Issue 35, Final Fringe

The Blinding in Horticulture, Texas

by Joel Hans Issue 34 05.27.2013

Lev has a desert for a backyard, and it has always been empty except for the morning he finds the little girl sitting in the sand. A dune is rising up along the west-facing side of her body. She is a few hundred feet from his home, and there are no footprints delineating from where she came. He tells her if he hadn’t found her, she would have become nothing more than another frozen dune by tomorrow morning. She looks about seven or eight, with deep black holes for eyes. He lets her climb onto him piggyback and takes her into his cabin—600 square feet he had built himself on the flat basin of his own personal Texas desert.

He sits her down and turns on the TV so she’s occupied, hands her a half-filled can of Coke that’s gone flat. He fixes her a bowl of Cheerios and watches her devour them quickly, as though she hasn’t eaten in a week. She doesn’t say much, and keeps peering out the window, to the vague dirt road, as though she’s expecting someone. She looks healthy enough, but it’s hard to say. He’s never looked after a little girl before. He doesn’t know what to do—he’s just a man who restores old cars and sells them to rich men for a living—and he can only do that because there’s never a question of what to do once the blinding hits, what to do next

                                        brings the wrench inside and stops. The girl is still there, sitting on the sofa, watching TV. She turns and watches him study the wrench. A good wrench—the set had cost him a small fortune—1/4-inch, box end. He can’t remember why he’s holding it. The girl laughs and points at the refrigerator and he sees the clearly broken handle. He takes the wrench to the screws and tightens it all back together. He pulls on the handle and it holds steady and the girl claps

“You said you had a problem,” she says. “Now I see.”

Lev says, “My brain stops working sometimes. There’s no memory, and I don’t choose what I do. It’s like sleepwalking, I guess, because I don’t remember a thing. And then when I come back, it’s like I’m waking up to already being awake. Now, what’s your name again?”

“Annie,” she says. He looks at her and waits for a last name.

Annie… what?” he asks. She shrugs. He can’t figure how a seven-year-old doesn’t know her own last name. Lev turns off the TV and kneels down in front of the coffee table and looks her straight in the eye. When he checks his watch, he sees that it’s just after one in the afternoon, which means she’s been in his custody for at least five hours, most of which have been blinded.

He says, “I don’t know if I already asked you where you came from.”

“It’s sad,” Annie says, “that you can’t remember sometimes. Are you remembering right now?”

“I think so. It’s hard to say.” Lev scoots closer, places his hand on his knee. “Did I do something to bring you here? Or did someone else?”

She smiles and then looks away like she’s got a secret

                                        late afternoon sun scatters across the desert. Lev looks down to find a heavy bladder filled with water in his hand. He must have gone to the well, because there’s another slung over his shoulder. The wind is blowing strong, and there are murmurings of clouds on the western horizon. When he steps inside, he finds Annie on the couch, digging her hand into a box of cereal. She gives him a guilty look, keeps eating.

The wind picks up, blows a tumbleweed or a dried-out thicket of dead cactus against the thin roof. Lev goes to the window, peeks through a small gap in the shutters and sees no horizon. Just blowing sands that meet the pale rust-colored clouds. Looks like a small storm is coming—not uncommon for a Texas summer. He heads outside after wrapping a worn blue work shirt around his nose and his ears, swings closed the shutters on the windows. Even now, the wind blows past his makeshift turban and deposits sand into his eyes. Inside, it’s dark now, so he flips the light switch. Annie twists around on the couch and looks at him.

“Why’d you close all the windows?” she asks.

“Wind’s blowing strong,” Lev says. She nods like she doesn’t understand. “Sometimes, the wind tells me that a storm is coming. And I like to protect my windows from getting broken.” “What if the storm comes before my mommy gets back?”

“Your mommy? Who is she? Is she the one who brought you here? You have to cut me some slack if I’ve asked you that before.”

“Heather is my mommy,” Annie says. She dives her hand into the cereal box and shovels a hefty portion into her mouth. She chews for a while and her eyes go wide, like she has something she wants to say, but can’t. Lev waits, taps his fingers against his knee. Annie says through the Fruit Loops: “She said you might be my daddy.”

Lev feels the same way he did years ago, before ever moving out to Horticulture, when he realized the blinding could take him for hours, and was coming with more frequency the older he got. Sometimes, half of his day was spent without memory. It could be twelve hours on, twelve off. Could be twenty-three blind. Lev thought a girl would have no worse fate that being born to the man who always lives on the edge of the blinding, who has a desert for a backyard. But the timing works—he left Corona eight years ago, and the last woman he’d fucked, rather without care, was named Heather. The little girl has his deep-set confusion in her eyes. She has his fingernails, his collarbones.

Are you my daddy?” Annie asks, smiles

                                        a curtain of red-gray dust to the west that is backlit by the setting sun. Lev checks his watch—nine at night—which means he’s been out for about two hours. He smells baked beans cooking on the range. He looks to the couch, expects to see Annie there, leaning forward toward the static picture, but there is only darkness. He says her name, and then again. Nothing. He steps outside, closes the door behind him, looks for tracks in the sand. If she’s gone running, she’ll die.

Wind rattles the shutters, rocks the thin framing of the cabin. The storm that had looked so promising before seems to have settled for only tossing around a bit of sand before moving on. But Lev knows the desert is fond of premonitions. And then he sees headlights coming down the sand road that leads to his lonely cabin in the Texas desert. He raises his hand to his forehead. The lights flash once, twice, and then the brakes squeal. The car is a troubled mid-90’s Acura. As soon as the headlights dim, Annie springs out of the car, runs to Lev. She’s about five feet away when she jumps from her full-out run, and he has no choice but to catch her. He clears sand off her face and carries her out of the wind while wondering if he’s really been in the blinding for the last seven years, missing out on her whole life.

“You okay?” Lev asks.

Annie smiles. “Of course. We were at the movies, like we said.”

Lev hears a shuffling outside the door and opens it. Heather. He hadn’t seen her since he moved out of Corona, unless she had snuck in through the blinding. He had cut her out of his life once he quit his job working on injection molders at a plastics plant. That plant floor work had suited him—never a question as to what was next—but the relatively good money he received only encouraged his bad habits. And she had strung herself along, riding off his hard work for her next fix. And now he feels the fear rising in him once again, as he often feels when the blinding is on its way.

“What are you doing here?” Lev asks. “I was worried about her.”

“Jesus, Lev. We told you where we were heading into El Paso for the day.” Heather puts down her purse, kneels to untie her shoes, and Lev takes that moment to consider his use of her, the newfound meaning, the protective tone he weighed it with. It was automatic and inevitable. And he thinks if this ends up a ploy, and Annie is really not his daughter, he’s still taken a bit of a shine to having her around. He doesn’t mind sharing his desert, as long as it’s with the right people. She seems like just that.

Heather says, “You’ve gotten worse, haven’t you?”

“It hasn’t gotten better.”

“You’re looking terrible,” she says. She’s tapping on her cheek with her finger, which ends in a long white-painted nail. “Have you eaten since I’ve seen you last?”

Lev shrugs, looks back to the stove. “I forget to, but it looks like I was giving it a shot.”

Heather nods, puts down her purse, looks around the cabin. Annie is already laid out on the couch, watching TV. Lev takes Heather by the shoulder and guides her over to his makeshift bedroom so that Annie might not hear.

“Is she my daughter? I thought I had kidnapped her or something. I mean, fuck, she looks like me.”

“That’s my working theory,” Heather says. She scratches at her eye. “Hey, you said you were going to show me these fancy cars you’re working on, like, old restored ones for rich guys

* * *

                                         puts the impact wrench down and strips off his headphones. This is why he likes this business—the blinding can come and go and the next move is always written in the work he’s already done. He turns to put the impact wrench away and is surprised to see Annie sitting on the workbench, his spare pair of thick-walled headphones covering up half her face. He motions to tell her she can take them off, and she nods, but is slow to act. She holds them out and he puts them back in their place on the pegboard. Lev takes one of the smaller wrenches, starts finishing off fastening other pieces of the body to the frame of the 1958 Ford Thunderbird. He’s done six month’s work to strip it down and build it back up, make it shine, to make the Interceptor V-8 rumble again. No matter how thick the blinding comes, he knows he’s almost done. The body still needs cleaning up, and then paint, polish, wax, but it’s all mapped out in his head. From that, all he needs to do is read.“I like being here,” Annie says.

“That’s good.”

“Do you have any friends come visit you?”

Lev shakes his head, swaps the 1/2-inch for a 1/4-inch. “I’m not good at having friends,” he says. He tightens the bolt that holds on one of the doors. He takes a step back and sees it’s the last of the body panels, and that the car is more or less ready to drive.

Annie nods. “Neither am I. It’s hard, the way my mom is. She doesn’t like having new people around.” She hops down from the workbench and points at the car. “Who is that for? You?”

“Not me,” Lev says, “but I don’t exactly remember who.”

“So, you have problems remembering things?”

“All the time.”

“It would be hard to find friends that way,” Annie sighs. “I could be your first friend.”

Lev tries to keep himself from smiling. He nods and pulls out the sanding equipment, motions for Annie to put the headphones back on over her ears, performs exactly the motions needed and none others

                                        is standing in the middle of the cabin, shirtless. There is the smell of smoke lingering around him, but he doesn’t know where from. He doesn’t know much of anything when arriving back from the blinding. Annie comes running inside and heads straight for the range, pushes the cast iron pan off a burner with her bare hand. She yelps, falls to the floor against the cabinets.

“You said you were going to watch it,” Annie says. She holds her hand and breathes through her teeth.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t remember.”

“It’s okay,” Annie says.

“Here, let me see,” Lev says, kneeling down next to her. The palm of her hand is marred by an orbit of red with an epicenter where the skin has already bubbled up. He takes a handful of ice out of the freezer and wraps it in a washcloth, flips her palm upright, rests the ice there. Annie cringes but doesn’t move. He’s proud of her. She doesn’t cry. He runs his fingers through her hair—his daughter’s hair?—because it is something he has always dreamed having the privilege to do.

“Can I still eat the sandwich?” she asks. Lev shrugs, sees that it’s not so bad, even though it’s burned on one side. She is reaching up from the floor, so Lev picks it up with his fingers, hands it to her. She bites, makes a chirp. “I don’t mind the burniness.”

Lev wonders where Heather is. It’s been a few days since he found Annie in the desert, by the markings on his calendar. Her car isn’t outside, slowly being buffed by the wind-borne sand. He says, “Do you know where your mother went?”

Annie shrugs. “She likes to get out and do errands.” She finishes her sandwich and smiles, cheese impacted in the gap of her two front teeth. “This is my favorite. I don’t get it very much.”

“I’ve never made food for anyone since I moved here,” Lev says.

She looks at Lev like she’s proud, and he’s never been more. “You said you were going to heat up water so I could take a bath. I bet you never made a bath for anyone either, have you, daddy?” she says, and blushes, slaps her hand over her mouth, like it’s something she’s been told never ever to do

                                        face is sunset red and ugly. What are they arguing about? Lev tries to take stock of the scenario: Annie is on the couch, squirming along with the jokes on some cartoon. Heather is sitting on his bed with a bottle of bourbon between her knees. Lev sees a needle mark on the inside of her elbow.

“At least I’m not using again,” he says.

“Oh, bring that up again,” Heather says. “You know, back when we were together, you didn’t have a sober second in your life. And you loved it.”

“I’ve grown up.”

“You know who else has grown up? The daughter you left behind.”

“You never told me you were pregnant. You can’t blame me for something you kept from me.”

“I did tell you,” Heather says. She gets up from the bed and stands between him and Annie. “You just weren’t listening. You were blind.”

This is why he left her and Corona and moved to Horticulture—it’s hard to fight when he can’t insist upon his correctness. Lev goes to his bedroom and sweeps the sheet—his makeshift wall—across like a shower curtain. She’ll cool off in time. He lies back on the bed. His heart is panicked. He wants to believe that he wouldn’t be blind to something like getting a girl pregnant, much less running the other way, but there are no guarantees.

The wind has picked up, heavy enough that it rocks the cabin when it gusts. He tries to sleep. There is a gap in the roof somewhere above him, and it squeals like a whistle as the wind rushes through. After some time, the TV’s volume rises cataclysmic and the sheet goes swish swoosh and before Lev knows what’s happening he’s accompanied by Heather’s warm body rubbing against him and he thinks, well, it’s been about seven years since a woman has gotten him off, and it’s lonely in Horticulture, with the blinding, and the TV is loud and her warm hands are now clawing at his groin, reminding him of that junked-up hyper-love

                                        I told you, take 62/180 out of El Paso. Fucking hell, Bent, it’s not my problem you took the wrong turn in Tucson. Yeah, I saw them with my own two eyes, Bent. This one he’s got old but souped up and all and with this hella nice interior. Yeah, just like I told you. Inside and out.”

It’s Heather, whispering into her phone from the other side of the curtain. He’s comforted in a way by the sound of her voice—no matter what she’s saying—because it reminds him of the twilight of a high. He tries to sleep. Outside, it’s pure dark save for the moonlight.

Lev hears her voice rise up again over the wind: “You know what I would do if you were here right now, baby? I’d unzip those jeans and let you loose. You know it, baby. I’d take you in my mouth and let you do whatever you wanted with me, because I’m yours. Yeah, I’m yours I’m yours I’m

                                        laying next to him. She’s snoring and twitching of dreams. The TV has quieted down. While the blinding had taken away the act itself, Lev knows he has no excuses for letting Heather get close to him again. He peels back the curtain with his finger and pokes his head out, sees Annie at the TV. She turns back and their eyes meet and she blushes. Lev goes back into hiding. Heather starts to wake. She mumbles and puts her hand on Lev’s chest. Pale light filters in through the shutters—it’s morning—but the sky is dark. Lev thinks tonight will be as dark as it’s been since he moved to Horticulture. A good Texas blow-up is coming.

“Hey, baby,” she says. “Good morning.”

“I heard you on the phone,” Lev says. “You were talking to someone in the middle of the night. I never said that you could bring someone here.”

Heather shushes him, puts her hand over his mouth, kisses his nose. “No, I wasn’t on the phone. You were out. You call it ‘the blinding,’ right? That’s what it was. I saw it in your eyes. You were just dreaming, baby.”

                                        Watching TV with Annie at his side. When he looks around the cabin, nothing looks right. There are bags and wrappers from fast food restaurants scattered everywhere, and Heather’s clothes are all over the floor. Things have changed. The wind sounds like a convoy of panzers charging through the desert. Lev thinks the cabin will hold through the storm, and if not, there are contingencies. All he needs now is a plan for the blinding. It used to come for an hour or two, and then a little longer just ahead of his exit from Corona, but now, he can’t tell. When he checks his calendar, which he religiously uses to cross through the days, he sees it’s been a few since Annie showed up in the desert, and he barely remembers any of it. He thinks it’s ramping up to help him forget the things he’d rather not remember.

Lev says, “Where did your mother go?”

“She said that she had to go buy some new nails. Like, those long white fake ones she has. You saw them,” Annie says. She swaps the television over to the only other channel available in Horticulture. “That’s how she always is. She leaves sometimes, and that’s the only time I don’t like it.”

“She leaves you alone?” Lev asks. He imagines Heather handing Annie the TV remote and breezing out the door, eager to manipulate her next score.

Annie shrugs. “Once she left all night.” She talks like the memory is still recent. It might have happened not long ago. It would explain why Heather had come out here, seeking some kind of stability under his roof. “But I like it here. It’s quiet, and there’s still TV. And you’re nice to me.”

“Is your mother not nice to you?”

“She just doesn’t think about me much.” Annie chews on her fingernail, picks at the bandage he had wrapped around her hand for the burn. She has his nervous habits. Lev wonders if the blinding is genetic, if it can be passed on through the generations. She says, “Here, I never have to wonder where you are. I know better than even you do.”

Lev smiles. He doesn’t worry for the first time since she showed up. There are  few things that can pass through the blinding as well as time. Love is one of them.

“And Bent—he scares me.” Annie shudders

* * *

                                        here comes another car down the half-hidden road, under the still-coming veil of dust to the west, with its clouded headlights tracking a path straight toward Lev. He ducks away from the window and checks up on Annie—in her usual spot.

When this car coasts to a stop and the headlights flicker through the shutters at the front of the cabin Heather bolts up from the recliner, peeks through the cracks in his construction. She goes outside, not bothering to close the door behind her. A tornado of sand whips itself up inside, and as soon as Lev slams the door shut, it collapses like a ghost that has been spotted. Lev watches through the peephole as Heather hugs a man, kisses him with the same mouth that had been all over his body the night before. They edge closer and Lev lets them inside.

“Lev, this is my man,” Heather says.

“Bent.”

“The one and only,” Bent says, and offers his hand. Lev takes it. “Hey, man, you’ve got a nice place here. Way out in the desert. Crazy. Pain in the ass to find, too.”

“It works for me,” Lev says. He turns back into the cabin and sees that Annie hasn’t moved an inch to greet the newcomer. “Yeah, well, come on in.”

Bent is so tall he has to bend over a little to fit inside the cabin. He doesn’t say hello to Annie. He’s looking around, craning his neck left and right. Lev goes into the kitchen and grabs two beers, opens them both, hands one to Bent. Lev knows any man can always use a drink at the end of a long drive—it’s the least he can do. Bent takes it and nods with a small smile and drinks. Lev considers him. He’s tall, but scrawny, like addicts often are. His muscles look atrophied, burned by an injected plague. Still, Lev can see why Annie is afraid.

“Hey, man, I heard that you had some sweet cars up in this place,” Bent says. He’s still looking around. “Like, some old restored, souped-up motherfuckers. That true, or has she been lying to me all this time?”

“It’s true,” Lev says. “Come on.” They step back out into the wind, cover eyes with their flannel-clad forearms

                                        beer is sweating in his hand and he’s sitting five feet from Bent on two metal stools and can feel he’s been laughing. There’s a soreness in his diaphragm. He doesn’t know how they got here, shooting the shit, staring down the Thunderbird’s grill.

“I wouldn’t mind a place like this,” Bent says. “Yeah, man. Not bad at all. You wouldn’t have anyone breathing down your neck about rent and shit, and, you know, you’d get to make your own rules.”

“Not always as easy as you’d think,” Lev says. “It’s lonely out here.”

Bent takes another swig of his drink and looks down the Thunderbird’s long lines, edges his hand alongside the near-finished body work. He asks if he can see under the hood, and Lev obliges. The engine beneath is polished and greased where it needs to be. Lev gets a little thrilled by Bent’s attention and decides to fire it up, show this new man what his predecessor is capable of. The V-8 pops and grumbles but sounds like the Devil, and on an open road, that’s exactly what he wants. Lev kills the engine and stashes away the key. Bent is standing at the front with his hands on his hips, biting his lip.

“Sounds like a beaut. Say, why did you come all the way out here? You could have done this work back in California. Hell, you would have been a lot closer to your customers that way.”

“I needed to get away from my habits,” Lev says. His beer tastes flat and alcohol-less. The wind picks up again, rattles the doors of the garage. The storm has continued to brew, probably held steady by some pocket of warm air over central Texas. He knows it will soon land in Horticulture, stick around for a while before moving northeast into Oklahoma, but not before leveraging its share of damage. There’s a repository of sorrow somewhere, Lev knows, from which everything must take its portion. Man and storms alike. And he got a little bit more than the rest.

Lev kneels down where Bent can’t see and reaches down below the workbench, takes his 9mm handgun from its grease-soaked rag and puts it into his hand. He slips it into the back of his jeans—just in case. When he doesn’t know much of the past, it’s hard to guess what’s coming. But it’s probably been two years since he’s fired the damn thing.

“Oh, I know that,” Bent says, and stands, and runs his hand down the Thunderbird’s hood. “So, what, you can’t remember anything? Like, you see it and then you forget it? You don’t even remember what we was talking about thirty seconds ago? Because that’s what Heather told me.”

“She hasn’t known me for a long time,” Lev says, grabbing another two beers

                                        she is crying and holding his hand. She asks, “What’s happening?”

“I don’t know, Annie,” Lev says. They are standing in the garage, and Bent is gone. One beer is spilled on the concrete but there is no broken glass or signs of struggle. He doesn’t feel hurt. Annie isn’t hurt, either, but he still has to think on his feet.

Lev puts his hand into his pocket and slips out his ring and index fingers. He says, “This is our sign. You see it? When I do it again, you hide right under this Thunderbird, right here. It’s low and dark and no one will know you’re there but me. You remember the sign?”

Annie does as Lev showed. It’s natural enough that Heather and Bent won’t notice, but odd enough that a little girl most definitely will. Lev tells himself that she’s smart, that she has a good memory. Odds are she’ll figure out when to leave all on her own. He doesn’t quite understand how he, supposedly, handed over half the genetic material to create her.

Thunder rocks the garage. Waves of rain slap the thin roof above. The storm has folded over Horticulture, now, and will stay for the night. It is already perfectly dark outside. This place is a black hole, if nothing else. No light, no sound. All he knows is that once a life has entered into its sphere, it cannot escape.

Annie holds out her arms, and Lev picks her up, feels the stunning weight of her seven-year-old body, and holds her close. She clings to his shirt, presses herself so close he can’t believe he has been missing out on a thing to live for all these years.

“God, I hope I remember at least some of this,” Lev says.

Annie says, “I hope I don’t

                                        I’m taking that Thunderbird, you hear?”

“A man like you couldn’t even drive the thing,” Lev says. He knows Bent will get horny on that Interceptor’s growl and give the back wheels too much power. He’ll try to powerslide through the wide left turn that leads toward the highway, quickly learn about understeer, hurtle toward a dune that will send him onto the roof.

Bent has his right fist wrapped around a 3-foot wrench for tough bolts. It has a sharp end with a thick socket that could easily punch a hole into Lev’s skull. Heather is kneeling on Lev’s bed, her face wet with tears. Lev doesn’t know why, exactly, because the blinding had just led him here, with his hands up in the air, his 9mm poking at the small of his back.

Heather says, “Lev, just let him take it. It’s just a car. He’ll take it and you’ll never hear from us again. It’ll be like making up for all those child support checks you missed out on.”

“Why don’t you listen to her for once?” Bent says.

Lightning strikes nearby, followed immediately by a blast of thunder. Rain shudders down on them. More lightning, followed by another crack of thunder that echoes again and again, all the way to the Guadalupe Mountains.
Bent steps forward. He says, “I don’t have a beef with you, man. I just want to get the fuck out of here. And not in that piece of shit I drove all the way here in.”

“I can’t let you do that,” Lev says. He steps forward, too. “None of this is yours. And she deserves better.”

Annie jumps up from behind the sofa and runs for the door, wrenches it open, darts outside. She’s headed for the garage, for the darkness beneath the Thunderbird—he didn’t even need to make the sign. Heather starts to chase, and then stops midway between Lev and Bent. The desert is drowned by rainfall. There is another bolt of lightning, this time almost immediately on top of them, and a violent rush of wind. The cabin rocks and whines. Heather looks at both of the men, and then reaches for the door, closes it, locks

                                        arms are tired and his legs are in a lactic burn. With one arm he’s pulling Bent by his ankle, and with the other he has Heather by the collar of her blouse. He’s absconding them into the desert. Around Lev is gray skies and dunes and a haze that keeps visibility low. The thick of the storm seems to have passed, leaving him in a slip of windless calm, but the thrust of the storm has left its mark on Lev’s backyard desert. It has changed its topography in ways he can’t see or explain, only feel. He has a shovel tucked beneath his armpit and his shirt is covered in blood. When he thumbs at his cheek with his tongue, he can feel that he’s missing two teeth—one on the top, another on the bottom. He has a gunshot wound in the thick of his flank, four inches right of his belly button. When he reaches to his love handle, he feels the exit wound, a flower of skin and fat. Bent must have had a gun, too.

He finds a valley in the desert. Here, the sand will settle over time as water collects from heavy storms. Lev drops the bodies and takes the shovel in his hand, starts hacking. The sand thick and wet and reminds him of sand he would find on Los Angeles beaches as a child. He is two feet beneath the surface—deep enough that the walls collapse on themselves—when he decides this is enough. He first pulls Bent in. The body flops over and lands face-up. There are three gunshot guns in his chest—two for the heart and one for the opposite lung. Lev grabs Heather by her wrist and pulls her over the man she led to Horticulture. She only has one red pocket, high up on her chest, just under her left collarbone. Lev feels like he’s been crying. He’s sorry for whatever happened. But he wasn’t going to let anyone take his desert. Lev pushes sand onto the bodies. The sun glows a little more heavily, as though to take a peek at Lev’s lonely work, but the clouds ruffle and darken

                                        cabin is dark and cold. Lev finds himself lying on his bed, and when he moves, there’s a strike of pain in his gut. He remembers his gunshot wound, but it’s already wrapped up in a bandage that is collecting exudate. And then his mind backtracks to what wasn’t lost in the blinding. Heather and Bent in the sand, their hair bloodied, their faces pale and empty as they slipped into the sand. He wants to think that it was Heather’s fault, but for the first time, he can’t explain to himself how she found him out there in the first place. Maybe he had called, in the blinding, desperate for the memory of her love. Maybe he was trying to remember if he had ever loved her, if she could join him in the loneliness.

Around the cabin Lev finds signs of commotion, which must have started just after Heather locked the door. But he can’t fill the time. He sees a dash of blood in the kitchen, where he had been standing, and a bullet hole through the wall. There is another through the ceiling. That must have been Heather’s. And then his mind takes a meander even farther back.

Where’s Annie?

He runs to the garage and nearly dives under the Thunderbird. She isn’t there. The dirt on the floor is ruffled, like she had scooted in and out on her butt, but there is no trace of her in the garage. He screams out her name. He tries inside once more, hoping it was all a misunderstanding. He breathes in sand as he yells. Sand tracks into his eyes, makes him cry, but he doesn’t care. At the southern end of the property, Lev finds light-footed prints heading southwest, barefoot, too. He sighs. He doesn’t know how long she’s been out there, but he has to look. The desert is adept at deletion.

He walks out right over the tracks in the sand after grabbing a canteen from the cabin, taking one step for every two paces of Annie’s. Down a dune he skids, until the trail turns west and curls back up to another rise in the sand. At the summit, Lev stops and takes in the landscape. The clouds of the passing storm, now in the east, remind him of the Guadalupe Mountains. But behind him, back west, is yet another wing of a bigger disturbance in the air far above. It doesn’t rain much in this desert, but when it does, the clouds cry like they’re to turn their target into an ocean. The most dangerous places are the ones that a little girl would find most magical—caves of perfectly round of striated red rock that echo her voice into infinity. That’s where rain collects. That’s where outsiders drown.

The tracks disappear. Lev reverses direction and tries to see where he went wrong, but there’s no answer on any of the land he’s already traveled. He breaks his voice for her. There is a stitch of red rock that breaks out of the sand in this direction, with overhung cubbies that a child might like to hide in. Even in this afternoon heat, they would be cool and habitable, but he has to find her soon, because come sundown, it’ll be so cold she won’t stay alive no matter how hard she shivers. Lev peers into the rocky caverns but finds nothing, not even traces of a girl’s footprints in the mud. Where could she have gone? He doesn’t know if the blinding is keeping this one secret from him. He doesn’t know if she, too, is already dead. At the top of a dune, Lev looks out over the landscape of Horticulture, Texas. Desert in all directions. Here, he thinks he might be better able to track the landscape. He might even be able to find her trail in the sand. He doesn’t look for more than a few seconds when he sees little Annie crawling her way up a three-story mound of sand. Lev calls out and she stops, turns around, and waits for him to catch up with her. Her skin is burned red and her eyes are bloodshot.

“God, you’re okay,” Lev says. “I’m glad we made it.”

She’s eyeing the canteen, so Lev hands it over, watches as she drinks most of it down. He knows how it feels, to worry that water is lost for you. She says, “What do you remember?”

He shakes his head because he can’t say he just doesn’t remember what happened the night before, in the fulcrum of the storm. “I did what I thought was best. What I had to.”

“I know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What are you going to do with me?” There is a flicker of fear in her eyes, the way she looked when she first spoke of Bent. Her eyes track the desert like she is trying to remember, for the sake of her soul, where she might be buried.

Lev kneels down next to her, holds out an arm. Just like before, she comes to him. She wants him more than something else, which is enough. He doesn’t know if he can provide for her out here, but he’s willing to try. His heart is wild, but he knows that even if love survives the blinding, it cannot simply be read. As a blind man, he can only follow and pray.

Lev guides her head to his chest. He asks, “What are you doing all the way out here? I was so worried about you.”

“I just wanted to see where she’s buried,” Annie says.

“Oh, honey, not even I know where that is.”

Joel Hans

Joel Hans

Joel Hans

Joel Hans is a writer and editor living in Madison, Wisconsin. His fiction has been published in Word Riot, The Lindenwood Review, and Valparaiso Fiction Review and is forthcoming in The Ampersand Review and others. He is currently working on a novel about the intersection between death and poetry.