Palo Alto Weekly 22nd Annual Short Story
Third Place Adult
by Shelly King
I know what I saw. I don’t care what anybody else has to say about it. It’s that Flora out there at Stone Cabin you aught to be talking to. She’s got everybody between Quartzsize and Yuma thinking she’s just this tough old bird living out in the desert alone with no electricity or inside plumbing. It’s 1993 for Christ’s sake! What’s she doing living out there like that? What’s she to do when a storm comes up, like the whiteout that was heading her way that night? I was just trying to do her a kindness by looking out for her. The desert turns hungry in those storms. It’ll swallow you whole while you’re still breathing.
I’m just too nice, that’s all. The only reason I went out there to check up on Flora was because Jim McGill asked me to. That’s the kind of man I am, a friend to people. I’d give anyone my last cigarette, or buy them a beer if they needed one bad enough, or bail them out of County. I’d be a rich man if I hadn’t spent so much helping people out. So when McGill told me over coffee one morning that he needed someone to check in on Flora out at Stone Cabin while he was up in Phoenix getting a new hip, I didn’t bat an eye. We look out for each other on the desert.
Now I’ll own up to the fact that I didn’t get around to it for a couple of days. But when I saw that storm coming in the horizon, I thought I’d best make it over there. It at least gave me an excuse not to go home. I’d been on the desert all day, just driving around in my pick-up with a cooler full of Coors while back at the house, my woman Estelle tried to bribe forgiveness out of a grown daughter who was never going to give it. I didn’t need to see that.
When I turned off 95 onto the trail that led out to Stone Cabin, the horizon was an angry orange from all the sand that had been whipped up by the wind. The sky looked full of fire. It made me feel young. I pressed harder on the gas and rushed into the storm. Jake Collins and I used to do this, back in high school. Every time a storm came up, we’d sneak out with my dad’s pick-up, and while one of us was driving, the other would stand in the truck bed, belly flat against the cab’s back window, holding onto the rail on the truck’s roof. It felt like you were riding a team of wild horses into Hell and when you’re 17, that makes you feel like God. But all that ended when Jake stole Dad’s pick-up and ran off after a fight with his folks. Not long after that, I dropped out of school and joined the Service myself. I thought I’d seen the last of this desert, but I ended up back here last year. I guess I just ran out of places to go.
There wasn’t much left of the gas station and eating place Flora had set up with her sister Billy years ago. Stone Cabin used to be a place were everyone stopped between Quartzsize and Yuma, even way back in the Pony Express days. It was the only water for miles, and in the 60s, the only place for gas, too. Jake and I used to fill up out here when we were out with the truck. There was even one time when Flora put us to chores, picking up droppings left by the wild burros that roamed around the place at night, as barter for a tank of gas we’d pumped but couldn’t pay for. Jake said we aught to just run off on her. But I said no. Flora was old even then and it wasn’t right doing that to an old woman.
I was limping a bit from driving all day as I walked up the Stone Cabin’s steps. A wood walkway stretched around the cabin and it echoed under my boots. The orange burn in the sky was mostly gone with the sun setting, but I could still see how grey and parched the door to Stone Cabin was. I wasn’t all that sure it wouldn’t split apart when I knocked on it. I wasn’t all that sure Flora would answer. But I needed to get inside. My right leg felt like it would give out bracing me up against the wind. And that sand. I could feel it down in my throat, scraping its way to my belly. I figured I’d be pissing sand the next day. I banged on the door a time or two and yelled at Flora over the wind. I yelled my name and told her McGill had sent me out here to check on her. And when she opened the door, she opened it wide like she’d been waiting on me.
I hadn’t seen Flora since I came back to the desert a year ago. She was a lot older than I thought she’d be, brittle and hard like a tree that dried out along with the underwater spring beneath it. McGill had told me about her eyes, how she couldn’t see straight ahead, only out to the right and left, so she tilted her head looking like she was staring over my left shoulder. Her hair was pulled back in a ball at the nape of what was left of her neck and she wore a cotton dress with tiny flowers printed on it and patch pockets on the front. In her left hand, I wasn’t pleased to see, she held a Remington revolver like the ones they issued in the army during WWII. She stepped toward me onto the front porch the wind sealing her dress against her. Her eyes were directed straight ahead now, but only seeing what was to the side of her. She raised the revolver straight out to her left and shot off a round. I jumped off the porch and ran out beyond from where the light came out of the door.
“Damn snakes,” she said.
I looked over and saw a rattlesnake, half out from under the end of her porch, its head shot off.
She stepped back into the doorway jerked her thumb toward the inside of the cabin. I figured that was all the invitation I was going to get.
“You know who I am, Flora?” I asked. “Do you remember me?”
She settled into the rocker in front of the wood-burning stove, laying the revolver across her lap. “Where’s Jake?”
“That boy you used to run around with.”
There wasn’t anyplace else to sit in the one room cabin except for one of two small beds. Flora’s sister Billy had passed on a few years back and I figured one of these had belonged to her. I sat on the edge of the one furthest away from Flora and the gun.
“Jake ran off,” I said. “You remember that whole business. He stole my dad’s truck.”
She started rocking and worked her jaw from side to side in time to the creak in her chair. The wind rattled the windows in their frames and shoved the door back and forth against its bolt. I heard a knocking sound outside, like something had come loose and the storm was banging it against the wooden walkway.
“You got something that needs to be tied down out there?” I pulled aside the sun-bleached curtains behind the bed where I was sitting. The storm had shut out the moon, and it was blacker than my ex-wife’s heart out there.
“Where’d you say Jake was?” she asked.
I heard the knocking again, but this time it seemed to be moving down the length of walkway in front of the cabin. I shivered, feeling like a gecko was running down my back. What I was hearing was footsteps.
“Flora, who else is out here?”
“Jake worked for me that day you ran off with a tank of gas,” Flora said. “He came back out here after that. Worked lots of days for me. I liked that boy. Didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
“We both worked for you that one day, Flora. Then Jake ran off. Remember?” I closed the curtains over the bed and walked across the room to look out the other window. When I got there, I heard the footsteps turning around the corner toward the front door. “You must have a burro out there trying to get out of the wind. That’s all. Right, Flora? Just a burro.”
“Ain’t no burro. That’s a two-legged being out there. You know who it is.”
I stood on the middle of the floor, listening to the echo the heavy footsteps made on the wood planks outside. I felt cold sweat mixing with the blanket of dust on my skin. I looked down at the gun in Flora’s lap and wondered if she’d let me take it.
“Flora,” I whispered. “Who’s out there?”
“I’m 92,” she said. “I got no time to explain things you already know.”
The footsteps walked past the door and down the walkway, but turned and headed back. As I sat on the floor next to the stove, I could hear them passing back and forth in front of the door of Stone Cabin like a pendulum. I felt everything in Stone Cabin was following the beat of those footsteps—Flora’s rocking, the force of the wind against the fragile door, the windows’ glass rattling in their frames.
“Where’s Jake?” Flora asked.
I could hardly force air through my throat, so dry it was with sand.
“Jake’s dead,” I said.
The footsteps stopped right in front of the door. Sitting on the floor, I could make out two dirty sneakers, one with the shoelace frayed at the end. I couldn’t move, looking at those shoes under the door. They were soft soles, nearly run through with wear, much too light for the heavy sounds they made. And yet…
“Where’s Jake?” Flora asked again.
We’d been chasing after another storm that day on the dessert, Jake and me. It was my turn standing in the truck bed, holding on. Jake was gunning the engine riding down that stretch of dirt out back of Stone Cabin, facing off the coming storm. I was yelling with all my lungs could give, my nose and mouth covered with a bandana against the dust. In dust we trust, Jake used to say. He had the window rolled down getting as much of the thrill he could get from the inside. Neither of us could see more than a few yards in front of us and that was most of the thrill. We were speeding into nothingness and it was as close to flying as two boys could get.
Even from my high perch, I didn’t see the rock ahead. Jake hit it full on. The truck bucked up, and I fell out of the bed and onto the cracked ground. It took me a minute to remember to breathe again and get up off my back. And when I did, all I saw was the back end of the pick up sticking up, wheels still spinning and the front end, with Jake still in it, sinking into a well of sand.
Years, probably centuries, of wind had blown enough sand across the desert to fill that sinkhole, just waiting for Jake to hit that rock and dive nose first into it. Sand poured in the open window of the truck’s cab and by the time I got close enough to see, Jake had only a few fading inches between the sand and the top of the truck’s cabin. He tried to swim out of it, but it was a river pouring in on top of him and he couldn’t fight it.
I ran to the truck’s back end and climbed into the bed. Jake had given up on fighting the current and had pressed his back against the dashboard, kicking at the back window with his sneakers, those sneakers with the frayed shoestrings. I scrambled down the bed to the window and starting kicking it from my side. He was screaming something, but I couldn’t hear him over the wind and the rush of sand as it started to pour over the sides of the truck bed. But then I understood. Toolbox. He was pointing to the wood box Dad had bolted to the bed of the truck. There was a crowbar inside. I climbed over to the box. I could feel the truck moving beneath me, the sand pulling it under like a sea monster in a matinee. I bust open the box and grabbed the crowbar to break the window. And I could have done it if I’d never stopped to look at him. Jake was holding his head close to the glass now, the only place in the truck’s cabin left for air. Both hands were slapping against the glass and he was mouthing my name. If I hadn’t looked, I could have done it. But seeing Jake’s face, all I could feel was the sand slipping down my own throat, filling my lungs until I took my last breath. I could feel the bits of desert tearing into my eyes and skin, gnawing until I was raw from the inside out, empty of everything that made me human. If I hadn’t looked at the desert swallowing Jake whole, I might have been able to do it. But I did look. And the desert got him.
Flora kept rocking as I slid the gun from her lap.
“Won’t do you no good,” she said.
I stood in front of the door, thinking about those shoes on the other side. I could see the door banging against the latch, but I couldn’t hear it, nor the wind outside, or the rattle of the windows. I could only hear my own breathing, right before I opened the door.
The day after that night at Stone Cabin, hikers found the back end my old man’s truck sticking up out of the desert. The sheriff dug it up and found what was left of Jake after 25 years. Everybody’s talking about him being buried alive. Now they all know where Jake’s been all these years. They found nothing that told anything different than what they already knew, that Jake stole my old man’s truck and ran off. But I know what I saw that night at Stone Cabin. And now, I hear those footsteps every time the sun goes down. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I can’t hear anything but those footsteps at night. They always stop in front of my door and wait for me to open it.