The town had always been sleepy in the morning and lazy in the evening. Not even the clouds seemed interested in paying any prolonged visit to this remote part of the country. Like little cotton puffs, they would linger and then mose along like silent onlookers in quiet reunion. One hardly ever noticed them, and in summer the rare drops would evaporate before even touching the ground, leaving the soil stone-hard and the air dusty for much of the year. But the nights were different altogether, particularly after an autumn shower. As soon as the last rays of the setting sun had retired from their day’s duty, the stars would emerge one by one in striking contrast with the newly washed sky. Then, as the breeze caressed the crowns of the majestic live oaks with that enticing earthy scent, it seemed as if the town’s pulse quickened.
The old sheriff woke up at dawn to the call of a mocking bird. His back felt quite stiff, and he reluctantly thought of the appointment with his therapist. Over a leisurely cup of black coffee and bowl of cereal, he skimmed through the morning newspaper. Unsatisfied, he tossed it into the trash and stepped outside. Reading the news was likely to bore him, for the stories often seemed to rehash information: that ongoing conflict in the Middle East, perpetual riots in Africa, yet another hurricane brewing in the Gulf. He climbed into the rusty police car and lowered the brim of his black Stetson. The wooden house grew smaller in the rearview mirror as he cruised down the long gravel driveway lined with trees. Their shadows were still very low; the first rays of the sun were barely peeking over the mountain tops. It was the month of September and soon the oaks would shed their leaves, covering the ground with a chequered carpet of red and yellow. The old sheriff had always enjoyed the summertime in the countryside, but the wet autumn even more. ‘Will it rain today?’ he mused as he pulled onto the highway, taking a last glance at his home.
Long gone were the days when his wife would wave goodbye at the kitchen window. She had passed away five years before. Of typical southern charm, the old homestead had been her dream even before leaving New York. The old sheriff had never regretted turning his back on the city that never slept, but remembered how he had initially grumbled about their new home being some four miles out of town, ‘lost in the middle of the sticks’. He switched on the radio, humming away while some young country singer strummed his guitar, and soon passed the rundown gas station with its peeling red paint. Outlined against the cloudless sky, the weather vane was pointing northeast. A good sign of a coming storm. He crossed the small crooked bridge over the rapidly dwindling river, and finally reached the wooden sign welcoming travelers at the outskirts of Labrador. Inhabitants: 1,602.
Labrador was big enough to appear on maps but too small to be noticed otherwise. The old sheriff and his wife had found something here that the rest of the world seemed to be lacking: tranquility. It was as if time uncannily ceased on any given day. Today was Tuesday, and the vendors on the market square were busy arranging their goods: fresh fruit, vegetables of every size and color, and even a decent variety of sea fish. Later in the afternoon, when the children would come home from school and play tag and chase on the dry meadows, their mothers would dress up fashionably with large sun hats and then gossip under the shade of the oak trees. Meanwhile, the men would sip cold lemonade and debate about the latest performance of the local baseball team. As was his routine every morning, the old sheriff drove by the bakery opposite the tiny church, waved to the children walking to school, and then parked in front of the police station. Most referred to him as ‘the Yank’, which at the beginning had felt quite offensive, but now only made him grin. He left his coat at the front entrance, but kept his Stetson on. His eye caught the calendar on the desk as he settled into his worn leather chair. Today’s date was marked with a thick red circle. It was the eleventh, his son’s birthday. He would call him later that night.
It had been around eight thirty when the old sheriff had strolled down Main Avenue to grab a latté and an apple doughnut at the corner café. The local folks were chatting about everything and anything, enjoying bacon, eggs and grits. Some were laughing, others were arguing about the Middle East crisis. Had he paid more attention to the latest developments, perhaps he could have ventured an opinion himself, the old sheriff thought. The TV was tuned to CNN, but softly. What happened next, the old sheriff would vividly remember as a confused sequence of fleeting images.
A customer sitting in the far corner of the café asked the bartender to turn up the volume. The entire room went mute, as the seconds ticked by relentlessly. The news commentators were visibly struggling to remain focused. But even long years of experience could not have braced them for what was unfolding in front of their eyes. Their voices peeked here and there, as they flipped through notebooks in search of words. The video footage showed shocked people covered in white powder. The old sheriff froze, his Stetson in one shaking hand while he grasped for his cell phone. On the TV screen of that corner café in Labrador, the town that knew no time, the second Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed under a thick rain of rubble. The old sheriff dialed his son’s number and held the phone tightly to his ear, his eyes filling with tears. The call went to voicemail.Photograph and artwork: nflemming