I was out one day driving to Lake Tahoe. It was a long way from home, but a nice drive. I was on a back road in Jackson CA, when I stopped at a small diner for lunch. I also needed to take a break and freshen up. The small town beckoned me to stop and visit. When I had plenty of time to drive, I avoided the interstate. California had some interesting small towns in unusual places. Jackson was one of those towns.
Jackson was a very small old town. The wooden sidewalks were elevated and covered by balconies from the buildings along the main street. The diner was at the end of Main Street surrounded by a large forest on three sides. It felt, as if I traveled back in time, when I drove down Main Street. I felt things move in to surround me.
The diner resembled an old saloon. The painted windows gave privacy to the patrons inside. The entrance doors had painted on bar room swinging doors, which swung out onto a wooden walkway. A small sign hung in one window flashing the word 'OPEN' in red neon letters. The western quaintness was only on the outside. Inside was a long Formica counter with stools where patrons sat. Booths lined the walls for larger parties that were more intimate. Two servers delivered the meals for the diner.
I drove around the back and parked in the shade of some trees. The trees gave me an uncomfortable feeling of something watching. They swayed as if moved by a gentle breeze, but I felt no wind. I went in to eat and relax. As I sat there, everyone looked at me and I felt as if I was on exhibition. I ate and read the local weekly newspaper. I saw an article about a missing family, which was last seen passing through Jackson. There were two young children, their parents and a dog.
I was in the diner for 90 minutes and got up to leave. One of the patrons approached me and asked, "Where are you headed?"
I replied, "Lake Tahoe."
He gave me a strange foreboding look and nodded. I noticed the look, but did not think it was worth questioning. After I paid my check, I walked out and went to my car.
When I got to my car, I heard a woman crying at the edge of the woods. The trees held back the sound, but the wail of the woman rose above the trees. As I walked toward the sound, I found a young woman. She was dirty, cut and bruised with her shredded clothes hanging off her. Tracks of dried tears marred her face. Her hair was in clumps with some bald spots showing.
Between sobs, she asked, "Can you help me get back to my family and help us?"
"I will do what I can," my voice automatically replied.
She tucked her small hand weakly in mine and led me deeper into the forest. As we walked, I felt the forest move in and surround us. Small bushes that whipped my legs covered the way. Briars and brambles reached out and grabbed us. My clothes caught in them and tore as I pushed deeper.
In a small clearing, which looked as if it held back the encroaching forest, I saw a small cabin with smoke curling from the chimney. The land, upon which the cabin sat, was void of weeds and had a beautifully manicured lawn. A garden of flowers in full bloom ringed the cabin. No birds sat in the trees or circled the cabin in the air. The air was void of all forest sounds.
As we stepped into the clearing, a heavy feeling of dread caught in my heart and mind. Time seemed to stand still. The woman stopped beside me and gestured toward the cabin. I cautiously crept close to the cabin and looked through a window. The curtains covering the window opened on a familiar scene.
The remaining family sat around a table set for a meal. The dog lay curled off to the side of a warm fireplace. An old bent stooped woman stood by the fireplace cooking. She wore an old housedress covered with an apron. Her wrinkle lined face showed the years of her age. The gray hair she had tied tightly at the back of her head stretched the skin of her face. She stirred a large spoon in a pot. Steam rose from the pot and circled the old crone's head.
I turned to ask the woman a question, but she was gone. I had not heard her leave or seen any movement. I looked around furiously to find her. I gave up shortly and returned to the window. As I gazed back at the scene, I saw the woman. She sat at the table with her family all clean and healthy. She saw me in the window and gestured me to join her family.
I nodded and quickly turned to run away. Before I could move, the old crone stood in front of me.
In a scratchy voice she said, "Won't you join is for dinner?"
I started to speak, but stopped. Instead, I ran as fast as my legs would move away from her. I ran back in the direction of what I thought was the diner. The trees, bushes and brambles grabbed at me. They barred my way out of the clearing into the woods. They tore at me, scraping my face, arms and legs. I never stopped, but took a long time to escape the woods. Finally, I came out of the woods to the back of the diner.
My car was still there where I left it. Dirt leaves and branches covered it. The car looked, as if I abandoned it. I saw it, but paid it no attention. I ran into the diner. Some of the same people, who were there on my first visit, sat in the same positions. The stranger who spoke to me earlier nodded to me. I sat beside him at the counter.
I picked up the local newspaper again, but this time I read a new headline. What struck my eye was the date. As I stared, I realized that the date was two weeks after I my initial visit. I turned around and looked at the diners. I felt I had only been gone for a few hours, but in reality, it was a lot longer.
The new headline read, "Tahoe Traveler Missing in Jackson"