The Place Where People Are Pillows
“Shit shit shit shit shit, slow down!”
I slammed on the brakes, in attempt to comply with the 25 MPH posted speed limit welcoming us to Pillows, Montana.
“There’s a fucking cop right there, dude,” Katy said.
“Dammit,” I said, putting both hands on the steering wheel and trying to look as put-together as I possibly could while rolling past the cop.
“Ya know, I bet the entire town budget comes from ticketing cars on the highway. 70 miles per hour to 25. Just like that. Fucking ridi—”
“Wow, that’s not a cop,” Katy said, scooting up to get a closer look in the rearview mirror.
“It’s like a dummy car. Or, I mean, there’s a dummy in driver’s seat,” she said.
I stopped in front of an old abandoned gas station.
We got out and walked the fifty feet back to the police car. It was a prop—an old-fashioned police car with rooftop lights and a stuffed policeman sitting in the front seat.
“It’s a good idea if you think about it,” I said. “How many people follow the speed limit because of this stupid thing?”
“It’s a creepy thing is what it is,” Katy said.
“Although,” I said, looking around. “What’s the point of a speed limit if no one lives in your town?”
Katy turned around, surveying the stretch of abandoned storefronts behind her. “I’d imagine getting rid of all the summer homes in Arch Falls was the final straw for a pitstop town like Pillows.”
“I’m just happy I didn’t get a ticket.”
As we walked back to the car, something caught my eye.
Something in the abandoned Frankie’s Diner two stores down.
It was the silhouette of a person standing behind the counter.
“Oh, never mind,” I said, pointing to the diner. “There’s someone in there.”
Katy matched my gaze.
I continued walking to the car, but Katy stood still.
“Katy, you coming?”
She didn’t move.
“Katy, you okay?”
“He’s not moving,” she said, pointing at the man inside Frankie’s Diner.
I watched the man for a moment, confirming Katy’s claim. The silhouette was completely motionless.
“Looks like the Pillows Chief of Police Pillow Pants has a brother,” I said.
“Pillow pants? What did you pull that out of your pillow ass?”
“Har har har,” I said nudging her arm. “So, are we gonna check it out or what?”
Katy looked between the diner and the car. “Do we have time before the funeral?”
I checked my watch. “We’ve got time.”
“Okay, sure,” Katy said, almost in a daze.
We crossed the street and walked past the abandoned bookstore and ice cream shop then stopped in front of Frankie’s. Sure enough, the man we saw standing behind the counter was a dummy, dressed in a dirty white apron and all.
Katy exhaled while maintaining a strong gaze inside Frankie’s. “God, I haven’t been through Pillows since the fire at Arch Falls. So, when I was like 14, I guess.”
“I’m sorry, babe.”
“We used to pass through Pillows on our way there. It’s only about a hundred miles that way,” she said, pointing north. “We used to refer to Pillows as the poor man’s Arch Falls.”
Arch Falls was a little mountain town Katy spent her summers at as a kid. About ten years ago, a forest fire ravaged through the park, wiping the town off the map. It’s a sensitive subject, and one I generally avoided. The fact that her grandma Lila had just passed away, a person Katy strongly associated with Arch Falls, didn’t make things any better.
She leaned into me and I put my arm around her. I could feel her trying to steady her breathing, a thing she did when she felt tears coming on. “And there’s even a little flower shop over there,” she said, pointing to a small green building on the other side of Frankie’s.
“If only this town wasn’t dead, I’d go in there and buy you a rose,” I said, cringing at my cheesiness.
She pulled away and looked at me with teary eyes. “That’s so sweet.”
“I’d buy you your own flower shop. Katy’s Daisies. Or Katy’s Roses, we’d call it,” I said.
She laughed. “How bout just Katy’s Flowers?”
A car rushed past us, screeching almost to a stop in response to the fake cop car.
“Pillow Pants strikes again,” Katy said.
The funeral was beautiful.
It was held in Grandma Lila’s hometown, Browning, a little town situated on a picturesque lake with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop.
Katy spoke at the graveside service, where she told stories of baking cookies, spending hours in the kitchen with Grandma Lila. How she allowed Katy to add whatever combination of food coloring she wanted—they always seemed to end up brown, she said to teary laughter.
She was sobbing in her mom’s arms while the Pastor gave his final remarks.
“We’ve lost her in this life, and Lila will be missed dearly. But, we know, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, that when we die, we go to a place—a place much better than this,” he said.
“You know what I used to tell my Sunday school class about what heaven’s like? I’d tell them to imagine they’re at their favorite place in the world—for some, it was Disneyland, or a treehouse maybe. For some, it was grandma’s house.” He gestured to Katy.
“For those of us saddened by the loss of our dear Grandma Lila, I invite you to do this simple exercise and know that she is truly in a better place. Amen," he finished.
Katy turned around and smiled at me.
After the funeral and graveside service, we went to dinner with Katy's family at a Mexican restaurant in town. The other family members were sad, sure, but Katy was awfully quiet. I didn’t realize how much Grandma Lila’s passing affected her until then.
We said our goodbyes and got in the car, destined for Great Falls where we had a La Quinta booked for the night.
Katy was silent for the first 30 minutes of the drive.
I asked her what was wrong, but she didn’t care to talk. Until we passed a road sign saying twenty miles until Pillows, that is.
“Only twenty miles until Captain Pillow Pants,” Katy said, surprising me with her suddenly upbeat demeanor.
“Um, it’s Chief of Police Pillow Pants if I remember my hilarious joke correctly,” I said.
She laughed. Hard. But it wasn’t normal laughter. It was just a little bit forced.
“You know,” she said, grabbing my hand. “This might be a weird request, but can we try going to Arch Falls?”
“Well, the place burned down, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, but we might be able to drive around. We could explore the ruins?” she said.
“I don’t know that that’d be good for you,” I said. “I mean, right now, with Grandma Lila dying and everything. Why don’t we rain check?”
“No, you’re right. It’s just that when Pastor Leopold was talking about finding your happy place and imagining heaven, I kept thinking about Arch Falls. I’d like to think that that’s where Grandma Lila is right now.”
I knew it was a bad idea, but part of me was curious to see what a burnt mountain town would look like, so I agreed.
We drove through Pillows again—past Pillow Pants—and took the highway north toward Arch Hills.
We didn’t make it far.
About 15 miles in, the road was blocked off with concrete barriers and a large construction sign.
ACCESS TO ARCH FALLS TOWNSITE IS CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE
“It really is gone, huh?” Katy said, her eyes fixed on the sign.
“I’m sorry, babe.”
She was doing the steady breathing thing again, holding back tears. “It’s okay.”
“Yeah, let’s go.”
I turned the car around, following the highway back to Pillows.
She was quiet most of the drive back.
“You know, Grandma’s happy place would’ve been Arch Falls, hands down,” she said.
“And you too?”
“For sure. It really was a slice of heaven,” Katy said.
We passed the sign welcoming us to Pillows.
Katy clutched her door with one hand, her stomach with the other.
“I don’t feel so good,” she said.
“Uh, alright, we’ll pull over here,” I said, stopping the car in front of the flower shop Katy pointed out earlier that day.
She stepped out of the car and ran down the alley between the flower shop and Frankie’s diner.
“You okay?” I yelled as she disappeared.
The Mexican food didn’t sit well with her, I figured.
As I surveyed the nighttime scene of Pillow’s abandoned Main Street, something else caught my eye. A decorative pink storefront on the other side of the street appeared to have a dummy in its window, similar to the fake cop and the fake waitress at Frankie’s. It had a blank white face and was wearing an apron and a baker’s hat.
I didn’t fully appreciate how twisted Pillows was until that moment. Probably because it was night.
But seriously, who the hell was staging all these dummies in town?
A car sped past in a blur, its driver either ignoring or not seeing the 25 MPH sign on the edge of Main Street.
“Jesus,” I muttered, watching its taillights fade down the highway.
The town returned to silence and I went to find Katy, following her down the narrow alley.
“Katy? You back here?”
“Katy? Everything okay?”
The backside of Main Street was covered in cracked asphalt and overgrown weeds. It was littered with trash and broken glass. And no Katy.
My heart started racing.
She had been acting weird since the funeral. Was she running away? Why would she run away in an abandoned ghost town?
As I circled back around the block of Main Street buildings, I saw her, standing in front of that pink building on the other side of the street, staring at the dummy inside the window.
“Katy!” I yelled, crossing the street after her.
“Thank god!” she said back, extending her arms for a hug.
“What the hell—god, I’m shaking. You really had me freaked—”
“I found her,” she said, turning back to the dummy in the window.
My smile faded.
“Found who, Katy?”
“Grandma Lila,” she said, smiling. “That’s her.”
I looked between her and the dummy.
“Think about it. Think about what Pastor Leopold said. Heaven is your happy place, right? Well, where would Grandma Lila’s happy place be?”
“Uh, Arch Falls?”
“Right! But since it’s burned down, she can’t be there. So, where does she go? The poor man’s Arch Falls. She comes here to Pillows.”
I put my arm around her. “I’m so sorry about your grandma, Katy. I really am. I know this is all really hard for you, but we should hit the road so we can get some good sleep before our flight tomorrow.”
She pulled away and looked at me, still smiling. “I don’t want to go home. I want to stay here with Grandma Lila.”
“Katy, what’s going on? You’re freaking me out,” I said, slowly backing away. I looked at the unmoving dummy in the window, then turned to find the dummy behind the counter in Frankie’s across the street.
“Hey,” Katy said.
I looked at her, gulping hard.
She pointed up.
My eyes slowly scaled the pink building to the signage on top.
My heart was pounding.
“Come on, babe, it’s just a coincidence. Think about it. It doesn’t make sense that your grandma dies and then becomes a stuffed dummy, right? It’s just a—” I had backed myself all the way to the other side of the street, next to my car.
Katy remained in front of Lila’s Bakery, still looking at me, smiling. “It’s not a coincidence,” she said. “It’s her.
I unlocked the car.
“I don’t want to leave you here, but you’re really freaking me out,” I said. “Look, let’s go find service and you can call your mom or something. Talk this through a bit.”
A car’s headlights appeared in the distance. Another speeding car about to come face to face with Main Street’s 25 MPH speed limit.
“If Pillows is Grandma Lila’s happy place, then it’s mine too,” she said.
“I fully support that, Katy, but let’s go to the hotel tonight, get some sleep,” I said.
Katy held her hand to her face, crying.
The car passed and Katy ran across the street to me.
“Thank God,” I said.
She jumped into my arms.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Maybe.”
Another car appeared in the distance.
“Let me walk you around,” I said, gripping her arm.
She wouldn’t budge.
She stared at the approaching headlights, in a daze. “Lila’s Bakery,” she whispered. “She finally got her bakery.”
She stepped closer to the road.
“I’ll be there soon, grandma,” she whispered.
“Katy, why are you acting like this? Stop it. Get in the damn car,” I said, attempting to pick her up.
She elbowed me hard in the face and kneed me in the gut at the same time, forcing me to drop her.
“I’m at my happy place—don’t take this away from—”
She leaped backward into the street just as the car was passing through at 70 MPH.
She smashed into the front of the car with a wet thud. The car swerved back and forth until coming to a stop about a hundred feet down the road.
The driver, a woman in her early 30s, got out of the car and immediately threw up on the pavement. “My god—oh my god—” she screamed.
My heartbeat was pounding in my ears. The world was spinning around me.
Katy’s mangled body was sprawled on the pavement another thirty feet away from the car, her black dress torn in a thousand pieces.
Another car came a couple minutes later and drove ahead to find cell service.
An ambulance came a while after that.
Katy was pronounced dead at the scene.
A month later, I was driving the same route from Great Falls to Browning, this time for Katy’s funeral.
I rolled past Chief of Police Pillow Pants and slowed as I approached the stretch of Main Street buildings. A pit grew in my stomach.
I got out of the car and looked around.
This is where it happened.
Frankie’s Diner still had its dummy waiter standing behind the counter. Lila’s Bakery still had its dummy, standing in the window, eager to greet customers.
I noticed that the coffee shop had a few dummies staged inside—a couple at a table wearing college hoodies, two baristas behind the counter.
The bookstore had a dummy staged on the ladder, searching for a book amongst the empty, rotting bookshelves.
A breeze blew by.
Two little kid dummies sitting outside the ice cream shop. One of them wore Power Rangers light up shoes.
My breathing grew shallow.
Pillows wasn’t abandoned after all. Not by a long shot.
A family of four stuffed dummies on bikes were positioned on the sidewalk just ahead.
A dummy dressed as a crossing guard stood at the street corner with an orange flag in its hand.
When I turned around to go to my car, I noticed something else.
The green building next to Frankie’s had a dummy inside its window too.
I took a step closer.
This one was wearing a tattered black dress.
I broke out in a sweat.
Then I read the sign above its door.