a version of this story was originally published at Silent Auctions
This country is nothing more than a collection of visions. Most people know that, or at the very least they know it implicitly. Every day more and more individuals are convinced that this reality is actually what the religions of the world have been calling Hell the whole time. It’s a psychological phenomenon now. Psychiatrists literally have to deal with shit like that.
And, as if it isn’t bad enough that everyone’s starting to realize all this was too good to be true, and that all the promises made in childhood and school and the movies were just flat out lies, some people also have to live in Wall, South Dakota.
That’s how Angel feels.
She’s a cashier at a souvenir shop. She knows she sees the worst this country has to offer. She knows that every day she stares into the hole at the center of what this country thinks it is. It didn’t take her long to realize that. There’s nothing extraordinary about her being 16 years old and thinking that. What about the other kids who think everything is as great as they’re told it is? Running around with red hats and everything; what the fuck happened to them Angel often wonders.
Angel wears that kind of awareness on her face. The old people on road trips wonder why this nice little prairie girl has such an attitude, and the young groups of guys hit on her because of it, as if it signals she’d be into them. She wonders how they all ended up so fake. To say that this awareness affects her daily life would sell it well short. One does not think like that and have an easy time functioning in society she’s realized.
The problem is she thinks where she’s at is too metaphorical or something: some kind of tiny hallucination alongside I-90 in the middle of nowhere next to a land that’s been called the Badlands since humans developed language. It’s not even worth asking which place is the real Badland anymore. She works in a fake western drugstore selling key chains and t-shirts depicting the badlands to people who’ll never really see them. They also sell hamburgers, for some reason. It’s all too on the nose, really. It doesn’t need to be that easy. But what she’s unable to do with this awareness is find a way out, which is really more than just her problem.
One time she tried to find a way out by joining a group of guys on a road trip going to campout in the park. They asked her how old she was and after pausing and saying, “eighteen,” all the guys laughed. They asked if any of her friends would want to come and she said none of the other girls were her friends.
So after her shift she went out with them.
In the parking lot she told them her name is Angel. They didn’t really believe her but they said, “Well, Angel, you want some of this acid?” anyway. So she swallowed the little tab they gave her and they sped out of town.
You know you’ve entered the park when it turns into a dirt road. At a fork they took a right into the setting sun. They said there’s a free campsite this way. Angel knew that, of course.
Driving into the sun they told her they were college students from Chicago who were using summer break for a road trip. They asked what kind of things Angel liked and they talk about how much they liked certain books and movies. Angel said she didn’t read or watch movies much, unless they happened to be on TV. To her the guys seemed very content, so she mostly stayed quiet.
The drive to the campsite took long enough that Angel started to feel the initial effects of the drug before they even got there. By the time they got there the sun was already behind the hills surrounding the campsite, throwing golden rays so far overhead it almost made Angel nervous. The sky was very big. Only when they got there did Angel ask herself what she was doing, but it was too late so she swallowed her nervousness, which is to say she chose to embrace it, which is to say she realized it was part of the point of accepting the invitation in the first place. If she weren’t out there she’d be sitting on the couch in front of the TV with her mother who says things like, “People don’t die here, Angel. People leave this place in order to die. They just won’t die here, this isn’t the place,” which never seemed to be backed up by any kind of evidence. Better to just push the limits and see what happens she figured.
Angel was looking at the clouds, which were deep orange when the college students said, “Hey Angel, we’re going to hike up that hill,” and pointed to the one the sun had fallen behind. They wanted to get away from the campsite, which was a small circle with a handful of tents and young families with kids running around in it. Good idea Angel thought.
They walked through knee-length prairie grass that didn’t feel the way it looked. From a couple feet away the prairie grass swayed softly, and from further away it rolled, but against your legs it was hard and breakable. On acid the disconnect was even more fierce. They were amid an ocean of rolling grass. The wind swept it over as far as they could see and it sounded like a faraway jet continuously flying overhead. The group laughed about something, and the laugh seemed to echo like it had fallen down a hole, or as if there were other groups out there. Angel pictured similar or identical groups of college students crawling along all the Badland hills. Hundreds of groups, crawling all over the hills and laughing on acid. The hills themselves seemed to crawl at a fracturingly slow pace.
At the top of the hill the group laid out a big blanket picnic style and they all sat down. “Hey Angel,” they said, “You’re pretty cool. Have you done this before?” and they laughed again, looking at each other.
She told them of course she’d been out in the Badlands before, she lives only half an hour away, but admittedly that was the first time she’d ever done acid. Then she looked around and realized she didn’t actually say anything, that no words actually came out of her mouth, but everyone was nodding as if they completely understood. That’s just about right they were all thinking. They rolled and smoked joints. They talked about things. Angel told them of a time she saw a skinny buffalo dying in the park. Someone said the story was bumming him out, that it was bumming him out really hard.
At one point Angel looked out over the dark land and the wide sky. To the left, back toward Wall, the moon hung just over the horizon. It was big and red. Angel couldn’t believe how big it was. The others were fading in and out of existence, all their talking blending in with the grass. It was as if she had retreated far enough inside her head the others became what others truly are: figments of our imagination, pure speculation and construction. It was the biggest moon Angel had ever seen. As she stared at the big red moon she tried to see significance in it. She wanted it to mean something. She wanted it to be a vision. It’s as if something is knocking on the other side of a wall, a wall you didn’t know existed, and everything you believe is hung up on this wall and suddenly you realize that what you want most is the knocking to be hard enough that everything is knocked loose and falls to the floor. You want everything you know and believe to be knocked off this wall before it solidifies, before there are no alternatives, before the knocking stops again. But it isn’t hard enough, it never is, it’s too late already. All you know now is that there’s a wall and there’s another side.
That’s what she said. She said, “There’s another side.” The others stopped talking and said, “what?”
Angel turned to face them. As she turned she remembered that part of this land had been an Air Force bombing range. She imagined a shell flying overhead. Behind the group a couple dozen yards away was a pack of coyotes. She saw them like a flash of lightning, their black silhouette striking against the purple sky. She imagined a meaningless explosion.
The coyotes’ yaps shook the group and the night started to crack open. People got up and spread out. A dozen dilated eyes looked back at the black silhouette of a pack of coyotes. Someone said, “fuck.” Someone said they should go. Suddenly they all realized how dark it was, how they were out in the middle of the Badlands at night, and how it was probably not such a good idea. Everyone grabbed something off the ground. The coyotes circled and yapped. The group hustled back to the campsite. At the campsite the dogs were barking.
In the back of the SUV the group sat around and decompressed. They laughed nervously, as if they weren’t completely sure they didn’t leave someone behind. Angel thought about how the Lakota used that area as a hunting ground before retreating in winter. She thought about bombing exercises and hunting parties. She thought about bombs without targets. Wounded Knee was 40 miles away. She tried to put the pieces together.
At one point someone put an arm around her. The face she looked at she had long forgotten already. He was so clueless he wasn’t real yet. His eyes were massively dilated. He may never be real she knew. There is no law of physics that says that boy will ever become real beyond a static list of acceptable and generally dangerous clichés, she knew, and she left the back of the car. They asked her where she was going. They told her to stop and come back. They told her it’s dangerous, but no one wanted to leave the car. She walked off into the Badland night. Above her the stars dashed out in geometric lines. Hundreds of white star lines in every direction like tracers. The next day at work Angel’s coworkers tried to determine if something was different or changed about her. Eventually someone asked if she was okay. She asked them if they knew there was a patch of land out there with hundreds of unexploded bombs, hundreds of bombs just laying around, hundreds of bombs and the real targets were a mystery. Then she said she was fine, and they all went back to selling t-shirts.