The old Jeep rumbled to a stop at the piece of desert marked off with logs embedded in the ground. Sally leapt out and ran around the car to inspect the campground. She stood with her hands on her hips and took it all in.
Sam got out of the car more slowly and stretched. They had spent five long hours trying to get here, getting lost and backtracking several times. He could have done without it all – in fact, he’d much prefer being at a motel right about now. He didn’t want to think about pitching a tent or fixing dinner with their dinky little propane stove.
He looked at Sally and his expression softened.
“I feel like I can actually breathe out here,” she said. She gestured at the scrub around them. The only plants that grew here were scraggly little things close to the ground. The yuccas were in bloom and a few flowers dotted the squat cacti here and there. Tan hills, stark against the dusky purple and orange sky, rose in the distance.
Sam turned back to look at the rest of the campground. There weren’t many other campers here this time of year and they were all clustered around the main gate. Sally had chosen this particular place because of its distance from the normal tourist hot-spots. They’d seen some sights earlier today but she’d wanted some peace and quiet too. Those were her words and he hadn’t argued. He didn’t see what was wrong with tourist traps – they offered most of the basic amenities – but this trip wasn’t for him.
“Do you want to eat first or set up camp?” Sam asked.
“We better set up camp. We won’t feel up to it later and there’s still some light left,” she said.
She went around to the back of the Jeep and lifted the hatch. She pulled out the tent, wrapped up tight in its bag, and set it to the side. Next she got their sleeping bags and backpacks.
“Do you think we should put up the solar shower too? Naw, that can wait ‘til morning, it won’t do any good at night,” she said.
“Why don’t you start a fire while I set up the tent? We can roast marshmallows later, and we’ll probably want the warmth.”
Sally nodded. “It does get pretty cold at night.”
Sam took out all of the parts of the tent. He hated this part the most, but he wanted to be the man and show Sally he wasn’t useless. Plus she never got the stakes deep enough or the ropes taut enough when she did it.
After much struggle and some swearing, Sam had the tent up and sat down on one of the logs by the Jeep. Sally sat down on one of their folding chairs in front of the fire, which was crackling merrily. She was leaning back, a vague smile on her face.
“Hungry yet?” he asked.
She blinked slowly, as if waking from a long dream. She looked over at him and stared at him as if she didn’t know who he was. She shivered. “Sorry, I zoned out there. Yeah, what do you feel like having?”
He shrugged. “Man cannot live on hot dogs alone. We haven’t tried fixing those biscuits yet, they’d be good with some of our smoked sausage.”
“Do you know where the cast iron skillet is?”
“It’s buried somewhere back there. I’ll find it. We deserve a good dinner tonight, don’t we?” Sam said.
He was trying to be cheerful but she didn’t react at all. She was in a weird mood, he decided. She got like this at times. Sam thought that her brain would skip onto a different wavelength and sometimes he worried that she wouldn’t come back. Then she’d blink and smile at him and it didn’t matter. That smile felt like she saved it just for him.
Sam went back to the Jeep and pulled out all the supplies they’d need for dinner. He knew that it was his fault that everything was so hard to find back here. First off, he was the one who insisted on bringing so much stuff. Camping was fine but he wasn’t really going to rough it. Second, since he wanted the stuff, Sally didn’t bother to put it back and he wasn’t good at packing it all away with any sense of order.
He got the propane camper stove, skillet, cooler and shopping bags filled with food. They’d gone shopping earlier with a mind to several days of camping in isolation. Sally came over to help him bring everything to the picnic table by the fire.
“I’ll make the salad, I think we have enough for a good one,” she said.
He passed her a knife and the small cutting board. She dug into the cooler for what she needed as Sam put the camper stove together. He lit the propane and put the skillet on top of the wire grill. They worked in silence. Sally sat down and started cutting up the tomatoes and cucumber. Sam stared at her while he waited for the skillet to heat up.
She looked different, he decided, but he couldn’t figure out why. She was off in her own little world, sure, but that happened all the time. Her detachment was part of what had attracted him in the first place. She didn’t need him and that was comforting.
Now, though, she was peaceful in a way that unsettled him. Maybe she didn’t need him most of the time, but now she hardly even noticed he was there. Every now and then a sound would catch her ear and she’d look up, staring off absently. It reminded him of a cat his family owned when he was young. Point of fact, he’d stalk that cat around the house waiting for it to pay attention to him.
He cut off some butter and set it sizzling in the pan. He popped open the roll of biscuits and waited for the butter to liquefy.
It didn’t take him long to fix the biscuits with summer sausage and some sautéed onions. He smiled as he realized that this was better than some of the meals he managed at home. Sally was still sitting there quietly while she munched at her salad.
“Here you go,” he said, setting the food in front of her. She looked up and smiled widely.
“Sam, it’s so great out here, don’t you think?” she asked.
“Uh yeah, beautiful. Kinda chilly now, though.”
She shrugged. “It’s peaceful, I like that. It feels…full.”
“Yeah, just...I can feel it. Everything around here. It’s like the desert has a presence.”
He raised his eyebrows; he didn’t know what to say to that. “Okay.”
She laughed. “It’s hard to explain. I really like it here.”
“I can tell,” he said, smiling.
She reached out to take his hand. “Thanks for coming out here with me. I know this isn’t really your sort of thing.”
That was an understatement. He had never been camping before he’d met her. He was strictly a city boy, born and bred. “I like being here with you,” he said. It wasn’t a lie.
She smiled and finished up her food. After a long, silent moment of her staring out at the hills, she looked back at him. “I feel like turning in early, what do you think?”
He caught the meaning of her smile and didn’t object.
Sam woke up and realized he was alone in the tent. As he rolled over, cold air slipped around him and into the sleeping bag. He’d never felt cold like this before. It was sharp and brought about a sort of clarity that was otherwise muffled by city air.
He sat up and rubbed his face with both hands. He slid out of the bag and exited the tent. The cold out there was amplified by a ceaseless, sighing wind. He stumbled over to the Jeep and pulled out his heavy jacket.
He looked around and was amazed by the desolate beauty around him. A waxing gibbous moon washed out the landscape and stars, so many stars, glittered above. It all looked so alien, vastly different from anything he’d experienced before.
He looked around and realized that Sally wasn’t anywhere in the camp, much less nearby.
“Sal? Sally, where are you?” he called out as he furiously scanned the landscape. He ran around aimlessly before he realized that it probably wasn’t a good idea. He didn’t want to get too far away from the camp in case she came back; it was far more likely that he’d get lost anyway.
Sam turned around slowly and tried to take in as many details as he could. The moon lit everything up but made it all seem unreal and distant. The land was so flat that what looked close by might in fact be miles away. He was starting to panic.
He finally saw her walking towards the hills. She was a dark figure against their silhouette and he couldn’t tell how far away she was. He grabbed a flashlight and took off after her. He went back and got her coat, too. He couldn’t figure out why she had left it behind when it was so freezing out here.
He took off at a loping run. He realized he wasn’t wrong about the deceptive sense of distance here. The flatness and the lack of distinguishing landmarks made him feel like he was running in place. He looked back; the campground had receded but that was the only clue that he’d covered any ground at all.
Time didn’t seem to exist as he ran, either. A separate part of him, something that looked on while he panicked, had expected this. Sally wasn’t easy to hold onto and now he’d let her disappear in the middle of the night. He would have preferred a nasty break-up in a bar back home, that he could deal with. This was insanity.
Suddenly he was at the base of the hills. He swung the beam of the flashlight around but didn’t see Sally anywhere. He shouted out her name and scrambled up the side of one hill.
The gibbous moon was setting and seemed to be cradled in the dip of one mound. A figure walked in front of it and paused a moment. He recognized her profile.
“Sally, what are you doing? You almost gave me a heart attack!” Sam shouted. He ran up toward her, tripping over spots where rocks slid out from under his feet. Sally turned back toward him slowly.
The refracting moon and starlight silvered her dark hair. Her eyes were far away and, even though she was facing him, she didn’t really see him. She lifted her head towards the sky and smiled.
“Do you hear them?” she asked, her voice nearly swept away in the wind.
“Jesus, Sal, you must be freezing! Here, let me…” he stepped forward and wrapped her in the coat. She didn’t move at all.
“Listen, Sam. It’s so wonderful. Can’t you hear it?”
“You’re scaring me. Did you find some peyote or something?”
She giggled and looked back at him. “Sam, you’re so silly.”
He rolled his eyes. “Be serious, you shouldn’t have gone off like this. What if you got lost or twisted your ankle? What if I hadn’t woken up to realize you were gone?”
“You don’t understand. Come here,” she said. She took his face in her hands and drew him down. The kiss was feather light.
Sam closed his eyes as Sally wrapped her arms around him. He slid his arms underneath her coat and pulled her closer. Her head nestled against his chest.
As they stood there, silent, the wind changed. He didn’t pay attention until it started to rush around them, the soft susurration of voices just out of range. The current of air wrapped around them and the voices separated into distinct threads of sound but he still couldn’t make anything out.
Lights flashed against his eyelids. At first he thought he’d see something if he opened his eyes but realized he only saw anything because his eyes were shut tight. Bursts of light and figures that refused to coalesce into anything substantial played out across his consciousness. The breath stuttered in his chest and he stepped back, releasing Sally.
“What – what the hell…” he gasped.
Sally swayed in place, her eyes still closed. She breathed in deeply and her eyelids lifted slowly, as if she were waking up. “Did you feel it?”
“I, uh…it was something.”
She giggled again. “It’s okay, they just wanted you to see.”
He stared at her. It was more than just the moon; she seemed to radiate a calming glow. He caught her hand up in his.
“Sally, I…you look…”
She raised his hand up and kissed the palm. A shiver raced up his spine.
“I wanted you to know what it felt like,” she said.
She pulled him along with her as she started to walk away. He resisted.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Back to the camp, silly. They go back down with the moon.”
He shook his head. “You’re not making any sense.”
“I think I’m still dreaming,” she said.
“I think you are. Come on.”
Sam couldn’t shake the feeling from that night. He’d catch a whisper on the wind and look around for Sally. Often as not, she’d be smiling slightly with her head cocked to the side. Still, she seemed to notice him more than normal. On hikes, she’d bump into him frequently and often stop to take in the landscape. She always reached out to take his hand and take small, sweet kisses from his lips.
She woke him up on their last night in the camp and pulled him out of the tent. The moon, full by now, lit up the desert.
“What is it?” he mumbled, still groggy.
She didn’t say anything as she dragged him along with her. The cold roused him and he looked up. He saw that she was taking him back to the hills.
“One last time, Sam, before we have to go,” she said.
A tingle ran from her hand, up his arm, and spread through him. The desert was alive with noises energized by the sharp moonlight and cold air. It wasn’t just the voices like that night…he heard animals scurry across the hard earth…plants rustle in the wind…even just the sand and dirt drifting along the ground. He heard the stars sparkling.
The drifted up the hills and the voices intensified. He closed his eyes and saw shapes and figures dancing around. Sally’s hand was the only anchor to the world around him.
“I feel it. I understand.”