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Refugees on the Red Desert

April 8th, 2005

I dreamed of war on the outskirts of the red desert. They were hunting down the last of us, through the dusk and dust and fog over the steep hillsides. I dreamed in repeated, diminishing flashback. The first scenes I experienced were the most recent; the last were the oldest.

I

By then there were only two of us left: Bruce, the weatherbeaten, giant survivor, and me. Why was I still alive? Out of luck, I had to assume, or because Bruce had kept me alive. But it was over now. Our transportation had died. We were scrambling over old rockslides, kicking up dust. Dark was falling; they were after us. We had to split up. Bruce said he would draw them away. I knew he could, but I didn’t want him to. I thought foolishly that somehow we both could make it. He didn’t deserve me for a burden. What was I worth that he wasn’t? Last thing I remember is the lights cutting through the dust-clouds, not touching me, not yet, but startling me up out of my meager hiding like a spooked rabbit. I careened over the side of the hill and down a slope that was far too steep, nothing to arrest my fall, nothing but dry, crumbling earth and weeds. I slipped, tumbled, hit my head and as I faded, thought, “They won’t find me.”

II

Refugees in knots of three and four moved through shallow canyons in the afternoon. In the shadows it was cold. Nobody had weapons; it seemed that part of war had ended long ago. Instead they had rucksacks and colorless canvas duffels. Everyone was hunched and dusty, and who knew where they were going? While the canyons lasted they stayed together, provided a little protection from sight and stinging sand on the wind. When the land shallowed, they went up over diminishing rises in all directions, the groups growing smaller, overburdened stragglers trailing behind. For the moment we stayed in the canyon: five of us, with a car that couldn’t really do us any more good. Bruce flexed his big hands and watched them go by. I could tell by his eyes that he itched to take their heavy, bulky duffels from them, sling them onto his shoulders with the three he already carried and go; the weight meant nothing. With his help they could move faster. They could get away. But they were too many–he had four to protect already. And he couldn’t protect us.

I didn’t know the three girls that were with us: one blonde, one black-haired, one brown, all three so dusty it didn’t make much difference any more. Neither did Bruce. They were pretty, though haggard. If of nothing else I was glad of that.

And there was the dog: a little white terrier, shaggy and quiet. I think he was Bruce’s, though I say that only because of his patience, the things he had endured. He’d had a pillow to sleep on in the car. We were leaving that behind.

We leaned against the car as if catching our breath, though compared to those going by we ought to be rested. The dog sat in the dust. We were building up will.

Then the echo came of bullhorns and boots tramping, and we moved.

III

In the morning a long, low barracks of eroded brick where we had lived for weeks almost as if it were home slowly emptied. People took what they could. Cars pulled up and away. Some just walked off into the desert. Sand wore away from the foundations.

It was my car, the Focus. We loaded it up and closed the trunk. Bruce sat in back with our bags. The dog was in the passenger seat on its pillow. I started the car and would have pulled out, but there were voices at the window. Four girls stood on the curb with their burdens: the three that I knew, and another not as pretty. My stomach twisted because I knew it was she who’d be left behind. They wanted to come with us. Bruce argued. We didn’t have room. They’d be better off alone. I said nothing. It hurt to listen. I knew Bruce would regret it, too late. Probably regret would be the last thing he’d do before they caught him.

Finally the girls drew back to decide who would stay and who would go. They’d pick straws or something. Thank God. At least it wasn’t me who had to choose. I closed my eyes, because I already knew what would happen.

IV

Bruce and I sat in the barracks locker room with the other soldiers, packing our duffels. “I fought at Dry Hill,” he said. “I don’t want to go back.” But we were.

V

I sat in my parents’ dining room with my Dad. Dust blew past the windows. “I fought in the last war,” he said. “I went to Dry Hill. I’m not going back.”

“I have a friend,” I said, “Bruce. He fought there too. He doesn’t want to go. But he says we have to.”

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