When Dale spotted the coyote, he abandoned his westward course and swerved off the highway into the desert, aiming for the animal. At the moment of impact, half the coyote sprayed blood across the windshield, the other half dragged underneath. The Ford turned on its side and smashed into the dirt. The children in the back were wearing their seat belts, but Dale wasn’t. He went headfirst into the windshield and cracked it with his face.
Dale crawled out, blood flowing from a face fractured with stark lines. Harrison and Claire watched, unharmed, from beside the car. The wreck sundered Dale’s sense of direction. He headed south into the open desert, until he stopped all of a sudden, as if he felt the sun for the first time. It covered Dale and the desert, and now it was all he had in front of him. He stood there in the distance, looking right into it.
Claire extended an index finger, like she’d been doing since she’d been picked up in El Paso, and traced each letter in F-O-R-D before pronouncing the word itself. Harrison clasped his hand around her finger and then led her away from Dale and toward the highway.
They waited on the road until the wind stopped, and when no cars appeared, they crossed the highway and walked north into the desert, in the opposite direction of Dale. Though they saw nothing in front of them, they could see all of it, and they walked together, holding hands. Claire stopped every so often to pick up rocks to throw out ahead of her. Each time she picked up a new rock, Harrison stood waiting, looking back across the highway that separated them from Dale. From this distance, Harrison couldn’t see Dale’s face, couldn’t see it singe under the sun as Dale stood motionless, staring at it.
It wasn’t typical of Dale to suspend his actions. It’s true he’d stopped in El Paso, but then he tended to stop in larger cities, always maintaining his sense of direction, west. He’d made it a good hundred miles or more from Claire’s house on that busy corner, and would have gone farther had he not needed to kill that dog.
Now Dale, standing in the desert, heard the familiar howl again. The call shook him from his stupor and he limped back to the car, squinting at Harrison and Claire for the first time since the car wreck. Dale checked both halves of the coyote’s corpse and realized his mistake—he’d killed the wrong dog.
The redness in Dale’s face was prominent, though it was a separate shade from the darker blood that ran down to his mangled jaw and dripped from his chin. He gripped the door handle on the driver’s side, but then he found his reflection in a window of the car wreck. That window also reflected the sun behind him, and he viewed them both, understanding now how damaging it all was.
When Dale heard the call again, he was certain this time it was coming from the north and he turned in its direction, toward Harrison and Claire. The children were too far away to see Dale open the door and retrieve the shotgun from the upturned Ford and make sure it was still loaded. Moving erratically, but with considerable speed despite his injuries, Dale reached the highway and positioned himself, maintaining a firm grip on the weapon.
The first pop from the shotgun echoed off the mountains. It turned Harrison and Claire around, and they saw Dale standing in the road with his weapon trained on the two of them. Needless to say the distance between them wouldn’t have allowed Dale a chance at hitting anything, but the children didn’t know that. Dale fired again and continued to discharge the shotgun even after they had left his line of fire. The children shifted in another direction, just to have a direction.
Before Claire, outside Kansas, Harrison first witnessed Dale take up the shotgun meaning to kill that dog. It’d been following him again and Harrison watched from the front seat as Dale fired several rounds at nothing.
“They say dogs are good for children,” he’d said that day when he returned to the Ford with the shotgun, “but it can’t be true. Children don’t need something else they can outlive. I do. I used to be able to outlive dogs.”
Now Harrison and Claire were heading south toward the mountains. Harrison looked back and saw Dale perched on the edge of the highway, using his shotgun as a crutch. It was probably just the dog he was waiting for. He remained there as the heat came, and he perspired and the sun deepened the scales of his skin and the burn spread. Dale gasped and spat dust he’d collected in his now-desiccated mouth.
He pried at his face with the tips of his fingers and found it enveloped in crusted streaks of dried blood that encased an eye and much of the right side of his face. Dale moaned and his body convulsed, tumbling from the highway onto the plain, hitting the dirt with his face.
Dale’s cries echoed like the shotgun blast before and Harrison turned at the sound. Dale opened his eyes and crawled back to the Ford. His writhing caused the dust to rise around him and settle in the blood now pouring from the reopened wounds of his face. He held his breath as he kicked at the trunk, his legs quivering each time they made contact, and he let out that breath, spitting dirt as the trunk opened.
Inside were mostly items the children had collected—things like empty cans, tissues, rubber bands, candy wrappers, toothbrushes, coins (no quarters), a soccer ball, a stuffed bear, a small drum, hair, an empty container, Claire’s necklace, old books, calendars, a Barbie doll. But some of Dale’s things, too—a plastic gallon jug filled with urine, empty pill bottles, teeth, the shotgun shells he needed, pairs of shoes, more hair.
Dale pushed away rocks in the dirt and settled, resting and breathing slowly as a rattlesnake passed. Had he wanted to, he could have looked south and witnessed the children’s difficulty with their new direction. He could have watched Harrison pull Claire up a ridge, looking in all directions and conceding to the mountains and the dirt and the sun. Claire also felt the reluctance as Harrison let her sit just a little too long before helping her down and leading her back across the plain to the highway and their new direction, west.
If only the children understood that Dale had always been heading west, that it was the only direction that ever got him anywhere. Like all those other children before them, Harrison and Claire had four directions to choose from, not just one, and they were determined to try them all. That’s what happens when you’ve got no direction, you meander.
By the time Dale limped back to the highway, Harrison and Claire could no longer be seen looking back, measuring their distance. But Dale paid no attention to the children’s progress. He knew they’d run out of options in the desert, that they’d have to come back. Wasn’t much the desert was gonna do for them.
Besides, he was busy, still hunting that dog. His mumbling took shape, as it always does when he exhausts all prior thought and his mind needs to breathe, and his voice curdled as he said, “That dog should be dead already. The dog’s problem is it ran away and lived longer, and now it might outlast me. The only reason it keeps coming round is to remind me it’s still alive.”
Then Dale fired that shotgun into the west, into the direction he figured the dog must have taken, and only faintly did it echo off the mountains. The children probably didn’t hear it.
An Incident with a Stick
Apr 1, 01:23 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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