Strongland and Laura left El Paso behind in a white Chevy Tahoe. It crossed his mind they were gonna look like the Border Patrol in the rig. That wasn’t something he was particularly interested in looking like. He considered trading out but went with it. Time was wasting. Not theirs, Billy’s. They traveled north. An hour and a half would get them to Alamogordo.
“Have you ever been out west?”
Laura’s eyes fixated on the expanse of dessert rushing at them. “Well, the Northwest, not Southwest. This, this is…”
Strongland nodded. He wasn’t sure what to make of this world either. Maybe God decided he wanted a do-over and scrapped every living thing off the earth before getting sidetracked. More likely he decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and left nothing there but space and heat. It was hot as hell. And vast. Enamel layers of sediment and ochre and tan, a blood smeared serrated knife dropped on a bed of bone-dry dirt left out to get its ass kicked for eternity by the sun and the wind and the grit.
Somehow, people figured out how to exist here. Even though he disliked the city, this was something else altogether. “Shit, there aren’t even trees out here. Not many anyways.”
Laura laughed, “I get the feeling you don’t like it?”
“Just uneasy I guess.”
Laura tied her hair behind her head and put a pair of sunglasses on. “Let’s just try to not go blind.”
Strongland squinted, wishing he brought some sunglasses, made him wonder what else he didn’t pack. Glancing across at Laura stunned by just about everything that happened since his phone rang that morning. “Yep, alright.”
Another span of time and distance blurred; sparsely clipped with scrappy pinion, smears of sage connected by hare and coyote tracks. Then there was a town, a low canyon of two-story buildings, a single water tower, squatting like nervous beetle afraid to lower its swollen abdomen on the baking hard pack while its mosquito like mouth siphoned and spit water back and forth into the dirt.
The second biggest structure in town after the Motel 6 was the hospital. The black asphalt lot swam in heat.
Laura pushed the door open.
Strongland hooked a thumb backwards towards the main drag. “You need something to eat, before we go in?”
Laura tapped her wrist where a watch would be.
Strongland sighed. Pushed his own door open, raised his hand to cover his eyes, exhaled hard to push the first draw of furnace hot air back out of his lungs. They approached the information desk. Strongland knew it was her as soon as he saw the swarm of bleached bangs struggling to conform to the manner in which she shellacked them. Her badge said Kristin.
She knew it to and pushed her chair away from her computer. “You made it.”
Strongland felt a need to apologize the second they locked eyes, hers a well of compassion, his, he figured, showed nothing but guilt. Reaching out, took her hand, shook it. “Thank you again for calling. Did we…”
“Yes, you made it.”
Strongland and Laura followed Kristin down the hallway, a chilled funnel of white walls, polished floors, open doors and beeping machines.
She stopped them at the last doorway, leaned in to Strongland and whispered “This is his room. Come see me before you leave, will you? I’m here till seven tonight.”
Laura thanked her, and Kristin left them. Laura put her hand on Strongland and guided him into the room.
Ash pale except for a black eye and an eggplant purple bruise running between his temple and jaw, Billy lay prone on his bed. A clear plastic tube clipped into his nostrils. An untouched plate of food sat on a wheeled cart. His mouth was open. Part of Billy’s head was shaved, a white bandage floated on a section of bald scalp.
Strongland was pretty sure the Billy he saw last had all his front teeth, this Billy didn’t. “Holy hell Billy.”
Laura took a seat next to the bed, patted Billy’s right hand. His left was in a cast. Her eyes met Strongland’s. “What the heck? Someone did this to him?”
Strongland sucked in air. “They ain’t sure.”
“Oh my god.”
They waited, trading trips to the vending machine as Billy laid there. At five-thirty Kristin told them that the cafeteria closed at six. They ate roast beef sandwiches and potato salad and left when someone started mopping the floor.
Strongland stopped outside Billy’s door. “Will you wait with him? I guess I should see Kristin.”
Laura pushed Strongland’s bangs back off his forehead. “Go.”
Kristin was back in the spot he had first seen her. She came around the counter, patted his shoulder. “How ya holding up?”
“Better than him.”
“That’s not saying much.”
Strongland grinned that came across more of a wince.
“Any chance you have any idea if he has a Social Security number, insurance, anything that could pay for this?”
Strongland thought back when he first saw Billy; something between a shadow and trash. “Nope. None, at all. I barely know him. It wouldn’t surprise me if the man never had a bank account.”
Kristin tapped a pen against the desk. “Can I ask, how long you have known him?”
“Half a year at most. I found him under a bridge, took him to breakfast. He did some work for me. I, um, I tried to offer him a place to stay. And then…”
“He ended up here.”
Strongland looked back down the hallway to Billy’s room. “Pretty much.”
Kristin sighed. “Okay. We have a social worker on staff. I’ll see what she can do about the bills. I don’t figure you’d sign for him, be responsible for him?”
Strongland scanned the parking lot through the sliding doors of the main entrance. A dusty pale sky bled into a dusty khaki horizon. He thought of Billy dying. And how old his folks were getting. The sky seemed to shift, nothing more than clothes hanging from a clothes line. He choked back tears and he wasn’t sure why. He waited for it to pass. The sky and the horizon settled back into their rightful places, just darker. Okay… “If you all save him, I will pay every last penny if I have to.”
Kristin’s hand settled on his shoulder. “Where are you and your wife staying?”
“My wife, no, just a friend. And we haven’t picked a place.”
Kristin winked and her eyebrows slid up behind her bangs and then reappeared. “Well, you and your friend should avoid the Motel 6 at all costs. There’s a little B&B a couple miles north. I’ll call them and get you set up. The Dollar General closes at 9:00. After that, nothing is open but the hospital and the bars.”
Strongland set his hand on Kristin’s. “I can’t tell you how mu…”
“It’s my job honey.”
Laura was reading a magazine when Strongland returned. The white walls turned purple and gold as the sun folded itself into a thin line and disappeared. “I don’t think he’s waking up today.”
Strongland studied him Billy. The golden light wouldn’t stick to his pale skin. “If ever.”
Laura took his hand.
“Kristin is going to get us set up at a B&B. She says the Dollar General is open for a bit longer.”
“Are you sure you want to go?”
“Nope, but he don’t know either way.”
“Don’t say that!”
Strongland’s skin flushed. Laura kissed Billy’s forehead. They went out into the growing dusk.
Strongland had never seen anything like it. Without discussing it they pulled two wooden chairs off the porch of their casita, and set them in the sand, leaned back in their chairs and watched the legions of stars swirl like God’s memories across the sky that spanned from the very delicate tips of their eyelashes past time in an ever deepening well of the incomprehensible beyond them. Coyotes pleaded their case to the jury of some unknown courts. Whatever winds might have blown, churned from the heat of the day, settled down on the hard pack, nothing more than a thin wash of air, hovering about them at their necklines. When he shut his eyes the piercing dots of spinning light worked their way into his synapses and he dreamed of things that for many only display themselves with the chemical compounds of hallucinogens and he wandered far beyond the convex border of the world and was no different than a whale or a crow or an antelope and the whale and the crow and the antelope were no different than he.
When the sun unfolded herself at the far reach of horizon, Strongland woke underneath a thick wool blanket. Laura sat beside him.
Strongland pushed his hair back and shifted underneath the blanket. “Thank you.”
Strongland sat upright. “No, I mean, not for just the blanket. I never even thanked you for coming.”
She grinned. “If you recall, I didn’t really ask.”
“Yep, I remember. You sure didn’t.”
“The only thing that’s different is that today, you get me a coffee.”
“No, you are wrong, there are other things different.” Strongland was surrounded by two sunrises. He stood. “But I’ll get you that coffee.”
Billy was flat lining when they got there. Maybe that’s what saved him, yanking him wherever he was trapped from the light. Maybe you get one last chance. If that’s a fact, about just the one, then Billy just used his. The paddles on his chest discharged, and willed the old man’s heart to stave off the final darkness. The light came from him and when it did he found Strongland and Laura waiting. His eyes washed with tears, before he faded into a med induced sleep.
If he dreamed of anything, or had conversations with the near angels or if he felt like he was suffocating inside his own skin, he never remembered, or never said.
When he did come back around, the world was woozy. Laura sat beside him after the nurses left them alone with him.
“S.L., I didn’t get him.”
Lauren relinquished her spot to Strongland at Billy’s side.
Strongland leaned down, “Didn’t get who Billy?”
Lauren whispered from the foot of the bed. “It’s okay now Billy, hush.”
Billy wiped his eyes. “It ain’t okay, I didn’t get him.”
“She’s right Billy, take it easy now.”
“Hell, it ain’t done S.L.”
“What Billy, what isn’t done.”
“I didn’t kill him.”