Once More To Come
There’s a lake at the bottom. Anna didn’t expect that. All the flyers show the crater as just that: a crater. Photos from the first day after, for maximum shock value.
But fourteen years later, there’s grass, and a few trees, and, yes, a lake at the bottom. Hard to believe anyone actually used to live there.
Duncan points out that no-one actually lived here, it’s all just faked to bring in the tourist dollars, and who even heard of Sunnydale before it fell off the map? So obviously not a real town.
The last time he said that Anna asked him about L.A., whether that was faked too – and Duncan said it was a nuclear missile test gone wrong and covered up by the CIA, and then she had to pour half a milkshake over his head and get him to say “the CIA are not evil and did not steal my car” twenty times. This time, she doesn’t have a milkshake. So she doesn’t bother arguing – just throws snack-sized Hershey Bars at him until he laughs and walks into the Tourist Center, and Anna is left alone to look at the view.
Or almost alone.
There’s a woman standing at the safety rails, looking across the crater with a thoughtful smile. Anna hesitates, and then joins her. Tourist attractions are much more fun when you’re with someone who appreciates them.
“Pretty, isn’t it?”
The woman turns, a startled look on her face – for a moment Anna regrets disturbing her, she was obviously lost in thought – and then she smiles politely. “Yeah. It is, I guess.”
“I’ve heard the best view is from further round to the north.” Anna points. “They say you can actually see the cracks in the land from when it collapsed.”
“A few years ago, maybe.” The woman looks out across the valley again and murmurs, “Blow up a town, and it becomes a national nature reserve. Nice work bee.” – something like that.
Anna wrinkles her forehead. It would probably be sensible to leave this woman to her own thoughts and go stop Duncan from asking searching questions to souvenir salesmen. On the other hand, maybe she’s misinterpreting things and it’s vagueness rather than wanting-to-be-left-alone-ness – in which case bowing out a whole two sentences into the conversation might be impolite. How are you supposed to tell, anyway?
She tries again. “It’s a bit like someone scooped out the land with a spoon. Just this perfectly round dent in the earth.”
A wry grin – eyes still on the horizon. “Or like someone pulled out the plug and let the town drain away…”
“Are you taking the hike? Apparently they’ve dug up a couple of the old buildings so you can see what it used to be like.”
The woman nods. “Yeah, part of the town hall is there. And they got a few bits of the high school up. Third time lucky, I guess.”
“Oh, you’ve been down already?”
“This is my sixth year.” She turns and looks at Anna. “California crater tour – I do this one, then go over to L.A. and look at… Yeah. I’ve been here a bunch of times. Back when it was a town, even.”
She puts her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket, goes back to watching the view – and Anna really should have left her alone, but she can’t not ask, so…
“When it was a town? Did you… live here?”
“Not really. Nah. No.”
Anna nods, and tries not to look overly curious.
“I knew someone. Who lived here, for a while.” The hands emerge from the leather jacket again, and she leans forward on the rail. “She was a good friend. Or a pain in the ass, depending on the day.” She’s looking across the valley with a wistful smile. “Man, I hated her guts.”
The answer is obvious, really, it’s written all over her face. So Anna asks the question anyway. “What happened to her?”
“She died, a few years back.” She glances at Anna. “Not here. It was over in Europe. But there wasn’t much left. So I come here, every January. This was the only grave she ever got.”
A ruined town as a substitute gravesite? It’s a nice metaphor.
The two of them fall silent, just looking out over the lake, the grass, the distant climbers abseiling down the far wall of the crater. Eventually the woman pulls out a cigarette and lights it, thoughtfully.
It’s burned almost to the end when Duncan interrupts the silence, making Anna jump. He points out that the hike’s about to start and they’d better get going. Anna says sure, she’ll be there in a minute – trying to subtly look at him to point out that he’s ruining the atmosphere and being insensitive to this person who’s lost her friend, but unfortunately subtle is not his strong point, and soon he’s showing her the flyers for the L.A. crater and complaining that they don’t mention anything about potentially harmful background radiation and doesn’t nuclear waste take centuries to degrade?
At which the woman looks up, says “Nukes? Nah, it was a massive battle between a demon army and a bunch of vampires. Took out the whole town.” and nods a goodbye to Anna.
Trust Duncan to turn a nice intimate conversation into a farce. She’s almost annoyed with him – but on the way down into the valley he shows her the “Sunnydale on a string” necklace he bought her, with a rock from the crater’s edge in it, and she kisses him and calls him a doofus, and then everything’s fine again.
The woman stays there for a while longer, finishing a couple more cigarettes. Then, as the sky gradually stains red with sunset, she smiles softly, says “Happy birthday, B.” and turns and walks away.