Once upon a time, when I was nine years old, there was the abandoned building lot, the wasteland, that used to be the exhibition grounds. It was filled with rusted metal hooks, bags of maggot-infested garbage, a broken fridge, a television set with its screen smashed in, and rotten, rain-soaked armchairs. It was surrounded by hurricane fencing and “Keep Out” signs. There was an announcement at the school telling everyone that the exhibition grounds were dangerous and that all students were to stay well away from it. A boy in Miss Fraser’s class (a quiet, invisible boy) had disappeared in the middle of the year from school. Some people said that he had been in the wasteland and had been abducted by aliens. Some people said that he had suffocated inside the abandoned fridge. Others were sure that he had been murdered and buried there. Someone claimed that his mother got a job in Croydon, and they had moved away, but nobody really believed this. My friend’s sister told him that there was a bogeyman there who would cut your toes off with a pocketknife, then watch you bleed to death. Another boy had been walking by it, had seen a phantom rising out of the ground, and had run screaming all the way home. Naturally, I spent a lot of time there, sneaking under the fence. I would go there whenever home was a dangerous place to be. For a few hours, I was wild and free. I was an archaeologist, digging up the bones of chickens, of extinct monsters. I collected gull feathers matted with mud. I watched rats scurrying about and the occasional fox. I kept an eye out for madmen and ghosts. I watched the sky for approaching lights.
Years later, half a world from that wasteland, I was backcountry camping with the first girl I loved. We had pitched our tent on the edge of an inland sea poisoned by acid. We were travelling under a curse, trying to find our way without a compass. We drank warm beer. We ate canned beef stew and nacho chips. The food tasted like ashes in our mouths. The end of our relationship was seven days away. There were a few wildflowers arranged on clumps of foul sod, and a piss-drenched log half hanging out of the fire grate, like an indecent charcoal tongue hanging out of a corroded mouth. There was a scattering of mosquitoes stubbornly fastened to the chubby arm of her six month old son. A family was paddling their canoe along the weed-infested bank. When my girlfriend went to bed, I stayed out until quite late, watching the fire burn down, drinking beer, listening for ghosts, reading a map by lantern light, and planning another route home.