It was a nothing town in the middle of nowhere South Dakota. Carina, population four hundred and three. There was miles and miles of pasture, and then the town, and then miles and miles of pasture. A selection of houses surrounding an intersection that had a grocery store, a gas station, a diner, and a church. It was absolutely the right place to be. Minnie just had no idea why.
“We drove four hours out of St. Paul and you still don’t know why?” Paulette asked. She closed the passenger door of their purple sedan and turned in circles, taking the little town in. “I don’t see nothing. No fires, nobody screaming. People are just…having their day.”
Minnie frowned as she made her own little circle on the other side of the car. Paulette wasn’t wrong. There wasn’t anything going on here. Cars were driving around like they should, people were going in and out of the grocery store. No one seemed distressed. A few people stole glances at them, as they passed. A town this small, they must recognize strangers on sight. Minnie sighed. She had been so sure.
She put her hand back on the car door and opened her mouth to apologize. Stopped.
“There’s something here,” she said. “I can still feel it. There’s some reason to be here.”
Paulette leaned on the car. “Feel it how?”
“Coming into town, it just felt right to be coming in this direction and wrong in every other direction. Almost like a stomach ache, but entirely in my head. Now that we’re here…I don’t know…it’s like anxiety. My skin is kind of crawling, and my heart is going a little too fast, and I just feel like something is wrong…even though I can see it ain’t.”
Paulette didn’t look convinced. “We were on a job in St. Paul.”
“We might have had a lead on a job in St. Paul,” Minnie said. “And we can go back. I just…can we look around? Please? Maybe if I see there’s nothing going on here, I can leave in peace.”
With a sigh through pursed lips, Paulette shrugged her shoulders. “I guess. We drove all the way out here, and it’s another four hours back. Guess we should eat.”
They walked slowly around the intersection, doing a loop around the church before heading for the gas station. There was nothing weird or off or sinister about the church. It was a brick church. Nondenominational. AA meetings in the basement. The gas station was the same. A few pumps, a little shop.
Paulette stopped in the parking, leaving Minnie to get a few yards ahead before she realized.
“Don’t we know this car?”
To Minnie, it was a blue car with two doors and a Nebraska license plate.
Paulette walked around, trying to look into the car without looking like she was snooping.
“It’s got to be a common car,” Minnie said.
“It is. But I’m sure I’ve seen this one before. I just…I can’t remember where. You still feeling it?”
Minnie considered. “Yes.”
“Fine. It’s freezing out here. Let’s go to the diner and eat.”
Bev’s Diner was kitty-corner to the gas station. Carina was so small the intersection only had a single flashing light hanging in the middle. Minnie and Paulette walked directly across the intersection toward the little parking lot.
The little full parking lot. A vehicle in every spot, and a few lined along the edges of the grass. Three more parked on the side of the road, and they were sure they’d find more in the back.
“Okay,” Paulette said, pointing, “Now that’s weird.
Once they were inside they squeezed into the little space between the door and the front counter. A frazzled waitress with black hair sticking out in every direction power walked past them carrying a tray covered in food and used her free hand to gesture broadly.
“Just sit wherever you can find.”
It didn’t seem like there was any place to find at all. Every table was taken, mostly by groups bigger than the table was supposed to hold. Three people were squeezed into every booth. Some people were standing. The counter was packed with people shoulder to shoulder, looking more like a bar in a college town on a Friday night than a little diner in a sleepy town in the middle of a Wednesday.
They searched the crowd for who knew them. Paulette found them first and clapped her hands.
“I knew I knew that car.”
Elmer Roundhouse and Jeremiah Jones were in the far corner of the dining room, and the two women had to work their carefully through the crowd, squeezing through chairs and carrying their purses over their heads to keep from pushing the leather into anyone’s faces. Elmer and Jeremiah had a little table for two, and they stood when Paulette and Minnie got close.
“Hell of a thing, huh?” Elmer asked.
Paulette waved at the room behind her. “What are all these people doing here?”
Elmer snorted. “You felt it, too, right? You must have, otherwise you wouldn’t have come.”
“I did,” Minnie said. “We were out in St. Paul, and I woke up and…”
“Just felt like you needed to come here. Not that you knew where here was,” Jeremiah said, nodding. “We were up in Fargo. Felt the same thing.”
Minnie turned and looked at everybody in the little room again. Must have been close to fifty in a diner only meant to hold twenty. All average looking folks. No one she recognized, anyway. Just chatting with their friends, eating. Maybe looking around a little suspiciously. Maybe not. Minnie could have just been seeing what she felt.
“I don’t think they realize it,” Jeremiah said, watching her. “They’re all just travelers, passing through. When they leave, someone else shows up. You want to hear the strange part?”
Paulette snorted. “We haven’t gotten to the strange part yet?”
“We’ve been talking to some of them,” Elmer said through a grin. “Just a little chit chat, get to know you type stuff. That family in the booth by the door? Husband’s a firefighter. Couple next to them, both are nurses. There’s five separate doctors sitting at the tables, and a couple of detectives at the counter. Oh, and over there, all the way at the other end of the diner, is a couple of hunters. Don’t recognize ‘em, just recognize them for what they are.”
Minnie turned from the room back to Elmer and Jeremiah. “Any idea what is actually happening here?”
“Not quite,” Jeremiah said.
“But we have a guess.”
“Someone in this town is calling for help. And they’re calling so loud, they’re drawing in people for hundreds of miles.”