Prosper's sister disappeared almost two years ago now. He still remembered the last time he saw her – the yelling from downstairs, Goldie's voice rising above their father's as she screamed, "You're nothing but a failure! I'm not! I'm different, Dad, and you know it!"
A door slammed – Prosper ran to the window and saw Goldie getting in her car, rolling down the window and sticking her head out, shouting as the car accelerated –
"I won't fail! I'm going to find the golden land!"
She never came back.
A few months ago, they found her car abandoned in the wilderness, stripped of its valuables. Prosper didn't know why it took the authorities so long to find it, because it had clearly been there a long time. His dad drove him down to see it and told him to remember it. Remember what his sister had done.
Prosper would never forget, which was why he was sitting in the driver's seat of his dad's car with his two best friends, Ruben and Billy.
Billy crossed her arms. "Are we really stealing your dad's car?" she said, looking back at Ruben.
"Why are you looking at me?" Ruben said from where he sat in the back seat. "This isn't my dad's car."
"Yeah," said Prosper. "It's fine. I mean, he'll get super mad, but we've gotta find my sister, y'know?"
"Well, yeah." Billy sighed. "Okay, but if anything bad happens and your dad catches us, it was your idea."
"Yeah? It was literally my idea?"
"Just making sure you don't put the blame on me!"
"I promise you, Billy, I will take credit for this crime." Prosper turned the car on and put his hands on the steering wheel.
"Wait," said Ruben. "This isn't a crime. Prosper, you have your license and everything."
"We're stealing my dad's car!"
"But like, if it's your dad's car, does it really count? He doesn't even need it, he takes the bus."
"So let's hurry up before he gets back!" Billy said loudly. "For all we now, he could be taking the early bus today."
"Billy has a point," Prosper said. "Let's go, gang!"
He hit the accelerator and the engine revved. The car stayed put until he remembered to take it out of park and start driving.
"Hell yeah!" said Ruben as they pulled out of the driveway. "Road trip!"
"Road trip that will land us in prison if we get caught," Billy said.
"Quiet, Billy. Hey, Prosper, let's put on some tunes!"
They had packed pretty well for a group of barely-yet-adults, Billy being the oldest of the three at nineteen. She plugged her phone into the car charger and played her music over the aux, and for a while, they had a good time singing along to the songs. But with miles and miles of driving down the highway, the desert all around them, it didn't take long before unrest set in.
"Can we stop and get a snack?" Ruben asked.
"Eat the granola bars," Billy said.
"They melted. Like, I didn't even know granola bars could melt. But they're all gooey and gross now."
Prosper felt a bead of sweat run down his forehead, his blonde curls sticking to the back of his neck. "Billy, can you turn the air conditioning up?"
"It's up all the way, dude."
"That's not good. I think it broke."
"Okay," Ruben said. "Well, the good news is, I always wanted to die from heat exhaustion in a hot car."
The car went quiet for about thirty seconds. "Hey," said Billy, "maybe we should stop at a gas station? Get some water or something? How much gas does the car have?"
"It's like half full," Prosper said. "But I dunno where the next gas station is."
"I'll check my phone," said Billy.
A sign was coming into view ahead of them. Prosper squinted at it. Yep, it definitely said there was gas. "Wait," he said. "It looks like it's the next exit. We'll stop there and get snacks and stuff."
"Hell yeah," said Ruben, failing to muster up the enthusiasm he had at the start.
They pulled off the highway. Prosper slowed down a lot when he realized the road ahead of them was dirt. Through the desert haze, he could see a town in the distance, and the promise of an ice cold bottle of water was enough to keep him bumping along the uneven road.
"You've got money, right?" Ruben said, just as they drove past the sign reading, "WELCOME TO GRANITE VILLAGE."
Billy frowned. "Do you… not have money?"
"No, I've got money, but I don't wanna spend it if I don't have to."
Prosper frowned at the run-down and boarded-up buildings they passed. "Buy your own snacks, Ruben," he said. "I'll buy water for everyone, but you gotta buy your own snacks."
He spotted the gas station at the corner of a light; he pulled in and turned the car off. When he got out, he noticed that the town was eerily quiet. Even the windows that weren't boarded up were dark and still. There was a convenience store at the pump, but the glass was too dirty to see through. Prosper was starting to wonder if there was anyone who could sell them conveniences.
Just as he thought that, the store's doors opened and a stout man walked out, with thick arms and thinning hair. He beamed at Prosper, his face red from the sun. "Well!" he said. "Customers! Why don't all three of you come in?"
"What?" Prosper said.
Billy opened her door and stood up, frowning. "Dude," she said to Prosper. "It's a gas station, not a five-star hotel. Maybe we should go somewhere less weird."
"We don't really need to get gas," Prosper said, "but we do need to get water. I mean, we don't really need to, but I really want something cold instead of the stuff in the trunk."
"That's fair," said Billy. "Okay, but we're staying in the car."
"And leave Prosper all alone with this dude?" Ruben said in alarm. "No way! I'm going in with him!"
"Then I'll be all alone in the car!"
"No one would be left alone if you all came in together," the man said. "Just saying."
"Random weirdo has a point," said Prosper. "Let's all go in. You can pick out your own snacks that way, too."
"This is such a bad idea," Billy muttered, even as she closed her door and walked around the car.
Ruben hopped out. "You better have unmelted granola bars," he said, walking past the man and into the store. The man held the door open for Prosper and Billy, who glanced at each other, shrugged, and followed Ruben inside.
The store wasn't stocked very well, Prosper noted. "The shelves were half-empty, and when he picked up one of the food packages, he saw it had expired two months ago. He put it back on the shelf. "Check the dates," he whispered to Ruben, who was busy picking out his own snacks.
"Expiration dates are a hoax," Ruben said.
"A hoax. An excuse to throw out food instead of selling or donating it. I drink expired milk all the time and I'm fine!"
"Who are you, anyway?" Billy said, staring at the man as he moved behind the cash register. "And why's this place so dead?"
The man grinned. "That's an apt way to describe it! My good fellows, you have found yourself in a genuine ghost town!"
Ruben jerked his head up from where he was bent over looking at the snacks. "Sorry, what?"
"Yeah, okay," said Billy. "Let's go."
"Calm down, guys," Prosper said. "It's like, a town where the mines shut down or all the trees were cut, so the business left and then the town just kind of died. It's not literally about ghosts."
"Yeah, let's go with that," said the man. "I used to be a miner, back in the day."
Prosper nodded, grateful for the support from the complete stranger.
"How 'bout we pay for our stuff and we go?" Billy said.
They paid for their stuff. It was cheap, which was both surprising and unsurprising. On the one hand, gas station snacks usually were a lot more. On the other hand, like half of it was expired, including the chocolate bars Ruben insisted on buying. "Chocolate bars don't go bad! Sometimes the cocoa butter like, separates from the rest of it when it gets old, and it makes the outside look weird, but –"
"Whatever," said Billy. "You're cleaning it up when it melts in the car."
"Crap. I didn't think of that."
He bought them anyway, sliding his money across the counter. Once Ruben finished paying, Prosper was next in line, while Billy declined to spend her money. "We don't know how long we're gonna be gone," she said. "We should be watching our spending."
"You're a smart girl," the man said. "What brings you all the way out here?"
"Getting gas," Prosper said. "And water. And snacks, I guess."
"You must have exciting lives!" The man handed Prosper his change and grinned again. Prosper wondered if his face didn't hurt, from all the grinning he did. "Have a good day, sir!"
"You too," Prosper gathered up his water and motioned for Ruben and Billy to follow him. "We're leaving now."
He decided not to get gas; they didn't really need it, and he kind of wanted to leave as soon as possible. "Have a safe trip!" the man called from the door while Prosper started the car. "And say hi to your sister for me!"
It took a few moments for his words to sink in.
Prosper shut the car off and threw the door open. "What?!" he yelled, standing up, but the convenience store door was already closed. "What does that mean?! How do you know my sister!"
Billy was getting out of the car on the other side. "Dude! You can't drop that on us and leave!"
"I literally have no idea how to react to this," Ruben said, still sitting in the car.
Prosper ran back to the door and pulled on it. It was locked. "Let me in!" He yanked hard on the handle. "Tell me what you know!"
He almost didn't notice when Billy was at his side and yanking on the door with him. When their combined strengths didn't budge it, they started banging on the glass. "Let us in!" Prosper yelled. "Let us in!"
The unmistakable sound of shattering glass shocked him into silence. When he and Billy looked over, Ruben was staring at the window he had just broken, shards of glass littered in front of him.
"I thew a rock at it," he explained.
"How big was the rock?" Billy asked. "'Cause that's a really big hole."
"I don't care," Prosper said. "We're going in."
"Okay," said Billy. "Stealing, and now breaking and entering. If anyone asks, none of this was my idea."
No one was in the convenience store, least of all the man. Ruben immediately went behind the counter and fiddled with the register. "It's locked," he told them.
"And you checked that first… why?"
"Because he's a creep and I want my money back."
Billy nodded in understanding. "Yeah. Okay, let's find the back door to this place. He can't have gone far."
There didn't appear to be a back door, not at first glance. Prosper's hands shook. He attempted and failed to take deep breaths, his chest heaving. Billy glanced back at him. "Dude," she said. "Do you need to sit down?"
"I'm fine," he said. "I just need to find the guy."
"This place is really small. There's probably a door hidden somewhere."
"Billy, I don't follow your logic," Ruben said.
"You know! When you're at a gas station, and the shop is so small, they put shelves on the back door, too, so that they've covered every possible space to sell stuff."
"I don't know that, but I believe you."
Billy rolled her eyes. "Whatever."
Prosper needed to do something. He forced his body to a magazine rack and tugged at it. Nothing moved. He tugged harder, and the rack fell off and the magazines spilled over him. The noise brought Billy and Ruben running.
"Are you okay?!" Ruben yelped.
"I'm fine!" Prosper shoved the rack off him and sat up. Now that the rack was off, he could see there was a door behind it, though without a doorknob. "I think this is the back door," he said.
It took all three of the to pry the door open, sticking their fingers in the crack between the door and the frame. "How did he get here so fast?" Billy muttered. "Are we sure this is the right door?"
"It probably would've been faster to go outside and go around," Ruben said. "Or… uh…"
As the door creaked open, Ruben trailed off, staring through the opening. Behind the door was a staircase leading down into darkness. "Or not," Billy said. "Since I guess he didn't go outside? Secret staircase in a gas station convenience store. That's not weird at all."
"Let's go," Prosper said.
"Okay," said Billy. "We're coming with you."
Ruben turned back from stuffing bags of chips down his shirt. "Yeah! Definitely! Where are we going?"
Prosper took out his phone and turned the flashlight on as they descended. The basement room was dark and mostly empty; there were some stray folding chairs littered around, and a chalkboard on the concrete wall. Prosper saw more halls leading away from the station, with dirty old pipes running along the ceiling.
"Where do you think those go?" Ruben whispered.
Billy groaned. "I dunno, but that weirdo probably knows, and we don't know which way he went!"
As he shined the light from side to side, Prosper caught a glimpse of words on the chalkboard. He focused the light there.
GOLD TOWN #6
"What does that mean?" Billy wondered out loud.
"He knew about Goldie," Prosper said. "Does this have something to do wth her?"
Ruben furrowed his brow. "I mean, all he knew was that you had a sister. Which could've been a lucky guess."
"I don't think it was a lucky guess. I think he knows something."
"So what do we do?" Billy said. "We can't just wander around down here looking for weirdos.
Prosper took a deep breath.
"That's exactly what we're going to do," he said.
"Okay," said Ruben. "Well, great news! I've always wanted to be brutally murdered by some weirdo in a spooky secret hideout."
"We're not gonna get murdered," Billy said. "But we're not splitting up, either. Alright, Prosper, which way are we going?"
Prosper shined his light down a hall that sloped further into the earth. "This way," he said. "Let's go."