Short Story: Desert Man

How he survived no-one was sure. They only knew that he emerged onto a stretch of I-40 just south of the Mojave National Preserve. He was a ratty, shell of a man, emaciated and parched to bleeding from an indeterminate amount of time in the sun without water. One of Nevada’s National Park Rangers had found him wandering the highway a few miles from his shack. Richard Powell, the Ranger, found the John Doe just before dawn.

“There’s obvious signs of dehydration,” Powell explained to a doctor over the phone.

The John Doe sat in the tiny, air-conditioned Ranger’s shack across the room from Powell. His eyes were focused straight ahead, his shoulders and back slumped in a hunch atop the leather couch. He wore a suit, clearly tattered from his tenure in the Mojave. He’d yet to say a word, and a small trickle of blood still leaked from the cracked skin in the center of his bottom-lip. Every few moments, almost mechanically, he would lift the chilly, tin cup in his hand to soothe his sandy throat with cold water. As if autonomous, only his arm, mouth and throat moved. His eyes stayed focused ahead. His body never flinched but for the occasional shallow breath.

Powell hung up the phone, lifted his wooden chair from behind the desk, then set it down before Doe on the dusty rug in the center of the room. He sat slowly, considering his words with care and taking a long, droll look at his charge. He shook his head with confusion.

“I dunno’ how you done it, son,” Powell said. “But you clearly got your feathers ruffled over sumthin’ and I’m not sure how to go ’bout fixin’ that.”

The Doe’s eyes shifted to stare into Powell’s, but he remained silent. His eerie stillness was only normalized in the few, human movements that comprised his drinking. Either oblivious, or altogether too concerned to address it, Powell steered the conversation with glances here and there that gave more humanity to his charge than he may have possessed.

“Now I called the Doc, ‘n he’ll be here soon, but ’til then I’mma need you to tell me whatever you can remember, alright?”

Doe looked straight through Powell, a gaze that froze the desert-man’s blood. It wasn’t an easy thing to do– like most desert people, Powell was used to the two extremes of the desert; the smothering heat and the unbearable cold. Doe’s piercing look though? Even antifreeze couldn’t have kept his blood flowing. There was something alien about him, inhuman– like he’d come from another planet and could see everything inside, outside, and through a man just by looking in his eyes.

Powell’s discomfort began to rise, but he powered through it for the sake of his charge, “Look, I understand you’re prolly not in the talkin’ mood. I ‘magine your throat’s mighty soar, but you gotta’ tell me what happened to you, else I’m not gonna’ know what to tell the Doc.”

Still Doe sat there, eyes fixed ahead, mechanically drinking. Powell scratched his five-o’clock shadow with a grating of stubble on nails. He pushed himself up from the chair with both hands on his thighs, began to step away when Doe’s mouth opened with a rasp. Powell stopped in his tracks, looked at the man in anticipation.

Doe’s mouth was slacked like he’d stopped mid-speech, a word still ready to roll from his tongue, but all of his movements had ceased. Even his breath seemed to stop, likely to help muster this bizarre state of being. Suddenly the hand that held the water dropped its cup, seized Powell’s wrist.

There was a flash like a mortar’s exploded, but Powell was unharmed. He recoiled from a blinding light, suddenly found himself standing beside the man in the middle of the desert. It was near dusk, the sun swollen on the horizon as though the Earth ended somewhere in its direction and it began there. For a moment Powell swore he saw the dividing line where Sol and Earth were separate entities. He shook off the thoughts in favor of a rubbernecking back-step that included a full-circle of his feet.

He came to a rest on the face of Doe. It stared at him, more animate and human than he’d seen it yet. Powell was awestruck, ready to accuse the man of sorcery, but he raised a hand slowly to halt him from speaking. For some reason, it worked. A trickle of complacency coursed through the Park Ranger all the way from his chest to his brain. Something flooded his body from its presence, and he felt content.

For the first time, Doe spoke; his voice was old, hoarse, as though it came from a man hundreds of years older than the vessel that possessed it. “I… do not know my name. It has been… far too long since I began my journey.”

Powell’s breath weighed on his chest, “Wh-what’s going on ‘ere?” He whipped his head left to right, “We’re… Where are we? Where’s the shack? What’ve you–”

Doe’s hand went up again, and Powell felt endorphins leak from his brain, “You… don’t worry. I… won’t harm you. Something… wonderful. I wish to show you.”

He presented his hand to Powell, as if to take it to be led somewhere. Indeed, once more compelled by the curious force, Powell took Doe’s hand. The land around them began to morph, by the looks of it, to a late-prohibition era town. The distant sunset disappeared to form brick and mortar buildings. Trees and freshly-paved street intermingled with the fanciful colors of painted homes in the distance. Long, hand-molded steel fenders and chrome bumpers appeared on exquisitely manufactured Fords and Chevys along the streets’ edges.

Doe’s voice sounded over the change in scenery, “It began here, when I was a young man. Though my appearance does not reflect it…. I have been here a long time. On this Earth.”

Powell glanced around to see a couple step from a nearby speakeasy. The woman was clad in a fur stole. Enormous diamonds glittered around her neck above a flashy, red dress. Beside her, Doe was unmistakable, truly unchanged since the era. Powell watched as Doe maneuvered to the vehicle to open the door for his mistress, his gray fedora and suit freshly-pressed. The angle of his head, and the loud laughter of the woman covered the sound of a slowly approaching vehicle.

Doe opened the door, and the car’s engine revved up. It skidded to a halt just as two men popped out the passenger windows. A hail of Thompson machine-gun fire exploded through the night. The sounds were so loud and near that Powell jumped in fright. One of the men yelled something about Timmy the Fish “sending his regards” as Doe and his mistress were gunned down.

The scene suddenly changed to Doe once more in the desert. This time, he wandered through the Mojave alone. As if Powell followed him with each breath, he kept pace with Doe’s past-self in real-time.

The man’s now-disembodied voice spoke to him over his aimless wandering, “I’m not sure how I survived…. alas, I did.” The walking Doe fell to his knees, exhausted and panting while the elder one continued to speak, “I had been shot four dozen times by Timmy the Fish’s wise-guys. They murdered my beautiful Mary, but I survived… I didn’t even bother going to the hospital. I … I think that was why I wandered out into the desert. I wanted to know if I could die.” He seemed partially amused by his next thoughts, “I left because there was nothing left to stay for. My Mary was gone, and Timmy didn’t trust me anymore. If he’d known I was alive, he’d’ve tried again. If I didn’t die then, he’d’ve just exchanged my shoes for cement ones and I’d be stuck at the bottom of the ocean– maybe for eternity.”

The images morphed back to Doe standing before Powell. The sun sat once more on the horizon. Doe was now animated in response to Powell’s insane look of scrutiny. The former managed a weak smile, his eyes tired and glassy with tears and cataracts from the desert sun.

“I’ve not aged a day in almost a hundred years,” he said with a heavy heart. “And I think on the day my Mary died, I did too… or a part of me did.” He heaved a dreadful sigh infected with grief, “Problem is, the rest’a me’s never quite gone with it.” He took a step toward Powell with the sadness of a man long-past his expiration date, “I started walking the day she died. First, to escape the police, then Timmy. Then, ’cause I didn’t know what else to do. I hadn’t stopped… not really anyhow, ’til you picked me today. Somehow, I’d managed to wander for ages, never dying, never stopping. I like to think that… now, I’m more desert than man. Like a dune in the wind that’s just carried between locations, but never really leaves the desert.”

Doe went quiet. Powell was flabbergasted. He wanted to call the man a crook, a liar, but he couldn’t. He had a peculiar effect on the Park Ranger, reminded him of something from home. It was as though he was part of the desert, somehow had managed to embody it in all those years he’d supposedly wandered it. Being a desert-man himself, the Park Ranger felt at home, couldn’t help but be placate the bit of that Doe embodied.

He shook his head again, focused on the task at-hand, “I dunno’ what’s goin’ on here, but I’d appreciate it if we could return to the shack now. Otherwise, we’re gonna’ miss the Doc.”

Doe gave a few, solitary nods– they were small, presided over by a sad smile. In a blink, the Ranger’s shack re-materialized around them. Powell found himself standing just as he’d been, ready to return to his desk. Doe’s arm retracted back to his body.

He cleared his throat with a slosh of water, then rasped out a few words, “I just wanted you to know my story, Sir.” Powell turned to eye the man as he continued, “All those years I been searching for death, but it still ain’t come. I dunno why. After today, I almost glad it didn’t, ’cause now you know my story.” He took a long, slow drink from his water, then smiled with teary eyes, “She sure was somethin’, my Mary, wasn’t she?”

Powell couldn’t help but be affected by Doe’s sorrow, be it from one man to another, or one desert-man to another.

Powell gave a small nod, his voice quiet, “Sure was.”

Doe nodded back, relaxed on the couch and closed his eyes. Powell sighed, stepped for his desk to lift the phone. He gave Doe one last look, and as if he were a dune, a wind kicked up and the man blew away like grains of sand. What was left of his body after the gust dissolved into sand-grains.

Powell lunged for the couch, felt around it. He drew his hand up with a pile of sand that leaked through his fingers. Powell’s eyes were wild, but somehow he knew: the desert-man had returned home.

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