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The broken blade flashed as it streaked above the desert, circling end over end then striking the rocky ground with a clink. It lay there gleaming in the slanted rays of the sun like lost treasure. The other half of the blade remained lodged firmly between spiky ranks of spines in the barrel cactus, only an inch of the cleanly snapped edge protruding.
Alex would have cried in despair and fury if he’d had any tears left but they were long gone, his eyes as dry as the sandy soil he knelt on. His head pounded and his muscles cramped anew, aggravated by the effort required to fling the knife away in disgust. It was late afternoon on Sunday. He’d run out of water 24 hours ago, every cell in his body aching for replenishment. Though his meager supply of food was a distant memory, driving thirst had long since made him forget the hunger pangs. A long-forgotten scene had pushed to the forefront of his brain: someone in a nameless movie – a Western – cutting into a barrel cactus and drinking the life-saving reservoir of fluid inside it. Hope had briefly seized him, but that hope shattered along with his cheap pocket knife. His swollen tongue clumsily maneuvered a small, smooth pebble around his mouth in an attempt to generate moisture, but it was akin to coaxing water from a bag of cotton balls.
Friday morning had been the start of a well-deserved four-day weekend. It was early May and warm, but still weeks away from the brutal heat of true summer. On a whim, Alex stuffed his sketch pad and pencils, a granola bar, an apple, and a liter bottle of water into his backpack, threw the lot into his pickup truck, and hit the road. He’d wanted to take a day trip west of Tucson since he and Jenna had moved there nine months ago but day-to-day life kept intervening. Envisioning a peaceful morning of hiking and sketching the desert landscape, he sought the most uninhabited and undeveloped area possible. Leaving the city far behind he drove still further, signs of civilization vanishing bit by bit, and was delighted to finally discover an unmarked dirt road well off the beaten path. Without hesitation he turned onto it and bumped along its twists and turns for uncounted miles and minutes until the road became little more than a trail, small desert shrubs and grasses whipping the sides of his truck as he drove.
Carefully coaxing the reluctant truck up a small hill, steering through an obstacle course of large rocks and gaping crevices, he navigated a particularly primitive stretch. The reward at the top of the rise was a stunning view of unbroken miles of Sonoran desert, its rocky ground green with spring and surmounted by an impossibly blue sky that wouldn’t know clouds until the monsoon season started in July.
With the engine idling and both windows rolled down he paused to take in the view, crunching the apple. Dry desert grasses waved gently in the warm breeze and a profusion of spring-green leaves sprouted from a nearby ocotillo. A noisy dispute between two cactus wrens caught his attention and so absorbed was he in his surroundings that he didn’t at first notice the small flames licking the right side of the truck’s hood. By the time the dancing motion of the fire registered in his peripheral vision, small flames had become large ones, hungry for more fuel and sending searing feelers up the windshield. He stared in disbelief for a second then in a panicked single motion grabbed his backpack, flung open the door, and fled, his discarded apple rolling down the dirt trail in his wake.
Assisted by the breeze and the open windows, the engine fire swiftly and greedily spread to the cab, gradually petering out and dying after a brief but savage feeding frenzy. When smoke ceased belching from the engine, Alex cautiously approached and surveyed the ruins. His truck was a useless, smoking lump of metal, the ignition melted and the engine fried. Burned scraps of his jacket littered the blackened passenger’s seat like confetti and his phone – his lifeline – lay shattered and warped on the dashboard next to the now defunct GPS system.
He took stock of his situation: he had no transportation, no phone, and no real idea of where he was. Jenna was in Ohio visiting her family for the first time since the couple moved to Tucson and she wasn’t expecting to hear from him until Monday afternoon. He wasn’t due back to work until Tuesday morning and in any case, he hadn’t told any co-workers about his excursion. The odds of encountering someone else traveling the rough, overgrown road anytime soon seemed infinitesimally remote.
“Stay with your vehicle.” He’d read that somewhere and so he stayed for a while, but the charred interior offered little shelter, no resources, and no hope of rescue. Mentally replaying the miles of dry, uninhabited nothingness covered to reach his current location, he realized that retracing that path was an impossible task. Heading northeast across the desert as the crow flies, however, he’d eventually intersect with the highway – a long hike, but better than the alternatives. With a resigned sigh, he pried his dead lump of a phone off the dashboard with a stick, adding its still-warm carcass to the backpack on the off chance it might magically return to life. He then strode off with a granola bar, three-quarters of a liter of water, and the expectation that he’d be home before evening.
As he strode through the morning and early afternoon, he reflected that his faithful gym attendance and regular morning runs were paying off: he was in good enough shape to handle a long hike. Even so, he found it uncomfortably warm, the temperature having risen to the mid-90s, causing his throat to prickle with thirst and the level of water in his bottle to diminish as though it had sprung a leak. A pair of rugged ravines and a thick patch of prickly pear cactus forced detours, and with the sun directly overhead it became more difficult to tell what direction he was headed.
By late afternoon he’d walked through miles of desert with no hint of human presence. The breeze blew effortlessly across the landscape, unimpeded by any man-made obstacles. When at last the sun dipped low on the horizon behind him and there was no sign of the highway, he felt his heart pound and his chest heave as he tried to squelch feelings of panic. As darkness finally fell so did tears of frustration and disbelief. Sticky all over with dried sweat, stabbed by hunger pangs, his fair skin burned sunset red, he shouted futilely for help but received not even an echo in return.
The quarter moon rose, going about its business as it had for millennia. Alex soldiered on in the dim light for a time on that first night, his heart jumping into his dry throat when the dark shapes of roosting birds exploded out of a bush he floundered into, their shrill alarm calls ringing in his ears for minutes afterward. The light breeze rustled clumps of dried grass, making a whispering sound like a conversation just out of earshot, and his footsteps sounded freakishly loud on the hard, gravelly ground. He could swear that when he stopped, the sound continued for a split second as if someone were following behind him in lockstep, mimicking his every move, stopping just after he stopped. Glancing nervously behind him, he stumbled on the uneven ground and pitched forward, sandblasting the underside of his right forearm as he landed.
Defeated by the darkness, he sought a resting place for the night. A rock outcropping near a large creosote bush beckoned and he settled there, his back against the rock wall. How could a short day trip have become a night spent alone in the desert? He shook his head, incredulous. Nearby the skeleton of a long-dead saguaro glowed yellow-white in the pale moonlight, casting a faint, ominous shadow. Beyond that the landscape was amorphous and obscure in the darkness, its nocturnal occupants moving unseen and mysterious about their affairs as they did every night, always. To soothe himself he conjured up fond memories of family camping trips in the woods when he was a child, and thoughts of sleeping bags and s’mores settled his nerves for a short time. Then veering off track like a derailing train, his mind abruptly fixed on the ghost stories they’d told around the campfire. Frowning and cursing himself, he silenced the memories as best he could. He was jumpy enough without thinking about spirits and boogeymen. Famished and exhausted, he ate half of his granola bar then tried to sleep.
Sleep did not come easily. The arid, hard desert ground cannot retain heat and as soon as the sun sets, releases its warmth to the night. Though it had been uncomfortably warm during the day, the temperature plummeted to the lower 50s at night. Wearing just a T-shirt and jeans and hugging his backpack for warmth, Alex shivered himself awake each time he managed to drift off and twitched nervously at each unfamiliar night sound. Surfacing into consciousness for the umpteenth time he gasped in momentary terror as a pale, ghostly figure glided silently above the desert floor some yards away, his tired brain unable to interpret the shape for a moment. Owl, he realized, finally. The snuffling pig-like sounds that came later were impossible for him to place and kept him still and frozen, pressed against the rapidly-cooling rock wall for what seemed like hours before he at last drifted back into a fitful, fearful sleep.
He awoke on Saturday morning with the first light of dawn, his fleeting hope that the whole excursion had been just a bad dream dashed as soon as he opened his eyes. His water supply rapidly diminishing, he devised a new strategy: he would travel during the cooler part of the day and rest in the afternoon. But surely he would find the highway before noon. Yesterday was discouraging but the new morning gave him a burst of optimism.
The day was a blur of walking and resting, the beauty of the landscape and the clear cerulean sky long since lost on him. Evening found him painfully thirsty and hungry after another hot day, and eventually forced to numbly accept that he would be spending a second night in the desert. The bottom of a small, rocky hill near a shallow ravine became his resting place for Saturday night. The now-empty water bottle rattled hollowly against the melted phone as he dropped his backpack and settled in with his back to the stony hillside. Now desperate for water, his thoughts were becoming disordered and unfocused and his eyes and skin were sandpaper-dry. He gingerly prodded the abrasions on his right arm. They’d been screaming for attention all day, red, angry, and starting to swell. As darkness encroached once more, he used his small pocket knife to pick cactus spines out of his jeans and hiking boots, his mind wandering in a near-dreamlike state.
His blurred sight turned creeping shadows into dreadful stalking beasts with shaggy manes and long legs skulking behind the stunted desert plants, circling him on the fringes of his vision. The high-pitched yammering of a pack of coyotes reached him from a far distance. If they came closer, would they pass up an easy target? As his eyes began to feel heavier with the onset of sleep, a sudden, loud shriek pierced the air close by, sending tingles of alarm through his body. Holding his breath, he sat perfectly still in the dark, waiting. The same shriek sounded twice more, farther away. A night bird of some kind, he hoped.
Jumping at every sound and shaking from the cold once again, Alex at last drifted into an uneasy sleep – and dreamed an uneasy dream. He was at work late in the evening, long after everyone else had left. Parched with thirst, he left his office to walk to the break room for a drink. The building was still and silent and all the offices but his dark as tombs, their identical doors shut tight, their contents cryptic. He squinted to find his way, the hallway lighted only by tiny, dim, far-flung nightlights with long stretches of pitch black in between. Twisting and turning, it wended its way for what seemed like miles with no end in sight and he took to walking hastily through the dark stretches, more fearful with each moment that one of the doors would open of its own accord as he passed, revealing a horror behind it. When he looked back, there was no sign of his office now: just a tunnel of thick, sooty blackness.
Gradually he became aware of the faint sound of sobbing coming from each office he passed, accompanied by muffled whispering from the far reaches of the hallway behind him, the words incomprehensible. He quickened his pace to a jog, eager to reach the safe haven of the break room. For miles and miles he jogged, the sobbing and whispering now gone, hearing only his own wheezing, gasping breaths. Finally winded and with his lungs aching, he was forced to stop – but only for a moment. Louder but still inarticulate the whispering began, the sobbing soon following. Closer now, they issued from all of the offices at once. As terror began to overcome him he broke into a run despite exhaustion, like wounded prey in a final life-or-death effort to evade a predator. Rounding a bend in the hallway he spotted a bright light in the distance and though struggling for breath managed a burst of speed toward it, revealing it to be the break room at last, awash in bright light and lined with dozens of vending machines containing bottled water and cold soda of every sort imaginable. It was directly across a wide hallway that formed a T intersection with the one down which he fled.
Some primitive instinct stopped his headlong rush just in time. He skidded to a halt at the edge of the hallway a dozen feet across from the break room and looked down. There was no floor, a drop into an obsidian-black, apparently bottomless chasm between him and salvation. As he stood there panting and helpless, the now-ceaseless sobbing escalated to a wail of agony and he heard the office doors for miles down the hallway begin to rattle violently in their frames.
He awoke with a start in the early dawn of his third day in the desert.
Sunday proved to be as fruitless as its predecessors and walking ever more taxing. After failing to cut into the barrel cactus in the early evening, Alex trudged to a nearby dry wash to seek a place to spend the night. The wash stretched on endlessly in both directions, a broken promise of water. A high rocky cliff formed a wall on the far side some yards to the right, a handful of gnarled mesquites in front of it. Completely drained, he dropped where he stood, no longer caring to find a more suitable spot. As the sun began its descent and a chilly breeze sprang up, he fumbled his sketch pad and a pencil from the backpack and wrote a short, shaky note to Jenna, telling her that he loved her. Returning the pad and pencil to the backpack, he fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, in spite of the cold, his aching thirst, and the throbbing pain in his arm.
His muddled mind couldn’t process the sound that stirred his unconscious and woke him. Half-awake, he waited for it to repeat.
After a minute, “¡Hola, amigo!”
A human voice came from the direction of the rock cliff on the far side of the wash. Snatching up his backpack, Alex struggled to his feet and staggered several yards to his right, closer to the source of the sound. His view of the cliff, dim at best in the moonlight, was further obscured by the clump of mesquites in front of it.
“¡Aquí!” the voice entreated.
Climbing down the insignificant bank and crossing the wash revealed a shallow cave in the rock cliff only a few feet above the wash bed. A ridge of dirt and rock extended several feet in front of the cave entrance making a natural walkway, and on that walkway stood a dim figure – by its voice, a man – waving his arms above his head.
Hallucination? Dream? Either was possible. Alex tentatively called, “Hello?”
“¡Hola!” came the reply.
Not completely trusting his eyes and ears Alex closed the remaining distance to the rock cliff, scrambled stiffly onto the walkway, and approached the figure cautiously, fearing it would dissolve into nothingness, a figment of his imagination. As he grew closer, the moonlight brought to light a man of small stature and slight build clothed in well-worn blue jeans, a light brown T-shirt, and a black windbreaker with neon-green stripes starting at the neck and running the length of both arms. His dusty, scuffed boots had seen many miles of travel by foot. Jet black, wavy hair merged into the black of the cave interior behind him and from what Alex could tell, his eyes were equally dark. An oval, silver pendant hung around his neck, gleaming faintly as it caught the light.
“¿Tiene agua?” questioned the man, with hope in his voice.
Alex knew only a handful of Spanish words. Agua was water, the lack of which he felt keenly.
“No,” he replied, shaking his head, his swollen tongue making speaking an arduous task.
“¿Un coche?” the man asked next.
Seeing the confusion on Alex’s face, the man mimed steering a car.
“No. I did, but it doesn’t run anymore,” Alex responded, then realized the man probably couldn’t understand him. “Do you speak English?”
A flash of white teeth appearing in a slight smile, the man lifted his hand, holding his index finger and thumb close together. “Little,” he responded. He then thrust his right arm out, inviting Alex to shake hands. “Me llamo José Luis,” he offered.
Alex shook hands, introducing himself. Gesturing toward the interior of the cave, José Luis invited him inside out of the cool breeze. The cave was little more than a hollow scooped out of the cliff in some distant era, wide but not very deep, with a ceiling that sloped downward as it reached the back. When his eyes adjusted to the dark interior, Alex could just make out a battered backpack, a baseball cap, and two empty milk jugs lying on the left side about halfway back – evidently the only possessions José Luis had carried with him across the border. The milk jugs, he guessed, formerly held water.
Hardly daring to hope, Alex asked, “Do you know how to get to Tucson?”
José Luis nodded with a slight smile. “Si. Voy a Tucson para encontrar trabajo,” he replied, pronouncing it Took-sahn.
Whatever that meant, Alex didn’t think it answered the question and so tried again.
“Which way is Tucson from here?” Alex pointed first one direction then another and gave an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders. “Umm…donde Tucson?”
Moving to the front of the cave, José Luis turned to the right and with no hesitation or sign of doubt, pointed northeast.
Relief flooded over Alex for the first time since Friday as he envisioned himself setting off at the first light of dawn with a guide, finally sure of the way home – to water and help and civilization. Interrupting this reverie, José Luis abruptly stood and beckoned Alex to the walkway in front of the cave. Alex followed, curious, as he stepped off the walkway and moved a short distance down the bank of the wash to the left. A rough square of fabric – perhaps a piece of a waterproof jacket or a light tarp – stretched on the sandy soil there, held in place by seven or eight rocks placed along its edges. The fabric sagged in a slope toward a small pile of pebbles in the middle as if it were suspended over a hole in the ground.
Grabbing Alex’s sleeve and pulling him closer, José Luis pointed to the fabric and stated, “In morning…agua.”
The crude device must collect condensation during the cool night, yielding drinking water, Alex realized, nodding and smiling in understanding. There wouldn’t be much, but even a thimbleful would be a blessed relief.
A sudden loud rustling out of sight down the wash bed caused both men to flinch, then stand stock-still, barely breathing. When the noise didn’t recur after some moments the pair relaxed, though José Luis glanced nervously around as if trying to scan the opaque shadows in the desert beyond.
“Hay fantasmas en el desierto,” he whispered uneasily.
“Fantasmas?” Alex repeated it in his head, his tired, fuzzy brain trying to work out an English equivalent. “Fantasmas…fantasies?” Then, “Phantasms…phantoms. Ghosts.”
José Luis clutched the silver pendant he wore. Alex could make out a winged figure on it – an angel.
“San Miguel me protege. He protect me,” the man said, his voice now louder and more sure.
Alex was past worrying about ghosts, but nodded his understanding.
The two returned to the shelter of the cave. Pressing both of his hands together and placing them alongside his face, José Luis shut his eyes and feigned sleep for a moment to communicate his intent to Alex. He then moved to the left wall of the cave and lay on his side with his back against it, his backpack serving as a pillow. Alex followed suit, his limited reserves of energy used up despite his renewed hope. Lying against the opposite wall of the cave all he could see of José Luis was a vague, dark shape and the dim glow of the neon-green stripe on his right sleeve. A muttered prayer in Spanish was the last thing he heard before drifting off into the soundest sleep he’d had in days, free of dreams and filled with a cautious optimism.
He awoke just before dawn, his memory of the previous evening returning in a flood. A glance across the darkness of the cave showed the dark outline of José Luis still sleeping in the spot he’d occupied earlier. Alex’s first and most pressing thought, before he was even fully awake, was of water. He rose and stumbled to the location of the water pit just down the wash bank, the weak hint of daylight not yet any brighter than the murky moonlight had been. A dozen steps should have brought him to the pit, but he was unable to spot the fabric that covered it even when he retraced his steps several times, deviating first to one side then the other.
Dropping to his hands and knees to better see the ground, he noticed a darker, oval patch just a few feet away and crawled to it, his injured arm aching. A shallow pit occupied the space but no fabric covered it. The rocks that had held the fabric in place were disordered and scattered, a tattered strip of fabric under the remaining rocks along one edge. Carefully probing inside the pit with his hand, Alex discovered a small collection of dried desert plants, several pebbles, and a ragged piece of cloth, all half-buried under dust and sand. As he attempted to pull the piece of cloth out of the dirt, it crumbled in his grasp, brittle and fragile.
His heart pounded. Had he walked the wrong way down the wash bank? He was certain he hadn’t. Had José Luis risen earlier, taken the water for himself, and destroyed the pit? Then why would he have showed it to him in the first place? Distressed and bewildered, Alex sat cross-legged next to the pit until the first feeble rays of the morning sun showed themselves. He would confront José Luis and demand to know what happened to the water, he decided.
Using what limited strength he could muster he returned to the cave, crossing the sand-strewn threshold then approaching the still-sleeping man.
“José Luis!” he called from the middle of the cave, but there was no response.
Louder this time: “José Luis!” Again the man didn’t acknowledge him or even move.
Alex took several steps forward and stooped over, stretching his right arm out to grab José Luis’s shoulder and shake him awake, at the same time allowing a patch of the pure, newborn morning light to streak into the cave. His hand an inch from the green stripe on the black windbreaker, he froze.
José Luis’s left arm bent in front of his body, his hand resting on the ground in the spotlight of sun. Patches of brown, leathery flesh, withered and mummified, covered it and the bones of several fingers showed through. In the dirt nearby was an old pendant with an image of Saint Michael, long since broken away from its frail chain. On a dilapidated backpack, hollow, empty eye sockets stared from a skull adorned with thick, black hair, long dead – years dead – and covered in dust.
As Alex sat in the cave, staring into the distance, the sun ascended and the desert inhabitants went about their business as they had for millennia.
Credit To: bansidhe