“Who woulda thought the desert be this fucking cold?” He tried to raise his shoulders to his ears, but they kept shivering down. It hurt to look at the stars, they were so blistered white and scattered.
When they had left the valley that afternoon, the temperature had been in the eighties, and while they might have noticed the thunderclouds billowing in the distance, none thought it worth mentioning. Though they wore the same uniform of t-shirt and jeans, each t-shirt varied in the particular brand of beer, sports team, metropolis: a gold crown, a man with a bull’s head bouncing a leather sphere, a city of angels. Their clothing identified them as a particularly American demographic, one predisposed to discordant music and drinking to excess. However, the car stereo played not electric guitar but rather a British accent narrating a military conflict.
Was the field littered with 10,000 dead? 100,000? More? One detail upon which all of those who were present could and did agree was that for years after—watered with the blood of so many—the grass grew green as none had seen before or since.
They followed the highway north along the lower backbone of the Sierra Nevadas past salt lakes, dry-rot sheep corrals, long-dormant volcanoes, desert globe mallow, Joshua trees, billboards demanding they “Buckle-up, it’s the law!” a monotony of pale-faced basins, and roads embranched at right angles. They slowed at one of these otherwise insignificant intersections of dirt roads and turned left onto gravel, following a dry wash, then skirting a canyon, and finally pulling to a stop along a roadcut angling the slope.
“No bars, bay-bees!” He held his phone aloft as if thrusting a sword skyward, his left palm perpendicular to the soil. The driver’s license in his wallet identified him as Shea Gratis, age 19. They were, indeed, reception-less, out of range, off the grid, stepping foot on land that had been folded through erosion and fault line into a rippled labyrinth of sunlight and shadow.
Opening the car’s trunk, they removed three firearms, a twenty-inch lever action Winchester rifle, a Standard Field 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun, and a Colt service revolver Shea’s great-uncle had carried out of World War II.
“Alright, boys, let’s do it to it.” He gestured to a breach in an alluvial fan where the decomposition of tuff-derived mica had produced a copper-green glaze against the otherwise ochre desiccation. They hiked down one slope, up and over another, and then followed a ridge for about 100 yards before dropping down into a shambles of barrels and hinges rusted into a half-submerged reliquary among which miners had once moved mountains. They could taste the iron that wound like wire around the ruins. Someone somehow had dragged and centered a green sofa chair amid the wreckage; upholstery hung in frayed scraps from the arm rests as if it were shedding or in the process of being skinned.
Selecting a large barrel on the outer wreckage rim, he pulled from his pocket a chalk stick, and drew the crude outline of a man, at which they took turns shooting and offering one another condescending compliments regarding their aim and general masculine fitness.
He began hauling scrap toward the green chair, and once the other two realized what he was attempting, they helped look for the requisite components, which they then genuflected to assemble as best they could, joining jagged edge to ragged slot until they stepped back and took stock: a man’s rough effigy seated as if on a throne, the head a metal canister on which he drew two horizontal lines, as if a child had wanted to depict a sleeping face. He stepped backwards a few dozen yards from the chair, raised his rifle, and drilled a shaft through the right eye. The other two raised their pieces, and as the command moved from brain to motor neurons to axon electrical impulse to muscle ratchet mechanism, their index fingers contracted as the figure in the chair convulsed and disarticulated.
A bright flash tore overhead. Dwarfing the sounds of gunfire, a clap of thunder rent the sky. All three flinched as winds erupted seemingly from the land itself and pellets of hail ricocheted across the stone and sand in an hourglass’s hiss. They dropped their guns, raised their hands over their heads, and tried to shield themselves from the fusillade of singular white stones. As the hail turned to rain, the temperature dropped twenty then forty degrees, plastering their t-shirts against their chests stained, as if from a censer, with the fragrance of creosote, saltbush, and sage.
They grabbed their guns off the ground and scrambled up one incline, down another, and then up again.
“Where is it, man? Where’s the car? Where’s the road?”
“I don’t know. It should be here.”
“Are you sure?”
“Fuck no, I’m not sure. I were sure, the car’d be here.”
Earlier in the day, they had been able to see for miles, the distance a mere outstretched arm away, but the sheet-flood had closed, and they shivered as though they were in a much smaller frame, one that seemed to be shrinking. Visibility, their visibility, was fading as they realized how late it had gotten, how close they were to night.
“Alright, new plan. We can’t be that far away from the cars, so we each go in a different direction. Soon as you see the car, fire a round. And keep firing a round every two minutes to give a sound to follow. Sound good?” They could see his breath hanging in the air. They nodded.
“Alright, we got our cell phones, and we don’t need reception to use the timer. We don’t find the car in thirty minutes, we meet back here, alright.”
One climbed up, one slid down, and the third tried to stay at level, half-crawling, half-hobbling against the escarpment. All the while, the rain continued to fall, water revealing previously indistinguishable channels through the hillside topography as darkness descended in waves.
Another peal of thunder, and the erosive agencies of wind and water dissipated back into the tessellated rock floor above which a lace-black veil coalesced. As evaporation slowly wicked the rocks clean, the pitted terrain resumed its uncoordinated system of fissures, crustal fractures, and obliterated worn-out faults.
Two figures stumble-returned, their clothing soiled, their hands holding their cell phones outstretched before them to project a small congealed arc of artificial light by which they maintained their footing. Each collapsed beside the other onto the ground the rain had stained a dark angular mantle.
“Did you see anything?”
“No. Did you?”
“Where is he?”
They waited five minutes, then ten, first shouting his name and then firing their guns into the air. The third failed to respond, failed to reappear.
“We need a fire.”
Their bodies losing more heat than they could produce, their teeth clattering, they kneeled in gyres, stopping at each station blindly to sift the gravel for flammable scraps yet found nothing but small clumps of dried grass that, no matter how long and close they held the cigarette lighter, refused to ignite. Huddling their knees to their chests, they waited.
“That star’s going the wrong way. Why’s it moving so fast?”
“That’s not a star. It’s a satellite.”
“Can they see us?”
“Why would they want to?”
They lie there still, swaddled and new among the stones.
Matthew Woodman teaches at California State University, Bakersfield and is an editor for Rabid Oak. His stories and poems appear in recent issues of Sonora Review, Sierra Nevada Review, The California Journal of Poetics, Oblong, and The Meadow. More of his writing can be found at www.matthewwoodman.com.