Battle at the Desert Tower

Erin and I and some of our friends pull off a desert highway into a small, dusty parking lot. Above us, beyond an embankment overgrown with sage, a tower looms: an iron scaffold red with rust, with a stairwell spiraling inside it. We are piling out of the car, stretching and preparing ourselves for the ascent, when a thin young man with sandy hair and a windburned face approaches us. He welcomes us and inquires after our drive in such a way as to encroach upon the boundaries of our personal space.

But then he is backing away, moving on to the next car. He must be some kind of greeter. So I shrug off my unease, collect my cane from the back seat and lead the way up the embankment to the tower.

The stairs are rickety, skeletal, shifting and creaking in the dry wind. The desert surroundings, washed out by the sun, share their palette with grimy, moss-covered sandstone. Those we pass keep a tight grip on the railings. They all seem to have lost something in the course of the ascent, dropped it over the side or lost it through the gaps between the steps. They ask us if we’ve seen any of these lost items. We haven’t, which is odd. Unless someone is collecting them up and ferreting them away after they fall.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought my cane. I try to remember whether I locked the car.

At the next landing, five or six stories up, I lean out over the rail. Below me the sandy-haired young man is tampering with the driver’s side door of the car next to ours. “Hey,” I shout. “Stop that!” The young man looks up.

The wind rises. The tower rattles and begins to shake. From somewhere above us comes the creak of shifting metal. A section of iron scaffolding tumbles past us toward the ground. The whole structure is coming apart.

“Down the stairs. Back down the stairs, quick!”

The tower lurches under our weight as we turn and rush back the way we came. In my hurry the cane flies out of my hands and slips through a gap. I can hear it clang and ping against the metal as it falls. Giant pieces of the tower dislodge themselves all around us. The sky opens above. Each time we round another flight and glimpse the parking lot, the sandy-haired young man remains frozen in place, gazing up, his arms at his sides, while around him the other tourists are piling into their cars and pulling away.

The wind and vibrations cease the moment we set foot on the solid concrete of the tower’s foundation. In fact there isn’t even any wreckage on the ground. The tower is intact. Nobody else seems to notice. They’re all still fleeing for their cars.

I turn back, look around the base of the tower for my cane. I discover the entrance to a hidden room underneath the stairs. Inside I find not just my cane, but a half-dozen others, as well as umbrellas, handbags, sets of keys. I stoop and enter the room, reaching for my cane. There are footsteps on the stairs. The sandy-haired man blocks my path. His expression and stance make it clear he has no intention of allowing me to leave.

The kleptomaniacal magician closes; we circle. A shadow crosses his face; when he emerges he has changed and grown into an enormous, shaved-bald mongoloid man, proportioned like a professional wrestler. His immense hands flex eagerly.

I flip the cane in the air, catch it again by its slender black shaft, the better to make use of the knotty head as a club. As I do so, I realize a transition has occurred in my own physical form: I am completely comfortable and unsurprised to discover that I have become Erin Hoffman: an agile little woman with a long, whiplike ponytail, a hard, faintly amused expression and a waist-length black cape.

The mongol lunges; Erin whirls out of his path and backhands him across the face with the head of the cane. He stumbles, then recovers, comes at her again. There is a dull thud as her next blow catches him square in the temple. He stands immoble, seeming to stare off between the gaps in the iron scaffold at the desert sun. The cane blurs in the air, thumps into his skull a third time, and he topples backwards into the sand.

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