“Why again did we decide against Sedona?” Phillip asked. “That’s where the refueling vortexes are after all.”
They stood on the rim of the Barringer crater, likely the most famous terrestrial impact site in the world. At just over one kilometer across and nearly two hundred meters deep, it was far from the largest, but the visible alteration that it made upon the surface of the desert landscape was quite captivating. The fact that it hit relatively recently, at least on a planetary scale, and in the midst of a rigid, barren landscape, allowed for the edges of the crater to remain crisp and well defined. It had been photographed, filmed, reproduced in miniature, and is one of the first images that comes up if one were to type “crater” into any available search engine.
“Vortices,” Cynthia corrected. “And, no they are not.”
Phillip had hoped that the crater would be the place. It had certainly fit the bill on paper, but he had been utterly unprepared for the tasteless commercialization and theme-park-styled ambiance that had been built up around it. He should have known better, having had some forays into the States prior to this one.
Still, though . . . this was just so . . .
“The Sedona Vortices are pure bollocks,” Cynthia pulled him back. “When the county had to lengthen the runway at the local airport, they moved the Airport Mesa Vortex. Can you imagine that? A celestial power source, born of the primeval elements of the cosmos, was somehow ‘relocated’ for tourist convenience.”
“Hmm,” Phillip mused. “That does sound, well . . . hmm.”
This wasn’t at all what he had planned.
His heart had begun to sink when they parked in the visitor’s lot, next to several rows of enormous caravans and private luxury buses that so many people in the States seemed to own and use for an activity that they mistakenly referred to as camping. It still baffled him that many of the glorious and scenic wonders, dispersed throughout the staggeringly large expanse of America, had all come to the same conclusion: that it made perfect sense to bulldoze large sections of that beauty until it was level, cover it with thick layers of concrete and tarmac, and essentially obliterating the beauty that had drawn them all there in the first place.
Then, to add insult to the injury, rather than actually look at the natural wonder in front of them, the visitors briefly braved the unfiltered atmosphere of their planet for the duration of a brisk walk from their mobile living rooms to the visitor’s center. Or, as was the case here, to an airconditioned theater and 4D “collision experience” to view simulated infotainment about the monument that they had come to see. The stunningly obvious fact that the real thing, the actual crater caused by a massive impact from an object not of this world, was just outside seemed to completely escape them all.
Phillip agonized over his decision to select this destination. Many a night had been spent at opposite ends of their flat, each multiple tabs deep into the interwebs, calling off possible cities and countries to the other. In the end, though, it had been his choice that had won out. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the majestic bit of the infinite captured and frozen in time that he had imagined, but a rather shoddy tourist trap. He might as well have taken her to an amusement park. At least then, people might want to do more than watch a short film and buy overpriced knickknacks.
Well, now that wasn’t quite fair. There were a few more adventurous souls who walked the observation trails along the rim or descended into the impact basin below. True, most of them had Canadian flags stitched onto their carryalls, but not all.
“Ready?” Cynthia asked.
“Absolutely,” Phillip replied, but stopped when they began to walk in opposite directions.
“Are we not going into the crater?” he asked.
“Can’t see any reason to,” she said and then shrugged. “Still have to make camp, after all.”
“We can be set up in less than thirty minutes,” Phillip reasoned. “Hours of light left, too. Think a nice walk—wouldn’t go so far as to call this a hike—but a nice walk would be good.”
Cynthia seemed taken aback. “We cannot stay here.”
“How’s that?” Phillip asked, confused and a bit dismayed. After a fourteen-hour flight into Phoenix, renting a car, spending a full day shopping for gear more easily purchased than transported almost halfway round the globe, and then finally driving for several hours to this exact destination, he had not envisioned a stay of less than twenty minutes.
“Do you really think that we’ll see any action here?” Cynthia gently chided in a manner that always made his ears burn. “It would be like Christ returning to a church carnival.”
Phillip considered arguing, maybe just giving it one night, instead of the week for which they had planned, but knew that she was right. This was a disaster. He had envisioned camping, alone together, at the bottom of the crater, far from the noise and clamor of people, beneath a vast blanket of stars. Here, they would be wedged betwixt fiberglass sperm whales while engulfed in an invisible cloud of country music and fried foods.
He surrendered. “What do you suggest, then?”
“Plan B, of course,” Cynthia riposted, and then smiled in a way that always made his stomach flutter.
They returned to what was temporarily their vehicle, what the agent called an SUV crossover but without explaining with what the SUV had been crossed. Phillip assumed it was crossed with some sort of swine based upon the shamefully low gas mileage, though he had to admit he was enjoying the guilty pleasure of the power that the engine offered on the long, flat, blessedly traffic-free stretches of highway that were so abundant in the deserts of Arizona. His previous excursions into this country, for business rather than pleasure, had been spent almost entirely in Manhattan, which he had found to be not exactly similar to London but it certainly had many familiar elements. The endless stop-and-go traffic, the crowds, the pollution, the abundance of garbage, all of which had a texture and flavor that were unique to New York, but were at least identifiable. Never before had he been confronted with such vast, open, and desolate space as could be found in Arizona. It both terrified and thrilled him.
Much like his reason for coming.
“Take the next turnoff,” Cynthia advised, watching their progress on her tablet. “It should be visible to the right in a few hundred meters.”
“Are you sure?” Phillip asked. “I don’t see anything out there.”
“That’s the idea, isn’t it?”
“Ah, yes, well, I suppose it is.” Phillip had seen a road sign a short way back, though he hadn’t really paid attention as he had not realized that it was to be their destination for the evening. It had “guns” in the name, he recalled, but he hadn’t really paid it any mind. They had passed many colorfully titled places, Horse Thief Wash, Murderer’s Roost, and the very aromatic Polecat Springs, the mere mention of a firearm was no longer enough to tickle his curiosity. Now, though, it seemed significantly more relevant.
“It’s a ghost town,” Cynthia told him, reading his thoughts from his face just as clearly as if he had spoken them aloud. “It’s called Two Guns, and there used to be a campsite there, though now it is listed as closed. Still, there should be some flat space to set up for the night, and we’ll have a clear view of the heavens and be close enough to the crater that perhaps we’ll get lucky.”
“Maybe,” Phillip teased, “even get abducted.”
“Finger’s crossed,” Cynthia replied, not taking the bait.
Though their shared passion of the search for life outside of their own atmosphere was what had first brought them together, one of the points of contention, the only thing that they ever really and truly argued over, was the idea of alien abductions. Phillip maintained that although alien visitation and observation was all but certain, contact had either yet to be made or had been made and kept silent by those in power. The idea that alien races were advanced enough to master interstellar (or interdimensional, he had not ruled out that possibility) travel but foolishly and without fail only selected the least intelligent specimens of our species to study and to attempt to communicate made no sense. It was a false narrative that had been retold enough times that it had gained credulity. Like Mary attempting to explain to Joseph how she managed to be pregnant while still a virgin. Tell a lie often enough, and with enough conviction, and some people will not only believe it, but might even start a religion.
Cynthia, on the other hand, was a believer. A true believer. First and foremost, she believed that alien contact was far more common than what had been recorded by the so-called survivors stories. Those, she said, were just the ones that the visitors didn’t, or more likely couldn’t, hypnotize. Most people, people of reasonable intelligence or higher, often put themselves into a state of self-hypnosis, or shock, when confronted with traumatic events. They were, therefore, more susceptible to all forms of mind-control and post-hypnotic suggestions to forget the events that transpired. Such suggestions were all the more likely to be followed since it was something that the mind already wanted to do. When faced with input that could not be understood or categorized in any logical, rational, meaningful way, the mind locked the information away to puzzle over later.
Less intelligent people, however, were often faced with situations that they failed to comprehend in their everyday lives, and had therefore developed the talent of being able to assign meaning to things without being bogged down with logic, reason, or other such trivialities getting in the way.
That’s why, Cynthia maintained, it was the same people who also believed in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, Flat-Earth, vaccine microchips, and all the rest. They were simply more ready to accept the ineffable experience of abduction.
Phillip felt that the end of that argument really just proved his own, but had stopped saying so on the basis that he would rather be happy than be right.
He found the turnoff without much trouble, and could clearly see the defunct campground’s main office a short distance up the dirt road that led directly away from the interstate. It certainly hadn’t closed any time recently, based upon the state of disrepair, but neither did it appear to have been entirely abandoned. There were plenty of fresh tyre tracks in the soil, bright and clear layers of graffiti on the buildings that had yet to be dulled by the dust and winds of the open desert, as well as the discarded containers of what had to be a significant percent of all the beer purchased in both Flagstaff and Winslow. What could only be bullet holes also decorated some of the walls of the abandoned building, which gave Phillip further pause at the idea of spending the night in this particular location. As before, though, Cynthia seemed to be both inside of his head, and a step or two beyond his reservations.
“There seems to be some old stone structure up there,” she pointed at the highest visible point atop of the canyon wall that dropped down below where they stood. Phillip could see the roofless remains of what could have once been a very small house. “Let’s stash the rental in some shade, walk back, and we’ll stay up there tonight.”
“This place looks like a regular destination for drunks with firearms,” Phillip said, striving for reason in his voice, rather than cowardice. “Perhaps . . .”
“Just adds to the adventure,” she countered. “Besides, we’ll be able to see them coming, and we’ll have the high ground.”
“You underestimate their power,” Phillip gave his best Anakin impression, and Cynthia ignored it.
“If we can’t just drop some rocks on them,” she said, as if this were completely reasonable. “Then we can just run away and sneak back to the car.”
“You’ve never actually seen a horror movie, have you?”
“Loads of ’em,” she turned back to the window to look up at the cliffside appraisingly. “The difference is that I can separate fiction from reality.”
Phillip recognized the tone and knew that he had come to a crossroads. He could insist on going somewhere else, he might even be able to convince her that his line of thinking was logical, reasonable, and correct, but would still lose this argument. Wherever else they went, for the remainder of the trip, he would essentially be going alone, because she would be lost in contemplation of what might have been. What they could have seen.
The road not taken.
In response, he put the car in gear and followed a less-beaten path past the decomposing former campground, and then on what appeared to be another path that would take them in the general direction of their destination for the evening. Though it certainly wasn’t a leveled road, the rental vehicle was able to manage most of the ups and downs without complaint. However, it was not designed, equipped, or at all intended for off-road driving. After the second large rock smacked threateningly against the undercarriage, Phillip decided it would be best to find a place to park and make the rest of their journey on foot. He found a sprawling, low-canopied tree that would offer some shade and cover, while also giving them a landmark to look for on their return. Fetching some white reflective tape from his bag, he wrapped the end of a stick and then climbed to the highest limb that would support him and secured the stick to an outer branch so that the reflective tape would be visible above the canopy. He didn’t think he would have too much trouble spotting their landmark during the day, but this would help ensure that he would also be able to find his way back at night, should it become necessary.
Unlike their colonial cousins, Phillip and Cynthia had all of their essential items carefully stowed into two aluminium-framed hiking packs, so they were out of the car and on their way to the canyon wall in minutes. As they walked -- while picking vicious little burrs that resembled the horned head of Satan from their socks, slapping at fire ants that managed to make their way to actual skin, and wincing at countless small scratches given by just about every desiccated bit of foliage around them -- they discussed the best routes to climb the rockface. However, as they got closer they discovered that such planning, much like the hike itself, was entirely unnecessary.
There was also, visible now from this higher vantage point, another dirt road that ran parallel to the paved highway which led to more stone ruins and, Phillip winced to see, ample parking space and a foot trail that led to where they now stood.
“Tomorrow,” Cynthia said, reading his thoughts from his face. “If we decide to stay another night.”
At least an hour of daylight remained after they set up their tent and readied their gear for the night ahead. Cynthia had been thrilled to find that the stone structure at the top of the bluff, was actually two levels. The bottom was covered in graffiti but fairly clear of broken glass. The second level, though without a roof, still had three of its four walls standing and enough open space inside for them to erect their tent.
Phillip’s eyes followed the road due east and he was fairly certain that the slight rise he saw was the edge of the crater, but it could be a mesa between them and the impact site. Still, if any spacecraft were to approach the crater, they would have a clear view from this vantage point.
It was commonly agreed by many, at least those that joined in the debates on the Visitor discussion boards frequented by both Cynthia and Phillip, that, like terrestrial pilots, Visitor pilots would use landmarks visible from the air for navigation once they were in the atmosphere. A long-standing debate about the Grand Canyon being the more easily identified landmark from the air, thus the most likely reference for navigation, had been dismissed by most of the terrestrial pilots that voiced an opinion. The Grand Canyon was too big. Too long and meandering anyway, to be used as a starting point of reference. True, anyone could find it from the air, but they could be at any point along its nearly five hundred kilometer length and still technically be in the “right” spot. Most believed that, just like their Earthbound counterparts, Visitor pilots would follow the roads for their directions, provided that they found the right starting point. Thus, mountain peaks, large monuments, and, of course, craters would make the most reasonable starting points.
The Barringer crater, known as the “best preserved” impact crater in the world, was situated on a major road, the US Interstate 40, which could be followed to either coast. It was in the middle of mostly unoccupied desert, thus made the most logical starting point in the United States.
Why the U.S.? The answer to that was what chased them away from the crater in the first place: Americans. In most other countries, the majority of people, if faced with travelling long distances, would take a train, bus, boat, airplane, or any other form of mass transportation. Not in America, though. The idea of putting a family of four into a vehicle large enough to fit forty, and using enough fuel to transport eighty, just to go to visit the world’s largest ball of twine, or the very first Wal-Mart, was not only considered a reasonable thing to do, it was done on a blindingly massive scale. It did bugger-all for the environment, but it provided numerous opportunities to find a small group of people, isolated from the herd on some desolate, lonely highway. This, Cynthia argued, was why so many of the abductions occurred in the United States. Phillip had given up pointing out that the United States had the most abduction claims.
He did agree, though, that as a point of navigation the crater certainly made for a good start.
At ground level, Phillip set up a small butane stove and set his newly acquired travel kettle to boil. Cynthia, remaining above, busied herself with arranging several small cameras to record the horizons in all four directions, taking advantage of their fortunate find by placing them on the four roofless corners of the stone walls that surrounded them. To each of the horizontal cameras, she added a vertical shot, so that, should a sighting occur, they would be certain in their ability to track the moment of arrival, directionality of the visiting craft, and egress. When the water was ready he called her down, and fixed them each a cup of noodles, and paired it with tins of anchovies in curry paste for a bit of flavour. They sat on folding nylon sling chairs, stools really, as these had no backs or arm rests, and watched the final light of sunset blaze orange and red to their left, while the darkness of eternity stole over them from the right.
Despite the fact that the majority of the day had been spent sitting passively in the car, they both fell upon the food with the minimum ceremony of the truly ravenous. Phillip recalled how Cynthia had scrunched up her nose when he had first added a few tins of the malodorous little fish to their weekly trip to the market. Yesterday, though, she had surprised him when she complained about the sparse selection in the Phoenix supermarket, insisting they make another stop at a gourmet delicatessen so they could, as she put it, get the good ones. Now, he watched as she, noodles apparently forgotten, sought out the little slivers of fish, speared them with her fork, and shoveled them, with unabashed delight, into her waiting mouth.
Anchovies aside, earlier in the day she had even pretended not to notice him sneaking a sack of chocolate covered biscuits into the basket, a selection that had always earned him a roll of the eyes and an admonishment that he would soon have a belly like a gorilla. Stateside, Cynthia seemed to be a lady of a less refined palate. Of course, this was their first real holiday in the five years that they had been together, the odd dirty weekend being the exception, so perhaps setting diet aside and indulging in a bit of hedonistic rubbish was to be expected.
They sat and ate together, both scanning the darkening sky and calling out stars and constellations as they appeared. Cynthia surprised him further by finishing not only her own tin of fish, her noodles, and then the remaining half of his own as well.
Phillip, pretending to have been done with them anyway, focused his attention instead to digging out a small fire pit, lining the rim with stones, and then gathering dried brush and sticks, of which there was ample supply around them, but all of which felt delicate and empty so it was likely to burn terribly fast. Still, it was nice to have a bit of light and heat now that the sun was completely gone.
“Alright, now, where are they?” she demanded.
“I think it’s still a bit too early to spot them, love,” Phillip said, scanning the heavens once more.
“No,” she shook her head dismissively. “They’ll be along soon enough. Where are those chocolate covered marshmallow monstrosities? I know you brought them. Now, bring them out to share with the rest of the class.”
“Really?” Phillip was no longer able to disguise his amazement. “I have to say, holiday Cynthia is a bit more naughty than I expected. Perhaps I should drag you halfway ’round the world to sleep rough in a desert more often.”
“Perhaps you should,” she said with feigned indignancy. “Right, then, off you go. Bring me chocolate.”
Phillip welcomed the excuse to return to the tent alone to dig through his bag without Cynthia looking over his shoulder. He pulled out the bag of Fudge Mountain Sliders, once again horrifically enthralled at the tackiness of the name, and then set them aside. He dug further into his rucksack, and pulled out a pair of black socks rolled into a tight ball. If Cynthia had asked why he had packed dress socks for a trip to the wilds of southwestern America, he would have told her that a proper Englishman was ever prepared for a formal occasion, and that he had even pressed his birthday suit so that it could be worn at a moment’s notice.
Unrolling the fine knit black fabric, his true reason for their inclusion tumbled free into his waiting palm. A small black jeweler’s box which held the ring that he had commissioned.
His first encounter with something not of this world occurred when, at the age of seven, he had been fortunate enough to watch the impact of a small iron meteorite, which he had recovered and kept. It had been under the pretext of viewing this gift from the cosmos that had first lured Cynthia back to his flat, and she had sometimes joked that their relationship was just a long-con for her to steal it from him.
He’d had it cut and polished into matching rings, his own secured back in their flat, while hers resided in the box now resting in his slightly shaking palm. He had hoped to be at the bottom of the crater when he presented it to her, had a whole little speech worked out about celestial bodies, laws of attraction, and of course the changes wrought when two bodies collide and forever intertwine. Chances were good tonight though that they would see at least one meteor on its descent to Earth. When that happened, he would be ready.
“Get lost did you, darling?” Cynthia’s voice called up from below. Phillip quickly concealed the box in one baggy pocket of his short hiking pants and snatched up the bag of Sliders.
“Only been gone a moment, haven’t I?” he returned as he climbed down from their viewing perch. “Has it been longer? Perhaps I am missing time? Have I been abducted?”
“Ah, from your lips to God’s ears, my love. Gimme.” She held her hands out for the bag, which he gladly handed over, grateful for the distraction. Cynthia ripped the bag open in a manner that was less than dainty then helped herself to half a dozen of the confections which the package promised to be “a chocolate explosion in every bite.” Phillip snagged a couple for himself, and then tossed the remainder up top, hopefully toward his bag, after he had decided that he didn’t actually want more.
He was nervous enough without the added sugar to make his hands shake.
Besides, the zipper had snagged on the nylon as he tried to secure the door of the tent. He’d fumbled with it for a few moments, before deciding to simply let it flap in the breeze for a while. He would climb back up shortly to put away the sweets and free the snag.
There were no mosquitoes out here in the desert, and the tent was still holding the trapped heat of the day from when he had set it up. Perhaps leaving the door open would let it cool off more easily, but he doubted it would make much of a difference.
They were, after all, in the desert, and one did not camp in the desert with the expectations of climate controlled comfort.
“I think I rather like Holiday Cynthia,” he mentioned casually as he rejoined her.
“Oh?” She asked, licking the melty chocolate from the palm of her hand. “And why is that?”
“Well, for one,” Phillip tried a bit of one of the Fudge Mountain Sliders and was instantly appalled. It was just sugar. Not a really sweet chocolate or an overly sweet cookie below it, but a nearly identical flavour of pure sugar layered in varying consistencies. A bland saccharine sweetness, without any of the rich, savory, bitter-laced wonder that was real chocolate. How could something be so flavourless and yet so sweet at the same time? What could possibly have been done to chocolate to suck out its essence, but leave just a candy coating shell of its soul? “Holiday Cynthia seems to have developed a love of junk food that makes my own seem like a first crush in comparison.”
Even in the firelight, Phillip could see the flush rise to Cynthia’s cheeks, but it did not seem to detract from her enjoyment of their dessert, nor slow her consumption of it in the least.
“Funniest thing,” she said around a mouthful. “Everything that I normally despise has, as of late, just seemed to taste better.”
“Gonna have a belly like a gorilla on you,” Phillip teased.
Cynthia’s flush turned pale as the moonlight.
“What the shit, Phillip? How could? I mean, wh . . .” she attempted to regain her composure. “Are you taking the piss?”
A follow up description, of how hairy and rotund a belly it would be, had already died on his lips when he saw the fear and hurt that was in her eyes. She seemed to be imploring him, with the merest furoughing of her brow, to take back every word that had just left his lips, as if he had told her that he never wanted to see her again rather than simply echoing back, in a playful manner, her own words.
“‘Course I am, Cyn,” Phillip said, concerned and a bit confused by her reaction. “It’s just what you say to me whenever I try to buy this rubbish. Are you alright?”
“Oh, yes,” she managed. “I’m fine. Of course. I do say that from time to time, I suppose.”
“Well, yes, if by ‘from time to time’ you mean. . . Ouch!”
Phillip felt a sharp stabbing pain in his ankle. He was horrified to find, when he looked down, a scorpion was viciously pinching the skin just above the bulge of his ankle bone, and apparently attempting to strike him with its tail. Or rather, strike him again, it would appear. Phillip now noticed a drop of blood had welled into a sphere from where the barbed tail had penetrated a moment ago. Phillip stomped his foot, like a toddler throwing a fit, until the horrifying creature dropped free. He stepped again and he crushed it under his heel.
“My god, was that . . .” Cynthia rose from her seat as if propelled and frantically brushed her hands in sweeping motions down her arms, legs, and everywhere else she could reach on her body.
“Are there any on me?” she shrieked, but spun far too fast for Phillip to have any chance to see if there were or not. Cynthia had never been prone to panic before, and Philip found, a little guiltily, that he had finally discovered a phobia of hers to stack up against the several of his own, including an irrational hatred of uncooked eggs (even in the shell) and his inability to speak, unless directly addressed, in any group larger than six people. He made a mental note to stock up on some scorpion gear, perhaps at the airport gift shop, before they left this sun baked corner of the world.
“For fuck’s sake, Phillip,” she shrieked, “are there any on me?”
“No, Cyn,” he tried to be calm and convincing. “Slow down a bit, though, let me have a look to be sure, but no, I don’t see any on you.”
With what was obviously a Herculean effort, Cynthia forced herself to stop swatting randomly at her body, and held her arms out away from her body, hands balled into fists, and looked at him with pleading eyes. “Please check.”
Dutifully, Phillip ran his hands over her back, over her bottom, and down the backs of her thighs. Then, he proceeded to do the same down her sides and front.
“You’re free and clear, my dear,” Phillip assured her, and was again shocked at seeing tears preparing to fall, and hearing Cynthia’s breaths come in small, hitching gusts.
“I-I-I’m s-sorry,” she managed. “I don’t know what has come over me. I feel so terrible, thinking only of myself like that, it’s just that I, that is, I just couldn’t think of anything else until I knew that I wouldn’t be stung. I know that is rotten of me, but I just couldn’t. Were you stung? Can you walk? There must be a hospital in Flagstaff, and. . .”
“Cyn,” Phillip reached for her hand. “I’m fine. It feels like a bee sting, that’s all. I remember reading that most scorpion stings are not deadly to humans, and that was just a little one.”
“Still, we should. . .”
“Let’s give it half an hour,” he said, feeling the box in his pocket against his leg. “By then, it will either be getting better, or it will start looking red and troublesome. Either way, we’ll know what we need to do.”
“But, there could be more of them,” Cynthia was looking suspiciously around their camp site.
“There probably are,” he said, and heard her gasp. “At least here near the fire we can see them coming, and we can always get into the tent.”
“But. . .”
“If they are up here on the rocks, then they are in the scrub as well,” Phillip reasoned. “We’ll have to go back through a lot of scrub, with just our flashlights, to get to the car. Maybe, they. . .”
He broke off and thrust his left hand into his pocket. A moment later, he was entering a search into the browser on his phone.
“Let’s find out for sure,” he reasoned.
The loading bar moved much slower than normal, processing the request from his mobile data rather than the Wi-Fi, which he normally took for granted, and he tried to remember a time in his life prior to now that any requested knowledge had not been delivered at his demand within seconds. For some reason, that humbled him in a way that the vast panorama of space above him had failed to do.
“Okay,” he said after tapping on one of the results. “It says here that there are three common types of scorpion in Arizona: the hairy scorpion, the striped tail scorpion, and the bark scorpion. From what I could see of it, that was a bark scorpion. It says here that they are nocturnal, that they, um, ah, okay, that they are the only one of the three that can be considered dangerous to humans or pets.”
“I knew it,” Cynthia moaned.
“But, only for the very young, very old, or have those who have other underlying health conditions,” Phillip quickly continued. “And, I don’t fall into any of those categories.”
Cynthia said nothing, but continued to scan the ground around her in nervous, furtive glances.
Phillip quickly read through the rest of the article. What he found helped to assure him that he would be okay, but made him more concerned for Cynthia’s state of mind. While the article tried to downplay the danger, it did go on to say that the bark scorpion was the most dangerous because it liked to climb on walls and trees -- chairs and tents, he would assume -- and that although it didn’t like light, it was attracted to sources of heat, including body heat. Their light coloring also allowed them to blend in with the rocks, trees and even the loose soil of the desert, making them the hardest to spot and thus the hardest to avoid.
The bark scorpion was apparently the only known species of scorpion that would coexist in groups. So the chances were good that there were more of them around here. Apparently, he was unable to keep this newfound knowledge from registering on his face.
“What have you found?” Cynthia asked, her fear poorly masked with a tone of curiosity.
“Well, good news and bad news,” Phillip began but a slight movement caught his eye and the words turned to dust in his mouth.
He slapped Cynthia.
To be more precise, he slapped at the side of her head, with his left hand, and smashed the nearly translucent palm-sized demon that was slowly, but resolutely, crawling toward her face.
“What the fuck?” she shrieked, her voice equal parts fury and hurt. In her eyes, he could see her confusion. He had never struck her before. Phillip was not a violent or aggressive man, by nature, and she did not yet understand that this act was not an act of anger but one of love.
Phillip held up his open palm, not as a threat, but as an answer. Bits of exoskeleton, a few legs, and the barbed tail, plunged into his palm, were better defense for his actions than any words could be.
“Oh God,” she moaned again. “Oh God, Phillip, that’s twice. Now, we really have to get you to a hospital.”
The sting in his leg now felt numb, along with most of his ankle, but he did not feel nauseous or foggy. Still, he had to admit that she was probably right. He thought again of the box in the pocket of his shorts, of the months of planning that had gone into this trip, and figured that Burns, crusty old Scot that he was, had been right about the plans of mice and men.
“Please, Phillip, we need to go. I don’t want. . .no, I can’t get stung.”
The awkward phrasing, as much as desperation beginning to seep into her voice, gave him pause. He let himself see her as she truly was at this moment, as if meeting her again for the first time, without the filters of preconceptions built on their shared history. She appeared younger than he knew her to be, but it was her body language that made her so. Her shoulders were hunched, and arms drawn in about her in a protective self-embrace, and she shook—trembled, really—all over, as if a low current was slowly electrocuting her.
“This isn’t like you, Cyn,” Phillip said gently. “What aren’t you telling me?”
She opened her mouth slightly, met his eyes briefly, and then closed it once more and looked away.
“This isn’t” she said quietly, “at all like how I thought this would go.”
His mind immediately leapt to the ring in his pocket, and he started to think of all the opportunities that she must have had to discover it among his belongings during the course of the trip. She may have even found it before they had left London, having gone through both their bags several times to edit out items that might put them over the weight limit for the flight and incur the financial wrath of the airline checking attendant. He felt a wry smile overtake his lips, and found that he felt more relieved than disappointed. How could he have ever expected to pull the wool over the eyes of a woman like Cynthia, who was far more clever than him even on her slowest day, and whose heart was so kind that he never once felt less than her because of it.
Of course she had found the ring, and had said nothing so as not to steal the surprise from him. If not for this sudden discovery of a deep and passionate fear of scorpions, she likely would have been content to continue to wait for him to pop the question when he felt ready to do so. This additional strain, though, was just far too much to endure, and to drag this out any longer would be nothing short of cruel.
“This wasn’t quite what I had in mind, either, darling,” Phillip said, dropping to one knee while fishing the box from his pocket in a move that he had practiced countless times when he knew that he had the flat to himself. “But, I am fairly sure that this will be a story that we’ll never forget.”
He opened the box with a well-rehearsed flourish, and finished with, “Will you be my wife?”
“Oh, Phillip,” Cynthia’s voice trembled, and tears brimmed her eyes, but did not yet drop. “No. Oh God, no!”
Phillip felt his heart drop into his stomach, and for a moment he felt certain that he would repay her rejection by vomiting anchovies and noodles all over her dust-coated hiking boots.
“Fucking little twat!” she screamed, and strode forward, it appeared, with the intent to strike him for his clumsy profession of his undying love.
Phillip stammered, struggled to ask her why, but realized that he had completely misread her response when he felt the sharp sting on his calf that lay parallel to the ground where he still knelt. He didn’t need to look to understand that while he had not just been rejected by the woman that he loved, which was nice, but he had instead just been stung for a third time in under thirty minutes. Oddly, if asked, he would have been able to say, with full and complete honesty, that he felt more relief than fear.
Cynthia brought her heel down hard on the bug, catching a good chunk of his calf muscle as well, but he really had little ground to complain, having delivered a pimp slap to her just minutes ago with the same helpful, if unintentionally painful, intent.
“Call 911,” Cynthia stated in the overly calm voice of a person in shock. “We’re in the States, and when you have an emergency, you call 911. We’ve seen it done in enough movies, and if this doesn’t constitute an emergency, then I’ll gladly present my wrists to be cuffed, so long as they stop at a hospital on the way to drop you off at the emergency room.”
“Cyn. . .”
“Call 911,” she said and added, almost as an afterthought, “I am not going to end the story of how I became engaged with ‘and then he died from scorpion venom.’”
He realized that he was still kneeling when he had to look up to see if she was being serious. Clean bright ribbons of skin stretched down her cheeks, rinsed clean by the tears that had finally spilled free, they made her milky skin flush in the diminishing light of the embering fire. The corners of her mouth rose slightly to frame a coy smile.
“I guess my yes was about as graceful as your proposal,” she sniffed once and then offered a small laugh. “But, yes, Phillip, my answer is yes. Of course, yes.”
She was in his arms, their lips together, pulling each other closer and tighter, before he was even aware that he had regained his feet. After a moment that felt like it would never be long enough, he held her gently away and fumbled the ring from the box. For a moment, he was certain that he would drop it and watch it bounce and roll into the desert brush, and would find it encircling a scorpion’s tail, like some kind of ring-toss in hell. Instead, he slipped it easily onto her proffered finger.
She splayed her fingers and enjoyed a moment looking at the new adornment, as it is nearly impossible to do anything else when a person puts on a ring for the first time, and then pulled him in close for another kiss.
“Now,” she said after delivering a kiss that curled his toes, her forehead still resting gently against his own, “please call 911, and get us the hell out of here.”
“As you wish,” Phillip responded in his best Cary Elwes voice, which was to say, one of the world’s worst actor impersonations ever.
When he unlocked the screen of his phone once more, the browser was still open displaying results of his earlier search. He swiped his thumb over the screen to make the icons at the bottom appear, the icon of the old-fashioned telephone handset sat in the bottom right, but he hesitated. Instead he tapped his thumb on an advertising link just above the icon that would bring him in touch with the American emergency services.
“What are you doing?” Cynthia asked. “Make the call!”
“It will take them at least thirty minutes to get here,” Phillip reasoned. “A minute more won’t make much of a difference in that, but this might help us to not get stung while we wait.”
Cynthia glanced at the screen, and made no attempt to hide the disbelief on her face.
“An app? You’re downloading an app to keep us safe?”
Instead of responding, Phillip watched the progress bar creep slowly from left to right, and then, when it had filled completely, tapped the pop up button that gave the app permission to install itself on his phone. It only took a few seconds, as it was a very simple program.
The screen of the phone went dark for a moment, and then suddenly Cynthia’s teeth seemed to illuminate from within, as did the sclera of her eyes. From her look of surprise, Phillip was certain that he too appeared to have suddenly been filled with a kind of bioluminescence.
“Phillip, what the hell!”
By way of answering, Phillip turned the phone outward and toward the ground surrounding them. He slowly began to pivot in a circle, his arm outstretched with the phone gripped tightly in his fingers, a talisman to banish the evil that surrounded them. A bright spot appeared an arms-length from where they stood. Phillip, still holding Cynthia with one arm, and with both of hers wrapped tightly around his chest, took a step toward the glowing spot, and followed his lead. As they got closer, the glowing blur became larger and more defined, its pincers, legs, and barbed sting shimmered ghostly pale blue. As they watched, a second crept within range, appearing out of the darkness and then retreating back into the oblivion.
“Jesus,” Cynthia whispered.
“Scorpions apparently glow under a blacklight,” Phillip explained.
“So, you . . .” Cynthia shook her head in disbelief.
“Downloaded a blacklight app,” Phillip finished, unable to keep the pride from his voice.
“You are such a fucking nerd,” Cynthia chided. “And, I absolutely love you for it. Do you think.”
Her words stopped short as they continued to turn and shine the ultraviolet light at their immediate surroundings. She pressed her face against his chest, and began to quietly sob, her tears warm against his chest.
Ghostly blue spots appeared in the dozens around them. Some, within a meter of each other, glowed brightly, with clearly defined legs and tails, but at the edge of the light’s glow more dim shapes scuttled around. God knew how many more remained hidden in the darkness just beyond the reach of the light from the phone. From the brief information that he read, he could guess that it was the warmth of the fire that had drawn them in closer, but that was not what it felt like. It felt like they had been surrounded with malicious intent. They had stumbled into a forbidden place, and an army had risen up from the earth to punish them for their transgression.
“Let’s go get in the tent,” Phillip said, forcing his voice to remain even and calm. “We’ll call 911, and we’ll wait in the tent until they get here.”
Cynthia nodded against his chest, and he boosted her up toward the small nylon dome that would shelter and protect them from the spectral horde that had them surrounded.
At the tent, the dim purplish light from his phone seemed to make the open doorway appear darker than the night around them. He remembered now the snagged zipper, and his foolish thought that leaving the door unsecured might allow the tent to cool more quickly, while he had glibly concluded that they didn’t have any mosquitoes to contend with. True, the night was blessedly mosquito free, but leaving the tent unsecured no longer seemed like such a bright idea.
“What’s wrong?” Cynthia asked.
Phillip tried several beginnings in his head, and then decided to press forward with the truth. “I left the tent open. The zipper snagged earlier, and I didn’t fix it, and I left the damned thing open this whole time.”
Cynthia moaned softly against him.
“I’m sorry, Cyn,” was all he could think to say. “It may still be clear . . .”
“Don’t!” she nearly shrieked. “Don’t leave me alone.”
“You could come with me, and. . .”
“I cannot get stung, Phillip.”
“Well, it’s not fun,” he tried for an easy tone. “But, look, it’s not deadly, right?”
“I cannot get
“EVERY TIME they hear that oom-pah-pah, everybody feels so trah-lah-lah,” Topher sang quietly, and danced the dolly around to his right so that he could pull it, rather than push it over the first railroad track. Piles of asphalt had been dumped and then rolled flat on either side of the track, just wide enough for a maintenance vehicle to cross the tracks without shaking all the fillings from the teeth of the driver.
“They want to throw their cares away, they want to go lah-de-ah-de-ay.”
After pulling the heavy cart from the back of the Shit Heap, and checking for traffic on both the road and the tracks, Topher had discovered that the other thing that he had kept from the mostly forgotten Oktoberfest were all the lyrics to the Beer Barrel Polka, which must have been played at least two dozen times in the five hours that he was there.
“Roll out the Barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun,” he chuffed as he muscled the dolly, with his own blue barrel of fun strapped to it, over the second of the train track rails. Wishing nothing but blowjobs and backrubs for whatever person that had had the forethought to lay down the piles of asphalt, he ran the barrel down on the far side of the tracks.
Topher prided himself on maintaining his playing weight and muscle tone from his high school days. Not the glamour muscles that so many at the gym tried to attain -- all bulk, and shaped for aesthetics -- but actual knock you down and make you bleed kind of muscle.
Still, a half-a-ton was a half-a-fucking-ton.
Even with the assistance of the handcart, his lower back and thighs were starting to burn.
“Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run. Zing boom tarrerel, ring out a song of good cheer. Roll out the barrel, ’cause the gang’s all here!”
The lights in the homes on either side of the boarded up house were all dark, which likely meant, given the hour, that their occupants were all asleep. Many of the windows had the shades drawn as well, so it was unlikely that he could be seen from those. Others were dark, but not covered and since there were no lights on, there could be some insomniac at any one of a number of windows that Topher would have no way to tell. Each blank dark glass looked like an angry accusing eye, watching his every move, recording his progress to be able to direct the police to his exact location as soon as he stopped moving.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have any better options than this one, so his best best was to just keep moving and hope that everyone on this block had taken a double dose of cough syrup before climbing into bed that night.
He reached the driveway of the boarded house and saw that the front door had been covered in plywood as well, likely to keep out criminals and vagrants like himself. Topher turned the dolly up the driveway and hoped that the back door had been left uncovered and unlocked for access by the inevitable insurance adjusters, contractors, and fire inspectors that would be coming eventually to decide whether to clean up and repair or to tear down and start over again.
He hoped that they wouldn’t be coming by tomorrow.
At the end of the house, facing the driveway, was a small white door that had in fact been left unlocked. Topher tried to drag the cart and barrel up the first step, and found that it was beyond his ability. He checked around the corner of the house for a garage, but instead found a stack of plywood scraps, left over from the four-by-eight sheets that had been cut down to cover the windows and the front door.
Gathering up three leftovers that were both wide enough to accommodate the wheelspan of the dolly, and also long enough to bridge the rise of the steps, Topher cobbled together a makeshift ramp. Backing the barrel up to the far side of the driveway, Topher pushed as hard as he was able, and ran the barrel up the ramp with enough force to hop it over the threshold as well.
He stood in a laundry room, which, it appeared, led into a kitchen.
Topher was surprised to see that the house was still furnished. Pushed against the back wall were a washer and dryer, and in the kitchen sat a table and four chairs. Beyond that, a doorway led into a living room, and even in the dim light Topher could make out the shape of a sofa.
Topher rolled the barrel into the corner of the laundry room, and tucked it in beside the washing machine. The muscles in his lower back twinged and threatened to knot up. Pausing a moment to stretch, and to gently knead the tightened tissues to relieve some of the pressure before he returned the plywood to the rest of the pile, and made sure to close the door to the driveway.
He pulled the little lace curtain aside to survey his view. From the window in the laundry room door, he could see across the neighbor’s backyard on the corner lot, and had a clear view of Alto’s All-Tow the sad looking Shit Heap collapsed in front of it.
The rest of the windows were covered in plywood, so Topher pulled his phone from his pocket and opened a flashlight app, secure in the knowledge that as long as he stayed away from the door to the driveway, the light could not be seen from the outside.
He paused on his way through the kitchen to open a couple of cupboards, which were still stocked with canned goods, boxes of cereal and crackers that had been chewed open by mice, while other cupboards held dingy looking plates and cups.
The refrigerator was still stocked, through it smelled strongly of spoiled milk, as the power had been shut off. However, since the heat had been shut off too, most of the items in the refrigerator were still cold. That included the bottles of beer on the bottom shelf, to which Topher decided to help himself.
He continued on into the living room, and it began to become clear to him why the furniture had been left behind. Despite the cold, the smell of smoke was still strong throughout the house. There had been a large fire, but it had been kept, from what he had seen so far, entirely on the second floor. The fire department had shown up and had done what they did best, which was to put out the fire by putting lots and lots of water onto it. The water had then done what it did best, which was to flow back down to the ground.
Everything on the first floor had been soaked. When springtime eventually came around, all of the furniture, the carpet, the drywall, the subfloor, everything would thaw out become a breeding ground for mold.
However, in the meantime, everything was frozen solid.
He noted that pictures had been removed from the walls, the darker squares and rectangles of paint that had not been faded by the sun remained where the frames had previously been. He hoped that meant that everyone who had lived here was able to get out safely. At least he could be sure that someone had; he doubted very much that the firefighters had taken down the photos.
He swung the light around the room and saw that end tables and shelves also had obvious blank spaces where items had been removed, but not everything had been cleared. There were some old magazines on the coffee table, and junk mail piled on the floor near a keystand by the front door. They had only taken the items of sentimental importance or, he assumed, monetary value.
The carpet crunched like dry snow under his feet. Topher laid a hand on the sofa cushion, and it didn’t give at all. If felt like a dish sponge that had been filled to saturation and then put in the freezer, which in a way was exactly what had happened.
Topher played the light across the ceiling, and saw places where the drywall had sagged under the weight of the water, and others where it had collapsed entirely, leaving a hole to view into the room above. He couldn’t see much given the strength of his light source, but Topher could see enough to know that he didn’t want to try to venture upstairs. It looked pretty well destroyed, and he didn’t want to press his luck by putting his weight on what might end up collapsing beneath him.
He turned back to the relative warmth and safety of the kitchen. There was no carpeting or padded furniture there, so the water had flowed down to lower points without soaking in. He didn’t know if the house had a basement or not, but he was cautious of soft spots in the floor as he walked. He didn’t want to get dropped down onto a solid sheet of ice on top of concrete. If he broke his legs or his back, he would likely die of exposure before anyone found him.
He finished his beer, and set it next to the sink, where he also paused to take a quick piss, rather than adventure off to try to find the bathroom. He was cautious not to let his dick touch the cold porcelain, thinking of the wintertime horror stories about tongues and flagpoles.
Finally, he ended up back in the laundry room to see if he could learn a little more about just what in the ever loving fuck he had stolen.
The top of the barrel had no markings on it, and Topher could not remember seeing any labels on the outward facing side of the barrel. So, if there was any label on it at all, it must be on the side that was facing the dolly when the barrel was strapped in place.
Topher had wedged the dolly pretty tightly between the washer and the corner wall of the laundry room, so now he had very little space to maneuver the dolly back out again. Not trusting his back to support the weight, and having some real concern now of having done some permanent damage, like having slipped a disc or something, Topher did not tilt the dolly back toward himself to roll it from the corner.
Instead, he opted to tilt the dolly about an inch to the side, rocking the barrel to the right and then yanked on the left handle. The left side moved back about an inch before the front corner of the dolly struck the wall. So, he tilted left as far as he could go, again about an inch, and then yanked the right handle. The dolly pivoted this time on its left side, and the right side came about two inches forward before the front corner of the dolly struck the washing machine and stopped. He repeated the process several times, alternating sides each time, and was able to duck walk the dolly, with barrel attached, back out of the corner.
By the time he was finished, he had worked up a bit of a sweat again, and knew that he should try to avoid that as much as possible. The sweat would cool his body further, that was its job after all, and he was already beginning to shiver. He had been protected from the cold by the more than adequate heater in the Shit Heap, and had even been roasted a little as the transmission started to overheat before it gave up entirely. Even after it had died, the lingering heat of the engine and the transmission had kept the cab of the truck warm during the tow ride back.
However, now that he had been out of the truck for a while, he was starting to feel the cold. With the wind chill, outside the temperature had to be near or below zero. Inside, it was a little better, but the frozen couch proved that the temperature was still somewhere below thirty-two degrees fahrenheit. If the power was off, then the gas was likely off as well, so there would be no turning on the heat in his borrowed home. He couldn’t light a fire either, because the smoke would alert the neighbors to his presence, and given the previous fire and how close the homes are to each other, they would be on the phone to 911 immediately.
Sooner rather than later, Topher would either have to sneak back out, hopefully before any early rising neighbors, and seek better shelter, or he would need to search the house for any blankets or sleeping bags that had been left behind, and hopefully spared a soaking from the fire hose.
First though, he needed to satisfy his curiosity, and, if he was being completely honest, to feed his greed.
The straps were held in place by two quick-release clamps on the right rear side of the dolly. Topher lifted the release bar on each one, and then tilted the dolly slightly to let the weight of the barrel pull the slack of the straps through the clamps. The barrel tilted forward about two inches, pulling away from the dolly, and pulling the slack of the straps along with it. Topher tried to shine the light from his phone into the gap between the barrel and the dolly, and was rewarded with a glimpse of a plastic shipping envelope affixed to the side of the barrel, and a folded piece of paper inside.
Topher set the phone on the washer, maintaining the tilt of the dolly and the gap that it created with his left hand, and tucked his newly freed right hand into the space between to retrieve the document. It slid free from the plastic fairly easily, and after pulling his hand back out, Topher gently released the dolly and then regained his phone.
Most of what the paper said was absolute gibberish to him. There were long numbers preceded by short lettered codes. There were chemical formulas and symbols that he recognized from high school, but could no longer remember the meanings of. He recognized that the big C with the number down and to the right was Carbon, and the big H was hydrogen, but he knew that the numbers made them something different than just Carbon and Hydrogen. There was also NO in the formula, and he knew that NO2 was nitrous oxide, he had done enough whippets in high school to remember that one, but this was NO4. Nearby in all of the information that he did not understand was a chemical name: Benzoylmethylecgonine.
Topher opened the browser on his phone once again, and then decided to open a new anonymous proxy to run the search. A little extra caution couldn’t hurt.
He had no idea how to type in a subscript number on his phone’s virtual keyboard, and he didn’t want to search for it, so he just typed in the numbers and letters in all caps, and then painstakingly copied the long and confusing name as well and hit enter.
The result came up almost immediately, with 34,600 results.
That couldn’t be right.
Topher cleared the search bar and typed everything in again. This time he did take the time to find the subscript in the special characters screen of the phone.
The result came up almost immediately: 46,000 results, which all said the same thing.
N17H21NO4 Benzoylmethylecgonine was cocaine.
He had stolen a barrel full of cocaine.