Somewhere in the Nevada Desert

Sadie woke with grit in her mouth and sand in her ears and sheer blades of sun sliding through her eyes, spilling her vision into pools of red and purple bruises. She didn’t remember crashing, and she didn’t know how long she had already been in the desert. But she needed to find her solarcycle before she missed the launch, so she crawled to her knees and coughed up brittle, heaving gasps of air through her cracked lips. Her black leather riding gear, the kind with a faded pink racing stripe running up its length, was scraped and torn along her thigh. Judging from the way her flesh stung as she crawled through the sand, she probably had a bad case of road burn too. She gripped sagebrush to help pull herself along, her twisting fingers breaking its stems and leaves, its scent filling her nose and mouth, just like it had done fifty years ago when she had first stumbled through the desert lost and alone.

She found her solarcycle on its side with its front wheel spinning lonely and slow and forlorn in the gentle morning breeze. Shaping her hands into a visor to block the sun, she looked down at the wreck and tried to ignore the way her belly caved, the way her lungs deflated, the way something whispered in her heart that she would never make it to the launch site where Ruthie might or might not be waiting for her.

Not much had changed in fifty years. She was still crashing through desert scrub hoping someone would pass on by to rescue her before thirst killed her or the cold got to her or the coyotes found her.

Sadie wiped desert from her leathers and swallowed spit in the faint hopes of tricking her stomach that sure it was water. She licked salt from her lips, bits of ocean rushing through the wind as the desalination plants along the coast a hundred miles away pumped water from the sea and dumped it into people’s homes while labor drones harvested the salt.

She’d asked Ruthie about the salt, once, a long time ago. It was always chapping her lips and people told her she licked her mouth too much. “Gotta grab water where we can,” was all Ruthie had said. “I don’t taste the salt though. Try this since it’s bothering you.” She had passed Sadie her vape, the one tasting like really good cinnamon. It tingled, and Sadie batted her eyes as they welled up from its stinging pucker, sucking her lips to get to that fading zing. “One day,” Ruthie said, her voice thick and slow, dazed almost, “we’re going to bring back water from Europa. Space ships packed with cubes of ice.” Her eyes turned dreamy, her lips half parted and trailing red-tinted vapor. “Our planet’s just a brown marble, I think, way out there.” Ruthie raised her hand to the sky so that her palm blocked a bright sun, fingers squared around a patch of sky. Then she stretched, and her shirt rode up her stomach. “But hey. At least the sky’s still blue.”

But fifty years later, Ruthie wasn’t there beside her, and Sadie had to pull her solarcycle right side up all by herself. She examined it with shaking fingers. The solar panel was cracked, but it could probably still pull power from the sun after it had baked a little while. The leather bag she’d dragged behind her for fifty years was still belted to the side, and as Sadie rested her forehead against the hot leather saddle, relief eased the skitter scatter of her heart. She’d been afraid it’d been torn free during the crash.

Sadie tied her grey braids tight against the nape of her skull and pushed her bike against the dust-crusted road as the sun rose higher towards its zenith. Vaguely, she remembered Ruthie telling her she should always wear a helmet, but hers was lost to the desert, and she didn’t care, and besides Ruthie wasn’t even there to tease her about it.

She was over fifty years old. What the hell did it matter?

She missed the times she and Ruthie had been sprawled on the hood of Ruthie’s gas guzzling truck, the one with the rattling old engine whose light was always blipping on. How they’d bake in the sun together, slathering sun screen into their brown skin and taking turns with each other’s backs and how she had rubbed that crap in gloopy circles around her scarred stomach as she had closed her eyes against the sun bleeding spots through her vision.

Not much had changed, except that Sadie had stopped wearing sunscreen. Her skin was tough and splitting at the seams, and she stared at the wrinkles carved into her flesh, wanting to scream and scream because the sun wasn’t supposed to be this hot, wasn’t supposed to hang so low in a sky so relentlessly blue.

The sun blinded her with shining shards of desert sand, and Sadie wished again for the thick dark glasses that had once been hers before someone else had stolen them. She couldn’t remember when it had happened, just that she had fallen asleep and hadn’t woken up for months and months and months. The thief had lifted them right from her face, and she had finally woken blinking dust from her eyes. She’d stumbled off her moldering couch, blinking back the rising dawn, to bad food in her fridge and her email full of unread messages. Spooning canned meat in her mouth with a shaking hand even though she wasn’t hungry, Sadie had began with the spam folders, reading each one dutifully and diligently (You Won’t Believe What This Rocket Man Saw Under the Ice: It Isn’t What You Think!) before she finally remembered to close the open window those thieves had slipped through. Sand had piled up in mini dunes under the sill, and she had had to brush every one of them away she could latch it shut. She hoped that Ruthie wouldn’t mind the sand, the desert in her house. She could vacuum it up—later, maybe after she was finished. Maybe when she was feeling a little better, when the sleep had left her eyes and her heart.

Sadie stopped in the middle of the road, sweat streaming into her eyes, the sun glaring shimmering lakes on the horizon.

She pulled up the map on the bio-screen in her palm, flapping her hand so that the view wouldn’t show up sidewise. She was a red blipping dot somewhere along that crease of skin following the 6 across the goddamn desert. “God damn,” she said when she saw how many miles she still had to go before she reached the launch site.

“Excuse me, I don’t understand,” the AI in her bio-screen said, all patience and gentleness and forgiveness. It was Ruthie’s voice because, when Ruthie had gone away the first time, she had customized it so that Sadie could hear her voice whenever she wanted.

As Sadie resumed trudging under a cloudless sky over burning sand, she once more considered that she should have just gone to Mars with the first group after MOXIE 2 had finished oxygenating the planet two years back.

Not that anyone could just up and move to Mars, of course.

Needed more money than Sadie had ever made in her whole life, she figured, but that wasn’t hard to do. All she’d ever done with her was serve food and drink, and that didn’t pay good at all.

Her bike was soaking up the sun too slow and she’d already had to stop and sweat under the praying pose of a Joshua tree, her lids so heavy and fatigued she was afraid she’d fall asleep again, and this time she wouldn’t wake up because in sand like this it would blow into her mouth, choking her while the heat wrung every bit of water from her, and she’d split open for the coyotes, hungry and starved, and they would chew her until she was gone, gone, gone.

She forced herself to her heavy, booted feet and continued her slow crawl until she saw the flashing roof of a gas station town, those watering holes in the middle of nowheres that had once been pit stops for people needing fuel for their cars and water to quench their thirst. She figured there might still be some fuel filming the bottom of those giant, underground cisterns but it wasn’t for sale—not enough demand these days. Now it was home to a mom and pop burger joint, a square faced edifice that was a reminder that there was something else out there besides a never-ending stretch of highway with faded paint since it hadn’t yet been paved over with solar cells.

Soon, it would be just like the others, and when it was, the lanes would wink and blink like a lost Las Vegas, nodding nowhere up north to Reno.

Sadie scrubbed her wrist over her mouth as she parked her bike and pushed her way through the double doors, where she stood patiently in front of the please wait to be seated sign even though there were no other customers. Eventually, someone came out—round and plump and young and over-eager to please. Sadie waved her off, asking just for coffee.

“Should I make that a decaf?” Chipper, like morning birds or relentless alarm clocks.

“Why?”

“Because dehydration is a serious problem in the desert.”

“Coffee. Regular,” Sadie said. There was something about caffeine. Ruthie had told her but she didn’t remember beyond the fact that she loved the way coffee tasted, the way she could hold it in her mouth without swallowing as it saturated her tongue and her teeth.

Yellow cushion bled through the split leather coverings, and Sadie played with it, entwining her fingers through it as she stared out the window, wishing she could just fall asleep like she had so long ago. But she’d ran out of the sleeping serum a long time ago, and it wasn’t supposed to have been used like she had used it. It was supposed to be for those astronauts hurling themselves through space, fast asleep in beds of ice as they waited for the sun of a far off planets to thaw them free.

She should have given it to Ruthie. Guilt soured her belly.

Her palm flickered and she looked at the thirty unread messages notification, the most recent being Ruthie flashing images of flying saucers—a litany of mockery on today of all days. Then she winky-faced and texted see you later, alligator, unless we do the time warp dance again, haha.

Sadie debated responding back, but by then someone set down a cup of hot steaming coffee, a pale translucent sickly shade of caffeine that was hardly bitter and hardly made her mouth pucker as she gulped it straight. To be honest, she was surprised that they even had coffee to serve. They must have been making it weaker and weaker to last through the very dregs of the season.

She turned the cup side to side. It was stamped with bright, cheerful sayings. Every morning is a good one here! Wake up to a cup of sunshine! She frowned at them.

Coffee grounds grit between her teeth as her palm lit up again. “Shut up,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” the AI said patiently, so patiently, the most patient voice Sadie had ever heard. She loved its patience. She could ask it the same thing over and over and over and it would always answer in the exact same way, the same even-voiced way, with no trace of suppressed frustration or irritation.

Ruthie kept textng her.

C’mon, the text said. Don’t be like that. Don’t be mad at me forever.

Ruthie had said the same thing when she had fallen asleep and hadn’t managed to wake up. Sadie had woken to 100 unread text messages, all from Ruthie. After Sadie had finished with the spam folder, she had began with the first message and read them all, every single one.

Sitting all alone in the diner, she missed Ruthie all over again, so she scrolled to the beginning of all those messages from Ruthie from so long ago, and re-read them all, every single one.

Don’t be mad at me for saying no. Sadface.

I couldn’t risk it, you know that.

Please try to understand. I can’t get stuck in the past like you.

Those had been the texts at first.

Are you there? You’re scaring me, Sadie.

At least text me something, just to let me know you’re okay.

Just so you know, I got back safe and sound. Are you safe? Are you okay?

Sadie? Sadie?

I’m coming over, I don’t care if you don’t want to see me.

We need to talk. You’re all alone and it frightens me, Sadie.

For the first time, Sadie noticed the time stamps. How Ruthie had texted her off and on for over eight months before threatening to come over, and how she hadn’t heard a single chime, hadn’t seen a single flash from her palm as she had slept and slept and slept.

She should probably feel bad about that.

Maybe she kind of did.

Sipping coffee that tasted mostly like stale water, Sadie kept scrolling through the messages. She swished coffee over her teeth and tongue like mouthwash, nearly forgetting to swallow when she saw the next text, the one with the picture, the one that still surprised her.

It was a snap of Ruthie, celebrity bug-eyed in Sadie’s glasses, her black hair twisted out in curls. “God damn you got my glasses,” Sadie murmured softly. She lingered over the image even though her coffee grew even colder the longer she stared. Distantly, she had the vague feeling she had said the exact same thing when she had first seen it, though she had mostly forgotten, just as she had completely forgotten that Ruthie was the person who had waltzed through the door those twenty years ago and plucked the glasses from her face as she had slept.

I couldn’t wake you so I hope you’re just trying to avoid me. But I know how much you love these glasses.

Another image, this time with Ruthie holding the glasses so the stems were folded over her knuckles, and her neck was poised and graceful, eyes gazing to nowhere, like she was some kind of super model.

So I guess you’ll just have to come and see me again. If you want these glasses back. Hope to see you soon.

She had punctuated the text with a gif of her winking. According to the notifications, Sadie had watched the vid on loop twenty-six hundred times. She watched it a few hundred times more until her coffee was completely cold and muddy from grounds that had sunk their way to the bottom of her cup.

A migraine had screwed its way through her temples when she had finally read them all, a whole two years worth of texts.

“More coffee?”

Sadie glanced down at her completely empty cup. “Please.” The coffee came out amber glass clear. She looked up, her face scrunching up in the way that made Ruthie laugh at her sometimes. “Really?”

“Really, honey. Maybe you need to go to those coffee places, the ones on every corner in the big cities, huh, the ones that still use the real beans, the real deal.”

“If you can afford it,” Sadie said. “Ruthie used to call them caffeinated confections.”

The waitress looked down at her, eyebrows shaped like question marks.

“Because it’s all just sugar,” Sadie said.

“No, I understood.” The waitress smiled affably and then went back to the kitchen and Sadie watched her go, watched the door close behind her.

It was cool in the diner and there was hardly any sun bleeding through the tightly closed blinds. She didn’t want to go out there even though she had to go to the launch because it would be her only chance, her last chance, and she had to believe that Ruthie would carry the signal up with her when she got on that rocket ship. Ruthie couldn’t bring the message home all by herself. Sadie had to be there, on the ground, with the tech to broadcast it. They would have to hope that the two systems would be compatible, that Ruthie’s new state of the art equipment carrying all those people to Mars would be able to handle the technology that was fifty years old so new it hadn’t been invented yet.

But she was so tired. Her body was used and old and sore. She could rest for a moment before she continued. She could put her cheek on the cool table and it would be okay. She could close her eyes, and—

Someone prodded her shoulder, and she squeezed her eyes tighter. Liquid splashed into a cup and there was a weak smell of coffee. Her eyes fluttered, and she stared up blearily at the waitress. She was wearing a different shirt, something lime green with oval black eyes cracked and faded from too many washings hung on a line bleached by the sun.

Sadie jumped back, her back pressing into the corner of the bench seat.

“We couldn’t wake you last night,” the waitress said. “You were knocked the hell out. Tried shaking you and everything. No good.” The waitress shook her head. “You must have been pretty tired. Good thing you weren’t driving, unless you had those cars that can steer themselves.” She barked out a laugh.

Sadie wiped the sleep from her eyes and then reached for the cup of coffee. “Thanks.” Her voice came out rough like gravel, like she’d swallowed the whole desert and was spitting it back up one word at a time. “What day is it?”

“Thursday.”

Sadie squeezed her eye shut. The launch was Saturday. She could make it. She thought she could make it. If she didn’t fall asleep again or lose the road or forget.

“It’s okay. Nobody cares, you know. We were just concerned for you because.” Her voice trailed off and she stared uncomfortably down at her shoes.

Sadie could tell, after they had exchanged words beyond the expected pleasantries and after they had let her stay the night when this was clearly not a hotel, that she wanted to ask about the pale scar scored across her right eye and the burn scars on the right side of her face and her right arm and, though the waitress couldn’t see, that stretched across her whole torso and down her legs. If they had asked, she would have told the same story like she always told it: in clipped words because she didn’t like talking about it too much, didn’t like the way the scars looked against her skin, how they were constantly reminding her of what had happened. How she had crash-landed fifty years ago, barrel-rolling through the desert as exploding debris fell around her, popping fireworks splitting her ears down their seams as fire scorched itself into her flesh. Sometimes, the nightmares would be enough to wake her from a deep sleep. Sometimes, they’d be enough to keep her awake for days and days. She could still smell the broken, burning sage. “Bill please,” Sadie said because she didn’t feel like talking about it. And, even though she tipped almost all she had left, she still felt like she was being rude but she didn’t have time to tell the story, she didn’t have time to try new ways of making it funny so that her listeners weren’t too uncomfortable. So she slid her butt across the split and bleeding booth and almost ran into the dirt-streaked glass before she remembered to open the door.

“You okay to drive?” someone called out behind her but Sadie didn’t answer as she finally saw that while she had been sleeping away the little time she had left, the bike was charged enough for her to ride it a little way.

It ran smooth and quiet, not like the gunshot motors she’d first driven, chuffing smoke and spitting gasoline as the whole thing trembled between her legs like something alive. This bike ran so smooth and quiet, like some kind of ghost, some kind of has been, that Sadie wasn’t even quite sure the ribbons of road spinning beneath her tires were actually there except when she was on the desert and the tires spat up sand and salt until her skin was pockmarked with the road and the earth and the sun burning itself into her skin.

She drove for a long time. She drove through the cold night with her leather jacket zipped all the way up against her throat, and she drove through the hot day with her leather jacked unzipped all the way down so that the hot air could cool the sweat on her skin and dry her wet faded tank top. She stopped at more of the mom and pop burgers, thirsty for something to drink, but they didn’t have anymore coffee, had run out a few months back and wouldn’t be able to buy more until the season came again.

They were charging more for a bottle of water than she had on her card, so she left without buying anything after they asked her where she had been and where she was going. She waved their questions back as she sat back down on her bike and side-wound down the road like some damned dare devil.

And when she was finally at the launch site, the whole of it cordoned off in orange and yellow tape, she was so thirsty her throat had swelled up like the split tires she’d seen littering the 6. She forgot it all though—her thirst, her tired body, her scarred skin—when she saw the shiny spire of a rocket piercing the sky like a church. The sun flashed against the metal, refracting its light into broken prisms, each one a blinding shard as she flung up her hands and shielded her eyes. She wondered where the hell her sunglasses were, the ones with the thick dark lenses. Sadie hated how she was always losing shit.

As she kneeled in the sage scrub with their bright orange flowers, her knees crushing the brush so that she was heady and light with the smell of it and the screech of broken things, she buried her in her elbows, and remembered, almost clearly, a fragment of conversation she’d once had with Ruthie fifty years back.

You think earth is still blue if you look at it from far enough way? Ruthie had stared at her as if she knew all the answers.

Get up there and find out. It had come out mean and cold.

Someday, I will, Ruthie had promised, and today would be the day that she blasted off from space and saw the earth from so far away.

Sadie was glad for her, and she hated her for it as grief bore down against her lungs and crushed her ribs into a dull ache stitching itself into her side.

With trembling fingers, Sadie unbuckled the bag, slung it over her shoulder, and began crawling up a high crested dune. She opened the bag’s flap and, slowly, withdrew the communications device that had been the only thing she had been able to salvage from from the crash. She was startled into dropping her pieces of home when a booming voice started to count down from ten. With shaking hands, she picked up the fragments, her fingers thick and clumsy as she turned so that she stared up that spire of rocket. She waited for the plume of fire and smoke and carbon, lightening before the thunder of the launch, thunder that shook her very bones in their sagging bag of flesh. The blast knocked Sadie down and she sprayed sand as her legs splayed out, breath sucker punched somewhere in her belly as she lay panting, brain picking up the spilled grain of things forgotten and things half remembered like in one of Ruthie’s fairy tales. Sadie fumbled to press the device on so that its signal would piggy back off Ruthie’s signal up there in that shining rocket until it slung around the sun to reach home so far away from now.

She clutched the communication device in her hands, and wondered if they really would bring water back from Europa, if they really would turn these deserts into another ocean, to another goddamn ocean, and if the sun wouldn’t boil the whole thing gone again, leaving nothing but scums of salt flats that would eat through their cars and their rocket ships and they’d never see the goddamn sky, the same sky that Ruthie sighed still was blue even after everything else had turned the world a gold smudge.

Her hands shook, and the device shook with her, its broken parts patched with glue and duct tape and an incomplete understanding of engineering. White noise rustled like used up paper wads, and she almost despaired until a voice reached out to her and spoke and asked her who she was. When she spoke, they told her she was supposed to be dead. When her mouth gaped like a dried up exclamation point, they wanted to know what she wanted, and then she stammered that all she wanted to do was talk to her parents because please they didn’t have much time, and they said they were so sorry but according to the public records those individuals had died over two hundred years ago. “But it’s only been fifty years!” Sadie sobbed into the device as she knelt in the desert and as sand fell through her clenched fist.

They wanted to know where she was, and when they heard she was on Earth, and it was only 2065, they tutted that she would find herself so very lost.

“You’ve been gone a long time,” they told her.

“For a lifetime,” she cried back. She wondered what had happened to her sky and her oceans and her land in those two hundred years. They probably wouldn’t have looked the same.

“For several lifetimes,” they told her.

She hiccupped into the receiver. If her family was dead, then so were her old friends and anyone else she had ever known and only their children lived.

“We can’t come get you,” they told her. “Quite impossible. We don’t know how. Time and space—we still don’t quite understand these things.”

She didn’t get a chance to protest as the signal fizzled into static once the rocket struck out across the curving horizon, signal blocked by the moon as it aimed all the way towards Europa.

Someone’s heavy hand fell on her shoulder, and Sadie twisted her head up, her grey braids finally coming undone as they fell over her shoulders.

It was Ruthie, bug-eyed like a celebrity in Sadie’s thick-rimmed glasses. She wore an orange jumpsuit over her tank top, and it was unzipped all the way to the waist so that its empty arms hung low behind her thighs. Haloed by the sun, black hair twisted out in curls greyed to chrome white, she smiled down at Sadie still on her knees in the sand. “Hey, Sadie, you old lady,” she said. “Glad you made it this time.” Her eyes softened. “I looked for you every time I launched. Every time.”

Sadie’s face crumpled. “Why aren’t you up there? You’ve always wanted to go up there. You told me you were going to be up there someday.”

“Saw you and changed my mind ‘cause I’ve been up there plenty of times. So I stashed the signal and came here,” Ruthie said, her voice gentle, and Sadie remembered, suddenly, that it was true because Ruthie was a rocket scientist. She’d gone to Mars and back to collect data from the rovers. That she’d been there when they had discovered life—brand new ways for people to catch the common cold, she’d texted Sadie. That it was Ruthie who’d programmed the rovers drilling past the ice on Europa.

“Did you know,” Sadie said, “that it’d turn out this way?”

Ruthie crouched so that she was no longer staring down at Sadie. Her palm was warm and dry as she held her hand. “I suspected. It’s the law of relativity for a reason.” Her face was sad.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you warn me?” Sadie felt like she should be angry but she was too tired. She’d left too much of herself along the road. The scraped up meat of her thigh pained and ached her and she wanted to turn over and sleep away from such a blue sky.

“Because I couldn’t know for sure now could I?” She chucked Sadie’s chin and said, “But hey listen—I have something for you. Two somethings, actually. First–” and she pulled off the glasses and set them gently on Sadie’s nose, turning down the lights on a too bright sun. “I shouldn’t have taken these from you. I’m sorry. I just wanted to get you out of that house, and then you never came for them.” Ruthie’s voice cracked and she turned her eyes away, wiping them away with her wrist.

Sadie touched the thick lenses with her finger gently, carefully. “I forgot you had these,” she said, though she felt as if she had known once a long time before. Time felt different now. It itched its way under her skin and grated under her nails just like the sand.

Then Ruthie pulled out a thermos that had been tucked inside the baggy leg of her jumpsuit. She twisted the lid off with a firm pivot of her wrist. For some reason, her big brown eyes were wet as she paused for a moment to breath in the curl of steam before handing it to Sadie. “I know it ain’t much, but it might be a little bit of something.”

It was coffee, thick and dark and pungent, lined with oil so sleek Sadie could see her reflection, her torn up face spreading beneath the huge circle lenses of her glasses that needed to be thicker still. Sadie gulped it down without waiting for it to cool, plunging her throat in scorching heat, the bitterness puckering up her mouth so that it flooded with water.

Sadie wiped her mouth with her wrist, and offered the thermos to Ruthie. She put her lips in the same place Sadie had and drank deeply. They helped each other to their feet on the perpetually shifting sand. “Better?” one asked the other and she replied, “Better.”

“Let’s go home,” Sadie said.

Ruthie laughed. “You mean my house that you’ve crashed in for fifty years?” She cupped Sadie’s cheek in her palm and pressed a kiss to her scarred temple. “Let’s go home.”

They slid down the dune, their heels spraying sand, and when Sadie looked back, it was as if they had never been, so quickly did the wind and the sand hide their path.

The sky too, was clear, as if there had been no spire of rocket trailing across the horizon smoking pluming puffs of fire.

And even now Sadie could no longer see the shards of rock nor hear the voice of the someone on the other end of the line. Their words and the white noise of the receiver and the roar of the rocket were distant echoes, the sound the wind made scraping its way across the solar-paved roads, cutting through the sloping plains of desert, so different and so the same after fifty years, the ache a distant memory and a constant presence as Sadie turned her eyes towards Ruthie and slid her hand in hers, closing her eyes again against the sun’s bright light.

THE END

If you enjoyed this story, please like or share! There is also a pinterest board that I created for the story [link]

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