Desert Crossing, p.1Elise Broach
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For my brother and sister,
Mark and Mary Broach,
with thanks for many shared adventures
There are some kinds of trouble you never see coming, like those thunderstorms that start from nothing at all. One minute the sky is blue and distant. Then, all of a sudden, it’s dark and thick with clouds, pressing down right on top of you. The leaves turn silvery and twist in the wind, the air starts to hum, and the rain comes, so heavy and fast you can’t even see. You almost never make it to the house in time.
That’s how it was the night we drove through New Mexico. It had been sunny all day, too hot in the car, and I was sticky with sweat, sick of the back seat, sick of the way Kit kept turning the front air vents so they all faced him. My brother, Jamie, was driving, and he let Kit do whatever he liked. He thought it was funny.
“Come on,” I kept saying. “Can I get a little air back here?” I plucked my T-shirt away from my skin and fanned my stomach. “I’m going to pass out.”
“Go ahead,” Kit said. “We could use the quiet.”
Jamie just laughed, so I kicked the back of his seat, hard. Then he whipped the steering wheel from side to side so the whole car shook, saying, “Cut it out, Luce. You’ll be sorry.”
We were driving from Kansas City to Phoenix to spend spring break with my dad. Don’t ask me why Kit had to come. He was Jamie’s best friend, and his parents had gone to the Bahamas “to work on their marriage.” This is exactly the kind of thing you don’t want to hear about somebody else’s parents, although I guess it’s better than hearing it about your own. Our parents were divorced already, so Jamie and I didn’t have to deal with stuff like that. But it was something that never made sense to me: how a relationship could be separate from the two people in it, its own living, breathing thing.
Anyway, Kit had nothing better to do for spring break and decided to come with us. It changed the whole trip. I was stuck in the back seat, which was bad enough, but on top of that, I had to listen to the two of them talk about girls for twelve hours straight, all the way across Kansas, Oklahoma, part of Texas, and now New Mexico.
It started with Jamie saying something like, “Did you see Maddie Dilworth at the gym on Saturday?” Kit banged his fist on the dashboard and said, “Oh, yeah! Yeah. She’s hot.”
And then, like I wasn’t even there, they proceeded to discuss every single part of Maddie Dilworth’s body. Which was interesting for, maybe, three seconds. I sat with my sketchbook on my lap, trying to draw, but sweat dripped on the page and blurred the lines. I couldn’t concentrate. I kept looking at my skinny legs—too white—and the way my shirt puddled over my chest. I would be fifteen in a month but I always felt younger when I was with Jamie and Kit—more like twelve. They kept right on talking, about another girl at the gym, then a junior who worked at Kane’s Drugs, then Kristi Bendall, a girl in my grade. They were seniors! I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Hello? She’s a freshman, you jerks. Isn’t that too young for you? She’s in my math class! I don’t want to hear what you think of her boobs. Can you stop, please?”
“Lighten up,” Kit said. Jamie just laughed.
I reached between them to crank up the radio. I spread out the map, tenting it over the seat. I interrupted them every time I saw a road sign. But it didn’t matter. They were on a roll, and I was doomed.
“This is the most boring car ride of my life,” I said.
Kit snorted. “Like we care?”
That’s the kind of guy he was. If he didn’t have some use for you, you might as well not be there at all.
The whole trip was like that. Every time we stopped at a diner, he and Jamie sat at a table by themselves so they could hit on the waitresses. “Hey, how’s it going? What’s the best thing on the menu? No, you pick. Bring us your favorite. We trust you.”
That sounds so stupid you’d think the waitresses would ignore them. But they’re cute, both of them, which is why they get away with it. Jamie and I look like our dad—dark eyes, straight nose, big smile—and Kit has reddish hair that’s so soft and wavy you can’t help but want to touch it. Until you get to know him.
The women weren’t that pretty, mostly. They had dyed hair and brown teeth and those husky smokers’ voices. But they smiled a lot and shot long, sly looks at Jamie and Kit, and that was all it took. Jamie loved women, and Kit … well, as my mom would say, Kit loved the sound of his own voice.
So I had to watch them smirk and hold open doors and leave extra bills every place we stopped. At the last restaurant, the waitress was Mexican and barely spoke English. They fell all over themselves with their high school Spanish—por favor, claro que sí, no más—trying to impress her. Our dad is half Mexican and fluent in Spanish, so Jamie could fake it better than Kit, but even so, they kept screwing up. The waitress just laughed at them.
I clapped my headphones over my ears and drew pictures on the thin paper place mat: a cactus and a coyote, then the waitress, with her wide, smooth forehead and the dark swoops of her eyebrows. I kept wishing for my best friend, Ginny. If she were there, we would be cracking up, making fun of Jamie and Kit. But without her, all I could do was try to look busy, not like some loser eating all by herself.
I was tired of being ignored.
So now, back in the hot car, I was arguing with Kit to make him change places with me.
“Come on, you’ve been up there the whole trip. It’s not fair. This isn’t even your car. I’m too hot!”
“Then have something to drink.” Kit bent down and snapped open the six-pack at his feet. He’d gotten it from a trucker, talked him into buying it so he and Jamie wouldn’t get carded.
“Hey!” I said. “What are you doing?”
Kit handed Jamie a beer and took one for himself. “I’m thirsty.” He turned and pressed the cold can against my arm. I flinched, and he grinned.
I shoved his hand away. “You said those were for Albuquerque, for the hotel. Jamie, jeez, Mom would kill you. Not while you’re driving. What if a cop stops us?”
Jamie’s eyes flashed in the rearview mirror. “There aren’t any cops around here.”
He was right. There was nothing but desert, reddish and gravelly, rolling for miles in every direction. Kansas was flat, too, but
I gave Jamie’s seat another kick, just to bug him.
“Cut it out, Luce. Look, it’s not even hot now.”
He was right. It was almost dark. Suddenly the sky turned a thick, angry gray. I rolled down the window and leaned my face into the rush of wind, my hair whipping my cheeks. The air was gusty, turning cooler. It roared through the car.
That’s when it started to rain.
“Put up the windows!” Jamie yelled.
The rain spilled from the sky, a torrent of it, slamming the roof of the car and gushing across the highway. The windshield blurred. The road disappeared.
I grabbed Jamie’s headrest. “Slow down!”
“Wooo-hoooo!” Kit threw back his head. “This is amazing!”
It was like being underwater, streaking through an ocean, dark and black.
Then we felt it.
Big, but hollow, too. A kind of thunking as the car hit something.
My knees bumped the front seat, and Jamie’s beer sloshed over the dashboard.
“Damn,” Jamie said.
He braked, jerking the wheel. Then the car started to slide, and he sped up again, trying to control it.
“Hey, easy,” Kit said. “Whatever it was, you hit it.”
“What?” I cried. “What was it?” I scrambled onto my knees and squinted through the rear window. In the red glow of the taillights, through the pouring rain, I could see something dark in the road. It jerked and spasmed, then crawled off to the side. “Oh my God, Jamie! You hit something! It’s in the road. What was it?”
“I don’t know.” Jamie’s voice was shaking. “Maybe a coyote. It ran right into the bumper. I didn’t have time to brake.”
He was driving more slowly now. His hands were clenched and pale on the steering wheel. The rain seemed to wash away the night in front of us and behind. I couldn’t see anything.
“But it was still alive,” I said. “We have to go back.”
Kit turned around. “What for? It’s just some animal.”
I kept peering through the rear window, through the silvery curtain of water. “But what if it’s a dog?”
“Nobody lives around here. How could it be a dog?”
And that would have been it, end of discussion, because I wasn’t sure, and Jamie was shaken, and Kit was impatient, and Albuquerque was still an hour away. That would have been it, if I hadn’t seen the patch of yellow light—a wet, bright smudge in the middle of the desert.
“No, wait!” I cried. “There’s a house. It could be a dog. It could be somebody’s dog! Jamie, come on. We have to go back.”
Kit whipped around. “Are you kidding me? What are we going to do? Nothing! It was an accident. He ran straight into the frigging road.”
But Jamie was already braking. He heaved the car into reverse and swiveled around on the highway.
“What are you doing?” Kit glared at him, disgusted.
“I’m going back.” My brother’s voice was quiet but certain, like somebody had asked him a question he shouldn’t have to answer. We were crazy about dogs in my family. Kit knew it, too. He made a big show of shaking his head and rolling his eyes, but he knew we had to go back.
The road looked strange in the dark. It was slick and flooded with water that shone in the headlights. Jamie drove more slowly. We couldn’t tell how far we’d come. I kept my face pressed to the window, watching every shape along the road: the mile-marker posts, the scraggly bushes, the sudden, looming boulders. I was staring so hard my eyes hurt. The night was almost black now, and we were pushing through rain that fell so fast it seemed as solid as a wall.
“We’re not going to find anything,” Kit said, tapping his foot noisily against the dashboard. And a minute later, “See? It’s gone. Maybe you just clipped it. We’ve gone too far already. Turn around.”
But then I saw it: something shadowy and unexpected, lying near the side of the road.
“Jamie! Stop! It’s over there.”
Jamie braked, and the car skidded sideways. “Where? What?”
“Look.” I pointed, but through the rain, I couldn’t be sure.
“You’re both crazy,” Kit said. “I can’t believe we’re doing this. So what if it is a dog? It’s probably, like, rabid. What are we going to do with it?”
“I don’t know,” Jamie mumbled. “But come on, let’s take a look.” He turned the car again and pulled across the road, shining the headlights where I’d been pointing. A white arc of light covered the road. I swung open the car door and the blast of wet air made me shiver. There were jackets buried somewhere in the trunk, but Jamie and Kit just pulled their T-shirts on top of their heads and stumbled into the rain. It washed over us, drenching our clothes, sending rivers down our arms and legs. With their shirts surrounding their faces, Jamie and Kit looked like ghosts.
I ran ahead.
“There it is!” I yelled. I heard the crunch of Jamie’s feet on the gravel behind me.
In the glare of the headlights, I could see it. Something pale, curving away from the road.
I stopped where I was. Jamie almost knocked into me. We stood there, staring. We couldn’t breathe.
It wasn’t an animal.
It was a girl, her slim arm curving across the gravel, like a ballerina’s. Oh my God, I thought.
There are moments when everything changes, and it happens so quickly, in the time it takes to blink or catch your breath. It’s like there’s a line between “then” and “now,” and you can feel yourself stepping over it, and you don’t want to because you know you can’t go back. That’s how it was when we saw the girl. We walked toward her, with Kit coming up behind us, and I don’t know how we did it, how we moved our feet or remembered to breathe. I wanted to run back to the car, wanted to grab their hands and pull them with me, back into the minute before this minute, so we could drive away into the night without knowing. Because knowing would change everything. As soon as we saw her, I could feel it: We were walking away from our old life and into something else.
When we got to her, we could see her hair flowing over the ground in a wet, dark fan. Her eyes were wide open, unblinking in the rain. She was dead.
None of us said anything. We stood there with the rain pouring all around us and looked at that girl, looked and looked at her, as if we could somehow stare the life back into her, get her up on her feet, away from the road, away from cars in the rain.
I’d never seen a dead person before. I kept thinking, if this were a movie, people would be frantic now, checking her pulse, stretching her flat, pounding her chest. And maybe after a minute, she’d cough or wheeze, and you’d know she was going to be okay. But this girl was so still. Even in the roar of the storm, you could feel the quiet space around her.
Jamie squatted next to her. “But it was a coyote,” he said slowly.
Kit bent over, hands on his knees. He gave a long, shuddering breath. “It was dark. You couldn’t see. She came right into the road.”
“No,” Jamie said. “It was an animal.”
“You couldn’t see.”
“Jamie…” I touched his shoulder. He shook his head hard, jerking away from me. I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl. Her mouth was partly open, a small, clean oval, utterly silent. She was older than we were, but not by much. Everything about her was ordinary: dark jeans, a T-shirt with writing across the front, a silver
Her body lay at an angle, twisted, with her shirt hiked up, showing a band of pale skin. I reached out and pulled the shirt down. Then—I don’t know why—I felt sick, completely sick, and I started throwing up. In the middle of it, as I was doubled over, I felt someone grab my hair and gather it back from my face. It must have been Kit, which was strange, but not stranger than anything else.
Jamie yanked his T-shirt back off his head, and the rain poured over him, plastering his hair to his forehead. He didn’t look at me. “It’s okay, Luce. We’ll call somebody.”
“Here,” Kit said, taking out his cell phone. He shielded it from the rain with his palm, turning and pointing it in different directions, punching the keypad. Finally he looked up hopelessly. “There’s no signal.”
And then I remembered. “There was a house,” I said.
“What?” They both turned to me.
“That light we saw. We can get help.”
“Yeah, okay,” Jamie said. Something in his face was different, closed off. He kept staring at the girl. “She’s too near the road. Can we move her away?”
Kit shook his head. “I don’t think we should touch her.”
I swallowed hard. “What if somebody hits her? What if somebody runs over her?”
“She’s dead,” Kit said.
Jamie’s mouth was a tight line, but his eyes were huge. “I’ll stay here. You guys drive to the house. “I’ll wait with her.”
Kit frowned. “There’s nothing you can do.”
Jamie threw him the car keys. “Just go.”
So Kit and I went back to the car. Kit opened the trunk and tossed me my jacket, but I just stood there looking at it in my hands. I couldn’t think what to do.
“Put it on,” he said. And then I realized I was shaking. We got in the car, and I held Jamie’s windbreaker out the window for him as we rolled slowly past. Jamie took it and flopped it over one shoulder, the rain still gusting around him. I watched him in the rearview mirror as we drove away. He got darker and smaller, but I could still see the jacket, flapping uselessly, like a flag.
Desert Crossing by Elise Broach / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes