In the central library of the small town of Juanita, there is a single copy of what appears to be a very old newspaper. It sits in a dusty box. The loose pages are antique sepia with burnt edges and for years they stayed in storage, unnoticed and never remembered.
Kept on a high shelf, away from all eyes except the librarian who never bothered to read such things after she transferred in from the nearest city. The shelf it sits upon is only one of many shelves that present the history of the town’s newspaper, dating all the way back to when the town had first been settled.
Citizens of Juanita forget that this area exists, leaving the newspapers to sit, untended and unread for years… until the day that the central library decided to transfer all of the newspapers to electronic sources.
It was long overdue, the librarian claiming the storage space for an expansion of the children’s new reading area. Dragging the boxes off the shelves, she set them beside a large scanner connected to a computer. It was lucky that she did not have curiosity as a trait, for she did not even glance at the headlines as she began to scan the newspapers.
She focused on the dates instead, wanting to catalog them properly. However, even though she had minimal curiosity for the state of affairs within the town, she gave pause to the odd sepia-toned newspaper from years ago. It was the only burnt paper, the rest pristine and obviously kept safe by the editor-in-chief until stored away.
Having to be delicate with the pages, some of the paper crumbled against the librarian’s simple touches, almost disintegrating against the scanner. It took twelve scans before the lead librarian decided that the newspaper was impossible to scan. The newspaper edges turned to ash against the heat of the scanner, the images scanned in as blurred, unrecognizable smears and the letters appeared as odd, squiggle-like markings. Frustrated, the lead librarian did not try further. She returned the paper to its box and placed it to the side. Returning to her work, she tried not to think of the oddness of the situation.
The next morning, the librarian showed up at the office of the current editor-in-chief of the town’s local newspaper. Enjoying his third cup of coffee for the day, he was known widely around the town. The editor always drank mass amounts of dark roasted coffee imported from some foreign country, carrying a ceramic mug around with him. He never added sugar or creamer, but there was often talk that other particular liquids were added to the dark substance.
The Chief, as his staff affectionately called him, didn’t seem to mind the rumors. He greeted the librarian with a smile and an offer for some coffee.
She responded how everyone did, declining politely. Behind her, she rolled a cart of dusty boxes from the library. The boxes had gained some looks from the early morning staff, but no one asked audibly what they were doing at the newspaper’s small office.
Leaning back in a chair that squeaked incessantly, the Chief rotated the ashtray that sat beside his computer. Though smoking had long since been banned within the building, the Chief still liked to keep an ashtray near. It reminded him of his father, who had – before him – been the editor-in-chief as well. He listened as the librarian explained.
“Hello Chief, how’ve you been?”
He nodded, she continued.
“So, I’ve got these newspapers. Archives, really. We’re expanding the children’s area in the library and don’t really have the space for them anymore.”
“Getting that many books in?” He inquired.
“Oh yeah,” She nodded, “A ton. Every morning I get there, there’s always a giant box of used books at the door.” The librarian sighed, “So, you want them? It’d really help me out.”
If Chief had an opinion about this one way or the other, he did not give. Sipping his coffee, he listened.
“Well, if you don’t,” She said, “I also got them saved as jpegs, if you want a copy of them that way?”
The Chief lowered his coffee, the cup empty as he responded, “I don’t have the room here, but I’ll take the boxes anyways.” He paused, “I’ve got lots of room at the house though. Just leave them there in the corner. I’ll stick it with all my pop’s stuff.”
Leaving the rolled cart in the corner of the tiny office, the librarian quickly left to return to her work across town, “Enjoy your day now, okay?” She waved as she left.
The cart sat there in the office, unmoved and untouched until the end of Chief’s day. With no help, he loaded up the boxes in his chevy pick-up, lit a cigarette and began to drive to his home in the bordering farmlands.
His house, inherited from his father, who had inherited it from his father, and so on, tracing back to the settlement of the town, sat in the middle of a barren and dry field. A single row of fruit trees lined the bumpy driveway. The branches were thin and mangled looking. They hadn’t bore fruit in years, as if stuck in some sort of stasis. Chief could vaguely remember as a little boy asking his father why the fruit trees never had fruit. His father had responded it was God’s punishment for so much corruption within the town. Chief did not understand the answer at the time, but as a man, he understood now.
Unloading the boxes from his truck and to his house, Chief’s cigarette dangled dangerously between his chapped lips. It was his fourth one since he had first loaded the boxes, and it burned rapidly to the filter as he carried the cart down the steep steps leading into the basement.
A sweat gathered on his brow, balance becoming difficult as he continued down the steps. As if a breeze swept above Chief, the balance of the cart on his back gave way, sliding to the side and toppling over the railing of the stairs.
He watched as the boxes crashed to the floor of the dark basement, newspapers fluttering and spilling out.
Cursing, Chief hoped that the water tank wasn’t leaking or else the newspapers would be ruined. Flipping on the basement light, he hurried to the mess. Flicking his cigarette to the side, there was a slight relief that the newspapers had not been ruined by water when he saw them. Quickly returning the papers into the boxes, he paused as he noticed an odd sepia-colored one.
Chief picked up the forgotten manuscript, the dissolving edges giving way underneath his oily fingers. He was distracted by a headline, on the very bottom of the page. It was an odd one, though only an editor-in-chief would notice just how odd it was.
Reading the details, he was lost in the blurb about an abandoned van on the side of the road near Juanita. So lost, that he barely heard the crackling behind him… until he could smell it. The sulfur scent was soon overwhelming. He leapt to his feet as a roaring fire had begun where he had flicked his cigarette. He could have sworn he had flicked it to a dry area, but he did not have time to argue with the fire about the logic behind it.
There was an unseen wind to the fire, the flames growing higher rapidly, catching on the fallen newspapers and expanding. Chief gripped the sepia-toned paper in his hands tightly, turning and running up the stairs. As he ran, it felt as if he was missing each step, the exit impossibly far away as his body slipped forward. The sensation lasted until he banged his knee on the step, having fallen. The newspaper in his hands finally gave way to ash underneath his tight grip, dissolving against his chest.
Without time to think, Chief scrambled his way to the top of the stairs and quickly headed to the kitchens.
For the first time since his wife left him, he was glad she had taken the kids and pets. He did not have to worry about their wellbeing as he rushed to the landline phone. An explosion rattled the house as the fire reached the propane tanks he had been storing for the upcoming town barbecue.
A hole appeared in the hallway floor, the blast having ripped through the thick ceiling of the basement. The way to the front door was blocked by the gaping hole, which only began to expand as the floorboards crumbled inwards. Chief watched with a horrified gaze as the hole grew wider and wider.
Grabbing the pale pink phone off the wall, he watched the floor of his house give way as he tapped against the # pads of the phone.
“9-1-1. What is the address of the emergency?” The calm voice of a woman sounded on the other side.
“F-fire! It’s Chief, at…” What was his address again? Loud crashes sounded as the hole brought down the entrance walls, the second story falling as the structures gave out underneath. He cursed loudly.
“Is everybody out of the house?”
“I-It’s just me,” He cursed again as the oak wardrobe from his bedroom on the second floor crashed into the living room, soon to be swallowed by the expanding hole. Flames roared from the crumbling foundation, catching upon the curtains.
“Is there any way you can get out?”
“Y-yeah, I’m going now.” He hung up the phone, moving to head to the back door through the kitchen. As he did, he remembered his father’s gun was left in his bedroom. Though it would be impossible to retrieve it, the memory made him falter and turn back. Smoke was billowing through the house, causing his eyes to sting and his throat to burn. Reaching for the back door, he let out a shout. The handle of the door was searing hot, his palm severely burnt from the touch.
Holding his injured hand, Chief kicked the thick door. It rattled. If it had been the door his father had installed, perhaps a kick would have worked. The new door, which his wife insisted they install to prevent burglars, however, hardly budged. Looking back, the destruction was only becoming worse.
The flames were swallowing the house whole around him. Grabbing a dishtowel, he wrapped his burnt hand in the coarse fabric. Without another thought, he punched through the kitchen window above the sink. Coughing with pained tears streaking over his ash-covered face, Chief crawled out the window and landed on the other side in the brambles that surrounded the house. Thorns stuck to his clothing as he ran towards his car.
Behind him flames roared as if angry that he had escaped.
Quickly turning on the engine, he drove the car backwards down the driveway, not wanting his car to be lost in the fire. The fire spread along the front steps in a mystical line that made Chief’s eyes widen. It seemed to be following as the fire began to set flame to the line of thin fruit trees.
Pushing on the gas pedal, he sped faster away from the approaching fire until he was on the highway road. Stopping, he forgot to breathe as he watched his family’s house crash to the ground underneath the destructive flames.
It took the fire department thirteen hours to put out the fire, the flames having spread over the dry land quickly. Everyone considered it lucky that the Chief’s house never had been near any other houses.
Left with only his pick-up truck, Chief was offered a place to stay with the town’s school superintendent, who was, also, Chief’s longtime, childhood friend. The superintendent had grown into a stern, non-humorous woman, only a shadow of the fun-loving girl Chief use to spend summer evenings with. Still, he was grateful to stay with her. Though his thoughts were on other matters, he found the time to thank her.
“I liked that house.” She whined as they sat at the dinner table together, “I remember when your dad went and bought it too.”
“Oh yeah?” Chief asked, eating his spaghetti as he listened.
“Yeah,” She nodded, sipping a glass of water, “I had been riding my bike,” Leaning forward, she rested her chin on a loose fist, “The sparkly red one. I saw your dad with Jeanne. She was showing him the house and all.” She snorted softly, “He seemed real excited about getting it.”
“Hey now.” Chief warned, teasingly though. The thought of his dad with Jeanne was ridiculous. He took a drink of orange juice.
“But it’s a shame. It was a nice house. He really loved it, even though nothing ever grew on that lot.” She glanced about as if checking they were alone, “You know, it’s probably a good thing that it did burn though, you know, with the rumors and all.”
“Rumors?” Chief asked, though he had an idea of what she was talking about.
She nodded, “Yeah, well, you know, before your dad, there was that old lady, whatever her name was – the one all the witch stories are about.”
Chief snorted, “Don’t tell me some people take that stuff seriously?”
She looked at him, then shook her head, “It’s a shame though, I’m sorry. Even if it was your own fault for smoking in the house.”
Her quasi-sympathy was not unnoted, but it did not make Chief feel better. Once the initial shock had worn off, he recollected all of the things he had lost in the fire. Many family heirlooms had been burnt to ash. There was little point to search through the wreckage, the fire having destroyed everything, flattening the land to its original foundation with a covering of white ash.
Yet, as Chief lay to sleep, all he could think was of the brief story he had read in the odd, sepia-colored newspaper. Left with his thoughts as the superintendent slept soundly next to him, he desperately wanted a cigarette, but decided not to give in to the whim. Closing his eyes, he did not sleep more than twenty minutes at a time, his sleep plagued with nightmares of all sorts, of fire, of darkness, of demons, of fruit trees and of librarians.
In the morning, he awoke alone and late for his usual work routine. He took a shower, dressed in crisp clothing the superintendent had bought at the local thrift-store just for him. The button-up shirt felt stifling compared to his usual flannel and the dress slacks clung to his thighs in a way his jeans never had. Feeling as if he was wearing someone else’s skin, he headed to the library instead of his office.
The librarian was where she usually was, sitting at a desk, scanning books and typing in updates. She was surprised to see Chief and it showed in her features when he appeared in front of her desk.
“That’s quite the outfit.” She commented with a smile, noticing the dated fashion of the shirt and slacks, “Donation, I assume?” The woman had already heard of the fire as the fire patrol’s families often spread such news rapidly.
“Yes.” Chief answered bluntly, not wanting to explain further, “You know those papers you gave me yesterday?”
The librarian lost her smile and nodded, about to apologize for the poor timing of having given the archives to him only for them to be ruined by the fire. Chief cut her off, however, “You said you had electronic back-ups of them all?”
Forgetting about the one that would not scan, she nodded again. She stood up, her heels clicking as she headed over to another computer. Typing along the keyboard, her back faced Chief as he asked, “Before the fire, I was reading one… and… I’d like to finish the article, if I could.”
The librarian did not answer immediately and Chief wondered if he had said something wrong. He had not, though, and soon enough the woman turned around holding out a flash drive for him, “Here, they are all in there. Careful, the file is big. Hopefully, your computer can handle it.” She smiled.
Chief, however, was not worried. He took the flash drive, “Thanks.” and quickly headed to his office to read the scans.
His staff, chattering and asking if he was all right – what had happened? could they publish a story about it? – blocked the way to his office when he arrived. Chief hadn’t had a single cup of coffee yet, nor a cigarette since the fire. Frustration got the better of him, anger welling up and promptly shouting for everyone to, “Leave. Me. Alone!”
He locked the door of his office, shut the blinds and lit a cigarette. Glancing upwards at the beeping fire alarm, Chief went so far as to stand on his squeaky chair and disable the modern device. There was a furious pleasure coursing through him as he took out the batteries and then promptly tore the alarm from the ceiling. The wires sparked, dying, as he held the alarm in his hand. Tossing it into the trash, Chief sat at his desk. After a bit of searching, he found the USB port, inputting the flash drive.
Hours passed as Chief painstakingly searched through the papers, beginning at the very first one. Some of them he recognized from when he had been curious as a child in the library, others were entirely new to his eyes. He smoked the rest of his cigarette pack, opening a new one that he had hidden in the desk drawer long ago. The room smelled heavily of smoke and coffee as the pot brewed in the corner, having been set to brew soon after Chief had begun reading through articles. His muscles were tense and no matter the amount of cigarettes he smoked, he could not relax.
Blaming it on his poor sleep, he rubbed his tight neck muscles as he read on. There had been a few knocks on his door, but he answered none of them, too focused on finding the article. He assumed the newspaper edition was fairly dated based on the sepia color of the pages, but he could find nothing that resembled the article in the older scans. It wasn’t until he reached the decade of the 2000s that he finally found something. A blurred, yellow scan broke his concentration from the usual grayed, lettered scans. He frowned, wondering what it was as he flipped to the next. A similarly blurred scan showed on the screen.
Lighting a new cigarette, he flipped to the next. Though it was hard to tell what it was, Chief briefly recognized a burning edge to the paper. It had to be the same paper, he decided as he flipped to the next image. Blurred lines, smears of where articles should have been… had been, when Chief had read it.
Flipping to the next, a sudden fear struck Chief. The computer screen flickered, blood beginning to seep out of inner borders of the monitor. The scan was hidden behind the thick, red liquid. Chief cried out, his cigarette falling to the floor. Smelling smoke, he quickly stomped out the tiny fire that had begun. As he looked back up to the computer monitor, he saw that it was clean. There was simply another scan of a blurred image… the blood, gone. Panting, he felt around the monitor, firstly trying to figure it out. Tapping on the keyboard, he rapidly flipped through the rest of the images, each one appearing as a smeared, blurred image of sepia until the next pristine issue was on the screen.
He stared at it, the words perfect and the images sharp. It was only printed most likely a week after the last issue. A heavy pressure pushed against his chest and Chief grabbed an old coat he had left in the office for rainy days. He ignored the attempts of conversation the day staffers made as he left the office.
Chief lit a cigarette, pulling on his coat and drove to where his house had been just a day ago.
Wreckage was there instead, the ash layered thick over the dusty dirt and a deep hole in the ground where the fire had originated. He dare not hop down into the hole, standing at the very edge as he smoked.
Mourning the loss of his family’s heritage, he did not notice the black clouds rolling over the sky or the winter-like chill that frosted the back of his coat with morphing symbols in ice, ones that historians would be unable to identify and ones that Chief would never notice as they melted into the coat.
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