This story is one of the finalists of Young Post's 2017 Summer Short Story Competition. Each week during the holidays, we will publish one of the finalists' stories. The winning entry will appear in Young Post on August 26.
There’s only so much a person can achieve in their fleeting life. Finding employment at the local magazine as a rookie photographer fresh out of college was all I could ask for. Perhaps it was already too much.
The only jobs rookies ever got were small errands or unpleasant jobs no one would take. Talk about being an underdog.
This time, fate was so cruel as to land me, quite literally, in the dumps.
I slung my camera bag over my shoulder, desperately trying to keep it away from the roaches that crawled all over my boots as I trudged through the layers of litter. Half an hour into the jungle of garbage and I had yet to take my camera out of the bag.
Picky Boss wanted a photo to go with an article about landfills. Lucky me. Why not send the rookie over to the landfills? It’s not like we want that useless thing to stick around anyway.
“Why couldn’t the article have been about Paris?” I wondered aloud, not for the first time in the past half hour.
When the security guards told me the landfill was the largest in Hong Kong, they weren’t kidding. There was no end to the field of rubbish, and I’m sure there was a whole lot more litter in places that the eye could not reach.
I looked around, searching for a good subject for the photo. The spectacular heights made for a dramatic shot, but I needed something that would make people look twice at a photo of a filthy garbage dump, and look twice at this rookie photographer.
* * *
One whole day of hiking up dented refrigerators, and there she was, my perfect muse, sitting atop a heap of trash as though it were her throne. A beautiful stork, feathers primed and with the perfect lighting. You got all sorts of birds at landfills, but you rarely came across one so pristine.
Very carefully, I reached for my camera bag, and then everything happened too quickly at the same time.
One single misstep was all it took to sink my foot into a hollowed part of a rusty scrap of metal. I foolishly put my whole weight onto the fragile surface, and like Alice in Wonderland, I fell through the cracked hole into the layers beneath the landfill surface.
It was an unexpectedly long fall, and only more piles of rubbish helped to break it. I opened my eyes fearfully, but could see nothing.
No sunlight could permeate the mountains of litter that coated the landfill above me. My eyes adjusted to the darkness after a while and figured out that I was somewhere under the surface of the dump, in the deeper and buried parts of the site.
I checked my camera bag and breathed a sigh of relief as I found my camera undamaged, but drew a sharp breath again as I heard low-pitched snarls echoing from the tunnels that led to pitch blackness.
I didn’t seem to have broken any bones after the fall, but there was no way I could outrun any beast in such utter darkness, towing my weighty camera bag behind me. I felt around for a makeshift weapon I could use, but with no luck.
Two dogs, bigger than any I had seen before, came into view, their eyes glowing dangerously in the blackness as they circled me. I twitched an eyebrow nervously, and the black one barked a fierce warning against any stupid ideas. The white one trained its eyes on me, vigilant as it approached.
They closed the distance with every step, and I backed away shakily, pulling my bag closer to me. Their bared fangs looked like lethal weapons.
“Kahn. Kai.” The dogs immediately stopped the growling and retreated at the call.
A young boy in rags emerged from the shadows, wearing an expression of curiosity. A lump of dishevelled and knotted hair covered half of his face, and clung at his skull.
I jolted to my senses at once.
“O-Oh!” I exclaimed. “My apologies, I am a photographer for the local magazine. My name is Sirius Chen.” I offered to shake hands; the offer fell on stony ground. The boy in cruddy rags seemed more curious about what was in my other hand.
“Wotcha holdin’, Si-rus?” He eagerly gestured at my camera bag. The fascination in his eyes was enough to make me forget about the ferocious dogs by his feet.
“Oh, this? It’s my camera.”
“Ka-mi-ra?” The boy grinned toothily. “Cool. Gimme that.”
He wiped his grubby hands against his equally grimy rags before holding them out greedily. I complied, and the boy became excited, bursting into jolly laughter as he explored the new toy.
“Cool,” he muttered as he fiddled with the ka-mi-ra. The dogs – Kahn and Kai – sniffed the gadget eagerly when the boy held it out for them. After a while, having had his fun, he returned the ka-mi-ra.
“T’anks. I’m Fing.” Fing beckoned for me to come with him as he went down the narrow dim tunnels that led to more darkness. Kahn and Kai followed.
Fing stayed silent on the way, only occasionally patting on Kahn or Kai’s head. I could barely manoeuvre my way through the tunnels of litter without anything to light the way, but Fing seemed to manage just fine.
My gasps echoing around the walls of the tunnel as I took a break sounded awkward, so I made an attempt at conversation.
“Where are we going, Fing?” I asked between pants.
Fing turned. “Don’t cha need a place ta stay?”
I shook my head. “I need to go back. I have a job and home.”
“Back? To the outside?”
“Yeah. Don’t you need to go back as well?”
Fing only shook his head.
As we proceeded, the end of the tunnel widened into a more extensive space with only a small fire to illuminate the cave-like area. The scene that unfolded before me was almost unbelievable. There were people of all ages here: a few children dancing around the small fire, burly men sitting in the far back watching silently, and some older women fast asleep on the floor. And I didn’t miss the lifeless corpse that was shoved to the side of the cave.
I stared at the grim reminder of the ruthlessness of civilisation. “You live here? Why?”
“I was abandoned here. Ma parents probably couldn’ afford to raise me.” Fing shrugged. “Ya got all sorta people down ’ere, orphans, runaways, refugees … We all got no place ta return ta. ’Ere.”
I knew I risked being insensitive, but the journalist in me couldn’t keep from asking questions.
“What do you do about food and everything? How do you even get by down here?”
Fing scratched Kahn and Kai behind the ears. “It gets harder an’ harder ta get ta the surface as the trash pile up even higher, so the dogs bring us the food an’ stuff.” Kahn and Kai made themselves comfortable at Fing’s feet. “I train an’ take care of the dogs ’ere. Besides Kahn an’ Kai, the others are out on the surface salvaging what they can. We get by okay with the dogs.”
The whole area was just a hollowed-out space held up shakily. What kind of metropolis was this city with people crushed under the weight of our waste? I took a good look at Fing, and the others who were down here.
It hadn’t been as visible when I met him in the dark, but everything about him was so fragile. His bones looked like they could bend over and snap any second, his stick-like frame barely holding his rags up. I thought I’d grown immune to the stink of the landfills, but as I sat beside Fing, the smell of rot and death was so pungent that if I didn’t know any better I’d have thought he was a savage animal.
Fing bit one of his mud-caked nails as he ruffled Kahn’s white fur. “As long as we keep our ’eads down and stay hidden ’ere, the gov’nment has no reason to notice dogs under the ruins of a society like us. They don’ look twice at a dump like this. Not a dump like where they throw out everything they don’ need.”
I stretched my arms. “Don’t you guys miss all of it though? The sky, the sun?”
“The sun, huh? Haven’ seen that in a long while.” His words were tinged with wistfulness. “We hardly get any light in here. This place’s almost completely shut off.”
“You mean there’s no way out?” I demanded.
“There is one way, but nobody’s ’tupid enough ta try it.” Fing looked towards the other end of the cave. “There’s a narrow path o’er there leading up ta the surface, but it’s got real sharp stuff poking out of now’ere. Trus’ me, ya don’ wanna go there.”
“I have to get back. You don’t understand ...”
I began gesticulating wildly. A few others in the cave had stopped to listen by now.
“The last fellow who tried ended up like that.” Fing pointed at the corpse that was swept to the side. I shuddered a bit. “Ya still wanna try?”
“Don’t you want to get out of this place? See the sunlight?” I pressed. “I can help you. I can make people notice.”
Fing stroked the dogs by his side. “Kahn, Kai.” Without even the slightest hesitation, Kahn and Kai leapt to lead the way.
I stood, mesmerised, and reached for my camera, as the corners of Fing’s mouth lifted slightly into what resembled a serene smile. Blood dripped from his fingertips, and wooden splinters decorated his knees. The sweetness was almost foreign on his dirt-caked face. The others followed, stumbling and dragging their heels but wearing expressions of gratification as they stepped into the light. They faced the sun, tears running down their ashen cheeks.
Click. I pressed down on the shutter-release button.