Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Toxic Destinations

from The Lost Traveler’s Tour Guide

Since the discovery of the Eighth continent, your Tour Guide writers have received many letters from travelers and concerned individuals. We have heard, for instance, from the embattled New Zealand geologists who have long attempted to gain traction for their theory of the unrecognized continent of Zealandia. These hardworking scientists argue that the collection of partly submerged fragments off the coast of New Zealand comprise a much larger landmass, claiming this fits within standard definitions of continental attributes. They cite in their defense (1) Zealandia’s high elevation relative to regions floored by oceanic crust; (2) a broad range of siliceous igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks; (3) thicker crust and lower seismic velocity structure than oceanic crustal regions; and (4) well-defined limits around a large enough area to be considered a continent rather than a microcontinent or continental fragment (e.g., Holmes, 1965; Christensen and Mooney, 1995; Levander et al., 2005; Kearey et al., 2009; Condie, 2015). If their claims are accepted, Zealandia is certainly the true inheritor of the eighth continent title, and none of your guidebook writers are against this. We are, as a group, in favor of the world having more continents, and if the world comes to accept Zealandia as our eighth continent, we’ll happily accept the continent of Triol’s ranking as ninth. (However, let’s admit that it’s one thing to seek reputation of a continent based on crustal regions, and quite another when the continent of Triol provides us evidence of its bakeries, souvenir shops, urinals, and logoed refrigerator magnets).

More concerning to us, however, are the reports of missing travelers. Since Triol’s discovery, our newspapers have been filled with photos of calamitous study-abroad excursions, and our cable stations report the near-death escapes of travelers visiting dangerous destinations in the eighth continent. And while it may be in the travel writer’s interest to paint a flattering picture, to entice, in short, to sell destinations to future travelers—we would feel criminally remiss if we didn’t admit that there are hotels and cities, whole countries even, to avoid.

For this reason, we present to all of you, who long to see the new world, an addendum to our original Tour Guide, containing both updated descriptions of previous destinations and warnings of newly discovered locales. As always, we wish you safe travels, and most importantly, safe returns.

The Town of Gerholtz

We’re sad to report that the town of Gerholtz, once a starred destination, can no longer be recommended for travel. We’re not sure when Gerholtz took a turn for the worse, but in recent years thieves have broken the windows of hotels, the dump is overflowing, the rivers have become toxic, and the shingles are rotting on foreclosed homes.

And yet, it wasn’t always like this. Your guidebook writers recall a time when Gerholtz decorated their public park with golden bulbs for the holidays, and lights filled pine boughs like a flock of starlings. The town would shine in those winter months, illuminated as if with a dusting of snow. One might pass the gazebo where the small lights flickered like fireflies in the night. The heart would soften, your pace would slow, and you’d take your spouse’s hand as if for the first time. Yes, even though the town now has more liquor stores than family restaurants, we remember those lights like beacons on a sinking ship.

Who ordered the lights to be strung? Had an official declared the park should be a kindly sight during the long winter? Was it a town council resolution? No one recalls. There was simply an old man who appeared in the fall with a wagon of lights and spent the afternoon stringing them up. Then he’d reappear in spring to wheel them away—to a shed, or a basement, or the back of his closet. No one knew; no one asked.

Then, one autumn, the old man passed quietly in the county hospital, and the lights remained where they’d been stored until they were sold at a yard sale or tossed into a dumpster. Soon the town grew dark. Houses were foreclosed and the liquor store was robbed. A woman’s body was found in the river. Teenagers overdosed behind the abandoned fire station, flowers were replaced by weeds, and Gerholtz became the town we find today: a place where no one performs a kind gesture anymore. Parents don’t push their toddlers on swings but sit on benches smoking cigarettes. Everyone inspects receipts, expecting to be overcharged, and they stiff their servers. And when children lose baby teeth and place them beneath pillows, they awake to find their molars where they left them.

Alas, the city has become a truly wretched place. Walking its streets, we’re filled with loathing for all those we pass—the fighting couples, the ugly locals, the beggars, the drunks in the park. And while it might be true that a single sweet word would lighten a passersby’s mood, or a simple act of kindness might restore the town’s spirit, we’re too sick of the place to bother. There isn’t a nice thing we can say about Gerholtz. Even if there was, we wouldn’t do it. Not one generous word.

The Hotel Aranche

Crouched along the southern coastline, as though hiding from the rest of the continent, sits the town of Aranche. Here clouds hang low, and the sharp eyeteeth of volcanic deposits rise from the ocean to chew through the bottoms of docking boats and leave snorkelers bloody. Wind whistles a melody against the cliffs, mournful and uninviting—a song which has chased local fishermen from its shores. This is a coast for fools and the guests of The Hotel Aranche, which we urge you to stay away from.

We extend this warning before describing its many pleasures. And if you’re wise, you’ll read no further, simply accept the advice of your guidebook writers and seek a different hotel. Because, like the stonefish of Indonesia, whose camouflage conceals a poison which kills within minutes, The Hotel Aranche has adapted itself to devour guests over a week-long stay.

Note the softness of the hotel’s carpets which welcome your feet when you emerge from the hot tub (every room comes with one), or the view of the sea which dominates the horizon. There are complimentary massages and facials, a bar with sugarcane liquors, Michelin-rated three-star dining, nightly magic shows for the kids, and an in-house theater—all included in the cost of your stay. As for budget travelers, the reception desk seems to anticipate the financial woes of backpackers, who upon seeing the crystal fountains or chocolate-dipped strawberries, begin to turn away. Come, the concierge says, we have special rates for you. Are you a student? American? Under twenty-one? Over twenty-two? If so, they extend a price which can be found at no other hotel. As for those who wish to prolong their stay, the staff willingly offer additional nights at reduced costs. Stay, they tell you, we’re happy you’re here.

There are those who claim no human hands built the hotel—that it was constructed by the Devil himself—and while your guidebook writers don’t believe such tales, we are aware that there are unnamed beasts which roam this earth, creatures to which humans are but food. Any objective observer would note the odd behavior of the guests. How they forget their original urge to leave. How they extend vacations indefinitely, emailing jobs back home with delay after delay. How enamored they are by the charming bellhops and massage therapists whose faces stretch into smiles as the hotel draws guests further into its belly.

If you’re presently sitting on your king-sized bed, only now consulting this description, we wish we had better news for you; the sheets you’ve slept beneath have already released their neurotoxins. Note how—even as you read this—you’re already thinking of returning to the pool, or how you eagerly anticipate tonight’s concert in the atrium. Is that room service knocking at your door? Tonight, when you slip beneath the covers, it’s not the cool of Egyptian cotton you’ll feel but the engulfing flesh of the hotel’s large intestine. You’ll smile, stretch out your arms, and welcome it. You’ve never been happier.

The City of Nacht

It’s common knowledge that the city we see in the day is never the same one we encounter at night. Windows are shuttered, toy shops roll down gates, flower sellers lock front doors, and in their place, nightclubs, bars, and pool halls open their doors. All this we regard as commonplace, but even the most seasoned traveler will be surprised by the city of Nacht, which, like the moonflower, uncurls its nocturnal petals only after the clock’s hands have reached their peak.

Sitting by the fountain at the center of town, one hears the clang of midnight bells, and then the city’s machinery begins to turn. Apartment buildings curve toward streets, church steeples arc to the cobblestones, and new buildings ride upon their backs, circling high into the night sky. Their windows open to release dark music, and from these buildings, Nacht’s citizens emerge, their eyes ringed with mascara and sleeplessness.

It’s true that a city’s treasures can often only be found after the sun goes down. In restaurants, knives are sharpened, steam rises, and sauté pans clang like evening bells. A jazz band tunes up. Soon tables will be filled, wine bottles uncorked, glasses emptied, and the band will play far into the night until the ashtrays are full.

For these pleasures alone, one would be remiss not to venture into the city of Nacht. But, let us warn you: for all its pleasures, the doorways of Nacht open to rooms where shadows spread. Within pubs are women who despise the birdsong of morning. Men, who masquerade as businessmen during the day, morph into dangerous lovers in the bar’s yellow haze. Close your eyes and they’ll lead you to ballrooms where there’s always someone new to kiss and a card game ready to take your wedding ring. Which barroom do you find yourself in, prepared to abandon all that gave life meaning? Whose eyes do you see staring back at you from the dirty bathroom mirror? Live now, Nacht whispers. And we, who have cast ourselves into its trap, listen.

Of course, Nacht isn’t the only city to spin such webs. Let us mention the city of Dhlwak, where drowned men stumble from the sea, break barnacles from their knuckles, and speak with tongues sweet as oysters to our daughters before dragging them below. Or Luskitch, where beautiful women as hollow as reeds emerge from riverbanks, call to our men, and lead them away.

Every one of us has strayed close enough to the edge to know there’s a world far from sunlight out there. And night reveals that all cities are Russian dolls, their center a hidden place which closes around us with morning. Perhaps you’ve already been there, trapped within its smallest figurine; perhaps your guidebook writers are there now, calling out from its belly in warning.

The Country of Phôtl

The country of Phôtl is filled with broken people who have used their last dollars to make its capital their home. Everyone in this miserable destination slumps home in the dark autumn light, or sits along the city’s steam grates, extending coffee cups for change. Riding the subway in the early evening, one encounters the broken birdcage of a woman as she looks at the city’s passing lights, her body rocked by the train and the weight of shopping bags in her hand. Across from her is a man who lost his husband to illness; another lost their brother to war. And while it’s true that butterflies still appear amid these gloomy streets, and springtime flowers bloom, such sights go unnoticed. Instead, every night, when the inhabitants lay their heads against pillows, they breathe a final sigh and settle into a few hours of sleep before their days begin again.

Perhaps, as some say, we go to Phôtl as punishment for the wrongdoings of our past, or maybe, as the preachers speculate, Phôtl is the country we go to when we die. All we know is that most tourists come to Phôtl only after some great loss, and they seek out the solace of Phôtl’s bars, where couples dance drunken waltzes on sticky floors and offer their bodies to one another like spare change. In the bathroom, men in disheveled suits inhale white lines off dirty counters, while beneath the strobe lights, old men, laid-off from jobs, sit at the bar watching the dancers sway. Widows arrive, drenched from downpour, dragging their empty purses alongside them. Long ago, they lived in houses filled with children, worked in offices with large glass windows, shared apartments with those they loved. Who took everything from them? A friend crawling into bed with their spouse, a loan officer asking for a signature they could never repay, the hand of illness filling their mailboxes with bills. If you ask the bartender, he’ll say the immigrants are to blame; the banker says the poor; the drunk at the bar says the rich; and the waitress says every man in this city is to blame.

For those of us fortunate enough to leave, we depart the country with sighs of relief, thankful to have escaped. We arrive home pitying the people of that faraway land. How can their lives be filled with such sorrow, we wonder as we place our luggage in the darkened hallways of our homes. Why don’t they have any friends, we ask ourselves as we turn on our televisions. How can they survive with such little joy, we say, as we refill our refrigerators with just enough food to last another week.

Alexander Weinstein

Alexander Weinstein is the author of the short story collections Universal Love (2020) and Children of the New World, which was named a notable book of the year by The New York Times, NPR and Electric Literature. He is a recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award, and his stories and interviews have appeared in Rolling StoneWorld Literature TodayBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University.