There used to be a town out here, before it was swallowed up by the trash. At least, that’s what the old man told us when we turned off the highway. Heard the locals out this way were off. But that guy’s head looked like an actual, bald nutsack. One silver tooth. Hanging by the side of the road with no shirt on, but boy did he have suspenders. You know what, though? I can’t really blame him. If I lived out here in the asscrack of nowhere, I’d probably be all about that long underwear and suspenders life, too.
“Paradise Hills. Is this it?” Cath said, craning her neck out the window to read the tattered, faded billboard floating over the edge of the dump.
I pulled to a stop under the sign. The words Welcome to Paradise Hills were printed in huge letters turned yellow by time, over images of redwood trees and perfect, sunsetty hills, newly-built dream condos, a golf course with a duck pond (quack quack), and a young professional couple drinking wine on their balcony overlooking the sea.
Nevermind that the sea was hours away, and redwoods don’t grow in the fucking desert. But, lying is ninety percent of selling real estate. It’s the main reason I quit my job. I wasn’t that great of a liar. Just ask my ex-girlfriend.
This was it, all right. The perfect desert suburb that never was. The last undiscovered photographer’s wet dream in these declining United States. But there’s something beautiful about decay, isn’t there? Or maybe Cath was right, and we really were just a bunch of morbid weirdos.
There was too much dust on the windshield for me to read the billboard’s fine print clearly, so I stuck my head out the window and gagged. The air was so thick with the taste of rot you could almost chew it.
“Yup. Main street is a mile that way.” I pointed in the direction indicated by the sign. “Squad. We made it.”
“Woo! We made it!” my big sister said in her Dumb American Girl voice.
I echoed her, “Woo woo!”
In the back seat, Jester yawned and rattled Shaela awake. “Smells like ass, man. Can you roll your window up?”
“I thought you were an ass-man,” Shaela said.
Jester sighed. “No wonder you wanted to come here. This place is awful.”
Shaela checked her nails. “Go fuck yourself, Chester.”
I rolled my window up and killed the engine. The camper van coughed and sputtered like a thirsting vagrant. “So, what you guys wanna do? Walk around? Take some pictures?”
“Exercise? In this heat? Hell no. Can you just leave me the keys?” Jester said.
“Come on, grandpa. Stretch your legs. Walking’s good for you. That In-N-Out burger ain’t gonna work itself off. Besides, I don’t want to leave the AC running. It’s bad for the car,” I said.
“It’s a van, not a car, Mel.”
“Seriously. If you stay here, you’re gonna roast alive.”
“Who cares? Let him,” Shaela said.
Cath reached back and put a hand on her best friend’s knee. “Shae. Stop.”
Jester washed his face through his hands. “Jesus Christ. You’re right. You’re right. I’m being a Daryl Downer. Besides, my stomach starts to revolt if I sit for too long.”
I got out of the camper van and stretched. It was eighty degrees. Thin streaks of sweat were already creeping through my shirt where it stuck to my ribs.
Paradise Hills. What a name for a city buried in trash, huh? Or was I just being an edgelord and forcing some false poetic justice where there were only mountains of rusted auto parts and the ancient corpses of Capri Suns?
Of course this place died. There was no water. Trying to bring water out here is probably what killed it. Too expensive to redistribute the already limited water supply in this state – heads would’ve rolled. Not to mention the fact that there was a long period in our state’s history where there wasn’t enough water for all the people. Seventy million is a big number, bigger than the population of most European countries.
The Big Dry fucked up a lot of people everywhere. But, I think history will remember that it fucked us Californians up the worst. Maybe we deserved it. Why were there so many of us living in inland LA? The coast is the only part of SoCal that ever should’ve been considered habitable. Or how about the San Francisco Bay Area, where they had to dam Hetch Hetchy, destroying arguably one of the most beautiful High Sierra valleys that ever existed, one that could easily rival Yosemite, just so people in the city could see something when they turned on the tap? That was in 1923. For a while there, it got so bad that we Californians had to buy our water from up north, then from out east, then Canada, until no one wanted to sell it anymore. Water drying up and leaving dead towns was a worldwide phenomenon.
There are a lot of dead towns in California. My high school English teacher, Mr. Wolfe, would whoop my ass with sarcasm for using the phrase a lot. But it’s hard to think of a better quantifier. Whether by poor design or poor fortune, our once-Golden State is littered with the tombstones of what it used to be: overcrowded, overbuilt, and over-green.
This place sure wasn’t green, though. Paradise Hills was as brown and arid as they come.
To set the scene a bit, the highway we had pulled off was more like a two-lane backroad cutting between mountains and desert that used to be fertile farmland. The ground was mostly parched earth riddled with shitty bracken and a few epic granite boulders. That landscape was what we’d been looking at for most of the drive up from the coast. The coast is where most people live these days; there are still a few holdouts who live in the interior, mountain people and lake people and river people, but they’re hard to find, and their towns are small and have little to offer, more like villages than what I imagine people used to describe as “small towns” back when times were easier.
The spot where we parked in front of the big sign was a parking lot, of sorts. You could tell other cars had been there. The flat, grassy clearing was surrounded by mountains of trash higher than I was tall, completely blocking the view of what lay beyond the little path snaking away between the junked cars.
The grass was long and grey. It was flattened where people had parked their cars or walked, wild where they hadn’t. The tips of the grass were sharp and made me glad I was wearing high-top boots and my most faithful pair of old, raw denim jeans. It bit and snapped at my legs as I took a few steps toward one trash heap, then another, trying to discern the weird old artifacts buried without a prayer in this vast sepulcher of the past: toys, game consoles, TVs, plastic, so much goddamned plastic, everything plastic, hell even some of the clothes, no wonder our parents’ generation raped this planet into submission, plastic this and plastic that, none of it destructible, all of it toxic, what the hell did they think was going to happen? Play poisoned games, win poisoned prizes.
The grass didn’t seem to mind. It didn’t discriminate between soil and trash, giving some of the masses spiky little mohawks that bristled in the wind. I’d never seen grass like that before. How did it grow here if there was never any rain?
“Hey Cath, you ever seen grass like this?” I said.
Cath was squatting with Shaela to take a picture of some old metal lunch boxes. The painted logos were still partially visible. She stopped to examine the grass and shrugged. “No. It’s really sharp. Like the grass at the beach. Weird, huh? There’s no rain out here.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” I said.
My big sister, the part-time psychic, at least where her little brother’s thoughts were concerned.
Jester kicked a rusted can off into the labyrinth of trash piles, yawned, and stretched. “Dudes, it’s blistering. Can we get where we’re going?”
Shaela stood, brushed her legs off, and gave Jester a death stare. “Hold your tighty whiteys, Chester the Molester. We came all the way out here, so we’re gonna look around. I want to explore for a while.”
That nickname was why we called him Chester the Jester. He’d almost committed suicide due to the old one back in junior high. I was the guy who he called when he cut his wrists while we were playing Counter-Strike. I was also the one who called the cops and saved his life. Shaela, who had been sleeping over in Cath’s room during the whole ordeal, still used that nickname out of spite when she got pissed off at him, almost fifteen years after the fact.
But Jester played it off like it was no big deal. “You just want to take pictures for your social media. Maybe you should find a better way to spend your life.”
Shaela folded her arms and nodded. “Yeah. I want to take pictures to post on my fucking social media. And so does Cath. Maybe you should find a better way to spend your life instead of being a used baby wipe all weekend. Some of us want to enjoy ourselves.”
“Hey, go easy,” I told her.
“Yeah, go easy, Shaela. Don’t be a bitch, Shaela,” Jester said sotto voce.
Shaela drew a deep breath through her teeth, like she was about to give him a tongue lashing, but I walked between them before she could.
“Guys. Chill. Seriously. Smoke a J or something. I don’t want to listen to any more of this, and neither does Cath. You know how many road trips we’ve been on where we wanted to kill each other?”
I hunted for eye contact, but Cath was still busy photographing her lunch boxes. She surprised me by standing up and turning her camera off. “Wanted to, little bro?” she said, a smile curling up one side of her mouth.
I chuckled. “Jester, Shae, think of it this way: our parents never had the money to take us on real vacations, so all we did was go camping. Every year. Some trips we went as far as Colorado or Wyoming. Days in the car together. Sometimes weeks. Listening to Cath complain about you, Shaela, or boys, or how my music was too loud, or whatever. Whine, whine, whine. All she did was whine. For weeks.”
“Oh shut up,” Cath said.
“Look at her trying not to smile. That’s how you know I’m right.”
Cath’s half-grin turned into a full one. “Okay, like you were always so pleasant? Give me a break, bro. Remember the time you wouldn’t plug your earphones in and made me listen to your video game music for eight hours? Oh yeah. That was, like, every time. Oh, and that time you played mom and dad off against each other not to make you turn it down because they were already in a fight? Yeah. Oh! Or how about the time you put a spider on my face. Yeah. Exactly. You’re one to talk.”
“We weren’t camping when I did the spider,” I reminded her. “You did scream pretty loud, though.”
Cath put her face in her hands and groaned.
Shaela’s voice took on an inquisitorial tone. “You’re kidding, right Cath? He didn’t actually do that.”
“Oh yes, he did,” Cath said.
Shaela walked over and smacked me on the arm. “That is the most stereotypical little brother bullshit I’ve ever heard in my life. Wow, Melvin. I’ve always thought you were a dick, but now I think you’re really a dick.”
“First of all, I never said I wasn’t. Second, we were little kids. Third, the point is, you guys, I know you’re not used to being cramped up in a tight space together, but we are, so take it from two experts, it’s only going to get worse unless you choose not to make it worse. Hug it out, be friends, and just have fun. That’s the whole point of this trip. You don’t have to have fun together, but it’s definitely better for all of us if you stop taking little pot shots at each other every five seconds. Okay?”
Shaela and Jester exchanged a look. “Okay,” they both said.
Shaela quickly added, “But I’m not hugging him. He smells like a Dutch oven.”
“I always knew you were an expert,” Jester said.
I threw my hands up in the air. “Forget it. Let’s go.”
I started down the little trail leading away from the makeshift parking lot into a sea of trash piles. My friends disappeared quickly behind that amorphous wall of dirty plastics and rusted metal. Their whispers drifted over the silent hills of garbage, soft hisses that were just too far away for me to pick out words:
…pssst pssst pssst pssst…
I thought they’d try to pay me back for my self-righteous speech about us all getting along by pretending to drive away and leave me stranded here, so I stopped at the nearest intersection and waited.
There was another trail venturing off into the dump. I wondered where it went. Probably nowhere. The sign had pointed this way. It was one mile to Main Street, and I doubted there was anything else out here but the town. Maybe if we decided to camp here tonight I could come back and check it out, but for now, better not to get sidetracked or lost.
Wait. Why were their whispers getting louder?
…pssst pssst pssst pssst…
A tingling sense of the absurd filtered from my neck down to my toes. The sound wasn’t coming from behind me. It was… ahead of me? No. Down the other path? No. Where the hell was it coming from?
Was this what it felt like to realize something fucking weird was going on, not in a story or a movie, but real life, right here, right now, and it was happening to me? I didn’t feel sick or terrified or nauseous. Nothing twisted or broke inside of me, only that curious tingling.
…pssst pssst pssst pssst…
My feet moved of their own volition. I turned down the other path and started walking, halted after a few steps when I realized I was being a dumbass. It was probably the wind, and my imagination was getting the better of me, like it always did. There was no one out here but me, my big sister, and our friends.
No. I definitely, 100% heard voices out there. Whispers drifting through the trash. Voices that didn’t belong to my friends. The voices of four or five strangers, all having a rapid, muted conversation, deciding what to do about me, about us.
No, you idiot, it was the wind, I told myself. I want to see something weird, so of course I’m going to think weird shit is going on when it’s not. If I start chasing phantoms, I’m going to wander off and get lost, then I’ll be the asshole on the elbow ruining this trip.
“Good job waiting for us, shitbrain,” Shaela said behind me. I admit that it startled me. “Whoa! Did I scare you? Did a five-foot-seven blonde girl just make Mel O’Brian flinch?”
“Oh, come on,” I said.
Cath snorted and slapped me on the shoulder. “Chill out, bro.”
Nothing in the world calmed me down faster than Cath calling me bro. She didn’t say it like a guy friend, or even an older brother would. There was nurturing in it, a deep, immutable love. Cath was five feet tall and weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet, with wrists so dainty I could pinch my thumb and forefinger around them if I wanted to, but I looked up to her and she knew it.
I don’t know what it’s like for anyone else who has an older sister, but mine was the best anyone could ask for. She understood me and protected me, made me laugh and feel safe, was there for me like a lighthouse in a storm, and always had been, even when we were little kids and I put spiders on her face.
Cath wasn’t merely a good big sister, either. She was a good person. That’s a lot easier to say than show (here I go with my a lots again). But that declaration comes from a lifetime of growing up in her shadow and being under her wing; it’s probably the truest thing I’ve ever said. Cath was a straight A student. An EMT in the coastal gangland of Santa Monica, who saw buckets of blood on a daily basis and somehow never lost her faith in humanity. A polite goody two-shoes who still knew how to party and hang. I had never met one of her peers who didn’t tell me upon learning we were related, “Oh, you’re Cath’s little brother? I love Cath,” or “Cath’s great,” or, “Dude, your sister’s awesome.”
In fact, the only bad thing I ever heard anyone say about her was, “Who spells Cathlynne with a C? What kind of name is Cathlynne, anyway?”
I didn’t forget about the whispers I thought I’d heard, but I didn’t let them bother me, either. If it was the wind, it was the wind. If it was someone, or something else, then we’d meet them, or we wouldn’t.
I wasn’t the biggest guy around. I was six-foot-two and 200 pounds of mostly muscle, though a big portion of that muscle was covered by my tattoos and a solid two feet of beard, these days. But I felt practically invincible standing there, surrounded by my crew:
Cath, previously described;
Tall, skeletal Jester, with his bird’s nest of black hair and wardrobe of Iron Maiden t-shirts, black chinos, and Chuck Taylors, who played video games for a living and acted like a pushover to everyone because it was easier than standing up for himself, but who I knew would fight to the death for me if he ever thought I was truly in danger;
And petty, beautiful Shaela, Cath’s other half since childhood, the professional drama queen who used to be much nicer before she rose to “influencer” status after a single insult she aimed at some other social media celeb went viral;
Four mid-twenty-somethings who couldn’t have been more different, but who had grown up together anyway. We had developed some common interests, despite the odds. Each of us had a deep desire to rediscover that which was forgotten. In a state that had been vastly depopulated, in a culture that had become vastly played-out, our options were never ending, from the time Cath was old enough to drive.
“Is that a graveyard?” Jester said, forging ahead of me to the end of the little path.
“Huh? Where?” I said.
We followed him out to where the trash piles rolled away to a vast, gray glen dotted with man-made structures. Paradise Hills was big enough to cover the valley, but not much else. Ruins beyond ruins smiled at the sun like skulls made of brick and fallen roof tile. Enough of the structures were still standing to hold ten or maybe twenty thousand people. The streets they lined were as empty as the black pits of their windows, all save for the trash and the ubiquitous carpet of shivering, gray grass.
There was a tiny cemetery on the slope immediately ahead of us. It was gated with chicken wire and a few stone piles, and held only a handful of graves. There was no gate, only two stakes driven into the chalky earth. Most of the inscriptions on the headstones were too worn to read.
One of the burial plots, a miniature one with a handmade wooden cross, caught my eye, though.
The grave was too small to be that of an adult. It was the grave of a child, or perhaps, I realized with a chill, that of an infant. The name was written in black permanent marker.
Along with the words,
I miss you
There was no date or age.
“Who names their kid Sindago?” Shaela said. She pronounced it Sinn-Dah-Go. That sounded right.
I shrugged. “Beats the hell out of me.” I didn’t like thinking about death. The stories I heard from Cath about her night shifts were enough to give me nightmares.
“That’s so sad. But I guess we all lose our loved ones at some point,” Cath said quietly, hands clasped over her heart.
I put my arm around her. “You okay, sis?”
She shook it off, eyes locked on that frail, beloved cross. “I’m fine. It’s just… no, it’s stupid.”
Shaela and I exchanged a look. We both nodded. “Okay. That’s fine,” I said.
“Cath, you mind taking a few steps that way? I want to get a picture,” Shaela said.
Cath hadn’t lost her ex-fiancée Ray in that way. Ray was still alive, but they hadn’t spoken, and none of us had been allowed to speak the guy’s name, for the last six months. The Long Distance Reaper had finally come calling after three years of living in different cities. Ray, Mr. Man’s Man, minor league baseball player and competitive skeet shooter, had stuck around longer than most guys in their situation would. Three years. Damn. Seems like that would drive a wedge between even the lovey-doviest of couples. I couldn’t hold it against him.
My own two-year relationship with my ex-girlfriend Laura failed for much simpler reasons. I was an asshole, and so was she. Play poisoned games, win poisoned prizes.
“Guys, this grave is fresh,” Jester said, kneeling down to touch the soil. “As in, a few days old.”
Shaela huffed behind her camera. “Can you get out of my picture please?”
“Please, just wait. I promise your ten million followers won’t shit a brick if you don’t post something for five whole minutes. But guys, I don’t think there’s a human buried here. I think grave belongs to a dog.”
“There’s a very real possibility someone is still living in this area if they buried their dog here,” Jester said.
I looked around. “I don’t see anybody.”
“Maybe they grew up here. Place has only been abandoned, what, twenty years?” Cath said.
“I still hate that name,” Shaela said.
Jester rose, shook his head, and cracked his back like he’d done some strenuous workout. “Hate’s a strong word. Well, for rational people, anyway. Granted, it would be a weird name for a kid. But nobody thinks twice about naming their dog something screwed up.”
“Cath and I used to have a dog named Gurgi. She died when I was little,” I said.
Jester gave me a fist bump. “Lloyd Alexander? Fuck yeah. I read those books.”
“She was a good dog,” Cath said. “Stupid beyond words, but we loved her. She used to run through the screen door when she saw seagulls in the back yard. Never learned there was a barrier there. I wonder who this one belonged to? R.I.P. Sindago. I bet you were a good dog, too.”
“Actually, that dog was mine,” a stranger’s voice said behind us.
Cath gasped. Shaela and Jester each gave a little yelp. My hackles rose and my fists turned to rocks. All of us spun around to see who it was.
It was the old man from the highway, the one who’d given us the directions. Nutsack Head.
He was standing far enough away from us that I didn’t feel threatened, but I didn’t like the fact that he’d snuck up on us. His posture, and the look in his eye took some of the fire out of my belly. He was staring at Sindago’s grave, a foggy reminiscence playing behind his wrinkled eyes. He still hadn’t put on a shirt. His suspenders did little to cover his bowling ball belly or hairy, crane-like arms. When he spoke, he sounded drunk. There was a slur in his words, and a slow thoughtfulness. I knew it might be an act, so I kept my guard up, but it dissipated rapidly the more he spoke.
The man wasn’t going to hurt us. He looked like he was going to cry. “Yee-up. Sindago was mine. Good dog. From Japan. They breed good dogs there. I’m a single guy living out here on my own. Never got married or had any kids.”
I was surprised he used any rather than no.
I cleared my throat, drawing his eyes up from the little wooden cross. The fog evaporated, and he studied the four of us as if seeing us for the first time. “We saw you sitting by the side of the road. Did you move that armchair out there by yourself, or was it already there?” I said.
“Armchair? Oh. Shit. Yeah, I sit out there sometimes. It’s my favorite place to read. Not too many cars. Always an unexpected pleasure when one goes by. Sindago there used to run after ‘em. Not anymore.”
He gave the saddest chuckle I’d ever heard. “Anyway, I’m Budd. I live around here. Not down there.” Budd pointed at the matrix of ruined houses at the bottom of the valley. “I live up the road. Didn’t want to scare you folks, or make you uncomfortable here, but I thought I’d come introduce myself in case you need anything. Food, water. Mostly water. I never ask for money or anything like that when folks come through here. I try not to be a bother. But weed is always appreciated.” The old man grinned. There was that silver tooth again. He had a few others, but I didn’t stare.
“We don’t smoke,” Shaela said.
“‘Course you don’t. Well, no worries,” Budd said. “Listen, there’s one subject in particular I feel inclined to mention before I head back to my chair. You have a moment?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
Budd straightened his posture, taking on a professorial tone. “If you guys are planning to camp here, I’d strongly ask you to reconsider. It’s pretty unsafe, not to mention unsanitary. You don’t want to knick your knee or something on a rusty edge when you get up to use the bathroom at night. Know what I mean? All kinds of diseases lurking in a place like this. Tetanus. Hepatitis. Something worse. Like I said, I’m not trying to freak you out. We’re all grownups here, you can do what you want. Just take it from a local, there are way nicer spots ten minutes up the road. I don’t want you folks to have your camping trip ruined by something disappointing.”
“Like what?” Shaela said.
Budd smiled, tooth glinting in the high sun. “I’ve seen my fair share of injuries among campers out here. Not to mention, the facilities are somewhat lacking.”
“I work in an ambulance. I can handle it if one of us gets injured. But, to be honest, I don’t think we’re going to camp here,” Cath said.
Budd shrugged. “Sun sets faster than you think. Especially if you’re down there exploring. Might be be risky after dark. Wouldn’t want you to get lost.”
“Um, excuse you?” Shaela said. “We’ll be fine.”
Budd chuckled. “I’m excused. Sorry, look. I try not to be some weird hippy out here scaring away young people who just want to have a good time. But, experience is the great teacher. How can I repay you for my great offense?”
“You can fuck off?” Shaela muttered.
Cath glared at her. “You’ve been very kind, Budd. We appreciate it. You don’t need to worry about us, though. We’re only going to hike for an hour or two and take pictures.”
Budd shrugged, turned and wandered back into the trash heaps, stopping before he disappeared from sight. “Don’t hesitate to ask if you want a tour. I’m one turn up the road. Oh yeah, and follow me on the Link. Budd234, with two D’s.”