The morning sun struck the red rock mountains on the west side of Calico Basin, waking Jolie like a thunderclap. Clutching the faded star quilt, fear coiled in her belly. Where was she? She took in the small low-ceilinged bedroom. How did she get here? The smell of the desert and the images of ghost-like burros and towering rock cliffs tickled the edges of her memory. Then, she remembered and wished she hadn’t.
The old man’s body had been flung back over the chair like a deflated blow up toy, discarded and forgotten.
A flood of questions pulled at Jolie’s mind. Had her interference in the argument between Axel and Helen made matters better or worse for the old woman? Would there be repercussions for her impulsive actions? What if Axel pressed charges? Helen would never stand up to her husband to support Jolie’s version of what had happened. The old woman was too cowed. Helen’s life might not seem like a good one to those on the outside, but Axel was all she had.
“They’ll take you away,” the old woman had cried, locked inside her post-stroke world. ”What will happen to me?”
“I did the right thing,” Jolie insisted, with more conviction than she felt. Doing the right thing had never been a guarantee that things would go well for her. Sean had joked that Trouble knew his name but Trouble thought it had a place set at the table in the Figg house.
Jolie rolled over and looked out the bedside window. Sunlight was moving down the red stone mountains that formed the west wall of the basin, dripping like golden frosting running down a red velvet cake. As she watched, the sun reached the foot of the mountains and began to spread across the valley floor.
A burro’s bray split the quiet, bouncing off the stone cliffs surrounding the oasis valley. Jolie smiled, remembering the old black jack on the road, shaggy-coated, his ear torn, he too had seemed like an old soul.
Jolie took a deep breath of the clean desert air; breathing in pure wonder. Something ancient and powerful lived here. She felt it kiss her skin, burrowing into her bones, and smiled. Feeling strangely safe in this odd little house, she snuggled more deeply under the blankets, letting her eyes wander over the details of the room. The sloped roof and rough wood walls gave it an unfinished lean-to feel. The white enamel frame of the cast iron twin bed she lay in was chipped and rusted at the welds. A vintage vanity opposite the bed looked like it had been stolen from the set of one of the Thin Man movies from the thirties, with its frameless, circular mirror and rounded corners. Two dressers and an old trunk had sprouted a collection of collectible Avon bottles, their round bellies and long necks poking up like the minarets of a miniature Turkish village. None of it was dusty. These were the mementos of a personal museum, the small treasures in which resided some family history.
Voices drifted in from outside, followed by the staccato thwacking of someone splitting wood. The smell of a campfire was what finally lured Jolie out of bed. Still dressed in blue jeans, a sleeveless shell, and a button down shirt with Remy’s oversized hoody thrown over it, she found her tennis shoes neatly tucked under the bed and slipped her sockless feet into them. Fighting the impulse to wrap the star quilt around her and take it along, Jolie smoothed the cotton blanket over the bed and tiptoed into the connecting room.
It was a welcoming space, open and airy. Morning light streamed in through a bank of windows facing East. Another bank of windows brought in an inspirational view of a huge pink mountain that bounded the basin’s edge to the north.
A hand-woven wool rug covered the center of the wood plank floor between two overstuffed couches, and colorful Indian blankets transformed the room from tatty to secondhand chic. Two more pieces of fine woven art hung on the opposing wall. Between the couches, balanced on a wooden pedestal, was a coffee table made from a single slice of a giant tree. The feel was homey, interesting, and eclectic, if not strictly matching.
Jolie peeked into the kitchen, then found the bathroom, adjusting the hood of Remy’s hoody to hide the bruises that Axel’s hands had left on her neck. Stepping outside the house, she filled her nose and lungs with the earthy smells of the desert. An undertone of horse accompanied the more powerful scent of burning wood.
Following the smoke, Jolie made her way around the north side of the house, past the big windows, to the east end. A cleared space was separated off from the rest of the yard by a row of juniper trees and a rickety mesquite branch fence. Jolie could see a fire pit and a small mound of dirt. A stick, with a feather tied to it, stood in its center. Behind this, a bowl-shaped hut had been covered by a dusty olive green tarp. Remy came out from behind the round hut and walked to the fire, gently moving sticks of wood into place with a pitchfork, maintaining unbroken walls of wood around a hot center. When he was done, he looked up at Jolie.
“You’re awake.” He smiled. It was like pulling back the drapes of a dingy room and flooding it with sunshine like he opened his soul and invited her in.
Jolie blinked, unnerved by this sudden intimacy. Only yesterday, she and this boy had been strangers. Were they now something else? How was that possible?
“Hold on to me,” Remy had said, as he scooped her up like a stray kitten. Why had he brought her here? How had he known not to just take her downstairs to her own apartment?
Remy picked up a blanket from a stump beside the fire, stepped out through the little gate and wrapped the blanket around Jolie’s shoulders.
“Come sit. You’ve had a rough night.” He guided Jolie to a makeshift bench made up of stumps and a board that sat at the edge of the fire’s warmth.
“How long did you stay with me last night?” Jolie asked self-consciously.
Remy shrugged. “Awhile. I had to start the fire before dawn.” Jolie glanced sideways at him. What kind of a boy sat beside a girl all night, just watching her sleep when he barely knew her? “How do you feel?” he asked.
Jolie tapped her throat. “Hurts,” she whispered, not recognizing her own voice.
“You probably shouldn’t try to talk too much. It’ll take time to heal.”
“So you’re a doctor now?” she rasped.
“No. Just someone who cares.”
Jolie wanted to ask if he meant he cared about everyone in general, or if he was saying that he cared about her in particular, but such a discussion felt too exposed.
Another burro call pierced the basin’s peace. Jolie grinned.
“It sounds like we’re on Tatooine, and the Sand people are about. They are easily startled, but they will be back, and in greater numbers,” she tried to mimic Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice, doing a poor job of it with her damaged vocal chords.
“It’s not a galaxy far, far away but it is like another world here,” Remy agreed. “This is my Aunt Rose’s ranch. It’s a good place, a safe place.”
Safe. Short snapshot images began playing through Jolie’s mind. She closed her eyes, waiting for them to pass. When she opened them, Remy was patiently leaning on a pitchfork, gazing into the fire.
“What happened last night?” she asked in her froggy voice.
“You’d know better than I would. I think I came in after the finale.”
“And took me away. I remember that part. Thank you.”
“Fireman,” a woman called from the round hut, startling Jolie, who had assumed they were alone. Remy squatted down by a ground level opening that apparently served as the hut’s door and listened to instructions from the woman inside. He nodded, then pulled down the heavy blankets that were looped over a thick mesquite branch, covering the opening. A drum began to beat inside and a woman’s voice joined it.
The small hairs on the back of Jolie’s neck stood up, vibrating with the rhythm of the drum.
Jolie looked into the sky. A swarm of spirits was coming toward them.
“What’s going on, Remy?” she asked, anxiously.
“Aunt Rose is singing a calling song, calling in the Spirits.”
And they’re coming, Jolie realized. She felt the spirits approaching the round hut, some tentative, others eager, swooshing by Jolie, focused on the voice of the woman inside the hut. Remy was right, she had walked into another world.
Remy crouched beside the fire and closed his eyes. Jolie could see that his energy was linked to whatever was nestled in the heart of the fire. The energy went through the objects to the woman inside the hut, as she raised her voice in song inviting the invisible beings to join her.
The calling song ended and a new song began. This time the singer was a younger woman, joined by the tentative voices of others with voices nearer the timbre of her own.
The women sang four songs, accompanied by the heartbeat rhythm of the drum, then called out an unfamiliar phrase in a language Jolie did not recognize, and Remy opened the door flap. The woman inside handed out a bucket of water to him. Once again sitting on his haunches by the door, he waited for instructions, then began going back and forth to the fire, bringing hot stones from the fire back to the hut. Jolie could hear him whispering to the stones as if they were newborns, as he gently carried and deposited them inside the hut, sliding them inside on his pitchfork.
“Thank you for coming, Grandfathers. Thank you for helping us,” Jolie caught a few words of what Remy said.
After a few trips, he handed the water bucket back in and again closed the door flap. When he had repaired the fire’s burning log wall, he sat down beside her again.
“What are they doing in there?” Jolie asked.
“They’re praying, in a very old way. It’s a Stone People’s lodge. Most people call it a sweat lodge.”
It was not like any praying Jolie had ever heard of before, but she couldn’t argue; she had heard the spirits being called, and she had seen them answer that call.
Remy continued to tend the fire and wait on the women in the lodge, carrying stones to them, refilling the water bucket, fetching objects off the little mound outside the doorway. Each time he closed the lodge door there was singing, heartfelt, and sometimes agonizing in its raw need. During the third round, the song became raucous and triumphant as if the young women were getting ready to take on the world. In between the songs they spoke in hushed voices so that all Jolie heard was murmuring.
Where have you brought me, Remy Bishop? Jolie asked silently, trying to take it all in.
The sound of car tires on the gravel driveway announced a visitor. A car door clicked shut and Officer Wrangler in a cowboy hat and boots sauntered up to the little stick fence.
“What’s he doing here?” Jolie pulled her blanket up around her face.
“Don’t worry,” Remy assured her. “He’s not here to arrest anyone.”
“Well, Miss Figg.” Wrangler doffed his broad-brimmed hat. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“She came with me, Cowboy,” Remy explained.
“Hey, Rem, thanks for doing the fire for the girls today.” Wrangler looked from Remy to Jolie and back again, chewing over the bit of bruising he noted on her neck. Jolie pulled Remy’s hoody up higher.
Wrangler turned to Jolie. “You didn’t go in?”
“She’s just visiting,” Remy explained. “They’ll be out in a few minutes. They’re almost done.”
Wrangler nodded, sitting on the opposite end of the bench from Jolie. She glanced at him, cautiously.
“Cowboy?” Her voice sounded like she’d been on a three-day binge, smoking, and drinking, but if Wrangler noticed, he didn’t say anything.
“It’s a nickname my friends use.”
“So you’re friends with Remy’s aunt?” Jolie asked.
“Yeah, and I usually bring the girls.” He tossed his head toward the lodge. “Some of them have gotten to like doing a women’s lodge with Rose. It’s good for them. It gives them a sense of belonging and connection, and it’s the full moon, so it’s a good time for them.”
Wrangler seemed to think Jolie understood the reference, which she didn’t, but she didn’t ask him to explain. The women chimed out in unison again, and Remy opened the door for the fourth time. Steam poured from the hut, filtering the morning sunshine. The kind-faced woman Jolie remembered from last night crawled out on her hands and knees, mud caking her dress, her long salt, and pepper hair fluffed out from the heat and steam. Remy gave her a hand and helped her stand.
“Welcome back, Aunt Rose.”
“Thank you, nephew.” Rose hugged him, her face flushed. She stepped to the side of the door as one by one teenage girls, muddy from head to foot, crawled out into the world, their faces ruddy and glistening with sweat, their eyes bright. They all wore long skirts and tee shirts, or loose fitting dresses similar to Rose’s, some tattered and faded, all mud-stained and sagging wet. Wrapped in a world of their own, their faces radiant, they hugged Rose, then hugged each other, heart to heart, whispering secret encouragements that brought smiles and tears.
Wrangler and Jolie did not seem to exist.
Jolie felt a pang of jealousy at their closeness. It wasn’t hard to be a loner in a plastic, superficial world, where you could easily tell yourself that no one was worth knowing, but faced with the honest friendship between these fresh-faced girls, it was harder.
“Get dressed, ladies, then we’ll feast.” Rose turned. “Ah, Cowboy. You’re here. You’ll join us for the feast, won’t you?”
“The girls cooked? I wouldn’t miss it.”
“And you too, Jolie?” Rose offered. “You must be hungry. I’m sorry I wasn’t around to greet you and be a proper hostess this morning. It gets a little busy here around the full moon.”
Jolie looked to Remy for guidance, uncertain about leaving his side.
“Go on,” he encouraged her. “I have a few things to finish up here and then I’ll be in.”
Jolie followed Rose and the girls into the house. The girl’s muddy footprints lead to a curtained off area and Jolie could hear them talking quietly as they changed back into their street clothes.
Rose came out of a side door dressed in a caftan, her long hair framing cheeks still red, her skin so clean it was glowing. She rubbed her hands together.
“Okay, what needs to be done first?”
The oldest girl came out from behind the curtain.
“You aren’t allowed to do anything else today, Auntie Rose. You’ve done enough. Sit down and put your feet up. We’ll take care of the feast and the clean up.”
Rose sighed. “Thank you, girls.” She smiled proudly as they came out from changing, now looking like the modern teenage girls they were, and began to take food out of the oven and the refrigerator and place it on the counter, removing lids and foil covers, and putting serving spoons or forks into each dish.
“Is there something I can do to help?” Jolie offered, tugging the hoody up around her neck.
“Nope. We’ve got it.” The older girl grabbed a mop and began swabbing away the footprints from the floor.
“Come sit by me, Jolie.” Rose patted the couch beside her. “We can talk.”
There was no polite way to refuse. Jolie sat gingerly on the arm of the couch, giving herself as much personal space as she could. Rose gave her guest a warm smile.
“I’m glad Remy brought you.” Rose combed her fingers through her tangled hair. “We don’t usually get to meet his friends from school. I think he likes to keep his two worlds separate.” She eyed Jolie. “You seem to be feeling better.”
“I am, thank you.”
“Rose, the spirit plate is ready,” one of the girl’s interrupted.
“Jolie can take it.” Jolie started to panic. “Just give it to Remy. He knows what to do,” Rose assured her as the other girl handed Jolie the paper plate.
Jolie carried the plate with little bits of food on it back outside to the lodge area, grateful to have escaped questions about what had happened last night.
Remy had spread out the coals from the fire so they would cool and was standing by, watching the red coals wink at him. Jolie hesitated, loath to interrupt. This was a deep boy with many layers that she suspected he had only just begun to share with her.
“Remy? Rose said to bring this to you.”
“Thanks.” Remy took the plate, placed himself in front of the fire and turned slowly clockwise, stopping four times before placing the plate onto the fire so it would burn.
“So, you even feed ghosts at these things?” Jolie asked.
“Spirits,” Remy corrected her. “It seems right to honor them for their help.”
“Do you do this a lot?”
“Tend the fire?” He shrugged. “Rose usually has one of the women do it for the girls, but I fill in when she needs me, and sometimes I do it for mixed lodges or men’s lodges if none of the older guys can make it. My uncle says that tending fire is a good place to learn.”
“I didn’t know that you were Native.”
“Lakota--half, on my mother’s side. The family left the reservation when Mom was little so she never spent much time there. The men in the family became horse trainers and loggers, so they moved around a lot.”
“Is my half sister. My mom crossed over when I was a baby,” Remy explained.
As Jolie had suspected, the blond woman was not Remy’s blood relative, she was his stepmother, and pale, perfect Madison was her daughter. Jolie wasn’t the only one leading a double life, but maybe Remy’s experience with a culture where spirits were seen as real, meant that explaining her vision to him wasn’t going to be so impossible after all. Of course, Christians recognized spirits too, selectively anyway--the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost--and she wouldn’t expect them to understand. Still, it gave her hope.
“Remy, you know that note?” Jolie began cautiously.
“You mean the one you didn’t send?” He grinned.
“Yeah, that one. Well, sometimes I see things, like spirits,” she indicated the air around the sweat lodge. “And other things, too, like things about people: stuff that’s going on with them, or that might happen to them.”
“Yeah; visions. That first day when you bumped into me, I saw something about you. You were in an accident. It was really bad and... you didn’t make it.” She was afraid to look at him. “That’s why I wrote the note. I wanted to warn you, but I didn’t know how to explain and make you believe me.” Remy didn’t say anything. He just began to rake out the hot spots in the coals. “Crazy, huh?” Jolie added, prodding him to say something that would let her know what he was thinking.
“Well, it’s certainly the most unusual introduction I’ve ever had to a girl,” he teased.
“This isn’t a joke, Rem. You’re in danger,” Jolie bridled.
He stopped raking and looked at her. “From who, Jo?”
“I don’t know: the world--some random stranger. I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with your skateboard.”
“I don’t own a skateboard,” Remy announced.
“You do.” Jolie blinked, perplexed. “I’ve seen it in your backpack. It’s yellow, just like the one in my vision.”
“That’s not mine. It’s my friend, Bodhi’s. So...” Remy shrugged as if this one fact should effectively erase her concerns. Jolie clenched her jaw.
“I know what I saw.”
“Okay. I’m not saying you didn’t, Jo, but what do you want me to do about it, hide in my room for the rest of my life?”
“Don’t be dumb. I just want you to take this seriously.”
“What makes you think I’m not? I don’t disbelieve you, but I don’t know how to change the future, and apparently you don’t either. You don’t even know where the threat is coming from.”
“It’s the skateboard. It’s something to do with the skateboard,” Jolie insisted.
“That’s not much to go on,” Remy argued.
Jolie’s frustration was beginning to show in her voice. “I’m only trying to keep you safe.”
“Now you sound like my Uncle Hoke. Look, Jo, I promise not to run with scissors and I’ll look both ways before I cross the street, but there’s no one out there trying to get me. I don’t have enemies. I’m not a controversial kind of guy.”
“And you think that’s going to protect you? The most dangerous things in my life happened because I was doing the right thing. And yes, it is a hell of a lot easier to pretend you don’t see what you see, and you’re not who you are, so you can get by at school.” Remy blanched. She had hit a nerve, but it was too late to stop, the words were already taking a dive off her tongue. “But it won’t protect you from shit. Does anyone really know you, Remy? Do you even know yourself?”
“I thought you were different. I never thought you were mean.” He walked away and crawled inside the lodge.
“I’m not mean. I’m just honest,” Jolie shouted after him as he disappeared through the dark opening.
Cliff Wrangler effectively ended any more discussion by coming around the corner and approaching the lodge area.
“Food’s ready,” he announced.
“Tell Rose I’ll be there in a minute,” Remy called from inside the lodge.
Jolie was about to pass Wrangler when he stopped her.
“Can I have a word with you, Miss Figg?” The arm barring her way didn’t really give her a choice. “Quite a night last night, huh?” His eyes went to the bruises on her neck. “Anything you want to tell me?”
“Nope.” The trick to talking to prying adults was to say as little as possible. Eventually, they’d write their own story, filling in the blanks to their liking. In the end, they were happy, you were happy, and they had a version of events that made sense to them. Jolie looked up and saw the old black burro standing across the road, looking at her.
Wrangler turned to see what had taken her attention.
“Old Black Jack,” he commented. “That burro must be older than Satan, but he just won’t give up. One or two of the younger jacks tests him every year, but he’s a tough old codger. He just runs them off.” The old burro continued to stare at Jolie. Wrangler looked back and forth from Jolie to the burro. “He’s sure interested in you.”
“Probably thinks I’ve got a carrot in my pocket,” Jolie tried to diffuse Wrangler’s interest.
“Not that one. He’s too crafty to be taken in by an easy handout. Handouts are dangerous for wild critters. It teaches them that people and the road they travel on are sources of food. It gets them killed. I’ve seen that guy chase his herd away from the roads even when tourists are tossing fries out of their car windows.” Wrangler turned his focus back to Jolie. “Most people around here figure Remy Bishop for a decent kid.” He looked meaningfully at her injuries.
Jolie realized that he was asking her if the marks on her neck had anything to do with Remy.
“And they’d be right,” she agreed. “He’s a good guy--a good friend. The kind of friend who helps you out when you need it.”
Wrangler nodded. “You were at home last night?”
“Until Remy picked me up and brought me here.”
“Nine-one-one got a call from a girl reporting a domestic situation at the apartment above yours. You want to tell me anything about that?”
“Do you mind if I look at your cell phone?”
Jolie felt her pants pocket. “I must have left it at the apartment. I was in a hurry when we left.”
“Anything to do with the argument going on upstairs?”
Jolie stiffened. “It’s hard to listen to that stuff.”
“Yes, it is. You know, whoever made that call did the right thing, Jolie. If you ever find out who it was, maybe you could let them know that the woman, Helen, is okay. She’s in the hospital for now, but her family back in Illinois have been notified, and they’re on their way to fetch her and take her back home with them. They haven’t known where she was the last twenty-five years. Anyway, she won’t have to suffer anymore.”
“What about Axel?” Jolie asked. “What will happen to him?”
“He didn’t have any assets. Probably drank them up years ago. The county will bury him.”
Jolie’s jaw went slack. She couldn’t breathe. Axel was dead. Was that her fault? Had she done that? She realized that Wrangler was watching her closely--too closely.
“This is probably a lot to take in,” he said. “Maybe I should take you home.”
“Now?” Jolie was trying to find her poker face, but it seemed to be missing. “But Remy...”
“It’d probably be better if someone official brought you back and talked to your mom,” Wrangler explained. “She, uh...”
“Turned me in as a runaway,” Jolie finished the sentence. “I’m surprised she noticed I was gone. It must be some kind of a record. I’d like to thank Rose and the girls before I go, if that’s okay, Officer Wrangler?”
“There’s no hurry. Go back inside and eat. We’re all riding together.”
As Jolie went back into the house, she noted the black burro had moved on.
Everything was cleaned up and the girls were saying their goodbyes, but a plate had been set aside for her.
“Can we come again next month at the full moon, Rose?” a skinny girl with a boy-short haircut asked.
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t, Carly.”
“And will Remy do the fire for us?” the older girl cocked her head to one side flirtatiously, as Remy came in to take the kitchen garbage out. “You’re the best fireman, Remy.”
“Thanks, Carmen.” Remy smiled as he tied up the bag, oblivious to her interest in him. Rose was not nearly as dense.
“We usually use a female fire tender for a women’s lodge, but we’ll see. Will you make your wonderful lasagna again, Carly?”
The skinny girl brightened. “If I can. My foster mom made kind of a fuss about buying all the cheeses and stuff.”
“If you give Officer Wrangler a list, I can have the ingredients here for you, and you can put them together before we go in. Tell him I said it was all right.”
“Okay, thanks,” Carly lifted her head up proudly.
“And what about you, Jolie? Rose turned. “Will you be joining us next time?”
“I don’t know. I’m glad I came, though. It was nice. Thank you for taking me in last night.”
“I hope we’ll see you again soon.”
Jolie met Remy coming back from garbage duty. “Officer Wrangler’s going to take me back to town,” she said.
“If that’s what you want.”
“It’s not what I want, it’s just that my mom reported me as a runaway so, you know, he probably needs to clear things up with her. Look, Remy, if anybody asks, you didn’t see anything upstairs at the apartments, okay? You were never there. When you picked me up I was already downstairs.”
“Whatever,” Remy replied, still feeling hurt.
“I’m really sorry about saying what I said,” Jolie apologized. “You’ve been so great, and I want to thank you for taking care of me and everything. I was just spouting off, you know? It’s just my dumb mouth.”
“I understand.” An awkward silence hung between them.
“Jolie, we’re ready,” Wrangler called from the van.
“I’m coming,” she called back. “I meant what I said, though, Remy, about keeping you safe. I’m not going away. I’ll be there. Whatever it is that’s coming, you’re not alone.” Jolie took off his hoody and handed it and the blanket back to him, then headed to the front of the house.
As the van was about to leave, an old red pickup pulled up.
“Hey, Hoke,” Wrangler greeted the man in the driver’s seat.
“Hey, Cowboy.” It was the same man that Jolie had seen outside Chaparral High, the one she had recognized but not been able to place. The next breath immersed her in vision.
Jolie was in the desert on Solstice, fighting for her life and the lives of a hundred strangers. Faith had tried to help, Tru and Marty had done their part, and Sean was there beside her, but the weight of responsibility had still made her feel isolated and alone. How could one girl stand against so many dark creatures?
“You are not alone,” she had been told and white flames had begun popping up around the landscape, dotting it with the heart-fires of allies who also fought, each in their own way. Focusing on the spirit nearest her, Jolie had been transported to the campfire of a Native man; this man, who Cowboy called Hoke.
Hoke: the name of the person that Madison had wanted to call from the hospital when Remy was dying, the man Mr. Bishop had called family.
Yanna Maria got out of the passenger side of Hoke’s truck.