By Bill Vernon

Phil Shroud runs blindly down the alley, then stops, looks around, and realizes that he's passing through remnants of his youth. 

Because of the shock? From the airport he drove the rental car 45 miles into Paradise without stopping, turned off Main Street onto Mill, went directly to the old homestead, but only weeds and gravel were there. He parked on the side street Orchard and stared. Even the flower bed's rectangular border of yellow bricks was gone, bulldozed, as were the basement, the red brick chimney, the rest of the house, and back on the alley the big garage, which had originally been a stable. Where Phil had kept his rabbits. The emptiness hit him like a hard punch to the stomach. It denied his past, suggested his memories were delusions.

He wonders if he locked the car doors. He can't even remember leaving the car and setting off on foot down the alley. 

Suddenly, dogs are everywhere. Not lap dogs either. A huge Rottweiler is howling, slavering, front paws on top of the fence trying to jump over, just ten feet away. On the other alley side two German shepherds growl and bark, frenetically pacing back and forth in front of a gate, glaring at him. The gate looks securely latched, but Phil can't be sure and hurries farther in the direction he found himself taking down the alley. He discovers guard dogs in every yard. It's as if he were caught inside a kennel.

There'd never been dogs like these back in his day. When he played here with other kids, they'd run unimpeded through all the yards. Can't do that anymore. Who'd want to, of course, with such dogs present? 

Phil continues on, pointing by impulse at buildings, saying aloud, Logsdons, Creeches, Humphreys, Torinos, homeowners' names, all friends. All gone. Phil can't name one family living here now. Used to be he knew everyone in town. 

Paradise is like a ghost town. Siri told him on the way here that the 2,010 census showed a population of less than 2,000, down from the 4-thousand-something in its heyday, when Phil lived here. The 3 or 4 blocks of the downtown, he remembers, looked empty. He'd not seen one business operating in Paradise. 

Now Phil notices that although the backsides of these residences on the alley are familiar, they're also different. Broken windows everywhere, broken siding, swayback roofs, spilled garbage, a lack of paint, dereliction. Neglect makes him feel like an alien in his own hometown.

He starts crossing Mulberry when two women on the sidewalk make Phil stop to avoid a collision. Although he says, "Excuse me," they pass without even glancing at him. Acting as if he isn't there is like shunning, which the Amish inflict on people as punishment. He saw a documentary the day before on PBS explaining it. 

Across Mulberry, Phil sees a car ahead, blocking the alley. Two people are inside, leaning toward the driver's window, talking with a man who counts money, then hands them a small brown sack. The car pulls away throwing gravel against Phil's legs. The man with the money, like the two women, turns away as if Phil were invisible, then disappears into the dark mouth of new double-car garage. A buzz signals the activation of a motor that drops a 4-panel aluminum door, which unwinds and thuds, settling onto the ground. 

Farther ahead down the alley brake lights flash on and the car stops. The red seems extraordinarily bright. Phil hesitates, then tries to reverse direction. His feet are immoveable, but his forward progress continues, without his volition, as if he were strapped onto an escalator. 

The closer he gets, the more familiar the car looks: brand new, with that flashy black paint on cars nowadays, so glossy it looks an inch thick. And the license plate seems familiar. Yes, MICR2, the vanity plate he'd put on the car he'd given his daughter. 

At that thought, Phil dashes around to the driver's side window. The glass is down and Janice is partially behind the wheel, within reach but sprawled to her right against Jason Wright, who lives near Phil's house in Columbus. Neither is moving. They must be gone.
A voice says, "Hands off!
There's a jolt of energy and Phil's entire body jumps.
"I've got a heartbeat."
"He's breathing."

Phil's eyelids drag open. Though dim, the light reveals a human figure beside him. A voice murmurs something about relaxing. You'll be all right. You're on your way. 

The vehicle bounces, maybe leaving the alley, and speeds ahead on a smooth surface while a siren screams, flooding his mind.

Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN, and his poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in many magazines and anthologies.

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