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Chapter Three: Population 257

October 3, 2023

North Hawk, Nebraska

Sarah gasped out loud when she noticed the tell-tale signs of a gas station just ahead. Her car’s headlamps caught the yellow and red color of the paint and her car puttered to a stop just in time for Sarah to realize the gas station was abandoned.

Abandoned a long time ago.

“Damn it,” she whispered and gently tapped her head against the top of the steering wheel. How could she have let this happen? Running out of gas while lost in the middle of the night?


After trying unsuccessfully to get her 2008 Escort started, she got out of the car and looked at the gas station illuminated by her car’s headlamps.

It was so quiet she could hear cows mooing in the far distance, and not much else.

Just beyond the gas station, however, she could read a sign: North Hawk, Nebraska: Population 256.

Sarah, having never heard of North Hawk, Nebraska, shook her head.

“Why me? Why does this have to happen to me?”

Briefly, she thought about waiting in her car for someone to come by or maybe even sleeping here until morning. But the thought of being surrounded by this oppressive darkness made her feel like she’d be trapped inside a coffin.

Since that sounded like all kinds of terrible, she decided to walk into this tiny town and see if she could find help.

When she turned the car’s lights off, her eyes took several minutes to adjust. But soon she could see the general surroundings and a road leading into town. She put her purse on her shoulder and headed that way.

It only took her maybe ten minutes to get to the edge of the city, which happened to be an abandoned storefront.

But there were street lights ahead, at least and a building with lights on.

She walked slowly up to this building that was dimly illuminated by the street lamps. It was several stories high, and the lights from each level were turned on.

A good sign.

At street level, the entrance had windows the full height of the first floor, and looking inside she could see nothing but a blank room scattered with construction supplies.

She walked up to the windows and placed her head against the glass. No one seemed to be inside, but she could see another door in the rear of the room.

She slammed her fists lightly against the window a few times and shouted “hello?”

There was no reaction.

Sarah looked behind her and the rest of the pitiful “main street” and didn’t see one other building with any signs of life. Indeed, once the dim lights from the street ended, an abyss of darkness seemed to go on forever.

She moved over to the door and pulled on the handle.

It opened without protest, and she went inside.

She kept looking down as she walked to make sure she didn’t step on any nails or sharp edges. She had been on construction sites before when she was still in grade school with her father, and she remembered hearing a grown man scream when he stepped on a nail that went through his foot and out the top of the shoe. Sarah couldn’t even believe a man’s scream could be so high-pitched, and she remembered that lesson for the rest of her life.

Always watch what you’re stepping on.

Even though the lights from the street weren’t strong, her eyes were still good enough for her to wade through the detritus to the back of the store. She reached he door and tried to open it, but it was locked.

She knocked on the door a few times, yelling out “hello?” and “is anyone there?” each time… but only silence heeded her calls.

She turned around and gasped, putting a hand to her mouth.

A figure stood at the front window, looking inside.

Sarah could only see a dim outline of the person, who looked to be a slender woman in a dress. The woman stood there, motionless.

A moving shadow appeared next to the woman, which was another figure walking from the sidewalk in front of the building. That figure stopped and stared inside the building as well.

Sarah’s voice made a little squeak. She just stood there, fully aware that the light from the street revealed her completely while masking anyone in front of the building with shadows.

“Are they here to help?” Sarah asked herself. She thought this must be true, despite their silence and the creepiness of the situation, and she began to move toward the building’s front entrance.

Sarah made it more than halfway to the door before another figure appeared. She stopped again, trying to make out who these people might be. But then another came. Then another, until there were close to a dozen figures, all outlined by light and with features obscured by the darkness.

All of them stared at her motionless and in total silence.

Sarah’s instinct was to run. Run like she was back in high school track from just a few years ago. Sarah thought she still might be fast even though she hadn’t run competitively in a while.

A few of the outlines in front of her were a little bigger than what was probably a healthy weight, so she was betting she could beat them in a race.

But… where to run? And if she couldn’t run, could she fight?

Sarah looked around and saw a dusty hammer on the ground behind her. She stooped to pick it up and that’s when she saw the interior door open. Sarah straightened and raised the hammer.

A tall man walked out of the door and into the light. He was wearing a plaid shirt, dirty jeans, and old tennis shoes. He also had a black hood on his head with holes cut out for his eyes.

Sarah backed away slowly. She had heard podcasts about this type of situation, and she vaguely wondered if anyone would ever make one about what was going on here tonight.

Then she heard the door to the front of the building open as well. She quickly glanced over and saw the figures entering the building, all of them with black hoods on their heads, all of them moving quickly but with almost no noise. She could mostly just hear the shuffling of feet on the ground and clothes moving. They were spreading out and moving toward her from all directions.

Sarah screamed and started to lash out with the hammer, but it was too late.

The mob swallowed her as she screamed until everything went quiet again.

It was like that until all of the figures left the building, quietly and calmly.

Soon the sign on the road would read: North Hawk, Nebraska: Population 257

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