A random flock of zombified seagulls circle slowly, effortlessly above the shore, waiting for the next thing to drop dead so they can have a nice meal. The gusting wind is steady off my shoulder, up-wind from the corpse on the beach and tons of dead-eyed fish. I’ve been here before and the number one rule at the Salton Sea is to wear shoes. Not flip-flops, not saddles, only boots, make it rubber if you’re serious. And bring a stick.

This is my chance to find my step-sister before the big plan they’re hatching takes off. My brother-in-law smiles as I walk toward him. We start strolling leisurely alongside the acid-etched cement footings of a boat dock. I snap a few pictures. It is what it is, and not much else has changed. “So how long has it been?”

“Been here for a year and then some, We’re over there now, it’s that school bus with the purple veranda. You can stay the night if you want.”

One more picture of Bro holding up a dead seagull, behind him is a glorious sun setting over the endless Salton Sea. “I can’t connect to anything around here, you guys are living in a cell-dead zone.” We both look at the four-o-four message displayed on my phone.

“That’s the price you pay for true freedom.”Bro swings his head upright, looking from horizon to horizon. “I mean this is living free. We’ve got no taxes, no-one telling us what to do. This is the true patriot’s freedom. American freedom! We support each other the best we can, but in the end, we’re on our own.” Bro points his eyes downward to the handgun sticking out of his pants pocket.

I take a drag on my cigarette, “you don’t have to live in hell just to evade taxes, you know?”

“And rent. And corporations spying on you. And those filthy rich bastards in congress. And…”

“What do you do if you have a medical emergency?”

“It’s an endless desert out there, and we got plenty of shovels.” Bro winks at me with a smirk and a giddy laugh. “We got supplies. We got surprises. We’re prepped and ready to go. If we need surgery Maggie can do it. Else it’s just a couple hours away.”

“Wise ass.” I don’t like Bro much, he’s kind of wiry, but he did marry my sister, so he’s a part of the landscape. “What do you guys do for food?”

“Some of us go’s to civilization once and a while, donate some blood. Then check out some grocery store dumpsters, fresh out-of-date shit, stuff like that. Then you hit up some donation stores for anything they’re throwing away. Once we get the back seat stocked up, we trip-it back. It can take two days, maybe three, but usually, we score enough to last three weeks, and more.”

The wind dies down and the fragrance of a million dead fish washes back from the shore. “Crap, Bro, how do you deal with this smell? I mean Mother of Shit!”

“It’s camouflage.” Bro squints at me, “you planning to stay the night?”

“Nah, got some things to finish.”

“That’s what Maggie said before she left to get medicine for those sores on her legs.”

“Maggie! Where is she? What the hell did you do to her?”

“Back off chief, it was her idea to come out here!” Bro stops walking but I take a few steps more. He shouts at my back, “Maggie knows what she’s do’in. So back off with your high and almighty concern over a sister you haven’t seen in years! You’re an asshole for coming here! She doesn’t want you here. I don’t want you here. So why the fuk are you here?”

I spin around for a face-to-face stare-down with Bro, then start walking toward the water. The baked mud, crusted with layers of white salt, breaks through, sinking up around my ankles. I turn back toward Bro. “You guys live in shit and you call it paradise. For cuck-sake Slab City is better than here.”

“A bunch of dried up hippies and new-agers. They don’t get the message.” Bro pulls his pistol out, aiming it just off to my left side. I see a few incisions across his arm.

“Bro, what the fuk happened to you?

He keeps staring down the gun barrel. “We had a fight. She said she was sorry, picked out all of the glass and stitched me up. Damn I love her.”

He pulls the trigger, ‘BAAM’. I mean it was loud, my ears are still ringing. “What the fuk are you shooting at?” I scream.

“It’s my way of telling Maggie ‘We’re Here For You’.”

I see a couple of guys from his hooch crossing over the hard-pan dirt, coming our way. I tramp up to Bro, looking him square in the eyes. “So, she’s not here. Anyway to find her?”

Bro dangles his handgun against his leg. “That’ll cost you.”

I empty out my wallet, handing it all to Bro. Bro waves to his three approaching comrades, stopping them in their tracks. “Washington D.C.” He points North, but I know what he means.