Dust

What if it was all a lie?

Shit it’s dusty here.

How long can you keep doing this?

Don’t be like that. There were eyes on her now, and she had that half-fear, half-thrill of being a stranger. This time it really all was gone. Her eyes watered.

Don’t.

It’s just all this fucking dust.

A bar. The best place in the history of the world, her world anyway, to learn what she needed to. She’ll deal with the rest later.

Everyone inside watched her come in, every flicker of her reaction a cinema for the bar’s half dozen or so occupants. A couple of employees, some second-shift factory workers, a career drunk.

She sat. The bartender was a woman in her early fifties. Maybe younger, if the environment added double lines for the time.

-Get you somethin’ honey?

-Whiskey, please. On ice.

The bartender raised an eyebrow slightly but her hands were already making the drink.

-So, just passing through, or do you have people here in Jerome?

Just look at the drink. The glassy sheen of the cubes. How many curious bartenders have asked that question in this dreamscape of red and gray?

-Personalized service, huh?

-Well, we don’t get many tourists this time of year. The dust, you know.

-Yeah.

Your eyes. Just stop. You can’t start this now.

-Hey, are you alright?

All these people were stranded once, just like you. The other patrons were trying not to stare.

-Yeah. Hey, I’m going to need a place to stay, for maybe a couple of weeks, that’s decent but not too expensive, if you can recommend one?

-Oh, sure, honey. The Motel Six by the highway isn’t so bad. If you want breakfast, there’s a B and B out by the lake…well, lakebed now. Guy and Mia run that, and would probably give you a break if they knew you had to stay awhile. It might make a difference if you could tell them what brought you to town?

She looks down. Just reach in and take it out. What else are you here for? She clears her throat and holds out the picture.

-I’m looking for my sister. I think she might have come through here.

The bartender looks, studies, and purses her mouth sadly.

-I’m sorry. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t here. What’s her name?

-Dawn. I’m Natalie.

A dim memory of their mother, smiling as she held the infant Dawn in her arms while her older child sat in her lap, peering at the baby’s sleeping face. We named you Natalie because you were born at Christmastime, and we named your little sister Dawn because she was born at first light.

-Hi Natalie. I’m Connie. How many towns you u to?

-Five or six.

Lift the glass. Drink. It won’t be so bad.

The ice clung together at the bottom of the glass for a moment, and sluiced toward her mouth with a gulp of fire. It was too much, but she drank it anyway, and put the glass back down without a grimace.

-Do you have any copies of that picture?

-Yeah, although I was hoping to find a library or somewhere with a printer to make some more.

-The cops?

She sighed, looked down again, shook her head.

-Well, honey, if you leave a copy of your picture there, I can show it around. I can tell you that the cops here aren’t city cops: they’ll help you as much as they can.

-Guess I better go see about that room. What do I owe you?

-First one’s on me, honey. You find your sister, you buy me one.

-Thanks.

Walking back out into the low afternoon sun was momentarily dazzling. The tears coated her eyes but did not fall. She wondered if teardrops could break light into rainbows, given enough sadness.

She got back into her car and navigated toward the bed and breakfast. It sounded better than listening to the endless rattle of trucks by the highway, watching the news scroll on a square hunk of television set on a sterile hutch.

Mia greeted her as if she knew she was coming, which of course she did. Connie must have picked up the phone behind the bar, her words spilling out advance notice. Sister. Sadness. Tragedy.

-Don’t you worry about our rates, dear; we’ll give you a long-term discount.

There’s no anonymity here.

It doesn’t matter. It’s all gone now.

The room was bulging with tiny flowers. Prints of orange blossoms on the wall covered papered strips of roses. A coverlet of embroidered daisies lay over bluebonnet sheets. A stuffed bear propped up against a rocking chair, looking abandoned and forlorn, was wearing a ribbon around its neck decorated with a medley of bouquets.

She sat on the bed.

All she tasted was dust.

Memories don’t replay like they do in movies. There’s no rewind and jerk into action of exact forward motion. How many times has your mind pretended it all happened differently? Better, or worse even. Reassigning blame from one party to another. Some days you wear a little less burden; most days you carry it all. There you are, shouting at him: Where is she? Where is my sister? He says she’s gone, like he has twenty times before, no a hundred, and there’s that flicker of something else behind his words. Guilt? Agitation? Impatience? Whatever it is makes you so angry, and also guilty, like you never did enough.

Now she tasted dust and salt water.

Everyone is so helpful and it makes her tired, and she wants to say, no please, be terrible, I want to fight everything. But she accepts Guy’s patient directions to the police station to the next morning, and Mia’s soft insistence on making copies of her sister’s picture.

In the sheriff’s office, she answers all the familiar questions. Her sister, gone without a trace. Her sister’s husband, cleared, yet still under suspicion. Two voiceless phone calls made, three days after she went missing, from pay phones in Ash Fork and Payson. Her subsequent trek to follow that trail to try to find evidence her sister had been there.

-So, your officers back home think she likely took off on her own?

She nodded. She looked at his name plate. Lt. Sandovar. He had told her to call him Bill.

He sighed.

-What do you think?

All the possibilities she had considered swept through her mind. Some were mundane, some obvious, some fantastic and informed by news stories, ancient movies, even their mother’s old crime paperbacks in the basement. A flash of walking into her sister’s house, all her things left undisturbed. She saw her sister, with that bright smile from the picture, buying a Coke from a store in a town like this one, flirting with the clerk, her hair swaying behind her. Or in the back of a van with bare grooved floors, her eyes wide, hands taped together, dried blood under her nails.

Stop.

She shook her head, took a breath.

-I don’t know. Someone disappears, everything seems wrong. Her husband seems wrong. That not a single thing of hers was taken or even moved seems wrong. If she were with us, what would be out of place? Nothing. Except I am here and those two phone calls.

Bill was looking at a spot on the wall beyond her.

-Lots of people go missing. Lots of people who go missing never surface again, in any condition. I’m sure that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth.

-I know. But I have to look anyway. If she’s alive, then she’s out there somewhere, and someone must have seen her. If she’s gone, there isn’t anything I can do for her and I may as well look.

-Alright then. I’ve got some friends who might be willing to take a look at your picture there, and we’ll want to take a look at those phone records. Have you been to the cities you got those calls from?

-I haven’t made it up to Payson yet. I’ve stopped in Ash Fork and just about everywhere else between here and Palmdale.

-California?

-Yeah.

In Palmdale, where it all began. She looks down in annoyance at her brother-in-law’s number flashing on her phone before answering. Nat, she’s missing. I don’t know where or what’s happened to her. Missing? What do you mean, missing? Did you have a fight? No, I just…Nat, it’s been four days, are you sure you haven’t seen or heard from her? Four days? Are you kidding? Did you call the police? I just called them today. Just today? My sister has been missing for four days and you just called me, and the police, today? Nat, what was I supposed to do? You know how she is…

You know how she is.

Except she didn’t, not really. On the one hand, her sister had been rambunctious in her younger years. But she had never gotten into any serious trouble, and it had seemed she was settling into her role as a typical suburban wife. It was always Nat who didn’t fit in, who was the awkward one. It had been some time since she felt close to her sister, and in part, her feelings about her husband and their marriage was the reason why.

-Why do you think he was involved?

-It’s funny you ask that. I’ve tried to stay objective even though I never really liked him. But I guess I would hope if someone was going to do something horrible to your sister that you wouldn’t think he was a great guy.

Bill smiled faintly.

-One thing is, when my sister first got married, all she could talk about was having a child. A few months before she disappeared, I asked her if she was still planning on starting a family. It was just idle conversation but when she responded, she seemed odd; just kind of flat and unemotional. She told me that she didn’t want to have any children. As if she never had. And that was it. She didn’t say anything else about it.

-And you told the Palmdale police that?

-Of course. They just shrugged it off, or maybe added it to the list of things that made my sister unstable. The other thing that bothers me about her husband is how, after she disappeared, he made it seem like it was just the sort of thing that she would do, as if he was just waiting for her to walk out the door and never come back.

-And it wasn’t?

-Look, I know that sort of thing happens all the time. And I’m not saying that she wouldn’t. I admit that she was a little wild, years ago. I have to keep myself honest about this. I just don’t think that she did. And if you had seen her, like I had…

She lifted her head to look up at Bill.

-She just seemed so happy. Happier than me, anyway.

Her eyes opened. She’d been having a dream, now fading into darkness, and it took a moment to process her surroundings.

The flowers. The bright window sheathed in translucent curtains. A stuffed bear with forlorn eyes and soft fur that no child had ever touched.

She got to her feet and walked softly, swaying a little, into the bathroom. She used the toilet and washed her face without emerging totally into wakefulness. She picked up her toothbrush, looked into the mirror, and froze.

It was her sister’s face. The image, just a memory recalled by familial resemblance, passed as quickly as it had come, and she was left looking at herself, the water running, her toothbrush still clenched in her hand.

She went downstairs and walked outside to her car, now coated in a fine layer of grit. She wiped the windshield with a napkin and threw her bag in the passenger seat. She unlatched the top of the car and pushed it back.

I can’t believe how quickly I got used to the dust.

Once she turned onto the highway, she pulled her hair out of its ponytail and turned her music up. A few other drivers on the road, mostly in pickup trucks and semis, turned to look at the pretty woman in a convertible.

Almost as if I were just going for a drive. As if anything mattered besides where I’m going. As if I could be free.

Standing at the door. Her one small case in her hand. What do you mean you’re leaving me? Sarah, I have to go. I have to find her. And I can’t do that and be with you. I can’t be with anyone. But what about your life? What about me? It’s crazy! What if she doesn’t want to be found? I have to know. Sarah, I’m sorry…

She drove for a half an hour, passing innumerable golf courses and housing developments, patches of green amid the scrub. Some newer sites lay silent and unfinished, their construction halted due to lack of financing. It was a windy day, and as she drove, she watched the scant trees bend and toss.

Look at me, Nattie! A dress, the only one she owned, fluttered around her sister’s body. Look! I’m a dancer!

The response couldn’t be hers, even though that jarring harsh tone came from her mouth. What are you doing? Get out of that, it’s mine!

Dawn’s twirling stopped, her face suddenly sad and fearful. She stepped out of the too-big dress and handed it to her sister. I’m sorry Nattie, I just wanted to dance for you. To cheer you up.

Snatching the material away without a word. Storming to her room. Wanting to go back, take it back, say, It’s okay, you can have it. Anything.

Take everything. Just bring back my sister.

A gust of wind shoved her car towards a big truck. A horn blurted out and she swerved sharply and slowed down. The truck roared forward and she pulled to the side of the road, sobbing. After a while, no more tears would come and she sat there, motionlessly staring at the blue-capped road ahead.

What else can you do but drive on?

In Payson she stopped under the dim red neon of Tiny’s Lounge. It was rougher and less touristy than Connie’s Place in Jerome, but the inside of all these western bars hid the same weathered faces and the same sad tales.

Except yours.

She drank the same drink, and in her weary conversation with the grizzled bartender, showed the same picture. The other patrons returned their gaze to their drinks, and the bartender’s voice took on a note of concern as he stood polishing glasses. It was hollow reenactment more than original experience, and Natalie paid for her drink and slid her sister’s picture back into her purse in preparation for the drive back without expectation that the script would change.

-Hey, did you say your sister was from Palmdale? California?

Her head snapped up.

-Yes. Yes, we’re from Palmdale. Did you see her?

The bartender, a gaunt older man wearing more leather than denim, shook his head sadly.

-No ma’am. This place, everyone’d remember a pretty girl like that. But there were a couple of fellas in here from Palmdale not too long ago.

Her heart, already in a sprint, seemed to stop short.

-Two men?

-Yep. Hey Frank! Frank and Jim was in here that night, I bet they’d remember.

An even older man, wiry and lined, shambled down from the end of the bar.

-Hey Frank, where’s Jim?

Frank muttered and jerked his head towards the back of the bar. The bartender nodded.

-Pisser. Pardon me ma’am. Hey Frank, you remember those two fellas in here from California a couple weeks ago?

-What of them?

-Who you talking about Frank?

Jim had returned from the restroom and took up a post at Frank’s elbow. He was young enough to be Frank’s son, or even grandson, although there was no resemblance between them. Even with the slow scarring of age, Frank could still be said to be handsome, the lines in his face anchored by bright eyes and a straight even nose. Jim’s features were best described as horsey, with a long face and bulging eyes.

-Those fucknuts come in here from California acting like they owned the place.

-What, a couple weeks ago?

-How many fucknuts come in from California?

-I suppose anyone comes in here from California is a fucknut.

The bartender cleared his throat.

-Ah, this young lady has come from uh, California — Palmdale actually — looking for her missing sister and was hoping to know a little more about those two fellas.

-You think they had something to do with it?

The two faces were looking at her more intently now; the younger of them, who had asked the question, almost eager.

-I don’t know yet. It’s the first I’ve heard of anyone from Palmdale coming through here.

-Well, missy, what makes you think your sister did?

The older man’s voice was stern, but some of the lines on his forehead softened. She explained about the phone calls, stopping at cities on the route between them, and her sister’s possessions, left untouched in her home.

-Does your sister have a husband or boyfriend that might have wished her harm?

She looked down, sighed heavily.

-I know it might be a hard thing to imagine, family letting you down.

-No, that’s not it. I do suspect her husband. But I don’t want any grudge or guilt I feel to get in the way of finding the truth. It’s all I want, now, just to know. There was no evidence in her house, and nothing to connect him to her disappearance.

-Just a feeling.

-Yeah. That, and two voiceless phone calls made from the Arizona desert. And now, a couple of faces you might have seen.

Jim fidgeted in his seat, clearly wanting to say something.

-You’re a lucky lady. Frank’s a cop.

-Retired.

-I just mean that you’d be able to describe ‘em better than me.

-Shut up, Jim.

-Is that true?

Frank sighed heavily and looked first at Jim, then at her.

-You mean, am I retired, or can I describe them?

She returned his gaze for a moment, then looked around at the rest of the bar. The air was sodden with the weight of repetition, of small-town intimacy, of the undergrowth of secrets cultivated over an interminable duration.

-Look, for all I know, you’re just a nameless person who happened to see or hear something important to me. I don’t want anything that will take something from you.

Frank nodded slowly.

-You a whiskey drinker?

He motioned to her glass.

-Yes, sir.

-Al, will you give us that bottle of Bushmills? I’ll tally up with you later.

-Sure thing, Frank. Take your time.

Frank started walking towards the back. Jim picked up their two glasses and hers. She followed. They sat at a table that more light would not have complimented. Frank began to speak, and she looked into the warm sheen of the liquor, converting his words into images.

-(They came in on a Thursday night, red-faced and talking loud, but well dressed, each in jeans and nice boots and soft, expensive looking button down shirts. They were both white, although one had a darker complexion. Italian, maybe. The lighter one was taller and thinner, with shaggy hair, light brown with bleached ends. He kept complaining about his sunburn.)

-Shut up, man. You should have used sunscreen if you were gonna burn like that.

-It makes my hands all greasy. Besides, what the fuck do you know? You’re practically a nigger.

-Fuck you. My skin is fucking olive. And your hands are greasy already.

-So’s this stupid fucking bar. Just look at this place. It’s a shitty place to live or die, if you ask me. Why do we always have to come to shitholes like this?

-No one’s fucking asking you. We come to places like this because no one gives a shit where you’re from. Or where you’re going.

-Or where you’ve been.

-I already said that, asshole.

-Whatever. Let’s just get back to Tonto.

-(So then they drank their drink, paid in cash and left.)

-They said something about Tonto? Do you think he meant the park?

-I can’t say what he meant, but yeah, Tonto Natural Bridge is near here.

The brown sign from her drive flashed through her mind. Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. The white symbols below, modern hieroglyphs: A figure in a wheelchair. Two hikers with staffs. A picnic table.

-How’s this, Nattie?

Her sister, smoothing a brown southwestern-patterned blanket on a picnic table. On the trip to Colorado, where the tiny red squirrels got into everything. They chased them and threw sticks, laughing when the squirrels stopped short and flicked their tails defiantly, chattering in tandem.

Frank sighed, swirled his drink and looked at the door.

-Listen. Your sister’s missing, you get a couple of phone calls from this area, and you have a couple loudmouths come in here from you and your sister’s hometown. There’s a limited number of possibilities as to what that means to you. It could be a total coincidence where those two call their place of residence. Palmdale’s not exactly tiny, right?

-Not really.

-And even if this is a shitty place to live…

Or die, she thought.

-We still get our fair share of visitors, especially from California.

Frank smiled ruefully. She returned his smile, briefly, and sipped from her glass.

-Still, that being a coincidence would not account for the phone calls or your missing sister. Another possibility is that they did have something to do with your sister’s disappearance but she is unharmed. Two young hotheads like that may seem unsavory to you or I, but to a woman floundering in a troubled marriage, recklessness may seem like the soul of life itself.

Frank’s voice faltered. She looked from her glass to his face. The smile was gone. Frank was as grim and dour as at their introduction.

But his hands. They were shaking. He saw her looking at them and he covered one with the other, cracked his knuckles and took another drink.

-Anyways, it’s been known to happen. Whether she hasn’t contacted anyone because she wants to remain free or because she feels shame for abandoning her family — or both — are reasons only she would know.

-Leaving?

-Leaving what I’m sure you’ve already thought, and no matter how you look at it, it turns up bad. Those two men did have something to do with your sister’s disappearance, either by chance or having been hired by her husband. They brought her here to kill her, and that’s what they did.

The image of her sister twirling in her borrowed dress returned. A bright smile, fading.

-I have to go out there.

-Tonto?

-What else can I do?

Frank sighed and put his hand over hers. His palm felt dry and lifeless, despite the warmth it conveyed to her hand.

-Miss. There will come a point, and I ain’t saying this is it, but no matter what you find or don’t find, you’re gonna have to stop looking for answers. You’re gonna have to choose to stop, because nothing you find will make you. And if you ever find out what makes people do what they’ve done, you’ll be as fucked up as any of us.

His hand went back to his drink, lifted. The liquor shifted around the melting cubes of ice. He held the glass away from his lips but kept it close for a second drink.

-Jim?

-Yeah Frank, what is it?

-Can you help this young lady find her way around Tonto Park?

-Yeah, I can do that. Sure thing.

-And keep the jibber-jabber to a minimum?

-I can’t talk to her?

-Just don’t say nothing stupid if you can help it.

They walked outside. The bright sky startled her. It was still early. Her perception had been disjointed by the darkened bar and sips of whiskey.

-My truck’s over here.

-I’ll follow you.

She turned to Frank, who was squinting at them. She couldn’t tell what his expression indicated.

-Thank you, Frank.

-Yup.

She got in her car while Jim waited. She looked back at Tiny’s in her rear-view mirror and caught a glimpse of the old man before he disappeared once again into the interior and the door shut behind him.

Jim drove steadily, back the way she had come. They passed the marker for the state park, and then approached a second sign indicating the turn. Clouds of dust billowed behind Jim’s truck and enough seeped into her car that she could once again taste the grit of the earth that she had become accustomed to in smaller amounts. She was having a hard time seeing his truck in front of her.

Guess I’ll just follow the cloud.

The cloud ended at a wide parking lot at the foot of some ambitious rocks. The picnic tables sat dejected and in disrepair under a stand of squatty trees, and beyond them, a trailhead beckoned.

Jim approached her.

-So, here’s the main trail. There’s a lot of little side trails, but I doubt anyone from out of town would bother with them.

-Yeah. Okay. Let’s go then.

Their boots crunched in the dry gravel. He seemed relieved to concentrate on walking.

-Hey, you keep up pretty good.

-Thanks. I used to do a lot of hiking before.

Before. The word needed no noun to follow. Before that phone call from her sister’s husband. Before the frustrations of police who never listened. Before the boxes piled by the door that she just left behind or gave away. Before she left her old life for this strange new existence. Before.

Before is gone.

They wound down the main trail until it narrowed and twisted back on itself. The landscape was not as lifeless as she imagined, although everything that grew or moved had rough skin or spines.

They rounded a bend to face a giant tube of rock. The bridge was really a deep cave that had been excavated by time and now gaped like a giant’s eye peering up out of the ground.

-This is where people come when they come to see the Natural Bridge. But there are plenty more caves and tunnels right around here that don’t get visited much.

She was looking at the rocks. She turned to face Jim, who looked unsure of what to do with himself.

-Thank you.

He looked at her strangely for a moment, as if trying to account her meaning.

-You…you want me to take off?

-You should get back, and I might be awhile.

-Are you sure? I could hang around. It’s no problem.

-I’ll be fine. Please. It’s okay.

-Okay. If that’s what you want.

Jim crunched past her while she took in the shapes of things. How long did she have? The sun was lower in the sky, although sunset was several hours away yet. She climbed up into the tunnel formed by the bridge. It was shaded and cool, and the sound of water dripping down the sides of the walls echoed, just slightly. The moisture formed small pools that glowed with what light did slant in the chamber.

Plink plink plink.

She dropped her keys on the table by the door like always. Her phone was ringing and she considered a moment whether she should answer it. When she picked up the phone, it was him. Missing. Days. Police. It wasn’t real. It didn’t make any sense. She’d just walked into an empty house, tired from work and looking forward to the peace of the evening.

And now she was here. What was she hoping to find?

The truth. You want the truth about what happened. Then you can start over.

What could possibly be here that would give her that?

She went deeper, down into another group of chambers. Once her eyes adjusted, there was still enough light to easily see her surroundings, although the angle had changed. A few cracks of sunlight broke through the earth above, which may once have been sinkholes into the caves.

That would be a bad drop.

An image of her sister, standing on a grassy slope. She turns and waves happily. The ground opens up and she falls without a sound. Dawn! Natalie runs to the crevice. There’s nothing but a black hole.

And now you’re in it.

But I’m not going to die here.

You don’t know that she did.

Oh, come on. She’s gone, and two bad men were the cause. It’s no coincidence why they were here. How do all of these stories end? How many people go missing each year? Why are the people who are supposed to investigate crimes crippled with boredom? The police, who deliver words they’ve been told to say, all the while wearing an expression that said, don’t bet on it. Your friends, who pat your shoulder and squeeze your hand, all with that same worried look that knows, knows like you do even though you won’t admit it. Do you think it’s because they’re all found alive because their relations go traipsing through a crack in the desert earth? Don’t be dumb! You’re sister is dead. They’re all dead.

Don’t start again.

The truth. That’s what she wanted. A story to hang her heart on. Some sign that she could stop looking.

“You’re gonna have to choose to stop, because nothing you find will make you.”

Frank’s voice echoed in her mind. The tears started, although she was looking at the shaft of light emerging from the ceiling in her best effort not to cry.

Maybe it’s all a lie, all of it.

A small flash of light penetrated her tears.

Squinting, she looked through the murky air. There was something in that far pool that caught a ray of setting sun.

She scrambled over, craning her neck to imitate the angle. There it was again. She wiped her eyes and reached. Cold still water enveloped her hand. She fumbled a moment in the loose rocks before her fingers settled on something smooth.

A ring.

-Hey Nat? I wanted to ask you something?

-What’s that?

-Well, I just wanted to know…if you would be my maid of honor.

-Oh my god, Dawn — you’re getting married?

-Yeah, I wanted you to know before we told anyone else.

-Congratulations, I’m so happy for you!

-Hey, you know that poet you always used to read in high school? The Vermont one?

-You mean from Maine — Edna St. Vincent Millay? What about her?

-We’re having lines from one of her poems engraved on our wedding rings.

-Oh, which one?

-Hang on, let me think: Love is no more / Than the wide blossom which the wind assails, on mine, and Love is no more/ Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore, on his.

-Oh, wow, that’s…nice, Dawn.

But did you tell her what the poem was about? The wreckage of love gone by, not a vow of eternal devotion.

What difference would it have made?

Can you still see enough in this light below the ground? She closed her eyes, brought the ring up to the fading sliver of sun.

What was the whole poem? She’d looked it up again before the wedding ceremony, fruitlessly hoping to allay her misgivings:


Pity me not because the light of day

At close of day no longer walks the sky;

Pity me not for beauties passed away

From field and thicket as the year goes by;

Pity me not the waning of the moon,

Nor the ebbing tide goes out to sea,

Nor that a man’s desire is hushed so soon,

And you no longer look with love on me.

This I have known always: Love is no more

Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,

Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,

Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales:

Pity me that the heart is slow to learn

What the swift mind beholds at every turn.


And there, in the dusty beam settling in a cold cave pool she read the matching phrase.

Love is no more.

The two hired men grab her in her home and are gone before anyone notices. They bind and gag her, and bring her here, to the desert. The skinny blonde guy calls the sister while she watches because he is cruel enough to think it funny. She drops her ring to try to leave some message behind, because she knows what is going to happen. And here, in this cave, they…

But where is she then?

Love is no more.

Natalie steps forward, past the pool. Another step. Another.

The sound of tiny pebbles dropping.

What’s over there?

Eyes squinting again, then refocusing. Another open blackness in the ground.

So I’m standing on top of another cave?

Down you go, sweetie. The two men laugh while her sister screams. If she survived the fall, how long would she have lasted? Days? A week? Was she still there? Or did they kill her first, the fall punctuated not by screams but by an abrupt thud on the cave floor?

She eases closer to the sinkhole.

-Dawn?

Nothing but the reverberation of her own voice and the still-trickling water.

-Dawn!

And now? You could call the police.

Searchlights painted arcs on the walls of the cave. Men’s urgent voices. Here! Over here! The inevitable body, mutilated by weaponry or the force of the fall. Would it lead to the two men? Could they be found? An image of the weedy blonde in a cheap suit, pointing across a courtroom. Every eye follows his fingers. Him. He hired me to do it.

Then you would know. The truth. It is still what you want, isn’t it?

She took only that cash and the clothes she wore. That fucking bastard, she thought. He’ll kill me if he knows where I am. A slight smile. But he’ll be sorry when I don’t come back. She juts out her thumb. Hey little honey, you need a ride somewhere? I sure do: anywhere east of here. Hop on in. She smiles at them, purrs, I’m so glad I met up with you guys. Hey, drop me off at this park for a while, will you? You can grab some beers and pick me up later. She finds her way to the grassy top of the bridge, her hair flicking back in the breeze. She raises her arms. Free. She spies one of the black crevices down into the tunnel. That would be a bad drop. She smiles, wedges her wedding ring off, and tosses it in, hearing a faint plunk as it hits the subterranean pool. Love is no more. But no one’s going to pity me. I won’t let them.

Was it all a lie? Did it matter?

Nattie, don’t pity me.

She stood up and brushed the dirt off her hands. It was getting much darker inside the cave and she carefully picked her way back out the way she had come. At the mouth of the rock tunnel, she looked to the westward sky, oozing reds and golds. There was just enough light to see her way back to the car without difficulty, although she did stumble now and then.

When she reached her car, she turned back to the park.

-I love you, Dawn. Wherever you are.

What are you going to do when you get back to Jerome?

Learn how to start over. And buy Connie a drink.

Natalie drove back to the main road, a single cloud of dust trailing behind.