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Aspenville

When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it truly make a sound? That depends. In just about every city, town, country, and forest, that answer would be ‘no’. However, as exceptions go, in the town of Aspenville, that answer would be ‘yes’.

Oh, Aspenville: a town that truly lived up to its name, home to one of the world’s oldest and largest Aspen trees—though it’s less of a tree and more of a forest made up of genetically identical clones; a forest consisting of one tree. This forest, from which the quaint, little town derives its name, borders practically the entire thing. Meaning that, if one were to look outside the window of any residential home in Aspenville, they’d see but a wall; a treeline that stretches for as far as the eye can see. Truly a remote hideaway, nestled snugly near the southernmost region of Alaska.

After the snow thawed and the April showers brought about the May flowers, those same May flowers brought forth a pilgrim. Not much of one, however, as the trek could be called less of a pilgrimage and more of a brief business vacation. See, as unremarkable as Aspenville seemed to the outside world, some savvy, in-the-know individuals realized that the town was perpetually bathed in bright sunlight—twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week—unlike some of its bordering neighbors whose harsh winters brought along only the bleakest of weather.

Allen “Call Me Al” Parring was one such individual who, through deep pockets and deeper connections, knew all about Aspenville’s little secret. To a wannabe businessman like Al, a place like Aspenville wasn’t just a town—it was an opportunity. Imagine it: the economic ramifications of urbanizing such a place alone called for Al’s attention. Not to mention the job opportunities like daylight-soaked night shifts, rapid agricultural growth, and the like.

The town was stuck in the past. And just like its shadows that wouldn’t fade, it was clear what Al needed to do with the worn-out town: bulldoze it, start anew, and reclaim Aspenville as a magnet for renewal in southern Alaska, just as soon as that name changed; “Aspenville” would have to go—too hokey and outdated.

“Maybe Parring Squa—no, wait—Parring Corners,” Al daydreamed, his car rolling up to the city limit. He rolled down the window and sighed the crisp air, facing the entrance sign. “WELCOME TO ASPENVILLE” it read, and beneath it, “POPULATION-”

There was no population. There might’ve been a number there at one point, but the sun took to that, smudging out any semblance of a stenciled figure, now completely sun-bleached along with the rest of the off-white sign. It was typical of these tiny towns to neglect the welcome sign—signs that were already outdated, mind you. And it wasn’t like there was anybody that needed welcoming, anyways. But that would soon change, Al thought.

The car drove through the thicket of dense Aspen trees—mere outlines against the harsh sun that peered through them—until it reached a clearing of tall grass. And housed in the middle of that clearing was the town of Aspenville. It was even smaller than he'd imagined, only about a dozen-or-so buildings packed around a tiny town square. It was a twee and scenic view, like something out of a Currier and Ives print. An owl’s hoot snapped him from his gaze as he realized why he was there and looked over at his watch as his hand gripped the steering wheel. It was nearly eleven, yet the twilight above was brighter than an afternoon sun. He swelled up a deep, refreshing breath and smiled, letting the sunlight dance upon his face from through the opened window as he realized that he already loved Aspenville. And he just had to have it.

Stepping into the town’s only motel with a handful of necessities for the short trip, Al approached the front desk within a small office, occupied by an older woman that greeted him as soon as the bell dinged against the door. He watched as she watched him, stilly smiling and nodding politely as she did.

“Good evening,” she said through a wide grin, unmoving in her tall chair, “Welcome to the Sunset Motel.” Al chuckled as he laid down his bag.

“Not much of a ‘sunset’ here,” he said.

“Yes, well,” she nodded, “this place is the closest thing to it, should you need to rest your head.” He nodded as he looked around the place. Colorful, yet earthy, it must’ve been the dimmest site within the entire city. And even it was still bright-as-day. The light that cast onto the woman’s pale and wrinkled skin showcased those dark bags under her eyes: far more numerous than the single one that Al brought along with him. “I take it you don’t have a reservation?” she asked, likely as a formality, looking up at Al. He shook his head.

“Didn’t know I needed one,” he smiled, looking about the place.

“We’re actually completely vacant,” she grinned, “so, please, take your pick.” She lifted her hand in reference to the keys that swung silently along the wall, coated in layers of decorative foliage.

Al pressed the key marked “#1” into the corresponding lock and pushed it open, an escaping scent of mildew puffing out into the hallway. He turned back to face the woman, still stilly seated behind her desk as he asked for an air freshener.

“Oh, we don’t have those here, sir.”

What motel didn’t?

Trying to sleep while sunbeams poured into the motel room was nearly impossible, but somehow, Al managed to squeeze in a solid half-hour on the rickety bed. The blinds did their best to hold back the rays, thanks in part to the greenery that grasped the sunlight along the frosty glass, but it was the psychological implications that kept Al awake, not to mention everything on his mind. And the smell.

The following morning was an odd blend of sunshine and rainclouds—not dark enough to nap and not bright enough to truly wake. The plucky taps across the foggy glass window turned into heavy thuds of rain droplets that rattled the motel, and maybe the entire town of Aspenville, too.

Al went to open the blinds at around eight in the morning when he noticed an unusual sight: an old man, tipping to-and-fro in a rocking chair atop an old and wooden porch, all the while the rain bombarding him from above, his clothes clinging to his frail and aging form. Yet he seemed not to notice nor mind, as if he were completely dry and dandy.

When the rain let up, Al decided to take a short meander over to the man, carefully maneuvering mud puddles with his pristine shoes as he strolled about the town, feeling eyes watching him from unknown places—yet none were present, aside from the old man’s.

“Mornin’,” he spat, gesturing at Al as he continued to rock from behind the porch fence. As Al approached, his smile diminished. The man, despite being drenched in the thick rainwater, was burned—parts of his already tanned skin peeling and seared from the sun like a badly-cooked marshmallow, fetid pus protruding from the cracks in his wrinkled face. The chair that clacked against the aged wood was also baked—licked clean of its once musky-brown color in exchange for a sun-bleached bronze. The strangest part about him, however, was that his current condition didn’t seem to dawn on the old man, who acted as though there was nothing wrong.

“Good, uh, morning,” Al uneasily said, looking the sopping-wet man up and down. “You need a towel?” The old-timer looked down and realized he was soaked.

“A little water never hurt nobody,” he smiled. Al smiled back, though more out of jittering nerves than genuine happiness at this point.

“What brings you by?” the man asked with a dimply grin, the wrinkles on his face cracking deeper into his pores.

“I’m, uh- visiting. Was hoping somebody could tell me more about Aspenville.”

“Well, what do ya wanna hear?” the man asked, still rocking. He lifted a mug to his crevassed lips, overflowing with the scummy rainwater that dripped from the vine-covered roof that overhung above him. Al tried to put his concerns into words, trying not to make a face at the man’s condition.

“What happened to this place?” Al asked, “I mean, it’s such a beautiful spot, yet it feels like a ghost town.” The old man nodded and clicked, a stream of water dripping from his red nose. He looked up, prompting Al to do the same.

“That sun,” he said, failing to squint at the orange-yellow ball, “that sun’s out here all day and all night. Lots of folks can’t sleep when the sun’s out-”

“Tell me about it,” Al said, scratching behind his neck.

“You a city slicker too then, huh?” the old man asked. Al nodded. “City slickers don’t do well out here.”

“That’s why I’m, uh…hoping to bring the city to you,” Al said, unfolding and extending a piece of paper, labeled “PARRING CORNERS”, scribbled with the rush of plans he had drawn late in the bright night with his trusty carpenter’s pencil, now fidgeting within his sweaty palm. The old’s man’s unblinking eyes grew narrow as they washed over the plans, then darting to that trusty pencil.

“You a biter?”

“Excuse me?” Al said, not expecting that question out of all that could’ve been asked. The old man lifted his dried-out finger toward the hand cupped around the carpenter’s pencil, lined with tiny tooth marks.

“Y-yeah, I…guess?”

“Did you taste it?” the old man said, folding back up the plans.

“Did I taste…?”

“The Cedarwood that that pencil’s made from. Or did you forget that it takes a dead tree to make a pencil? How ‘bout this paper?” he said, lifting it back up to Al who accepted it apprehensively, “You think paper just grows on trees? It does,” he hoarsely chuckled, “and they kill the whole damn thing because it—a couple of similar Cedar and Ponderosa—bit it just for you to scribble that nonsense,” he said as his trembling finger continued to point at the page, his unblinking eyes staring soberly into Al’s. “You think you’re just gonna walk into our town and act like you own the place just ‘cause you got some paper?” he chuckled grimly, “No. And if you try to run this town into the ground…it will come back. This town’s been buried before, but it always winds up seeing the light.”

Al stood, unsure of what to say. He crinkled the paper up and shoved it back within his coat.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, sir,” he said with a lowered voice, “I just see so many opportunities with this place. Take that sunlight, for instance,” Al said, pointing above him, “can you imagine the productivity of-”

“I bet your daddy was just like you. Hmm?” the old timer interrupted, “Or your daddy’s daddy. Am I wrong?” Al shook his head against the sun.

“My father,” Al admitted. “He wanted me in the family business. Paid for my way through school and-”

“So, it started with your daddy. And his daddy before him,” the man clicked. “Mmhmm. This town’s got a long hist’ry of men tryin’ to claim it,” the old man droned, “our roots go back to the Ahtna tribe, and ain’t nothing changed since their blood soaked these grounds. For a town that hasn’t known night, it’s sure seen some dark days.”

“That’s terrible,” Al sighed. “Wait, Ahtna?” he thought, “how about Ahtna Amenities?”

After the old man excused him, preceded by a rant and a nod, Al decided to survey more of the town, which involved briskly snooping each and every nook and cranny as the pathways aligned with crunchy leaves snapped beneath those dressy shoes of his. All the while, the man’s rickety rocking chair cradled his frail body back and forth—the sound reverberating throughout the small town. And aside from those creaks and clacks, the occasional bird’s coo, and the crunching of the leaves, the desolate town harbored an aura of tranquility—yet if tranquility implied peace, then no such tranquility existed in Aspenville, for it was a town with roots that were soaked in blood, and it knew no such peace.

Al felt it—this stillness devoid of all peace. If this town was to be built up, it would start, re-start, from the ground, as its very foundations reeked of the mildew that covered its dilapidated houses.

“Who would want to live here?” Al said to himself, chomping down on his pencil as he sketched beneath a tall Aspen, overseeing the entire town as the rainclouds faded into the sun. He hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and through his acute observations of the town’s offerings, it appeared that no restaurant or diner or any food, for that matter, was in sight. Not that he had an appetite to begin with, aside from his craving for sketches and measurements. For such a beautiful place, there was much work to be done. He’d start in the summer, and within five years, the remnants of Aspenville would be buried. And no one would miss it, aside from perhaps the old man and whoever else managed to survive in such a place.

“What were you doing out there?” the woman, statically sitting on the lush park bench, said to stop him, just as he was turning the corner to head back to the motel. The sun would’ve been going down at this hour but, here, it wasn’t going anywhere. The woman, one of these such ‘survivors’ that managed to thrive in such a remote place, was frail and deeply tanned like the old man, with clothes that were aerated and pale and lined with tiny strands of clutched-on ivy.

Pardon?” he asked, hearing exactly what the woman had said on the quiet street but hoping she’d drop the conversation entirely. The woman repeated her question, as it seemed in a lot of these quaint, little towns, one person’s business was everyone else’s.

He wasn’t shy to show her his plans, much like he did with the old man. And, just like that man, the woman displayed great opposition.

“Didn’t I tell you this’ll never work?” the blank-eyed woman stared. Al furrowed his brows in the harsh sun.

“I’ve never met you before, ma’am,” he said, frustratedly demanding the page back. She handed it to him, but not before a warning parted her lips.

“I told you…folks like you don’t do well out here. Now, you just travel on home and leave us alone.”

That wasn’t such a bad idea.

The walk back to the motel only reaffirmed his current mindset: the vines and weeds that grew and overgrew into and onto the neighboring buildings, the moss that coated much of the narrow path, the barren and claustrophobic feel of such a beautiful oasis—it all needed to go.

Through hazy windows and vine-covered glass doors, the eyes of the townsfolk pierced into Al’s, driving him past the motel and into the adjacent drugstore. If he was driving home in the morning, then a good night’s sleep was the least he could accomplish.

“Hi, welcome in,” a sing-song voice rang from across the cramped pharmacy. A woman, nestled behind the counter, beamed brightly over to Al. At least someone was chipper in such a bright yet gloomy community.

“Hi,” Al said, “I’m just lookin’ for some sleeping pills. Melatonin, if you have it.”

“Can’t face the sunshine, huh, dear?” the woman asked.

“No, not at three-in-the-morning, I suppose.”

The woman reached beneath the counter and scooted a bottle of tiny capsules toward Al.

“Yeah, we get that a lot. The sun likes to mess with people’s sleep cycles around here. Not too bad once you figure out how to deal with it.”

“Have you?” Al asked. The woman nodded, gesturing down at the tiny bottle wedged between his fingers. “Oh yeah, how much do I owe you?”

“Keep it,” the woman said plainly, “Your paper’s no good here.”

Al was taken aback, unsure of what to do with the wallet that found its way into his hand. He nodded a polite and silent ‘thank you’ and left without another word.

It should’ve been dark outside by this point, but the sun never set in Aspenville—a fact that was all too apparent to Al by this point, only a day into his three-day vacation that he already decided to cut short. He’d be back, no doubt, but next time with the permits and law on his side.

As he was about to check into his last night at the Sunset Motel, a familiar noise caught his attention: the clicking of a squeaking rocker—the old man. He was still perched in his chair, overseeing the street that led up to the motel. Al tried his best to walk along in ignorance, but he couldn’t shake the old man’s eyes that were glued onto him from across the way. He stopped and turned, making eye contact with the still and unspoken man. He smiled over to Al, but Al couldn’t do the same; he was too busy following the vine, a tendril that lined the old’s man’s roof, dangled from the fence line, and trailed up to his rocking chair along the wooden porch. The thin and barely visible green and brown sprout coiled around the bottom of the swaying chair, beelining up and straight into the back of the old man’s head. He could see it clearly from this angle—a direction he hadn’t been before. The old man noticed his gaze and lowered his expression as Al booked it sharply into the motel.

He couldn’t sleep that night. And not even four of the tiny capsules bothered to help calm his restless mind or settle his churning stomach. After about three hours of tossing and turning, Al decided to check out from Aspenville. He packed his bag and crept out from the room, careful not to awaken anyone, though he knew he was alone aside from the motel staff. At least, the woman who checked him in.

He pushed open the motel office door with a jingle. Sitting in the same spot was the woman, silhouetted by the sunlight that covered the window behind her. She was wearing the same clothes as before and dawned a similar smile.

“Checking out so soon?” she frowned, unable to hide the hidden joy on her face, which sent chills into Al.

“Y-yeah,” Al stammered, “I have some business to take care of.”

“I never caught your name,” the woman said, plainly.

“It’s, uh, Allen. You can call me Al.”

“Al, I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay. And, as I like to say, ‘you can always take a person out of Aspenville, but you can never take Aspenville out of a person.’”

Al plastically grinned, dropping the key onto the counter and seeing his way outside—out into the four AM sunlight.

He loaded his car with his bag and took off down the lonesome road toward the highway, forcibly driving past the old man who was still rocking back-and-forth, a smile playing upon his sun-bleached cheeks.

Did anyone even bother to sleep in this godforsaken town?

Allen Parring’s body was discovered by authorities four days after his trip to Aspenville, after failing to appear at a Monday morning meeting; a meeting that he always attended. When authorities were called to ‘check in’ on the businessman-in-question, they indicated that a particular, foul odor was emitting from Parring’s condominium.

Inside, the investigation made a grisly discovery: Allen, sprawled out upon his mattress, was dead—his face contorted into an expression of sheer anguish; vines and leaves protruding from behind his eyes, forcibly pushing them out of the way to reach the sunlight pouring in from the second-story window. His mouth was a mess of green, woven sprigs that choked out his uvula and esophagus, lining the inside with a leafy-colored moss. The condo itself was musky, with fragments of plant life swirling around in the air where the sunlight crept through the blinds, and scattered seeds found their way nestled into the carpet, alongside an empty pill bottle.

Allen Parring’s body was laid to rest a week after it was discovered; buried into the ground.

Planted into the earth.



Written by MakRalston
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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