It was a mild morning, the sun was shining and there was a faint breeze. The city came to life as people began to wake and get ready for the day. People rushed through showers and breakfast, still groggy from the nights sleep. They poured coffee into mugs, cups and thermoses while scarfing down a quick breakfast. They hopped in the car or ran to the bus. It was a small town, some ten thousand people in all. It wasn’t a well known place, few, if any could have pointed it out on a map. Today was the day that Jacob’s River would become famous. One moment it was there, then at 9.15 A.M. it was not.
The media descended on the area not long after the Army, who had already started to fence it off. A few lucky photographers got photos of where the town used to be, photos that would be broadcast all across the world. Where the town had been there appeared a smooth, gray surface. It curved and twisted, rose and fell as it followed the natural landscape. There were no pipes sticking out of it, no trees or bushes, nothing at all, stretching into the distance. The world watched with bated breath for weeks as everyone worked on figuring out what the hell had happened. Theories sprang up one after another, aliens, nuclear blasts, government conspiracy, advanced technology. Slowly it began to fade from public consciousness, the terror that it could happen somewhere else began to diminish. Occasionally people would talk about it over drinks, asking what ever happened to that town? You know the one? The River place. The story faded from the news as it was stagnant and that was boring. There were plenty of other exciting things happening out in the world. People still went on pilgrimages, visiting the site where the town once was, sometimes they left flowers or teddies for friends or family members who were gone.
Elizabeth hated driving and these long, winding roads weren’t helping. She was out here in the middle of nowhere going to where that godforsaken town was and for what? A pointless piece that would be trotted out to fill some space. Sure in an overall sense it was interesting, but nothing had changed in three years. The “Where are they now?” story her editor wanted wouldn’t make a lick of difference. They’d just give her the tour and the standard lines. “We’re working round the clock to figure out what happened and ensure it won’t happen again.” “There is no danger to the surrounding area.” “We will not rest until we have answers.” Blah blah blah. Elizabeth was enchanted with the entire thing when it first happened, but now the only ones who really thought about it were conspiracy theory nut jobs. Most people just tried to forget the whole thing and Elizabeth didn’t blame them. It was creepy and weird, if it happened here what was to stop it happening elsewhere? A thought that kept more than a few people up at night in the beginning. Elizabeth flicked on a CD, there were no radio stations out here, well, no good ones at least. She turned the music up and hummed along, she’d be there soon enough and then she could get out of this damned car.
“How’re things this morning?”
“Fine, the usual. Nothing to report.”
Matt sighed, “I suspected as much. Anything important on for the day?”
“Yeah, we have a reporter coming out for a tour of the place.”
Matt sighed, “Who got the short straw?”
Debra grinned at him, “We all voted and you weren’t here so…”
“Damn. Well, I’ll try and make it a short one.”
“Why? It’s not like we’ve anything to do today.”
“I’m supposed to do a fence check.”
“I can cover for you if you like.”
“Yeah, I mean I’m not doing anything here, might as well use up some of the day. Besides it’s an easy enough job and you can owe me one.”
Matt smiled, “deal.”
Matt stood in the parking lot and glanced at his watch, she was late. He didn’t mind too much, it was a nice day out, but it was still rude. He heard a car approaching and nodded to himself, that would be her. It had been a few weeks since anyone had tried to drive up here. Most of the time it was just the regulars saying hi, they had their own spots they parked in. Security didn’t mind them too much, they were respectful, didn’t litter and kept to themselves. It was the teenagers and the gawpers that pissed them off. Loud and yelling, always dumping their shit around the place. A blue car pulled into the lot and parked in one of the few free spaces. A woman stood out of the car a moment later, she was tall and blonde, she wore a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and runners. Matt had expected her to be wearing a suit of some sort. She had her hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, it also appeared as though she wasn’t wearing any make up. He had thought she’d be caked in the stuff, like a TV anchor. She approached him, squinting in the sun, “Hi, I’m Elizabeth Short, from The Evening Star?”
“Hello Ms. Short, I’m Matt Cooper, one of the security guards here. Welcome to our little outpost.” They shook hands, her grip was strong.
“I hope your trip out here was pleasant.”
“As it could be. The roads were in good condition at least.”
“Yeah, they’re better than there were a few years back. They were all redone after the town disappeared.”
“Where should we get started?”
“Well, I suppose I’ll show you the edge, C’mon, it’s this way.”
It was a short enough walk though a gate in the chain link fence. It was different seeing it in person, the vast expanse of gray. Elizabeth looked at the fence as they walked by, it wasn’t as tall or as tough as she thought it would be.
“Does the fence enclose the entire space where the town was?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I know, I know, you thought it’d be bigger. We don’t need to bother with it all that much really, between you and me it’s just to make us look good.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Do you want to talk a walk out there?”
“No. Not really. Is it safe?”
“Oh, perfectly safe. I can go with you if you like.”
“No. That’s all right.”
Matt smiled, “See? Everyone has an aversion to it. We haven’t met anyone who wanted to stroll across it once they got up close and personal.”
“But it is safe?”
“Oh totally, look.”
Matt took a few steps and was standing on the grey ground. His face started twisting, his mouth clenching.
“See? Perfectly safe.”
He stepped back and shivered.
“What was that?”
“It’s hard to explain. Try it.”
Elizabeth looked at him, then at the ground. “It’s not going to fuck up my phone or anything, is it?”
“Nope, but I can hold your bag if it makes you feel better.”
Elizabeth passed it over to him then took a step forward. Immediately she stepped back. “Jesus Christ” She shivered.
“I know, awful isn’t it?”
“It’s like biting a popsicle stick, but all over your body.”
Matt nodded, “Yup, I’ve also heard touching cotton wool or writing on a chalkboard.”
“What causes it?”
“I don’t really know to be honest. I’m sure someone has figured it out and just hasn’t bothered to tell us yet. But it works on everyone, humans, animals. No one wants to go onto it.”
“So what kind of progress has been made in finding out what caused it, or what it is?”
Matt sighed, “Very little to be honest, though we’re just security so we don’t get told much.”
“Would I be able to talk to one of the scientists?”
“They’ve been told you were visiting, and we did ask around, but none of them wanted to take the time. Sorry.”
Elizabeth shook her head, “No, don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either. I’d say there’s a lot of people bugging them to find something, anything.”
“Yeah, at this point they’re going to start losing funding in another year or two.”
“Well, they haven’t found anything, nothing concrete anyway. The people, well, I don’t know about you but I think they’re gone and they’re not coming back. Some people live with the hope of it happening but I think it’s a little naïve.”
“Yeah, well, look at it. It isn’t right. You felt it yourself, what ever happened there did something to the land itself. There’s nothing out there, no trees or plants, no animals, nothing man-made. Just this gray stuff.”
“What is the gray stuff?”
“That they do know, it seems to be just concrete.”
“Yup. All the tests done on it come back with that, just plain old concrete.”
Elizabeth looked out at it, it did look like ordinary, smooth concrete, but it couldn’t be that.
Matt lead her down a short path for a few different views of the area, chatting as they walked. Elizabeth took a few photos on her phone, mostly for herself, they had already decided on the photo for the piece, a Welcome to Jacob’s River sign, behind it was nothing but that empty expanse, she had to admit it was a chilling picture. Once the tour was finished she thanked him and went back to her car. The tour itself was a little interesting, though she wasn’t sure if it was the subject or Matt himself. She got into her car and checked her watch, it only took half an hour, Elizabeth sighed, she really could have just done the entire thing on the phone and saved herself a five hour round trip. Sure it was interesting to see it all, but she had expected something more. She turned on the car and pulled out of her space.
Matt watched Elizabeth drive off, “She’s leaving, keep an eye out just in case but I don’t expect her to return.” They’d had problems in the past with reporters coming for the tour then trying to hop the barrier a few miles away. They had one guy manage to get himself a whole hundred feet onto the concrete before they’d caught up to him, took him almost an hour to get that far and only a few seconds to sprint back. Matt still didn’t know what the hell the reporter was trying to accomplish. Matt turned and went back into the small building, least it was over with now, all that was left to do was to sit around, keep a bit of an eye on things and wait until his shift was done.