An afternoon swelter whistled through the driver window in a grimy convection, parching the moisture from my cracked lips. The empty water bottle fell, spattering remnant droplets across the withered floor mat.
I’d been reckless, unprepared.
I pressed the accelerator, coaxing more speed from the laboring engine, forcing bald tires over asphalt that’d been melted into adhesive.
The sun swooned in a phosphorescent arc toward the Sierra Nevada Mountains that ravaged the western horizon. Telltale grays began to veil the periphery with a shapeless, haunting blur.
The desert at night was twisted, disheartening, a teeming cauldron of childhood demons.
I no longer believed what I couldn‘t see.
The pickup trembled, lurched, then slowed. The motor hesitated. Died.
Swearing, I steered the carcass onto the shoulder near a rocky wash, coasting to a slow, isolated stop.
Dust swirled across the ground, tentacles of desiccated fog rising up to ensnare my boots.
I stepped out of the cab. The road spun into the distance, lost behind luminous waves of refracted heat, orange and purple from the stained sky.
There were no buildings, no people, no help.
I bit at my lip while feeling for the hood latch through an unfamiliar grill. As a doctor I could set a broken bone or suture a wound but repairing an engine was beyond me.
Shadows began to stretch into serpentine ribbons from clumps of sage and misshapen Joshua trees. Boulders morphed into gargoyles as vagueness drowned the endless landscape.
“Why‘d I drive this heap today?” I spoke aloud, seeking surety in my own voice but finding an unsteady whine.
The latch triggered with an echoing clunk. I wedged my fingers beneath the hood and lifted. From deep behind grease encrusted metal a wisp of blue smoke rose and curled into a mocking grin.
“Not good.” The retreat of daylight had failed to bring any cooling. I stepped away, rubbing a forearm across my dried brow. I’d stopped sweating an hour ago. Water means life, the lack is…
The ground about me moved in unsteady waves. I fell.
Night rolled from the distant slopes and covered the emaciated lowland with unyielding murk. An unknown insect whirred in the distance.
I blinked and stood, leaning against the pinging truck.
Movement crackled twigs in the rocky wash, faint and spastic.
A groan seeped from the pitch, faltering, low … human.
My breath seized. “Who’s there?”
Silence. Above, something winged swooped beyond sight.
I stepped forward. “I … I’m a doctor.”
The sound of death is a morbid, grating hiss. An exhalation of the last fragments of choice, the final whisper of resiliency. There was no mistaking the gurgling emanation from the darkness.
“Stay with me …” I staggered into the ditch, blind, picking my way around unknown obstacles.
A silhouette in the scrub. The shape of a man’s body amid branches, face down.
I hesitated. “Can you hear me?” No reply. I slid the remaining inches and checked for a pulse or respiration. Nothing. His flesh was fevered and waxy, a gash split his scalp. The sickly aroma of spilled blood mingled with dust, death’s potpourri. “Don‘t go ...” If I could start CPR …
An acrid stench grazed my neck. A breath from behind. Hot, moist.
I shuddered and jumped away, as a scream clawed my throat.
Red, unblinking eyes stared from convex shadows, darkness in the pitch. But more than darkness. The absence of light, of goodness. A void.
I covered my face, the stinging of tears seared horrified cheeks.
“This …” The voice was gravel in thunder as gnarled bones pointed to the body. “… is beyond physical healing.” It moved, resolute, uncompromising. “I’ll attend to the soul.”
Across the fallen night I watched contorted fingers claw at the body, leathery wings blanketing the midnight in still deeper gloom.
“No,” I stammered, “Let me …”
The creature turned, cadaver in tow, “You tend the mortal. I, the immortal.”
The body flailed, arms splayed, head lolling. It flopped into a depression, falling prone, face exposed.
Desert sands caked the gash above familiar features.
The void crowed with staccato ferocity.
A clenched pain seized my chest as my eyes gaped. “No!” I’d never believed. “No!” I’d only quantified. “Leave me here!” I wasn’t prepared.
I dove, grasping the flaccid legs, tugging to free myself from eternity. “Help me! Oh God!”
The sound of tires on stone popped from the rim above. Light drove away desperation. A figure, a savior, strode forward.
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