We descended the valley along a slender, switch-back path like dusty pilgrims chasing the brutal sun. The trash piles grew shorter as the grade declined, giving way to a dwarf forest of rust-brown chaparral, sagebrush, and cholla. The succulents had reclaimed any border that may have existed to mark the edge of Paradise Hills. The sharp, stubby desert plants grew between the houses and through the cracks in the sidewalks and crumbled streets, bursting through caved-in porches and the rusted-out windows of forgotten cars.
And everywhere was that strange, gray grass. It was on the hillsides, beneath our feet. On the streets and in the yards. It was as if the entire valley had been coated in a ubiquitous dust, only, when you looked closer, the dust was actually hundreds or thousands of small, interconnected islands of gray grass.
Something about it looked wrong. It was the growth pattern, I realized. I squinted and knelt to get a closer look at the patch beneath my feet. I didn’t touch it. The blades looked extremely sharp, and their movement was weird, almost hypnotic. I didn’t think they were moving in the same direction as the wind. I raised my finger and traced the vein of grass connecting my patch to the next one further down the valley. Every patch touched at least one other. None of it was totally disconnected, a gargantuan network, or maybe web was a better word.
And the strangest part: all of it was pristine and completely undisturbed. I didn’t see a single footprint, human or animal.
Maybe there was water out here, deep underground, or somewhere else, well-hidden from prying eyes. But if there was water, why had everyone left?
Where the bugs? The mosquitos? The flies? Where was anything? There was no movement but that ocean of grass stirring in the breeze, no sound but my friends posturing to take pictures on their phones.
An oasis wasn’t supposed to be silent.
In my training as an environmental scientist, back when my head was still full of John Muir quotes and dreams of changing the world, my first field of study (and the one I intended to eventually build a career on) was the distribution of water in desert ecosystems. The general rule is that where there is water there is life. No shit, right? Another no shit fact is that life is never a monopoly, even in the harshest conditions. There is always a plethora of species all contributing somehow to the great cycle of competition, symbiosis, and parasitism.
If there was grass in the ruins of Paradise Hills, there should also have been something to eat the grass. If there was something to eat the grass, there should also have been something that could eat that organism; a larger animal, or something small enough to feed on its blood. The limiting factor would obviously be the trash, and the tons of contamination leached into the ground when this place was turned into a dump. But it couldn’t be that limiting, if the grass grew so abundantly.
So, where were the other animals?
It had been a long time since I’d cracked open the works of the great environmentalists that I’d considered so formative in my youth, those of Mr. Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and Dr. Seuss. I hadn’t even taken down the box of my old books from the rafters of my parents’ house to look at them in years. The truth is, I can’t remember the last thing I read that wasn’t a real estate listing.
The timeline of how I went from starry-eyed kid with dreams bigger than his head to jaded ex-house slinger with no prospects other than saving up enough money to get the hell out of the country still seems surreal to me. I couldn’t find work after getting my Master’s, and no work meant no PhD. No PhD meant no saving the world. Then my friend offered me a position at his real estate firm, and the false siren of making millions selling houses to rich assholes on the California Coast supplanted my ideals.
Well, maybe supplanted isn’t totally accurate. Just put them on indefinite hold. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t lie awake for hours some nights reading articles on the Link about pollution vortexes or changing weather patterns, then looking at pictures of baby birds to calm myself down so I could sleep.
But years of education and field training don’t vanish overnight. My eyes could still detect that invisible layer of the world working beneath the the world, what I called my superpower of being able to see the ecology of a place in real-time.
Had that strange old man lied to us? It didn’t look like other people had hiked here recently. There were no signs of life at all other than the grass. No droppings. No bugs. No birds circling in the sky. The grass had totally conquered the ruins of Paradise Hills.
Was it dangerous? What if that grass hadn’t just taken over? What if it was poisonous? Or carnivorous?
I suddenly wondered if we’d made a mistake coming here, and if we shouldn’t all immediately turn around and head back to the van.
Jester cleared his throat, pulling me out of my analysis. “You all right there, square?”
“Right as an angle,” I said. I stood up and stretched. “I was wondering about this grass. There’s something off about it.”
“What? Dude, it’s just grass.”
“Good observation. But I don’t see any other signs of life. Do you?” I said.
“Are you high?” Jester said.
“Can we not stop every five seconds?” Shaela muttered.
“I haven’t heard you complain about the bugs yet, so maybe there’s something to it,” Cath told her. “Anyway, can we get going, Mel? I want to look around.”
We stopped at the houses marking the outer edge of the ruins. There was nothing special about them beyond advanced dilapidation. They were the same, nondescript twentieth century suburban boxes of stucco and steel roofing that could have been found on any Main Street, USA in the last century.
The rot was severe, but it wasn’t so far along you couldn’t see that someone had lived here once. The windows were broken, the wood collapsing, the paint stripped by the harsh thinner of time, but there was still furniture inside, and a few personal belongings; the Platonic form of home still remained, however corrupted. Was this what it meant to be haunted? For the idea of what once was to be forever imposed over the much crueler image painted by reality, but never strong enough to fully replace it?
“So cool,” Shaela said, snapping a picture.
And Cath, “Don’t get too close, Shae.”
Shaela was already standing on her tippy-toes to peek through the living room window. “It’s mostly slag. The couches are disgusting. But I see some books. That might be a cool picture.”
“You’re not going in there,” Cath said.
“No, it’s a great idea. We’ll wait right here. Smoke a cigarette in there while you’re at it,” Jester said.
Cath smacked him.
Shaela ascended the porch, dodging a few bristly shrubs that had grown through the broken stairs. She tried the front door. It was unlocked.
“Shae…” I started.
My sister raised her voice over mine. “Seriously, do not open that door.”
Shaela rolled her eyes. “God, you guys are such squares when you hang out together. It’s fine.”
To prove her point, she opened the door and stepped one foot across the threshold.
Shaela shrugged and disappeared into the abandoned house. She called out to us sarcastically a few seconds later, “Oh no! Help! There’s a monster!”
Jester chuckled. “I guess she found a mirror.”
“No, but seriously, this is awesome. You guys have to come see this,” Shaela said.
Cath, Jester, and I reluctantly followed her in.
The living room was cool and dark, smelled of ancient dirt and forgotten time. It was about as wrecked as I’d expected from seeing the outside. The few remaining pieces of furniture barely held themselves together, beds and dressers and a round kitchen table, all covered in thick layers of desert dust blown in through shattered windows and holes in the roof or walls. The books Shaela had mentioned weren’t in the places books should be. They were scattered on the floors where the shelves had fallen along with the shards of dishes, broken picture frames whose portraits had disintegrated, and the unrecognizable detritus of other household items less sturdily composed.
That off feeling settled in my gut to see that the grass was growing inside the house. Inside, where there wasn’t regular exposure to sunlight. Where there had been so little rain that the pages of the ruined books littering the floor were still legible. It grew from the dust and the rotten piles of old bedsheets and upturned carpet, indiscriminate, the slow devourer of everything in its path. Inevitability manifested into slender, bladed form.
I’d read about rampant wild grasses, both natural and manmade, even some that were carnivorous or that could thrive in brutal climates or those that were heavily toxified, but I’d never heard of one that was all of those things and could grow with so little root depth. The only explanation I could think of was that it had been engineered.
Had someone purposefully seeded this grass here? If so, why?
I kicked a small patch on the floorboard nearest me to see if it would come out. It didn’t. The grass took a unanimous little curl away from my boot, like the entire patch was swaying to escape a second impact. Wait. No. It hadn’t moved at all. Was it my imagination? No. It had moved subtly, then fallen still again. The movement was tiny, minute. But I didn’t think I was hallucinating. The scuff hadn’t damaged the grass at all. The roots penetrated deep into the floorboards and between them, in places eating completely through the materials where they’d taken hold.
“Is anybody else getting freaked out by this?” I said.
“The only thing freaking me out is your weird fixation on it. It’s just grass,” Shaela said from the bathroom, without removing her eyes from her camera. “Cath, you have to see this. They have a real bathtub.”
“Porcelain or plastic?” Cath said, looking up from the dusty baseboards she was photographing.
“Idiots,” Cath said. She went to look.
“I’m not weirdly fixated,” I said, but nobody seemed to hear except Jester.
He raised an eyebrow at me. “I’m going to step outside for a cigarette.”
“Thought you quit,” I said and instantly regretted it. There was nothing that irritated Jester faster than when I hassled him about smoking.
He blew a raspberry at me. “Man, sometimes I think you want to provoke me into getting pissed at you so you have an excuse to put me in a headlock.”
I put on my best poker face. “I wouldn’t do that. Come on. Besides, it was a rear naked choke. And that only happened, like… once.”
“Dude, you’re unstoppable when you finally gain a little bit of inertia and start doing shit. That’s why we call you the Square Bear. You’re hard to move on the one hand, but…”
“I get it,” I said.
“Anyway, it makes me happy you don’t drink that often.”
Square Bear. Talk about nicknames that had long out-stuck their welcome. I hated being called a square as much as Cath did. It’s what we used to call our parents. Besides, it wasn’t even true. I knew how to have a good time. I just wasn’t a dumbass about it like Jester, who had a bad habit of breaking windows and blowing up abandoned cars; or a crying, dish-throwing mess, like Shaela was when she got drunk. Can’t remember how many nights Cath and I both spent being their parents. At least Cath’s nicknames were cute: Caffy Taffee, Cath-a-frass, Cathlynne Stark.
Jester tittered, motioning toward the bathroom. “Anyway, I’m gonna go call Budd and tell him to bring us some water. Those two look like they’re ready to burn this place down with all their fire selfies.”
I stifled a laugh. Jester went outside. Cath and Shaela continued snapping pictures of the bathroom from every possible angle, oblivious of everything but what was in their viewfinders.
I went outside to find Jester hadn’t lit a cigarette, after all. “No smokes?” I said.
Jester shrugged. “Left ‘em in the car.”
“You need to bum another smoke?” Shaela said, exiting the abandoned house with Cath in tow.
“Not yet,” Jester said.
Cath walked up to me and clapped. “Sup, little bro?”
“Let’s do another one,” I said, motioning to the other houses. “What do you think? Or did you take enough pictures to satisfy the destroyed furniture and depressing interiors category of your Link album for today?”
“I took some good ones, but, I mean, yeah. I’d love to poke around in some of those, over there,” Cath said.
We spent another twenty minutes exploring the other houses on the outskirts. After the fourth or fifth one, the thrill of breaking and entering into homes where no one had lived for over twenty years dwindled, and we found ourselves back on that same, trash-strewn street, a block or so down from where we’d descended the valley wall, at three-way intersection with a bigger road heading straight toward the city center.
“Maybe let’s go a little further into town?” I said.
Shaela’s face sank in disappointment. “I mean, is this all there is? I don’t know. It’s cool, and all, but I just thought there would be more…”
“What? What are you looking for? Dead people? They’re right over there,” I said, pointing absent-mindedly up the new street.
Shaela didn’t answer, only stared at where I was pointing. Cath’s mouth twisted. Jester coughed.
I followed their gazes to where I was pointing, a big, two-story home in the middle of the street, and I instantly saw why their demeanors had changed. A cold sludge entered my blood. The hairs on the back of my neck stood. Slowly, I lowered my finger.
The windows of the house were all boarded, even on the second floor. The glass was shattered and huge pieces of plywood had been nailed in their place from the inside. The lower walls were scorched and blistered from the heat of a fire that had long since gone out. The chipped, blue paint of the second story bore thick, dark streaks from the kisses of smoke.
My feet moved down the grass-covered street as if compelled by some other force. I took one step toward the big house, then two. Before I could take a third, Cath grabbed my shoulder. I looked at her, and we both nodded.
We approached the house as a group, with Cath and me in front, none of us saying a word. As we got closer, the details of the fire told an ominous story. The house itself didn’t appear to have caught on fire at all, only the grass.
That strange grass had been burned back from the house in a huge ring, roughly a dozen feet on all sides. Someone had doused the grass with some kind of accelerant – good old gasoline, maybe; though I wondered where they would’ve gotten so much of the stuff and how they could’ve afforded it, as even in the cities petrol-based products were prohibitively expensive – then struck a match to it and let the fire rage. The arsonist must’ve known what they were doing, too, because none of the other houses on the street bore any sign of damage not caused by time.
We stopped at the foot of the front porch. There was a message scrawled in black spray paint on the board that had, at one point, been blocking the door. The board was broken and hanging by a single nail.
The message read:
GO HOME. DO NOT EXPLORE. LEAVE NOW OR DIE.
Shaela silently raised her camera and started snapping.
Cath shot me a nervous look. “I don’t know about this, bro. What do you think?”
“Doesn’t look like their fortifications really worked,” I said. “Whoever they were trying to keep out seems to have gotten in.”
“Who, or what,” Jester said, from where he’d hung back a few houses up the road.
“I think it was just banditos. And, look. They’re long gone,” I said, then added in my best John Wayne voice, “Un-less you think this here is an am-bush.”
Cath folded her arms. “Actually, I’m with Jester on this one. I don’t think we should take this lightly. It looks like there was a real struggle here. And it didn’t end well for whoever was inside.”
“Jeez. I can’t believe you people. And you call me a square? For all we know this could’ve been five years ago. I thought we were on an adventure. C’mon. Don’t you think Sheriff Budd would’ve warned us if something bad happened recently?”
I only half-believed it, though. I didn’t think the signs of this struggle were from five years ago. I didn’t even think they were from five weeks ago. But the desert preserves things better than we can possibly imagine, and without rain or much wind at all, who knew? Maybe we were looking at some grim tableaux of the distant past.
Shaela took a step up the porch, testing the rotten stairs. Enough of the planks were stable for her to ascend and crouch under the door to get a more dramatic angle for her pictures. “Everyone is going to love this shot,” she said, more to herself than any of us.
Cath ignored her. “Your call, Melvin. I just don’t want to be cleaning up anyone’s blood while I’m on my vacation. Especially not yours.”
“That’s harsh,” I said. “Stop being babies, you guys. There’s no one here.”
I stepped next to Shaela and kicked open the door.
“Hey, fucking asshole! You just ruined my picture!” Shaela said.
I brushed past her into the house. “So? Call Budd.”
A wall of stench hit me as soon as I stepped inside. Behind me, shaela made a fake puke noise and backed away from the door. What the hell was that? I hid my nose inside my t-shirt, but the sour stink got stronger with every breath I drew. It took me a moment to place it. It was the done animal-smell of rats dying in the walls before their rat-friends ate them, of coyote kills baking on the side of the highway in the summer sun.
Death. There was no other smell quite as vile or overpowering.
I stopped and wondered if I should trudge on. Did I really want to see a dead body? And how old could the corpse really be if it still smelled so bad?
The interior of the house was dark, and big. The only light was the shards of afternoon sun that fell through the cracks in the window boards. The former inhabitants had placed somewhere between the upper middle and true upper class; there was carpet on the stairs, three fireplaces, jacuzzi bathtubs, and a vast, opulent kitchen. The decay wasn’t as advanced as the other houses we’d explored, but most of the upkeep appeared to have been done by squatters, and there were battle fortifications in the halls. Someone had made shoddy barricades out of piles of furniture to form choke points at different places throughout the house. The only path of retreat led directly up the stairs to the second floor.
I decided that’s where the smell was coming from, and had a brief battle with myself about whether or not it was worth the risk. Farting around on the first floor of a ruined house was one thing, but upper floors of abandoned buildings are far more dangerous, often prone to collapse. I figured that whoever had tried to seal themselves in here had done so long after the house was initially abandoned, and if they could walk upstairs, I probably could, too.
I was testing the stairs with my boot when Cath and the others caught up to me. She had her shirt pulled up around the lower half of her face, and her eyes told me she wasn’t phased by the smell. Shaela’s, though, were red and bulging above the edge of her sun shawl, which she was holding up with one hand, her other busy taking pictures. Jester had his favorite red bandana tied over his nose like a bank robber.
“You think there’s a dead guy up there?” Jester said.
Cath nodded. “Oh yeah. That’s a dead guy, all right.”
And Shaela, “Better be worth it. This place smells worse than Jester after two hours in the camper van.”
“I thought you were going to say it smells worse than your vagina,” Jester said.
Shaela turned the camera on him and hit record. “Don’t kid yourself, sweetheart. Your vagina is the one that needs a bleach bath.”
“I’ll go first,” I said, and resumed my ascent.
It didn’t take long to find the body. I saw it as soon as I reached the landing of the second floor. The crumpled little shape was lying on the floor of the master bedroom. The door was open. There was a rotten mattress in there, too, and a sea of scattered pages torn out of old magazines. The window was boarded up, like all the others, but there was enough light for me to pick out the important details. There was a shotgun and a few boxes of shells stacked under the windowsill, along with a few empty gas canisters.
“Is that the dead guy?” Jester said.
“Mmm-hmm.” The stink was so bad upstairs that I didn’t want to say much.
The dim light didn’t allow me to see the details until I was much closer than I wanted to be, and when I realized what it was I was looking at, I cringed.
Not a dead guy – a dead woman. Her face was gone. It had been totally eaten off. I didn’t see any teeth marks. The wound looked to have been caused by some caustic substance, but it had done its job so well there was nothing but a deep hole left where her eyes, nose, and mouth had been, not even a skull. It was all just gone.
The face-hole was her only visible injury. The front of her plain cotton shirt and pants bore streaks of dried bodily fluid, as did the floor around her head and neck, but there wasn’t any damage to her clothes. She wore the same basic gear we all had: loose, light pants, a breathable shirt, dirty hiking boots, a belt full of essentials like a flask, a knife, matches, flint, steel, a compass, a package of water purification tablets, and so on.
Her clothes looked damp, which was weird.
No, not damp. Oily. Like she hadn’t rinsed the soap off of them after washing.
From the dry, sunken texture of her skin, she looked to be completely mummified. Her hair was short and grey. I guessed her age at the time of her death to have been about sixty.
Another thing I couldn’t figure out, aside from the cause of her wound and the oily sheen on her clothes, was the smell. She hadn’t rotted. So why did the entire house reek like a dead animal? If it wasn’t the dead woman that smelled, was it something else? Something we weren’t seeing?
Cath, Shaela, and Jester joined me, forming a small half-moon line around the woman’s corpse. I couldn’t tear my eyes away, even when Jester said with a tremble in his voice and an underdose of false bravado, “Shae, I’ll take that cigarette now.”
Shaela fumbled in her bag and pulled one out. Jester took it, pulled his bandana down, gagged, and stuck the stogie between his lips.
No. No fire. That smell. Not death. Something flammable. The gas canisters. The sheen on her clothes. Not gas at all.
Jester dug around in his pocket for a lighter. He found one and lifted it to his face. I snatched the cigarette from his lips before he could light it.
“What the hell, man?”
“Wait,” I said. “You smell that? That isn’t the body. It’s biofuel. The same that the van runs on. Her clothes are soaked with it. Some of the floor, too. Look. See that stain? The dark ring around her body?”
I pointed, and my friends looked.
“You light a flame in here, and this place will go up like kindling. You understand? She doused herself with it before she died.”
“Why would she do that?” Shaela said.
“Desperation,” Cath offered. “Maybe she was trying to burn this place down, and didn’t get the chance to finish the job.”
Jester’s voice was quiet. “She tried to kill herself. But something got to her before she could.”
“Who would do this to another human being..?” Shaela said. I was pretty sure she was talking about pouring corrosive acid onto someone’s face.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Jester said. “I don’t think it was another person.”
Cath’s voice dropped to barely a whisper. “What are you talking about, Chester?”
Jester shrugged. “I can’t be the only one who’s thinking it.”
I wanted to tell him to shut up, but couldn’t. My mind raced in a hundred different directions. I had to focus, prioritize the important information. The ecologist in me couldn’t shake the idea that the grass had something to do with it.
The ring of fire outside. Why was it there? Maybe the dead woman had burned the grass away from the house and locked herself inside. There was no grass growing inside the house, like there had been in the others. Or, was the grass outside already burned when she got here?
The second explanation better preserved the evidence in front of me. But it raised more questions than it answered. This woman had arrived long after the grass had overrun Paradise Hills. Yet the interior of the house we were in bore no damage from having burned. There was only that huge, black ring surrounding the house outside, a permanent dead zone where the grass could not grow.
Biofuel. The biofuel was the missing link. The grass didn’t like the biofuel, was poisoned by it, maybe. But why did that matter? And how was it related to this woman’s death?
It seemed more likely that the dead woman had found the house in an already fortified state, and that the barricades had been made by someone else who was long gone by the time she arrived. She used this house to hide in, from someone, or as Jester put it, something. But it didn’t work. With no other way out, she’d drenched herself and most of the floor around her in biofuel, choosing to self-immolate, rather than–
Than what? What on Earth could be so horrible that burning yourself alive was the better option? What could she possibly have seen here to make her believe something so absolutely, incomprehensibly insane?
My stomach turned. We were in way over our heads, and I didn’t want to stick around to learn more about what it was we’d gotten into. I needed to get the hell out of there, to head straight back to the van, gun it for the highway, and not stop until I was back safely in my own bed, hours away from this utter evil, yes, that’s exactly what it was, what other word do you use to describe finding an old woman trapped in an abandoned house with a giant hole in her face, who had tried dousing herself in bio fuel so she could burn herself alive? This wasn’t evil, this was worse, and although I didn’t know how, or what, or why, I did know that if we didn’t leave as soon as possible, we were going to–
“Hey. Mel. Did you hear what I said?”
Jester was speaking to me. I shook my head, trying to lose the vertigo buckling my legs. “I think she left a note,” he said, then knelt down and poked the dead woman’s pocket. There was a piece of paper sticking out. He looked at me for approval.
“Hold on. It might be contaminated,” Cath said. “I have gloves in the van.”
Jester ignored her. He took the note out and read aloud:
“Whoever you are,
“2 late for me, but not 4 you. Forgot lighter. Screwd. Learn from my mistake: carry Fire + Bio Gas, ALWAYS!!! Fire kills them, Gas = STAY gone. 10x peacekeeper unit in strg. grg. at 4th & Pine. 3 blocks N. Couldn’t get there in time.
“God forgive me if you exist. PW: ania.”
Cath’s voice was a frail ghost. “What is going on here…?”
“I can tell you,” I said. “We’re going to go downstairs right now, head back the way we came, we’re not going to stop to take even one more goddamned picture, and we’re getting in the van and leaving.”
“Shouldn’t we, I don’t know. Bury her?” Shaela said.
“Why don’t we burn her?” Jester said. It took me a second to realize he wasn’t kidding. “Shit. Don’t look at me like that. It’s what she wanted.”
Cath folded her arms over her chest. “I would normally be against abandoning human remains in the middle of nowhere like this, but Mel’s right. We’re camping somewhere else tonight. If we really want to, we can come back and poke around early tomorrow morning. We can call the authorities once we’re on the road.”
Shaela nodded. “It just seems so wrong to leave her.”
I was already halfway to the stairs. “We’ll have all the time in the world to speculate about what we should’ve done on the drive home. C’mon. Let’s go.”
Downstairs, the front door slammed.