The town of Sanderson had a population of five hundred. It had always had a population of five hundred since it's founding and never wavered. It had a post office that nobody used, a dancehall no one danced in, a picture house with one screen, a general store that carried unbranded merchandise stocked on Sunday mornings, a barber shop next to a beauty parlor that reeked of ammonia, and a gas station with unlabeled pumps. All the windows in all the buildings were covered in perpetual sheen of dust, and it rarely rained. The elderly shuffled along the sidewalks, the adults busied themselves with leisurely errands, and the teenagers smoked in the backs of buildings and gave each other smoldering looks. There were no children in Sanderson.
One of the teenagers, Maisy, wore pegged jeans and worked at the gas station. She was usually covered in thick black grease and worked on the same black Studebaker every afternoon. At night she sat in the front seat with her best friend Calvin (owner of a transistor radio, a raging case of acne, and handy himself with a screwdriver), where they smoked and discussed the Beat movement and other things happening far outside there town. A particularly lengthy silence followed a discussion of Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, and both friends watched smoke languidly curl and disperse.
"There's something wrong with this town," said Maisy.
"You think," said Calvin, his voice the growl of a just-fed wolf. He leaned back in his seat and shoved his feet onto the dashboard.
"I don't know what it is exactly," said Maisy. "We do the same things everyday and I can't remember it being anything else."
"Someday we'll get out of this hellhole."
"That's just it. It's like nothing else really exists. Outside of here."
"I know it seems that way--" he started.
"No, not seem. Is," said Maisy. She shook her head. Calvin smiled at her and tentatively put a hand on her shoulder.
"You'll get this car fixed up proper one day, and then we can go and drive to San Francisco where everything's happening."
Maisy wriggled away from his hand and leaned out the driver's side window, and looked off across the barren landscape, away from town. Calvin shifted back to his side and lit up a fresh cigarette.
"I've never not been working on this car," said Maisy. "I'm certain of it. And another thing. The books in my room. I remember them getting dog-eared and worn, and then one day, they were all suddenly fresh and new. It's like we're trapped in a loop, and not a metaphorical one, where we just do the same thing everyday, forever."
Calvin pondered this as he puffed.
"That's not necessarily a bad thing," he finally said.
"What?" asked Maisy, frowning.
"I get to do exactly what I want, what I feel I should do, everyday. Well, not quite, but near enough to be happy," said Calvin, the tips of his ears turning slightly pink under the cover of thanked-for darkness.
Maisy turned to look at him, analyzing, calculating.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"I know what you mean, and as much as I like your company...and want to keep it, sitting here isn't the penultimate experience I expect from life."
"Everyone has to live a life they don't want. I'm just one of those people that realizes it. I know to make the most of it."
"Yeah," said Maisy, turning to look back out the window, "you are one of those people."
Calvin felt the sting. He opened the creaky door and got out. He stretched and thought about sauntering over to the picture house. Maisy got out of her door.
"I didn't mean it like that," said Maisy. "Forgive me, will ya?"
He turned to look at her across the rusty roof of the Studebaker. He flashed her a crooked smile.
"Sure," he said. "Come on." He walked around to her side and grabbed her hand, pulling her off towards the main road in the direction of darkness.
"Let's find out what's out there. If we can't use the car, we'll walk. We'll hitch. We'll get to San Francisco one way or another."
Maisy took him up on his offer, and ran ahead, pulling him along playfully. They walked for a half hour, until the lights of the town were nearly swallowed up by the night. They looked up at the stars in the sky and found Andromeda. Not a single car passed them on the road. They laughed and howled and skipped and ran, holding hands. Then they saw a light in the distance. They jogged toward it. They saw the outlines of buildings.
"Another town," said Calvin.
"I didn't think there was anything this close," said Maisy. "How could we live in Sanderson so long and not know this place?"
Calvin stopped short.
"Oh," he said. Maisy stopped next to him, but he continued on, jogging first, then breaking into a flat-out run. Maisy followed. He stopped again a few hundred yards from the nearest building. Maisy stopped too, and saw what he saw.
"It's Sanderson," she said. "How is it Sanderson?"
"Maybe the road is a circle," said Calvin.
"I'm pretty sure we walked in a straight line," said Maisy, beginning to involuntarily shiver.
"We were mistaken then," said Calvin.
"You're rationalizing. This is distinctly, very irrational," said Maisy.
She walked forward slowly. The town was quiet except from the occasional indistinct noise from the picture house.
"The truck for the general store comes every week. The gas truck comes to fill the tanks under the pumps. We're not isolated. We can't be."
"You see them when there here, but do you ever see where they come from or where they go? Do you ever remember that?"
"No..." admitted Calvin.
They walked silently all the way through the town and back to the Studebaker. It still reeked of smoke. Maisy opened her door and climbed in. She draped her hands over the steering wheel and pressed her forehead to the top of it. Calvin remained outside.
"What are we?" moaned Maisy.
"What do you mean?" asked Calvin.
"Are we even human? What are we here for?"
"I don't know," said Calvin. He got into the passenger side and closed his door as quietly has he could. "To live. To be. To ask questions that can't be answered." He smiled to himself for a moment, then his expression turned serious. "Is it worse to know what's out there? Now that you know?"
"It makes me want to get out even more, but I'm not sure there's anything actually out there, beyond. It's better to know the boundaries, but worse in that odds have changed."
"Well, I get to look forward to more of this. At least." He lit up two cigarettes this time, watching the flame on his match burn blue then white, then eat it's way down to his fingertips. He handed one of the cigarettes to Maisy. She took it and fiddled with it in her fingers. She leaned out her window, away from Calvin, and cried silently.