Authors: Ian Ballard
Copyright © 2013 Ian Ballard
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be copied, reproduced, scanned, photographed, or distributed in either print or electronic form without the author’s express permission. This is a work of fiction.
Cover design by Shelby Huckabay.
Renato watched the desert birds from beneath the brim of a faded straw hat. They moved in patient circles overhead, drifting for seconds at a time, and finally giving a flap or two to stay aloft. In all his seventy-five years, he'd never seen so many crowd into a single patch of sky. Lowering his eyes, he scanned the desolate landscape up ahead, trying to discern what dead or dying thing had attracted so much attention.
As he walked along, Renato carried a plastic mesh bag containing a dozen glass bottles and a few rocks sparkling with flecks of quartz. At his side trotted a seasoned blue heeler mix with a grizzled snout and a pair of mismatched blue and gray eyes. Ahead, the sand stretched to the horizon where it met a dawn sky of rosy vacant blue. Behind him, thirty miles in the distance, lay the city of Juárez.
The shadows of the birds flitted across the terrain, wriggling over each ridge and crest like legless specters. They seemed to be converging upon a point somewhere just beyond the next rise, some swooping down out of sight and some ascending in feathery commotion. Renato's eyes tracked a lone flyer that rose rapidly from beyond the crest, clutching something in its tight talons. As the creature passed overhead, the object fell from its grip, tumbling through the air and landing not far from where Renato stood. The dog approached first and gave it a thorough and wary sniff.
Seconds later, Renato came to the blue narrow item and squatted to pick it up. It was a woman's sandal. The bottom was
made of rubber and the straps on top were leather and lined with small plastic shells. He turned it over in his hand, trying to fathom how the bird had come by it. Regardless, it was of no value to him, particularly without its match, so he tossed it aside. The dog looked at the sandal and then back at his master, expectantly, a drop of saliva falling from his tongue.
Renato removed a plastic bottle from his pack and poured water into a tin cup. He took a sip and waited for the dog to finish the rest. Standing there, Renato caught sight of a second and much larger object up ahead. Perhaps a hundred yards away, it lay just before the crest. He squinted, trying to make out what it was, but to his cataracted eyes, it remained just a pale blotch of color.
,” he told the dog and began to move toward it in slow, deliberate strides.
Perceiving where they were headed, the dog raced ahead, encircled the object, and gave a few alarmed barks. The animal then dashed back to its master’s side as if wishing to distance itself from whatever it was. Renato wrinkled his brow and pressed on. His heart began to quicken, not from any definite thought, but from a crystallizing sense of dread. Moments later, he was standing over it.
,” he said.
An electric tingling ran the length of his body and made the hairs on his brown arms stand on end. The dog was whining and turning in spastic circles. What lay before him, face down in the sand, was a human body. A woman with white skin. An Anglo. She was completely naked with long blonde hair that ran to just past her shoulders. Her legs were bound together at the calves with loops of yellow rope. Her feet were gone, cut away just below the ankles, each leg ending in a jagged, rusty edge.
Qué diablo hizo esto
?” The words, which formed on Renato’s tongue almost without him knowing, came out as little more than a whisper.
The woman's arms were stretched out ahead of her as if she'd been dragging herself along with her hands. Behind her mutilated legs, carved in the sand, was a meandering trail that ran all the way to the crest, disappearing over it. Renato stooped down and placed his hand on the woman's back, not knowing exactly why, but wanting to touch her as if to confirm that she was real and not
some horrible mirage. The instant his fingers reached her skin, the woman gave a violent jerk.
Renato recoiled, his heart pounding hard. “
The woman coughed and tried to lift her head. Renato reached out and grasped her by the shoulders and carefully turned her over so she rested on her back. Just barely conscious, she made desperate but feeble movements as if trying to evade his touch.
Calma te, niña. Voy a ayudarte,”
When she'd grown still again, he brushed her hair aside so he could see her face. When he saw what lay beneath—what had been done to her—he gave a gasp and had to look away. He felt tears welling up within him. Where her eyes should have been, there remained only two empty, bleeding rings. Thick scarlet trails stained her face from cheek to chin.
The woman's lips parted. “Is it you?” she muttered in a weak, raspy voice. Then, with what seemed to take all the energy she could muster, she spoke again. “Are you waiting to watch me die?”
Niña, no te entiendo,
” said Renato, as he reached out and gently touched her face.
When she felt his hand, the woman thrashed about in terror.
No voy a hacerte daño, niña
,” he said.
Who are you?” she asked.
Calmate, niña. Voy a ayudarte
The fear on the woman's face began to slowly fade. “I don’t understand you. But I can tell by your voice, you’re good. . . .” Then she lifted up her hand and finding Renato's face, gently passed her fingers over it. A faint smile appeared on her lips. “I can picture you in my mind . . . I’m glad that
wasn’t the last face I ever saw.”
Niña, todo va a estar bien
“There's nothing you can do for me,” the woman said, her voice so weak it was almost inaudible. “But there are others . . .” With these words, her hand dropped from Renato's face and her labored breathing ceased.
More tears flowed from Renato's eyes when he saw that she was gone. He squeezed her hand in his. “
Qué monstruo hizo esto
He stayed with the woman a long time, not wanting to leave her side. He stroked her hair and arranged it beneath her head. From his pocket he took out a white handkerchief and laid it over
her face and smoothed out the wrinkles with his fingers. The dog watched him with worried eyes, all the while softly whimpering.
Renato looked up at the circling birds. It seemed like there were more now. They screeched and beat their wings against the dry air as they swooped out of sight. Then he looked at the trail the woman had made in the sand. Followed it with his eyes to where it vanished over the crest.
The dog began to growl.
Renato glanced at the animal and saw that it was staring fixedly at a point farther down along the ridge.
?” he asked, scanning the area.
But then he saw it. There was something—so far away he could barely make it out. A figure perhaps. But he couldn't have said for sure. His thoughts were scattered. For the first time, he wasn't thinking about the woman, but about himself. His chest was rising and falling so quickly. Like he couldn't get enough air. Slowly he rose to his feet and began to walk toward the dark shape.
It was moving. It seemed to sway like the shadow of a flame.
The dog wasn't beside him and he looked for it. It was still sitting beside the woman, as if guarding her. “
,” Renato commanded, and the dog reluctantly rose and trotted up to him.
When he looked back at the ridge, whatever he'd seen before was gone. He cocked his head to one side—was his mind playing tricks on him? He stood watching the ridge, wondering if the shape would reappear, but there was no sign of it.
He didn't know his old heart could pound so hard or that the blood could run so hot within his veins. Part of him said to go back. To walk away. For he feared what lay beyond that crest. Maybe more than he'd feared anything before. And yet, other parts of him, parts whose voices were dearer to his heart, bade him to go on. And he pressed on and crossed that final distance. As he was a man, and as he lived.
Finally, he reached the edge of the dune and he looked down.
Ten hours and three energy drinks later, the curtain falls on my endless overnight drive back to school from winter break. It’s 6:45 a.m., my arrival a photo finish with the first light of dawn. The sky brightens to a cadavery gray and pink clouds on the horizon spread, and curl, and redden—like someone bleeding underwater.
Ugh . . . this is clearly the thought of a brain in need of rest. Leaving last night seemed like a good idea at the time—it let me squeeze in an extra Saturday with my family—but for the last few hundred miles of delirious driving, the decision has seemed questionable at best.
And yet, there’s a distinct joy to the all-nighter, with that half-crazed euphoria that grips you in the pre-dawn hours. It’s a seldom-celebrated but crucial part of the college experience.
The sun’s half up as I make the final turn into Gold Run Apartments. I edge the Camry into an empty spot, cut the gas, and glance in the rearview mirror. Green eyes stare out from behind blue glasses. No shower, no sleep, no makeup. Sort of a
look. But, I have to admit I make a pretty attractive zombie.
Opening the car door, I step out into the cold January dawn. My roommate Jessica’s black Jeep is parked a few spots down. I know it’s hers because of the Phish bumper sticker and the dangling side mirror. I also notice that it’s parked at a rather rakish angle. This happens from time to time. The rule of thumb is the more severe the slant, the more extreme were Jessica’s nocturnal debaucheries.
From the looks of it, she’s had a rough night.
Jessica works as a waitress at a bar on The Hill called Crocs and often parties with coworkers and customers till the wee hours of the morning. Of these, a few will sometimes end up conked out on the living room couch, while the cutest or most persistent may, upon occasion, be upgraded to bedfellow status.
I picture Jessica passed out upstairs, the arm of a slumbering meathead draped over her, her liver doing its best to cope with whatever ill-advised combination of booze, pharmaceuticals, weed, and Taco Bell she ingested last night. Oh, the pleasures of a craigslist roommate.
I insert the key into the lock of my apartment door, hoping I won’t be greeted by any surprises in the living room.
Following a courtesy knock, the door swings open.
I’m in shock. Before me is the same empty and reasonably clean living room I left three weeks ago.
All's silent as I step inside.
I close the door, set my bag down in the entryway, and release a pent-up yawn. As it subsides, I become aware of a sound from upstairs. I cock my head. Something rustling.
“Jess?” I call.