This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.
There was a strange, lonely beauty to the scenery that zoomed past as the car rolled down the deserted highway. The green fields that lay untended for who knew how long, punctuated occasionally by the abandoned barn of gray wood and peeling paint, the patches of trees in the far-off distance, the battered old farmhouses with rusting old automobiles beside them...you could stop on the side of the road, wander over and sit down on the pieces of the porch that weren't falling down, and wait all day and all night for another car to pass.
Perhaps that was why the descendants of the farmers that had come here and claimed the land as theirs had not done likewise; perhaps they could not tolerate the isolation as their parents and grandparents had been able to. Perhaps they saw a better life in dreams and magazines and gone off to pursue those tempting visions, leaving old men, old women and old buildings to fall into neglect and decay. Who could really blame them, when you got down to it? It was a terrible thing, the loneliness...terrible and beautiful all at once.
Ray Stantz shook his head, chasing away the daydreams and poetic visions that had filled his head, and instead concentrated on the voice that had been droning on ever since they'd left the airport an hour ago. But as he listened, his eyes continually drifted over to the window, watching the never-ending fields pass by, mile after mile after mile.
"...contract to clear the land about six months ago," the man, who'd introduced himself as Jack French when he'd shaken Stantz's hand a short time ago. "Highway department was waiting to see if the federal funding would come through to finish the interstate, and you know how the government likes to make the poor states squirm before coming through. Budget cuts and all that."
"Hmm-mmm," Ray nodded absently.
"So when the money finally came through, they started clearing the way so that they'd have a head start on the interstate, come the spring. But when the crews hit Antone, where they were going to put in a cloverleaf to connect the highway with Studerville, the weird stuff started." French stole a glance over at his guest and was pleased to note that Stantz was listening intently; he had no idea that the Ghostbuster had only started paying attention when the words "weird stuff" came up. "It was the damnedest thing, really--I didn't believe it until I saw it for myself."
"What exactly happened, Mr. French?" Ray asked quietly. His mind was in "record" mode, ready to study every detail of every incident, to determine if the facts pointed to coincidence or design, and if the latter, whether paranormal activity was the cause. His equipment in the trunk of the car would confirm or deny the initial hypothesis, but Ray liked to be prepared. In his profession, it sometimes made the difference between life and death.
"Well, it started off with these weird feelings," French said, returning his attention to the highway, though for what reason Ray couldn't know--they hadn't seen a car in either direction for quite a while now. He idly hoped the car didn't develop any trouble, or his fact-finding visit could be extended for quite a while. "People who'd cross the town limits--such as they are--would say that they felt cold and creepy--that their skin was crawling, like someone was walking over their grave. Well, one or two people, you just figure they're goldbricking--but this was the entire work crew. Every work crew reported the same stuff. So you have to wonder.
"Anyway, some of 'em could handle it better than others, so them that could went into the town with the bulldozers and stuff. And as soon as they crossed that line, damned if every piece of equipment didn't shut down and refuse to start up again. But if they managed to tow the thing past the town limits, it'd start up again neat as you please, and keep going right up to that line--and die again." Ray nodded, studying the scenario in his mind and growing increasingly excited as the facts started pointing in one direction.
"Well, the more we tried to get that damn town tore down, the worse it got. Finally someone suggested we call you Ghostbuster boys and bring you down to take a look-see." He shrugged nonchalantly. "Never held with the spook stuff myself, but I figure what the hell."
"The paranormal exists, Mr. French."
"Maybe so, but it don't bother me, and I don't go out of my way to bother it, you know?" He pointed up ahead, where a convoy of construction equipment sat on the side of the road; further along the highway Ray could see a small cluster of buildings and homes.
"Welcome to Antone, Mr. Stantz."
The other Ghostbusters were well aware of Ray's seventh sense concerning the paranormal; Peter in particular had said that the chubby Ghostbuster was better than a PKE meter, a statement that had made Egon sniff in polite disagreement. Right now, as he carefully unpacked his equipment, Ray's body was tingling with anticipation because he knew--he knew--that this was indeed a supernatural situation.
"I wanted to thank y'all for keeping the expenses low," French said quietly. "There's some in charge that think this is utter nonsense, and I wasn't able to justify the cost of bringing all four of you."
"No problem," Ray assured him. "Things are busy in New York right now; we could only have spared one person for a consultation anyway." He picked up his PKE meter and headed for the invisible city limit. "Well, let's see what we can find, Mr. French."
The instant Ray's foot crossed that unmarked border, his suspicions were confirmed. He felt the hairs on his neck and arms rise on their own accord; the odd but familiar sensation that always accompanied his paranormal encounters buzzed through his spine up into his brain. And the PKE meter screeched into life, registering a low but steady reading.
"Boy," Ray breathed in excited anticipation. "This is something!"
"So what does that mean?" French asked from a short distance behind.
"It means there's definitely a paranormal influence here," Ray replied. "I'm going to take a look around and see if the readings center around anything." He looked around, squinting to block the sun beating down from overhead. "Is there a cemetery somewhere around here?"
"About a mile east."
"Will you have to take it out to make room for the highway?"
French shook his head. "Folks around here have some respect for the dead."
Ray nodded in satisfaction. "Good. That helps. I'll be back in a little while."
"Take your time," French advised. Ray smiled to himself and headed into the deserted town.
The crickets were chirping lazily in the warm afternoon sun; crows were sitting on whatever perches they could find, the telephone wires they'd normally use having been removed ages ago. The asphalt of Antone's main--only--road was cracked and the painted lane dividers were almost transparent. The slap of Ray's shoes against the pavement echoed and ricocheted through the deserted town as he slowly ambled into the heart of the town.
As he walked, he glanced down occasionally at the softly beeping PKE meter, nodding with satisfaction. Definitely a paranormal presence here, but not terribly strong. Which didn't mean it couldn't be dangerous all the same; experience had taught Ray never to take a situation at face value. But at the same time, he could not shake the feeling that while he wasn't exactly welcome here, no action would be taken against him...yet.
Over to his left was the gas station, with every piece of glass on the building and pumps covered with grime. Next door was the local grocery store, beyond that a few other shops and houses. The opposite side of the street was completely residential, two- story houses with large, wide porches and swings. The front yards were overgrown and overwhelmed with grass and weeds, which swayed slowly in the summer breeze. The paint on all the buildings was peeling away under the constant warmth of the sun, now that no one was there to strip it away and replace it with new coats.
Ray felt as though he'd fallen away from reality, that he'd somehow been transported to this lonely, desolate...timeless universe. He remembered a story by Ray Bradbury that had in turn been inspired by a Rachel Carson poem, and now truly understood what the writer had been saying. It was so quiet here, so lonely...
"A modern-day ghost town," Ray said to himself; for some odd reason, it was comforting to hear his voice amid the stillness. "Too bad the guys aren't here--I wonder what Egon would make of all this? And Peter came from a small town too." Whistling a bit too loudly, he continued his stroll past two faded-white churches that sat opposite one another and a run-down home with a large old tree in its front yard. Hanging listlessly from a sturdy branch was an old-fashioned tire swing; Ray gave it a playful push and continued on his way
Ray took his time, taking readings and walking over every inch of the place until he'd reached the other side of the town, where the oppressive feelings ended as abruptly as they'd began. He smiled softly as he felt metal beneath his feet, and looked down to find a long-abandoned railroad track; only this section, firmly imbedded in the road, remained, the rest of it having been pulled up long ago. He smiled to himself, imagining the mighty steam trains that must have run along these tracks only a few decades ago, and wishing that he could somehow see one go by. Trains always gave him a sense of nostalgia, and with that thought he realized he'd been feeling that same emotion during his entire trip through the tiny town. Ray felt as though he'd walked through a piece of history, and felt a twinge of sadness at the thought of it making way for the bland present and future.
He turned around and took one step over the border, sighing as the sense of desolation and sadness returned. Then, taking a deep breath, he plunged back into the town, again taking his time in walking back to where he'd started out.
French was standing by his car, smoking a cigarette and watching Ray's every move. "Well?"
Ray nodded. "You've definitely got something there. Not inherently dangerous, near as I can tell, but there's no way to know for sure unless we're able to make contact."
"Hmm." French threw the cigarette to the ground and stomped it out. "I suppose you're going to want to bring your friends here."
"Not just yet," Ray shook his head. "I want to see if I can do anything more on my own." He went over to the passenger side of French's car and opened the door. "Let's head back to Studerville--I've got to make some preparations."
The "preparations" consisted of getting a room in the only motel in Studerville, the town closest to Antone that still had a population worth counting, and renting a car from the local Ford dealership. That evening, Ray drove back to Antone alone, arriving at the city limits just as the sun finally plunged beneath the horizon.
He hadn't told French of his plans, and the man hadn't been all that interested in them. He'd accepted Ray's story without a word and dropped him off at the hotel with a handshake and a business card, then headed back to his office. For some reason, Ray knew it was important to come back here alone, without the presence of the people who threatened the survival of Antone. Such as it was.
Ray stepped out of the car and stood there silently for a time, listening to the sleepy song of the crickets and the whisper of the evening breeze. As the golden rays of the sun grew fainter by the minute, that familiar air of being out of time returned to him. This could be any small town, anywhere. The only things that differentiated it from other places were the fact that it was deserted and haunted. And with luck, Ray would find out why tonight. He shut the car door and headed into town.
When Ray crossed the town limits this time, there was no oppressive feeling; instead, there was a sense of peace, of rightness. He felt as though he belonged here, that he'd lived here all his life and knew every inch of the place--it was as though he had come home. He sighed into the evening air and walked until he stood in the exact center of the town.
For his sake, Ray sincerely hoped that a car or truck wouldn't pick this moment to come barreling down the highway and run him down.
He looked around in a long, slow circle, studying the decrepit houses with a practiced eye. He'd left his meter and other tools in the car, wanting to make a peaceful impression on whoever or whatever was haunting the place. For some strange reason, Ray sincerely didn't want to have to come in here with proton packs blazing; he held onto the hope that a better solution could be found. But so far, he hadn't been able to make any sort of contact. Maybe he should have brought the meter in after all, and used it to determine the best place to start...
"Hey!" he called to the stillness. "Anybody home?"
Ray jumped at the sound of the voice and whirled around, straining to locate the source in the growing darkness. He gasped softly as he saw her sitting across the street on a battered, rusty porch swing, moving back and forth slowly as she in turned studied him. Taking a deep breath, Ray walked over to the front yard and smiled. "Uh....hi."
"It's quite all right. I don't bite." She had been pretty, he could see now, blessed with a warm, gentle smile that eased his apprehension. She wore a simple homemade dress that seemed just as timeless as everything else did in the town. She nodded towards the front porch stairs. "Why don't you come up and sit a spell?"
"Thanks." He chose to sit on the stairs, close enough for casual conversation but far enough that if need be, he could make a break for the car. "My name's Ray Stantz," he said quietly; it was hard to speak in any other tone of voice.
"We know." She nodded out towards the street, and Ray was surprised to see dozens of men and women appearing. Dressed in clothes from different eras, they walked along the main street, they sat on their porches, they lounged outside the front door of the grocery store. And he could hear them talking as well--and the talk was of simple, everyday things, things that had happened a long time ago and were probably long forgotten by the living, but were important enough to be remembered by these people.
It felt right, somehow--it felt natural. Ray felt as though this was the real world, now, and his universe was the one that didn't belong.
For a while, he was content to sit there and simply watch and listen.
"We also know why you're here," the woman told him. Ray winced slightly, turning back to face his hostess; she smiled slightly at him, as if to assure him that no one would hold his assignment against him. "You understand, don't you?" the woman continued. "This is our town. This is where we were born, grew up, married, had our own children, and died. This is where we lived. This is where we belong."
"Who are you?" Ray asked.
"My name is...was...Elizabeth Matthews. My husband ran the gas station there for forty years until he died. My son ran the place for about ten years after that, then up and left for California." She smiled and shook her head. "Isn't that the way of things? You give your children a place to grow up in, a heritage of sorts, and then they go and leave it all behind." She rose to her ghostly feet; Ray followed.
"Would you like a brief tour of Antone, Dr. Stantz?"
"I'd like that very much, Mrs. Matthews," he said. She guided him back to the street; the spectral citizens of the town nodded politely to them but said nothing as she led him up the road.
"My husband's gas station we've already discussed," she said, pointing as she talked. "The grocery store belonged to George and Cynthia Harris. It was a good place to visit, even when you didn't really need anything--the men clustered around the gas station," she added with a smile, "while the women claimed the store. Their house is behind the store. Next door is Lars Schmidt's barber shop...he cut the hair of every Antone male for over thirty-five years before he died. The shop's attached to the house, as you can see." She nodded gracefully to a couple passing by, then resumed her lecture:
"The first house on the right is mine, of course, and our neighbors were Jack Hamburg and his wife Lucille. She was a nurse in Studerville; he worked for the railroad. Next door to them is the Huckleberry family--I can't tell you how long the family lived there, at least three generations that I know of. At the end the two Huckleberry sisters were there, all alone, until they died. I looked in on them from time to time. One of them was a piano teacher. The last house before the cross street was Spencer Atchison's--the children used to love to climb up that tree in the front yard and watch him yell at them. The man had such a temper!
"Across the street we had the two churches in town, facing and opposing each other. Strange how we all got along so well, yet the friction between those two congregations was something to behold, even when there was just a handful of attendees--barely enough to fill one place. Beyond that there's the Ator place--he also worked for the railroad; his wife came from Scotland and taught school in their parlor.
Then there's the Overton house, followed by the Henereys and the Newkirks. Across the street you have the Johnsons, the Dennehys and the Browns. Then there's the train tracks, and the fields." She smiled at Ray. "As they say, 'it isn't much, but we call it home.'"
"So what happened?" Ray said.
"Time happened," she replied. "One by one people left, by death or by car. The railroad abandoned the track fifteen years ago, and that was pretty much the death knell for Antone. The buildings are all that's left, and when they're destroyed, that will be the end for all of us."
"Is that why you're fighting the construction workers?" Ray said.
She smiled sadly. "Can you blame us? The world may not remember Antone, or even care about it if they did recall it, but to us, this was our world. Would you like to see all your accomplishments, everything that you said, and did, here one day and gone the next like it never was?" Her gaze drifted to the street, then to the fields beyond.
"For a long time now, we've stayed here in our town, content. And now we're remembered, if for nothing else than being in the way of an interstate." She said the last word with a distinctly foul tone.
"Isn't there another way?" Ray suddenly burst out. "What if they moved the buildings away from here, to somewhere safe?"
Her eyes were filled with sad sympathy, as was her smile. "It's a kind thought, but no. This is where our town was built. It's not just the buildings--it's the land as well." She sighed and leaned forward.
"Farmers learn to become one with their land, to understand its nuances and work with it rather than conquer it. The same applies to us. Antone has been here a long, long time, Dr. Stantz. We're bound to it. The buildings are a part of the ties that bind, but they're not the only ones."
"Which," she said, "was why we let you come here tonight. To understand." Ray looked around and was surprised to find that they were back at her house. "It was a pleasure talking to you, Dr. Stantz."
"Same here, Mrs. Matthews." He eyed her carefully. 'Why were you chosen to speak to me?"
"I was the town historian; my son has the book I wrote--probably moldering up in his attic or basement," she added balefully. "Some people felt I could best describe our point of view to you."
He looked up at her sorrowfully. "I wish there was something I could do."
"You listened. That's more than anyone else ever did. People today, they have no roots, no sense of history. Their lives are like that interstate they're building--get from cradle to grave as fast as possible, and don't see anything in between. Pity." In the distance, Ray heard a train whistle--a steam train, from the sound of it. He suddenly wished he could see it come by.
"So what will you do?" he abruptly asked her. "Keep fighting?"
"You'd best be going," she said softly, as if that was answer enough.
Ray turned towards his car, then suddenly stopped and faced her again. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," she said quietly. And as Ray turned to face the street, the ghostly images he'd seen earlier were gone now, and the town was covered in the silence of the night. He turned around again to say something more to her, but she too was gone, her departure evidenced only by the porch swing, which continued to creak back and forth.
Heavy-hearted, he returned to the car and drove away.
That night Ray awoke to a terrible rattling and flashes of light. Rising from his bed, he went to the window and watched the rain come down in hard sheets. Thunder rumbled through the night, punctuated by streaks of lightning that crashed down to the ground. He stood there for some time, watching the storm and wondering why he felt so troubled in his soul.
When the storm quieted to a mere shower, he stumbled back into bed and returned to his deep slumber.
The jangling of the phone woke him from a deep, dreamless sleep. "Hello?" he said fuzzily into the phone.
"This is French." There was something odd about the man's voice, but Ray wasn't quite able to determine what. "Can I pick you up in about fifteen minutes?"
"Uhhh...sure, so long as we can pick up something to eat." Ray wondered if there was a McDonalds in town.
"No problem. I'll be there soonest." The receiver went dead; Ray scratched his head and stared at the phone for a moment, then rose to his feet and went over to the suitcase. He threw some clothes on and waited outside for his employer to arrive.
Fifteen minutes later, French pulled up in his car, holding a large cup of coffee and a bag of doughnuts. Ray devoured them eagerly as they drove back down the highway towards Antone.
"Did you head back there last night?" French asked, an odd tone in his voice.
"Yeah...wanted to see if the manifestation would permit contact, and I figured that if I went alone, it might be more willing to appear in front of someone it considered non-hostile."
"And did anything show up?"
"Yeah," Ray said after a moment. French nodded to himself, but said nothing for a few miles. Ray sipped at the hot coffee gingerly, trying hard to keep from burning his mouth and tongue. He'd almost finished the cup when French spoke again, the man's voice startling him:
"Everything look okay when you left?"
"Yeah....why?" In reply, French nodded straight ahead; Ray followed the motion and gasped in startled surprise.
There were the bulldozers and tractors that had been sitting next to the Antone city limits. But the city itself was nowhere to be seen, save for piles of still-smoldering ashes and globs of burnt wood and metal.
Only the foundations of the buildings remained, nestled snugly in the damp ground. Ray rolled down the window and sniffed the morning air, finding it smoky and heavy.
French pulled over on the side of the road; Ray grabbed his PKE meter before jumping out of the vehicle and running over to the former city limit. There was no foreboding, no sense of familiarity...nothing whatsoever. It was as though Antone had never existed save for yesterday and last night. Here today, gone tomorrow, Ray could hear Peter say. He activated the PKE meter and for some reason was not surprised to find a null reading.
"Lightning must have struck something last night," French commented. "Whole town was like a tinderbox waiting to be lit...can't say I'm too surprised." He lit a cigarette and stared at the cinders. "Well, you think it's safe to start work on the cloverleaf here?"
Ray nodded. "I'm not picking anything up. There shouldn't be any problems."
"Good," French said quietly. They headed back to the car and got in, then made a U-turn and drove away.
Somewhere on a highway between here and the middle of nowhere, there sits a cloverleaf exit with the designation of "Studerville". The only things to be seen out that way are endless miles of empty fields and a cemetery that, due to the weeds, is practically invisible unless one knows exactly where to look. The entire site looks like any other cloverleaf found on any other highway.
Except some people, when they hit that area, get a sudden shiver running up their spine.
And others swear they can hear a steam train in the distance.