Henry beat the dirt with his stick long after the snake had disappeared into the rocks.
Eventually he let the business end of the stick sag to the ground. He was shaking. His heart bounded so hard he was seeing spots.
“Grief,” he whispered as he surveyed the two-track, “I thought they were kidding.” He pushed a hand across his brow and looked at his glistening palm. Sweat again? What the fuck is this? He never sweated! Never!
After a final check for the snake, he started moving forward again. He twisted the stick in his hand as he walked. His scrotum was ratcheted tighter than a drum. Snakes! What the hell was he thinking? He should’ve stayed in the lousy van where all he’d have to worry about was an occasional unsolicited visit by bad memories, and a well-deserved dollop of guilt and self-loathing.
To make things worse, he’d lost track of time while hiking the Santa Fe Trail here. Seemed like hours. How long did it take to walk a mile, anyway? Twenty minutes, maybe? What was it on the treadmill? He had no idea. He never walked it, he always ran. He considered turning back, but what if they were only a few minutes ahead of him? Surely, it’d be safer to all walk back together. This place had to be a Dante’s Inferno of snakes and coyotes and scorpions and God knows what other hordes of miserable creatures calling the desert home.
Zoe had always wanted him to take her camping, but he would never agree to it. He hated the wilderness, and anyplace that didn’t have curbs and parking meters was the wilderness. The closest he’d ever come to camping was sleeping on a futon in a screened-in back porch next to the family swimming pool as a kid. And even then, he had two flashlights, a bat, a couple pocketknives, a whistle, and three friends backing him up.
Now he was alone in a snake-infested wilderness with nothing but a purple towel, a pair of oversized orange flip-flops, and a skinny stick to defend himself with. Zoe would’ve had a good laugh at this.
That thought stopped him in his tracks.
He stared down at the dirty path. It felt like the fight had just been kicked out of him. Why did he keep doing that? Why did he continue to sabotage himself so? He had to get her out of his head. He hadn’t even loved her for a good year before the murder. Surely, he’d paid his dues by now, hadn’t he? How long was this sentence going to last? Man, he so needed a drink!
He willed himself back into the walk, and he once again wondered how the hell he ended up here in the American desert. What was he thinking? Magnum Opus? Epic Outing? Bullshit! This was a one star comedy. Maybe Mrs. Pena was right. Maybe he did need AA. Maybe he needed counseling. Maybe he needed to be bloody committed!
Henry froze at the sound of his name. Three syllables. It was Alice. He hoped she hadn’t heard him scream.
“Henry, what are you doing?”
Then he spotted her. Walking toward him down the dusty two-track. She was barefoot and wrapped in a towel patterned with fluorescent blue, orange, and pink flowers that nearly matched her hair. She looked like she’d just stepped out of the shower.
“Hey,” she called to him.
“Hey,” he called back. He had no enthusiasm for this.
As she walked up, she gave him a poorly disguised once-over. “Your clothes look even worse in daylight.”
He glanced down at himself. “Thanks.”
“No worries. We can fix them up. That’s our specialty, you know.”
“Fix them? Thought I was looking fairly dapper, actually.”
“What’s with the stick?”
Henry tossed it to the side. He felt himself blush. “Nothing,” he said quickly, “Whacking grass, I guess. That’s all.”
“Whacking grass?” She looked around. “What grass?”
Henry just watched her, praying she wouldn’t push it.
“I thought I heard you yell,” she said.
“Me? No. Just walking.” She was absolutely going to push it.
“You’re a bad liar.”
“No problem. I’m hopelessly observant that way. You’ll find there’s not much you can hide from me.”
“Why do I find that a little worrisome?” Her eyes were so green they seemed otherworldly. He had trouble breaking away from them.
“Are you all right?” she asked from narrowing eyes, “Because you don’t look so all right.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, shooting his gaze off into the dusty hills, “I am. You’re just… I mean, it’s your eyes.”
“Yeah, they’re a little intense,” he said, still studying the horizon, “I mean, it’s good. You’ve got good eyes.” He kicked himself as the words faded to silence. Smooth one, Henry. Man, you are some kind of idiot!
“My eyes are good?” she said, “Yeah… I do hope that’s a compliment, because it’s not really clear from over here.”
He felt himself blush. Again! It was a sensation he was quickly getting tired of. That and sweating.
“Sorry,” he said, glancing over at her, “I mean… your eyes are, you know, interesting, that’s all.”
“Interesting,” she said with a little laugh, “That compliment is interesting.”
“Never mind,” he said quickly, “Forget it, already. Sorry I said anything.”
She didn’t reply to that, but only watched him. He could feel the heat of her eyes against his face as intensely as if he were standing before a blast furnace.
“Sorry,” he said in recovery, “It’s nothing. I’m just… I’m prone to saying what I’m thinking. I’ve been told my filters need cleaning, you know? I speak without considering the possible outcomes. Obviously, it doesn’t always work out. Especially when I’m around assholes and stupid people.”
She laughed at that, and the sound landed like a reprieve. He could breathe again.
“I know precisely what you mean,” she said, “In fact, I’ve self-banished myself from all casinos for the remainder of my life. I walk in there, and it’s like a buffet of biting observations. I mean… I honestly just cannot resist my urges. Of course, I strive to be discrete, but… well, I’ve been told I can be just a bit loud.”
She flashed another smile that nearly knocked the wind out of him.
“I’m trying to be better,” he said, again forcing his eyes away from her, “It’s not right to make fun of people, or so I’m told. And it’s not like I’m a prize myself. I mean, look at me. Straight off the cover of BQ.”
Her laughter was like music, and that wasn’t anything like a good thing; it meant she had bigger guns than he did. He needed to lock down the compound and double his defenses. He’d shared a total of three paragraphs of conversation with her, and she was already setting fire to the perimeter. A flirtation with a stranger was the absolute last thing he wanted or needed. It would just throw down more speed bumps along the road to self-immolation. He had to be pragmatic. He should not involve himself in something he could never finish.
“You’re staring at me again, Henery.”
He flinched at that. “Sorry,” he snapped, looking over at the sagebrush squatting along the two-track, “Guess I drifted off.”
“It’s fine. Just want to be sure you’re not standing there in a coma.”
He surprised himself by laughing at that. Then he glanced down at her attire, or lack of it. “So, what’s with the towel?” he said, desperate to pull the discussion away from himself, “Seems like peculiar dress for a stroll through the Mojave Desert.”
“Changing the topic, are we? Is that a defensive maneuver?”
He suffered a chill, because that was exactly what it was.
“You know the Mojave Desert is in California, right?” she pressed, “And this is New Mexico?”
“Of course, I know that,” he said carefully, “That was a little thing I like to call sarcasm.”
“Good lord, you are so not boring, are you, Henry? In fact, I think you’re far more complicated than a guy dressed in hangover clothes should be.”
Henry just looked at her. He was lost for any hope of a comeback. Her eyes felt like lasers. He could feel the burn of her gaze clear through to the back of his skull. It made him think of Mrs. Pena.
“I imagine you can be pretty intense,” Alice persevered.
He didn’t know what to make of that.
“You’ve got busy eyes,” she continued, “They’re telling me a story.”
A story? He didn’t like the sound of it.
She crossed her arms over her towel as she studied him. “I suspect you’re like one of those Matryoshka dolls.”
“Matryoshka dolls?” What the hell was he supposed to make of that?
“They’re Russian,” she said, “You open up the first doll and find a smaller one inside, a wee bit different from the first. And then there’s a smaller one inside that one, and then another, and… well, you get it.”
“I’m not sure I do, actually.”
“It’s not an insult. It just means you’re, you know, interesting. I think you might be complicated. In a good way.”
“Complicated,” he said back, probably too seriously.
“I said in a good way, didn’t I?” She sent him a faux frown and a finger wag. “Don’t start getting pouty on me, Henry. I have no patience for pouty.”
He again surprised himself by laughing. “Pouty,” he said, “I can’t believe you’d say that to me, Alice. I mean… we just met. You don’t know me from Adam. How can you accuse me of being pouty so soon?”
That seemed to throw the offense off just a bit. “Wait,” she said, “You misunderstand. I just meant—”
“Moody, yes,” he said seriously, “Grumpy, sure. Morose, definitely. But pouty? Hell, that’s low even for me.”
“Why, Henry,” she said, smiling like she’d suddenly figured out a secret, “I had no idea. Complicated and witty. I must say, I’m duly impressed.”
“Complicated and witty?” he said, “You’ve spent a total of like ten minutes with me, so how could you have possibly determined that I’m complicated? In fact, how do you know I’m not just simple? Or deranged? Hell, I’ve barely given you enough sentences to build a whole paragraph, and you build that into complicated and witty?”
At first, she just looked at him like she was trying to make a decision. And then she said, “I’m mostly sure you’ll take this the wrong way, but I have a sense about things. About the world. About people in general. About you in particular.”
“A sense about me,” he repeated. Clarence pushed his way into his mind. He’d said the same thing, and the memory immediately soured his mood. This conversation was quickly turning down a road he didn’t care to travel.
“Why else would I pick you up, silly man?” she said, “Sakes alive, do I look like someone who picks up serial killers?”
She was looking at him like he was the only person on earth. She had eyes filled with green flames and a face too perfectly balanced to pull away from. It nicely countered the fact that she was obviously mad as a hatter.
“I have something to show you,” she said, grabbing his wrist, “Something you can definitely use.”
He hoped it was a vat of bourbon.
She towed him down the trail at about thirty miles per hour with her hand shackled convincingly to his wrist. Her hand was small and soft and felt as hot as an ember against his skin. He wanted to pull away from her, but didn’t know how to do it without coming off as either cold or afraid. And yet, he couldn’t allow her to get too close. He had no plans to be around long enough to take that risk. He needed to free himself.
A twisted mound of cacti appeared in the middle of the path between their ruts. He veered around it, using the maneuver as an excuse to pull free.
He followed her around a low hill and through a landslide of rocks, trying hard to keep his footing under the pressure of a steep descent complicated by oversized flip-flops. As they cleared the bend, she slowed to a walk.
They entered into a narrow canyon with a wide river curling along its base. An endless cliff face heaved skyward on the far side of the river several hundred yards ahead. It was concave, hunkering out over the curve of the river like a giant wave threatening to fall down and wash the canyon clean. A hawk flew high above the river, circling it before the cliff on a slow, determined course.
A series of tiny stonewalled pools lined the bank just inside the bend of the river. Built directly in the water, they were clearly not a natural phenomenon. Most of the pools looked like they were nearly in the river itself. The first of the pools hosted three bathers. Clothes and towels draped some larger boulders back up on the dry bank.
“What’s this?” he said.
She didn’t respond but instead increased her pace down the washout. A few moments later, they arrived at the river’s edge. They were nearly at the occupied pool when she let her towel fall free. There was no bathing suit in sight.
He watched in wonder as she carefully lowered herself into the water. Her figure was timeless, softly curved and wrapped in skin as pale and perfect as rice paper. It was so unlike anything he’d ever have expected to see on this Epic Outing. And as she settled into the steaming water, he thought of Benjamin Franklin: Maybe this was proof God loved him and wanted him to be happy.
The thought immediately curdled in his mind. This was no proof of God’s love. God loathed him. God wanted him to suffer. This was just another of His taunts sent to goad him into doing something stupid, something that’d add miles to the roads of guilt already mapping his life. Like, go ahead, Henry, follow her in, get nice and close, get her to trust you, maybe add her carcass to the rest of the carnage burning in your rearview mirror.
“Are you all right, Henry?”
Alice’s voice snatched him back from his darkness.
She looked up at him from the water on the near side of the pool. She was perched forward on the edge with her arms crossed over the irregular stone rim, the important percentage of her body thankfully hidden behind the rocks. Her paint store accident hair was now pasted in a brilliant kaleidoscope of wet strings that clung tightly to her head. Henry glanced at the others and felt a pang of embarrassment. They were probably wondering just what kind of lunatic they’d drawn into their folds.
“Sorry,” he said, “I was… thinking. I guess. Just thinking.”
“What did I say about you getting into the right van?” she asked from behind thankfully folded arms
“Guess you were right,” he said as he struggled for breath, “It’s good. Looks very appealing.” He cringed at that. He hoped she knew he meant the water and not her nudity.
“Good? It’s brilliant!”
He realized that the carefully placed stones actually created an artificial pool within the river itself. Built against the bank, it physically separated them from the river’s current while keeping them still in the river water. And then he understood. They were harnessing the geothermal spring water bubbling along the shoreline. The rocks separated them from the colder river water. They were in a hot spring.
“How warm is it?” he said.
“A hundred and one degrees of pure heaven,” a man sang from the other side of the pool.
“Is that right?” Henry said for lack of anything better. For all he knew, that was hot enough to boil onions.
“Oh!” Alice declared, sitting upright in the water and exposing her mysteries to the world.
Henry ordered his eyes to her forehead.
“Henry,” she said quickly, “Forgive me, I’m so rude. I should introduce the other inmates of this travelling asylum.” She waved toward a nose, a pair of brown eyes, and a nearly black part floating just above the waterline to her right. “This is my baby sister, Bridget,” she said, “You met her foot last night.”
“I remember,” Henry said, throwing a half wave at the woman, “Hey, Bridget.”
Bubbles erupted below the submerged woman’s nose. It sounded like a greeting, but he couldn’t swear to it.
“And this,” Alice continued, pointing next at the next body over, “Is her boyfriend, Ed.”
Henry nodded at the male version of a half head with thinning brown hair floating a couple inches from Bridget’s. “Ed,” he said, “How’s it going?”
Ed popped his mouth above the water and said, “How do, Henry? Welcome.” He immediately re-submerged. He sounded Midwestern. Henry gave him a point for courtesy.
“And this is my brother, Nancy,” Alice said, splashing water at the man directly across the pool from her.
It was the guy who’d offered the water temperature. He was lying back with his arms outstretched across the rocks. He was nowhere near thin, in fact bordering on too chubby. He had an anemic, mousy-brown goatee and jaw-length frosted blonde hair boasting crisp black roots. His ears were mutilated with enough metal to set off a detector.
“Charmed,” Nancy said to Henry. It didn’t feel heartfelt.
“Nice to meet you,” Henry said. It wasn’t. He’d never really trusted men wearing mascara. He wasn’t homophobic, but he’d always found makeup on a man a bit ostentatious.
Alice turned toward him again. Henry politely sent his eyes downriver.
“Feel like a dip?” she said, “It’s the perfect temperature. You’ll feel like new, I promise.”
Climbing in naked and getting all cozy with these strangers was about the last thing in heaven or hell that he wanted right now. “Well, I definitely need a bath,” he said, looking down the riverbank. That and a case of bourbon.
“Oh, come on,” Alice pressed, “It’ll do you such good!”
Henry didn’t know what to do. He felt a strange kind of obligation to join, yet the thought of gouging his eyes out with a toothpick sounded like tons more fun. He glanced around the scrub. There appeared to be no one else around. With sincere reluctance, he began unbuttoning his shirt.
“Well, it seems we’re all in agreement, then,” Nancy said, smiling girlishly through his goatee.
Henry stopped unbuttoning.
“About your needing a bath, I mean,” Nancy said with a cute wince, “You know, stinkiness and all?”
“Yeah,” Henry said, “Stinkiness and all, sure.” Dipshit.
Alice splashed water at Nancy. “Don’t start!” she said sharply.
Nancy flipped her off. “So, with that being said?” he said, still smiling too precociously, “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind bathing a couple pools downstream first? As a communal courtesy, I mean. Just until you’ve cleaned up a smidge.”
“A smidge,” Henry said. He actively stifled the urge to walk over and drag the little queen out by his beard.
“I mean it, Nancy,” Alice snapped at the man, “Don’t be a dick!”
“What?” Nancy said, “The refill time of these springs is nearly—”
“Nancy!” she shouted at him, “Stop it now! You’re being rude!”
Nancy sneered at her, but complied all the same.
Henry looked at Alice.
Alice smiled and shrugged her brow. “I think what Nancy’s so graciously trying to say is that this is a replenishing pool, but it takes time for the water to completely turn over. To keep it clean, it’s protocol,” she splashed Nancy again, “To take a rinse in the river or in another pool downstream first. For the sake of the water here, I mean.”
“Sure, quite reasonable,” Henry said, “Just like showering before getting into a community swimming pool. I totally get it.”
“We all did it,” she said, smiling sweetly, “Even my asshole brother. It’s not just you, dear.”
“Seriously, no problem. Where do I go?”
He followed her finger toward a smaller pool a dozen yards off to his right.
“We put a bar of biosafe soap and another towel over there for you,” Alice said, still pointing down the river.
“Excellent!” Henry said, “I’m in full agreement. Sound plan.”
In fact, despite his desire to rearrange Nancy’s teeth, he absolutely did agree with them. He had no romantic notions about his current state of hygiene. He actually preferred to clean up first. Bathing nude may be the protocol of the day in this barking mad tribe, but it didn’t factor well into his scheme of normal. In fact, his head was nowhere close to the place where frolicking nude with complete strangers sounded anything like a good time. And anyway, God only knew what his skin looked like under the remnants of his suit.
Alice reached out over the rocks and squeezed his ankle. His ankle liked it. He pulled his foot back. No sense tasting a fruit he may like, but can never have.
“Henry,” she said, “We don’t mean any offense by—”
“No!” Henry said, throwing his hands up to her, “No, I absolutely agree. I can’t tell you how good a bath sounds. Really. I smell like shit, and it’s so not my usual style. Usually I just smell like liquor.”
She laughed at that.
“We’re all in agreement, then,” Nancy said, clapping his hands coquettishly, “Lovely.”
“Of course, we are,” Henry said, “You saved me from on-ramp limbo. I’m now duty bound to be your humble servant until the debt’s repaid.”
“Of course, you are,” Nancy said, smiling tritely, “So, as our humble servant, surely you won’t be offended if we suggest you wear your clothes into the water with you.”