He arrived in a muzzle flash—a speeding bullet ripping through the orange horizon. Orchestrated by a wild spinning of tires, a reanimated cemetery of dust arose in his wake. It hovered like an apparition behind Leonard’s sports car as he tore down a barren stretch of desolate desert road. Not a single living creature could be seen or heard for miles, except for the occasional persevering cactus. After a few seconds the resurrected dust fluttered back to its resting place, until it would be called upon to haunt the next unsuspecting passerby.
Leonard sat idly behind the wheel of his speeding bullet, en route from Las Vegas to Los Angeles for an upcoming weekend photo shoot. Any normal photographer, especially one of his ilk and notoriety, would have just taken a private jet, but Leonard refused to fly anywhere. Most of his clients considered this fear to be highly irrational and quite the business problem, causing his personal assistant many scheduling headaches. But based on Leonard’s theory, if an airplane malfunctioned while airborne, most likely it would fall twenty thousand feet toward its untimely demise, but no matter how dangerous automobiles were—they rarely fell from the sky.
Back on the ground, on the seat next to Leonard sat the instrument of his career, his trusty thirty-five millimeter camera, and next to it, a bruised and battered Polaroid camera. Nowadays, very few people used the Polaroid in day-to-day life since modern technology ushered in the era of digital photography, but Leonard was enamored with instant gratification. He was the type of man who wanted quick results, and that made the Polaroid camera perfect, but he would never use it on a paying gig. It was just a recreational toy he enjoyed from time to time.
Chewing noisily on a piece of two-hour-old flavorless gum, Leonard reached down and grabbed a bottle of water from his cup holder. In a single gulp he finished it off and tossed it onto the passenger seat. He cracked the window open, ever so slightly, extending an invitation to the arid desert wind. He felt it dance harshly through his thick brown hair. The overwhelming smell of dry sage assaulted his nostrils—
Something unknown from the depths of the iron giant’s boiling hood exploded like anti-aircraft fire. The piercing sound stung Leonard’s eardrums. He jerked the steering wheel and the car swerved violently across the disintegrating asphalt road. Thick white steam began to billow out from the underneath the hood. He quickly corrected the car’s path and mashed his boot down onto the awaiting brake pedal. The car lurched sharply under the pressure, spun around in a circle, and came to a screeching halt on the opposite side of the deserted highway. He sat quietly for a few seconds and then slammed his tightened fist down on the imported leather steering wheel. “Just my luck,” he said, more angry than startled. Already fashionably late, this put another tardy crimp in his plan.
Leonard yanked on the hood release cable under the dash and the hood popped loose. Swinging open the door, he emerged from the idle car and walked through the fluttering steam toward the front. Impatiently, he reached out his hand and grasped the hood latch—
Tender flesh met blistering metal.
The result boiled his fingers to the touch. “Damn it,” he ripped his hand away from the searing steel of the hood latch. His fingers erupting in a volcano of raised welts and pink flesh. “Damn it all to hell.”
He cringed from the throbbing pain. With Leonard’s remaining good hand, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a fancy silk handkerchief, nearly the color of the sand beneath his feet. With it, he forcefully pried open the hood. Scalding hot steam poured out from underneath it, like a banshee escaping from an iron tomb. He quickly backed away, deciding to let it cool off before burning himself any further—it was a smart decision. Leonard glanced down toward his grease-smudged hand. “Great, a perfectly good handkerchief gone to pot.”
Feeling invisible eyes prying, he quickly glanced up.
A lone, green cactus stood beside the road. It was staring straight at him, watching the scene play out, almost—laughing.
“What the hell are you looking at?” Leonard asked the motionless, prickly mass. The ill-mannered cactus did not feel the need to answer.
“Well then, you don’t happen to know a good mechanic around here, do you?”
Still no answer from the smiling cactus, it just continued to stand there. “You don’t have to be a prick about it,” Leonard laughed quietly to himself.
After a short while, the steam dissipated enough for him to finally spot the problem—the coolant reservoir. It was as dry as a sun-bleached skeleton. He walked around to the passenger side window and grabbed the water bottle from off the seat, but quickly realized he had selfishly drained it earlier. Now he was stranded, standing on a lonely stretch of highway in the blistering desert heat, without any trace of liquid. In a magnificent temper tantrum, he threw down the empty bottle and performed a glorious dance on its flattened corpse. The wind kicked up behind him, swirling the desert sand into the air. Leonard glanced up into the sky and saw the orange eye of the sun staring back at him, never blinking.
The desert is a strange and unnerving place to find yourself alone in. No matter how sardine-packed the world becomes, very few venture into the desert to make it their home. It’s the last of Mother Earth’s unpolluted, unrefined, and undeveloped masterpieces. You will never set foot on the same inch of sand twice. Is it any wonder why we hear so many tales of people wandering into the desert, never to be heard from again?
After trampling the defenseless water bottle, Leonard glanced back into the car. His Polaroid camera was lying there on the passenger seat, waiting like a small infant to be held in his embrace. “Hell, since it looks like I got some free time, might as well document the beauty of one-hundred-and-twenty degree weather,” he said as he swooped the camera up from the seat. He backed a few steps away and caught a glimpse of the ghostly steam writhing up from the dehydrated engine compartment. It danced back and forth on the breeze, ready to take flight at any moment. He snapped a photograph before it had a chance to disappear forever. The camera moaned and purged its recording of light. He slid the photograph into his shirt pocket.
To the left of his car, off in the distance, Leonard noticed a strange circle of burned-out cacti, unfortunate victims of some horrible fire many years past. Lifeless and needleless, they stood like blackened headstones in a forgotten desert cemetery. A modern day Stonehenge, he thought, how—artsy. He walked closer toward them.
It was a strange growth pattern indeed. To an irrational mind it seemed as if the long-dead cacti consciously gathered there, instead of growing wherever the wind may have taken them. As Leonard entered the circle, he noticed a few sun-bleached bones and a decaying metal gas canister lying half buried in sand. He began to investigate the bones with the tip of his dusty boot. I really hope those belong to an animal, he thought. Leonard leaned forward and took an overhead photograph of the scene.
Allowing his mind to drift onto more pleasant thoughts, Leonard walked backwards a bit and crouched down to one knee. He slightly angled the camera upward and snapped a photograph of the burnt cluster of cacti. He stood up, brushed the sand from his pants and walked back toward the car. As he approached the driver’s side, something crunched under his heavy boot. He glanced down to investigate—a cute cartoon drawing of a helpful bear glanced back. It was an old metal sign, riddled with rusted bullet wounds and slowly returning to the earth from whence it came. “Only you can prevent forest fires,” he said quietly to the bear. Who would have guessed that this ferocious animal, known to rip a human apart in mere seconds, would make a good cartoon spokesperson? Wait, he thought, there isn’t a forest around for miles—and who needs to worry about a fire in the desert anyway—well, except for those poor cacti. I guess they didn’t read the sign before having their little cookout. Leonard held the camera at an angle and snapped a photograph of the weathering sign.
He spun back around to survey the surrounding area and slid the rest of the photographs into his shirt pocket. Great, he thought, I’m going to have to walk back now, but walk back to where? He remember seeing a gas station some miles back, but couldn’t be certain exactly how many miles back.
Leonard quickly rolled up the car window and popped open the trunk. He lifted the lid, carefully moved an overstuffed duffle bag aside, and pulled out a large red water jug—which just also happened to be empty. “I knew I should’ve filled this before I left,” he said as he slammed the trunk lid closed. He let out a long sigh. “The journey of a thousand miles takes place with the first step,” he announced for all the desert, and cactus, and bears to hear. “So where’s a taxi when you need one?” With the empty jug and trusty Polaroid camera by his side, he began to walk back up the road.
The seconds ticked and the minutes tocked. Leonard stumbled down the highway in the desert heat, his thick boots slowly beginning to melt. Each gooey step stuck onto the pavement below. The warmth rose through his soles, slowly roasting his tender feet. Shards of unfiltered sunlight stabbed through his unshielded forehead, sucking the moisture from his skin, like a thirsty diurnal vampire. His mouth became pasty. His flesh began to cook. The faint rumbling of a jet slowly filled the air as it passed overhead. He shielded his eyes and looked up toward the heavens. How comfortable were those passengers in the sky, he thought, reclining and sipping in first class? A person like Leonard, who lives in air-conditioned extravagance, is entirely unaccustomed to the unyielding power of the desert sun. This is one situation his agent did not prepare him for. Where was his personal assistant now?
On the road ahead, miles stretched out like thick beige taffy, distorting into oblivion. North, South, East, and West devoured each other, contorting until they bled into one singular direction. Seconds cascaded into minutes; minutes flooded into hours. Every so often an insignificant grain of sand discovered a secret entrance into Leonard’s squinting eye and he had to stop to fish it back out.
As he reached the top of yet another countless hill, Leonard spotted something off in the distance, glinting in the sunlight. About two hundred feet in front of him stood—a tiny diner, protruding from the shifting sands. A smile formed; help at last. He stumbled down the hill toward the beckoning oasis, kicking up scorching sand behind him as he ran. Between moments of exhalation, he noticed an array of glowing neon signs buzzing away in the diner windows—24 HOURS—FRESH COFFEE—ICE COLD SODA POP—FRESH PIES. With wild anticipation in his mind, he quickened his pace, despite his throbbing muscles. “Lovely beautiful neon,” he said between struggled breaths. “The signs of civilization.”
When Leonard burst through the diner door, a blast of cold air greeted him, sending chills down his spine and goose bumps up his arms. Expecting to be bombarded with the smell of sizzling bacon, golden brown toast, buttery scrambled eggs, and strong coffee, he was instead wrapped in a blanket of burnt firewood. The smell was almost overwhelming. They must be cooking with real wood in the back, he thought, instead of gas. The diner was sparsely decorated with a few tattered red plastic booths, rickety imitation wood tables, and a long soda bar adorned with sinful pies, cookies, doughnuts, and cases of fattening homemade pastries. A handful of grungy locals sat in the peeling booths, a little girl in a floral patterned blue dress sat at the soda bar, a particularly burly man was roving around the dusty jukebox, and a large woman dressed in a salmon pink uniform stood behind the counter, drying a fractured juice glass with an oily rag. At that moment, everybody inside the diner instantly stopped what they were doing and began staring at the stranger, as if a velvet curtain had been pulled back and he was a sideshow oddity—something to gawk and awe over.
“Thank God you’re open,” Leonard said as he plopped down on one of the lumpy bar stools next to the little girl.
“What do you want?” The large woman behind the counter belched.
“Well, hello to you too,” Leonard said. “I’m just looking for a little hospitality. My car broke down a few miles back and I desperately need some water for my radiator.”
“All right, but you’ll have to buy something first.”
The waitress didn’t answer, she just stood there silently, using her tongue to pry a piece of old food from between her back teeth.
“In that case,” he said, studying the grease-splattered menu on the wall above his head. “I don’t have time for a meal, but I’ll take a glass of water and—some coffee sounds good, even though it’s hotter than hell outside.”
“Coffee and water coming right up for the big spender.” The waitress slammed down a yellowed glass full of swamp water and a dingy ceramic mug. She filled it to the brim with thick black tar.
“Thank you,” Leonard said as he pulled a cigarette from his pocket. “Can I get a light too?”
“No,” The waitress snapped in a wicked tone and ripped the cigarette from his chapped lips. She dropped into onto the ground and began to stomp on it, like a scuttling beetle, and didn’t stop until tobacco guts burst out from its papery chest. “We don’t allow smoking in here.” She forcefully snatched the water jug from his hand and walked over toward the grimy, dish filled sink.
“Whatever you say lady,” Leonard said. “You’re the boss.” He sat there amazed, stunned by the manner in which she treated a perfectly good cigarette. She began to fill the water jug. Leonard pressed his lips to the hazy glass and sucked down a big gulp of water; then switched to the mug and slurped down a gulp of black coffee. It was cold, stale, and tangy. It attacked his taste buds. He started to gag and quickly spit it back into the mug. “This coffee is cold.”
The wretched waitress stared up from the sink and said, “we don’t serve hot coffee.”
“But your sign says ‘Hot Coffee’,” he said as he pointed toward the neon sign hanging in the diner window.
“No it doesn’t, it says ‘Fresh Coffee’. The coffee was fresh—this morning,” the waitress replied.
“But coffee’s supposed to be hot—nice and hot.”
“Well, since I own this joint and everybody in here prefers not to have their mouth scalded, we only sell room-temperature coffee. If you don’t like it, go take your mug and stand outside a bit, that’ll warm it up for you. If not—you can order something else.”
“Fine then.” Leonard said, studying the menu a bit more. “I’ll just have a soda.”
“One soda, coming right up.” The waitress dropped the water jug and it slammed on top of the dirty dishes lying in the sink, splattering rancid food far and wide. She pulled an ancient soda bottle out from under the counter, pried the top off, and slid it across the bar toward Leonard. “You still have to pay for the coffee you know?”
“Don’t worry, my money’s good,” he said. The waitress glared and went back to filling the jug.
“She’s not always that mean,” said a small voice to his side.
“That’s hard to believe,” Leonard said as he turned around and saw the little girl in the blue dress staring up at him with a sweet smile and innocent blue eyes to match. A large rosy burn scar covering most of her face startled him, but he did his best to hide it.
“She just don’t trust strangers,” said the little girl.
“Is that so, I hadn’t noticed,” he said with a sarcastic smile and took a swig out of his dusty soda bottle. “Wait—how do you know I’m a stranger?” he asked the little girl.
“Because, you look strange.”
Leonard began to laugh. “What’s your name, little girl?”
“Nice to meet you Emily. My name is Leonard.”
“Nice to meet’cha.”
“See,” he said. “Now we aren’t strangers anymore.”
Emily smiled in agreement.
Leonard couldn’t stop glancing at the large scar on her face. He selfishly wanted to ask about it, but didn’t want to upset the sweet little thing. Some questions, best go unanswered.
“So Emily,” he said. “Do you live here in the desert?”
“Yes sir—but I hate it.” A scowl formed on her tiny little face.
“Because it’s too hot,” she answered. “It’s always too hot.”
“But you know what that means right?”
“That means you can eat as much ice cream as you want—to counteract the heat of course.”
A large smile formed on the Emily’s face “Yeah, I guess you’re right mister. But you know where I really want to live?”
“Where’s that?” Leonard asked.
She glanced back and forth over her shoulder to make sure nobody else was listening. “The North Pole. Ya’ know—where Santa Claus lives, so I can play in the snow and make snowmen—and snow angels—and throw snowballs—and stuff like that. Doesn’t that sound like fun Mister?”
“It sounds great. I sincerely hope you get to go there someday Emily.”
The waitress threw the jug of water down on the counter in front of Leonard, splattering water over the sides, startling him in the process.
“It’ll be three-fifty for the coffee and soda,” the waitress said. “You got the water for free.”
“Oh yeah?” Leonard whispered toward Emily. “I could’ve drank out of the toilet for free too.”
Emily quietly chuckled.
“One last thing, before our paths part,” Leonard said.
“What now?” The waitress replied.
“Could I get a sandwich and—another soda to go?”
“What kind of sandwich?”
“I dare to ask,” he said. “Do you have roast beef?”
“No,” she snapped again.
“Wait a second—no hot coffee—no roast beef,” Leonard said half jokingly. “What kind of place are you running here?”
“You’re trying my patience.”
“Ok—ok,” Leonard said. “What kind do you have?”
“Turkey and cheese or ham and cheese,” the waitress said.
“I’ll be adventurous—give me the turkey.” The waitress turned around, plucked a triangle shaped sandwich from the display case, and slammed it on the countertop next to his water jug. Wilted lettuce peeked out from between the sickly slices of bread. “It’ll be seven-fifty,” she barked. Leonard produced a crisp twenty-dollar bill from his pocket and slid it into the waitress’ grease streaked apron. He gave her a little wink.
“Here you go sweet-cheeks,” Leonard said. “Keep the change.” For the first time, a tiny hint of a smile rose to the surface of her face, but was quickly swallowed back into the depths again. She stomped off in a huff.
Leonard spun around toward the little girl. “Do you mind if I take a picture of you Emily? Just a little something to remember you by.”
“Sure, I like pic-a-tures.” Leonard smiled at the odd way she pronounced the word.
“Great,” he said, putting the viewfinder up to his eye. “Now say cheese. Wait—say turkey and cheese.”
A huge smile formed on Emily’s face, “Turkey and cheese.”
There was a flutter of metal butterfly wings and a sweet moment was trapped forever, captured by a mechanical eye. Leonard slid the photograph into his pocket, lifted the water jug, and swooped the sad looking sandwich from off the damp countertop. “Thanks for the picture Emily and when you finally get to meet Santa Claus,” he said while sliding off the lumpy barstool. “Please say hi for me.”
“I will—I promise I will,” Emily said gleefully.
Just like a famous Broadway actor, Leonard completed his final line of dialogue and quickly exited stage left. He opened the door back into his desert hell. A blast of dry air grabbed him by the collar and yanked him outside into the awaiting heat. The door slammed shut behind him. The blanket of burnt firewood lifted and the smell of sage came back out to play in his nostrils. All of the cacti, once again, congregated outside the diner and stood patiently awaiting his return. They were staring again, but Leonard didn’t notice. They began to laugh again, but he wasn’t aware.
Before beginning the long hike back, he spun around and took one last look at the tiny diner. The waitress stood solemnly at one of the windows, wiping her damp hands with a dirty dishrag. She was watching him. Emily had jumped off the barstool, climbed across one of the booths and was now waving at him. Leonard waved back. He lifted his camera, framed the shot, and took one last photograph—a frozen moment in time. He slipped it into his pocket with the rest of the suspended memories. He ripped the plastic wrapper off his sandwich, took an unpleasant bite, and started on his long hike back to the car. Emily and the waitress continued to watch as he began his slow disappearance into the horizon.
The walk back wasn’t so bad, it was almost—charming. The sun hung low in the painted sky. A cool breeze blew gently on Leonard’s sunburned face. He looked forward to a steak dinner, a cold beer, and a simple tube of cherry chapstick. His mind wandered back to the cacti and how they stood by the side of the road, watching him as he passed. They seemed to mock him. They were letting him know that he was out of his element. They wanted to show him who was boss in desert.
A quiet and peaceful hour passed. His sleeping car now appeared in the distance, but something was wrong. There was something next to it. He couldn’t quite tell what it was, but from this distance it looked like—another car. Yes, it was a car—a police car. That’s funny, he thought, where were the cops when you really need them? Start running, his mind raced, catch him before he leaves.
Leonard took off in a blaze, fast enough to outrun the sun. As he rapidly approached the cars, he could see the officer standing by his front windshield. He was slipping something yellow under Leonard’s windshield wiper. Leonard was now only a few short feet away. “Thank God you’re here,” Leonard spit out between breaths.
The officer turned toward the sound of his voice. “Is this your car?”
“Yes it is,” Leonard said.
“Then this,” The officer said as he slid the yellow piece of paper out from under the windshield wiper and handed it to Leonard, “belongs to you too.”
“A ticket—you’re giving me a ticket? What for?
“For abandoning your car here.”
“What?” Leonard said. “I didn’t abandon it, I broke down. I had to hike all the way back to that diner and get some water for my radiator—”
“Wait—what did you say?” The officer cut him off.
“My car broke down and had to hike back to that diner to get some water—”
“I don’t know,” Leonard said. “That little 24 hour one back there, off the road.”
“There isn’t any diner on this highway,” the officer said.
Leonard noticed that same damn cactus standing along the road, staring at him again, just like before. It was laughing again, even louder this time; it had a front row seat to this comedy. “Yes, there is. I just came from there. Where do you think I got this from?” Leonard shook the water jug toward the officer—
The jug was now empty.
“What the hell,” Leonard said to himself. Did it spill out, he thought? I was running, so it must have spilled out? He turned around to check. Nope, nothing, not a single drop. He was sure the jug had been full when he left the diner, but now the water was nowhere to be found.
“I swear this was full when I left the diner. I sat down for a while, had a cup of coffee too. There was even this little girl named—Emily!” He froze and a series of triggers went off in his brain.
“For the last time, there isn’t any damn diner on this road—there isn’t anything on this road. There used to be a diner, but it burned down almost fifteen years ago. I know this for a fact—because I had to help pull the bodies out myself.”
“Yes, that’s a very scary story, but I’m telling the truth—you’ll see.” Leonard pulled the photographs from his pocket. “I took a picture of it, one of the little girl too.” He began to shuffle through them: The swirling mass of scalding steam writhing from his engine compartment, the disintegrating gas canister keeping watch over a hidden cache of unidentified bones, the graveyard circle of scorched cacti leaning toward the orange horizon, the gun-downed metal sign beckoning to all who return its stare: Say No To Forest Fires. He quickly flipped to the next picture—
Dread pulsed in his brain. Horror engulfed him. His knees began to shake like a cornfield scarecrow in the wind. The blood drained from his face and scurried down his veins. His nerves surrendered and retreated into the hills.
For in the picture, which should have been Emily’s smiling face, was a charred human skull. Eye sockets, which once held radiant blue marbles, now stared back through burned out fire pits. Unable to speak a word, he flipped to the last picture—the diner. It was a raging inferno. Leonard thought he could still see Emily and the waitress in the picture, clawing at the window, scratching at the glass, struggling to get out. It can’t be, he thought, they were real. They were—alive, flesh and blood. He talked to them. He drank the horrible coffee, ate that sickly sandwich. That must have been real—he could still taste it. Finally, the clicking in Leonard’s throat began became a stutter.
“There’s something horribly wrong here,” Leonard said. “These aren’t the pictures I took. They’ve—changed somehow, but I swear to God—what I saw was real. Here,” Leonard handed the last two photographs to the officer, “you make some sense of these.”
The officer lowered his sunglasses onto the tip of his nose and stared down at the photographs in his hand. Unamused, he quickly slid his glasses back into place and handed the photographs back to Leonard. “You might want to take of the lens cap next time you feel like being a photographer.”
“What?” Leonard snatched the photographs from the officer’s hand and stared down at them—they were now blank. “This—can’t be, I just looked at these. This one,” Leonard said, holding up one of the blank photographs, “was the diner on fire, and this one was—a human skull.” What the hell was going on here, he thought? What happened to the images in the photographs? There definitely was a diner, but nobody would ever believe him. He didn’t have any proof—other than those pictures, but now they wouldn’t do any good. There were no witnesses, no people to back up his story. There wasn’t even a single living creature for miles, except for those damn cacti, but unfortunately they couldn’t talk—
Leonard finally realized why they were laughing.
Thanks for reading,