I’ve been to plenty of weird places before. Sarah and I used to go to them all the time. Forgotten historical sites, ghost towns, bizarre roadside attractions, haunted cemeteries and houses. Hell, even my hometown Salem, Alabama has its fair share of creepy lore regarding Pope’s Haunted Farm. But ultimately, I’ve come to realize none of these places have shit on Donalsonville, Georgia.

I get that may sound weird since Donalsonville tops out at maybe a couple hundred people. I wouldn’t even call it a city. It’s basically a community surrounded by woods. Almost thirty minutes away from the nearest towns. Without the two-lane blacktop running through it, I doubt anyone would ever cross paths or even be aware of Dville’s existence.

Only Donalsonville’s history certainly made it notable to true-crime enthusiasts like myself. See, Donalsonville wasn’t just the home of band concerts or its annual Square Dance Festival. Dville was home to some of the most gruesome murders in Georgia history. Murders that I won’t touch upon out of respect to the victims’ families. But murders that affected the rest of Georgia. Hell, murders that even made nation-wide outlets. And they happened in Donalsonville every couple of years. Not just robberies or gang violence either. But fucking massacres. Gory tragedies ripe for a horror movie rather than a tiny community like this.

However, one great thing emerged from all the horrors of this town’s past: Sarah. Yes, my best friend was born and raised in the self-proclaimed square dance capital of Georgia. Just the fact we both grew up in small towns was yet another similarity in a friendship full of them.

Sarah and I had met at Agnes Scott, a prestigious women’s college in Atlanta. I’d say it was divine intervention we were both assigned the same dorm room. We became friends at first sight. Both of us were English majors. Both of us dressed in similarly quirky hipster styles (with the same stylized long hair). Both of us wore big glasses. Both of us were epic smartasses. Both of us aspiring writers. We also loved horror movies and exploring scary places. Hell, we even liked playing Skyrim together.

And as we went from being freshmen in a cramped dorm to juniors in a cramped apartment, we started indulging in booze and weed together. Honestly, we never went out much… we’d spend too much time on Netflix horror movies and Skyrim and weed. Besides, who needed to go out to party when we had our own apartment? We were inseparable. Not to mention fucking compatible.

Even our home lives were similar. Both of us were the first in our families to go off to college. Judging by our grades, we’d also be the first ones to graduate. We each had a younger brother as well.

Our parents were strict. My dad was a policeman back in Columbus. He was the hardened and gruff cop to everyone but the loving dad to me and my brother Andrew. Needless to say, I hadn’t partied much or dated anyone up until college. Not that dad was obsessive or anything. He just made sure I stayed on the right path. He cared, you know. And so did mom.

On the other hand, Sarah’s parents seemed pissy for superficial reasons. They called her all the damn time. And one night, she told me they disapproved of her even being in school. She confided to me her parents wanted her to stay in Dville and get a job in one of the city’s (very few) businesses where she could meet a man and settle down. A countrified (and prehistoric) vision of the American dream.

I was amused by the unambitious dreams they had for their own daughter. Then again, that was probably the only life they’d ever had. I believe her entire family was born and raised in Donalsonville. Who knows if they’d ever even left the city limits? Ignorance could be bliss I guess…

During our junior year, Sarah and I had spent more time together than ever. Okay, maybe the drinking and smoking did increase… but we were cruising through our majors. The sky was the limit. And hey, it’s college. Of course, we’re still gonna have fun!

But all that changed after Thanksgiving break. We were only supposed to be away from each other for one day. Then that turned into two. Then three. And then weeks…

I’d kept in touch with her at first. Of course, we both went our separate ways to spend time with family. Me in Columbus. Sarah in Dville. But we still texted each other constantly. I even called her on Wednesday night. The day before Thanksgiving. We had plans for me to come down to Donalsonville and spend the weekend with her and her family. My parents had already met Sarah. They knew how close we were, and of course, they loved her. Even Andrew, who could be quite shy, thought she was cool as shit. Hopefully, her family would like me just as much…

But I never got the chance. I never heard from Sarah on that Thursday. None of my texts were read. None of my calls returned. I wasn’t upset. I knew how hectic shit got during the holidays. Maybe her family went hogshit over Black Friday like most Americans do. I don’t know… I didn’t panic. Even when she never called me back during the rest of the break, I just stayed in Columbus and tried to keep my cool. Regardless of all the nagging worries squeezing my gut, I made sure to be as optimistic as I could. My parents comforted me and said she probably got stuck in Dville with her folks. I prayed they were right. But they weren’t.

Once Finals Week came, Sarah was nowhere to be found. I knew this wasn’t like her. Yeah, me and her stayed in the apartment and slacked off together but we weren’t idiots. We took school fucking seriously. And we damn sure never missed an important project or our finals. I knew something was wrong. My nagging worries had turned into sickening despair by this point.

And yet, no one seemed to give a shit. I talked to our classmates. Teachers. The administration. No one fucking cared! They all gave me the same lame excuses. They figured Sarah had just dropped out. That she’d lost interest. Well, I knew that made no fucking sense. And I figured they did too, but they couldn’t do nothing about it. Sarah was back with her family. And as far as anyone knew, no one had reported her missing. Over the next month, the idea of her being too homesick went from being a joke to the official half-ass reason.

But that still didn’t explain why she wasn’t calling me. Why would she ignore me? Hell, she hadn’t even *read* my text messages. After all we’d done together these past three years, she’s just gonna up and leave and not tell me anything? Nevermind the fact, she was acting happy and normal all the way up to Thanksgiving break. That Wednesday on the phone, she even told me she missed me more than she’d ever missed any of her past boyfriends. Later on, I told her I was ready to explore Donalsonville’s infamous murder sites with her. One of our favorite pastimes, after all. She was super excited. Like a kid awaiting Christmas Day. Hours after a conversation like that, how could someone shut off their best friend forever? It didn’t make any sense.

After Finals were over, the agony continued to eat me up. I knew it wasn’t my fault or anything. But just the fact there was no resolution left me feeling colder than the chilly December weather. I felt like a family member had died. And in many ways, they had. I needed answers and if no one was gonna give me one, I had to take matters into my own hands.

During Christmas break, I told my father everything. I told him how Sarah hadn’t talked to me, how she wasn’t responding, and how the school had just assumed she dropped out. 

Obviously, he agreed with me. Something was up. I got my intuition from him, after all. We Johnsons were a suspicious bunch.

Unfortunately, dad told me there was nothing I could do. As close as me and Sarah were, we weren’t related. I couldn’t really file a missing persons report or press the police to go look for her. Hell, I didn’t even know her family. The police would probably just think I was some crazy ex-BFF or something. But still. I had to know. If Sarah was going back home for good, she at least owed it to me to tell me the truth. That’s what best friends do.

I knew I needed to go to Donalsonville myself. If I wanted any answers. If Sarah was there, great. We could have a final talk before she wandered off into this hillbilly sunset. But if she wasn’t, maybe her family didn’t know either. Then we could all just go to the police and start searching for her. Shit, she could’ve been missing since Thanksgiving! She could’ve been needing our help since then.

As I spilled my guts to dad, his tough demeanor cracked to reveal his true side: the sympathetic father. For once, he was willing to let me travel on my own. Maybe he felt pity. After all, I cried like a bullied child in front of him. He knew how much Sarah meant to me. And he liked her as well.

The only caveat was that he would have to be closer than Columbus. Just in case something happened. I relented since he’d be staying in Stanwyck which was the closest city to Dville (about thirty minutes away). That gave me enough privacy from his paranoid parenting without sacrificing the safety I always felt around him and mom.

So in early January, I made my way down to Donalsonville. Going off the way Sarah and people on Reddit described it, I was surprised the city even showed up on the GPS. But then again those vicious murders literally put it on the map.

The three-hour road trip was pretty but boring. Not having service for most of the trip forced me to play CDs. Outside of ugly gas stations and abandoned trailers, there wasn’t much to see other than the suffocating forest.

As I drove further into the claustrophobic countryside, the four-lane highway morphed into two. I passed a road leading into Stanwyck and Colquitt, so I knew I was on the right track.

Finally, after traveling along this endless stretch of rural wasteland, I saw a community emerge through the forest. The highway led right into downtown Donalsonville. Basically, the entire city.

I passed a glorious sign on the left: Welcome To Donalsonville!

Colorful illustrations of people square dancing decorated it. Black, white, Hispanic. Just a bunch of cartoon farmers having the time of their lives in a big white gazebo.

Probably more people on the sign than in the actual city, I thought.

I drove through “downtown” Donalsonville. The square was a small park with a lovely white gazebo right in the center of it. Just like the one on the sign. The ideal spot for band concerts and outdoor festivals. A southern beauty.

This *was* Donalsonville, I realized. I saw a motel, a gas station. Even the courthouse and police station were right here in this central location. I saw a few neighborhoods close by. The entire city revolved around this quaint little square.

I pulled up in front of the motel. The Sleep Express. A cute little inn complete with an antique shop inside. Who could resist?

Hesitant, I waited in my car for a moment. I saw a handful of people chilling in the park. Families, senior citizens, even teenagers. They were all so well-dressed. All of them with warm smiles on their faces. They looked like they belonged in a 1950s sitcom or a cheesy commercial. How was this All-American city such an ongoing All-American bloodbath?

I was still nervous about how they’d react to me. Jessica Johnson. The intelligent black college student. Super Liberal and uncompromising… as if my dreads and eclectic thrift shop wardrobe didn’t make that obvious enough. God, I don’t know how Sarah came out of WholesomeTown the way she did…

I finally said fuck it and checked in. Okay, maybe a few chugs from my Miller-Lite-filled traveling cup helped. Once I got inside The Sleep Express, I only saw one other customer: an old lady shuffling up a small staircase. Judging by her age, I doubt she was checking out anytime soon. Probably a local using the motel as a cheap nursing home.

Near the small front desk was the antique shop. I looked through it and saw all kinds of strange religious figurines. There were what looked like relic tools and weapons too. Old guns, knives, etc. Daggers that looked like they came from a Biblical torture chamber. All of them looked so worn too. Used.

All the artwork was impressive if gory. Religious drawings featured decapitations, crucifixions, disembowelings. Quite a lot of nude men and women were the featured victims. Apparently, this wholesome town didn’t mind a little bloodshed. As long as religion was involved, at least.

Maybe all of these weapons came straight out of Donalsonville’s violent history, I thought. They could’ve been recent murder weapons for all I knew.

“Excuse me,” I heard a kind Southern drawl call out to me.

Startled, I whirled around. A blonde young woman stood behind the front desk. Physically, I figured she was my age. Cute in a preacher’s daughter kind of way. Her attractiveness muddled by a baggy shirt and jeans that made her look like a kid or a depressed mom.

“Do you need a room?” she asked, a polite smile on her face.

I saw unease in her expression. Like she was struggling to mask her distrust behind that wall of a fake smile.

Grinning, I approached her. “Yeah. Just for a couple of nights.” My voice was cool and confident. Thank you, Miller.

Like they were decorations, I saw a few flyers positioned across the desk. All of them advertised various Donalsonville events. Nothing for out of town. To my disappointment, I saw nothing regarding Donalsonville’s infamous reputation as a murder capital either. There were no ghost tours or anything related to its dark history. Just… square dances. Lots and lots of squaredowns at, you guessed it, the gazebo.

The flyers all depicted the same countrified cliches from the welcome sign. The gazebo was illustrated like a shrine.

I got room number seven from the clerk. Then like a veteran cop, like my dad I should say, I chatted her up. I could feign friendliness much better than her too. 

She told me her name was Ann. And all she wanted to discuss was local restaurants, the beauty of square dancing, and all the local hunks she’d been swooning over. Ann was boring me to tears. Unlike Sarah, Ann had no fire or passion. No personality. If anything, her sincere commitment to being the town sweetheart frightened me.

After getting stuck on this mindless talk for well over five minutes, I managed to steer our conversation toward Sarah. I told Ann about how me and Sarah went to college together. About how I’d come to Dvile to see her.

Obviously, in a town this small, I figured her and Ann probably knew each other. And my intuition was spot on. Much to my amusement, Ann went into great detail about how strange Sarah was. How Sarah didn’t like square dancing all that much, how she didn’t date any of the locals, etc. She was “different.”

“What’s so weird about that?” I joked.

Ann hesitated. Her forced smile couldn’t hide her unease. Her eyes wandered off toward the antiques. I noticed they gravitated to the weaponry in particular. “Well, nothing,” she said. “It’s just kinda weird, you know. I mean why would you wanna leave Donalsonville?” She looked right at me. “People are so friendly.”

“I can tell.”

Smirking, Ann motioned toward my outfit. “She always dressed like that too. Like she was from Mars or something.”

We both chuckled. I wanted to punch her caked face right then and there.

“Sarah was so different,” Ann went on. “I like her, but I don’t know like why she just had to go off like that. That’s too far away from her parents, you know. It’s too far from home.”

“You didn’t go to college?”

She stumbled beneath my stern gaze. “No… but my brother did! But then he dropped out. I ain’t seen him since to be honest.”

Shockwaves ran through me. Daddy’s instincts were in my genes, after all. Was Ann’s brother and Sarah connected in some way? “What do you mean? He never came back?”

Grinning, Ann shook her head. Her smile was now more genuine. More chilling for that matter. “Nope. He just had to be the big shot. Just had to go off to FSU, but he couldn’t handle it.” Her eyes drifted over to an antique painting. One that showed a naked man being gutted. “I guess he was too embarrassed to come back home after that. I’ve heard that’s probably what happened to Sarah.”

She faced me. Confidence radiated through her. All of a sudden, her unease had transported itself over to me.

“I thought Sarah came back at Thanksgiving,” I said, my voice shaky.

“Not as far as I know. I thought she dropped out.”

My emotions sinking, I avoided eye contact. I stared down at all those flyers. At the cascade of smiling caricatures. The glorious gazebo. I saw a square dance was even being held today. From Five-Nine P.M. Everyone was invited to this gazebo squaredown.

“She’s probably too embarrassed to even talk to her mama and daddy,” Ann went on. Her chuckle sounded more like a snide cackle. Like she was an arrogant prophet. “People in Donalsonville just can’t handle college, I guess.”

I glared at her. I couldn’t help it.

“I say who needs it,” Ann said. “We got everything you could want right here.”

In that tense moment, my glare stayed on her sly smile. And her smile never faded. As if she was challenging me to throw the first punch.

I gathered myself. Disguising my anger, I snatched a flyer for the night’s festivities. Like I was actually interested in attending that shitshow.

“Are Sarah’s parents still here?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Ann replied. She motioned toward the flyer I held. “They’ll be at the dance tonight if you wanna come.”

I gave her my own sly grin. “I’ll think about it.” Bye, bitch.

I ended the conversation then and went to my room. It wasn’t a bad room really. The Sleep Express felt personable and cozy. More like a bed and breakfast than your average roach motel. 

There were a T.V., a mini-fridge, and a bookcase crammed with classics. The room also came with a crucifix and a religious painting. A painting depicting a graphic torture scene, of course. This one showed a screaming man being drowned in a scene reminiscent of those “dunking” witch tests during the seventeenth century. Such violent imagery seemed to be customary in Donalsonville.

Recovering from the long drive, I put down my bags and laid back on the bed. I still held the flyer. The gazebo image stared back at me, beckoning me to come join the dance.

I thought about how tough Sarah must’ve had it here. She was nothing like all these losers. Well, nothing like Ann I should say. Sarah wasn’t ignorant and closed-minded like that.

Earlier, my dad managed to get me the phone number to Sarah’s parents’ house. Apparently, they had no cell phones. At the time, I thought that was strange but now, it seemed obvious. Hell, I barely had any service as is.

I had some more Miller. Then I dialed the number. In my most helplessly optimistic of hopes, I thought maybe Sarah would pick up. Maybe Ann was so damn stupid, she’d gotten her info wrong.

But those hopes were quickly dashed when an unfamiliar, harsh voice greeted me. Sarah’s dad. His voice was similar to Sarah’s. But she certainly didn’t get her quirky sense of humor from him. He sounded too stoic and stiff.

I told him who I was, and he said Sarah had told him about me. She’d told him how close we were. Of course, he also said Sarah was gone. That she’d left on Thanksgiving Day after dinner, and that she planned on never going back to school. He said she told him to tell me she’d miss me, but she just couldn’t handle it any longer.

Suspicions blared through my mind like a rampaging alarm. I felt like my dad. All paranoia and skepticism. 

I convinced Sarah’s dad to let me come over and talk to them in person. I could hear the unease during his only pause. After telling him how far I’d come, he finally gave in. 

I got their home address. It turned out they literally lived a block away from the square… just like I suspected the rest of this community did.

With that, I hung up. I drank another couple of beers to prepare for meeting my best friend’s parents. Then I left the room.

I stepped out onto downtown Donalsonville. It was four o’clock and already people were flocking to the gazebo like a mass exodus. All of them dressed in casual yet classy attire. 

Nothing flamboyant. Nothing too revealing. 

Needless to say, I stuck out. Not because I was a black woman. The Dville crowd was more diverse than I expected. And everyone seemed to get along… cops, doctors, rich, poor. Everyone looked so happy.

My style was what made my outsider status rather obvious. But no one judged me too harshly. Sure, I got a couple of curious glances. But everyone still flashed me those friendly Donalsonville smiles. A barrage of “how are yous” also flew my way.

From what I could tell, the townspeople were getting the gazebo ready for a show or concert or something. I saw people holding instruments. Several speakers positioned around the gazebo.

Ann placed a podium at the front of the gazebo, putting it right in front of a towering wooden cross.

Everyone worked together to set up concession stands, porta potties, and an army of folding chairs. Even the kids were helping and behaving themselves. The teenagers and college-people as well… all of them were dressed like Ann. No sense of style or individuality. They wanted to fit in with the Donalsonville status quo, I suppose. The self-righteous “in-crowd.”

I saw a roped-off area up front that I presumed was the lauded square dancing space.

I made my way through all the locals. The sidewalk was flawless. As were the downtown buildings. They looked preserved in a 1950s time warp and looked like no one had damaged them since the Eisenhower administration. There were no incessant car horns or overflowing trash like you’d experience in the bigger cities either. Dville was clean living.

As I reached the end of the “downtown” district and made my way through Donalsonville’s suburbia, I realized I saw no churches. I know in Salem, regardless of how small the town was, there were more churches than houses. But here in Donalsonville, I hadn’t seen a church yet… not even those circus tents ripe for “revivals.” 

I noticed none of the men or women here resembled priests either. Strange considering all the religious paraphernalia everywhere. I guess the people’s faith was so strong they didn’t need organized religion. Just square dancing.

In the suburbs, all the houses looked the same. One-story homes with small pristine yards. Even the scattered single-wide trailers were well-kept. Hell, they could’ve all been thrown downtown and wouldn’t seem out of place. Blue-collar Americana at its finest.

I made it to Sarah’s old house. Her parents’ lawn ornaments featured everything from smiling animals to Christ statues. A requisite flag showed support for Colquitt High’s football team.

Going off of beer-fueled courage, I knocked on the door. To my surprise, her family was more than welcoming. They let me in immediately. Even handed me a glass of sweet tea.

We talked in the living room. Behind their conservative style, I saw some resemblance between them and Sarah. The same bright eyes and curly hair. They were reserved… kinda like how Sarah was freshman year until me and her both blossomed in college. Sarah’s father Ken stood tall and stocky. A former football player, for sure. Her mom Jean looked to be a former cheerleader turned obedient housewife. They sat across from me while her brother Tommy sat on the far end of the couch I was on. He didn’t say a word. All he did was look off at the T.V., toward the local coverage of the upcoming square dance.

Somehow, Tommy was more reserved than the rest of the family. Then again he had a ten-year-old’s face on a skeletal body. Maybe a growth spurt would make Tommy like his dad in a couple of years.

All around the house, I saw those same paintings I’d seen back at the antique store. R-rated religious imagery. Crucifixes hung on the walls in every single room. A nice contrast to the abundance of Stanwyck High athletics/academic trophies here as well. Of course, Jean looked to have put up as many animal figurines as she could. Sarah had decorated our apartment with similar critters. I figured Jean must be where Sarah’s love of Golden Retrievers had come from.

Her family was polite enough. Even if our talks were rather stilted. Like Ann, they had the authenticity of morning talk show hosts. And that was before our conversation switched over to Sarah. I told her parents where I was from and how I’d met Sarah at Agnes Scott. I said she loved them… which she truly did. However, I didn’t mention how she didn’t love Dville. Then again, I’m sure they already knew.

I then went on to tell them about the last time I’d heard from Sarah. When she was home with them during Thanksgiving break.

“Do you know what happened?” I asked, keeping my voice steady and gentle. “I haven’t heard from her since.”

Uneasy, Jean turned to Ken. His smile had evaporated.

“She didn’t answer any of my texts or calls,” I went on.

Jean faced me. “Well, she-”

Sitting up, Ken gave me a stern look. “We got rid of her phone,” he interrupted in a commanding tone.

My hands tightly gripped my glass of tea. I know Sarah said he was strict, but given his sheer size, Ken could be scary without even raising his voice.

“She kept running the bills up on the dang thing,” Ken went on. “I finally had to take it away.”

Like a shifty detective, I just nodded. Even when I knew Ken was full of shit. Sarah didn’t work, but she had decent savings. And she had Hope and all sorts of grants. She paid her own phone bill. I know she did.

“I don’t know where she went either,” Ken went on. He fixated his harsh eyes on Jean.

Jean looked away, uncomfortable. Like Ken’s gaze alone could silence her. Even in their own home.

“She left right after Thanksgiving dinner,” Ken said. He confronted me. “A little too quickly, if you ask me.”

Now his eyes seemed darker. Those baby blues went from being a clear lagoon color to resembling the blackest depths of the ocean.

“She left without even saying where she was heading,” said Ken. “Without even saying goodbye.”

Jean forced a smile that came off more creepy than comforting. “Yes, Sarah could be a little flaky,” she told me in her kind Southern drawl.

I glanced over at Tommy. He wasn’t chipping in anytime soon. His attention stayed distracted by that dance coverage. WDSV. Donalsonville’s cheesy local news. Their reporters acted with the same over-the-top Southern charm everyone else had. They all wore the same bland wardrobes too.

“Sometimes, she just ups and leaves,” Jean went on. “She comes and goes.”

I watched her force a chuckle. Jean’s laugh was even eerier than her smile. Ken didn’t join in the laughter. Neither did me or Tommy.

“All I can tell you is don’t worry about it,” Ken said. His voice came off as more demanding than reassuring. He sounded too strict. Not emotional like a father, but more cold like a hateful prosecutor. “Sarah is fine. She’ll turn up at some point.”

“Yes, our baby’s safe,” Jean added, her voice on sympathy overdrive to make up for her husband’s detachment.

My nervous hands ran all along the glass. “I don’t know,” I finally managed. I looked into Ken’s death stare. “It just doesn’t seem like her.”

My gaze shifted over toward Tommy. He now stared right at me with big, wide eyes. He was too young to shield his emotions… I saw fear behind the blankness.

“Well, Sarah likes to run around,” Ken said.

I saw him stand up.

“A lot like you, I’m guessing,” he told me.

The nasty delivery made his words feel like knives. A glower replaced my own fake smile. Right before I could hurl an insult at the motherfucker, Ken motioned toward Jean.

“Come on, let’s go,” he commanded her. He turned his glare toward me. “We’ve gotta get to the concert.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jean give me an apologetic smile. For once, there was real emotion on her face. Real anguish. But I knew she wasn’t gonna do shit about her asshole husband…

After that, I left the Brocks behind. I headed back toward the square. Evening was upon us, and the January air got surprisingly chilly considering this was Donalsonville. 

Along the way, I reflected back on that awkward conversation. How Ken’s attitude had suddenly shifted from friendly to agitated. Unlike the rest of the people in this town, he didn’t even attempt to disguise his anger. Maybe that was a glimpse into the real Ken Brock. A glimpse into whatever dysfunction had made Sarah leave her family in the first place.

Upon reaching downtown, I was stunned at how crowded it was. Almost the entire community was at the square by now. Hell, it was only a few minutes past five.

A Christian rock band performed on stage. Well, some sort of religious band. All the lyrics referred to the Lord, sacrifice, suffering, etc. There were even fiddle players joining in on the act.

The tall cross now had some sort of mannequin or prop on it. An artistic iteration of a female crucifixion. The naked female was complete with fake blood scattered all across her nude body. Her hands were nailed into the sides of the cross, her feet nailed together at the very bottom. Vivid redness covered the cross’s harsh wood like an impromptu paint job.

The mannequin was the same type of artwork I’d been seeing around town all day. Beautiful, bloody, and a bizarre contrast to the warm innocence of the townspeople. The gory crucifixion exhibit would’ve been more at home in a torture museum, but somehow, it was like a beacon of joy to Donalsonville. Literally the centerpiece for this concert.

And yes, in the roped-off area, people were square dancing. On this Wednesday evening, everyone was having good, clean family fun.

All the while, I was still confused about where the church was. This was *the* Bible Belt, after all. We had concerts and creepy art, but no actual church? Was the gazebo supposed to be some sort of outdoor substitute?

Navigating through the sea of people, I made my way back to The Sleepy Express. Ann was gone and the place was empty. I expected the old lady to be somewhere across the street. In fact, I expected the entire community to be there by this point. The Brocks as well.

In my motel room, I called dad. I told him about how weird Dville was. About how Ken had lost his shit when I asked about Sarah. Then I told dad about how Ken had lied about her phone.

Like always, dad comforted me. Sometimes, I hated how paranoid he was and how overprotective him and mom got. I mean that’s part of the reason I went to Agnes in the first place. But deep down… I missed that safety. I never wanted to admit it, but I did. Especially those last few weeks at school with Sarah gone. I missed him, mom, and Andrew more than ever. And right now, trapped in this weird creepy community, I was glad dad was so close.

“I’ve got your back, baby,” he told me through the phone in that glorious gruff voice of his.

He then went on to tell me that Stanwyck was actually just as weird. I found that one hard to believe.

“I’ve got her parents’ names if you can look them up,” I asked dad. “Please. They seem really weird to me.”

“Sure thing, Jess,” dad said. “I’ll get on it.”

“Thanks, dad! I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I hung up. Hearing the rock music outside, I stepped up to a window and looked out at the show.

Nightfall was settling in on the “concert.” No one had left yet, and the same band played on. The same people danced like they were attending a square dance rave.

I couldn’t block out that music. From the speakers, the clangy rhythm and wild fiddles entered my room at will. The whole concert a frenetic soundtrack I couldn’t escape.

From my vantage point, I scanned the crowd. I came to a horrified stop.

Near the motel and right under my window stood the Brock family. All three of them stared right at me. Ken, Jean, and Tommy. In such a crowded area, they were somehow standing amongst themselves. All alone on a Brock sidewalk island.

Their expressions were blank except for Ken’s intense glare. He looked like he was staring down an enemy or a threat to his family. And maybe I was…

Terrified, I staggered back and sat down on the bed. I was out of view of the show, but not out of earshot of the incessant music.

What the fuck! I thought. What the fuck was that…

I was creeped out by the city earlier. And now I was too scared to leave my room. I holed up in room number seven for the next several hours. The T.V. literally only had a couple of channels… all of them affiliated with WDSV. Nothing obscene was on either. Just PG-13 sanitized bullshit. Rather than being what they ate, Donalsonville’s residents were what they watched. Wholesome sitcoms, uplifting church programs, and jolly news specials.

With no wi-fi, I was forced to use my hotspot. Not a great connection since my phone only had one bar, but fuck it, it was something to stave off the boredom and the fiddle/rock/country/whatever-the-fuck-that-band-was-playing-outside. I found nothing about the Brocks via Google.

Not to my surprise, I did find plenty of information on Dville’s notorious murders. It turns out, every five years or so, there seemed to be a big, grisly murder that “shocked” the community. Outright slaughters. As if the townspeople were reenacting the gory paintings they so cherished. And this disturbing trend had been going on since Dville’s post-Reconstruction inception.

Sure, I’d heard about how weird Stanwyck and Colquitt could get… everyone had. But per capita, Donalsonville took the cake when it came to bloodshed.

I found a curious fact regarding the paintings. All of them were done by the same woman. A life-long Donalsonville resident: Ma Donovan. Every December 23rd, the city would even hold a festival celebrating her work. Apparently, she was the one resident to attain some reasonable success outside the city limits. Even though she never left said limits. Then again, who knows what Sarah could’ve done. She was a fucking great writer after all.

Ma Donovan died sometime in the 1960s. Never married, no family. Cause of death unknown. She was buried somewhere in Donalsonville, but no one knows where specifically. Such mystique only added to her allure.

One look at her artwork made it clear why she had such a devout following here in Donalsonville. Her talent was as unquestionable as her pictorial gore was unsettling. The visceral violence pulsated with life and passion.

Another Miller Lite got me even more curious. I looked over at the painting hanging in my room. The grotesque drowning. On it, the middle-aged male victim was in so much agony. His immense blood dyed the water red.

I got up and inspected the portrait. And then I saw what I knew was Ms. Donovan’s calling card: the signature “Ma” she’d scribbled in the corner of each of her pictures. An elegant yet precise scroll. Blood red letters.

My cell buzzed to life. I jumped, startled by the incessant vibration. My eyes looked to the painting’s victim. His eyes were wide with fear. His screams weakened with depleting life.

I snatched my phone. Dad was calling. He called twice a night, but this was too soon… unless it was an emergency. I answered.

Breathing heavy, my frantic father struggled to control his fear. I had to talk him down like a therapist. But I knew this was serious.

My dad’s research had uncovered Ken Brock’s darkest secret. A statutory rape conviction from over thirty years ago. Ken was twenty-five at the time. The female victim thirteen. All of this occurred in Dville.

The weird thing was the girl’s parents didn’t even want to press charges. Just for pleading guilty, Ken got a slap on the wrist. Probation and nothing else. Nothing that no one would ever worry about and be alarmed by… until now.

“Apparently, no one wanted to do anything about the asshole,” my dad told me.

“That’s crazy!” I yelled.

I heard dad take a nervous breath. “Yeah, I don’t know, Jess. The girl’s family didn’t care and neither did Donalsonville. It’s kinda like-”

“Like now,” I finished, my voice steady and disgusted. “It’s like no one gives a shit!”

My dad didn’t respond. He didn’t like me using profanity, but what could he say? Our suspicions were becoming a disturbing reality.

“He’s got something to do with it, dad!” I said. “Something’s not right.”

“I know,” dad said. “Listen, just hang tight, Jess.”

Still hearing the spiritual jamming, I looked out the window, uneasy. The crowd was still out there. Still square dancing.

“I’ll be there in the morning with some dudes from Stanwyck, alright, sweetie,” dad reassured me.

“Bring a bunch of cops!” I yelled into the phone. “Bring the police here! This town’s weird, dad.” Trying not to worry dad any more than he already was, I held back my tears. “We gotta do something. We need to get Sarah back. Please. Just come here tomorrow.”

“I will, Jess,” my dad said, his tough guy facade falling back to what he really was: a concerned father. “We’re gonna find her.”

A knock at the door startled me. A soft, light knock.

Caught off-guard, I looked toward the door. Another knock followed in rapid succession. Again, the hit was gentle. Not someone trying to break down the door to get me.

“Someone’s at the door, dad, I’ll let you go,” I said into the phone.

“Wait, see who it is-” he started.

“It’s fine, dad” I comforted him. “I think it’s just the lady at the front desk. I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, Jess,” he said. His nervous voice deliberated. “Be safe. Please.”

“I will.” Holding the phone, I walked up to the door.

“Night, Jess. I love you.”

I hung up. A third knock echoed toward me. The same calm knock. I’m surprised I’d even heard it amidst all the bombastic music.

At the door, I glanced through the peephole. Tommy stood out in the hallway. All by himself.

As if he could see through the wooden door, he stared right at me. Big, vulnerable eyes on a vacant face.

Cautious, I opened the door and confronted the boy. “Hey, what are you doing here?” I asked in an uneasy tone.

Tommy didn’t respond. His big blue eyes just looked at me. I realized his eyes were quivering like the rest of him.

Concerned, I leaned down in front of him. “What’s wrong?”

I could tell Tommy wanted to say something. His lips moved, but nothing came out. Like his soul, or his fear, was holding him back.

“Hey, it’s okay,” I said softly.

Right as Tommy looked to be on the verge of speaking, the rock music erupted like loud sirens outside. Somehow, it’d gotten louder. The fiddles broke through our intense intimacy.

Trembling, Tommy looked down at the floor. An internal war plagued him. Possibly the war between loyalty to his parents and his love for Sarah.

“Tommy,” I said. I grabbed his shoulder in a tight yet reassuring grip.

Like ongoing thunder, the music did its best to disrupt our heart-to-heart. As if the fiddles were wanting to keep Tommy from revealing the truth.

“What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Tell me.”

The boy turned and looked down the hallway.

Pleading, I squeezed Tommy’s shoulder. “Do you know what happened to Sarah?”

His eyes growing wider, Tommy kept staring down the hall.

“Tommy, please!” I yelled.

“Let go of him!” an irate voice demanded.

I turned to see Ken and Jean approaching us. Ken with a face of fury. Jean’s meekness saddled with concern.

“Let go of my son!” Ken yelled at me.

With uncontrolled anger, he pulled Tommy away from me.

I looked down at the boy. He stared at me with sadness in his eyes. His face’s forced blankness beginning to crumble with emotion. But I knew he wasn’t gonna say anything now. Not at his age. And not when he was weak like his mother. He wasn’t Sarah, after all.

“What’s wrong with you!” Ken hurled at me. He shoved Tommy behind him, barricading the child from me.

Gathering up my courage, I confronted Ken. “He came to me.”

Ken gave me a smirk of contempt. “Is that what you said about Sarah too?”

Upset, Jean grabbed Ken’s arm. “Ken.”

Ken pulled away from her so fast he nearly pulled Jean to the ground.

“No, Ken!”

Using his huge arm, Ken held Jean back. “Stay right there!” he commanded.

Jean did as she was told.

Her and I made eye contact. She looked at me with helpless sympathy in her eyes.

On the warpath, Ken pointed right at me. The smirk was now replaced by the cold look of a condemning preacher. “I know what you did to her! I know what you did to Sarah!”

I glared at him. “I didn’t do shit!”

Taking an angry step toward me, Ken put a fat finger to my face. “You ruined her! You corrupted my little Sarah’s chastity!” Tears built up in Ken’s eyes. A fiery redness overtook his face. His words were pathetic, but the sight of a grown man breaking down into this level of sadness and rage was unsettling.

Jean and Tommy watched him, uneasy. But I kept my glare right on that motherfucker. The uplifting music from outside the inappropriate soundtrack for our confrontation.

“What you did to her was disgusting!” Ken went on.

“She loved me!” I shouted.

Even more anger ran through Ken. For a moment there, I thought he was gonna strike me with the same vigor of Ma Donovan’s painted violence. But Ken showed some restraint. All he did was push me back.

But I stood my ground and didn’t move at all. This asshole may have been tough shit to Jean, but I was pretty tough too. I wasn’t scared of him.

“She’s not a dyke!” Ken hurled at me. “Not my Sarah. Not our damn child!”

“Well, she certainly was with me,” I said. “We loved each other!”

“No!”

“And I loved her a Hell of a lot more than you ever did!” I threw at him. “I can promise you that!”

Ken glowered. “You filthy whore.”

My gaze shifted over to Sarah’s mom and brother. Jean was holding onto Tommy. Both of them too scared to cry.

“Leave my family alone!” Ken yelled at me.

Unfazed, I faced his rage.

“Get the Hell out of Donalsonville and never come back, you understand!” Ken demanded.

“Not until you tell me what happened to Sarah,” I said. “I want the truth this time!”

The sly smirk returned to Ken’s face. “I already told you.”

“No,” I said. This time, I stepped toward him with the strength and confidence of my dad. “I’m gonna find Sarah, and you’re not gonna stop me, asshole.”

His smirk disappearing, Ken just glared at me. He had no comeback. No way to intimidate me.

“Let’s go, Ken!” Jean begged. “Please.”

Without saying a word, Ken turned and guided his family down the hallway.

I noticed Jean kept stealing nervous glances back at me. Like a peer-pressured bully who wanted to apologize afterward.

Right before they left The Sleep Express, Ken flashed me one final glare.

I gladly glared back. I wasn’t backing down. I loved Sarah Brock with all my heart. And I was gonna find her. Even if it meant breaking down her family to find the truth.

By the time I got back in my room, the music was over. Like someone had pulled the plug once the Brocks left the motel.

Serene stillness and immense darkness overtook the town square. When the show was over in Dville, apparently the show was really over. No lights, no noises. Not even any concert stragglers remained. Here it was nine o’clock and it felt like three A.M.

I heard nothing inside the motel either. I guess the old lady must’ve passed out by eight. And Ann wouldn’t be doing anything besides staying in with her family. Poor little Tommy Brock was probably poised to grow up in a similar state of boring conformity.

Alone in the room, I worried about Sarah. Yeah, I’d been concerned all along. But what I’d seen tonight was different. It wasn’t just mysterious, it felt dangerous. What if Tommy was trying to tell me something? And I know there was more to Ken. Ken the sexual predator with anger issues… he had to have done something to Sarah.

To get my mind off the horror, I texted dad on and off throughout the night. We shared YouTube videos, morbid facts, etc. For a minute there, our chat reminded me of me and Sarah’s late-night chats. Our late-night texts on those rare nights we weren’t together. The rare nights we weren’t cuddling while watching our fav horror movies.

Surprisingly, I fell asleep before dad. I woke up to several more of his YouTube links to classic 90s rock. Chuckling, I looked out the window. The morning sun was upon us. It was about seven-twenty A.M.

I still had a couple of hours before check-out. Before dad would come to the rescue.

Groggy, I turned on the T.V. Partially from morning routine. Partially from curiosity to see what WDSV had in store for me.

But there was nothing. Just static and snow. The blaring noise woke me up, for sure. But why was there nothing on in the morning? Surely, Donalsonville had morning programs. Especially in a community that closed up early. Wouldn’t they be mostly early birds?

Unsettled, I looked around my room. I felt something was off. Something more than the ongoing horror I felt inside over Sarah’s disappearance.

Then the large void on the wall caught my eye. Ma Donovan’s painting was missing.

Disturbed, I realized what the reality was. Someone had been in here while I slept.

My belongings were all untouched. My phone, my laptop. Whoever came in here just wanted that creepy painting…

Still dressed in yesterday’s clothes, I rushed out of my room. My steps echoed through the hall. Maybe my ears were too used to the clangly religious rock from the previous night, but I thought it was too quiet in here. Even by The Sleep Express’s standards. My footsteps erupted all around me like they were blaring through speakers.

I reached the front desk. There was no sign of Ann. In fact, there was no sign of anything. All the flyers were gone. The desk more barren than a relic you’d find in storage. And fuck, it was old. Scratches and claws tarnished the wood. Strange symbols looked to have been carved into it centuries ago.

Uneasy, I turned. Nothing else was in the motel either. The antique store had been stripped down like it’d undergone a successful giveaway sale. Nothing was left. No tools, no weapons. No Ma Donovan.

I realized the building was completely empty. I didn’t see a phone. Or a front desk bell. Fuck…

Panicking, I ran outside. The morning sunlight beamed down on me, keeping me warm amidst the chilly January breeze.

No cars were anywhere. No people. No morning joggers or bored senior citizens. All the surrounding buildings looked devoid of life. As did the square itself.

Holding my arms together, I walked through the square. Remnants of the festival were everywhere. The speakers, the podium, all the chairs. Everything was in its place. Unsurprised, I noticed there wasn’t any trash either. No wrappers or empty bottles. The people of Dville cleaned up after themselves.

All the while, my eyes were drawn to the gazebo. It loomed before me like the Donalsonville shrine it was. Like a glorious sculpture in a flawless field. I couldn’t help it. The gazebo compelled me.

I walked through the roped-off square dancing zone. The spot where everyone had frolicked with joy just hours earlier. And as I got closer to the gazebo, I saw the cross positioned in the very back of it.

Nervous, I glanced all around me. No one was in my vicinity. No Ann, none of the police officers. None of Donalsonville’s finest. I was all alone.

With cautious steps, I stepped inside the gazebo. Sickened with sadness, I came to a horrified stop. Tormented emotions kept me from screaming… even though I wanted to.

On the cross wasn’t a mannequin. It wasn’t any of Ma Donovan’s concoctions. Instead, Sarah’s preserved corpse had been nailed to it. It’d been there all along.

Sarah’s face tilted downward, her eyes closed. Her body now dressed in a white gown. Her skin about as pale as the dress. With the thorny crown on her head, she resembled a martyred Angel. Probably just how her daddy wanted her.

Blood adorned Sarah’s punctured wrists like red bracelets. Soaked through her feet like red socks. I saw a long sewn-up scar running across her throat.

Weeping, I ran up to the cross. “Oh God! Sarah!” I yelled through the avalanche of tears.

I hugged her body. I didn’t care about the cold touch. Or the dry blood. I hadn’t seen her in months. Or had the chance to touch the love of my life.

“I’m sorry, Sarah,” I said through the tears. “I’m sorry…”

Less than an hour later, daddy came with a few Stanwyck police officers. I stayed by Sarah for as long as I could. Until they took her away.

It turns out she’d been dead since November. Since I figured she’d told her parents about us. About how I was gonna come down and spend the weekend with them. Sure, we knew her parents were conservative. We knew what a small and tight-knit community Donalsonville was. But with us being young and naive… we really thought maybe we’d be that first step toward Dville’s progression.

But it wasn’t to be. I’d taken Sarah’s chastity as Ken had said. And he took it right back. The entire town had.

No one in town was left. Gone were the citizens. The people. Ma Donovan’s art. WDSV. Everything that belonged to Donalsonville. I don’t know what prompted the mysterious migration. Maybe Tommy had overheard me talking to my dad. Or maybe Ken had gotten paranoid over our conversation. All I know was that it wasn’t just Ken Brock who was the monster. This seemingly-friendly community was.

Rather than kill me, Donalsonville took their beliefs and square dances with them. And to this day, none of them have ever been found.

During the investigation, the police went to Sarah’s old house. The entire neighborhood now looked like one of those nuclear test sites minus the mannequins. Like an abandoned set for a 1950s sitcom.

Dad allowed me to go in after they’d inspected the place. I finally got the chance to explore Sarah’s room. It paralleled mine to a tee. Bright walls. Quirky decorations (mostly Golden Retriever-related). A ton of books… almost all of them horror.

I teared up in there. The finality of it all hit me hard. I realized Sarah and I would never get the chance to merge all our possessions together. We’d never get the chance to move into a house together. To decorate it together. To do anything together! Not anymore. Not when her family, her own community took her away from me.

In the house, the police found Sarah’s cell phone. Some of the last pictures on it showed Sarah and I. Back in our apartment. The photos showed all the fun memories we had. I wondered if her parents saw these photos or our texts. I could only imagine how disgusted Ken must’ve been. Not to mention the shame his ignorant mind must’ve felt.

Sadly, the investigation didn’t end with Sarah. A widespread search through Donalsonville unearthed more bodies. All of them with the same crucifixion wounds. All of them dressed in white dresses or suits. I suspected these victims had all gone “missing” like Sarah. Ann’s college-age brother probably amongst them.

There were bodies in basements and attics. The corpses preserved about as well as possible. And during the autopsies, it was discovered that all of them, including Sarah, had had their genitals mutilated. To the people of Donalsonville, they were fallen Angels that the community could baptize. Little sinners that could become little Angels forever.

I was allowed to keep Sarah’s cell phone. Some of her items as well. All her short stories and novels. I cherish them to this very day. I live in them. And late at night, when I can’t sleep, when everyone’s mind is at its most vulnerable, I think about the future we could’ve had together. The future we should’ve had together. And I cry. Sometimes, I cry myself to sleep. Sometimes I can’t sleep at all.

I’ve yet to go back to Donalsonville. I don’t want to. From what I understand, the buildings and houses are still there. And rather than being a site of horrific murders, Donalsonville is a now-iconic ghost town for all the thrill-seekers out there. The kind of place Sarah and I would’ve gone crazy to explore together back in college. God. I just hope no more “Angels” are found.