Laura drove her four by four, along a path that could best be described as a favor on humanity created by the constant patter of horse hoofs, ages ago. But tonight she needed that path. She had to revive it for her journey to Animas Fork, a ghost town in Colorado.
Just like its name, the approach route forked into random directions in an animated ballet of a mischievous elf. Driving up the path was like chasing Johnny across their 100 acre farm house. You never know, where the boy might turn, when he might turn or how he might turn.
And finally when Laura would huff and puff and shout in a labored breath that she gave up. Johnny would laugh and say, “See how I tricked you…this is how a Zebra’s stripes create a zigzag illusion, mummy!”
Laura laughed at the memory and soon tears trickled down her smiling face. She did not bother to wipe them away instead she slowed down. She willed time to slow down as well, willed that lifelike memory of Johnny to stay, wished she could live in that memory a thousand years. Johnny was gone, just one instant, one moment when she looked away, and he ran down the road chasing a kitten; one flash of the truck driver distracted by his buzzing phone. One life lost.
Since then Laura’s life has been all about “what if’s”. What if she hadn’t looked away? What if the kitten had decided to cross Johnny’s path a second later? What if Johnny had been distracted just enough to miss seeing the kitten? What if the driver had kept his phone on silent? What if the call had come a second later?
The “what ifs” had haunted Laura for months and they still did. What if Johnny was still alive; she would not be dead inside?
It had been eleven months and twenty-three days now, and she was finally in a condition to take up a solo assignment. It was to create a photo dairy of America’s ghost towns. She had already covered Centralia in Pennsylvania, Bodie in California and now it was Animas Fork, Colorado.
The sun had already hidden itself behind the horizon of an infinite sky. Millions of stars lit up the clear Colorado skies, stars that peeked through tall pine trees lining the woods in a zigzag medley, dangerously claiming the path Laura rode.
A high-pitched wail from somewhere towards her left shook her from her memories. She squinted hard, to make out the source of that wail. Flashed her torch as well. But all she could see was darkness and feel the strong, comforting smell of pinewood.
Must be wolves, she thought. There were many found around the mountains of Colorado. She reached out to the passenger seat and checked for the gun. Johnny would always sit on that seat, and chatter incessantly. About anything and everything his six years old mind could conjure. Laura couldn’t believe there was a time she would actually get sick of his questions, pray for them to stop. Pray for him to sleep. And now? Now, she would give anything to hear one question, just one more time.
“Did you know mommy, that gorillas are known to mourn their dead by crying?” she heard the air around her whisper.
“Yes, baby. I do. And you are such a smart boy. I love you so much.” She spoke to empty air.
Laura jerked the jeep to a halt. She thought she saw something white flash by the path. She looked around; she was surrounded by nothing but 105 kms of Alpine loop woods occasionally splattered by a couple of towns. And the white thing that dashed ahead was too white to be an animal.
If Johnny was here, he would tell her which animal, as bright as a glowing star, resided in these woods. Laura smiled through her tears and started her jeep. She could see the silhouettes of first cottages against the night sky.
She was going to camp the night in the jeep, after she toured the town and took some night shots. She finally arrived at the town center. With just one unpaved path running the length of the entire town, surrounded by a maximum of ten houses on each side, there wasn’t a lot to Animas Fork, but emptiness. Just like Laura’s heart.
She rode her jeep, and stopped at another hundred yards. Animas fork sat on top of an Alpine mountain peak. A mining town long abandoned. Echoes of a bustling life reduced to the nothingness of unlit lamps, rusted doors and empty homes.
There were children’s cycles lying on the ground, unused, untouched for more than half a century. Ready and ripe to be devoured by the ground below. Chairs lined the front yard of cottages. One had a table right in its center, a tea setting, for four.
It was as if the people who inhabited this place, left in such terrible hurry that they chose to only take the people they loved.
Animas Fork in itself was not just a ghost town, rather, a dying ghost town. On the verge of disappearing, when the wilderness around would claim what was rightfully theirs.
Laura got out with her camera gear and gun. She shivered. It was unusually cold for an October night. She turned to look at the warmth that her jeep offered, she saw Johnny sitting there, completely wrapped up in his green winter jacket, hoodie and brown mittens. His blue eyes twinkled with joy, his cheeks windblown and nose red and ruddy. He looked right sitting there in her jeep, next to her, where he belonged. And she blinked.
“I have a gun, too.” A voice spoke from behind Laura. She whirled around, poising her gun to whoever would have spoken. Instantly her hands dropped to her side, and her mouth was open when she saw a little girl, not more than six, not more than Johnny was before he died.
She stood there, holding an ancient looking pistol. Laura, had no clue if it was loaded, or what this little girl was doing in an empty town, miles away from civilization in nothing but a flimsy white frock.
The girl was a wild little girl, with hair golden like the furies, dried leaves that decided to take shelter in the fire of her mangled mane, and eyes, big and blue like those of her lost son. She was thin, pathetically so. If she had come over to Laura’s place, back home, back where Johnny had play dates almost every weekend. Laura would’ve have fed this little girl to the brim. Hoping to add some flesh to her bony body.
She cautiously approached her.
“Honey, give me that gun.” She spoke softly. Meeting those beautiful blue eyes, their only crime was the innocence brimmed and tethered on the edges.
“No, mommy told me do something else. See like this.” She spoke, in a soft, tiny voice. She took the pistol up into her mouth and put the barrel inside.
“No..no….no…no. Why….why would you do that?” Laura screamed. She had lost one child because she looked away, why was this happening to her again. Laura’s heart beat faster and somewhere beneath them there came a loud, heart-wrenching wail, begging Laura to save the little girl. Begging her to move, to shake herself off her frozen, paralyzed self.
“Boooooom” came a sound. And before Laura could make sense of anything around her, a gun, shot, and the little girl vanished into thin air, right in front of her eyes.
And that moment Laura realized, she was being haunted. Haunted by the ghost of a little lost girl, or her memories, or her guilt at loosing Johnny. She did not know which, but she did know that she was haunted.
Laura gave out a bitter laugh. After all haunting her was futile; she was already dead inside.
The dark emptiness inside her was embedded so deep, that nothing could shake her core.
Laura walked across the length of the town with her DSLR, taking night shots against the full moon sky. She got a few good ones, and then she set her tripod for a time lapse. To capture the universe, the moon and stars, move past while Animas Fork stayed still in the night, unmoving, unyielding and consistent in its solidarity.
Laura lit a joint while she hung around the lonely town. Weed, a habit she had picked up after Johnny, it numbed the pain and helped stay warm. She eyed the peg bottle of Jack Daniels in her pocket. She gulped it down half way through and took another puff.
She saw a ferret shoot its way past her, faster than the speed of sound, she guessed.
“That’s a black footed ferret, mummy. It belongs to the weasel family.” The air whispered again.
And purely out of habit Laura responded. “That’s wonderful sweetheart. Aren’t you the cleverest?”
She looked around her, trying to spot the ferret again. Too comfortable on the tree stump she sat on. She saw Johnny play football alone on the path ahead.
In his jacket and hoodie, he was the only splash of color in a joyless land. His laughter rang out as wind chimes through the night. Laura laughed too.
Such a happy boy, a happy boy she had. A happy boy she raised, only to loose. Maybe, she was going crazy, maybe she was finally sane. But all she knew, if only she could join Johnny in the game, she would be alive again.
Before she could run towards her son, figure of the little lost girl in white appeared, holding the pistol.
Johnny, her friendly, little boy, invited her. “Come on, wanna play?” She looked at him, and then looked at Laura. Unsure, uncertain, holding the pistol tight. The last gift from her mommy.
“Come on.” Johnny urged. The pistol disappeared and Laura heard laughter ring around the ghost town again, when the little girl with golden mane, and her Johnny played.
They turned to look at Laura. “What are you waiting for, mummy? Come on?” Johnny asked. His blue eyes, happy as they always were, just like Laura liked to remember them. The little girl, smiling shyly.
“One moment, sweetheart.” Laura said.
“Booom” a shot rang through the forest. And if there was a soul alive anywhere at Animas Fork, they would clearly be able to see translucent figures of a mother and her two kids playing football under full moon light.