The Desert by Jake Walters
by Jake Walters
He was windswept like the desert around him, floating, drifting through unwelcome bouts of pain, into other worlds where his feet staggered onward, toes dragging through the sand and leaving swishing marks like a drunken skier behind him, but where he felt nothing. It was two days now—he barely remembered the reason he was here—only being grabbed after stumbling out of a bar in L.A., high on coke and something else, being tossed around and kneed in the balls and spit on and then urinated on as he slouched against a cracked foundation in an alley. He remembered pleading for his life, invoking his mother, how she would miss him. He didn’t know his attackers, but he knew their boss, and he knew what it was all about; so he barely struggled as they dumped him in the trunk of some big assed boat of a car and drove, he drifting in and out of consciousness, feeling then much as he did now, in the desert, baking slowly.
“I didn’t have the ten grand,” he repeated, as a kind of mantra. “I didn’t have the ten grand.”
There were other things they could have done to him, indeed he had been running them through his mind as he lay in the trunk. Tied to a post, an old car tire jammed around his shoulders like a too-big crown, his vision almost obscured by the rotting rubber, and then the overpowering stench of gasoline being poured over it. The solitary switch of a lighter being coaxed into giving flame. And then hell.
What did they call that? He stumbled, both on his feet and through his thoughts, but the name did not come.
Was this better?
Something scuttled across the desert floor in front of him. He registered it in his peripheral vision and called after it: “I didn’t have the ten grand.” But the animal, or apparition, was gone.
This seemed some cruel joke, and sometimes in fits of optimism he expected someone to appear from behind a sand dune or to jump from behind a cactus and yell, “Just kidding!” and toss him a cold bottle of water. Because this could not happen in reality. But he looked up and there were no airplanes in the blue, blue sky, not even any clouds, and he had to wonder if he were even on Earth anymore, or if perhaps he had been forced into a Georgia O’Keefe painting.
Necklacing. That was what they called that particularly charming style of execution.
He staggered up an easy grade, miniature sand avalanches scraping down the slope below him. It took him ages to reach the top, and when he did, and he found the strength to turn and look behind him, to see from whence he had come, expecting a black hole, or a lake of fire, or to wake and still be laying in the cold, cracked alley outside the bar in Los Angeles, he was surprised to see that he had not climbed far. But it was hard to tell, because everything was the same color, save for the rare dots, which might have been cacti, or ghosts, or mirror images of himself, melting. He turned back again, to push onward.
There was something ahead. It was far—too far to make out. A ranch? A whole village? He felt something tugging at his heart, and he wanted to sprint, but he forced the urge down, because it would only make the hurt bigger when he found there was nothing sitting on the horizon, if he made it that far. “I didn’t have the ten grand,” he whispered, and started to climb down the hill. It took him as long to reach the bottom as it had taken him to reach the top. The wind started to blow in his face, if only for a moment, and he smiled.
He made it fifty yards before he collapsed, breaths shallow, heart racing, eyes closed, thoughts dead.
When he woke he was under a Joshua tree. The sun was somewhere behind him and cast an angry, orange light around him, but it was cool. He realized there were shadows here. Slowly, he rose into a sitting position and leaned heavily against the trunk of the tree. There was a bucket near his hip, and slowly he peered over the lip, expecting ashes or dust. But there was clear water waiting for him.
“Thank Jesus,” he said, trying to lick his lips. His tongue felt like a salamander’s tail scraping against his teeth. Barely able, he rose the bucket to his mouth and tipped. Mouthfuls gushed over his chin and down his chest, and he felt a bare, hollow guilt at wasting such a precious thing as this, but his joy was even greater. The water rushed down his throat and sat in his belly like lead.
After a few minutes he started to become more aware of his surroundings. This place could not be real. There was a pale orange adobe ranch thirty feet from him, surrounded by a weathered wooden fence. A one-eyed dog stared at him from the porch, but made no movements, not even to breathe, as far as he could see. Finally it yawned and then let out a long, breezy fart, as if by way of apology.
He became aware of another presence, and he took a few cursory glances around him, but he did not feel any panic. He had been through the worst of anything. Maybe it was them, he thought, but even then he did not care. He had water in his stomach.
“Hey there,” he heard a low voice call out. “You just about got left for dead out there.”
He located the man, who seemed to have appeared out of the sand just the other side of the fence. “You saved me?” he managed to mutter.
Despite the wind, and the incessant chirping or croaking of some alien animals nearby, the man heard him and responded, “I brought you here on my horse. Say, what were you doing out there all by yourself, anyway?”
He wanted to explain about the ten grand, the cocaine, the needles, the alley, the trunk, neclacing, but instead he said, “I was lost.”
“I once was lost, and now am found,” the stranger said, his voice surprisingly clear. “Amen.”
It took him a moment to realize where he had heard those words before. Then he stood. “Thank you. For saving me.”
“Don’t mention it,” the stranger said. “I’m Bill.”
“Casey,” he said, holding his hand out as the stranger approached him. They shook. Something about being dehydrated and near death made Casey forget his manners and inhibitions, and he asked, “Bill, do you have anything to eat?”
The man, whom Casey now saw was older than he had at first appeared, rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess you must be pretty hungry,” he said, looking over Casey’s shoulder. “I don’t think my wife will mind.”
“Thank you,” Casey said. “For everything.”
“Why don’t you follow me?” Bill said, starting to walk toward the house. “It’s almost supper time anyway.”
Casey walked a few feet behind Bill. The old man wore chapped boots, the color of a fine racehorse, but caked with dust. His jeans were tight and soiled and Casey looked for a few seconds at the old man’s ass. He wasn’t gay, but he admired how fit the man appeared. Bill stopped at the open door and held his hand out, inviting Casey inside first.
Casey stepped in and breathed deeply; it was at least fifteen degrees cooler. He slipped his shoes off by way of habit, something his mother had instilled in him in early childhood, and he wriggled his toes in his rust-colored socks. Pleasure crept up his legs from his feet to his groin. He moaned a little.
“Ella,” Bill called. “We got company.”
A woman appeared almost instantly from behind the kitchen threshold. “What?” she asked, cocking her head and summarily eyeing Casey at the same time.
“She’s a little hard of hearing,” Bill confided. “This is Casey,” he yelled at her. “He’s going to eat dinner with us.”
“Oh,” she answered, surprisingly softly. “I’ll set another place.” She disappeared again.
“Well, this is our little house,” Bill said. “It ain’t much, but it’s enough.”
“It’s just the two of you?” Casey asked.
Bill inhaled sharply and held his breath for a moment. Casey noticed his lips quiver slightly, as in forming a word, but then they reshaped themselves, and the trapped breath was expelled, and he said, “Sort of.” Casey was captivated by the old man’s mouth, which had begun to move again, but from which no other words came. He realized that he might have broached a sensitive subject. Perhaps they had had a little boy who had wandered out into the desert just like him, except that their child hadn’t been so lucky; no, he had gotten turned around somewhere, had started to follow some animal tracks, hadn’t known to build a fire at night, was roasted under the sun and shivered in pain and fear under the moon, knowing that crying was useless but doing it anyway, screaming for help, listening desperately for a response and hearing not even an echo to verify his own existence.
“Sorry,” Casey said, more in response to his imagination than anything else.
“Let’s eat,” Bill said, walking away from him. Casey watched him go for a moment and then followed into the kitchen. It was a small house and he was seated at the table after taking six steps. Bill sat unnaturally close to his wife, who hunched over her plate like a prisoner on guard. Casey tried to settle himself into his chair, but no matter in which direction he moved, his posture always seemed a little off, as if he were sitting on his wallet, or as if the floor were slanted in one direction.
“This is good,” Casey said, chewing a rubbery mouthful of corn. There was some kind of meat, mashed potatoes, a pitcher of lemonade sitting prominently in the center of the table.
“I’m glad,” Ella said, not looking up.
Casey looked toward the hallway, sure he had heard some kind of shuffling sound. He caught a glance shared between Bill and Ella. “What was that?” he asked.
Ella started to rise from the table, but Bill put his hand on her wrist and she slowly took her seat again. “I’ll go,” he said. “We have a dog,” Bill explained to Casey. “He likes to eat with us, but we don’t let him. But he can smell Ella’s food and he gets antsy.”
“Oh,” Casey said. He had been in many rooms with many liars in his life; liars about money, about drugs, about women, about themselves. He had been one himself. He supposed he was one, even now, sitting in this kitchen, without the requisite ten grand, playing lost victim. At any rate, he knew a lie when he was presented with one, and Bill had just lied. “What’s the old fella’s name?”
“Gringo,” Bill said. “I’ll be right back.” He slid a pittance of potatoes and meat onto a clean plate and left the kitchen.
Ella made sudden eye contact with Casey as soon as her husband had left, and her icy, contemplative stare made his heart jumpstart. She’s going to ask me to kill him, he thought, quickly banishing the idea. We’ll bury him in the sand and then have children together and plant a tree over his grave…
Bill appeared. He had no plate, no fork. “Gringo uses silverware, huh?” Casey said, instantly regretting having opened his yap.
“Look,” Bill said. “It’s just about dark, so I suppose you got to stay here tonight. Tomorrow we’ll get you on your way. The village isn’t too far.”
“How far?” Casey asked. The reality was that walking even a foot alone in that desert made his stomach sink, but he still considered it a possibility.
“It’s a death sentence to go yourself,” Ella said. A silence fell over them, as if these were the first words she had spoken all day. “You will wait until tomorrow. Bill will get a friend to pick you up.” She ate loudly, her lips smacking together like those of a ravenous scavenger. When she spoke her face reminded Casey of a girl holding something really nasty in her hand. “This is the most dangerous part of the desert.”
Casey weighed her words. He did not know what made this part so dangerous, but he was certain that Ella believed what she had said. “Okay,” he said finally. “But I really do have to be on my way tomorrow.”
Bill laughed. It was much like when Casey saw that Bill had not returned with the fork, and had deduced that Bill had been lying, except that now, Bill knew that Casey was the liar. How many people disappear into the desert, lose all sense of time and space, and then worry about a meeting in the morning? But Bill said nothing of it. Instead, he rose from the table. “I bet you’re tired,” he said. “Come on.”
“Thanks again,” Casey said, pushing his plate a few inches forward. But Ella had retreated into her private space where only she stayed. She stared at her own food.
Bill walked into the back of the house. The carpets under their feet were dusty and Casey tried to ignore it, but even that reminded him of his travels through the sand. “Here’s your room,” Bill said, pushing a door halfway open. It was dark inside, but Casey could make out the shape of a bed, a dresser against the wall, a chair by the window, all with the overflow light from the hallway. “We haven’t got running water,” Bill said, apology in his voice, “but if you want to take a bath, Ella will heat up some water for you.”
Casey wanted to take a bath, very badly. He had been pissed on, after all. “Okay,” he said. “Are you guys this nice to all your guests?”
Bill shook his head. “You’re our first.” He headed out the door and back toward the kitchen. “I’ll tell her to get the water ready.”
Casey sat on the bed and it sank a foot beneath his weight. He felt like he was sitting on jelly, and he bounced a few times. He never knew what to do when he was in someone else’s home. Where he could go, if he could masturbate and get away with it, how to keep his bodily functions to an acceptable minimum. He hadn’t had that problem in the desert—of course, he had only peed once in all that time in the sand, and even then he hadn’t produced more than a few stinging droplets, which had fallen to the sand like tears.
Suddenly there was a sound from the wall behind his bed. Casey cocked his head. He knew there was somebody there. “Bill? Ella?” he called. “Hello?”
A short, but unmistakable rasping; a voice forming words. A clicking—lips being wetted? More rasping, but still barely audible, certainly unintelligible. Casey stood and crept toward his open door. He peeked into the hallway and from there he could hear someone clanging dishes around in the kitchen, and then voices, Bill and Ella, probably discussing Casey’s imminent bath time. The other sounds were coming from further down the hall. He slunk out of his room and moved into the shadows there.
Here was another door, closed. Casey looked again toward the kitchen. Would his old self be doing this in America? He did not know any longer how many times he had been in a room in some rundown house, injecting himself alongside acquaintances, listening to the sounds of drugging and fucking going on in other rooms, the walls so thin he felt he could see through them. There had always been a kind of understanding then, that whatever was going on in the house was public; you were welcome in any room. Still, he never took advantage. He wasn’t keen on the idea of seeing certain friends, like Smalls or Roofie or Thang, getting their knobs polished by some track-marked whore.
Casey clasped the door handle and turned. The door swung inward. He whispered, “Hello?” He held his breath, waiting for a response. For a moment, all he could hear was the steady respiration of some living creature. And then a whimper. “Hello?” he said again. “My name is Casey. Who are you?”
He felt along the inside wall for a light switch, and finally he located it at shoulder level. He flicked it. The room was suddenly filled with bright yellow light, and Casey winced with pain, reminded again of the desert and the all-seeing Sun. His eyes adjusted rapidly, however, perhaps trained by years of walking in and out of crack houses and bars. “Jesus Christ,” he muttered. A few droplets of piss shot out of his penis, no more than what he had deposited in the desert a few days before. He didn’t even realize it.
Sitting on a narrow bed was a girl, her hands folded in her lap. Her hair was dark and dirty and matted to her shoulders. Her mouth was moving but issued only the same dry rasps. Her eyes were glued shut, giving her face a huge, orb-like quality, sickly and pale and unknowing. She sat in a soiled dress. Casey noticed the plate and fork, empty now of food, idle between her legs. Now she spoke: “Muh, muh, mem.”
Casey took a few steps toward her and then froze. “This shit is not real,” he said, trying to force his brain to understand that he was still wandering in the desert, that this was a hallucination, and that dying alone and being covered by sand was better than living this waking nightmare. He blinked his eyes so hard that his corneas hurt. But when he opened them, she was still there. And then, as if drawn, he walked to the bed and sat down. She yelped when she felt the mattress move, and she yelped again and started to shiver when he put his palm on her knee, but she did not draw away. “Are you okay?” he asked her.
Her face swiveled toward the sound of his voice, and beneath the cages of her eyelids, he could see her eyes working furiously, darting back and forth. “Huuuhhhh,” she moaned, long and loud. Casey felt like running, jumping through the window and sprinting in any direction, but he could not stop staring at her face and her glued eyes. He reached for her, prepared to rub one eye open, and, leaning forward, saw that one of her cheeks was puffed out. He looked closer and saw a ribbon of something hanging out between her lips.
“Honey, spit it out,” he said softly but urgently.
She bobbed her head forward and opened her mouth, but the offending object was not jarred loose. Casey redirected his hand to her lips, and opened them, and yanked gently. A swatch of plastic was dislodged from behind her teeth. With creeping horror, Casey realized he was holding a long piece of tape. Her breath followed; it smelled like rotting fruit, and Casey jerked away for a brief instant at the smell. Then she clearly said, “Please help me.”
And then a voice from the doorway. “I see you’ve met Sofia,” Bill said. Casey stared for a moment longer at the girl, and then turned.
“What the fuck is going on?” he asked. Then he saw the gun.
“I wish you wouldn’t have come in here,” Bill said, shaking his head the way a father does when his son is caught drinking underage. “Why don’t you back on away from her?”
“Are you going to shoot me?” Casey asked.
Bill laughed. “Why, heavens no!” he said. “But your bathwater is going to get cold.”
“Why do you have a girl locked up in a bedroom?” Casey asked, taking a few steps toward the door but trying to angle himself away from the sights of the shotgun. “What’s going on, Bill?”
“I’ll explain it to you,” Bill said. “But Ella’s going to be mad if you let all that water go to waste, so scrub down first. I’m serious about that.” Casey obeyed, entertaining thoughts of the old man leading him into the bathroom with the gun, watching him strip down with a gleeful smile on his face, and sitting on the toilet to watch him bathe. But Bill stopped at the bathroom door. “You got a clean towel over here,” Bill said, indicating a rack mounted on the near wall. “I put some clothes here for you to change into. You can keep them.”
Casey stepped into the bathroom and Bill closed the door. Quiet. The florescent light above the mirror was harsh, like most bathroom lights, and when Casey looked at his reflection he quickly averted his gaze. His hair was going white. His cheeks were sunken. His eyes were bloodshot and as wide as airfields. He quickly undressed, not even wanting to bathe anymore, but feeling almost required to wash something off himself. He realized it wasn’t the urine from the alley. It was something dirtier. The bathtub was half full of very warm water and he stepped in lightly. It truly did something to his muscles; loosened them, relaxed them. He remembered always doing his best thinking in the shower, except between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, and he hoped something would reveal itself to him now. But all he could think of were the girl’s tightly shut, struggling eyes.
A part of him felt dangerously close to snoozing, but he soaped up, rinsed down, dried off, and dressed quickly. Bill’s clothes were a surprisingly good fit. He looked at his old jeans and t-shirt and decided there must be a fire pit somewhere nearby.
“Come in here a minute,” Bill called from the kitchen after Casey exited the bathroom. Casey left his old clothes and walked toward the voice. He entered the kitchen and saw Bill and Ella sitting in their same spots at the table, each looking at him. “So, I guess you’re pretty shook up,” Bill said. “Sorry about that.”
Casey stayed at the threshold until Bill shoved a chair out with his foot. Casey sat. “Yeah,” he said.
Ella’s eyes, cold and small, were boring through him. “She’s ours,” Ella said. “We’re helping her.”
Casey looked at Bill for confirmation, and the old man was nodding his head. “Casey, let me tell you. She was a fine little girl. Helped out around here. Beautiful little girl. You know, it’s true, that connection they say a daddy has with his daughter. I loved her so much.” He scratched the graying stubble of his chin. “About three years ago she started to change. Didn’t want to come out of the house so much anymore. She was always feeling tired, writing stuff down in these notebooks. I didn’t know what was going on. Neither of us did,” he said, placing his hand softly on Ella’s wrist.
“Maybe she was sick,” Casey said. His voice sounded soft even to his own ears.
“Maybe,” Bill allowed. “We took her to the hospital in town. Wasn’t nothing wrong with her.” Casey wondered what kind of hospital they might have in the middle of Turd-Eater County, Nowhere. “So we called our priest over.”
Now Ella interrupted. “He’s a good man, the Father. He came right away. And he told us this was a bad place and she needed to be cleansed.”
Bill nodded his head. “We’ve been going for two and a half years. Father said it might take a while. But we’ll get her back.”
Their story apparently finished, Casey looked from one to the other, his bottom jaw slightly ajar. “Are you two fucking nuts?” he asked. “Is this a sick joke?” But he could tell by their expressions that they were both serious. “She’s a little girl,” he said. He felt like he felt when he was pleading for his life in L.A. “There aren’t such things as ghosts and the devil. You’re killing her.”
“We’re sorry you feel that way,” Bill said, standing. Casey was sure for a moment that he was going to be executed. “But that’s the truth. It hurts us as much as it hurts her and God. But these are things that need to be done.”
“I need sleep,” Casey said, standing, steadying himself on his feet by leaning against his chair.
“Right. We have a long day tomorrow,” Bill said, pushing his own chair in. Casey let the old man go first, taking note that he had left the shotgun in the kitchen. Ella followed. “We’ll be here if you need anything,” he said, indicating their dusty couch. “We like to sleep with the television on, if you don’t mind.”
Casey shook his head. “Goodnight,” he said, walking to his room.
Neither Ella nor Bill responded. Casey slipped into bed, only then aware of how tired he actually was. His eyelids immediately started to droop like wilting flowers, and the exhaustion flowed from his abdomen and up through his lungs and heart as if from an bottomless spring. He could hardly feel his legs. But he couldn’t let sleep take him. He listened closely; the television going softly in the dining room, occasional, low voices, man and woman, and the settling of bodies on the old couch; the sound of his own breaths, pinched off by his nostrils, steady and calculated. Nothing from the room behind his. He waited half an hour, the minutes excruciating, sleep having been welcomed and then turned away at the door like a common beggar.
He kept himself awake by remembering the last few years of his sorry life. He had first gotten high on a joint as a freshman in high school, hiding behind the dugouts in Hayfield Park, with three girls. Two of them let him put his hand up their shirts, giggling as his fingers tickled at their nipples. Two years after that he was already a heavy drinker, but he abandoned that in favor of even harder stuff by the time his graduation party came around; he’d been so blown on coke and heroin during that affair that he could only remember counting the money he got in congratulations against the debt he’d incurred for the drugs. And he was good at math. He broke even that day.
But that day was a long time ago, and then he met Twiddles, a pale, slender man with sunken eyes and deep pockets and a lot of friends. It was easy at first, damn, the guy was practically giving shit away. But the kindness came with a price, and a few years after their first line together, Casey was in for ten thousand dollars. He had never had a tenth of that at any one time in his life. He went to friends and asked, and then begged, and then stormed out cussing and accusing and crying alone in his car. He resented the ones that threw twenty dollars his way even more, and he did not even know why.
He breathed in deeply. Fuck, what he wouldn’t give to snort a quick line right now. It would make everything so much easier. He wondered distantly and vaguely if Ella and Bill grew anything illegal in their vast backyard. Something had to grow here.
He flipped the sheets off himself and, one leg at a time, swiveled himself out of bed. He was physically exhausted but he could move. He tiptoed into the hall. The television was still going in the living room, and he had to assume that Ella and Bill were snoozing. He went to the girl’s room and pushed open the door, sure for a brief moment the door would be locked.
He flicked on the light after debating for a moment. He assumed the light wouldn’t bother her encased eyes, and he simply hoped his hosts wouldn’t be awakened.
She was sitting up in bed, her hands folded in her lap, her face turned toward the door. As if she was expecting him. Casey felt a lump jump in his throat and he painfully swallowed it down. He approached her. “Shh, you be quiet now,” he said. “I’m going to help you, but first you have to help me.” He put one arm behind her shoulders, the other under her knees. She was wearing slippers. How cold was it in the desert tonight? Jesus, he had not thought this through. He lifted her, surprised at how light she was; like a garbage bag you think is full of rotten food but in reality is crammed with packing peanuts. “Come on now, we’re getting out of here. You just be quiet, okay?”
She spoke, very softly: “Thank you.” She grabbed him around the neck, freeing his left arm, which he used to rifle through her closet. There were few articles of clothing: an old pair of blue jeans, a sweater, a few too-small dresses. He grabbed the sweater and draped it over his shoulder. Carefully, he carried her out into the hallway, sideways so that she did not collide with the wall.
They came upon the living room, and Bill and Ella were both sound asleep, she resting atop him, her face buried in his chest. Casey could never sleep like that with anybody. He had never been close enough to anybody to try. After a quick detour into the kitchen for the shotgun and a box of matches off the stovetop, he kneeled and picked up his shoes at the door. They slipped out into the night. “We’re outside,” he said. He saw the dog regarding them warily with its one open eye.
The moon was bright, itself like a lonely eyeball, and Casey felt watched as he searched for a driveway, a road, a path. He saw something that looked like it might be, stretching away from the house and into the silver sanded yonder. Casey threw the girl over his right shoulder to carry her more comfortably, and he began a quick walk, ignoring the sounds of unknown animals in the wilderness around them, afraid he would turn into a pillar of salt if he looked back at the ranch. He kept his gaze forward and took little comfort in the heavy gun he clasped with his cramping left hand.
Casey had no sense of time. The girl on his shoulder might have slept, might have dreamt, might have died. When he could go no further, he left the trail and walked behind a small series of sand dunes, but he had no feeling that they were being followed. He had imagined a quick escape, heart throbbing with adrenaline-laced blood, but this was somehow worse—the feeling that they were alone and that nobody would be coming after him, not ever. So he hid them because it made him feel like he was doing the right thing, that the world was doing the right thing on his heels.
Casey laid her down near some rocks and said, “I’ll be right back.” He gathered dry sticks, refuse scattered about like discarded playing cards after a casino riot. His back started to ache, but he bent and grabbed as many sticks and twigs as he could, and he carried them back. He did not remember ever seeing any wood in this desert, but somehow the good fortune seemed ominous. When he struck the match and touched the flame to his carefully arranged pile of wood, it started to burn almost immediately, cracking and popping and brightening and warming. Casey moved close and held his hands to the growing fire, momentarily forgetting about the girl. When he remembered her, he looked over, half-expecting her to have disappeared. But she was still there, sitting erect, her body opened toward the flame.
“Come closer,” he said. “Get warm.”
She turned toward him, and he saw that the glue had started to chip away at her eyes. She rubbed at them, slowly at first, and then scratching at them the way an insane cat scratches to avoid water. She moaned as she did it, and the sound of her fingernails against her eyelids, like sandpaper against a chalkboard, mesmerized Casey. She pulled her hands away and let them drop to her sides and then she looked directly at him.
Her eyeballs were completely black—only, deep, wide seas of the kind of darkness a child sees in his bedroom closet in the middle of the night, the kind of darkness at the bottom of the ocean where lost sailors will forever be buried. “Jesus,” he mumbled. “Can you see?” he asked her.
She looked directly into his face, and she blinked, rapidly, perhaps to expunge the remaining glue reside from her eyes. He imagined it falling in little chips down her cheeks and into the sand. “Can you?” she asked, and with a sudden jerk, lunged to her knees by the fire. “I’m so cold,” she said, her voice watery. “Where am I?”
His breathing had become shallow, quick, superficial. He couldn’t catch his breath. This was worse than the car tire, worse than the alley, worse than facing the desert alone. He looked at her and despite himself knew that the priest had been right. “You’re in the desert,” Casey said. “I took you away from your mom and dad because I thought they were hurting you. But I can take you back, if you want.”
“I hate them,” she said, but not in the way a spoiled child says it, nor in the way an abused child might say it; she said it the way Satan might say it, each word like biting into a luscious fruit. “I want to kill them, kill them, drink their blood.”
“We can go to the town,” Casey said. He felt like he was negotiating with a madman who had taken hostages. But he was the hostage. “They can help you there.”
She started to chuckle, and then her short, abrupt chortles transformed into a high-pitched squeal of delight, the kind Casey had never experienced watching Cheers as a kid. Casey eyed the gun; it was nearer to him than it was to her, and he calculated it: yes, he could certainly grab it first. He had done these kinds of calculations before, had in fact had to test them on one or two occasions. He had always been faster, and it was lucky, because he had always been the one who had wanted for nobody to get shot. But as soon as he had figured his superiority in terms of the gun, he despised himself. What was he thinking of doing?
“Why don’t we sleep?” he said. “I’m tired. Are you?” She stared at him and he thought he heard her voice, though he was certain that she had not spoken: I don’t sleep. “I was trying to help you, you know,” he said to her. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“You haven’t hurt me,” she said simply, as if to imply that he couldn’t if he wanted to. “Go to sleep.”
Her words were like a sacred, honey command. He leaned back, as close to the fire as he dared be but feeling far away, cold on one side because of the night, cold on the other because of her dark, watchful eyes. The stars were millions, splayed by an uncaring, ridiculous god. He could be anywhere in the universe but here. He slept.
In the morning he was dry. Sand spilled out of his hair as he sat up and looked around, hoping she would no longer be there. He felt now as he often had years before, waking up in strange beds with strange fellows, his body objecting in a perfunctory way, as if to tell him, we can’t do this forever, dude. And his body had been right, it seemed.
“You’re awake. Finally,” he heard. Her voice, behind him, cold and gravelly as if she had been eating the sand for breakfast. “We need to go.”
“Where?” he said, groggy but fully alert now. What he wanted was coffee, nay, something stronger and smaller and whiter and more powdery, goddamn. He didn’t have the ten grand.
“Home,” she said simply.
“I’m not going back there,” he said. “You go home. I’m leaving.” He turned his head toward the ashes, noted a small wisp of smoke rising into the clear air as if on a dream. He wanted to stick his head into the embers and open his mouth and swallow whatever came.
“I don’t live there,” she said, standing. Now Casey noticed the shotgun was in her hands, ridiculously huge, waving back and forth in her unsteady grip like a huge dysfunctional penis. “I live out there.” The words fell on him like insults in a foreign tongue; he knew he should have been offended, worried, but it took him a long moment to realize it. There. She meant the desert.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “We’ll die.”
She pointed the gun at him. It waved to his left, his right, above him, but finally the huge black bore settled squarely on where he imagined his heart. He did not have the strength to hold his hands up; besides, he had begged for his life before. Part of him wanted for her to pull the trigger. But the better part of him knew that she would not.
“Fine,” Casey said. “I’ll come.” He rolled himself into a kneeling position and, his knees popping, he stood. There was a moment when he felt like he would fall on his ass, but he steadied himself and breathed deeply the ghost smoke that permeated their campsite. She nodded toward the horizon, and Casey began walking that way. He knew they would find no road there, nor in any other direction from here. “Why are you doing this?” Casey asked, turning to look directly at her. She had been a white glimmer in his peripheral vision.
“You said you wanted to save me,” she said.
He would never see another human being, never drink another soda, never take another shower. His days would melt into his nights which in turn would torture themselves into daylight again, all of it one long hour but every second as sharply defined as a needle prick. He would run from pain into the sanctuary of insanity and he would die happily there. Wouldn’t he?
“So?” he said.
“It turns out I’m the one saving you,” she said. Her words were soft but inside his head they rang and echoed until they lost all their original significance, and still he dissected their meaning, and when finally he could no longer dwell upon them, he kicked off his shoes and socks and felt the hot, sharp sand between his toes and began to sprint toward the sun.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Jake Walters 2014