Our town is considered a gem in a region with not much else to recommend it. Built in the days when people still knew where things began and ended, it occupies a neat square. Beyond the eastern edge is an empty field. That is where, to honor our town’s hundredth anniversary, the council built The Town: a life-sized model of our town, exact down to the smallest detail.
The construction took all spring. All the materials were brought in from the outside. So were the workers. We saw their RVs and trailers parked behind the half-constructed town. We saw the smoke of their barbecues. The crew must have brought their food with them, because they came into town only once, to Mrs. Peralta’s store, to buy batteries. They did not speak or understand our language, and told us what they wanted by pointing. When we asked them questions they smiled and shook their heads.
House by house, The Town rose up. Along the eastern edge of our town is the chapel, the school, and the water tank. In a mirror image, on the western edge of The Town, they built The Chapel, The School, and The Water Tank. On the main street of our town is a hotel, a bakery, and Mrs. Peralta’s store. On the Main Street of The Town, they built The Hotel, The Bakery, and a replica of Mrs. Peralta’s store. When The Town was finished, the workers built a tall white picket fence around it, so it could be locked up. Then they got into their trailers and RVs and disappeared.
Few people lined up outside the fence on The Town’s opening day. Mostly we stayed home. We did not think much of the monument, and we were angry that the work had gone to foreigners. But on the second day, there was a long line outside the fence. Those who had gone on the first day had told their friends and family all about The Town, and now everyone wanted to see it. In our excitement, we trampled the lilies in front of Mrs. Peralta’s Store and tracked mud up the white steps of The Chapel. So great was the damage that on the third day, the council closed The Town for repairs.
When The Town was reopened days later, the council was sure there would be less interest. Instead, the crowd of the second day had told their friends and family, and so many of us lined up outside the gate that the council had to declare a regional holiday.
After this, The Town was closed once again for repairs. Again The Chapel’s steps were whitewashed, again Mrs. Peralta’s lilies were planted, this time by a local crew.
Now the council called a meeting. They were pleased, of course, that The Town was so popular. But this interest seemed disproportionate, perhaps even of concern.
Instead of reopening The Town, the council members went in one evening by themselves and locked the gate behind them. They walked The Streets and inspected The Houses, trying to determine why we loved it all so much. Just as they’d hoped, The Town was an exact replica of our town. The workers’ attention to detail was astonishing. The Library was exactly the right shade of green. The Chapel’s roof was tiled with the same curved red tiles as the chapel in our town. The wrought iron lampposts on Main Street were identical to those that lined the main street in our town. They even glowed the same pale yellow-white.
The council immediately saw the problem. The Town was charming. It was beautiful. And it was even more charming and beautiful than our town itself.
But how was this possible? the council members wondered. The Town was, after all, a mere replica. As a test, the council members stood in the middle of The Town, on Main Street, in front of Mrs. Peralta’s Store, with their backs to our town. The Town’s houses and shops, lit gently from within, were so lovely that the council members were moved to tears. And it was very easy to feel the old town—that is, the real town—ceasing to exist.
The council members walked out the gate and crossed the narrow strip of grass between the two towns. They stood in the same spot, in front of Mrs. Peralta’s store, the real one this time, and looked at our town.
Unanimously, the council members agreed: The Town was dangerous and must be locked up until further notice.
The next day at dawn, every single one of us had lined up outside the white picket fence, waiting to go into The Town. A policeman was sent to break the news to us: The Town would be closed indefinitely. He fastened a heavy padlock on the gate.
We complained and shouted. We threatened and cried. We had been dreaming all night of The Town. Of walking down its unruined lanes and peering into its clean windows. We had longed for daybreak, just to be able to see a quilt thrown over a rocking chair in the living room of the House that corresponded to our house in The Town, a candelabra shining on a table. The polished wood of its front room, gleaming between neat curtains.
Finally, a small group of us left the gate and returned with axes and saws. We cut a wide breach in the gate. We flowed gratefully in.
In The Town, the breeze blew in complex eddies. The lawns under the spreading boughs of cherry and willow trees were richly dappled with moving shadows. The grass smiled like an old friend who, though long abandoned, at the moment of our return opens their arms to embrace us, without a trace of bitterness.
Hardly an hour had passed before we began to plan amongst ourselves. We must move into The Town at once, we said. We could not bear the thought of sleeping one more night in our ugly beds.
Then someone spoke. We never found out who. This person pointed out the trampled lilies, the muddy steps. They said what we had all been fearing.
In response, a woman suggested a maintenance tax. We murmured with dislike. A man said we could take turns caring for The Town, ensuring it would stay in the beautiful condition that the foreign workers had left it. It might take painstaking work, but weren’t we willing?
“Even so,” said the first person.
At the bottom of our hearts, we knew they were right.
The way forward was now very clear. Anguished, we turned our backs on the dappled shadows and the smiling grass, and walked back through the gate. A group of volunteers, the strongest-willed among us, boarded up the breach in the fence.
The next morning, a spiral of barbed wire was affixed to the top of the picket fence, and two policemen were dispatched to patrol the perimeter. The council had passed an ordinance: Anyone who attempted to enter The Town would be shot on sight.
It was difficult to ignore The Town at first. Its warm lamps seemed to beckon to us from the other side of the picket-and-barbed-wire fence. Then, one summer night, a few teenagers tossed bricks through the leaded windows of The Library. This was denounced officially as vandalism, but the council did not investigate the case too thoroughly. Secretly, we were all relieved.
Then autumn came. The trees of The Town shed their leaves, which piled up and rotted, becoming a haven for raccoons and possums. In winter, snow covered The Town. It buckled the streets and ate the paint from the houses, leaving the sidings drab and scarred.
One night the following spring, someone decided to save on dumping fees and got rid of an old mattress by throwing it over the fence. The rest of us soon followed suit with our junk. Although the council claimed that patrols had been increased, the police never seemed to catch anyone. Standing in the beds of our trucks as we threw our garbage over, we could see enormous rats crawling under discarded sofas and into broken washing machines.
By the time summer arrived again, hardly any of us thought about The Town. It was just a place where we could get rid of things we no longer wanted. Nobody was tempted to go there anymore, not even the teenagers, because of the rats, and the police patrols were called off.
Our town is still considered a gem in a region without much else to recommend it. Travelers on their way through stop to eat lunch at Mrs. Peralta’s store and admire the red-roofed chapel and sage-green library. The guidebooks say our town has preserved an old-fashioned charm that so many other towns in our nation have lost.
But, inevitably, before they leave, the travelers notice the picket fence. It hardly stands out, blackened from years of rain and soot. But still they insist on going there and peering through the gaps. The overgrown lawns are mounded with trash, the handsome wooden porches collapsing from damp. The Chapel’s roof tiles are cracked and thick with sludge. They come back and ask—what is that place? And we, being upstanding folk with nothing to hide, tell them the story.
Lauren Schenkman’s journalism, fiction, and translations have been published by The New York Times Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Tin House, TED Ideas, Granta, The Hudson Review, Writer’s Digest, Electric Literature, decomp, the University of Melbourne Press, and The Kenyon Review, among other places.