Before they were old enough to rent a car, Sam and Maeve, just graduated, roamed in Sam’s mom’s gray SUV to the Salton Sea. In that hellish heat with the windows rolled down, all you could smell was rubber, gas and sweat. Sweat soaked their shirts and sealed the backs of their thighs to their seats. Maeve’s hair twisted in a gold French braid and she gazed up ahead in the passenger’s seat with a face like she wanted to know what happened next.
Her eyes a tranquil sage green skipped over cracked white earth, dried up lake beds smelling of decay. Accelerating on a back road two-lane highway, they chewed up green apples and tossed the cores, the tangy sweetness hanging in their mouths. Fat tires traversed rusty strips of road and sprayed dirt wherever they went. At the speed they were going, the whole landscape blurred and slanted.
The sea smelled like rotten eggs and raw fish left out for a decade. Sam wore a wide-brimmed straw hat and smeared sunscreen all over making her brown skin glisten. At two hundred twenty-five feet below sea level (the second lowest spot in America), the two girls explored the wasteland. Wind raked across the lakebed, sending dust billowing into the air in brown clouds.
They say there’s no sand at Salton Sea, just brittle fish skulls and skeletons and for a while, the girls pretended themselves paleontologists picking at these under a walloping white sun. They squatted by the shore sweating through swimsuits and dipping sticks in the mottled brown water. Sam scooped dead barnacle shells up with both hands and Maeve snapped pictures of her stunted gray shadow.
“This used to be a resort town. People used to have fun here. Now everything’s dead,” Sam said.
Freckles gathered on Maeve’s nose. The two looked up at the emptiness. All was still but for the pelicans feasting.
“It’s unreal,” said Maeve, “the water’s so shallow you’d have to lay down to drown here.”
Water lapped quietly against the shoreline like it’d given up on making waves. The girls scrounged up four quarters and shared a 1-minute shower at the campsite.
Night dropped a black curtain over California’s sky, sending an uncanny energy beating through the desert. Sam felt the weight of it wriggling in her sleeping bag in the dirt under the stars. Maeve, in her own sleeping bag just next to her, held her hand so tight both their fingers hurt and palms sweat. At the edge of an empty campground yards from a train track and highway crossing, the girls tried to be brave. Sam was sure this was where serial killers hid away. Here in the brush in the middle of nowhere.
“I can feel the enormity of it all,” Sam whispered. A bush rustled. The girls jumped and tensed squeezing hands even tighter.
“When I was little, I was afraid of the dark,” Maeve whispered back. “At first, my mom would come sleep in my bed with me to comfort me. When I got a little older, I felt embarrassed. I’d sleep in Rachel’s bed, and then my little brother Matt’s. I’d tell myself that he was the one who was afraid when really I was.”
“Me too but I’d sleep in my dad’s bed when I had a nightmare. It’s wild how after all these years, I can still remember my nightmares better than my dreams. See them vividly.” Sam exhaled. “My first grade teacher once asked the class who was afraid of the dark and only one brave kid raised his hand and the whole class laughed at him. And then my teacher said, ‘You know what? I’m afraid of the dark, too.’ He explained that we all are because the dark is just uncertainty. You don’t know what could come out of any corner. Fear is just a byproduct of that uncertainty.”
“Right,” Maeve replied. “You’re not afraid of the dark. you’re afraid of what the dark conceals.” They heard a sound like a rock skipping, clenched their teeth and froze.
“Should we move to the car?” Maeve asked.