Bess staggered through the desert under the crisp light of a crescent moon. With no other lights, her eyes had finally adjusted so the landscape looked like it was frosted with a dim sunset. She could clearly see that it was all the same – miles of scrub and sand with an occasional patch of joshua trees and rocks for as far as the eye could see.
After a cold night’s sleep in her rock castle, she had set out the next morning, but soon found that she could only shuffle along a few steps through the hot sand before having to step under the scant shade of scrub to let the soles of her feet cool off. She had found a joshua tree to sleep under until the sun had sunk low enough for the ground to cool.
Now, she shivered against the cold, the translucent fabric of her nightgown providing the only protection against the biting chill of the desert night. As long as she kept moving at a brisk pace, it wasn’t much worse than being on the lake without her windbreaker. But when she stopped to catch her breath, the cold quickly soaked through her skin, so she could only stop for a few minutes at a time.
She kept her course by the stars, generally moving between Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper as they arced across the sky, keeping her on a northerly bearing. If she kept walking, she was bound to run into either a border crossing or the Rio Grande.
Between the two, she would have preferred the river because she was showing signs of dehydration. Her breathing came in short pants even when she was resting, she couldn’t get her pulse to slow down and her tongue was starting to swell. Several times, she had become disoriented and had to stare at the sky for several minutes just to remember the names of the constellations.
She tried to not to think about these things and instead focused on the nipping pain of her foot from where she had pulled out the cactus needles. As the night wore on, she finally found herself standing still, totally unaware of where she was. She shook her head, trying to clear her mind, and started to take a step forward when a glint caught her eye.
Something glimmered on the ground. She squinted, but her vision remained blurred. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. At first, she thought it was just a star and she couldn’t see the horizon for a moment, so it looked like it was on the ground. Then she dismissed it as a hallucination.
But the glimmer persisted. A dull yellow spot flickered on the ground that she knew wasn’t a star – if it was real.
She glanced at the sky to recheck her bearing. The light was east of her. If she chased after it, she would spend valuable time moving parallel to the border, hours that could be spent moving closer to the river, and home. Home – some place that she could only imagine as a hazy memory, lay somewhere in the darkness to the north, but she had no idea how far away. The light, on the other hand, was within reach. Was it mounted to a pole overlooking something as benign as a power substation or something equally useless to her, or was it a porch light for a house tucked in the middle of nowhere? The only question that mattered right now, the one she couldn’t push out of her mind, was about water. Would she find it there? She thought she might have a day left before it wouldn’t matter.
She slowly turned to survey the horizon, making a complete circle as she gazed out into the darkness, seeing nothing but sand, scrub and stars. When she was once again facing the light, she let out a sigh and dug at the ground with her toe. A shiver ran through her body as the cold started settling in again. The image of her body rotting as wind swept sand over her until she was buried and forgotten flashed through her mind.
She stared at the ground and pulled the image back, painting it back into her mind’s eye like an artist running a brush along the canvas. She stared at herself, curled up on the ground, unmoving and never again able to say anything. She waited to feel something, expecting a shudder at the notion that the universe as she knew it would cease to exist and never come back. Instead, she marveled at the silence in her mind. The only sound was the whisper of wind that swept over her for an eternity.
Bess pressed her lips together and waved her hand through the air, brushing the image away. Everything that had happened to her folded up and fell away into a place in her mind where she now knew she could keep it locked away, or bring out if she needed it. But she owned it. Because the only thing that she cared about now was the silence. It couldn’t be the last of her.
Bess stepped out towards the light, her strides short and aching as she ran a dry tongue over her cracked lips.
Hours later, she felt the dirt scraping across her knees and elbows as she crawled towards the outline of a shack. She didn’t know how much time had passed since she’d first seen the light, but she was close enough now to see a dim bulb suspended from a leaning wooden pole attached to the shack by a drooping black wire.
She had fallen down at some point, but couldn’t remember it happening. She didn’t have the strength to stand back up and now all she could do was thump her arm on the ground and pull herself forward. The door was only twenty feet away, the hulk of a truck just a few feet further and a rusted pipe with a handle on it that she could only hope still pumped out water.
Keeping her eyes focused on the pipe as it blurred in and out of focus, she crawled towards it, the ground creeping beneath her by inches as she clawed at the dirt.
The pipe blurred again and never came back to view. Her legs stopped working and she flopped on her belly.
The darkness grew blacker. Her voice was a creaking whimper as she spoke a final word before the blackness took her away.
This couldn’t be the last of her.
Bess woke up with a stinging cold against her lips. She sucked in a ragged breath as something wet dribbled onto her tongue.
“Despacio, chica. Despacio.”
The voice was quiet, patient as if the wind had gathered it up from the desert to let her know that she could wait for as long as she needed and that it would keep the world away until she was ready to see it again.
The cold rolled against her lips and bathed the inside of her mouth. She tried to swallow, but gagged as it hit the back of her throat. Her gut ached as she coughed and she cringed as she tried to sit up.
She felt a hand against her chest just below her collarbone press her gently back against a wall. It was the first time since her first night at Los Rojos that a man had touched her without groping her breasts. A feeling she didn’t recognize stirred inside her. It was like a memory without form, something that hid in the shadows, afraid to come out. Something that she wasn’t ready for because she had abandoned all hope of ever knowing it again.
Her eyes fluttered open and she saw the grizzled face of an unshaven man whose leathered skin spoke of a lifetime in the desert sun and too few years left to find anything more.
He tipped the tin cup against her lips again and she swallowed more carefully this time, letting the water trickle down her throat with the soothing ache of cold.
The man’s mouth stretched into a grin revealing the few teeth he had left.
“Vamos, mas agua chica.” He tipped the cup again and she reached up to curl her fingers around it, helping him tip it back. She took a deep draw that washed the desert away from the insides of her cheeks as the aching cold against her throat swelled to a an intoxicating agony.
After she drained the cup, he gently pulled it away and set it on the ground. Her stomach ached now and she felt a twinge of nausea.
He laid his hand on her shoulders and waited for her to settle under his touch. She didn’t recognize the look in his face and didn’t know how to look at him. Her survival had depended on knowing when to look innocent, seductive or playfully indignant. The cues had always come from the face looking at her, naked in its raw desire. Now, she didn’t know what she saw except a quiet patience. She looked at him blankly and let her shoulders relax as he angled her away from the wall and lay her on a thin blanket stretched across the floor.
As she lay her head down, he pulled another blanket over her as the first shiver of cold rattled through her body. He smoothed it over her legs and tucked it gently under her back before smoothing her hair back.
“Tiempo para dormir, chica.”
A warm glow settled into her and she felt her body float away as she found the first moments of real sleep she had known in three days.
©2017 Michael J Lawrence