“Richard, can you tell me why she still smells like urine?” Dr. Paolo asks the orderly.
“I told you to get her cleaned up. That was yesterday. So why does she still smell like urine?”
I look down at my hands. I don’t even smell anything. Apparently, I’m just that accustomed to the stink of my own piss.
When Dr. Paolo receives nothing but stunned silence, she barks, “Next time I tell you to clean her up, you’re to do it well.”
“Yes, doctor.” Richard bows his head and lets himself out of the office.
Dr. Paolo turns to me and proceeds to ask the exact same questions she asked yesterday.
I cross my arms over the ridiculous cotton gown I’ve been issued. “Look, I already told you the absolute truth about what happened to me. And legally, you can’t keep me here more than 72 hours. You may not like what I told you, but that doesn’t mean I belong in a place like this.” I gesture at the scene that’s transpiring on the other side of the plate glass window in Dr. Paolo’s office: a writhing, screaming man being carried along by two muscled orderlies.
“There are all sorts of different people who stand to benefit from being in here, Ms. Birch. I’ll be the one to decide who stays and who goes. Now, let’s start with Friday night.”
I sigh aggressively and gaze up at the ceiling. “I was driving from Colorado Springs up to Denver for a weekend with my friends. At one point, I checked my phone. I looked back up and suddenly I was driving on a desert road. From one second to the next—” I snap my fingers. “—everything had completely changed. And—trust me, I know how crazy this sounds—I…I just knew I was in Utah.”
Dr. Paolo regards me coolly. “Utah deserts are hundreds of miles away from Denver, Ms. Birch.”
“I…” Every time I tell my story, the details get a little harder to recall, and I’m a little more embarrassed. “I know it sounds wrong.”
“It does sound wrong, Ms. Birch. Very wrong. Wrong, wrong. Perhaps you simply ended up in an unfamiliar part of Colorado. Getting lost on the road can be quite disorienting.”
I bristle at the doctor’s odd cadence, but I keep mum. Last time I asked her why she kept repeating certain words, she gave me some bullshit line about extreme clarity being essential for a patient suffering a psychotic break. I flew off the handle at the use of such an offensive phrase to describe my situation, and before I knew it, I was being sedated and carried back to my room.
My room is a weird, exhausting place.
I’d prefer to stay in Dr. Paolo’s office as long as I can, so I offer, “Well, it’s true I was lost.”
“I have no doubt, with how tired you must’ve been. Things get blurred when you’ve been driving for so long in the dark. Perhaps you’d put the car on autopilot and fell asleep at the wheel.”
“I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel.” Before the doctor can come up with another patronizing hypothesis, I add, “But, I admit…I’ve always been terrible with maps.”
This seems to appease her.
“Anyway, I didn’t see one damn person or sign or building for a long time. There was a mountain off in the distance and an empty reservoir every now and then. Just when I was about to run out of gas, I came across a gas station.”
“Hmm. Very convenient.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, it happens, you know. In the desert. Mirages. Sometimes, in the desert, there are mirages. Mirages.”
I roll my eyes. It seems Dr. Paolo will grasp at anything except the truth. But I know better than to point this out.
“Ms. Birch, if there was a gas station, then you would’ve filled your tank and been on your way. Instead, you ended up missing for weeks.”
“I didn’t fill my tank because the place was closed. And even if the place was open, the pumps looked weird. They had clock faces on them.”
“A clock face on a gas pump. Doesn’t that seem like your subconscious telling you that it was time to get some shuteye and stop driving around in a confused state?”
I grit my teeth. I want to scream, rip this fucking gown off, and cinch it around Dr. Paolo’s dainty little neck until her eyes go flat. It’s by the grace of god I’m able to calmly say, “I’m not sure why you’re even interviewing me again. You’ve clearly got your mind made up about what happened to me.”
For ten long seconds, the doctor observes me. “Fine, Ms. Birch. What did you do then?”
I allow myself to be reabsorbed by my stint in White Sands. The scene is slightly less vivid than it was yesterday, but salient nonetheless: A dusty Ford Ranchero with unlit headlights flies over the road. But then it slows and pulls into the gas station. In the passenger seat is a woman with a gray strands woven through her braided black hair.
“What are you doing out?” she demands. “Curfew started hours ago.”
“Curfew…?” I chuckle amicably. “I may look young, but I’m 26. I’m allowed to be out at night, trust me.”
The driver, a white man with a flap hat, seems to be keeping watch for something. “She ain’t from here,” he says even though he still hasn’t so much as glanced in my direction.
“Then she’s our responsibility.” The woman throws open the door and scoots toward the driver. She beckons me and says, “Quickly, now.”
“Oh…I just need some gas is all. Any chance you’ve got a can to spare?”
The driver and his passenger make wry sounds.
“The best thing we can offer you is a place to sleep until we can drive you back here in the morning,” the woman says.
After a few minutes of back and forth, I finally give in. I collect my purse from my car, lock it, and climb into the Ranchero. “Beautiful truck.”
“It’s actually a coupe.” The man pulls out of the gas station.
“It needs a wash,” the woman says. “But…water rations have gotten to be less and less.”
Water rations? I’m curious but I don’t pry.
We drive in silence, the heavy night air scented with sagebrush. We enter a tired residential area with single-level adobe houses nestled directly into the coarse blond sand and pull into the driveway of one such house. It isn’t until the woman locks us into the modest but scrubbed home that she introduces herself as Aponi and the man as Red.
“I’m Willa,” I say.
“Willa, meet our children. Kimana is eight.” Red flicks his head toward a girl with Aponi’s chiseled cheekbones and thick, braided hair. “And Jeb is fourteen.” He claps his hand onto the shoulder of a boy that closely resembles him.
The children mumble bashful hellos and cling to their parents. Weird. When I was growing up, I wouldn’t’ve been caught dead cuddling up to my mother or father.
“Welp…” Red sighs and turns off a lantern. “Best we all get some sleep.”
It sinks in how meager the accommodations are. The home is solely lit by the warm glow of oil lanterns. There’s no sink, only a basin with an empty pitcher next to it. So no electricity, and no running water. As much as I’d love to hit the hay and deal with my problems in the morning, I just can’t tolerate these conditions.
I say, “Oh…I thought I’d use your phone and get Triple A out here to help me.”
“Triple what?” Red says. Without waiting for an answer, he says, “We don’t have a phone.”
“Oh. Well, do you mind if I use your bathroom?” That way I can clear my head and check my cell in peace. Ever since I’ve been in Utah, the screen has been scrambled and I haven’t even been able to let my friends know I probably won’t be joining them this weekend.
“The bathroom?” Kimana squawks. “It’s after dark!” She looks up at her mother.
Red’s fist connects with the kitchen table, sending the children’s school supplies an inch into the air and my shoulders into my ears. “GOD DAMN IT!” he roars. “We should not have brought her here!”
I take a step backward and gulp down a dry knot of trepidation. The man’s eyes blaze at his wife, but she ignores him.
“Here.” She hands me a pot. “Do whatever you have to do in this. Then you can sleep on the couch.”
Aponi extinguishes the other lanterns and the family disappears into two small bedrooms in the back of the house. I stand in the dark living room, shocked at the absurd trajectory my life has taken in the last few hours. I set the pot aside. I don’t need it. I suppose I’ve gotten exactly what I’d wanted, though: a moment alone—undistracted by the strange people in this strange village—to collect myself. I press the home button on my phone and cool blue light reveals that Red is looming less than a foot away from me. I startle hard.
“If I woulda known you had one of those things, girl, I woulda left you at that gas station,” he growls.
“I—I’m sorry, I just need to—”
“Don’t waste your time. That thing won’t work no matter how hard you try.”
“Oh. Is there no service here?”
“‘Here.’” Red emits a cold snicker. “It ain’t the place that’s the problem, sweetheart. Now turn that thing off and go to sleep.”
Seeing as my screen is still garbled anyway, I do as I’m told.
In the morning, I wake up with my clothes sticking to my body and an awful parchedness in my mouth. The children eye me from the kitchen table, where Aponi is schooling them.
“You can visit the outhouse now, Willa,” she says.
I test my bladder and find that its fullness is surprisingly bearable. I can definitely wait until I find a place more savory than an outhouse. “Oh, that’s okay. Can I just have a glass of water?”
Aponi walks to the corner of the kitchen and edges a heavy stone lid off what must be an in-ground compartment. She uses a clay tumbler as a ladle. I can hear the clay scraping against stone. She hands me the tumbler, which bears about an inch of water that tastes like rock.
“Thank you—for the water, and for all your hospitality. I’m so sorry to ask for more, but do you think you can give me a ride back to the gas station?”
“There’s gas?” Jeb asks excitedly.
Aponi says to me, “I’m sorry. Red’s out with the truck.”
“Oh…I guess I can just walk. It wasn’t that far away.”
The woman studies me for a few seconds, then hesitantly lets me go.
Upon leaving the house, I’m stunned by the monstrous heat. Inside the adobe domicile, despite the absence of air conditioning, it was much cooler than it is out here. Not too far up the sun-bleached road, I have serious doubts about whether I’ll make it ten more steps let alone two-and-a-half miles. I soldier through what I’d guess was four city blocks before I spot a flattened rock about ten feet off the road. It’s sparsely shaded by a Joshua tree. As I plop down on the rock, I realize I can smell my own sweaty scalp. Ugh. How is this my life right now? I fiddle with my cell, praying for a miracle. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a subtle movement on the ground. I jerk my gaze toward it, terrified that I’ve happened upon a rattle snake. But what I see instead is an opening. I stretch my neck to get a better view, but I’m punished for my curiosity by a putrid odor. Is this damn heat messing with me so much that I just thought I saw a freakin’ hole in the sand instead of what’s clearly a pool of excrement from some animal whose rapid retreat was what caught my attention in the first place?
“That sounds entirely plausible,” Dr. Paolo says.
I’m ripped from my immersive recollection. I blink at the doctor. “What?”
“It was the heat. The heat was getting to you, making you see things. See things. See things. You were seeing things.”
“Yes…. There are mirages in the desert, you know,” I murmur.
“Yes. So, what happened after you saw the animal dung in the sand?”
“After I saw the dung…”
My mind folds back into my time in White Sands.
A horn blares loudly. It’s Red idling in his “coupe.”
“What the hell’re you doin’ out here?” he calls.
“I was walking to the gas station and just stopped for a little break. Think you can give me a ride the rest of the way? Please…. I’m not used to this heat.”
Elated, I circle around the front of the car and launch myself into the squeaky cab. When Red doesn’t make a U-turn but continues in the direction from which I came, I panic. “Where are you going?”
Red slams the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. “Don’t you get it? There ain’t no gas!”
“Still…. There’ll be people who can help me—a phone I can use…”
He snatches my purse from my lap, extracts my cell, and pitches it out the window.
Mouth agape, I turn and stare, expecting to see a small cloud of dust rise from where the phone landed. I see nothing but unbothered sand meeting hostile sky. “Stop the car right now!”
“No can do.” The bill of his hat casts a sinister shadow on his face. “You’ll just go back to get your little gadget, and they can sense those things a mile away.”
“Please!” I beg, but at this point there’s no chance in hell I’ll ever be able to find it.
“We ain’t in the safety of home right now, girl. We’re out on the main road. You should never let anyone out here see you with one of them gadgets.”
“It’s not a fucking ‘gadget,’ you asshole! It’s a cellphone! I don’t know who the hell you think would give a shit I have a phone! You sound like a paranoid freak!”
“Is that any way to talk to a man that done saved you twice?” Red spits, the back flap of his hat thrashing in the cross breeze. “I saved you from that gas station—they woulda got at you for sure last night—and today, back there… Shit, that spot was dangerous as hell. Oh, I know it looked convenient. Nice, flat rock to sit on, even a little shade. But I’d bet my life they put a vent there, too, didn’t they?” Red shakes his head bitterly. “That was for their convenience.”
A leadenness settles into my stomach. “Who the fuck is ‘they?’ And by ‘vent’ do you mean that hole in the sand?”
“Yes, ma’am. They use the vents for air. They live underground, see. Oh, they’re too deep down in there to see ya, but you bet your sweet ass they just got a whiff of ya. And your gadget.”
I clutch my stomach.
“I’m not supposed to tell you any of this, but I can see you’re gonna be a real big problem if you don’t know what you’re dealing with.” When I don’t reply, Red slows the truck to a casual speed and continues. “They control everything, see? Things you wouldn’t think could be controlled. Like the weather.”
I swallow a brackish cascade of saliva. “Anyone who could control the weather here would make it rain.”
Red singsongs, “No they wouldn’t.” He erupts into the raucous cackling of a soul who’s lived a life of being defeated so consistently that he’s learned to appreciate his foe’s perfect intelligence.
Desperate to put an end to his frightening laughter, I wrack my brain for topics that any man would find agreeable. “I—I really like this car, Red. I like how it’s painted two different colors, how it’s got that classic look to it. Where’d you get such an old car?”
“Old? I bought this here Ranchero brand new and sparkling off the lot ’bout, oh, five, six years ago. Back when things were good. ’Fore them monsters set up shop below.”
“Brand new? Five years ago? How can that be? They stopped making cars like this a long time ago.”
“Well, ’59 was the last year Ford made these full-sized Rancheros, but that’s exactly when I got it. ’59.”
“You got this in ’59? It’s 2005.”
Red is silent for a few beats. Then he croaks, “God almighty. I knew it.”
“Please…this isn’t funny.”
“2005. In these parts, that’s 41 years in the future, girl. Don’t let anyone else hear you say things like that. In this village, we don’t talk about all the madness that goes on. No point, really.”
Red hears the threatening heave from within me. He pulls over and gets me out of the car so I can vomit on the road instead of all over his dashboard. I wipe my mouth, briefly consider running, then get back into the Ranchero.
“Is that why my phone won’t work out here? Because it’s 1964?”
“Course it’s 1964.”
“And that’s why you call my phone a ‘gadget.’ You’ve never seen one before.”
“Oh, I seen two other ones since this whole thing started. On ungrateful out-of-towners like yourself. Although, let’s be honest, at this point, it’s official: They ain’t so much out-of-towners as out-of-timers. It ain’t natural. They carry gadgets that ain’t got no cords, ain’t connected to no phone line. How can they be makin’ calls on a thing like that? …Anyway, these outsiders, they wave them cellphones around, and next thing you know…”
“Next thing you know…”
“Well, they’re gone. Serves ’em right. They always think they’re above the rules of this place. But, trust me, nobody’s above the rules of this place. I told you—them underground—they control everything. Once, some people I knew tried to pool their gas and drive away. Next day, their bodies were found in the town square. We never did find their heads.”
I cover my mouth with my hand. I stare out the window, across the sprawling sand, at the lone black mountain in the distance.
Aponi, livid that her husband is openly discussing “them underground” in front of the children, comes in from her outdoor cooking fire and deposits a plate of mesquite pancakes on the table with a little more force than necessary. She smiles tightly, then turns to rifle around in the cupboard.
“But why?” I implore. “Why the hell would anyone want to live down there?”
Red takes a swig of his agave wine. “Our sun.” He points up toward the ceiling. “It burns them, even on the few rainy days we get. Shit, even our moon hurts ’em if they’re out too long. Oh, and pollution. It poisons them.”
Jeb and Kimana alternate between exchanging looks of intrigue and casting their eyes down at their school primers.
Aponi slides a jar of prickly pear syrup onto the table. “Time for lunch.”
After consuming an embarrassing percentage of the food on the table, I sleep. I’m too drained to do anything else. Afterward, the five of us pass the late afternoon playing card games. When the sun begins to lower, the deep baying of a horn sweeps across the desert.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Curfew,” Aponi says, rearranging the fan of cards in her hand.
A minute later, the quiet is pierced again, this time by a jarring, high-pitched screech. The family volleys around meaningful looks. Kimana starts crying.
Jeb rubs his sister on the back and shushes her. “Don’t worry, now, Kimmy.”
But soon we’re interrupted yet again by three startling knocks on the back of the house.
“No.” Red scrambles out the front door and circles around the house. Through the windows, his words are muffled but audible: “We won’t, you hear me?! WE WON’T!”
Red’s assertions are met with nothing but cruel silence.
Kimana is in her mother’s lap hyperventilating and Jeb is on the couch, choking back his own guttural yips of panic.
Red is out of breath and dripping with sweat when he returns. “The sun is touching the horizon.”
“Let’s all get into the truck,” Aponi blurts, holding her daughter’s head to her chest.
“Aponi…you know we ain’t had enough gas to make it out of White Sands for years.”
“We would if you’d stop driving around all the time, wasting it!”
“First of all, if I never drove, they just wouldn’t give me any more. Secondly, woman, I’ve only driven three times since the last gas ration! Once for water, once to fetch the lamp oil and agave—that was the night we picked this one up—” He makes an agitated gesture at me. “And today, because the work was guaranteed. Even if I didn’t do any of those things, all the gas we got at ration still wouldn’t get us outta this desert! Not to mention we’re chipped!”
“Just shut up, Red! Just shut up! Look at your son! Use this time to comfort him!” Red pulls Jeb to him, his dirty nails digging into the boy’s freckled skin. Then a look of understanding crosses his face. “Now you wait just a minute. He’s not going.”
“Of course he is. He’s practically a man. Kimana’s just a girl.”
“Exactly. He’s more polluted. It has to be a child because they want pure, Aponi. And if they’re not satisfied, there’ll be consequences. Bad ones. We can’t let our family get hit twice when once is bad enough. I won’t allow it!”
Aponi squeezes her eyes shut and shakes her head wildly. Her teeth form an agonized rectangle across her face. Father and son work as a team, Red restraining Aponi, Jeb wrestling his little sister out the door. Thus far, I’ve been paralyzed by shock and confusion, watching this tragedy unfold like it’s a scene in a movie rather than the horrifying reality. But now I make a move to wretch the door open and pull Kimana back into the house. This is when the males turn on me. Red darts over to hold me and Jeb guards the door. Aponi is collapsed on the floor, chest heaving, her eyes already swollen shut from her torrential sobbing. Red forces me into a chair and Jeb ties me to it.
“APONI, GET UP! GO GET YOUR DAUGHTER!” I shout. Then I buck in my chair and yell at Red, “You have no right to do this!”
“The hell I don’t. You’ve been nothing but trouble since you got here. We do not need the extra burden tonight.” With that, he and Jeb carry Aponi to a back bedroom, where they close the door and attempt to soothe her.
I don’t sleep a wink. All night I wait, dread in my belly and an ache in my heart, for Kimana’s bloodcurdling scream. But I hear nothing. When the muted dawn steals into the house, I see something I hadn’t noticed before.
It’s a framed photo of Aponi with Kimana and two other children. All three children look like Aponi.
I never do see Aponi emerge from the back bedroom. But shortly after dawn, Red builds a cooking fire outside and makes coffee. He unties my hands.
“That’s one hell of a mole you got on your neck there, girl. Big as a nipple, for chrissakes.” Scrutinizing my birthmark, he brings his face closer. If I weren’t tied to a chair, the yellow stink of his breath would blow me over. His fingers are so close to my neck I can feel their heat.
Alarm courses through me. Would Red sexually assault me with his wife and child in the house? Lord knows he’s capable of anything. I force myself to stare out the window. All Red does is give me a stick of jerky and pour me a mug of black coffee. Blissfully, it isn’t some gross desert version of coffee, but actual coffee. The jerky, however, is revolting.
Red notices me wince. “What’s wrong? You ain’t never had coyote?”
I’m too hungry to refuse it, so I eat and avoid eye contact.
Red shouts for Jeb, who quickly joins us at the table. I can tell he’s been crying. He and his father go about their eating with a somber air, but as soon as they untie my legs and we all file outside, Red’s voice turns uncharacteristically chipper.
“Welp, let’s grab as many pots as we can.”
We load pottery of varying sizes into the bed of the Ranchero.
“What’re these for?” I ask.
“You’ll see. But first, let’s get to the gas station.”
I nod excitedly and slide into the coupe. Finally, I’m gonna get the fuck out of this godforsaken village. When we arrive, there are cars lined up and officials in army fatigues measuring what’s already in people’s tanks and pumping specific amounts of fuel into their vehicles. The atmosphere is bright and jovial. It makes me sick. I get out of the Ranchero, eager to reunite with my car. I’m obviously not a White Sands resident and should be allowed as much gas as I can pay for. When I can’t find my little four-door anywhere, I return to the Ranchero in tears.
“My car,” I whisper. “I think someone stole it.”
Red’s eyebrows jump with surprise. “Dang, girl. You thought they were gonna let you keep that?”
“Who? The soldiers?”
He erupts into a cackling fit.
I stomp around to the passenger window. “Jeb, is there a place where they take all the things they confiscate?”
“When things get stolen around here, where do they go?”
Jeb’s eyes flicker with sadness. “Kimmy’s gone, Willa. You’re not allowed to talk about her anymore.”
“No, I—” But I think better of pursuing the topic of my car. I sigh shakily and get back into the Ranchero.
Our next stop is a reservoir, which, miraculously, is filled with clear, glittering water. The anticipation of the waiting patrons is palpable. Officials inspect Red’s pots and fill three quarters of them. Red even lets me and Jeb drink to our heart’s content from the spout of a pitcher before we reload the pots.
On the way back home, I ask, “How did that reservoir get filled? It didn’t rain last night. I would’ve heard it.”
“Same as the gas pumps got filled. Them underground.”
“Yeah, but how?” I demand.
“I don’t know how they do what they do, girl. Now settle down and don’t draw attention to yourself. Bad enough you let them smell you through the vent. They’ll chip you, you know. You’ll think it’s a dream. But that’s how they make sure you don’t walk right outta here. They control them soldiers, too. So best keep your head down and your mouth shut.”
For the next few weeks, I say nothing of Kimana, my car, or the fact that I don’t fucking belong in 1964. I rise with the hateful sun every morning. I do everything Aponi would do if she wasn’t grieving, depressed, and in bed. I bathe with my daily allotment of wash water, which is barely enough to wet a cloth. I make coffee the hard way. When I gather the laundry, I wear Aponi’s heavy boots and gloves in case there are lurking scorpions. I “wash” clothes and dishes with sand. I teach Jeb what in 2005 constitutes fourth grade math. I sweep the house and watch Red make lunch. Every time the curfew horn sounds, I look at Red with pure odium. He never sees me, and if he did, I doubt he’d give a shit.
I begin to accompany Red to the tavern each day after lunch. We don’t have much money, so eventually, we take turns going. Sometimes I don’t even buy anything for myself; instead, I use my meager funds to buy a drink for anyone who looks out of place. Soon, I meet a guy named Ernst. He’s a repairman who worked for some company called Pacific Bell. He ended up here after a drive down a California highway in 1980.
He leans into me so only I can hear him. “Actually, it was months before I could remember exactly what happened. All that time I thought I had one of those crazy cases of amnesia…like those people who just disappear and start a completely new life somewhere and have no clue that they have a family looking for them back home. I think it’s called a fugue or something like that. Anyway, I finally remembered that I’d stopped to help a woman who had her car pulled onto the shoulder. This lady had a really nice Jaguar—black—but it had a flat. She was crying and neither of us had a spare tire but…”
Ernst’s voice fades and Dr. Paulo’s office swims into view. “He gave her a ride even though he normally doesn’t do that sort of thing,” I finish.
“What sort of thing?” Dr. Paulo says. “Help people in need? Sounds like a jerk to me.”
I frown. The image of a shiny black Jag with a flat tire stirs something in a remote corner of my mind.
“Ms. Birch? You were telling me about the man you’d met in the bar? You may proceed.”
My surroundings shift to the social clamor of the stuffy tavern. Ernst and I huddle like lovers who find pleasure in being close despite the pervasive heat. What we’re really doing is planning a little rendezvous just outside the village, about an hour after curfew.
When we meet, he shows me he’s obtained something of rarity here: a lemon. He cuts it in half with a small saw from his kit, which houses tools and a few loose phone parts. We each take a half and slather our exposed skin in citrus juice.
“I know a hooker who makes house calls most nights,” Ernst whispers. “Hasn’t disappeared yet. Swears it’s the lemon juice.”
“How the hell does she get so many lemons?”
“She grows ’em. Her clients pay her with water.”
“And how does she manage to go out after curfew like that? All the villagers are chipped.”
“She’s not a villager. She’s from the 90s. Had a bag of groceries in her car when she ended up here. That’s where she got the lemon seeds. She was a lawyer. Likes it here better. Can you imagine?” He lets a chuckle slip.
“Sshh!” I hiss. I’m trembling.
Ernst takes my hand. We arrive at a phone booth located in a particularly desolate spot. I keep a lookout as my companion begins to salvage the phone.
“It’s a miracle this is even out here,” I say.
“Yup. There used to be a miners’ camp here. In the 40s, a rotary phone was installed for the miners to call their families. I sure hope my supplies will work on a phone this old.”
I look at the oppressive black mass sitting in the distant darkness. “I hate that fucking mountain.”
“Actually, it’s a volcano. Scary, right? Anyway, I heard that when those fucks underground took this place over, they cut the electric, confiscated all the radios, and took away the post office and phone lines. But I’ve been coming to visit this phone ever since someone at the tavern mentioned it a week ago, and I think there are lines underground. The villagers have no clue something like that would even be possible, of course. But I think there’s phone and electric down there. This would be the first time I heard of underground lines in the desert, but hey, this place is full of surprises.”
Sure enough, three feet under the sand are sleeved utility lines.
“I’ve never seen material like this,” Ernst says, examining the sleeve. “Easy enough to cut into, though.” He smiles as he nears the completion of his task with purposeful alacrity. Finally, we hear the most wonderful sound in the world: a dial tone. My pal calls his father, who was a prominent journalist in the 50s and 60s. The first thing Ernst tells his dad is not to ride any elevators on August 9th.
He covers the mouthpiece and whispers to me, “My dad died on August 9th of ’64. Come to think of it, isn’t tomorrow August 9th?”
The older man hangs up on Ernst, who redials right away. When the man picks up again, Ernst begins a rehearsed monologue that proves his identity and reveals the situation that “future Ernst” is in. He implores his father to come find him in White Sands, Utah, but that’s as far as he gets.
Dr. Paolo’s voice pulls me back into her office. “You keep saying ‘White Sands.’ Now, I’ve already told you, Ms. Birch: You were found in Black Sands, Utah. The desert there is called Black Sands.”
“The sand was white. But then it turned...”
Suddenly, I’m with Ernst again. We hear a deafening screech—just like the one that preceded Kimana’s horrible expunging from her home. That the scant contents of my bladder trickle into my jeans. Ernst grabs my arm and turns my attention to a creature standing a mere ten yards away. It’s obviously female, with skin so devoid of melanin that there’s no contrast between her lashless lids and her glazed eye whites. Her pupils are enormous and red. The only reason I don’t cover my nose against her fetid body odor is because I’m paralyzed by abject terror.
“Oh my god. That—that’s you!” Ernst stutters. I hear him take a back step. “That’s you, Willa.”
Bewildered, I want to tell him to get ahold of himself. But then I take in the creature’s facial structure.
And the mole on her neck.
Mine is brown and hers is pink, but it’s still the same shape and size. Jesus Christ. Ernst is right. I have no idea how that’s possible, but he’s right.
When I hear the sound of Dr. Paolo’s voice—“Send Richard in, please. The patient has urinated.”—I look down. I don’t see my denim-clad legs, but the worn fabric of a hospital gown draped across my thighs. I’m sitting on a seat cushion that’s wet and warm. How the hell does the doctor know I peed? My cushion isn’t visible to her.
As if reading my mind, she says, “You always have an accident at this part.”
God damn it, she doesn’t have to speak to me this way. I’m not some obstinate toddler who’s refused potty training. I catch sight of the schedule book she’s left open on her desk. It says September 9.
Dr. Paulo sees what I’m staring at and closes the book. “Well, that was careless of me.”
“What the… How long have I been here?”
The doctor purses her lips. “You’ve recounted your story many times. You’re a stubborn one, Willa Birch. You hold on to your truth.”
“My truth? Don’t you mean the truth?”
The orderly arrives.
“Perfect timing. Sedate her and clean her up, please. We’ll begin again tomorrow.”
Before I can even stand, a needle is plunged into my arm. My head lolls as I’m loaded into a wheelchair and taken to my room. Although my body refuses to move, my mind replays the harrowing scene of my final night in White Sands.
A black Jaguar pulls up on the unpaved road behind the albino creature.
“That’s the car from my last night in California!” Ernst, slack jawed, watches as who I now know as Dr. Paolo saunters toward us.
I squint at the doctor, at her car. And then I remember. I saw her out on the highway in Colorado. My god, I pulled over to help her just like Ernst did. It was only after she got into my car so I could give her a ride to the next oasis that I somehow ended up in Utah.
“What are you waiting for, Miner 2005 Dash One?” Dr. Paolo says to the creature. “We’re sort of on a schedule here.”
Ernst claws at my wrist. “Come on.”
When I don’t move, he takes off in the opposite direction, a powdery cloud of sand haloing his feet. Miner 2005-1 looks to the doctor.
“Let him go. This whole place will be under a nice, toasty blanket of lava soon. No one above ground will survive.” Dr. Paolo directs her icy gaze at me. “Except you, Willa. You will survive this calamity and live to suffer the worst fate I can possibly think of. You earned it.” She winks at me. “You’ve been an unbelievable pain in my ass, and now it’s time for me to return the favor.”
Vibrations emanate from the ground and travel up my legs.
“Miner, hop to it. We’ve gotta get you back underground so you can help raise the iron vent shafts.”
The albino humanoid closes the distance between she and I with dizzying speed. I clamp my eyes shut, but tears still manage to leak down my sunburned cheeks. Dry, bony fingers curve around my neck and compress my windpipe. My eyes fly open. All I see are the miner’s vacant, wideset orbs. My heartbeat thuds in my ears, but I might pass out from shock before lack of oxygen.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Miner?” the doctor barks. “Death is too good for this sneaky little bitch. Get her in the car. Now.”
As the creature drags me toward the car, Dr. Paolo rambles zealously. “I brought this miner up here as a special treat for you, Willa. Actually, I guess you’re a treat for her. What she subsists on is human fear. That’s why we needed this village, you see. The miners can easily absorb the negative emotions from the surface without even leaving their tunnels. But you and your little pal ruined all that, didn’t you, with your call to that journalist?” Dr. Paolo supervises Miner 2005-1 forcing me into the car.
The miner shuts the door, then starts trekking to some unknown destination.
“She can get back down on her own,” Dr. Paolo explains. “She’s not allowed in the car.”
The woman puts her Jaguar into gear and drives. “Maybe it was all for the best. If I can be honest, aside from the one night every four weeks they had to sacrifice a child, those darn villagers just didn’t stay as afraid as we needed them to be. They got used to things, you know? They were mostly just bitter and resentful. But when I brought in outsiders like you…oh, the fear—the confusion—was such good eating for the miners.”
The doctor watches, a thin smile on her face, as I test the doors and windows. Of course, everything is child-locked. An ominous rumble shakes the desert.
Dr. Paolo clears her throat. “Of course, I can’t just stay here in 1964, abducting people left and right. The public would catch on. But a person gone missing from a highway in 2005, 1980, the 90s…. There’s no way anyone could ever put all that together.
“Yes, thanks to one of the many projects we have going on underground, I’m able to travel in time. We use a very, very complicated machine. You’d be amazed how much energy it takes to power such a thing. Not all the gas and electricity in the world could do it. We needed something special—something that can only be mined in the vicinity of this volcano. Don’t worry, you’ve never heard of it.” She sighs wistfully. “Of course, in order to prize it from the earth, we need miners. Disposable ones. It’s a deadly job, and frankly, we can’t use workers that can blab all our secrets. So we use a virus that was originally designed for biological warfare but got shelved. We inject it into the random subjects we collect—hookers, druggies…single people…and they transform. They need very little rest or air. They’re incredibly strong and have amazing night vision. They can’t tolerate sun or pollution. They stink something fierce but...thankfully, they can’t talk.”
Stomach acid burns the back of my throat.
“Don’t you dare throw up in this car.” Dr. Paolo pulls over. She opens her glove compartment, probably to locate a barf bag or some Pepto. But then I feel the painful invasion of a needle in my thigh. As my consciousness leaves me, I hear the doctor call someone and instruct them to “get rid of the old man from the 60s who just took a call from his idiot son. Make it look like an accident.” After that, the next thing I remember is sitting in Dr. Paolo’s office answering the same questions over and over again.
I’m disappointed to find myself back in the present moment, trapped in my sedated body. Richard wheels me into my room. It’s stark white except for the ceiling, which is fully comprised of a flat screen. The orderly changes me into a fresh gown, lays me in my bed, and applies my restraints. He presses a button in the wall and the screen comes to life. It’s me. A jumbo version of my talking head.
“On Friday, July 8th 2005, I was driving from Colorado Springs to Denver for a weekend with my friends. Even though I’ve made that drive a thousand times, I got off at the wrong exit—I really had to pee and I was looking for a bathroom—and I ended up hopelessly lost. Somehow—this is going to sound insane—I ended up in the desert. Can you believe it?” The huge version of me rambles on about thinking I’d arrived at a gas station and then realizing it was a mirage, finding animal dung in the sand, living in an abandoned hut and being able to collect water in a barrel the one magical night it rained, and being rescued by the military out there. I even speak about how caring and wonderful Dr. Paolo has been in helping me sort fact from fiction and remember what truly happened to me.
In my peripheral vision, I see movement. I turn my head to find that Dr. Paolo has let herself into my room. She looks up at the ceiling and smiles. “The crazy thing is, that’s actually a video I snatched from later this year. I tell ya, this time travel stuff really bakes my noodle. I mean, does this video exist because I brainwashed you so well, or was I able to brainwash you so well because of this video?” She shrugs sheepishly. “The world will never know! Anyway, Willa, I’m just checking up on you. Did that Richard wipe you down, or did he just change your clothes?” She’s holding a pack of cleansing wipes, so she already knows the answer to that question.
I turn my gaze back to the ceiling. “He was probably just trying to let me rot away with dignity.”
“Oh, Willa. Leaving someone to marinate in their own piss is not an act of kindness.”
She sits at the edge of my bed and treats me like I’m an infant on a changing table. I grind my teeth so hard I feel pain deep in my ears.
“You’re all set, dear,” she says. “And if it makes you feel any better, Willa, I’m doing this for my own sake, not yours.” She boops my nose with her index finger and then practically skips out of the room.
“AND I’M THE ONE LOCKED UP IN A PADDED ROOM!” I scream after her.
It could be the next day or it could be months later—I have no clue anymore—when Richard escorts me back to the doctor’s office, where she’s finishing up a conversation with a male coworker.
“Today must be the last day,” he says. “We’ve all tolerated your personal vendetta against this subject long enough. Your obsession with brainwashing her is a tremendous waste of time and resources. I mean, really, Paula.” Shaking his head, the man walks away.
“Paula?” I ask incredulously. “Your name is Paula Paulo?”
The doctor smooths down the front of her shirt. “Don’t bother sitting down, Ms. Birch.”
I sit in my chair anyway. “Wow. Now I see where you get your sadistic streak. My god, your parents must’ve had a personal vendetta against you.”
“Richard,” is all she says.
I am devastated when I feel the orderly prick me with a needle. He transfers me to a wheelchair and pushes me through a maze of hallways and elevators. All the while, Dr. Paolo walks a few feet ahead of us, chattering like it’s just an ordinary day. Before I know it, I’m strapped to a table in a cold laboratory. That’s when I get the last injection I will ever receive. Toxic liquid scalds my veins, and I feel everything that makes me Willa Birch slip away quickly.
“Name?” a lab worker asks Dr. Paulo, pointing at an electronic identification form.
The doctor looks me right in the eye and says, “Miner 2005 Dash Two.”
One of my last thoughts is of Miner 2005-1 choking me in the desert. I now realize she was just trying to kill me so I wouldn’t end up like her. Apparently, I’ll still be capable of compassion after my transformation is complete. Great.
Dr. Paolo picks up the phone and dials. “Sergei? Please get my machine started. I’ll be down there in ten. Oh, and please swap out the Jag for a van—no, a bus. We’re gonna need to procure at least two dozen ’fraidy cats for the miners. I think I’ll get them from the 70s this time. Obviously they’ll have to live underground with us. One big happy family.” She winks at me and hangs up the phone. As if I’ve issued some sort of comment about being famished, Dr. Paolo says, “Don’t you worry, Miner 2005 Dash Two. Food is on the way.”