The City That Silver Built
by John Andreini
The high desert roiled off to the horizon like an angry brown sea, sagebrush and squat pinion pines floating among the swells. Within the vast emptiness was a small isolated island known as Gifford, Nevada. Gusts of heated air blew tangles of dead vegetation along the two-lane road winding its way into the small settlement nestled in a valley surrounded by hills dotted with long abandoned silver mines, now dark, empty holes to nowhere. The forlorn sign welcoming visitors to Gifford, “The City Silver Built,” claimed the population was 850, but that was 1992, and it was sun-bleached and someone had spray painted a black X over it. The houses loosely scattered around Main Street were mostly abandoned remnants, sun-dried carcasses falling in on themselves, now homes to lizards and spiders and spirits. Hoagland’s Hardware sat on the corner of Main and 2nd Street, a fortress-like structure built of massive mauve stones with archways and columns and sun-stenciled letters from another era above the entrance, “First National Bank of Nevada.” The rare lost tourist or bearded desert rat in his jury rigged pick-up rolled past the now barely readable signs for Doug’s Coffee and Donuts, The High-Desert Saloon, Gifford Truck & Tractor Repair, Sadie’s Clothes for Men, Women and Children, Fletcher Electronics. The fronts of other non-descript businesses were either boarded up with plywood or enclosed by grimy cracked windows looking into chasms as dark and empty as the mine shafts in the hills above them.
Standing behind Hoagland’s worn counter, next to the antique cash register, was thirty-five year old Travis Wolski, broad bony shoulders from his father, thick molasses brown hair from his mother, and a smile and heart so sincere neither parent recognized it. He wore a faded blue apron and blue work shirt with “Hoagland’s Hardware” stitched in red above a pocket. The man stared blankly out the glass window at the empty midday street, a street that was once as busy as any town in western Nevada, with ranchers gossiping over ceramic coffee mugs at the café, kids begging parents for ice cream at the drug store, lumbering black-faced miners carrying empty lunchboxes home from work, but that was the past, a prior era of momentary prosperity. Now desert dust settled on everything, covering the homes of the wealthiest families and the poorest equally, and the relentless sun dried up all hope. Travis had known for a long time there was nothing for him in Gifford, no home with a white picket fence, kids running through sprinklers and the smell of pot roast coming from the kitchen for Sunday supper, yet he was moored there, held by an invisible chain around his ankle keeping him from leaving the town and its past. His past and present. There was no future.
Travis imagined the broken bell over the door chiming as Audrey walked in, a tumble of dark hair framing a never-aging homecoming queen’s face, draping over the shoulders of a flowered linen summer dress. Violet lips formed a smile as she met Travis’s eyes. They had been together since the beginning of time. She glided to the counter and tapped on the silver bell with the little hand-printed sign, “Ring for Service” taped to it.
“Can I help you ma’am?” asked a serious Travis.
“I need a time machine. Do you carry those?” Her voice was like hearing a wild mountain rose speak.
Travis couldn’t contain a smile. “I’ll have to check in back. Might have one left.”
A gust of burning wind rattled the store’s old windows, turning the young lovers’ heads for a moment.
“Don’t bother to wrap it. I’ll use it here.”
The man brought a hand up and gently stroked the back of Audrey’s pale wrist with a finger. “Take me with you?”
“You can’t go without me.”
Audrey unconsciously brushed a hand across her stomach. “Well, you would need to want to go with me.”
“I don’t want to be without you.”
“What about the store? This town?”
Travis looked around at the nearly empty shelves, shadowy corners and yellowed, “Everything Must Go” signs tacked on the walls. A rusty tin Coca Cola advertisement with a tanned, demure young woman in a white bathing suit sitting on a beach blanket dangled from a bent nail. “I guess I’d stay on to the bitter end if the situation were different, but not without you, Audrey. Being here alone isn’t an option.”
“We’ll be alone out there,” she said, nodding toward the door.
“Alone, but together.”
Audrey looked away. “It was a crazy old place not that long ago. Wasn’t it? Remember when we won the Homecoming Game against Coleville and the bonfire got so out of control it nearly burned down the whole town.”
“Lord, the beer flowed like water. I also remember that kiss behind the bleachers. And later we—”
“You have a one-track mind, Travis,” she said, blushing and looking down at her dust-coated shoes. “But I’d go back to that night if I could.”
“Me too. I wanted that night to last forever. I guess it has in my mind,” said Travis, absently swiping at the layer of dust on the counter. A small cloud rose up and swirled in a yellow beam of sunlight, then disappeared. “Can’t stop time. Right? Not even here.”
Audrey came around the counter and stood in front of Travis. She wrapped her ivory arms around his waist and locked her fingers. “We don’t have to stay. We’re practically the last ones.”
Travis placed his hand on her hair and gently eased Audrey’s head to his chest.
“Sure, we can leave,” said Travis. “But where will we go?”
“Somewhere safe. We have to find a safe place.” A tear slipped from her eye and dropped on his shirt. “I’m pregnant.”
The wind outside seemed to add an exclamation point to her announcement by blowing open the front screen door with a jarring crash. “Pregnant?”
“Just keep holding me, Travis.”
He closed his eyes and saw the endless ribbon of blacktop winding through the sun-scorched hills, abandoned motels, diners filling with wind-blown sand like the bottom of an hourglass, caravans of vehicles heading to the latest rumored oasis. A safe place? A father? A gust slammed the door again as if someone anxious to leave stood in the threshold, reminding Travis that to stay was to die with the town, to go was at least a postponement, a temporary reprieve. And now he had no choice. Audrey knew this, too. She was smart, smarter than him, and probably…obviously, a stronger person. Everything had instantly changed. They needed each other, and the baby needed them. If…. That was as far as he could let his thinking travel. “We should head west into California, we might find hospitals still open.”
“Yes. We’ll need a hospital. A doctor.” Her voice was weak now, disconnected from her heart, wistful.
His fingers brushed at her tangled hair. “The truck’s got a full tank, and good tires,” he said, hoping his words didn’t belie his pessimism.
“Let’s stop at my place. I’ve got some food we can bring with us.” She pulled back and dove headlong into Travis’s eyes. “Are you mad?”
Resigned, yet finding purpose, Travis smiled. “Yes.”
John Andreini’s stories have been published by Dark Fire Fiction, House of Zolo’s Journal of Speculative Fiction, Across the Margin, Literary Yard, Horla Magazine, Oregon’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction (2018), Indiana Horror Review 2018 and Hello Horror Anthology, among others.