At sundown, Marquis emerged from the desert onto the clean blacktop of 15. He looked to the forever blue sky and dropped to his knees, ignoring the burning heat of the half-buried road. “Thank you God,” he said over and over, head bowed, temple on the sand-covered road.
With a sigh, he stood and headed west, away from the disastrous situation he’d left, the one that required him to speed into the Mojave on a barely-functioning moped, ahead of a posse on horseback. Most had stopped long ago, but that one rider was still there, still chasing him.
He wished he still had that moped, but it had lasted barely a day before sputtering and coughing to death. No time to think about it, just time enough to put his head down and walk. He hoped Primm wasn’t far away. He barely remembered it from his childhood and from a desiccated road map. Beyond Primm was Vegas and beyond Vegas was Colorado and his children were there somewhere. They were grown now, he assumed.
And behind him, Marquis reminded himself, was the rider, the man with sun-bleached hair who he knew held a special grudge. He didn’t know what he’d done (he’d been the lookout and he’d barely touched his gun except to shoot the sky), but it wasn’t for him to guess at motivation.
The night was cold and desert-bright and he shivered through it, his feet doing their walking thing while his mind was elsewhere, trying to imagine himself warm and fed. His half empty backpack dragged him to the earth, but he wouldn’t take it off for anything. It contained everything he owned, everything else left behind in his almost-definitely ransacked home. He grimaced at the thought of a lifetime of relics, gone.
When day came, he found an abandoned Buick on the side of the road in a cluster of automotive heaps. He squeezed under it, backpack as pillow, his shotgun beside him and tried to sleep away the sun. As a child, he used to doze beneath his parents’ porch, listening to their steps above him and their voices carrying on the wind. He used to wonder if the wind carried those voices along its path, dropping them somewhere exotic. Madagascar. Chicago. The Everglades. He didn’t know what was to come.
When Marquis woke it was to the clatter of hooves on pavement. His hand dropped and he lifted the shotgun, cradling it to his chest. He was on his back. Stupid. How can I see anyone?
The undercarriage of the Buick dripped flakes of rust onto his forehead and his cheeks like freckles. He didn’t bother wiping off; what would be the point if this is where he died? He watched the hooves. The horse paused, released water. He held his breath, shotgun pointed in a haphazard way. He could hear the horse breathing, hear the sizzle of its urine on the blacktop. The wind blew and it trapped him within its sirocco.
A voice mumbled something soothing and the horse moved on, the clop of it hooves like drum skins. When the percussion faded, he let out a stale breath. “Jesus wept,” he whispered as sleep grabbed him. He dreamed of his mother then, of her smooth hands grabbing at him after he’d dropped one of her scarves in the mud. He was always in the mud. Jesus wept, child, she said.
After a time he woke to the caw of a buzzard, its skinny legs standing just out of reach. He thought about shooting it but he wasn’t hungry enough yet to eat buzzard meat, so he turned over and wondered why he always remembered his mother’s favorite saying whenever he’d done something bad. He’d been doing bad things for a long time, hadn’t he? Wouldn’t he have grown out of his mother’s voice by now? He shook his head and muttered and then slept until it was night. He opened his eyes, scrambled out, ate his last nine almonds and continued.
Sometime in the night, he passed a sign announcing that Primm was ten miles away. “So far,” he said, surprised at the sound of his voice. It felt burned, like the sun had scorched his larynx. His lips were so dry, brittle. He felt like glass. He stopped and rocked on his heels, breathing in the empty peace.
Gutted, decrepit stores and houses began to appear. Most were just skeletons of buildings, but an Mazda dealership with rusted hulks in the parking lot that reflected the stars still had glass in the windows and a roof on top. He briefly inspected the building, checking the old bathrooms for water trapped in the pipes, but there was nothing.
It was then, sitting on an ancient porcelain toilet, that he glanced out the back window and saw on a side street, hidden by rows of demolished buildings, the outline of a sign. It glowed from the heavy moon. He could read the words and he couldn’t believe it. His legs moved of their own accord until he was out of the used car dealership.
The building was alone on what had once been an access road or something. The windows looked black and unwelcoming. But what he’d seen from the window seemed real. He rubbed his eyes because he couldn’t believe it. Maybe he was hallucinating, maybe he believed in angels but the sign said in black paint long dried by the sun, End of Days or no, we are OPEN.
Inside was cool and dim and smelled of grease. He stumbled and almost fell, but managed to reach out a hand to the counter and kept his knees from buckling. The world swam, but he righted his ship and let out a weak cheer. He turned and saw the sign for the bathroom and he ran to it, slammed open the door and went to the sink. He didn’t notice how clean everything was, how it smelled of lavender, he only knew that there was standing water in the sink that he lapped from his palms and it tasted like life.
“Shukran,” he said over and over, repeating the most holy word he could remember, the one his father used to say before every meal. “Shukran.” Only when he stood and adjusted his bag and his gun did he notice how the doors for the stalls still stood, how there was even a flower on the sink. He raised an eyebrow at that, but made sure to pluck the little sunflower and stick it in his pocket. It seemed a good omen.
He wondered if he should spend some time rooting around for anything that he could take with him. Before he could make a decision, he heard, “Can I help you?” and he walked down the small corridor that connected the bathroom to the rest of the restaurant and looked at the old woman behind the counter. She was short with long gray hair that might have once been blonde. It looked clean, even if beads and twigs and maybe even bones were braided into it. She wore a bright green short-sleeved, collared shirt and a cheap-looking sun visor. On her chest was a nametag: Pam. She measured him with ancient eyes.
“Just needed water,” he said. He felt like a husk in man-form.
“Water is for paying customers only,” she said, waving vaguely at a faded whiteboard behind her that declared that yes, restrooms were for paying customers only. Fancy that. There were rows of steel machinery with spouts and spigots that he didn’t understand, cutting boards and knives, ancient lamps, a stove range and many other things that Marquis vaguely remembered, even if he didn’t know their names.
“Here,” he said reaching into his backpack. He slammed a freshly minted gold coin down. It was worth more than he could imagine. Had the heist been worth it, given his current state? Perhaps. Probably not though. “Give me anything.”
Pam curled her lip and pushed it back across the ugly counter. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This is not legal tender.” Again she pointed, this time to yellow menus arranged like a sunflower. Marquis squinted. The words had the ring of recognition and he did remember the dollar signs. Money was more complicated before the world ended. It all felt like nonsense though.
This was not a time for nonsense, he decided, reaching over his shoulder to pull the shotgun from its sheath on his back. But before he could, the mouth of a small automatic pistol threatened to devour him. Pam raised an eyebrow and he relaxed his finger. “You think you’re the first to come in with a gun?”
He stammered, “Didn’t look like you get much traffic at all.”
She nodded. “Not much, no. But I’ve been here a long time.” She cocked her head at him like a little bird might and then nodded and put the pistol back under the counter from where she’d drawn it. “You got cash or not? If you don’t, door’s over there.”
Marquis blinked at how close he’d been to death. Third closest time in his life. He didn’t think about retaliating. Fair was fair and the woman hadn’t killed him so he wasn’t going to be petty. He wasn’t a murderer and honestly, he wasn’t sure he could get the drop on her anyway.
Instead, he reached again into his backpack, reemerging with an old, cracked leather wallet. His fingers trembled as he withdrew a sheaf of crumbled bills. He didn’t look at the discolored plastic cards with his father’s name or the small, faded pictures. He shoved the old money across the table. “Just give me as much as this’ll get me, please.”
She smoothed the bills, thin lips mumbling. From somewhere she produced a tall yellow cup and swiveled to a machine of some kind, from which spouted a stream of water. “You want a Coke or anything? The syrup still works, though not the carbonation.”
He shook his head. She continued, “That stuff lasts forever you know, provided it’s kept in proper temperatures. There’s a storeroom underneath this floor,” she stamped her feet and handed Marquis the water, which he promptly drained in a spurt of pure joy, “that’s kept at an even 68 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s dark and dry and there’s mountains of beans and rice and a working freezer and anything you could want. Old manager said this place’d survive the apocalypse.”
She stopped and Marquis suddenly felt her stare. He handed the cup back and said, “Guess they was right.” She refilled it and handed it back. “Why are you telling me all of this?”
She shrugged. “Who else am I going to talk to? Besides, you got eyes a woman can trust. Or maybe you remind me of my boys.” Her brow furrowed. Now, what you going to order, son? You could get two of anything on the menu for what you handed me.” His eyes must have looked confused, because she made a shooing motion as if brushing away a fleck of dust. “Go ahead, son. Order.”
Maybe thirty-some years ago he’d have understood. But the food names and prices applied in the heavy writing didn’t make sense. What was the half-life of taco meat? He had no context. He’d only been a kid. He didn’t recognize any of the words besides tacos and quesadillas. When Pam began drumming her nails, he pointed. “That. As many as I get.”
“Baja Chicken Chalupa. My favorite.” She put the money in a little pouch on her waist and rummaged within it, eventually handing Marquis a stack of old coins. He tossed them in his bag without looking. They were everywhere in the world, just like roaches. Just a reminder of a time where things had value.
While the woman bustled around, turning on stoves and whatnot, he looked around. There was little natural light, but several ceiling panels provided illumination. “How do you have power here?” he asked
She was chopping what very well might have been chicken on a working flat stove. Some ancient vegetables she’d pulled from a door. They’d been covered in ice. Ice! “Hoover Dam is just down the road, isn’t it,” she said, as if that answered everything. Marquis was pretty sure it answered nothing, but before he could say so, she continued, “You a long way from home?”
“Ran a job in California,” Marquis said.
“That where you got the gold from?”
“You mean ‘yes, ma’am,” she said.
“Right,” Marquis said. “Yes ma’am.”
Pam clucked at him. “So, did the job go bad?” she asked.
“And now someone is after you.” It was a statement.
Marquis pursed his lips. He was nearly done his second cup of water and he could already feel life moving back into his limbs. He nodded.
She shook her head. “You know that’s how my boys went,” she said, nodding. “I smelled it on you. That dirty kind of trouble.”
Out of some odd reflex, Marquis sniffed himself. He knew that wasn’t what she meant, but he couldn’t help it. And he smelled very bad. The last month would make anyone stink. He had worse things to be ashamed of.
“Is that why you didn’t take my gold?” he asked. “You could sense it came from there?”
She laughed and continued cooking. It smelled delicious. “There’s a cot in the back and I have a radio and a mountain of books from the old libraries and a larder of food that will never go bad and even electricity. A reservoir of water beneath this place, so I even have a little garden and flowers. Plus the sky. Gold can’t buy me shit, but things should cost something or they have no value. I could ask for gold, but what would I do with it? Word would just get out of a little old woman with a house full of gold and I don’t need that do I?”
“If you don’t need money, why are you still running this place, then?” he asked.
She shrugged and wrapped a half-dozen finished Chalupas in thin paper. “What’s life without work?”
She gave him his food and Marquis finished his water and handed the cup back to her and asked for a Coke this time because why not. She gave it to him and a couple packets of hot sauce and he sat at the first available table. He opened the first wrapping and the smells of spice and meat and oil and preservatives that weren’t salt wafted and he suddenly remembered when he was a boy and they’d stopped into a restaurant very like this one on their move out west.
His mother had had beautiful curly hair that she kept wrapped and scarved when traveling and that was what he remembered, how some of it would defy her wrappings and she’d mutter under her breath and go to the bathroom to fix it. His father would shake his head and say, “Your mum. She’s a character, huh?” While she fixed her hair, his father carried forth about the Dodgers’ pitching and how it needed to be better this year because those Padres, those Padres were coming up weren’t they?”
“I don’t know, Dad,” he’d said.
“No, you’re too young to know about this. But it’s important.” His father had smiled and winked and Marquis had felt so safe and when their food was ready, he led Marquis in prayer, bismillahi wa ‘ala baraka-tillah. Marquis still remembered the prayer and mouthed it sometimes when he felt alone in the universe. Back then, though, he’d followed along with his father and then he’d taken a bite of something hot and greasy and not very good, but it had tasted like family. When his mother returned, she gave him some of her drink and his eyes had widened at how sweet it was. They didn’t allow him sweets at home and never soda.
“It’s a treat,” she said. “You’ve been well-behaved. Lord above, isn’t that something?” She kissed him then and Marquis remembered the feeling of her lips on his temple so well. He rubbed the spot where so many years ago his mother had blessed him and something caught in his throat, so he stopped thinking about it entirely.
Marquis took a bite and it was good. He sipped the Coke and he gagged at the sweetness but he remembered his mother so he didn’t forego it entirely. He chewed and chewed and swallowed and it wasn’t because it was some delicacy that it tasted better than most other food he’d had, but it tasted of life and memories and time itself and that was worth something all on its own. He went in for his second bite and just then, the door banged open. He didn’t have to look up to know who it was, though he did.
“Can I help you?” Pam asked.
“Looking for that one,” the rider said. His voice was deep and cracked like the moon, but every word fell into place perfectly. Marquis didn’t know why, but when he stepped into view, one hand holding a pistol, the rider reminded him of his old teacher who had been big and brown while this man was small and pale, but they had that same force of presence, that same authority.
The rider had long thin blonde hair, bleached white by the decades and by the sun. He wore a faded brown hat. His skin was like leather. The rider was dwarfed by Marquis, but that didn’t make him smell like any less of a threat. Marquis knew a hard man when he saw one.
Marquis saw Pam’s hand disappear under the counter. “No killing in here,” she said. “Didn’t have any deaths before the world ended. Don’t want any now. Order something or leave.”
The rider turned and saw where Pam’s hand was and he smiled. “Can I have a taco?”
Pam sniffed. “Two dollars. No gold, paper money only.”
“No inflation? Imagine that.” The rider nodded. “I don’t have any cash. Must have left my wallet at home.
Marquis reached into his billfold and removed two singles. “I got it,” he called. Pam turned and got to work and the rider’s lips opened in a laugh.
“Obliged,” the rider said, ambling over. “Mind if I sit?” He slid into the vinyl seat across from Marquis. He laid his pistol down with a metallic thunk. “You enjoying your meal, son?”
The rider continued. “I haven’t been in one of these places since my second wife.” He looked around and scratched beneath a week’s worth of stubble. “Took Vicki here on a date.”
Marquis snorted. “You took a woman to a place like this? I was just a kid back then, but I’d like to think I’d have known better.”
The rider glared, his eyes twin specks of black, but then he grinned, to reveal a mouth of yellow, even teeth. “I don’t remember my thinking. Maybe I was drunk. It was a long time ago, wasn’t it?”
When Pam called out that his taco was ready, the rider said, “Don’t leave. I don’t want to turn this into a shootout. And besides, with Grandma packing, this could get ugly for all.” He holstered his pistol and went to retrieve his food.
Marquis sat there, finishing the last of his meal, wondering just where he’d gone wrong in all of this. He remembered being a kid, then being a lonely, scared teenager, then a drunk man, a poor father and husband, and now this. He wasn’t an evil person, not even a bad one he was pretty sure. But somehow he was in his forties and he just wanted to see his kids again, if only he could leave this husk of the past and get past his myriad poor decisions.
When the rider returned, he said, “Ain’t this a treat?” Marquis shook his head. “You don’t think so?”
“I don’t know anything anymore, man.”
The rider raised an eyebrow. “How’s that?”
Marquis opened his mouth, closed it. He looked at Pam, her white hair now swept back and held in place by savage-looking straight pins, wiping the ancient stove with the remnants of a rag. He saw his Coke, the cup flecked with dust. He looked at the makeshift lights, the burnt out windows, and the guns in their holsters. “It just doesn’t seem right to me. I shouldn’t have grown up with all of this.”
The rider swallowed and licked his lips and seemed to reflect on it all. “Maybe not,” he said. “But we’re here aren’t we? This is where we are and what it is.” His free hand drifted to his gun, fingertips grazing the handle.
Marquis nodded and smiled and felt a tear escape into his tangled sunswept beard. “Doesn’t make it right,” he said, acutely aware of the sawed-off on his back, the weight of it. He remembered a time when it didn’t feel so much a part of him.
They regarded one another. The rider subtly nodded his head toward the door, to the vast waste of the Mojave. Marquis nodded back and felt the inevitability of what was to come. He felt no anxiety, only a deep sadness. He wanted to talk to his parents one last time; touch his children.
He tightened his hand into a fist, the empty wrapper crackling and crumbling between his fingers. The rider’s chin hardened in response. They made no move yet and Marquis said, “It doesn’t make it right, does it?”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t.”
There was silence then, but for Pam cleaning in the back and humming to herself. The rider’s drumming of fingertips. The wind spitting sand against the windows. Somewhere something buzzed and in the distance a coyote screamed. “Jesus wept,” Marquis said.
The rider said nothing, chewing, and then he swallowed and nodded. Now, it seemed, he understood.
Michael B. Tager is a writer and editor. He is mostly vegetables. Find more of his work at michaelbtager.com