Monday, April 4, 2016

Ghost Town, Fred W. Feldman

Ghost Town
A story by Frederick W Feldman

Sam tossed the can of beans into the air and juggled it around before finally digging in with the can opener.
He dumped them into the pot and stirred them over the iron stove, but Kara didn’t come over. She continued staring at the rotting shelf that held their last few cans of beans.
“We’re almost out of food,” she said.
Sam stirred the pot. Almost ready to eat. He got his bowl out.
“It’s the full moon tonight. We’ll get more,” he said.
Kara huffed and stayed near the beans. She shook her head, finally coming over to Sam, with great reluctance, to have breakfast.
They ate in silence. Sam knew it was hard for her to wait and do nothing while they munched through their rations, but there really was no reason for anxiety. They’d get plenty more tonight.
Will they come again tonight? Kara wondered. Depending so heavily on an outside source for their survival made her heart rate quicken. They should have a backup plan so that they could eat if something happened and they could get no more supplies. They should have been rationing the food way more than they had been.
She looked around at the bare, dilapidated kitchen and through the window – one of the few left in the town that still had a pane of glass in it – and there was the desert outside. It was warming up, now that it was morning, and the wind kicked up the top layer of sand and rolled it across the ground like a coughing fit.
No way anything was growing out there.


***


“This is awesome!” Sam yelled.
The Land Cruiser flopped over another dune and jostled the two kids in their seats.
“Watch it!” Kara yelled back. Sam just laughed and headed for another one, but he did slow down a little this time.
They had begun planning this joyride a month earlier. Kara had seen the Land Cruiser sitting around in her dad’s repair shop and had asked him about it. He said the owners had been unable to pay him for it and asked him to keep it until they could. That was four months ago. He wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to keep it around.
She had told Sam about her plan, and he was all for it. They would wait until her dad went out of town for the upcoming car show and then they would hop in the Land Cruiser and take it out dune bashing in the California deserts.
It had taken her a little while to perform the few modifications needed while also not arousing her dad’s suspicion, but she had been able to add beadlocks to the tires and lower the tire pressure enough that it could gain traction on the sand.
Through research and some word-of-mouth, the two kids learned where the park rangers usually patrolled, and planned their trip away from those areas. Then, Kara’s dad left for his trip, she gave Sam a text, and they rose before the sun the next day and took the car out onto the dunes.
So it was that they came to a long stretch of flat desert. “Here we go!” Sam yelled. He and gunned it and they raced across the horizon, throwing up sand in their wake. They were having the time of their lives.


***


Neither of them really knew what to do with the empty bean cans, so after they finished eating they’d splash both their food bowls and the used can with some water from a rain barrel they kept inside, then toss the can into the corner. Once the empty cans piled up and became an annoyance, Kara took them outside and buried them under some sand.
Sam got up to leave, but Kara stopped him.
“I need you to get something for me.”
“Is this for the car?” he asked.
“What else would it be for?”
“One of your many other projects,” he said.
“The car is our best shot at making it out of here. It’s the most important thing right now,” she replied.
“Food,” he said.
“Most important after food, yeah, but we can’t do anything until tonight.”
Sam began walking out the door.
“I need you to find me…three planks of wood that aren’t completely rotted,” Kara called after him.
“Yup.”


***


“The sun is setting. We need to start heading back.”
Sam sighed. They had spent the trip trading driving duty, and he was back at the wheel, cruising around the light dunes and tearing up patches of foliage.
“I don’t want to go back,” he said.
“We’ve got to. We don’t want to be out in the dark.”
“Alright, alright. Pretty sure we came from the that direction.”
He turned the Cruiser around and headed for home.


***


Sam walked through the dusty street. He kicked around at exposed support beams and the siding of the old buildings. He didn’t exactly appreciate being a go-fer under Kara’s employment. Would it really have taken her that long to find a usable beam?
It was hot, and Sam was already feeling it. He hoped Kara wasn’t being stupid again and working out in the direct sunlight. He had suggested she tinker inside one of the old buildings, but she said she needed the sunlight to see. He had gotten fed up after he started seeing her neck and arms blistering from the burns, and had moved it himself under one of the creaky wooden awnings. She still worked mostly in the sun, but at least for part of the day the shadow covered her and she could take a break beneath it. Not that she ever took a break, because she was an idiot, but she did stop now and then for a prolonged period of cogitation on her design project.
The sun was shining in his eyes and he was becoming increasingly irritable. Time to find some wood and get it over with. This should at least be one of the easier scavenger hunts that Kara sent him on.
After roaming the town for a while, he found a wall with some boards that looked pretty sturdy. He went to find the sledgehammer he had left lying around. He found it after looking for fifteen minutes and brought it back to the building.
He guesstimated how long Kara wanted the boards, then took a violent swing to the side of the house. A crunching whack sounded off the wall. He took another swing, and another, and another, until the wall was thoroughly vandalized and he could pull his boards out of the wreckage.
He picked them up and began dragging them to Kara.


***


“I think we’re lost.”
“Oh, god,” moaned Kara. “The tank.”
Sam looked at the tank and, sure enough, they were running out of fuel.
“Can you get a GPS up on your phone?”
“Good idea,” said Kara. She whipped out her phone.
Sam kept his eyes peeled for any sign of civilization, any familiar landmark. Nothing. The horizon was turning auburn and it was getting harder and harder to see.
“Got anything yet?”
“I can’t get wi-fi out here,” said Kara. “Not happening.”


***


“Got your wood.”
“Thanks,” said Kara, not looking up. “Put ‘em over there.”
Kara hadn’t pointed anywhere when she said that, so Sam dumped them in a pile a couple feet behind her.
“It’s almost done,” she said.
It was an ugly beast, but it was clear she was very proud of it. Scraps of ancient cars had littered the wasteland they were in, and Sam remembered all too well laboring beneath the sun with Kara, collecting heavy exteriors, wheels with spokes, and other odds and ends.
Making a proper automobile was impossible with this junk, and accomplishing anything with the gasless and complicated Land Cruiser was out of the question, but Kara had gotten the idea of inventing a car-like vehicle using simple machines that they could power manually. And it was this that she had been putting together for – if he had been counting correctly – about two months.
And now she said it was almost finished. Well, they would see.
Kara was deeply involved in her work now. Sam trudged away from her, back to his room.


***


“Hey…hey!
Sam punched a despondent Kara in the shoulder.
“What?! Also, ow.”
“Look! Houses! It’s a town!”
Kara bolted upright and squinted towards where he was pointing.
She had to admit it – silhouetted against the fading sunset was the tops of houses. She sunk back into her seat and let out an enormous sigh of relief.
“Dang, that was scary,” Sam said, his voice perking up. “Almost there. We can fill up and get directions.”
“I’m thinking we should find a hotel and stay the night. No more risks, y’know?” Kara said.
They pulled into the town, but it was completely dark. It was hard to see anything except what was lit by their headlights, but the houses looked run down and neither of the kids saw anyone outside.
They cruised around for a while, but they still found nothing. When the car began to sputter, they parked and got out on foot.
Kara fished a flashlight out of the back of the car and they walked carefully. Sam thought he had never seen darkness like this. It permeated everything.
The silence was eerie. They passed house after house in various stages of disrepair. The wind whistled, their footsteps were too loud, and occasionally they would be frightened by a bang or a clunk somewhere in the darkness.
Sam tried to keep a mental picture of where the car was, so he could run back to it if he had to bolt, but he was getting less sure of his relative location by the second. He wanted to turn around and go back.
Another bang made them both jump in fear.
“There’s no one there,” he said, reassuringly.
“There’s no one at all,” Kara said. When she spoke again, Sam could hear the quaver in her voice. “This is a ghost town.”


***


Sam had made his room on the second floor of one the more intact buildings, not that ‘intact’ was saying much. It still creaked and there were holes in the boards that let streaks of the hot sun through, but overall it kept the elements out of his face.
He had furnished it with items he had culled from his exploratory wanderings through the old town. Now, he pushed knick-knacks out of the way to get to the hard easy chair with stuffing sticking out that he had dragged up the stairs and sat himself in front of the polished (at one time) wooden desk.
This too he cleared of junk and then he yanked open the drawer that always stuck. That was where he kept the pen and paper.
He had taken them from the Land Cruiser’s glove box, and they were some of the last items from the real world. He paused. It was strange calling their old life the ‘real world,’ because where they were was as real as any other place, but he found he did think of this place as imaginary, in a way.
He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. He listened to the wind whistle across the plains. I am in a fugue state, he thought. I have entered into another world, and I am detached form the real one. He could hear sand scuttle across the floorboards.
He roused himself and put his focus towards the paper. How was he to start? He should start with her looks. Her eyes, perhaps? Or maybe her lovely figure. Her eyes, like…like…
He got up and paced around the room. His footfalls clunked with the weight of his pondering.
The more he tried to conjure her in his mind, the harder it was to remember just what it was that she looked like. A few vapid rhymes came to him, but none did justice.
How did he feel about her? How did he feel without her? That could be a starting point – his experience of her absence.
He sat back down at the desk and, with much labored thought, wrote out the first two lines:


I left my heart with a lady
and forgot to take it back


***


“We need to find rain barrels,” Kara said.
They had spent an uneasy night sleeping in the Land Cruiser. Now it was morning. Kara was sitting on the front stoop of a building and Sam was huddled in the car.
“Barrels?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, we’re in the desert. We need something to catch rain in so we don’t die of thirst.”
Sam looked around, but he didn’t see any barrels.
“I don’t see any barrels,” he said.
Kara stood up.
“Then we’ll have to find some. Or make some,” she said. “There’s got to be some around here. C’mon.”


***


Sam mused in the direction of his first stanza. He read the inky lines again.


I left my heart with a lady
and forgot to take it back.
Now I feel unsteady
and my ribcage has gone slack.


He furrowed his brow. That was good enough, he thought. Now, he had to figure out the next stanza.
He startled when he heard footsteps clapping on the floor beneath him. Then he heard Kara’s voice yelling up to him.
“Come look! It’s finished!” she yelled from downstairs.
He put the notebook back in the drawer and trudged down to the lower level. He met Kara in the doorway. She was keeping her face passive, but the rest of her betrayed the glee she was feeling. She was shuffling her feet, practically skipping. She looked like she was going to burst.
“Come on. Come look.”
Sam followed her over to the building site. She wanted him to go faster, but didn’t say anything.
As soon as they reached the pseudo-car, she hopped in and began giving a demonstration.
“I reinforced the chassis of an old cart, so it’s gonna be pretty secure. It doesn’t have an engine, but we can power it with this hand crank.”
She was in the back, and when she turned the lever the pseudo-car started rolling. She continued.
“The person in the front can drive with the steering wheel. It’s not that hard to work the motor, but we can take turns when our arms start to get tired.”
“It’s a good design,” Sam countered, “but we don’t know where to go.”
“Think of it as a scouting vehicle,” she answered. “The exterior will protect us from the sun, and the extra space – ” she hopped out and indicated a small trunk “ – is where we can stock food and water for the trip.
We’ll jerry-rig a compass and take it out for drives. We can cover a lot of ground in this thing without risking our lives, and soon enough we’ll have to find some civilization. This used to be a town, so it can’t be too far away from other settlements.”
Sam considered this. “I gotta admit, it’s not a bad plan.”
“We’ll stock up on supplies tonight,” Kara announced, “and we’ll set out first thing tomorrow.”
There was hope in her eyes.


***


They were both miserable. They were lying on the wood floor, not moving. The rain barrel was in the opposite corner.
They hadn’t wanted for drinking water. With Kara leading the way, they had found a few intact buckets and barrels, and they repaired and constructed several more.
Food was another matter. There was none. Neither Sam nor Kara knew how to hunt, not in the desert. The last thing they had eaten was a small rodent-like animal that Sam had recognized as a Pika – an endangered species. He had seen it foraging for food and, very quietly, he had gotten as close to it as he could, and then threw his whole body at it and just barely caught it.
He wrestled only briefly with eating an endangered species, his stomach rumbling away whatever moral scruples he had left. He brought it back to Kara, who cooked it, and they had their first meal since they had finished the trail bars littering the backseat of the Land Cruiser.
But, after that, no other animals had thrown themselves at their feet. They wandered the outskirts of the ghost town, but found nothing. It had been a week since their last meal, and now neither of them felt strong enough to even wander around the town to look for something.
Sam’s stomach was pinching him to death, but he didn’t even notice it, lying there on the hard floor, his mouth as dry as the sand-covered streets. He needed water.
He stumbled over to the rain barrel and poured a small cup-full. Kara looked up at him from where she was slumped in the corner.
“We need to ration the water,” she croaked.
“I’m thirsty!” he barked, immediately regretting it. It hurt to talk.
He sunk down by the rain barrel, and carefully sipped the water. When he looked at Kara, eyes half-closed, clutching her stomach, that was when he realized they were dying.
That was also the night that it happened.


***


The sun was setting, and Sam had climbed on top of the shingled roof of the church. It wasn’t a large church, but it was handsome, and he kept his balance on the thin ridge by hanging alongside the bell tower.
Last he had seen Kara, she was still testing out the pseudo-car. It was extremely uncomfortable trying to steer and power it at the same time, he knew, but from his perch he saw her tootling around the streets for what felt like hours.
If she was still driving, it was on the other side of town, outside of his range of vision. She didn’t like this part, but he wanted to watch it happen, up close and personal.
He waited. The sky turned dark as pitch, except for the full moon, round and luminescent. Spread out below was the graveyard, scattered widely with headstones and fading epitaphs, cordoned off by low and ornate iron fencing.
He waited.
Then, he felt a light breeze rush across his cheek. It did not die down, but continued blowing, with more and more force, more and more insistent clawing, turning into a gale, swirling around him, forcing him to clutch the bell tower with both his arms tightly, making any loose thing flap violently about, biting into his eyes and making it hard for him to see. And while he was hanging onto the church, he heard first a rustling and crumbling, and then he heard a low murmuring that was distinct from the sharp whistling of the wind all around him.
Through the biting wind, Sam peeked into the night and saw figures moving through the graveyard, chattering, climbing over the fence, and heading towards the town. As they neared, lamps began lighting throughout the town, the figures’ voices became louder, and the laughter was raucous. Sounds of life rose in volume as Sam watched the houses come aglow. The wind was dying down.
The ghost town was waking up.


***


The first night that it had happened, they were still lying inside, unable to do anything but feel weak and hungry. The wall in front of him had become a symbol of Sam’s hopelessness.
They were sleeping fitfully when the winds outside picked up. They heard the gushing outside and the rattling it caused inside. Sam remembered hearing Kara groaning.
Then they had heard the clacking, the banging, and then what sounded like voices talking. Something lit up the room and they both were awakening. Too hard to talk, they both looked at each other searchingly, and saw in the other’s eyes that they were not delirious.
They struggled up and into the street. They couldn’t speak from amazement as they walked into the lights and the activity around them. There were people walking in the streets and going into buildings and coming out of buildings. They gawked at the strange scene as they tried to take it all in. They entered one of the now alien-seeming establishments, and there were men playing billiards and sitting at tables with grub.
The sight of food sent Sam and Kara’s heads spinning. Sam scrambled up to a table. Kara followed, and was just able to miss the floor and collapse into an open chair.
“Help,” pleaded Sam. “Please, we’re starving.”
The men stared at the new arrivals. One, wearing a cowboy hat and a graying mustache, ran over and inspected the emaciated Sam and Kara.
“Get these kids some food,” he ordered.


***


Sam clambered down from the church roof and entered the bustle of town. He ran into Kara, who was carrying a cartload of junk that she would pawn.
“And don’t forget the money hidden behind the rock,” Sam said.
“You’re not going to get it?” she asked.
“I’ve got a different plan,” he said, smiling.
“Alright, then.”
They parted, and Sam took to the streets until he came to the gambling house. The gamblers were grimy and brawny and looked at him suspiciously, but he simply pulled up a chair and set himself at their table.
“Deal me in,” he said, after they finished their hand.
The first hand he split the pot with another player. The next hand he held an ace and jack, with an ace showing after the flop, but he folded. Sure enough, the man to his left won with a three-of-a-kind.
The hand after that, he was dealt a three and seven. Terrible cards. The flop turned up a four and a six in a different suit. That was good.
The man to his left raised. He called.
The turn gave him nothing to work with. The man to his left raised. The man across from him doubled that. Sam’s pulse quickened, but he called. There went half of his meager money, into the pot.
He watched the last card like a hawk as it glided face-up onto the table. There it was, the five to fill his straight. He had to force himself not to grin – if he remembered this hand correctly, he had won.
The man to his left checked, but the man across from him raised. The man to his left hesitated for a long time, then called.
Sam looked around at them, and this time he didn’t try to hide his grin.
“All in,” he said.
The man to his left hurriedly called. The man across stared at him. His eyes narrowed at Sam’s cocky smile. Then, slowly, he called. The man to Sam’s right folded, muttering to himself.
They showed their cards, and Sam won. He scooped the mound of cash towards himself.
“Let’s go, another round,” demanded the man across.
Sam reminded himself to lose a hand or two on purpose so they wouldn’t get too angry with him.
***


After they had been refreshed with food and drink, their benefactor engaged them in conversation. He introduced himself as Danny.
“You’re not from around here, are ya?” he asked.
The explained to him that they had set out on a journey, lost their way, and had become stranded in a ghost town, leaving out that the ghost town was the one they were currently in.
“Hmm, a ghost town, huh?” said Danny. “I hear we’re getting more and more of those. So you sticking around for a while?”
Sam smirked painfully. “Yeah, we might.”
Kara jumped in. “We thought we might start off soon,” she said, slowly. “Can we buy supplies for the trip around here?”
“Sure,” said Danny. “Just down the street.”
“Where can we earn some money to pay for it?” asked Kara.
“Well, you can try the shops, but I can’t make any guarantees.” He leaned in, and spoke lowly. “What you can do, though, is check behind Clara’s saloon, two doors down, and look behind the rocks. There’s money hidden there – it belongs to someone else, but Pete’s a scoundrel. That’s some filthy lucre if I’ve ever seen it and you two seem to be in need. If you get caught, tell him to take it up with Danny.” He puffed out his chest.
He paid for their meal and insisted they not try to return the favor. They both thanked him profusely.
Outside Sam confronted Kara.
“What do you mean ‘buy supplies’? I’m not sure any of this is even real.”
Kara took a breath and let it out slowly. “I see it this way: the food we ate in there tasted real enough. If there’s a chance we can not starve, even if it’s only in a delirium, we should take it.”
Sam shrugged. “Alright, let’s find the money.”


***


Sam strutted down the street with a sack full of cash drooping from his waistband.
He met Kara again. This time she was pushing a wheelbarrow piled high with cans of beans and other canned foods.
“Did you clear them out?” Sam asked.
“Not yet,” Kara said. “How’d your plan go?”
“Not too bad. I can buy the rest.”
“Ok, great. This’ll be great. We won’t have to worry about food for a while,” said Kara.
“It was just like I thought,” he told her. “Everything here is on a loop. They’re re-enacting a day in their lives or something.”
“Hmm, interesting.”
Sam went to the general store to clean them out of whatever goods they had left. He didn’t know how edible cans of food materialized every full moon, but it had saved their lives. He had hatched his plan for getting the extra money during last month’s appearance. He had recognized bits of conversation, passers-by, and had been fully inspired when he heard a fight break out in the same saloon as the first month, over the same exact girl.
He had secretly pocketed some of the cash when they dug it up the second time, and Kara hadn’t noticed. He used this to stay in the game for hours that night, taking occasional breaks in-between hands to scribble down who had which cards. Then he had spent the whole month memorizing his notes.
Now the supplies were purchased, the night was young, and he had a mound of cash that was only good for one night. He kicked open the saloon doors.
“Someone get me some hooch!”


***


After eating, Sam and Kara felt refreshed, and it was with little difficulty that they found the money.
They used it to buy as much food as they could. Kara suggested they hunt around the town for some other way to get cash. They split up.
Sam was fascinated by the phantasmagoria that had appeared in the town. He peeked through windows and poked past doors. Whether the old west life he saw was authentic or a pantomime, he wasn’t sure, but he was eager to see as much as he could.
When he got to the church, he saw that lights were on and could just make out a voice inside. He entered quietly to find a service in session. There was a small gathering, consisting of only the most faithful, speckling the echo-y room. He took a seat in the back and listened through the entire rest of the sermon.
The preacher spoke clearly and passionately, but Sam still had a hard time following along. There were many references that he didn’t understand and joining during the middle of the sermon didn’t help.
He gathered that the sermon was on love, of a kind. If ye love me the preacher would repeat. He went on to speak of types of love, what it meant. What does it mean to love? The preacher would ask.
Sam exited the church, lost in meditation. Yes, to love. He tumbled the word around in his head. He remembered crushes; the ones that had faded like a blush and the ones that had flown apart like a flurry of unsent letters. Pop songs and poems and books littered his mind in a tangled web of associations.
He kept walking, walking into the parts of the street that hung darker than the rest. He pushed open a door and inside he saw gaudy, Orientalist upholstery and decorations. There were men lying on the floor, in couches, and in big chairs. Ah, an opium den, he thought. He softly closed the door.
Past a few more establishments. He tried another door, and that was when he met her.


***


Sam stumbled out of the saloon, half drunk, a flask of liquor in one hand, the other held out for balance. The moonshine they gave him was as strong as a firecracker and had a kick that had almost sent him flying into the wallpaper.
He knew where he was going, and his heart palpitated with anticipation. He passed the church and it made him smile; he was in the mood for love.
“Hey, honey,” she drawled, as she did every time he visited her.
She leaned over a dresser while he lumbered into the brothel. Her hair was let down and her lips tracked his movement through the room. Her eyes were dark and her bust drooped to rest on the surface of the dresser.
“Brought you something,” he said, tossing her the flask. “Best moonshine in town.”
“Aren’t you sweet,” she said.
It wasn’t long – a few minutes and a couple swigs more of whiskey – before he was flat on his back and she atop him. Thus positioned, his mind was freed and it began to wander. Words and rhythms suddenly came to him, and he was composing the last stanza of his poem.
He mumbled it to himself:


Roused incorporeal by the moon,
yet supple and fair is she.
Dream I only to resume
this waking reverie!

***


He spent the entire rest of that first night with her. He was sitting on a couch, sleepily nursing some liquor, when the night outside began turning into a blue wash. She was looking out the window at the slow creep of morning, and Sam was watching her through eyes that kept falling closed. She turned around and her gaze was glassy.
“It’s almost morning,” she said softly.
Sam’s mouth was fuzzy. “I’ve been ‘ere all night, huh?” he mumbled.
“It’s time to go,” she said.
“Awww, alright.”
He stirred to get up and craned his neck to get the kinks out. He wanted to get one last, long look at her.
She walked past him. She went straight past him and walked through the door without a glance back.
“Hey, where are you going?” he yelled after her.
Sam rushed to the window and he watched her walk away.


When he left, the sun was on the horizon and there was no one in the streets. All the lights were out and there was silence. He was back in a dusty ghost town.
Back at the house, he found Kara snoozing against the wall. She looked up when he entered.
“Did you get any more supplies?” she asked.
“Huh? Oh, uh, no. I…got distracted.”
“I managed to pawn some tools and stuff I found, and bought a few more cans of food.”
“Alright, that’s good.”
He was really tired. He slid down into the corner where he had spent many anxious nights, and fell asleep.


***


Sam stumbled out of the brothel, into the night. The lamps blurred into scabs of light, making shining puddles in his vision, which was covered in a watery film of moonshine.
He couldn’t seem to walk in a straight line, but he didn’t care.
“This is it!” he whooped.
The lights where pulsing in his peripheral vision and his head spun like a circus.
He was a monk, he thought. Didn’t monks hole themselves away from civilization to connect with the spiritual realm? They spent years in hardship and privation so they could glimpse unearthly pleasure, and he had achieved this.
All around him was a Vanity Fair’s worth of heady indulgence, worthy of song and poetry.
He almost tripped after hitting his foot against the pseudo-car. Suddenly he felt himself getting very, very angry.
He was getting angry at the car, and at Kara. She hated this place, and this car was going to take them away. She thought it was something to escape, that it wasn’t real. But what is ‘real,’ and why this devotion to it?
He thought of his room on the second floor that he had put together all nice for himself. His monastery, he thought to himself. He was a poet, and was that not what a poet was – a monk of pleasure and passion? And was that not what a poet tried to accomplish – to carve out a place in the world that was also removed from the world? And he had that here.
And this car would take him away.
The sledgehammer was lying on the ground near the car. He picked it up and raised it, almost losing his balance in the process. Then he swung at the pseudo-car and it responded with a satisfying clang. He raised the hammer again, and again, and smashed the car until his arms were tired and his anger had abated.
He dropped the hammer and retreated to his room, where he would hide from Kara’s wrath.


Kara had finished stocking the shelves with supplies and had spent some time checking that the rain barrels were intact and in a place where they would get filled. Maybe it was just ectoplasm that made the air feel moist, she snorted, but if there was any chance of rain she wanted everything to be ready.
She was going to put a store of food in the back of the pseudo-car and then call it a night. The hope of taking it out the next day and searching for civilization had put a spring in her step and she was feeling better than she had since she and Sam were rolling over dunes in the Land Cruiser.
Kara approached where she’d left the car, and slowed. Something looked wrong. She crept forward.
The bean cans fell out of her arms as she gaped in horror. The car was destroyed. The wheels had been split, the exterior separated, and the chassis was broken in half.
She stood there stupefied while all the hope drained out of her through her stomach and into the ground. Then she fell to her knees, hid her head in her hands, and wept bitterly for an hour.


***


After the first night, Sam slept well into the morning and would’ve continued longer had it not become too bright for him to get any more shuteye.
He yawned as he hunted for Kara, interested to hear what she had made of the unreal nightlife. He found her next to a pile of junk – ropes, auto parts, and some rotten wood.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Having ideas,” she replied. She was looking intently at the junk.
“So…how about last night? Crazy, right?”
She looked at him. “Yeah.”
“It was amazing. Do you think it will come again?”
“Hopefully, we won’t be here to find out.” She stared at him, hard. “We have to get out of here.”
“What do you mean? Why do you say that?”
“Whatever happened, it was not cool.”
“How can you say that? Forget about the historical and craziness aspects, that apparition saved our lives!” Sam protested.
“There’s something really not cool about it. It might have saved us from starving, but there’s something bad.” She paused. “I think, maybe, it’s a trap or something.”
“Okaaaay then.”
“I’ve got an idea, though, for how we can get out of here. I’m gonna need some help finding stuff.”
Sam looked at her seriously. “I’m a little concerned about how you’re reacting. If you can approach this with an open mind, I think you’ll be less anxious.”
Kara turned away from him and rummaged through the pile of junk.
“I just know that I don’t like this ghost town, and I want to get out. Same as day one,” she said.
“Fear changes people, Kara. I’m just worried that you’ll leave here different.”
“As long as we leave, I’m good.”


***


Kara woke up on the ground next to the smashed car. She rubbed the sleep and sand and dried tears out of her eyes.
She sat up, was faced with the wreckage, and again the hope drained out of her, and she felt sick.
Quickly, the despair in her belly turned to anger. She stomped to the house where Sam lived and stood outside in fury. She wanted to yell something at him, scream at him, but she didn’t know what to say.


Sam looked out the window and saw the figure of Kara standing outside, fists clenched. She was mad, alright.
His head was pounding with a brutal hangover, and staring outside made it worse. He waited to see if she’d do anything, but she just stood there, her face turning red. She’d get over it. There wasn’t much else she could do.
He left the window and pulled out his notebook. It was time to begin the month’s work and chronicle his experiences of the previous night. He’d run out of paper, eventually. He’d have to find a substitute, or he could just write on the walls. That seemed kind of Romantic.


She could see his beady little eyes peeking out the window at her. At first Kara thought she’d burn his house down. Making a fire would be easy, and then she could light everything keeping him here up in flames.
But it wouldn’t work. He’d only resent her more, and unless she burnt the entire town to the ground, he’d still stay for the apparition. She knew he would, and even if she did burn the entire town, even that might not be enough.
She couldn’t retaliate. It would accomplish nothing, and who knew what other ways Sam might have of making her life difficult? Would he do that?
She thought of the car, and realized she didn’t know. This was not a person she knew.
She walked away from the window and rested against a wooden support beam. The sun beat down on her forehead. So tired. This turn of events had really taken the wind out of her sails. The sun was trying to burn her, but what else was there to do? She’d try again – make another car, one that could be driven by a single person. If Sam really didn’t want to leave, that was his choice.
The sledgehammer was where Sam had dropped it. Kara picked it up, and let it drag behind her in the sand as she searched the town for wood and rusty car parts that she could scavenge.


The work carried her late into the day. She was dragging another rusted auto body from where it had been abandoned in a patch of grassland when she heard the noise. The noise was a distant rumbling rising in the desert stillness.
Dropping the metal exterior, Kara straightened and tried to locate where the sound was coming from. It was getting louder. She stepped over the tall grass, walking side to side, using her arms to balance herself in the growth, craning her neck to scan the horizon.
Then, off in the distance, she saw a quavering form. It grew, coming towards her. She took a couple wary steps forward and shielded her eyes from the sun.
It was a truck, driving to the town.
Kara waved her arms. The truck didn’t change course, still driving in the direction of the town, and she continued signaling it, jumping up and down, trying to make sure she had its attention.
It pulled up, a cloud of sand swirling around it, and a man in a park ranger uniform stepped out. He had sunglasses covering his eyes, but Kara could see the amazement on his face.
“Good lord, what are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’ve been stranded here for three months, me and my friend.”
“Three months?!” he goggled. “Good night! How have you survived out here for three months?!”
“Long story, but we drove a Land Cruiser out here and got lost. We ran out of gas and didn’t know how to get out.”
The park ranger shook his head in disbelief.
“That’s incredible,” he said. “Yeah, they weren’t sure whether the vote to keep maintaining this place would come through, so they haven’t been sending anyone out here to clean it up or anything.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Or maybe it’s because they haven’t been sending anyone out here. Eh, politics.” He threw up his hands. “I’m just glad you’re getting rescued. You said you had a friend?”
Sam was looking out the window, watching Kara and some park ranger come walking up to his house.
This was not good. He leaped up and looked around the room.
He wasn’t sure if he was acting rationally or not; he just knew he had to get out of there. They were coming, and if they got to him, everything would stop.
He ran down the stairs and out the door. Then he bolted.
Sam flew out of the town and raced into the desert. He struggled to keep traction on the sand, but he couldn’t slow down.
The sun was bright and hot and his head was pounding. He didn’t know where he was going other than away from the park ranger. His feet were getting heavy.
He felt a breeze on his cheek. Sand flew into his eyes. He ran into the wind. Yes, he thought, take me away, please.
The wind rushed past him as he lost his footing and fell.


From where Kara was sitting in the passenger seat of the truck, she could see Sam trying to run into the desert. The park ranger didn’t say anything; just kept his sunglasses pointed at Sam and worked on catching up with him.
She could tell that Sam was tiring, and when they pulled past him she saw him fall heavily into the sand. The park ranger pulled the truck in front of Sam and parked it. He hopped out and walked over to the exhausted Sam sitting on the ground.
“You’re going to be OK,” the park ranger said, trying to console him. “You’re safe now. You’ve been rescued.”
“No…no,” croaked Sam.
But he had given up and he let himself be carried into the truck, cool air blasting out of the AC.
Kara didn’t say anything to him, and he didn’t say anything to her. But she watched the desert pass by in the window, and she felt at peace.
“It won’t be long,” said the park ranger. “Just a short drive to town.”

They were leaving the desert, and both of them had changed.

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