“Come watch the sunset on April 1st. 100 bucks for everyone at San Gregorio State Park bluff at 5pm. Sponsored by Hair Today shampoo, from sunrise to sunset, it’s the best hair day you’ll get!” said the raspy radio host. Blake Turner, an up-and-coming ad marketer 5 years out of Yale, mouthed the words along with the radio. Hearing his first advertising campaign launch made him beam. He knew the April Fool’s joke would drive brand awareness and certainly land him a promotion, not to mention local notoriety.
Shirley Twirl, a social media influencer known for side pony-tails and a purple tube top that read Balls to the Wall, spotted the campaign tweet. She immediately retweeted her 1M Twirlies to join a live stream event, “Let’s make bank! Get ready to twirl—live streaming on location!”
Ben, finger-styling his sun-bleached hair, begged to join her. “Please!” Ben said. “Mom and dad are out of town. I need the money, sis.”
“Ok, but if they find out it’s your funeral,” she said, looking away to snap a pic of her newly purchased white kitten heels.
Fontina’s friend Sara forwarded the Hair Today video from Facebook. “You in?” she asked.
It had been a couple months since Fontina lost her job at the mall, an unfortunate combination of the economic downturn and Fontina’s fiery mouth. The money would be enough for a bus ticket to visit her boyfriend, Zeke, who had an 8-dotted domino tattooed on his cheek. She had a matching domino on her ankle, an inside joke to celebrate how much they enjoyed bringing the two tattoos together. She cried for a week when he left two months ago for a construction job 4 hours south.
Yes, she decided, pulling her hair into a messy bun. “Papa, I’m gonna go out Thursday night,” she said, casting her voice loud enough to reach him in the living room. “You make dinner for yourself, ok?” He hadn’t been the same since his stroke and she worried he might forget. She scribbled a reminder and stuck it on the refrigerator door. Zeke hadn’t called this week and she wondered if his eyes wandered since the move. She couldn’t wait to see his deep blue eyes staring into hers.
“Yes, my little domino,” her father said, referring to a tattoo he thought represented their much-loved games nights. He reached a hand into a Doritos bag and returned to watching TV. His attention fixated on treasure hunters uncovering long lost riches.
Jake called his wife Lexi as soon as he heard the radio spot. “It’s probably a joke,” he said, “but it could also be an easy $400.”
Lexi knew they could use the money right now, the twins were growing so quickly. Maybe they could buy the kids clothes, or maybe they should be responsible for once, and actually start the college savings plan they hadn’t done. Either way, the fresh ocean air would be better than another evening smelling dried breast milk and washing dirty diapers. An evening out is what they needed, she thought. Maybe they would use the money for a short family trip.
The morning of April 1st started like most others. It didn’t seem all that different. Ben tried to prank Shirley, but the saran wrap on the toilet picked up the sunlight and gave the trick away. Fontina reminded her father over breakfast that she was going out with Sara. He asked if she’d be home in time for dinner. And, while wiping twin butts yet again, Jake turned to Lexi and said, “When will this all be over?”
Blake hardly slept the night before the event. He took his morning run and fielded a few media inquiry emails. His fingers typed quickly and suggested they bring news crews to capture the event, perfectly timed for a live segment during the evening broadcast, he hinted. The first call he made that morning was to McAllister Ranch, “All set, Jeff?”
“100 bucks,” Jeff said in an unsteady voice. “You sure about this? People will be pissed.”
“It’s April 1st. People are expecting a prank,” he said. “I want to deliver!”
The traffic heading over the hill toward the coastline park was heavier than normal. Cars followed one another closely with brake lights flaring every 10 minutes or so. By 4:00pm, the parking lot at San Gregorio State Park neared capacity. People lined the bluff overlooking the ocean and beach-goers far below. The park staff disliked the mass of people descending on them as the sun prepared to say goodnight. By 4:30pm, park staff had to shut down the entrance forcing cars to jam the roadway as they took turns parking along its edge.
Fontina and Sara knew the traffic would be horrible and arrived earlier that afternoon. They spread a blanket on the grass near a grill where they prepared an early dinner. It was a surprisingly warm day, and the salty sea mist worked its way up the cliff, keeping them cool.
Jake didn’t make eye contact with Lexi as they walked along the road, each carrying a napping twin. Lexi didn’t enjoy the long and winding drive which concluded with scrambling to find a parking spot and then hiking to the park. Not too far behind them walked Shirley and Ben, unphased by the hoard of people and parking frenzy. Nearly 200 people filled the bluff, Lexi’s heart sank at the sight. Shirley felt energized.
Shirley started her live stream with, “I’m here, bitches!” as she panned the sea of people. Her brown eyes catched the light and matched the color of stone grit supporting the bluff. She posed near the edge, using the rolling waves and waning sun as her backdrop, making sure her Carpe Diem t-shirt and pink glossy lips were in frame.
Lexi and Jake found a picnic table to lean against, surprised the twins hadn’t woken up. New to parenting, and only 11 months in, they both wished they could sleep as deeply as the twins. Jake often joked he would lock his bedroom door and sleep for an entire week once the twins were old enough to fend for themselves.
Three news crews showed up and Blake eagerly directed them to an area where they could capture the full extent of the crowd. Young, old, fat, thin, straight, black, gay, asian, white—representation in full force, everyone with the same intent—free money. The turnout was far bigger than Blake expected.
The larger the crowd, the bigger the impact. Did he fear an uproar at the release of the 100 male deer he had planned? No. Everyone enjoyed a good prank, he thought. It would be a beautiful sunset and all attendees would receive coupons for free Hair Today products. It’ll make a great headline—no downside.
At 4:45pm, two large trucks carrying the surprise cargo arrived and an event coordinator directed them to a fenced off area near the crowd. Everyone watched in anticipation as the trucks parked, confused by what it meant, still questioning if they would or wouldn’t be walking away with 100 dollars. The tragedy unfolded before any questions could be answered.
From their location, staff and TV crews said there were no warning signs. There’s no way anyone could have known. A few people on the outer edge of the crowd said they felt a soft jolt, like a tap against the soles of their feet just as the cliff’s edge gave way from the weight. A suspected hidden fracture deep within the cliff exposed from the force put upon it. Everyone within 30’ of the edge dropped away.
One reporter said it was like watching a rollercoaster dip from view, they just disappeared. Hundreds of people just vanished as the cliff fell onto the beach, instantly burying sunbathers and the bluff crowd falling from above in a mass grave. A thick dust cloud rose from the beach and boats far from shore thought it looked like a nuclear detonation. Moments later a rogue wave caused by the collapse lapped at their boats. A small sailboat carrying a couple vacationing from Delaware capsized from the force, its occupants pulled below the surface. On land, screams from bystanders ran toward the rubble as the dust settled.
Blake froze in shock. He stared straight ahead in horror, tears slid from his eyes, sweat surfaced on his palms. He couldn’t think, couldn’t process what just happened. Reporters and their crews leapt to action, some running toward the newly receded bluff’s edge, others focusing cameras on Blake. He looked like a frightened, lost child. It would be his last ad campaign.
The news carried the story live all night. 50 presumed dead, then 78, and by midnight the story became more clear and gruesome as recovery crews worked through the night. The scope seemed staggering and the excavation estimated to take weeks.
Shirley’s live stream ended at 4:54pm on April 1st. People, mostly Shirley’s Twirlies, downloaded the video millions of times within hours and her social media followers doubled. In the video shared to Twitter, you could hear a gasp and then see a rush of earth swirling before the stream stopped abruptly. An estimated 3 million cubic yards of debris pinned Shirley and Ben against the beach.
Lexi and Jake held their twins close to their chests, whether they knew what was happening or if it was purely instinctual. Not too deep within the rubble, each one would later be found holding a twin looking as though they had just laid down to take a much-needed nap.
The fallen cliffside stuck out like an appendage from the coastline. Of those who fell from the bluff, no one survived. Most victims were buried, a few pieces of clothing and bodies scattered the scene like cupcake sprinkles. A hand or foot haphazardly protruding out of the dirt as if to claim, “I was here by 5pm.”
A cameraman zoomed the area looking for movement. He discovered the clear marking on one of the bodies below. It looked like a black, rectangle, possibly a tattoo. The image immediately trended online. Zeke’s clumsy fingers were peeling open a blue mac-n-cheese box when he saw the image on the news. His frantic call to Fontina’s cell phone went directly to voicemail.
Fontina’s dad didn’t watch the news and he no longer went online. Instead, he set up dominos on the tray table next to his chair, like he did every night. He changed the channel to watch Gold Rush, excited by miners on the brink of unearthing a fortune.
And, when Fontina didn’t come home to make him dinner, he fell asleep in his chair feeling hungry and alone.