Sold my first poem. About a monster hunter in Scotland. Read it for free here.
Sold my first poem. About a monster hunter in Scotland. Read it for free here.
Corruption, the first book in my dark fantasy series “The Corruption Cycle,” is finally getting some reviews. This latest one from Dab of Darkness is my favorite one yet. Dab reviewed Lurk, too. There’s also a fun interview after the review in which I get to talk about bed bugs, Gene Wolfe, and other random stuff. One minor quibble: his name is Rat Keeper, not Rat Catcher 😅
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 S. 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.
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.”
A dishonored swordsman running from his past.
A city shrouded in dark magic.
An antihero born.
Daniel Harper was champion, until a single mistake destroyed his fencing career forever. With nothing left to lose, he flees to Eastern Europe, where he can start over… where he can be someone else.
In the exotic, lantern-lit crevices of a nameless city, Daniel meets two people who open very different kinds of doors than the ones he is searching for: the troubled flower girl Kashka, who holds the key to a nightmarish otherworld; and the enigmatic street magician and self-professed love tourist Ink, who has the power to bend others to his will.
As Daniel plummets into a downward spiral of hedonism and dereliction, he is tormented by macabre visions of a frozen world in endless darkness where an evil tyrant has stolen the sun, where humanity’s remnants fight to scrape out a cruel existence underground, and wandering spirits inhabit the bodies of the recently deceased. Daniel is doomed to return to this Night Country every time he falls into a deep sleep. But the longer he spends there, the more Daniel realizes his curse is anything but an accident….
My short sci fi story, “Go Outside” is out now in this quarter’s issue of Abyss & Apex Magazine. This was my first pro short fiction sale. Check it out!