Small-Town Spirit

Illustrated by Steffi Walthall |  Edited by Chelle Parker

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

November 2021

2113 words — Reading time: around 10 minutes

Randi and Betty are sharing a milkshake in a booth at the Olympia, which is a great way to spend a summer afternoon in Little Wells. They’re holding hands and feeling how happy everyone in town is when the door jingle-chimes and Betty’s brother Benny hurries in to see them.

“Did you hear?” He isn’t exactly breathless, but he definitely thinks something’s important.

Randi hadn’t, but she isn’t worried. They don’t get problems in Little Wells. “Gee, Benny, hear what?” She likes Benny. He has a nice smile and always shows up at the spirit rallies.

(Go Snallys!)

“Mrs. Iverson sold the gas station.”

Randi’s mouth drops open, and she sits up straighter as she feels everyone in the Olympia catching his words and her mood and starting to pay attention. Mrs. Iverson retiring happens, but no-one expected it was going to happen quite yet. And with Benny flustered, Betty is getting anxious, and Randi squeezes her hand.

Benny and Betty mostly look the way twins are supposed to, but while Benny has a nice smile, Betty has lovely eyes — big and deep and shining. Randi thinks she’s beautiful, even if she’s not as outgoing as her brother.

“To someone new,” Benny adds, and that’s not how things go! Chuck Syles always takes over the gas station when Mrs. Iverson needs a break, and then they swap it around again a few years down the road. They’ve done it for ages, and everyone in Little Wells loves them for it.

“Oh my gosh.” Randi slides over in the booth so Benny can sit down. (Betty slides the milkshake out of his reach because when Benny is nervous he eats without thinking, and it would be weird if he started drinking their out-together milkshake. That Betty is thoughtful like this is part of why Randi loves her, even if she’s so quiet.) “What happened?

Benny had been mowing Mrs. Iverson’s lawn when she came back, and of course he’d asked how Chuck was settling in out there. And she’d said no, she’d sold the gas station to a nice man who wanted to move in.

People visit, but they don’t move in.

By now Randi can feel everyone in town paying attention hard. Once you start sharing news in Little Wells, it travels fast. Mrs. Iverson wouldn’t be out on the border if people didn’t trust her, and everyone’s sure she meant well. But it’s hard work and she’s been out there long enough to get… vague. She might have had a reason to sell or she might have been confused, and she hasn’t been back long enough for anyone to tell.

Officer Norton is thinking everyone should settle down while he goes to talk to Mrs. Iverson, but he always thinks that. Randi flips her ponytail and declares that she and Betty and Benny will hop on their bikes and go meet the newcomer.

The gas station is out of town and down the road, and it always takes a while to get there; by the time they reach it, the sky is turning the colour of peach pie. There’s a tingle in Randi’s mouth, but she’s all the way out here for Little Wells, so she’ll be okay.

Out here isn’t as nice as in town. The gas station sits at one end of a wide gravel lot that’s prickled with weeds except for the spot where they don’t grow. The place is dried up and sad, all shaggy paint and dusty glass that makes you want to move along if you’re in any kind of hurry.

There’s a cranky-looking pickup in the lot, and a man with sharp hair and a contented smirk on his face is leaning against it and smoking.

“Hi!” Randi says brightly, getting off her bike and letting it tip to the ground. “We heard you were moving in. Welcome to Little Wells!”

The man looks over at them. “Hey, kids,” he says, flicking away the cigarette. There’s food wrappers and some beer cans cluttered around his feet, and he’s got a camera strap over one shoulder.

He’s a bit messy, but they are out at the gas station. Maybe it’s alright.

Benny and Betty lean their bikes together as Randi goes up to him and holds out her hand.

“I’m Miranda,” she says, and for a second he looks like he’s going to wave her off but then shakes her hand instead. Most people would. Betty’s thoughtful, and Benny has a nice smile, but Randi’s the one with spirit.

(Go Snallys!)

“Wilson,” he answers.

“You should come into town.” Randi flips her ponytail. “I’m sure someone can spare a room until you get set up! We don’t get a lot of new people in Little Wells.”

“That’ll change.”

Oh dear.

“Why would it change?” Benny says nervously.

“This stop used to be much bigger, did you know that?” Wilson waves across the now-mostly-empty lot. “There was a restaurant, and a little motel, and some rinky-spooky roadside attraction.”

“Right,” Benny and Randi say. The town was called Wellsbury then, and Chuck Syles ran the gas station, and a lot more people used to stop by. And then they didn’t. And with no one coming by, people got sad and started leaving, and Miss Rivvel at the roadside attraction got very lonely and then very intense.

Things got a lot better after that!

“But we don’t have those anymore,” Randi says. Well, maybe the roadside attraction, but that’s a matter of opinion. (Miss Rivvel’s opinion. Which she gets to change whenever she likes.) “If someone visits, they just stop in town for an afternoon.”

“Sure,” Wilson says, “but the zoning never changed!” He steps forward, spreading his hands at the whole weedy space (except that one spot) around the gas station. “And it’s not far from the interstate, so—”

“You’re going to build a motel back up?”

If people make their way into Little Wells, it’s okay; they stop for an afternoon and leave again happy. But people coming and going and coming and going and never letting the place smooth over again, plucking at the edges like a boy flicking spitballs in class — that’s much less nice.

Betty slips over to Wilson’s truck. Benny is standing behind Randi, and his smile is anxious.

“More an RV campground,” Wilson says. “People can come and stay a few days, but they get to bring all their own things with them. That’s a way easier sell than getting them to stay in a strange room these days. Bring everything from home along, set up for a bit, take in— You said ‘Little Wellsbury,’ right? That’s cute, I can sell that.” He grins. “A slice of pure Americana, right off the interstate! Take it in, grab a souvenir, head on down the road.”

“People….” They are pretty close to the interstate, but that hasn’t mattered in a long time. “People might not know about us,” Randi says delicately.

“That’s fine.” In the peach light (deepening to cherry) his grin looks dry and spitless. “Targeted advertising, a bit of Instagram, promos on safe travel, a discount rate with a couple of the RV leasing places, a few billboards for people who are just tired of driving…. Maybe I’ll keep a couple units on-site to rent if someone shows up expecting a motel, but mostly it’ll be people with their own stuff.”

Oh dear.

Randi can feel everyone’s opinions on this. Officer Norton is upset, but he’s also still in town, and it always takes a while to get here.

But Randi’s a Little Wells girl, here with Benny and Betty, and she’ll do what she can.

“That’s not really the kind of thing we do here,” she says firmly, glancing at Benny. Benny nods and starts edging towards the trash Wilson left by his truck as she continues. “It’s a nice town, we’re just a bit—”

“It’ll be fine,” Wilson interrupts, lifting his camera. He frowns at the sky like he expected it to be lighter. Next to his truck, Betty is watching her own feet. “You kids grab something from inside if you want. The old bat had… I don’t know, chips. Think I’ve figured out where the hookups are going, so I’m gonna wrap up here and call some contractors.”

Randi has never heard anyone call brave Mrs. Iverson an ‘old bat.’ “Are— Are you coming into town, then?”

“Nah, I’ve got a room up the I-30. This isn’t really my kinda place.”

Well.

Little Wells is friendly. People are always nice to anyone who wanders in, and Randi is proud of how welcome they make the Whippoorwills feel when they show up for a game against the Snallys. Visitors appreciate the town, and everyone is happy.

But people who appreciate you when they visit are very different from someone who doesn’t want to stay and is trying to send strangers in.

Night is falling and the lights of the gas station flicker on, all bug-stained and yellow. But outside of that little still-lit patch, the dark is coming through the trees and down the road and licking at the edges of the (mostly) weedy gravel lot.

Benny’s footsteps stop, and Randi turns to watch him pick up one of the empty beer cans. He throws it out past the edge of the buzzing yellow light. It’s not a very hard throw — Benny has never really gone in for sports — but it’s not terrible!

Wilson glances up. “Hey, kid, don’t—”

And the can arcs back out of the empty dark, hits the gravel, and bounces with a hollow ponk.

Wilson swallows his words. He looks from the beer can to Benny to Randi and back, and none of them say anything.

He swallows again and lowers his camera. “What the hell.” He’s ignoring them now, looking from the can to the darkness, and he takes a step towards the edge of the light. “Hey, hello?”

The camera’s strap has slipped off his shoulder and is dangling loose. Randi takes two running steps and snatches it out of his hands, pitches it into the dark. It’s a better throw than Benny’s, but she’ll never point that out to him.

Unlike the can, the camera doesn’t come back.

Wilson yells, “You fucking brats!” and grabs her arm, and that makes Randi sure they’re doing the right thing. Benny tries to pull Wilson off her but gets elbowed and sent sprawling. Wilson raises his hand like he’ll hit Randi but stops, and Randi doesn’t need Betty’s eyes to see him reaching a conclusion. He shoves her away and starts for his pickup, pulling the keys out of his pocket.

And then Betty, still waiting by the truck, steps up and catches his wrist.

Betty and her lovely eyes see a lot. It’s why she’d rather watch her own feet than the dark.

She can make other people see things the same way, if she has to.

It pulls Wilson in so hard that Randi sees what he’s seeing too. Betty’s eyes huge and charry-dark swallowing up so much of her face, and Benny’s teeth studding the split of his smile, and Randi herself—

Betty lets go of him and Wilson bolts. He doesn’t even try getting past her to the truck, just drops the keys and stumble-scrambles for the road and runs down it and out of the thin light of the gas station and into the night.

The dark around Little Wells gives lots of chances. The first thing that goes in gets given back. The second thing shows that you’re serious. The third thing is the one that gets attended to.

They hear Wilson’s footsteps, and then hear his footsteps stop.

Randi helps Benny up, and puts her arm around Betty. They wait a little while, in case something else needs doing — it’s good to be careful when you’re out on the border — but nothing happens.

It is pretty late to bicycle back, so they stack the bikes in the pickup and Benny drives them all back to town. Betty sits with her head on Randi’s shoulder and her eyes closed. Benny shouldn’t be driving, he only has a learner’s permit, but Officer Norton decides it’s alright if they’re careful.

When they get back, Benny parks the truck at the Olympia and says he’ll get it taken care of. Betty and Randi leave him to it. It’s so nice to live in Little Wells, a quiet place where two girls can walk home after dark without getting into trouble. They hold hands the whole way, and it’s just a lovely night.

Go Snallys!

© 2021 Frances Rowat

About the author

Frances Rowat

Frances Rowat lives in Ontario with her husband and a not-quite-startling number of cats. She was born in Canada, and while growing up spent time in England, Algeria, and Switzerland. She is currently spending nearly all of her time behind a keyboard, where she frequently gets lost in details. Her work has appeared in such venues as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Liminal Stories, and Cossmass Infinities. She enjoys knitting, rain, and post-apocalyptic settings.

About the artist

Steffi Walthall

Steffi Walthall is a digital Virginia-based freelance illustrator who works in publishing and editorial spaces. She draws inspiration from history, sci-fi horror and the occasional video game. You can find more of her work at steffiwalthallart.com