“I can’t believe you’re still obsessed with her,” Connor said.
“I’m not obsessed,” Billy replied. He turned away from the girl, who stood in the hallway chatting with friends, and focused his attention inside the locker. Even out of Billy’s peripheral vision, Connor’s gaze burned through him. “Stop looking at me like that.” He glanced at Connor with a quick turn of the eye.
“Sorry, but she’s been gone a whole year. Now that she’s back, you’ve been switched on like a light.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Billy insisted. “It’s just weird, you know?” He rummaged through the locker, grabbing a couple of books to put in the backpack slung over his shoulder.
“No. I don’t know,” Connor said. “What’s so weird about it?”
Billy turned his head and squinted at Connor in confusion. “You don’t think it’s strange for someone to move away for an entire year only to come back? Who goes to live with their grandparents anyway? It’s not like her parents died or got divorced or something.”
“There must be a good reason.”
“I’m sure there is,” Billy said, zipping his backpack shut and closing the locker door. “I just don’t know what it is.” He secured the lock and walked with Connor down the hallway.
Billy stared at the girl as he and Connor passed her by. Because Billy preferred brunettes, Megan had been on his radar since the first day of high school over three years ago. Megan glanced at him with a smile, forcing Billy to look away.
“Dude,” Connor said. “That wasn’t obvious at all.” He chuckled.
“Shut up.” Billy took a few seconds to compose himself. “Have you noticed something different about her, though?”
“She got even hotter,” Connor said.
“That’s not what I’m talking about. Her personality,” Billy noted. “She’s like…nice.” He wasn’t sure how else to describe it.
“Maybe being away from this place did her some good.”
The warning bell rang for the next period.
“You still giving me a ride after school?” Billy asked.
“Yeah,” Connor answered, “but don’t be late. I have to be home by four today.”
Billy nodded. “No problem.”
The two split off, going their separate ways until the end of the school day.
* * * *
Billy looked out the passenger side window, taking in the vast array of colors that Mother Nature offered each fall season. Though barely October, an early cold spell brought frost warnings several nights in a row, effectively speeding up the foliage transition. Silver maple trees already sported brilliant leaves of red, yellow, and orange. It used to be Billy’s favorite part of the year, but this time it produced only heartache for him.
As they crossed the river, Billy scanned the landscape, following the water until it met a dense area of evergreen trees in the far distance. Above the tree line was a hill. A mountain of dirt, consisting of a bottom layer of crimson and a flat layer of lighter brown sand over top, climbed into the clear blue sky, peaking over everything else on the horizon. It always stood out to Billy, intriguing him.
“What do you think that is?” Billy inquired.
“What?” Connor asked, rotating his neck in Billy’s direction before setting his sights on the road again.
“That huge pile of dirt down river.”
“I don’t know,” Connor answered. “I’ve never given it much thought. I just assumed it was a landfill or something.”
“Yeah. Me, too, but the county dump is in the other direction.”
“Maybe it’s a landfill for the neighboring county,” Connor commented. “We’re close to the border you know.”
“Maybe,” Billy said, his voice fading as he continued to gawk out the window.
“Why do you even care?” Connor’s tone came with a hint of irritation.
“I don’t know. It’s just one of those things that bugs me.”
“Only you, man.”
“What do you mean by that?” Billy repositioned himself in the seat and faced Connor, taking offense to his comment.
“Lighten up.” Connor’s face relaxed, giving Billy a less threatening vibe. “It’s just that you harp on the little things sometimes. You need to worry about more important issues like what we’re going to do this weekend.” Connor grinned at him.
“Fair enough,” Billy said, “but if you’d actually listen to me half of the time, you’d remember my Dad has something special planned this weekend. Just the two of us.”
“Oh, shit. I forgot. It’s the one-year anniversary, isn’t it?”
Billy didn’t respond.
“I’m sorry, man,” Connor said. “I know it’s gotta be hard on you. Any idea what he’s planning?”
“No,” Billy said, reluctantly drawing himself back into the conversation. “He won’t tell me. He said it’s a surprise.”
Connor pulled into Billy’s driveway and stopped the car. “Well, if you need to talk or anything, let me know. You’re my bud, so I’m here for ya.”
“Thanks.” Billy grabbed the backpack at his feet and opened the car door. “I’ll give you a call later.”
Slamming the door shut, he raised a hand, giving a weak goodbye as his friend drove off. Billy made his way up the brick pathway toward the house. His father stood in the kitchen, hunched over the stove top with an apron on, as Billy stepped inside.
“Hey, buddy,” his father said. “How’d it go today?” He wiped his hands on the apron and looked frantically through the drawers as steam lifted from two pots on the stove. “Any idea where your mother keeps the whisk?” Billy’s father tilted his head back and stared up at the ceiling, eventually closing his eyes. He exhaled. “I can’t believe I said that. I’m sorry.”
Billy couldn’t remember the last time his father cooked a meal. He made sandwiches for the two of them regularly and even threw together some pasta on occasion, but a full-blown meal was nearly unheard of.
“I think it’s in the drawer to the left,” Billy said without emotion.
“Thanks.” His father grabbed the whisk from the drawer. “You okay?”
“You don’t need to do this, Dad.”
“Make me dinner, pretend like everything is fine, or whatever it is you’re trying to do.” Billy scaled a couple of steps on the staircase when he was interrupted.
“Look,” his father said. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to forget what happened. I just want to spend a little time with my son. You’re the only family I have.”
Billy felt sorry for him. “Let me get settled in my room and then I’ll come down for dinner.”
“Thanks, Billy, but don’t take too long. It’s almost ready.”
Billy nodded with a half grin.
* * * *
Taking a bite from his fajita, Billy looked down at the plate, his head filled with things to say but–ultimately–nothing worth speaking aloud.
“What do you think?” his father asked.
Billy snapped out of his trance. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” He seemed to ponder for a moment. “I wasn’t asking what you were thinking. I asked how the meal was.”
“Oh,” Billy said, raising his head. “Sorry, Dad. It’s actually really good.”
“Thanks. I didn’t go too heavy on the seasonings?”
“No. It’s just right.”
“Anything you want to talk about?” He took a sip of water from his glass. “You have that look on your face.”
“Not really,” Billy replied.
“You and Connor doing anything special this weekend?”
Billy was surprised by the question. “I didn’t think I was allowed to go out this weekend.”
“Where’d you get that idea?” Billy’s father wiped his mouth and got up from the table.
“I thought we were spending the weekend together.”
“I set aside Sunday as our special day,” he said, standing in the kitchen with his back to Billy. “You’re free to do whatever you want tonight and tomorrow.” He returned to the table, bringing a second helping of fajitas for the two of them.
“And you’re okay with that?” Billy inquired.
“Of course. I think you could use the distraction.”
Billy lightened up a little bit. “Maybe Connor and I will just hang out here. You know…keep you company.”
His father laughed. “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “It’s fine, if that’s really what you want to do, but don’t let me keep you guys from going out.”
“We’ll see,” Billy said. “Maybe Connor already has plans.” He silenced himself for a few seconds, debating whether or not to speak. “Hey, Dad.”
“I know this is really random, but I’m curious about something.”
“What’s that?” His father stopped eating and sat back in the chair, letting out a breath of air.
“Yeah,” he answered. “I just need to let my food digest. What is it you wanted to ask?”
“Have you ever noticed that big hill of dirt when you cross the river?”
“That’s what you wanted to ask?” His father chuckled, seemingly relieved at the question. “I thought you were going to ask about your sister or something.” His face quickly changed, displaying a sense of embarrassment after making the statement. “I’m sorry. That didn’t come out right.”
“No. That’s okay,” Billy said. “So…”
“Yeah. I’ve noticed it. What about it?”
“What is it? A landfill?”
Billy’s father raised his eyebrows. “I’m not sure,” he said. “It could be a landfill. It could also be a sand depot for the Department of Transportation.”
“You mean for sand trucks during the winter months?”
His father nodded.
“That makes sense.”
“You’ve always been the curious type,” he said with a smile. “I guess it’s why you’re so smart.”
Billy got up from the table. “Do you mind if I call Connor real quick? Just in case he’s still free tonight.”
“No,” his father said. “Go right ahead.”
“What do you want to do?” Connor posed the question, looking at Billy with his indigo eyes and cherry-freckled face. The front, interior light to the SUV illuminated the vehicle as Billy held the door open. “You’ve had thirty minutes to think about it,” Connor said.
“Let’s just drive for now.” Billy eased into the passenger seat and buckled himself in. He closed the door, sending the two of them into darkness.
Despite the obscurity, Billy could feel the weight of Connor’s stare. “Yeah. If you don’t mind,” Billy said.
“Dude. I’m a high school senior making minimum wage at a part-time job. I don’t have the gas money to take us on joy rides. Plus, my Mom doesn’t want me driving her car all over creation.” Connor tilted his head, supporting it with his left hand as he scratched an itch. “Look. I’m sorry. If you want to drive, that’s cool.”
“Thanks,” Billy said. “I can give you a few bucks if it helps.”
Connor put the automatic transmission in drive and took off down the road. “Don’t worry about it. Can you at least steer me in a certain direction?”
“How about the river?”
“Okay,” Connor replied. “My friend Jessie said a bunch of people might be hanging out there tonight. Maybe we can check it out.”
“Maybe,” Billy said. “It’s not really my thing, though. I don’t know if I feel up to it.”
“You can think about it on the way.”
Billy bobbed his head and looked out the window, losing himself in the clear, star-filled sky.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year since Sara’s accident.” Connor lacked conviction in his voice, apparently afraid to bring it up.
As much as Billy didn’t want to talk about it, he knew it was only a matter of time before he had to confront the situation. Whether it was his father or Connor, someone was bound to mention it over the course of the next few days.
“I know,” Billy acknowledged. “It’s hard to believe. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real.”
“I know what you mean.” Connor lingered for a moment. “Are you sure the river is where you want to go?”
Gazing into the night, Billy pictured the spot where his little sister drowned nearly a year ago to the day. It was something he replayed endlessly in his head. Sometimes Billy would completely shut down, unable to function, as a sickness deep within his gut would take over.
When his mother passed from apparent heartache only a few weeks later, he never felt more alone in his life. He found himself, figuratively speaking, at the bottom of the abyss. If not for a significant effort by his father and Connor, suicide might have been Billy’s only way out. The journey, however, was far from over, and some days he just wanted to fall back into the dark hole from which he came.
It made him think about Megan as well. Coincidentally, she moved away during the same time. Though she was an acquaintance at best, the loss pushed Billy deeper into depression.
When Megan left school, rumors ran rampant as to what actually happened to her. Some students heard she was kidnapped while others even claimed she had died. Only gossip among high school kids could lead to such crazy conclusions, right? While it seemed a little odd that Megan left without warning to live with her grandparents, it was not nearly as bizarre as some of the other stories floating around. The school was eventually notified of the move and people went about their business as usual, the weekly buzz quickly fizzling out.
“You feel like being adventurous?” A rare burst of energy came over Billy.
“Maybe,” Connor replied with a drawn-out voice. “What are you thinking?”
“Take a left up here on River Road.”
Connor perked up, slowing the vehicle and making a left onto the road. “You actually want to hang out at the river?”
“Then where are we going?” Connor turned to look at him. Billy could tell his friend was putting the pieces of the puzzle together. “Wait. We’re not going to that landfill, are we?”
“Yeah. Why not?” Even with what his father had told him, Billy was captivated at the thought of checking it out. “Let’s do it,” he said with excitement.
“We don’t even know how to get there.”
“This road runs parallel with the river,” Billy commented, “and it can’t be more than a couple miles.”
“All right,” Connor said. “I’m only doing this for you, though.”
A few minutes passed and Billy continued to watch with eagerness, waiting for a sign as to which direction to go. He noticed a light making its way through a small forest of evergreens to their left. The source of illumination came from an elevated position, possibly atop the nearby hill. Billy scanned the area in front of them as well as the trees off to the side.
“Slow down,” Billy demanded.
Connor brought the SUV to a crawl.
“It has to be over there.” Billy pointed to his left where the light shined through the tops of the trees. “Do you see a road that goes up there?”
Connor stopped the vehicle. “I don’t see anything but woods.”
“Do you have a flashlight?”
“I’m going to get out and take a look,” Billy said.
“In the glove compartment,” Connor noted.
Billy snatched the mini flashlight from the glove compartment and stepped out of the vehicle. He left the door open, making Connor visible inside. Shining the light along the edge of the pavement, Billy spotted a crude road. Made primarily of dirt, it curved through the forest like a serpentine and didn’t appear to have any guardrails.
“Put your brights on,” Billy said, easing back into the vehicle.
Connor pulled a lever on the side of the steering wheel, enhancing the view in front of them.
“There’s a dirt road up here on the left.”
“You sure this is a good idea?” Connor asked.
“You’ve got four-wheel drive, right?”
“We should be fine then,” Billy said.
Connor shook his head in apparent disbelief, maneuvering the SUV gingerly to the left until he saw the road. He straightened out the vehicle before making a sharp turn. The tires dug into the earth, bouncing up and down from the rough terrain and shooting rocks out from beneath the vehicle. Twigs in their path snapped on impact as Connor ascended the hill. It took only a couple of minutes to make it to the top. The hill flattened out and the trees were more disbursed, though several evergreens—big and small—grew along the perimeter fence. A sign with large print was attached to the front of the fence.
“Government property. No trespassing,” Connor said.
“Let’s at least check it out,” Billy insisted.
“You can check it out. I’m staying in the car.” Connor put the SUV in park, keeping the keys in the ignition and the driving lights on.
“All right,” Billy said.
He took the flashlight and exited the vehicle, closing the door behind him. As he got up to the gate, Billy noticed a huge lock hanging from it. Thick chains connected the two swinging gates as an added measure of deterrence. He wasn’t getting in unless he climbed the fence. Everything suddenly turned dark as the car headlights went out. Billy flipped on the flashlight out of instinct and turned around, looking at Connor with his arms out.
“What are you doing?” Billy spoke aloud but it was more like a whisper. He didn’t intend for Connor to hear him.
Connor turned off the engine and bolted from the vehicle.
“What are you doing?” Billy repeated the question, wanting Connor to hear him this time.
“Someone’s coming up the hill,” he said with a frantic voice.
Billy looked in the direction of the road and, sure enough, headlights were making their way up the hill.
“Quick,” Connor said, taking the initiative. “Into the trees.” He pushed Billy toward the trees and the two of them squatted, hiding behind some thick branches.
“You don’t think they’re going to notice your SUV in front of the gate?” Billy meant to be sarcastic.
“I didn’t have time to think,” Connor replied. “I just reacted.” He breathed heavily. “Kill the light.”
Billy had forgotten about the flashlight. He flipped it off before the approaching vehicle made it to the top. A junky pick-up truck soon emerged, coming to a stop next to Connor’s SUV. A man exited the pick-up, spitting off to the side as he looked over the SUV.
“Damn kids,” the man said to himself. “Always messing around up here.” He put his face to the driver side window and stared inside with both hands cupped around his eyes. He backed away when he failed to see anyone.
The man walked to the passenger side of his truck and removed something from the seat, cradling it in one arm. Moving toward the front gate, he pulled a key from his front pocket. Wearing jeans, an untucked flannel shirt, and a cheap trucker’s hat, Billy couldn’t help but think redneck.
The man picked the lock with his key, untangling the metal chains that held the two gates together, and made his way inside. After reaching the huge mound of dirt, he began digging at the base of it. Once he was finished, he bent over to place his belonging in the hole. The light, which shined directly overhead, revealed the man’s possession.
“Holy shit,” Connor whispered. “Is that a baby? Is he burying a baby?”
“I don’t know,” Billy answered softly. After what he had been through the past twelve months, it took a lot to scare him. However, Billy couldn’t deny the fear coming over him. “It’s not moving or making any noise,” he said. “Maybe it’s just a doll or something.”
“Who the hell buries a doll?” Connor’s breathing was labored. “Plus, if it’s dead, of course it’s not going to be moving or making any noise.”
“Calm down,” Billy said. “We don’t know what he’s doing.”
The man pushed dirt over top of the item, effectively burying it.
“Let’s get out of here,” Connor demanded, raising his voice above a comfortable level for Billy.
“Quiet. Wait until he leaves,” Billy insisted.
Unfortunately, the man heard Connor, quickly turning his attention in their direction. “Who’s there?”
Connor took off running, forcing Billy out of hiding.
“Damn it,” Billy said, following close behind.
The two of them hopped into the SUV. Connor immediately started the engine and threw the vehicle into reverse, not even bothering to turn on the headlights.
“Hey!” The man ran toward them.
The SUV went barreling down the hill in reverse.
“What are you doing?” Billy screamed. “We can’t go down the hill in reverse. You can’t see where you’re going.”
Connor ignored him, pumping the break as he tried to weave around trees.
Billy’s face tightened as he glanced out the back of the SUV. “Look out!”
End of sampler. For more information, please visit The Landfill