by Ann K. Williams
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
Lying on the desert floor and remembering Ray Lee’s car speeding down the road made me snap to. Road. There had to be one here in the desert. How else did I get here?
Sure, there must be a road around here, it’s the only thing that made sense. I lurched upright and swayed as I looked around, scanning for any man-made irregularity in the tawny vista, heat waves making the distant mountains waver underneath the growing gap between their peaks and the sky, a good twenty degrees by now, enough for a fleet of UFO’s to... No, I had to focus on getting out of here.
Heat waves, that was the ticket. Asphalt. It gets hot. I scanned more slowly now, stepping from foot to foot to cool one sole and then the other as the heat baked up through my shoes.
That was what the guy on the beach had been doing. Had he really been here when I saw him? Was he a mirage even then? I shook my head. This wasn’t a safe way to be thinking.
That’s when it started to resolve: a horizontal heat wave crossing the desert floor, obscuring the Joshua trees behind it. It wasn’t much, but it gave me a goal which was better than nothing, so I started walking again.
Goals, that’s one of the things the doctor wants to know about. Do I have any? “Sheesh. Who does?” I say. He looks at me blankly. It’s like talking to a cop.
Another day another dollar, that kind of thing, I tell him, I have a job, I’m not a bum, I get along with people okay, all the things I think he wants to hear. More blank stare. So I keep babbling. Before I know it, I’m back to Ray Lee and Maria and the ring.
That all happened a year ago, I tell him. I tried to forget about it, but you know what happens when you try to not think about something.
And then, two days ago, I saw the homeless guy again. This time he was at the corner near my house, squatting under a ficus tree, perched on the tree’s gnarly roots, wobbling, like he was about to fall over.
This time I walked up to him. “Hey,” I said.
He looked up at me, smiling in a grimacy, nervous way. He was dirtier than the last time I saw him, if that was possible, and his face had these little red scabs, as though he’d been bitten by some kind of bug and then he’d scratched it.
He shrank down into himself and put a twitchy arm over his forehead.
“It’s OK, I’m not going to hurt you,” I said.
He didn’t move.
A car drove by, a young woman walking a gray terrier started to cross the street coming towards us, changed her mind, and turned around.
“C’mon,” I waved him towards me and pointed at my house. The only way I was going to find out what he wanted was to get him off the street.
His rheumy eyes widened and he raised himself to his feet, one hand on the tree trunk for balance. I noticed he was still wearing the same gloves.
As we walked to my house I saw he had a bad limp. And his right shoe, some kind of beat up athletic shoe, was covered with rusty dried blood.
All right, not inside the house then. I opened the gate at the end of the carport and let him into the backyard.
“Have a seat,” I said pointing at the picnic table. But he just stared at it and backed off, pointing at, I figured out later, where Ray Lee had been sitting.
“You let him take it,” he said, long scraggly eyebrows raised.
“I didn’t mean to,” I said. It didn’t occur to me to question what he was talking about or how he knew. It was like they say about Rasputin: all I could do was look into his black eyes, hypnotized.
He limp-shuffled at me, faster than I thought he could. “We have to get it, now,” he said, grabbing my wrist.
Next thing, I was coming to in the high desert with the sky coming apart.
I was getting closer to the heat ribbon. The blue sky had shrunk to a disc hovering above the valley, taking up maybe a third of what I would have called the sky if it wasn’t mostly this black band. The sun was a lot smaller too, and starting to move toward the edge of the sky disc. What would happen when it set I didn’t want to think about, but at the rate it was shrinking, the whole blue disc would probably be gone before that happened.
The light and heat were just as harsh as ever, but the growing shadows had a curious magenta tone.
As I got closer to the heat wave and the Joshua trees, I found myself on a ridge overlooking... yes, it was a road, a straight two-lane asphalt strip cutting across the desert floor, and there was a guy jumping up and down on it and waving his arms.
I broke into a fast hobble, heels scraping down the steep arroyo that overlooked the road, making little avalanches of sand and pebbles. As I sped up, I had to hurl myself onto my left side to clear a chollo that reached its spiny arms out to grab me, wasn’t so lucky as I slid past a barrel cactus and a mess of spines stuck my right thigh. I hardly noticed the pain, I was so glad to see a person, anyone, only as he got closer it wasn’t anyone, it was the homeless guy. By that time I was sliding on my butt too fast and couldn’t stop until I was at the edge of the road next to him.
“He’s coming, see?” he said, voice cracking with dehydration. He pointed down the road at the mountains silhouetted by the growing black background and sure enough, there was something moving, glinting pink and silver rays, getting larger, yeah, it was a car.
“Watch this,” he said. He was standing straight now. He’d stopped twitching.
I could just make out a crack in the road following the car, a sedan, the road was splitting, blackness in the crack, it was spreading out like a wake. I got that same pit of the stomach anxiety when I first saw the horizon crack growing, but I stayed on my feet.
The wind rose again, hotter than ever. The tiny plants that covered the sandy ground went black and shriveled and I saw the Joshua trees on the other side of the road wither, wrinkling in on themselves, bending over and collapsing in black heaps.
The car was almost on us when the homeless guy pointed at the ground and the road shifted upwards a couple of feet in front of it, like a fault line in an earthquake.
I could make out the car now. It was the unwashed Civic, going straight at the ledge and I could see Ray Lee in the driver’s seat go bug-eyed as he slammed on the brakes just in time. He threw open his door and started for the homeless guy, who pointed at the ledge. Another black crack opened up in front of it.
“C’mon” the homeless guy said and we jumped over the growing crack in front of the car, falling onto Ray Lee, who went down on his ass. He was one of those shrimpy guys who wasn’t strong. We turned him over and I sat on him while he writhed and the homeless guy stuck his hands in Ray Lee’s jeans pockets.
“I don’t have it,” said Ray Lee between mouthfuls of pavement.
All this time, the cracks kept growing and the back of the car was dropping into the pit that was opening up behind it. The crack in front of the car had snaked around both sides of the Civic and our fight and had merged with the pit. Now we were jostling on top of a tiny mesa on a pinnacle that dropped into black nothingness.
As the car teetered backward into the pit, a tortoise emerged from under it. It made its stately way towards us, the ring balanced on its back.
“Aaaaggghhh” I yelled, launching myself off Ray Lee’s back. I grabbed the ring just as the mesa shrank to nothing and the three of us and the car plunged into the void. I was still screaming when an oil-stained hand in a fingerless glove closed over my wrist.
* * *
That’s really all I know, I tell the doctor. You know the rest, my neighbors called the EMT’s when they found me sitting on the curb in front of my house, shaken, bruised, dehydrated, a few dozen holes poked in my leg but no cactus needles, a bite-mark on my arm, fingernail gouges on my palms, and the ring clenched in my right fist.
That might have just gotten me a quick trip to the local ER if I hadn’t kept repeating, “The sky’s back, the sky, it’s okay,” whenever they asked me anything. That’s what got me into Psych admitting, that and my insistence that I keep hold of the ring. I finally put it in the back of my mouth when they weren’t looking.
So my three days is almost up, and I only have one more thing to do before they let me go. I know he’s not going to like it, but it’s his turn. When I see the doctor tomorrow morning, I’m going to have to give the ring to him, a keepsake I’ll say, to thank him for helping me. He won’t know what to do with it, but that’s okay, neither did I.
Copyright © 2013 by Ann K. Williams