by Ann K. Williams
part 1 of 2
I awoke to red light and a dull headache. The light was red because my eyes were closed and the sun was pounding. I opened my left eye, the one closest to the hard, sandy ground I’d passed out on. The grains nearest my face acted like prisms, picking up harsh rays, scattering them straight through my optic nerve and into my brain. It hurt. I closed my eye.
It stopped the pain from the light, but my head hurt worse. Kind of a lose-lose situation. I settled on open eyes.
Getting up took a while. First I had to get my arms underneath me, which involved moving my throbbing head. Then I had to push on my hands into the pointy gravel. As the pain switched to my hands it seemed to be relieved a little. I got up on my knees and flinched. I noticed my jeans had holes and wet red spots on the knees.
I looked around and saw the same thing in every direction: flat, glinty sand. Joshua trees. Tan and grey mountain ranges in the distance. That’s when I first noticed it.
A kid might have drawn a line with a black crayon between the mountains and the clear silver-blue sky. I couldn’t remember: had it always been like that? I flashed back to the day at the beach, the day I first saw the homeless guy. Had there been a line between the sea and the sky then? Is that how the horizon normally looks?
I blinked and looked again across the desert. Still there.
The sun was either halfway up or halfway down in the sky. If it was halfway up, I was screwed. The day was just beginning. I’d find out soon enough.
Whatever else, I had to find shade and water. I placed my right foot in front of me, leaned on my right knee, clenched my jaw, and hoisted myself up to my feet. I stumbled a half step, swayed, breathed the hot air, tried to figure out which mountains were closer.
Impossible to tell. I just started walking. Now the pain migrated to my feet. A song started playing in my mind, a children’s song, Bingo was his Name-o, repeating to the rhythm of my footsteps. It was worse than irritating, but it kept me moving.
After a while I could see the sun was rising, not setting. I felt cooler standing up, which meant I was sweating, but my sweat evaporated so quickly I couldn’t feel any moisture. Not a good sign.
The blood on the knees of my jeans was dry and stiff now. How did I get here, knees banged up, no signs of an accident, no tire tracks, no road even, no footprints, nothing?
Keep walking, I told myself, the mindless tune echoing in my brain.
The sun grew more intense and the shadows shorter; the top of my head was baking. And the mountains weren’t getting any closer; they seemed to be receding, if anything. I kept staring at the crack, light-headed and confused, as if I was being sucked into it.
A sharp pain in my arm brought me back to reality. I had my forearm in my mouth and was biting down. What the hell? I threw my arm out and down, like it belonged to someone else. What do you call cannibalism when you’re drinking your own blood?
I started to throw up, realized I had to keep the liquid in my stomach inside me, forced it back down.
A flash of a memory zapped into my head.
I was standing on the shoreline; a shape was moving towards me in the periphery of my vision.
I’ve tried to explain that day at the ocean to the doctor. At least, that’s what I think he is; he wears a white lab coat.
“It’s not what you think,” I tell him. But of course I have no way of knowing what’s going on behind those muddy, unblinking eyes of his.
That’s now, but when I was stranded on the desert floor, all I knew was that there was something about that day on the beach, something important.
The crack. The one between the mountain ridge in the distance and the sky. In the desert. It was getting larger. Black, maybe stars, maybe I was just seeing them. I blinked my eyes tight shut again, opened them, and not only was the crack still there, it was bigger, or I think it was. Hard to tell with a thing like that.
Looking at it made me sick in my stomach, dizzy and confused. I was scared I was dying. I sank back down to my knees, passed out.
I dreamed about the homeless guy.
I’ve told the doctor how I was standing on the beach looking out at the Pacific. I liked to do that when I got too high-strung: go look at the ocean, the simple lines of the sky, the water, the sand.
The wind coming off the waves blew my hair, and strands were getting in my eyes, making it hard to see. I could just make out movement to my right; I could tell that someone was walking down the shoreline. I didn’t want to turn my head to look. I was afraid whoever it was would see me looking and maybe he’d be a crazy person or something.
That happens. One time I made eye contact with a nerdy little guy who’d dropped a bag of books on the floor in the lobby of a downtown office building. Next thing I knew, he’d grabbed my arms, pressed them hard into my sides, lifted me up and flung me out the door. Lucky for me it was a swinging door. I didn’t have a chance, he was so strong. I hadn’t known a shrimpy guy like that could be that strong.
So that taught me. Don’t even look like you’re looking. I just stood there, pretending to watch a line of pelicans flying north when the guy on the beach walked right in front of me and stopped.
He was dressed in ragged jeans and I don’t know how many layers of shirts, sweatshirts, with a filthy USC sweatshirt on top. His gray hair and beard were long and matted. He danced back and forth on his feet, like a jogger waiting for the light to change. He looked past me with one lazy eye, like something was going on over my shoulder. His other eye stared straight at me.
Not knowing what else to do, I turned and started walking in the direction he’d come from. That just made him run backward until he was in front of me again. He held out his right hand. It was partly covered with one of those knit gloves with the fingers cut off. His hand and glove were mottled with filth. He was holding something; a brown ring it looked like.
“This is yours,” he said.
I raised my hand to my chest. “I don’t think so.”
More quickly than I could react, he grabbed my hand, pressed the ring into my palm, and ran away down the shoreline.
“What the...” I said.
I felt the ring. It was soft, made of braided fibers. Wire? No, too soft. It was hair, a ring made of braided brown hair.
“Hey,” I yelled at the man’s receding back, but the wind and the waves were too loud, he couldn’t hear me.
I didn’t want it but I didn’t want to throw it in one of the trash barrels on the sand. It felt, I didn’t know, cursed or something, like something bad would happen to me if I threw it out. So I stuffed it in my jeans pocket.
That’s when it all started. That’s what I tell the pasty-faced doctor.
A streak of pain bolted through my skull.
I opened my eyes. A sand crystal blazed like a rainbow, turned pure white, a white needle, then back to migraine aura colors, back and forth. Hot grit ground into my cheek. I was lying on my belly again.
I felt I was in an oven. Now the sun was overhead. Heat soaked up from the ground through my jeans, the fabric stiff and stuck to my knees. The sun beat down through the back of my shirt. My hair was like a hot tangled cap, hot and getting hotter, like wearing a wool ski cap in August.
I knew I had to get moving again but I couldn’t. I wanted it all to go away, but I couldn’t make it. A furnace breeze kicked in, scattering sand grains across the hardpan.
I tried to move. My left arm was asleep under my body. Maybe I moved the fingers on my left hand, maybe I didn’t. I couldn’t tell. But I did hear a scratching sound. That was the fingers on my right hand, stretched out beyond the shiny sand grains, trying to grip onto something.
A black beetle walked into view: a busy, shiny soldier safe in its armor. It made its dainty way up and over my arm. Nothing to eat here, not yet anyway. It would be back.
“Do you ever think about dying?” That’s one of the doctor’s questions.
I was going to die. I had died. I’d died before I even got here. I was already dead. I mean, if you take the moment when you lose control of your future, if that’s when you start counting.
So when was it? I guess you’d have to say it was that day on the beach. I just didn’t know it then. Nobody does. Nobody knows the moment when they start dying.
Then again, maybe that was the moment when I started to live. That’s what I tell the doctor anyway. Seventy-two hours is a long time in a psych ward. Gotta show a positive attitude.
* * *
I’ve told him about the night I got back from the beach. I had friends over. Ray Lee and Maria. Maria was a singer, jazz, blues, folk, whatever they’d pay her for. Ray Lee was her boyfriend, a skinny dude with white hair and a goatee and no job that I was ever able to figure out. What he did have was some kind of weird spiritual pretensions, as if he was waiting for the rest of the world to recognize him and join his so far non-existent cult.
We were sitting around a 1950’s redwood picnic table waiting for the coals to heat up, drinking cheap red wine. I was drinking anyway. Maria and Ray Lee were mostly just playing with their glasses. That’s when I remembered the ring.
“Hey look at this.” I pulled it out.
Ray Lee took it and held it up to the light. It was summer, the sun still had an hour to go. He didn’t say anything, just turned it this way and that.
Maria looked down at the table, her dark straight hair like a veil shielding most of her face. I’d expected her to be the curious one. Instead, she literally sat on her hands.
The air was still now and it was warmer than it had any right to be after such a windy day. Even the crows and the pigeons on the power lines were quiet, barely moving. The wine cork rested where it had rolled, about to fall off the edge of the table if the wind picked up again.
I was sweating; I imagined they were too. Maria wore a bulky red sweater, prepared for an evening near the beach, and Ray Lee had been going everywhere in his hoodie, “in solidarity” as he put it.
“So...?” I asked.
“Where’d you get this?” he answered with a question.
I was about to answer, then I had a twinge of... I don’t know why, it just wasn’t a great idea to tell him.
“I found it,” I said, “on the beach.”
Ray Lee looked at me, goatee twitching, blue eyes intense, small pupils. I kept my mouth shut.
“We’re going,” he said to Maria, grabbing her arm, and just like that they got up and left, no goodbyes, no nothing. Okay, they weren’t my all-time best friends or anything, but Maria had never acted like that. I was so startled it didn’t occur to me until they’d started their car that Ray Lee still had the ring.
“Hey,” I ran out to the carport as they were pulling out in their beat up dirty white Civic. “Hey, give it back.”
Ray Lee punched the accelerator, the car screeched into and down the street, blowing through the stop sign on the corner.
“Son of a bitch.”
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Ann K. Williams