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Terry could walk to the bar in ten minutes. A scrub-lined dirt road ran from the trailer cluster for a little ways before reaching Highway 371, which, after descending a long hill, dead-ended at Highway 79. On two sides of the T-intersection were ridges and scrub fields stretching away, and on the third side was the bar.

The bar had no name. It had once been the Stagecoach Inn according to the painted plywood sign leaning against an outside wall.

At home, Terry took his trash to the trashpile, made his bed, and--before walking to the bar--got his two old flower-print pillows out of the linen closet and arranged them on his bed.

Outside, the air carried the woodsy, wet-desert smell of the previous day's rain. Sparrows bathed in the rain traps and a few heavy clouds drifted, catching the full moonlight. All the other trailers were dark.

He took his seat near the bar's side door. The neon beer-lights tinted the cigarette smoke blue, then green, then red. Two other men sat at a table near the far wall. Terry set his rifle to lean on the rail and nodded to Daphne, who was running the bar. She unscrewed him a jar of brown homebrew.

"Sal come by today?" he asked.

She glanced at him and opened the fridge. "Uh-uh. Didn't you hear?"

"No."

She closed the fridge. "Brenda's got tetanus. I guess she's already showing it, probably won't make it through the night, is what Sal's saying."

"Oh, wow."

"Yeah." Daphne toweled out a glass and set it in the sink. Outside, the well-pump and the generator rumbled to life at the same time. Terry said, "he didn't tell me anything about it."

Daphne shrugged. "Sal don't like you."

 

#

 

Terry walked fast. The clouds had gone and the sky was big and open. He heard no dogs, no pigs, no cougars. A straight white line shone along his rifle's barrel toward the damp earth. 

Sal's trailer was a little more than a mile up Highway 79, behind a ridge covered with chaparral. It lay a good distance off the road with no driveway leading to it. As Terry walked he kicked away pieces of the road, brushed past bunchgrasses growing in the holes.

He passed a bleached TURNOUT sign. Behind him a burned-out van lay on its side, preceded by skid marks. The gas was long-since stolen from it, the burnt body inside long-since buried. He slowed his pace, counted thirty seconds, stepped off the highway and hiked up the ridge. A cottontail scurried away from him through dry brush.

A row of candles burned yellow in the bedroom window of Sal's trailer.

Terry knocked twice before Sal answered the front door. The smell of human adult shit drifted out from behind him.

"I just heard," Terry said.

Sal closed the door. Terry heard the lock click.

Terry went to the lit window and stood on his toes and looked in. The window was fogged, and the floor inside elevated, but he could see a human shape tied with sheets to a mattress. More candles flickered on a bookcase against the far wall. The candlelight was dim and yellow and pretty, and the shape on the bed spasmed. Sal stepped into the room then. Terry snuck away.

He watched from the ridge. An hour passed before Sal pinched the candles out.

Terry snuck back to the window and looked through it again. His favorite photo of Brenda faced him from a homemade scrap wood table next to the bed. She always placed the photo face down when it was okay for Terry to come in. He spent a few minutes watching her breathe before walking back home. He slept, and in his dream was the sound of a shovel sinking into dirt.

 

#

 

The next morning Terry and some other men from the trailer cluster helped dig a grave in Sal's yard. Because of the rain two days before, the deeper ground was an ash-brown soup. Dogs paced the nearby ridges. Sal shot one, and the others scattered. 

Brenda was tied with the same sheets. Their creases ran with mud-water even before Terry and the others started to pile dirt on her; Terry did not drop the first dirt on her face.

The day was hot and very bright. As he walked back to his trailer sparrows chirped from the manzanitas, and past the mountains to the West the sky was hazy with gray. There hadn't been any wildfires that he knew of, not since the quiet. He felt an itch on his lower back and touched a warm, spongy mass.  A hive.

Sal and some of the others were cooking a goat for after the burial but Terry went home, cleaned his gun, and slept on his couch until afternoon.

 


#

 

Quiet fast finger-taps on the door woke him.

Through the window he saw Daphne standing in the dirt. She was barefoot. After he let her in she looked at his rifle on the floor in front of the couch and sat down on the bench he’d built.

"So Sal's telling people you got vaccines stashed," she said.

Terry blinked. "What, tetanus?"

"Yeah."

"Who's he telling?"

"Everybody."

"How do you know?"

"He just told me at the bar." She paused for a couple seconds. "He find out you were screwing his wife?"

"Maybe. He knows I got no vaccines though."

Terry thought of Brenda all packed in mud, mud pressing down on the sheet over her face. 

"Pete, last Summer?" Daphne said. "Cut himself hauling scrap? Everyone’ll think you could’ve saved him too." She shook her head. "Terry, you think Sal's gonna let anyone find out his wife was fucking around on him?"

Terry got up and made his way to the other end of his trailer, looking out each window along the way. A few people were digging a fire pit for the goat a little ways up the hill; everyone else was most likely at the bar. He went back to the living room and bent and grabbed his rifle. "They expecting you back at the bar?"

Daphne stood and went for the door. "Bill's running it tonight."

"Ten minutes."

She was gone. Terry filled two sleeping bags with clothes, bullets, the two flower pillows, dried meat and fruit, two gallons of rainwater, a baggie full of photos, flints, a knife, mace, and two fingers of everclear in a glass soda bottle. Afternoon light shone on the floating dust, and Terry thought of the ash blowing in from the west.  He found a very old cigarette in a drawer.  Instead of rain and shit and rotten wood the trailer smelled like cigarette smoke, and outside, crows hopped around the stump of a telephone pole, which he'd cut down for firewood some months before.

 

#

 

Daphne was still barefoot when she got back with her things--a red Jansport backpack and a bundle of sheets.

"Lost my moccasins at the trashpile," she said.

They ran down the hill. Behind them were the bar and the highway, and ahead was the riverbed. The big granite rocks clustered with brush. On the bed's far side was a stand of tall eucalyptus trees; when they were beyond the trees, Terry gave Daphne a pair of his moccasins, and she tied the loose front ends with string.   

They only got a few miles up Highway 371 before sunset. Terry found a little clearing for them a few dozen yards off the road, where he emptied his sleeping bags on the dirt and dug a hole for water. He didn’t start a fire.

"How long 'til Riverside?" Daphne asked, her head propped on the flowered pillows she liked. "Two, three days?"

The moon was hazy and yellow and there were no stars. Wind kept coming, and Terry watched white dots of ash collect on his sleeping bag. 

"We ain’t going to Riverside."

Daphne sat up. "Last three months I been saying we need to go live up there."

"Okay."

"Okay? You got somewhere else to go?"

Terry scratched his nose. "Riverside's first place he'll look."

"There's a thousand people in Riverside."

Terry remembered last Spring, when a strange man had walked into the trailer cluster, his feet bandaged, having heard that the desert was where everyone had gone. Terry lay on his back and looked at the sky. "You been over there lately?"

"Have you?" Daphne asked.

"No."

"Then?"

"Then what?" Terry said. "You don't know anything more about it than I do, is what I'm saying."

"It's something at least."

Terry shrugged. "So's this."

They lay there scratching at hives. After a time, Terry fell asleep.

 

#

 

At sunrise they went northwest from the highway. Frost stayed until mid-morning, when the front popped and warm air came from inland. Around noon they passed a little house surrounded by dead pine. They circled it twice before Terry went inside.

On the kitchen stove was a cookie sheet stained with dark circles. In the front room's corner was a ribcage, football-sized; gray fur stuck to the black floor.

In the bedroom, on a mattress, was a skeleton with the skull crushed in. It looked like it was probably an adult skeleton. A dresser and nightstand still stood with the drawers pulled out. Pine needles crunched against cement as Daphne came up behind him. 

"Oh," she said, looking over Terry's shoulder.

There was nothing to dig with, so they burned the skeleton and the mattress in a clearing a few dozen yards from the house. Poppies rippled in orange patches on the hills, and the skeleton's smoke billowed, mixing with the gray sky. Terry watched the landscape and fiddled with his rifle. Nobody came. 

Daphne couldn't stop coughing after they got back to the house, so Terry soaked a little scrap of his shirt in some dew-water and tied it over her nose and mouth. The ash spun and drifted, orange in sunset.

 

#

 

"I'm feeling a little more comfortable now," she said next morning.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."  She reached up with a slow hand and put her fingers through his hair, and her eyelids slid closed. 

"You don't need her," she said a minute later, her thighs too warm against his hips.

Later, while she slept on the floor, Terry scratched the hives on his chest and headed back outside. He thought he could smell the goat from Sal’s cookout yesterday.

The wind picked up as he got up on a hill to see. The smoke column was small, but it was close enough that Terry could see orange flickering at its base. He got his rifle and did not wake Daphne. 

The rabbit was on its side when Terry reached it, still on fire but very burnt.  He couldn’t tell how many hives it had had. The wind whistled as it picked up and whipped through brush.

Daphne watched him walk up from the front window; he propped his rifle outside against the side of the house.  It would take a day, probably two in near-blindness, for Sal to get here from the trailer cluster. Terry was itchy everywhere--and hot. The hives on Daphne's face looked very red and very soft too. He shrugged at the room. "This could be something too." 

She bent and untied the strings she'd tied around Terry's moccasins and slipped the moccasins off. Then she laid on the sleeping bag, eyes half-closed, and held her arms out. He went.  Their house was safe and warm, and while Brenda was in the ground they would be in the sky. He scratched the hives on Daphne's legs and again he slept.

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