Fantasy Romance Journalism contemporary christmas dragon magical places Newspaper

Small Town News

By James Van Pelt
Dec 18, 2019 · 4,958 words · 19 minutes

Photo by Filip Bunkens via Unsplash.

From the author: There are many stories about mythical, impossible places, like Brigadoon or Narnia. When you find a magical locale like that, you want to stay. Such is Downey, Colorado. Hard to find. Easy to lose. But if you do discover that you've made it there, you know that you should never leave, which is exactly what Brant, a small-town journalist discovers in this Christmas tale.

My dad told me once that life is a series of defining journeys.  I was thinking about that when Mr. Findley, the vampire, handed me his money in the classified ad envelope he’d taken from the display near the door.  His ragged fingernails scratched my palm.  I squelched an urge to rinse off.  Instead, I smiled, thanked him, then rubbed my hand surreptitiously against my pant’s leg.  

It was 2:55 on Thursday.  The classified’s deadline was 3:00, which meant that I’d have to rush to the computer, type the ad, then shuffle the rest of the page to make it fit.  I still had photos to print and size, captions to write, and I hadn’t decided on a headline for the Winterfest story.  Jackson, my production photographer, worked a rigid schedule.  If I didn’t have the pages to him by 4:30, he wouldn’t be able to shoot the plates before 5:00, when he left,  whether he was done or not, and I couldn’t stay late tonight to shoot them myself.

Not tonight, of all nights: Emily’s last night in town.  I had a little box with a bracelet in it in my pants pocket, my first gift to her.  Every time I moved, I could feel it.  Would she take it?  Would she understand what I meant by it?  I had to give it to her before she left.

“Unusual to see you this time of day, Mr. Findley.”  I nodded to the street through the newspaper office’s windows.  Although grey-washed clouds brushed the mountain tops on both sides of town, and snow had sifted down off and on most the afternoon, it was still bright out.

“Sunscreen, Brant, and a big-brimmed hat.”  He lifted a huge, shapeless black thing I’d mistaken for a book bag, to put on his head.  “It’s important to me that the ad goes in tomorrow.  It will be there, won’t it?”  His voice rumbled almost below audibility.  I tried not to look at his eyes.  Nice guy, Mr. Findley, but creepy eyes.

“Yes, sir.  No problem.  If you don’t sell the item in a week, I’ll run it for free next time.”

“It’s a personal,” he said as he pulled on his gloves.

The announcements on the community bulletin board rippled in the breeze when he opened door to leave.

His ad read, Tall, slender, well-read SWM non-smoker, seeking S/DF for friendship and/or long term relationship.  Night owl a must.  Like animals.  Love to fly.  Age no barrier.  I fit it under the Daughters of the American Revolution call for 2nd hand clothes for their annual “Dress the Homeless for the Holidays” campaign.

I put the IN THE DARKROOM sign on the counter and grabbed the film canister.  The darkroom used to be a janitor’s closet.   Chains held up the wide shelf with the chemical trays.  To get to the sink, I had to move the trays and fold the shelf to the wall.

On the wall above the enlarger was my favorite photo for the year, showing Sheriff Ling with his foot on a pickup’s bumper, writing a ticket.  The embarrassed hunter faced him, his hands together contritely; and behind them, draped over the truck’s hood was the kill, its head dangling in front of the radiator.  The caption read, “Local law enforcement issues its third hunting violation for the season.  Harmon Ridley, a Denver resident, said, ‘I thought it was an elk.’”

I liked the photo’s angles and the way the shadows highlighted everything else.  Besides, I’d managed to position Ling so the gruesome part was hidden.  Ridley must have been shooting hollow points, because the exit wound was as large as a dinner plate.  Downey’s readers wouldn’t go for that kind of gore.  The white-furred animal’s single spiraled horn nearly brushed the ground.  Elk, indeed.  City folk!

The clock ticked past 3:00.  I should have talked to Emily last night, but it wasn’t until I’d been laying awake for two hours, staring at the shadows on my bedroom’s ceiling, thinking about her being gone for four months, that I realized I loved her. 

There’d be just enough time to develop and make the prints if I’d exposed them properly.  If not . . . well, it wouldn’t be the first time the Downey Picayune had run poorly done photographs.  The standard of excellence is just different in a small-town paper.  My subscribers don’t care if the stories are interesting, or even accurate, as long as their names aren’t misspelled.  There’s a poetry column on the first page, for crying out loud.  You won’t find that in the Chicago Tribune!

For once the film rolled into the developing canister without a hitch.  Developer gurgled after; I set the timer, then bolted out for the computer to finish captions, and there was still that huge blank above the Winterfest story.  What kind of writer am I?  I couldn’t come up with three or four well-chosen words.  No headline.

Christian Ribodeaux leaned against the counter.  I sighed, then counted to ten under my breath without changing direction.

“How’s my paper going, son?”  Ribodeaux owned the Picayune, as well as the laundry, the gas station, the Brigadoon Bar, and most of the rental cottages, not that people stopped in Downey all that often.

“Fine, sir.  It’s just peachy.”  The computer screen scrolled to my first photo space.  I tried to remember what the pose was.  Earlier in the week, the water main on Third Street had broken, sending a fountain fifteen feet in the air, and since we’d been in a cold snap at the time, the mayor’s car, which was directly under the spray, became an ice sculpture immediately.  Why he’d had the top down on his convertible was beyond me.  Did I get a picture of the mayor fruitlessly chipping at his car with an ice scraper?  Or was the picture the one of the volunteer fire department trying to shut the water off?

“Talked to a man the other day, Brant.  He told me all about digital cameras and printers that take the pages right out of the computer.  Revolutionizing the newspaper business, he said.  Told him we liked doing things are own way.  Fact is, told him you loved this.  Sent him packing, I did.”

I kept my ear cocked for the timer.  If I missed, the film would be ruined, and I’d have to run file photos.  The most current ones were all fuzzy shots of Ingmar’s hay wagon on fire from four weeks ago.  Evidently one of the kids was smoking during the Halloween hay rack ride.  Ingmar lost the wagon and $150.00 of hay he’d brought in from the plains.  “Yes, sir.  We’d hate to have those new-fangled devices in here.  Sure would be awful to take a picture and know right then if it was any good or not.”

He squinted at me.  Probably trying to decide if I was being sarcastic.  “You going to ask that little Emily Woodley to Winterfest?  She’s got an eye on you, that one does.”

I had a much more ambitious question to ask her if Ribodeux didn’t delay me too much, but if I didn’t talk to her tonight, she wouldn’t be back until February.  She said that unless there were special circumstances, she had to work until then as part of the seasonal cleanup crew.  “No, sir.  She’s going out of town.”

“That’s right.  That’s right.  Nearly forgot.  Well, a girl’s got to work.”

“I suppose so, sir.”  The timer went off in the darkroom.  “Umm, that’s for me.  Have a deadline to meet.” 

“You do that, son.  You know, you’re the best editor I’ve ever had.  Hope you stick around.”

“Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir.”  I retreated behind the door.

The developer went back into the bottle, then I poured the stop bath.  “Come on chemicals, don’t fail me now,” I murmured while swishing the canister around.

It was funny how I became the Downey Picayune’s editor.  I’d been freelancing in Vail, and was driving down from the Eisenhower tunnel into Georgetown to cover their 4th of July parade the next day, just sort of daydreaming, not very happy about my life, when I realized I didn’t recognize the road anymore.  I-70 is a four-lane race track through that stretch, but the road I was on was two-lanes, curvy and no shoulder.  It didn’t strike me as all that remarkable then.  Puzzling, maybe.  Where was I?  When did I turn off the main road?  But I wasn’t worried.  The sun cut a nice slant through the valley, and the air smelled particularly clean and green.  My windows were down.  A little creek tumbled through the rocks to my left.  Every once in a while the water flattened out into a beautiful pool.  There had to be trout.  A few minutes later, a sign came up: WELCOME TO DOWNEY, COLORADO.  POPULATION, CONTENT.

Sometimes you see something, and no matter how depressed you are, you know everything will be all right.  I felt that way looking at the town sign with that marvelous musical brook gurgling in the background.

I’d never heard of a Downey, Colorado.  Spent the night in Harold Tailor’s bed and breakfast.  Met Ribodeux over a western omelet in the morning.  Had the editor job by the afternoon.  So, I guess my dad was right about defining journeys.

Turns out that everyone else finds Downey the same way.  Most don’t stop.  Probably don’t even know where they are.  Not much traffic anyway.  Few visit twice.  I should know.  When I left town to get my clothes from Vail, it took me three weeks to find my way back.  The sun had to be just right.  My mind had to be a bit detached.  I drove that stretch between Idaho Springs and Eisenhower Tunnel twenty times.  Did a lot of fishing.  Camped a bunch, trying to figure out why I wanted to get back so bad. 

Near Clear Creek, one of those evenings, I sat on my bedroll next to the car and did an inventory.  No family to speak of since Dad died.  No girl friend either.  Undistinguished college career.  Several newspaper jobs, no more than a year at any.  I thought writing news stories was fun.  So was wading creeks, searching for the wily trout.  Looking at the stars after the campfire died pretty much defined paradise.  I drifted a lot, always toward the mountains.  Couldn’t say that anything ever looked like home.  Downey felt good, though. 

I fell asleep that night with my head resting against my car door.  Woke up later, my neck stiff, the creek sloshing its watery language ten feet away, and the sky, glaringly black, held up by a zillion singing lights.  I wondered if Odysseus ever woke up on those long nights, looking at the stars, thinking about “defining journeys.”

The next day, I made it back.  Thinking about something else, I closed my eyes against a bit of glare that washed out the windshield, and there I was again, cruising along on a two-lane road.  Don’t remember taking an exit.  Ribodeux didn’t ask me where I’d been.  I guess long-time residents are better at coming and going.  I met Emily that afternoon.  She came in to renew her subscription.  She was petite and blonde, but that’s not what got me at first.  It was how she turned when she reached for a pen I offered, how her shirt sleeve slipped up her arm when she stretched, how the fine tendons in her wrist moved when she took the pen from me.  This sounds stupid, I know, but I’d never seen someone move so gracefully, and then she looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m glad you came to town,” as if she’d expected me all along.

I haven’t had the nerve to try leaving.  Might not find it again.

The timer rang.  I dumped the developer, poured the fixer, then dashed back to the computer.

Sarah Goody was just coming in the door, holding her bonnet tight to her head, her long bony nose red from the cold.  Powdery whirlwinds swirled by the window.  “Going to be a real storm,” she said in her paper-thin voice.  “You make sure they wrap my paper in a plastic bag this time.  Last week’s issue I had to dry on the stove.”

“Nice to see you too, Sarah,” I said.  She wore a heavy skirt with more patches than original material.  Her cat, a big, black monster with yellow eyes, hopped on the windowsill outside, unperturbed by the wind.  I sighed.  The deadline was looking more and more unlikely. “What can I do for you?”

She plopped her purse on the counter.  Several items clinked together disturbingly. 

“Nothing fragile in there, I hope.”

“Vials,” she said.  “The Ladies’ Thespian Committee is meeting at the courthouse right now for the hearing on that despicable play.  I believe you should be there to get the story.  The community needs to know what they’re up to.  You should write an editorial.  Maybe you can incorporate some of my thoughts on the matter.”  She pushed a bundle of papers toward me.

“I don’t think I can.”  I gestured toward the print shop. “If I don’t get going, you won’t have a paper on your porch tomorrow at all.”

She sniffed loudly.  “Our last editor would never let his office hours interfere with the news.  The readers don’t put up with it.”

“But . . .” I said.

“The business people expect more from you.”

Sarah Goody owned, Olde Wyrld, an antique shop at the edge of town that bought a half-page advertisement every issue.  Emily would be packed before I could say goodbye.  The paper had to be done before I hiked up to her house, and if I covered the meeting there wouldn’t be enough time to finish before she’d be gone.

The timer went off in the darkroom.  “I’ll be there.  Give me a minute.”

I dumped the stop bath, rinsed the negatives twice, then hung them to dry.  They looked good, and I was right about the mayor’s car.  The caption wouldn’t need to be rewritten.

The problem with a small mountain town is that everyone is eccentric.  It sort of goes by definition.  Normal people live with other normal people.  Most people are normal, so where normal people live become big towns.   Small town journalism is exciting, in a weird way, but you have to deal with everyone’s personality.

Emily didn’t have a phone.  Her cabin was a half mile out of town at the end of a rutted, former mining road, and if she needed to make a call, she drove in to use the Picayune’s.  Glumly I bundled up and headed to the courthouse.  Wind snapped dry pellet-like snow against my face and skittered it along the boardwalk.

As far as I can tell, the last new construction in Downey was in 1898.  Since then, people just remodeled.  The Picayune building, for example, started as an assay office, was a bar for a while, sat vacant for thirty years, was a church for a bit (I don’t know what religion–I pulled off old wallpaper when I redid the darkroom, and the plaster was covered with Egyptian-looking hieroglyphs), was a bar again, and then became the newspaper.

You get a feeling of connection with the past in an old mountain town.  No strip malls here.  Before I moved to Downey, I used to hike up to the ghost towns.  Colorado still has a few, some that the tourists don’t know about, that you can’t drive to.  Walking among the broken down mills, the cabins whose roofs are long gone or collapsed into the middle, finding a foundation nearly buried in scrub, I could almost hear the voices.  There’s a little bit of that in the old towns, even the touristy ones, like Central City with its casinos.  Scrape away the layers of new paint, and you touch the old stuff.  Downey’s like that, only more so.

I clumped along, keeping my chin buried in the coat’s collar.  A couple leading a horse down the middle of the street appeared out of the snow.  At least the wind was to their back, I figured.  Lucky them. When they got close, I noticed their clothes, all rough-cut furs and leather.  Even their feet were wrapped in leathers.  They looked Indian.  He carried a bow.  She had a bundle strapped across her back, and as they approached, a baby whimpered from within it.  They stared at me, as if they’d never seen someone in a ski-jacket before.  He raised his hand to me, fingers splayed, while she retreated behind the horse.  It was a warding sign.  I moved closer to the building’s side, away from them.  He kept the hand up until I was past, and then they hurried on, glancing fearfully at the buildings.  Just as the snow swallowed them again, I realized the horse was unshod.

See what I mean?  Eccentric.  Once, while I was working the paper late one night, a whole column of men on horseback, like extras from a movie about the Conquistadors, rode through town.  They were crossing themselves and chanting what sounded like prayers in Spanish.

The courthouse was packed.  No Emily, though.  I figured as much.  Sarah Goody and her friends clustered together, filling one corner of the room.  The Ladies Thespian committee sat in the front row.  By the podium sat the mayor, looking uncomfortable.  I waved to Sarah Goody with my notebook, and she scowled back.  If I was the Ladies Thespian committee, I wouldn’t want to get on Sarah’s bad side.  I mean, The Crucible is a fine play; it’s just not right for Downey.  Sarah had a point.  It’s sort of insulting to some people, if you think about it that way.

I took notes for over an hour.  Typical city meeting.  Lots of yelling.  At the end, they formed a committee to explore the issue.  I didn’t have much of a story.  My watch showed 4:55.  Once again I’d be putting the Picayune together myself.

My deadline was hopelessly lost.  Emily would be gone by 8:00; my question would be unasked, and I would still be working the presses, assuming I had all the plates shot by then.  It was getting dark and snowing like crazy, big flakes that the wind swirled round and round between the buildings.  I kept close to the storefronts, touching my right hand to the rough wood, partly for shelter, and partly because it truly was thick.  I couldn’t see the across the street.  Marvin’s Dry Goods, The Complete Angler, Traipsy’s Books and Maps, The Brigadoon Bar, were lost in the dusk and snow.  I shivered.  The indistinct moon of a street light glowed to my left, but it revealed nothing, just the floating globe, snow whirling in front.

A pair of dogs crossed the street in front of me.  No, not dogs.  Too big.  Too feral.  The thick fur around their huge heads rippled in the wind.  In unison, they turned their gazes on me without breaking stride.  As soon as the snow sucked them back in, I realized they were wolves.  Were they someone I knew?  The Rosenblum brothers who ran the hardware had a kind of canine appearance to them.  I decided I didn’t care.  Keeping the menagerie that was Downey straight in my mind was too much work tonight.

I put my chin down, but the flakes stung my forehead, melted, and ran down my collar anyway.  What did it matter when I got back to the Picayune?  I’d be putting it together myself until dawn anyway.  My hands jammed deeper into my pockets, and I picked up the pace.  Past the Timberline Café.  Josie, wiping a table, waved as I went by.  Past the bank and post office, its lights already out.  Past the newspaper building, then the Laundromat.  Emily’s road joined the highway there.  Snow, already a half-inch deep, made the dirt slippery.  I tried to stay in the middle, but my foot slid into one or the other rut several times.  It was a steep path.  Somewhere on the mountainside above town, well beyond Emily’s cabin, was the mine that this road used to lead to.

There’s a time in your life when you decide what you want, and once you decide, you don’t want to wait to get it.  Your chance for what you want can vanish so easily.  When we’d had dinner two nights earlier, Emily told me she’d be back in February.  We were on her porch.  She’d stood up, walked to the railing and stretched, her hands behind her head.  The setting sun peeked between the clouds and the horizon just then, bathing her in yellow light.  She looked like a woman in a painting by Maxfield Parrish, entitled “Ecstasy.”  I knew what he meant.

“Where are you going?”  I’d asked.

“My work takes me out of town.”  When she sat back at the table, she put her hand on mine, and it didn’t occur to me to ask what she did.

If I got to her cabin before she left, I could help her pack.  I could give her the bracelet and tell her I’d wait.

Snow clung to the bushes on the road’s sides, coating the branches in perfect, crystalline white.  The flakes pattered all around.  Water drops flicked off my eyelashes when I blinked.  The road curved, still climbing.   One more long turn and I would be at Emily’s.  I pressed on, smiling.  Making up my mind and doing something about it made me happy.  The water in my shoes squished comfortably; the breeze in my face was embracing, full of pine and icy promise.  It was getting darker, that peculiar dark of a snowstorm that’s all soft greys, like goose down. 

A shift in the wind cleared the air; her cabin waited just ahead.  My breath caught in my throat.  The windows were black.  She’d shuttered them, and no smoke curled from the chimney.  I stomped my feet on the porch, glad to be out of the snow for a bit, then knocked hollowly.  Nothing.  I’d missed her.  My shoulders slumped.  Through my jacket, I fingered the bracelet’s box.

No point in leaving a note.  I turned to look down the road.  My footprints were already vague, the snow erasing my path.  It was a half mile to town and would be completely dark by the time I returned to the Picayune.  I wished I’d worn a hat. 

Completely miserable, I didn’t even mind that I couldn’t see where my feet were landing, and that every other step was a near disaster of bad balance.  She’d only be gone until February, but I felt as if I’d lost her forever.  It had taken weeks for me to get up the nerve to tell her what I was thinking.  Who knew if I’d be able to do it again?  I veered off the path and kicked at a bush, knocking wet snow flying.  A branch cracked satisfyingly, so I kicked at it again.  More breakage.  Soon, I was in the middle of it, arms waving, mashing it flat.  I put my foot on one long branch, bent it down and waited for the next snap.  Instead, my boot slipped off and the branch whipped up, catching me on the cheek.  I fell backwards into the snow, the side of my face on fire, and my eye stinging.

My cheek pulsed, and all the passion had leaked out.  There was nothing to do but listen.  See, the thing is about being outdoors is that every sound has meaning.  The snow landing around my head made tiny pit-pats as if winter gnomes were applauding.  The branches I’d pushed down creaked as they pulled themselves upright.  Wind pushed treetops from side to side and the trees groaned a little under the strain.  Somewhere a branch cracked.  I didn’t think much about it, as I was stuck in a metaphysical funk, staring up into the storm, not minding each icy touch.  How much had I missed her by?

Another sharp snap, very loud, as if a small tree had broken off.  By now it was nearly dark.  Indistinct black shapes rose from the forest floor, only slightly less pitch than the spaces between.  Bushes that had seemed so comforting on the way up were now hulking night forms, hunched against the ground. 

I didn’t breathe.  A heavy thump just beyond visibility.  The sound of weighty dragging.  Another thump, then an animal snort high over the bushes.  I looked up.  Silhouetted against the gray sky, above the trees, a moving black shape.  It turned toward me, took a step.  A young pine buckled and slapped down to my left, splashing snow.  I pushed back a few inches, but my feet could find no traction, and my spine felt cut.  Standing would have been impossible.  I could only watch.

The shape snorted again, then stared down at me.  Suddenly, a half moon formed in the middle of the looming blackness ten feet away: a six-foot wide half moon full of teeth with fire behind them; and above them, reflecting the ruddy flame, two red eyes as big as trash can lids.  It turned to look at me with one eye, then turned to see with the other.  My face felt warm, and the snow melted.  The dragon broadcast its inner heat.

Neither of us moved for the longest time.

Across the valley, an eerie, warbling call echoed like a train whistle.  The dragon lifted its head, turned away, and answered back.  I covered my ears and scrunched up as I tightly as I could.  Cold air washing down my neck told me it was gone before I opened my eyes.

For the rest of the trek back to the Picayune, as I slithered down the snow-covered trail, I kept touching my face, my arms, glad that they were still there.  I couldn’t tell if I was ecstatic because it didn’t eat me, or ecstatic because I’d seen it.  When I was little boy, my dad took me to Canada on a business trip.  One wonderful clear night, we watched the Northern Lights for an hour.  I felt the same way then, holding my dad’s hand as glowing curtains undulated across the sky.

My face ached from smiling.  I laughed out loud when I stepped on the boardwalk heading toward the newspaper office.  Who cared how late I worked?  The world was full of magic.

Inside the Picayune I found it could have been worse.  Jackson had shot all except the front page.  He’s a genius with the production camera but irritable.  A couple issues earlier I didn’t have the front done, and he left the whole job for me.  He’d left me a note: “Sarah Goody dropped by to see the editorial.  She wanted to O.K. your opinion.”

When I finished sizing the photos, it was a few minutes before 8:00.  I wiped chemicals off my hands as I left the darkroom.  Emily was sitting at the computer, her fine, blonde hair veiling her face.

“No headline, Brant?”  She grinned.

My heart did a complicated spasm.  “I thought you were long gone.  Got out ahead of the storm.”  Snow had piled up six-inches deep on the windowsill and was still coming down hard.

“The boss will pick me up.  Weather’s no problem for him.”

Then, she was in my arms.  We kissed for the first time.

She said, after reluctantly disengaging, “I have a present for you.”  It was a cell phone.  “For those special long-distance calls.”

I turned over the bulky, non-standard looking phone that looked--if it were at all possible--handmade.

I read on its back, “MADE AT TNP  How ‘long distance’ is your work?”

She blushed.  “I can’t tell you, but if you want to talk, give me a ring.  The number’s on the speed dial.”                                            

There was a clatter in the street. 

“That’s my ride.  Gotta go.”  She stood on tiptoes and kissed my cheek, her breath full of peppermint.

Before I could react, she was out the door and climbing into a sleigh. 

If I were drugged or drunk or sleepy, I’d say now that I had the impression of a line of large animals tied to the sleigh’s front--this part of my story would be suggestive and ambiguous-- however I saw it all perfectly.  They were reindeer.  Sorry.  It’s corny, but that’s what they were, and when they trotted down the street, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them take off, but it was snowing too hard.

“Emily!” I yelled into the night.  “I have a present for you too!”  She was already gone.  The cell phone was a solid comfort in my coat pocket.

I went back inside. 

Emily must have been in the Picayune offices for a while as I finished printing the photos for the front page, because she had typed in a headline for the Winterfest story.  I didn’t notice it until I went to print the page.  You don’t reread the headlines, after all.  That’s why there’s a better chance for a misspelled word in one.  The obvious is the easiest to miss.  Eventually, though, there it was.  Too long to be a good headline, really, but I left it anyway.  It seemed appropriate.  She’d typed in I’LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.

I loaded the first plate into the press.  No matter what else happened, I had a newspaper to put to bed.

My girl friend’s an elf.  She does seasonal work at the North Pole.  I’m not surprised.  It’s just what I’d expect from living in Downey.  As my dad could have told me, finding her was a long journey filled with defining moments.

This story originally appeared in Weird Tales.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."