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Some places, like some people, are timeless, like nothing that ever happens leaves any lasting marks, like it’s all just scar tissue, forever reverting back to a familiar state of being. To Benny the desert was that place; never-changing, battered and bruised by all the shit flowing through it yet never succumbing to it. Whatever happened it would stay the same. As he rummaged through his shack looking for that bottle of battery fluid he knew was lying around somewhere he reminded himself of that simple fact: Nothing ever changed in the desert. Not for long anyway.

”Hey!” A car horn sounded, killing the wonderful silence. Benny grimaced. It was a necessary evil. He had to earn his money somehow. And there, at the bottom of a box, was the battery fluid. He grabbed it and went outside.

”Here.” He handed the kids the canister. A thin guy with eight earrings, a nose ring and a blonde goatee in turn handed him a couple of bills.

”Thanks, man.” The guy looked around, from Benny’s shack to his friends in the car to Benny, the smell of alcohol and weed explaining the jerkiness of his movements. ”You live here all by yourself?”

Benny nodded.

”Ever go into town?”

Benny cleared his throat and spat on the ground. ”Just for food. Seen enough of that shit.”

The guy handed the battery fluid to his friend who popped the hood and poured it in.

”I can’t even imagine living this close to Vegas,” he said, smiling.

”Get going,” Benny said, waving the crumpled bills in the air. ”This is enough.” He turned around and picked up his chair. Behind him he heard the engine of the convertible roar to life and drive away. He’d given them that battery fluid cheap, just to get them to leave. Turning his head he could see the desert reshaping itself behind them.

Route 94 was a straight line, a scar made of boiling asphalt cutting the desert in half. On a hot day it would burn your feet. If it wasn’t for the piss and dirt you could fry an egg on it. Benny’s shack was maybe sixteen feet from the road, close enough for drunk teenagers to give him the finger as they drove by, close enough for gold-digging blondes to flash their tits at him as fat, rich guys next to them grinned. It was the back road to Vegas, the collective garbage dump of the world. Here humanity gathered all its waste. Hillbillies driving their trailers up to try their luck at the casinos. College sweethearts taking the final step and getting hitched without paying for a big fancy wedding. It would be beautiful except it never lasted. Benny was good at faces. More often than not he saw them come driving back with grim looks, having lost everything, be it money, love, or pride.

Benny’s shack was 160 square foot all-in-all, with about fifty of those reserved for goods. He had a battered fridge from the 60’s and a bed, that was it. He usually sat outside and waved at passing cars, trying to get them to buy whatever shit he’d been able to get his hands on. Flavored condoms, titty magazines, tools.

Route 94 was a gateway, and Benny was its caretaker. The ferryman delivering them to depravation and poverty.

Every night at ten-thirty he put a padlock on the door, picked his wicker chair up and walked over to the backside of the shack, a sixpack of beer in hand. From there he could see the sunset, all red and pissed off. No matter what happened he always sat there until he finished his beer. He sat there through storms, drenched head to toe in the pouring rain. He sat there through heatwave after heatwave, gently wiping his forehead with a dirty napkin. He even sat there when a pack of cougars nested nearby, throwing empty beer cans at them as they curiously tried to advance.

For all he knew, that spot was the best place in the world. It never changed. His best chance at being left alone while still keeping some semblance of himself intact. The fuming, dried out landscape reminded him of things he left behind, and why.

Benny never really cared for people. He’d given them a couple of chances and they always ended up disappointing him, caring too little or too much, obsessing over money or fame or their hair. People struck him as annoying and uptight, and this was the only place he could get away from them. The only place he felt relaxed.

Once a month he hopped in his pickup truck and drove the sixty miles to the food store where he bought a pallet of canned beans and as much beer as his truck could carry. There was really nothing else he needed. The goods he sold he got from passing truckers, buying it for cheap as they told their supervisors someone must have gotten the count wrong. Sometimes he even got something good, like a couple of car batteries or a dozen jumper cables. Desperate people paid any price for that stuff. He wasn’t greedy, but he needed the money, and seeing those sun-burnt faces lamenting the loss of their black jack money always made his heart beat a little faster.

In short, Benny didn’t have very many troubles. That’s the thing with living a solitary life, most people’s problems occur on account of someone else. And even though he at times longed for something other than canned beans there was never any doubt from his side as to if he made the right choice or not. A steak dinner could never replace the freedom of controlling your own fate.

This was a tuesday, or maybe wednesday. Under the heat of the boiling sun days clumped together. It was high season, even animals used to the climate dropped dead due to dehydration or heat stroke. Benny was sitting in his wicker chair watching the sun go down, wiping his forehead with a dirty cloth. He had two beers left and a slight buzz going. There were no cars going by, Route 94 was silent as the grave. In the distance rocky formations cast shadows over the parched landscape. Cactuses stood erect, like dead green men stuck in rigor mortis.

Benny opened another beer. The sound of the metal giving way echoed across the desert. Sweat dripping from his forehead onto the can made it look like it came straight from the freezer. The sun was setting. From his vantage point Benny looked at the burning sky. It always felt familiar, like coming home after a lifetime of abscence.

He finished his fifth beer, crumpled it and threw it in the basket next to him. It would be dark soon. Looking back at his shack he longed for getting in bed and thinking about nothing at all. Ever since he moved out here Benny had no problems, no responsibilities. He was an anomaly in the middle of all this greed and corruption, a shitstain on the system the government tried their best to uphold.

A sound made him turn his head. He corrected his baseball cap and stared out over the empty desert. From behind one of the cliffs a figure came running. Benny picked up his binoculars. It was a woman, pretty, bleeding all over. Her clothes were torn to the point of her upper body being completely naked. In the fading desert sun she looked like something out of a fevered dream, an apparition whose frantic steps whipped dead sand to life.

Benny opened his last beer while thinking about what to do. Sometimes coked-up free spirits drove into the middle of the desert to fuck or watch the sunset or whatever it was they did, only to end up dumped on the side of the road. He squinted. She didn’t look coked-up.

The woman kept running. She looked like one of those girls from Benny’s magazines, blonde, with big tits and a body that could get her to heaven and back if she wanted to. Not even the blood stained her image. She was an angel of the desert, and from the looks of it she had quite a falling out with it. There were no one else around, no one came running after her, no one called her name. Still she kept running as if every bad thing she’d ever done was chasing her.

Tripping over a rock she fell and didn’t get up. Benny kept his binoculars on her, the dirty lens reflecting the shine of her skin. He watched her take one breath, two, three. After counting to twenty he sighed and rose from the chair. He never got involved in other people’s business, preferred to let events run their course. That’s why he was out here, to get away from all that shit. Elections, politics, terrorists. Out by Route 94 the worst thing to happen was that you accidentally stepped on a gopher. Until now. And now he had to go down there.

Once the sun set the desert went from a boiling inferno to something else. To Benny it had always seemed as if the cold was forever idling in the distance, waiting for nightfall so it could drown it all in this ghastly chill. Walking to where the woman lay he saw that she was almost face down, spitting sand and gravel from parched lips. She had a tattoo on her back, of a man chasing a chinese dragon. As he came close her eyes turned in his direction.

Benny spat on the ground and studied her carefully.

”What happened to you?”

With great difficulty she wet her lips and tried to whisper something. She was dehydrated. Benny looked at his final beer. Shaking his head he reluctantly asked her if she wanted some. She nodded and Benny propped her up and poured the sparkling liquid down her throat. As he did so he saw tiny puncture wounds on her arms, next to another tattoo, this one of Jesus. The promise of salvation was but a fix away for this one, hidden between skin and blood like a bad case of hepatitis.

”Want me to call someone? There’s an old radio in my shack.”

She immediately stirred. ”No! Don’t call anyone, please. Just give me some time to recover.”

Benny waved a hand. ”Alright.” He could feel the cactuses watching them, their eternal watch broken by her presence.

Helping her to his wicker chair was hard work. She was completely powerless, telling him how she’d been walking through the desert for hours after a bad trip. Her boyfriend was dead somewhere down by Cold Creek. He od:d on some strong stuff they got from a dealer and started chasing her, tearing at her clothes demanding to ram a pair of scissors down her throat. She only got away because he collapsed behind her and didn’t get back up.

”Then why’d you keep running?” Benny asked. He was dressing her wounds in bandages from his old first aid kit, washing the worst of the blood off with water.

”I don’t know,” she said. ”Guess I was in shock or something.”

And high, Benny thought. He could see the drugs in her eyes, swirling around, making a mess of what was left of her head.

”There, all set,” he said and cut the last bandage with a scissor.

She was still partially naked, but didn’t seem bothered by it.

”You, uh, you want to borrow a shirt?” he asked her.

”I guess so,” she said, looking down at her naked chest as if she hadn’t even noticed.

”Wait here.” Benny went to the shack and got a striped shirt from the basket, making sure to shake it first in case of insects. She wrapped it around herself. For some reason she looked even more beautiful dressed.

Benny scratched his head.

”Listen, you can’t stay here long. There’s usually some people driving by in the morning. You’ll have to hitch a ride with them.”

The woman wet her lips as best she could and looked at him. ”I’ll do that, thanks.”

With her wounds taken care of she took the time to look around. She stopped at Benny’s shack.

”You live here?”


”For how long?”

”A couple years.”

She grabbed a pack of cigarettes from her back pocket. A photo fell out. It was faded, with torn edges. Benny picked it up. It was of her, standing in front of a young guy with his arms around her. They looked happy. She snatched it back and put it in her pocket.

”That the crazy guy?” he asked.

”No,” she answered, looking away. She waved a cigarette at him. ”You mind?”

Benny shook his head. The only thing he could think about was where she was going to sleep. Sleeping outside was just begging to have a scorpion crawl up your ass in the middle of the night, and inside was no better, he barely had room for himself. The truck, maybe. If he unloaded all the stuff from the back it could serve as a makeshift bed. He looked at her. She was sitting in his wicker chair, staring into the distance while smoking a cigarette. It was kind of poetic, really, the only thing missing was a zeppelin tune.

”So, what, you just hang out here all day?” she asked, taking a zip of a water bottle standing next to the chair.

”Yup.” Benny walked towards the truck only to find that she followed.

”I mean, how do you get by?”

”I sell stuff.”

”What kind?”

Benny threw a box of goods at her feet. She picked up a titty magazine and started flipping through it, stopping occasionally to look at the bigger pictures.

”I used to be in magazines like this.”

”You got the looks for it.”

She put the magazine under her arm as she took another whiff of her cigarette. The smoke rose towards the sky like a lost moment.

”Couldn’t do it anymore when I started having problems. Turns out no one likes a girl with track marks on her arms.”

Benny hopped up on the truck bed and began throwing tarps and rope to the ground. It was dark now, quiet.

”You should quit that stuff. It’ll kill you.” He looked down Route 94 hoping to see a car but it was completely devoid of life, a dead road staring down an even more dead sky.

”The H or the cigarettes?”


With the truck bed cleared Benny hopped down and went to the shack to get his insulated sleeping bag. He’d used it when he was younger, to be able to look at the stars before falling asleep. They always seemed so powerful to him, like they made everything down here small and indifferent. When he came back she was sitting on the truck, fidgeting.

”The shakes will come soon,” she said. ”It’s been a while since I had anything.”

”Gonna vomit?”

”Don’t worry about it, I’ve handled worse.”

Benny eyed her suspiciously. ”You sleep here.”

”You’re not gonna offer me the bed?” she said, faking disappointment.


Scratching the marks on her arm she looked over at Route 94.

”Can I ask you something?”

”Guess so,” Benny said.

”How come you live here? Is it just to get away?”

”Pretty much,” Benny straightened the sleeping bag. ”Out there it’s just shallow folk. I don’t want them around.”



She lay on her back, lighting another cigarette. Sprawled on Benny’s red truck she looked like something out of a coming of age-movie, young and beautiful like a lost princess. An angel of the desert, fallen from grace, poking holes in her body to drown out the pain of living.

”Most people would call that a grim outlook on life.”

”Most people don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about,” Benny said.

She noticed her leg nervously jumping up and down and made an effort to stop it. ”I don’t like people either.” She looked at him as if she wanted a reaction. When she didn’t get one she continued. ”Someone I used to know always told me I should-” she made apostrophes with her fingers, ”-be thankful, for the things I had. Like that’s all there was to it. Like-”

Benny sighed and she looked at him, frozen mid-speech. ”Sorry,” she said. ”I’m talking too much. Anyway, he doesn’t say that anymore.”

Benny wasn’t used to talking to people. It exhausted him, having to answer their questions, having to think of the right words. ”Look,” he said, ”It’s fine. I like life, I just don’t like sharing it with others.”

Blowing another puff of smoke into the air she followed it with her eyes until it evaporated, becoming an empty hole in the sky.

”I guess we all have our way of escaping,” she said.

”From what I can see you escape alot.”

She sat up, legs crossed, eyes focused on Benny. ”If you have this pain inside you and there’s a way to make it go away, just like that, why shouldn’t you?”

Benny shook his head, remembering that the desert would soon be the same, that this was just a fleeting moment. ”I don’t know, kid. Just make sure you can go back.” Her leg started shaking again, spasms rhytmically rocking the truck bed.

”All set.” He pointed at the sleeping bag and pillow. ”Thanks.” She laid down on top of the bag and closed her eyes. ”You can catch a ride tomorrow.”

She didn’t answer. Benny stared at her, observing the outline of her face, the blue-black marks on her arms, the way her chest moved up and down as she breathed. She didn’t belong here. This was his world. Then he turned around and walked back to his shack.

He woke in the middle of the night to the sound of someone whimpering. Looking out the window he saw the woman tossing and turning. Withdrawal. Good thing it wasn’t dangerous. He just hoped she wasn’t the kind of addict that would go into full on flu symptoms. No one would take her with them then. A sick junkie was too much trouble for most, and the one’s that would take her were the kind that would try to fuck her as soon as she got in the car.

Getting back in bed Benny scratched his balding head. Seeing his skinny body in the mirror gave him flashbacks. Skinny Benny they used to call him. When it came to building visible muscles all hope had been lost as soon as he shot out of his mothers womb. His father used to say that if you weren’t careful around Benny you’d cut yourself on his elbows.

He looked at his watch. 3.30. Outside the moon was beaming down on him, illuminating the vast emptiness of the desert. No one knew what he was doing right now. To Benny that was the best feeling in the world; to be truly alone. And now he had a former nude model turned junkie in withdrawal out on his truck bed. Funny how life screwed you over. Turn your back for a second and suddenly you had twelve inches of fuck you up your ass. And life never wore a condom.

Route 94 was his saviour and his curse, his worst enemy and his greatest friend. Tonight, for the first time in a long while, it wasn’t only his. Sharing it with that woman made him itch all over. The sound of her out there, trying to get by, to him it was the sound of all those things he was trying to get away from. He knew it was the right thing to do, letting her stay, but it was like being back out there, back in the world he’d spent so much getting away from. If that guy she’d been with was found there could be cops, questions, disturbances. Ripples in the fabric of things.

Pushing the shack door open he burst out. In his hand he held his car keys and a bedcover. He threw it at her.

”I’m driving you into town.”

Pulling the covers around her she tried her best to hide the shivering, which just made it worse. She looked like a beaten dog, very different from the striking beauty she’d been just a few hours before.

”Do you have any benzos? Or morphine?” she asked.

Benny opened the passenger door and motioned for her to get in.

”Please, I can’t leave like this.”

”Come on.”

She grabbed his arm. Her hands were ripe with sweat. Pale. ”Just let me rest here for the night.” When she saw him hesitating she grabbed his arm even harder. ”I’ll blow you.”

Benny cleared his throat and spat on the ground. ”Don’t talk like that. It’s unworthy.”

She let go and sat upright, still shaking. The passivity of her made Benny pause too. For a moment there was this dead silence between them, the kind that seems to hover in the air as if time itself stopped. The blanket had fallen down and Benny grabbed it and handed it to her. For a moment their eyes met and he could see something in there, reflected back at him. Benny looked away, once again reminding himself of the desert, how things would soon be back to normal.

She took a deep breath, holding her arms across her chest like a vice in an attempt to control the shaking. They both calmed down, Benny turning around to look at the sky, her sitting behind him on the truck. After a while she spoke.

”Have you ever felt like your life already ended, and what you’re doing now is just waiting for it to skid to a halt?”

”I ended it myself,” Benny said. ”Then I started a new one.”

”How did you know when?”

”Sometimes you just know when it’s over.”

She seemed to ponder this but didn’t say anything. She scooted over and Benny sat beside her, cold desert air creeping through his lungs.

”You know, I keep having these dreams,” she said. ”I wake up to nothing at all, just an eternal white in every direction, and I feel like nothing I ever did had any meaning, like I could just lie down and die and it would be ok because I could finally rest.”

Benny scratched his chin. ”Nothing wrong with wanting to get away.”

”I guess that’s what you did.”


He turned his car keys over in his hands, studying the old keyring in the middle. It had his initials. His life was branded into that keyring, and nothing he ever did bar melt the damn thing could make it go away. He’d kept it as a reminder.

”But, like, what if to get away you had to do things that were wrong,” she said. ”Would it still be fine?”

”I guess that depends on what you did.”

She rubbed some sweat from her shaking forehead and pulled an arm down, covering the Jesus tattoo. ”I guess so.”

The wind was brushing their bodies, making Benny’s cap lift slightly. His shirt was too big on her, it almost inflated as the air passed through.

”It’s cold out here,” she said.

”That’s the desert for you.”

Benny looked up. Stars upon stars shining down on them, like tiny searchlights in the sky. It always made him feel good, knowing there were things bigger than this, that some day one of them would burn out and an entire galaxy would turn to shit and die. A cold desert wind didn’t have much on that.

”I know what you mean,” she said, ”about starting a new life. When I look back I can barely recognize myself. It’s like reading another girl’s diary.”

”Just take it easy. Everyone breaks at some point.”

”How do you know I didn’t break already?”

Benny glanced at her. ”You’re still hanging on to things.”

”Like what?”

”That photo.”

Her hand instinctively clasped her back pocket. ”That’s a reminder.”


”You’re not gonna ask me of what?”

”Not my business. But take it from me: some things need to be buried.”

Benny didn’t really want to get involved. Getting involved meant suddenly having things out there that mattered to you. Things that would slither inside you when you weren’t looking, and once they were in there you’d have a hell of a job getting them out again.

”You’re right,” she said, ”it isn’t.” Then she frowned. ”You know what? You’re pretty strange.”

”I am who I am,” Benny said.

The shaking was getting worse, her legs and arms trembled.

She laid down on the truck, teeth chattering like crazy.

”It’s just the withdrawal. It’ll pass in a day or so,” she said.

Benny took his cap off and scratched his ear. ”You can stay for the night.” He felt some sense of responsibility for her, and it bothered him.

She smiled. ”Really? Don’t worry, I’ll hitch a ride tomorrow like we said. But not into town, away from it.”

”Where you go is your choice.”

She stared off into the distance.

”Yeah, I know.”

Benny glanced at her. She had her knees up to her chest and was trying to wrap the sleeping bag around her without much success. He wrinkled his brow, then hopped down and went back into the shack. He rummaged around in an old, discolored bag until he found a partially used blister card with pills in it. He checked the expiration date, then pressed one out in his hand before going back outside. She turned her head as he got near.

”I thought you went back to sleep.”

”Here.” He threw the pill at her. It landed on her chest.

”What’s this?”

”Some sleeping pill I got a few years back. Maybe it’ll help.” She garbled the pill down quickly, swallowing it without water. Afterwards it was as if she immediately relaxed just from knowing she had it in her system.

”You, uh, you ok?” Benny asked, but she was already asleep. He turned around and walked back to his shack. Just as he was shutting the door a barely audible whisper came from the woman.

”Thank you.”

Benny stopped for a second, then sighed and closed the door behind him.

It was early morning. Benny knew because a bird flew by the same time each day, screaming its lungs out like it had an acid trip too many. Route 94 housed any kind of crazies, mammal or otherwise. He rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed. He didn’t sleep well.

Outside the window the sun was rising in the distance. Endless shades of red staring back at him, like olympus was finally burning. Route 94 was quiet. There was this moment every day where the world seemed to be on hold, where you could go out and look at the parched desert and feel that no matter what happened, this could be the end and you’d never even know. A split second later it would evaporate, turn everything around you into melted cinder as you stared off into the horizon. It wouldn’t be death, but a new beginning. Maybe he didn’t need it the most right now.

Benny looked out the window and saw the woman was missing. He put on his pants, his cap, and his shirt and yawned heavily while getting a bottle of water from the mini-fridge. Then he opened the door.

She was sitting in his usual spot behind the shack, smoking a cigarette. She had tied the shirt to her waist, showing the top of the back tattoo. Half a draconic eye stared back at Benny like some ancient scar from a past life. She was still shaking, but not nearly as bad as before. Benny walked up next to her and sat down. She turned her head and smiled a tired smile.



Two birds were racing over by the cliffs. Black specks on the horizon. She straightened herself.

”I stole your seat, didn’t i?”

She got up but Benny put a hand on her shoulder, halting her.


The woman sat back down. She was gorgeous. In a past life Benny would’ve been all over her if she’d let him, now she only reminded him of things, like a sudden flash of memory, or a dream he once had. Her tanned waist and tight shorts would’ve given better men a reason to live again. In the warm morning light she was an apparition with a rotten centre, a sugarcoated lie that would forever be held accountable for the choices she’d made. Because the brain never forgets. You could get divorced, run away, but fuck with your head too much and there’s no going back.

”The traffic should be rolling in soon,” he said.

She closed her eyes. ”Just a bit longer.”

Silence. Like the aftermath of a storm. In the eye of it all there would be total stillness except right now there wasn’t. The beating of her heart echoed through it like shrapnel from a dust storm. To Benny it was as if the world was trying to slam him against its walls again, after all this time. Benny had chosen to live in that eye, and soon she’d be back in the scathing wind. Two polar opposites sharing a moment of bliss in the scorching Nevada desert. If any of them had a way with words they could have put that moment on a page and let it live forever. Now it was fading by the minute.

”I don’t think you’ll see me again,” she said.

”Probably not.”

”I did stuff, you know. Bad stuff.”

Benny got a beer from the box. It was warm, but he didn’t care. Right now the taste wasn’t important. Right now just feeling it in his hand was enough.

”Most of us do.” He handed one to her but she shook her head.

”It makes it worse.”

They sat like that for a while before she got up and moved the chair to the roadside. Benny brought another from within and sat with her, box of goods next to him.

She picked a pack of flavored condoms up. ”People really buy this out here?”

”People like fucking.”

”I never did porn. I could’ve, but I didn’t.”

”Good call.” Benny took a zip of his beer. A desert rat scurried across the road next to them, carrying something in its mouth. In the distance a car was getting closer. It was heading back from Vegas, crawling over the cracked tarmac like a dying bull. Benny and the woman looked at each other. She took a deep breath.

”This is goodbye, huh.”

”Guess so.”

”You know, even though it started off badly, the short time I’ve spent here has been the most peaceful I’ve had in a long while.” She lowered her eyes, looking at a fly that landed on her leg. She didn’t brush it away. ”As soon as I leave I’ll go back to that uncertainty, chasing a high that’ll never be the same.”

Benny leaned forward and removed his cap. Holding it in his hands he spat on the ground and glanced over at her. He knew she wasn’t only talking about the drugs.

”You can’t run forever,” he said. ”No matter where you go it’ll catch up. You’ll stop at a roadside diner to relax and then it will hit you again, knock the breath right out of you. It’s what kills you in the end, not sickness or injury or age-” he made a sweeping motion with his cap, ”-but the pain of trying to live on the edge. That hell hole out there will swallow you whole.”

Nodding, she lighted another cigarette. For a moment it looked like she was going to cry, but she gathered herself and blew a puff of smoke in the air.

”It’s only a hell hole as long as you want it to be.”

A scorpion walked past on the other side of the road. It stopped for a second, as if watching them, before turning around and disappearing into a hole in the ground.

She put the cigarette out, revealing her Jesus tattoo. As she did so she froze. She saw Benny watching her.

”I used to believe in him,” she said, eyes fixed on the ground.

”Used to?”

She rubbed her chest. ”Things change.”

Benny nodded.

Picking a stray thread from her shirt she dug her toes in the sand, bent down, and buried it there. ”You never believed, did you?”

Benny poured some beer on the newly created burial mound, not really sure why. It was all so strange. People believed in things because they were told to, then they stopped because they realised the stories weren’t true. Men didn’t walk on water, you weren’t reborn as a tick just because you didn’t throw enough money to beggars. Free therapy for the masses, that’s all it was.

”Never had a reason to,” he said.

She kept picking threads from the shirt, kept digging holes in the ground and burying them. Benny smoothed them out with his hand.

”There was this guy,” she said. ”We were together for four years. He had depressions, really dark shit, you know? I’d come home and find him crying on the sofa, telling me how he wanted to die and how pointless it all was. And I used to think: what about me? I don’t mean anything to you?”

”You probably did.”

She smiled, but it was without emotion. ”Yeah, maybe. Anyway, one day I came home to the same shit as always, him on the sofa, completely apathetic. I told him to fuck off, that he should kill himself if that’s what he wanted. Then I gathered my things and left. He screamed after me that he would do it if I left, told me to come back. But I didn’t. I was going to stay at my parents for a day, see if he picked himself up. Thing is, he slit his wrists that evening. The blood had pooled outside the bathroom door when I got back. It was the darkest red I ever saw.”

”Not like you killed him,” Benny said. ”Everyone makes their own choices.”

She rubbed the tattoo.

”I might aswell have.” Her shoulders hunched under an invisible weight. ”Besides, I didn’t really save him either.”

No wonder she felt awful. A love story gone sour, ending with one of them choosing to dump the responsibilites for their failed life on the other, creating a monster of guilt and loneliness. Now she would love him forever, while hating herself. Was it worth it?

Benny felt his arm stiffen, muscles converging in an instinctive urge to touch her, let her know that he understood. He kept still though. This reminded him of things.

”What about the dragon?” he asked, pointing to the tattoo on her back.

”It’s what I do now. I chase that dream.”

The car rolled up next to them, top down. In the drivers seat was an old guy with silver temples and a half smoked cigar in his mouth. He looked like he had his shot about thirty years ago and now spent his life chasing that moment.

”You lookin’ for a ride?”

He barely noticed Benny, stared right through him as if he was invisible. That was the power of beautiful women, it was as if the world around them became white noise.

She got up and gave Benny a hug. He felt her cheek on his, the warmth of her skin like a jolt from the past running straight through him.

”It’s been a long time since someone was good to me.”

She hopped in the car and Benny watched her disappear. He was alone again for the first time in what felt like forever. Picking his teeth with the metal lining of the beer can he allowed himself to drift off, just for a little while. Soon the road would be full of people needing things. Full of people enthralled by the promise of riches held by that despairing city.

It was funny. You went to college, had all these dreams about the future, and then it went away. Something happened that swept your legs from under you, and you didn’t know how to get back up. Slowly you realised the life you’d wanted was a lie. That feeling of joy you’d felt from time to time drifted off, like a train chasing the horizon. In the end there was nothing left but a decaying body and the promise that maybe, somewhere, there was something else out there. Only some got away. Only some had the will to look society in the eye and say no. And their reward was the most beautiful peace they’d ever know.

She was lost. Gobbled up by the remains of a life she never wanted. Caught in the inbetween of things. The time would come when she’d have to take the plunge or go back. Benny was afraid that for her, the plunge meant taking her last breath in a bathroom stall somewhere, high on a dream.

Benny threw his can in the trash and watched it come to a halt at the top, illuminated by the early morning sun. He grit his teeth. It was sad, the way they made everything small and indifferent. The way they stuffed you full of things to keep you busy, just so you wouldn’t stop and think long enough to realise it didn’t mean shit.

Benny reclined his head, closed his eyes and grimaced. Then he turned around and walked inside the shack, grabbing a hammer from one of the boxes. He knelt down and used the back end of it to pry one of the planks loose. Underneath was a small box. He paused for a long time before grabbing it. He remembered what it felt like now, the fear of letting go. The box seemed to him to weigh more than the thin metal it was made of.

Benny opened it. Inside was a photo, similar to the one she’d had, but this one was of Benny. He had his arm around a young woman, with black hair and a washed out Led Zeppelin t-shirt. They were smiling. Even Benny had hair back then. He stroked the photo with his fingers, removing the thin layer of dust and sand that had amassed over the years. Inside him he could feel things stirring, forgotten things he swore never to let surface again. Images of hospital bills, insurance papers and endless fluorescent hallways. Benny looked away and dragged a worn hand across his face, then put the photo in the box and put the box back where it belonged. He’d never really cared for people, but she had been different.

”Goddamnit,” he said. ”I miss you.”

He covered the box with the plank and stood up. To hell with it all. He needed air. Walking outside Benny closed the door behind him and took a deep breath.

His eyes ached as he stared into the scorching sun. It burned, but it was a familiar burning, a pain he could deal with. Far away he thought he could see the taillights of the car finally disappear into the warm morning glow. Everything was as it used to be. Benny turned around, looked at his shack, at his old truck. The sleeping bag still held her outline, like a shroud of something that would soon be but a memory. In the end nothing changed in the desert. At most there were momentary lapses, a rebounding turn of events that made it shiver before bouncing back.

He crumpled the sleeping bag together and put it in the shack, then hesitated before he folded the extra chair up and put that back, too.

Benny put a hand on his chest and rubbed it softly. He felt his heart beat in there; a steady, thumping beat. A soft wind blew into his ear, made its way across the back of his head. All around him there was silence. He caught himself wanting to hear her voice again, just for a little while, but he knew that in the end it was true what he’d always known. That his escape had taken him here for a reason.

He let his gaze wander in the direction of Vegas, squinting through sun-burnt eyelids. Out there things changed all the time, but not here. Here no one ever left. Nothing ever crumbled.

Nothing ever changed in the desert.

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