The Trail...Scene five
The ground was nearly featureless. Low rolling hills ran off gently in every direction. They were covered with beige, dead grass, and only broken up by clumps of drab olive sagebrush and bright yellow sunflowers. The highway ran two lanes each direction and the stream meandered in miniature oxbows, but stayed within a mile or so of the highway. Wind streamed continuously from the west, in between lashing gusts that hit so hard it was hard for him to keep his balance. The ground was hard, dry, and cracked. Each depression that had held pooled, long since evaporated rainwater, was white from some sort of alkalinity, and when he walked through those depressions his steps caused the earth to disintegrate and flee away to the east, carried by the wind.
At midday he found a little cut bank the stream had carved out and he climbed down into it and out of the wind. He sat with his back against the shelf that springtime high water had sliced out, and scratched his head violently. The wind whipping his dark hair had made him wish he had a pair of clippers to shave it off. In front of him the stream flowed slowly, stained the color of coffee with cream. Through the wind he could feel the sting of the sun’s rays, and he knew he was getting sunburned. The morning’s meal was long gone, and he was starving. He took out the fishing gear and searched for bait under rocks for 20 minutes with no luck. Why in the hell didn’t I bring more food? He sighed and laid back against the cut bank and his face fell into the shade it created. He counted the hours backwards since the last time he’d talked to anyone, and it was her, and it was a miserable memory, and he counted back a few hours further to Raymond at the butcher shop rather than linger on his conversation with her. He wasn’t close enough with Ray to talk about anything of consequence, but he listened as Ray talked about his son, and how good he was at baseball. Those were the last words he’d spoken to someone who didn’t wish he was absent from the face of the earth. He scooted to the side a little and laced his fingers together behind his head and stared up at the sky. It was such a pale blue it could almost be considered whitish. Up above, hanging over the edge of the bank a little bush with long oval leafs whipped unevenly in the wind. He wondered if it was always windy wherever he was, and if it was always windy, how the hell did the plants survive the constant battering? Of course, he thought, they can’t get up and leave like a person can…like I did. His eyes were burning from the sun and the wind, and the constant squinting. He closed them for a moment and after a few seconds he realized he’d been squinting his eyes closed like a balled up fist and he made an effort to relax the muscles in his face and neck. The constant roar of the wind acted like white noise. Son of a bitch, it’s gotta be blowing 35-40 miles an hour… He made no conscious effort to fall asleep, but he was tired. Tired in his mind, tired in his soul, tired everywhere. He didn’t remember falling asleep, and he didn’t dream.
His stomach woke him, twisting and turning. It felt like one of those long thin balloons that are twisted into poodles or cats as party tricks. Dusk was starting to fall, and the sky far to the east was dark blue, and as it ran to the west, more and more pink and orange bled into it. The wind was gone, only a faint breeze gave any hint that it had ever been windy at all. He stood and looked over the highway to the horizon. Dark clouds formed a massive tower that loomed to the northwest, the clouds closest to the sun caught its rays and they caused them to turn a sort of neon salmon tone. Under the bottom layer of clouds it was black, except when lightning shuddered through the cloud, the bolt not seen, but the light it cast temporarily turning the cloud gray white. Shit…
He dug through his pack and brought out the thick, clear piece of folded plastic and put it into his hip pocket, just in case. He took out a tin of sardines and the crackers, and ate them all. I gotta get somewhere and restock. He stood, and when he did, his left leg was useless, pin pricks stuck all over it, and he had no power to use it. He leaned against the bank for a minute and worked it with his free hand until the feeling came back, then he climbed up out of the creek bottom and started walking north. Traffic had nearly disappeared on the highway, and he found that strange, and he also found it strange that the wind had stopped with the approaching storm. Something made his pace quicken. There was no destination in mind, but the need to move, to hustle, was there urging him. The air smelled like warm, wet dirt, and he could feel it becoming sultry. I’ve never been outside for a storm like this, he thought, I need to find shelter somehow. Far to the north he could see a few straggler cars coming south and they had their headlights on. I wonder if they would stop… He could hear his own breathing rasping in and out, and he realized that he was nearly running, calm down, you ain’t outrunning this bastard. A little dry ravine split the earth in front of him. He climbed down into it, and had just crested back out, when a sharp, crisp, white bolt of lightning streaked from the cloud before branching off into a half dozen veins and reaching for the earth. It seemed to move in slow motion before pulsing several times in place and disappearing. The bolt left a photograph in his eyes and even when he looked to the ground he could still see it. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi” he made it to six before the shaking bang of the bolt hit, he felt it in his chest like a bass drum. Again his pace quickened, and this time he didn’t try to quell his near panic. It was nearly dark, and the smell of rain was strong. A light breeze started in the east and moved toward the storm, it was creating a vacuum. The strokes of lightning could be heard and seen clearly, and they were almost constant. A mile or so to the north he saw some bright white lights showing by the highway. At first he thought they were headlights at a weird angle, but as he hurried toward them he could tell that they were fixed. He broke into a light jog toward them, something for shelter was better than nothing. The wind had totally stopped, and every time lightning struck the bang was clear and unmuddled, and deafening. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mi…the storm was closing. The lights were still a quarter mile away and he was frantic to get there. The wind started pushing in his face, and he felt a huge cold raindrop strike in the hair just above his left temple and run down onto his cheekbone. Then another, and another, and then a sharp sting on top of his head, hail. The lights were clear now. They were mounted to illuminate the side of an out of service semi trailer that had been painted white. Big red block letters dominated the side of the trailer, and they read, ROCKS-AGATES-PETRIFIED WOOD…DEAD AHEAD, 2 MILES. Irregular shaped white stones the size of large marbles began to fall faster and faster. He pulled the pack up over his head, and the hail battered his hands. He reached the trailer and dropped and rolled like a commando under the trailer. He lay on his back, the pack underneath him, and massaged the backs of his hands where the hail had pelted them. Hail thundered on the roof of the trailer, and cold wind billowed into his face. He looked out into the light cast by the mounted lamps. The ground was white and jumped everywhere like popcorn. It was mesmerizing. He was already cooling from the run, and could feel his body temperature dropping. He slipped out of the pack and sat up and drew his knees into his chest and wrapped his arms around them. “You cut that damn close, glad to see you made it.” He whirled around to see if he’d really heard someone speak, or if he was imagining it. Sitting in the dark with his back against a tire was the silhouette of a man.