy door shut behind us, not bothering to lock it.
The unwavering smile was still pasted on her face as we headed toward the other end of town. Halfway, I stopped. I remembered passing this same building mere hours ago. The windows had been decorated with spiderwebs and meanderings lines drawn in the dust by wandering insects, but now they were fringed with pale pink curtains, and inside, the walls were covered with rows of jars filled with brightly colored sticks and spheres. Grahm’s Candy’s was painted in an arc of striped letters on the glass panel above the door.
“Did someone buy it?” I asked, staring up at the sign.
“Oh, heavens no,” Ms. Vincent laughed through her eternal smile. “Elmer would never sell. Fifty-seven years he’s run that shop. Never closes except on Sunday and holidays.”
The door jingled and Elmer appeared, squeegee in hand. He smiled at us before turning to attend to his already spotless windows, his blank grin reflecting in the glass. I had known Elmer my whole life. There was nothing outwardly strange about the pudgy balding man with weepy blue eyes happily cleaning his windows except I had seen him at the last community dinner and he had looked as vacant as his building.
“Better hurry, Elmer,” Ms. Vincent smiled, marching down the sidewalk and dragging me along. “Don’t want to be late.”
“Be there soon,” he smiled back.
I followed Ms. Vincent in a daze, pulled on by her tight grip on my arm. The other buildings looked the same, I thought, but also somehow different, as if I was noticing things about them for the first time, but I wasn’t sure whether those things were actually new or I’d just never noticed them until now. I was completely disoriented when Ms. Vincent pushed open the heavy church door. The rest of the town was assembled inside. Their faces turned, and a smile was carved on every one.
The third time I left town, I ran.
I sprinted down the road, past the strange candy store and the looming town hall, out into the wide fields until my burning lungs and a stabbing pain in my side forced me to slow to a walk. The town was disappearing on a darkening horizon. I fought against the bitter wind, hugging my jacket around myself. This time, each step was deliberate, straight ahead, never turning.
Another lump of buildings came into view, dark against the growing gloom. I found myself again standing on the threshold of a small town. Red lights spilled out of pristine windows, staining the pavement. The worn and faded signs I remembered, all familiar names, had been replaced with crisp, clean letters. There was no mistake this time. I hadn’t turned, but I again stood at the edge of our town, only it wasn’t my town.
The windows glowed menacingly, gaping red mouths in the dark night, empty and toothless, as I walked down the main street. A dancing smiling face hung in each window next to “Sorry, we missed you!” At the end of the street, the church door stood open, bright light shining out. Loud voices floated into the darkness. All eyes turned to me as I appeared in the doorway. Familiar eyes underscored with smiles. Gaping smiles full of bright teeth against red mouths. Ceaseless smiles topped with wide, unblinking eyes.
“There you are!” my mother who could not be my mother called through her wide smile, pulling me to our customary folding table in the corner next to the kitchen. “You’re just in time. They’re about to serve dinner.”
A toothy cheer went up as grinning faces filed out of the kitchen, wide platters in hand. They were piled with lumps of red flesh, blackening, swimming in pools of blood and garnished with flitting flies. The woman who couldn’t be my mother started piling hunks onto thin paper plates.
“What… is this?” I choked, shoving the plate and its raw stench away from me.
Bloody juices soaked through the thin plate, leaving pink streaks on the table.
“Who was it this time?” my mother asked my father with a smile, carving the flesh on her plate with a flimsy plastic knife.
He grinned back, shrugging.
“Ann!” my mother who wasn’t my mother exclaimed. “You remember her.” The eternal smile contorted her face as she spoke. “You were in Mrs. Ame’s class together. Sweet thing. Wanted to go to culinary school.”
“But… she left last week,” I stammered. “What does she have to do with this?”
“No one ever leaves,” my mother said. “Now eat your dinner, dear. And try to smile.”
A plastic fork full of jiggling red flesh and dripping with pink juice lifted to her toothy mouth.
“Not much meat on her bones,” my father said with a smile, nudging a piece of gristle to the edge of his plate.
Bile rose in my throat. The room was full of devouring mouths, gnashing, ripping at the red hunks. The smell of raw flesh hung in the air.
“You… You…” My chair clattered onto the tile as I sprinted for the door, barely making it outside before my stomach emptied itself. When I looked up through tear-filled eyes, the town had circled me, their grins empty and full of teeth.
“Why?” I said, wiping the back of my hand across my mouth.
“You can take the town out of the person, but you can’t take the person out of the town,” they said through bared teeth, juice dripping from their wrinkled chins.
“I just want to go home!” I sobbed.
My mother who was not my mother stood over me, smiling. “This is your home, dear. Now, try to smile.”
The fourth time I left town was with deliberate steps knowing I could never truly leave.