There was no town, and then there was.
Harold waited on the outskirts of the new town, sitting in his truck and occasionally swatting at the flies that somehow found the gumption to buzz at him despite the heat.
The afternoon passed slowly, until Harold heard a cruiser pull up behind him. A uniformed man got out and walked over, looking less than pleased to be leaving his air conditioned vehicle.
“Harold,” he said.
“Tom,” nodded Harold, still slouched behind his steering wheel.
“They told me you called the station. Please tell me I didn’t drive all the way out here just to chat with your sorry ass.”
Harold unscrewed his sweat-stained ball cap and fanned his face with it before replying.
“They made sure you could read before they pinned that badge on you, right?”
“They did,” said Tom. “Why?”
Harold pointed through his windshield.
“You might oughta read that sign over yonder.”
Tom looked. Then he raised his sunglasses and looked again.
“Welcome to Ashton,” he read out loud. “Population… zero?”
“Funny, ain’t it?” said Harold. “You’da thought we’d hear about a whole new town coming in.”
Tom just frowned, squinting past the sign. In the distance, he could barely make out Ashton’s buildings and houses, their blocky shapes undulating in the haze.
“Didn’t think towns worked that way,” said Harold. “I mean they’ve gotta, whaddyacallit… *accumulate.* Takes time to make a town.”
“Usually,” said Tom. “But these days, who knows. You take a look yet?”
Harold shook his head.
“Reckon that’s what we pay you for. I’m what you might call the suspicious type.”
“You might,” agreed Tom. “Seen anyone come through?”
“Only a few folks driving west. Saw Dan and Melinda Garret, they like to eat lunch over in Woodbridge. Thing is, though, I ain’t seen anyone coming back east, and I been here all afternoon.”
Tom grunted, then blew out a long breath.
“Guess I’d better check it out.”
As Tom walked back to his car, Harold continued slouching. But once he heard the cruiser’s wheels crunch off the shoulder onto the pavement, he sat up. This time, he was determined to see it happen.
As the cruiser headed towards Ashton, Harold stared at the welcome sign, keeping his eyes locked and unblinking. Even so, the change happened too fast to see.
*Population: 1,* the sign now read.
Harold sat back. The sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon when, just as he expected, the number changed again, suddenly returning to zero.
This time, however, there was an additional change. “Ashton” was gone, replaced by a new name.
*Welcome to Summerdale,* it said.
Then the whole sign faded and disappeared, along with the distant buildings.
Eventually, Harold started his truck and drove in the opposite direction. He suddenly felt glad he wasn’t the sort who did much traveling.
When you were traveling, you never knew where the little towns you passed through had come from.
Or where they went.