Home > Perfect Little Town

Perfect Little Town
Blake Crouch

-1-

They arrive midmorning, the Benz G-Class rolling down Main Street with its California tags and rear end sagging under the weight of luggage, and though the windows are tinted, we bet the occupants are smiling. Everyone smiles when they come to our town, population 317. It’s the mountains and fir trees, the waterfall we light up at night and the clear western sky and the perfect houses painted in brilliant colors and the picket-fenced lawns and the shoppes we spell the olde English way and the sweet smell of the river running through.

Parking spaces are plentiful in the off-season. They choose a spot in front of the coffeehouse, climb out with their smiles intact, squinting against the high-altitude sun—a handsome couple just shy of forty, their fashionably-cut clothes and hair in league with their Mercedes SUV to make announcements of wealth that we all read loud and clear.

We serve them lattes, handmade Danishes from the pastry case, and they drop dollar bills into our tip vase, amused at the cleverness of the accompanying sign: “Don’t be chai to espresso your gratitude.” They lounge for a half hour in oversize chairs, sipping their hot drinks and admiring the local art hanging on the walls. As they finally rise to leave, the woman shakes her head and comments to her husband that they don’t make towns like this anymore.

-2-

They wander through the downtown, browsing our shops as the sky sheets over with leaden clouds.

From us they buy:

a half-pound of fudge

five postcards

energy bars from the hiking store

a pressed gold aspen leaf in a small frame

They tell us what a perfect little town we have and we say we know. Everywhere they go, they ask exuberant questions, and we answer with enthusiasm to match, and in turn solicit personal information under the guise of chitchat—Ron’s a plastic surgeon, Jessica a patent attorney. They drove from Los Angeles, this being their first vacation in four years.

We ask if they’re enjoying themselves.

Oh yes, they say. Oh yes.

-3-

They each have a camera. They shoot everything:

The soaring, jagged mountains in the backdrop

Deer grazing the yard of a residence

The quaint old theatre

The snow that has just begun to fall and frost the pavement

They ask us to take pictures of them together and, of course, we happily oblige.

-4-

The day wears on.

The light fades.

It snows harder with each passing hour.

Up and down Main, Christmas lights wink on.

It is winter solstice, the darkest evening of the year, and when the Stahls attempt to leave town, they find the highway closed going both directions, the gates lowered across the road and padlocked, since what has become a full-blown blizzard is sure to have made high-mountain travel exceedingly dangerous.

Or so we tell them.

-5-

They approach the front desk.

“Welcome to the Lone Cone Inn.” And we smile like we mean it from the bottom of our hearts.

Ron says, “It appears we’re stuck for the night in Lone Cone. Could we have a—”

“Oh, I’m sorry, we’re booked solid. I just sold our last room not two minutes before you walked in.”

We watch with subtle glee as they glance around the lobby, empty and quiet as a morgue, no sound but the fire burning in the hearth.

The wife chimes in with, “But we haven’t seen another tourist, and we’ve been here all day.”

“I apologize, but—”

“Is there another hotel in town?”

“There’s a motel, but it’s closed for the season.”

“What are we supposed to do?”

“I’m not sure I under—”

“It’s a blizzard out there, the roads are closed, and now you’re telling us you’re the only game in town, and you’re booked?”

“I’m really sorry.”

“Where are we supposed to sleep? Our car?”

Jessica appears on the verge of tears.

We hand Ron a notepad and tell him to write down his cell phone number, promising to call if something opens up.

-6-

Ron and Jessica sit in their Mercedes, watching the snow accumulate on the windshield, piling up in the city park, a deep bluish tint settling over Lone Cone.

“Are you fu**ing kidding me, Ron?”

“I know.”

“Do you? Because I thought you were the one who was supposed to call and get us room reservations.”

“We weren’t gonna stay here, Jess. Remember? Spend the day and drive to Aspen.”

“Well it didn’t work out that way, did it?”

“No.”

“So maybe having reservations as a backup plan might’ve been a bright idea. Right, Ron?” He’s been staring through the glass, his hands gripping the steering wheel, and now he glances over at his wife, into that wild-eyed, exacting glare he figures she terrorizes her firm’s paralegals and secretaries with.

“What?” he says.

“Why didn’t you take care of that?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Fuck you, Ron. I don’t want to sleep in my fu**ing car tonight. That isn’t what I had in mind for my Christmas vacation while busting my ass these last—”

“I get it, Jess.”

Ron pulls the key out of the ignition.

“What are you doing?”

“Baby, let’s go get a big, hot meal, drink the best wine on the list, and forget about all this shit for a while, okay?”

Jessica pushes her short brown hair behind her ears, Ron feeling, hoping he’s cut the right wire, disarmed the bomb.

“That actually sounds nice.” He has, and he loves this about her—how she can go from psychobitch to DEFCON 5 in two nanoseconds.

“My cell phone’s charged,” he says, “so let’s think positive thoughts. Maybe while we’re eating, we get a call from the inn, saying they’ve had a cancellation. This whole thing might just work out.”

Jessica’s smile makes Ron slide his hand over the console, let it work down between her blue-jeaned thighs.

“Hey now,” she warns. “You gotta earn that, big boy.”

“You think so?”

Apparently not, because she pulls his hand into her crotch and moves her h*ps forward and Ron undoes the button on her jeans and pushes his fingers between cotton and skin, until he feels the warm, wet slick, wondering if that’s been there since the rage, has a hunch it has.

She moans, stretching for the button on his slacks. Pulls his hand out of her pants and leans across the console into his lap.

He reaches down and finds the right button and the seat hums back, giving Jessica more headspace between his stomach and the steering wheel.

The windshield cracks. Flinching, Ron’s eyes shoot open and Jessica bites down and then pops off, and they both say, “What the fuck?” in unison.

-7-

Spiderwebs of splitting glass expand at right angles across the windshield as Ron zips his pants, throws the door open, and climbs out.

Standing in the pouring snow, he glimpses three shadows bolting across the park, hears the high cackle of children’s laughter.

Jessica screams, “This is a hundred thirty-thousand dollar Benz, you little shits!” as Ron lifts the fist-size rock off the hood.

“Perfect little town, huh?” Jessica says.

“Damn.”

“What’s wrong?”

Ron rubs his crotch.

“Oh, I’m sorry, babe,” Jessica says. “Startled me when the rock hit.”

“And that’s what you do when you get startled? Bite?” Ron tosses the rock into the snow. “Let’s go get dinner.”

“No, let’s report this to the police—”

“Look, I’m cold and hungry and my penis hurts. Let’s go get drunk at a nice restaurant and deal with this tomorrow. Positive thoughts, remember?”

-8-

They walk holding hands up the sidewalk of Main, snow dumping through the illumination of streetlamps.

“What time is it?” Jessica asks.

Ron glances at his watch. “Seven-fifteen.”

“So where the f*ck is everybody? This town’s dead.”

She has a point. Every store they visited in the afternoon has closed shop for the night, the storefronts dark, not a sound in Lone Cone save the streetlamps.

They pass a brewpub, boarded up for the winter.

A café called The Sandwich Shoppe that only opens for lunch.

A bistro that has gone out of business.

As they near the north end of Main, Jessica says, “Ron, nothing’s open.”

“Yeah, seems that way, huh?”

“I’m starving.”

Ron steps out into the middle of Main, looks up and down the street—nothing moving, not even tire tracks through the five inches of snow that has fallen since late afternoon.

“This is bad, Ron, very—”

“Wait.”

“What?”

He smiles, probably hasn’t noticed it because the lights are so dim, but one block down on the other side of the street, through the first floor windows of an old building, he spots candlelight and tables, the lowlit ambience of what can only be, of what has to be, a fine restaurant.

-9-

As they stand at the podium in Christine’s, waiting for the hostess, Jessica leans over and whispers into Ron’s ear, “Why do you have an erection darling?”

“It’s not new,” he says. “Since you um,” he clicks his teeth together, “it won’t go down.”

“Oh. Lovely.”

They’re shown to a table by a window with a view onto the street, where they sit waiting for their server and watching the snow fill in their tracks.

“Kind of slow, aren’t they?” Jessica says.

“Relax, babe.”

“We’re the only ones in the restaurant.”

Ron reaches across the table, holds his wife’s hand.

“Despite all the drama, it’s wonderful to be here with you.”

She smiles, eyes shining in the firelight, says, “We’ve worked hard for this trip.”

“Should’ve done this a long time ago.”

“Easier said than done for a couple of workaholics.”

“You been thinking about work?”

“Little. You?”

“Guilty.”

“All your patients are still gonna be there when you get back, especially the ladies. Oh, Dr. Stahl. Fix my nose, Dr. Stahl. Suck the fat off my legs, Dr. Stahl.”

They talk by candlelight as the storm rages on the other side of the glass, Ron in the middle of describing the book he’s brought along to read, a biography of Calvin Coolidge, when Jessica’s face suddenly darkens.

“What’s wrong?”

“We’ve been sitting here fifteen minutes, and no one’s even come over to bring us water.”

They survey the restaurant, not another table occupied, no waiters to be seen, only the faintest sound coming from swinging metal doors that presumably lead to the kitchen.

“I’ll go get someone,” Ron says, rising from his chair.

He heads toward the back of the room, his face flushed with heat—anger—and just as he reaches the doors to the kitchen, a woman in a white oxford shirt and black apron bursts through carrying a tray of waters.

Ron sidesteps, avoiding a collision.

“I was just coming back to get someone,” Ron says. “We’ve been sitting out here for fifteen minutes and nobody’s—”

“I apologize for the delay,” the waitress says.

“No, it’s fine. Looks like you’re slammed out here.” Ron motions to the vacant restaurant.

The waitress laughs, just a teenager, and he feels bad for the sarcasm as he follows her back to their table and takes a seat.

“My name’s Mary-Elise, and I’ll be taking care of you. You folks decided on dinner yet?” She sets their water glasses on the table.

“We were only given the wine list,” Jessica says.

The waitress runs to the podium, grabs a pair of menus, hustles them back to the table.

“Any specials tonight?” Ron asks.

“I’m afraid not.”

The waitress turns to leave, but Jessica says, “No, honey. You wait right here. We won’t be long in deciding.”

The Stahls peruse the menu, place their orders, Ron buying a $175 bottle of Côtes du Ventoux, and everything seems temporarily better knowing food and wine is finally on the way.

-10-

The waitress presents the bottle to Ron, who holds it in his hands like a new baby and affirms that she brought the vintage he requested.

Mary-Elise finesses the corkscrew, expertly withdraws the cork, then pours a little wine into Ron’s glass.

He swirls it, sniffs, says, “No, something’s off.”

“What?” Jessica asks.

“Here, smell.”

Jessica inhales a whiff. “Vinegar.”

Ron says, “This wine’s spoiled. Do you have another bottle of the Côtes?”

“I’m sorry, this was our last.”

“Then just bring the Bordeaux.”

-11-

Jessica smiles when the waitress presents her entrée.

“Tell the truth,” Ron says. “You got the chicken pot pie just because it was forty dollars.”

“It’s an intriguing price for such a simple dish.”

Outside, it still snows, impossibly harder than before, and with the waitress gone, they have the restaurant all to themselves.

“Looks good,” Ron says, pointing his fork at Jessica’s dish.

The chicken pot pie barely fits on the plate, the crust perfectly gilded, steam rising through tiny holes in the center.

“I’m so hungry,” Jessica says, piercing the crust with her fork, scooping out a bite. “My God, worth every cent. How’s yours?”

Ron swallows a bite of his penne pasta with scallops and clam sauce.

“Unreal. You know, if we had to go through all this shit today just to have this meal, it might actually have been worth it.”

He lifts his glass, and as he tilts it up, wine running down his throat, eyes shut with pleasure, trying to think of a toast to make, Jessica gasps.

Ron looks across the table, sees blood pouring down his wife’s chin, two fishhooks dangling from her bottom lip. She spits something onto the table—a half-inch black oval that he mistakes for a rock or a seedpod until it scampers away.

Other roaches crawl out of the pot pie, and Ron instinctively stands and steps back, noticing now that more than fishhooks and roaches fill the pie. Mixed in with the carrots and potatoes and chicken, shards of glass glint in the candlelight.

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